Posts Tagged adventure

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Year of Release: 1988     Directed by Terry Gilliam.  Starring John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Uma Thurman, Bill Paterson, Jonathan Pryce, and Oliver Reed.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film so visually spectacular that to fully appreciate the zany genius of Terry Gilliam it portrays, one has to see it. Words will not do its imagery justice. Gilliam’s film is a story about sea monsters, Roman gods and goddesses, giants, detachable heads, reverse aging, escaping the grim reaper, flying to the moon in a ship, a man who can outrun a speeding bullet, another who can see halfway around the world, one who can blow down an entire army, and one who is the strongest man alive. The film depicts a series of adventures that defy all conventional standards of reality, depicting the banality of a world deprived of fantasy and laughing at the joy which fantasy inspires.

At the center of all these adventures is the eccentric Baron Munchausen (John Neville). Living in the midst of the Age of Reason, the Baron’s tales defy every reasonable standard and rule of logic, infuriating the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), who insists that the Baron “won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” but that is exactly what the Baron does, literally.

I am aware that my love for this film may make me seem crazy, but I don’t care. Gilliam is one of the only directors who could film such a story with complete seriousness, while finding joy and humor in the fantastic proceedings. (Remember: serious is not the opposite of funny. The opposite of funny is unfunny.) The Baron’s adventures are a testament both to Gilliam’s unique vision and to the importance of fantasy in transforming the inconveniences of life into amazing adventures.

One adventure of the Baron leads him and the young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) to the moon in search of Berthold (Eric Idle), the fastest man in the world, because that was where the Baron last saw Berthold twenty or so years ago. While sailing there in a ship suspended by a hot air balloon made of petticoats, the Baron promises his child companion a warm welcome from his good friend the King of the Moon. When they end up locked in a sort of birdcage, because that piccolo Casanova (the Baron) tried to make love to the king’s wife, Sally is understandably disgusted, but the Baron views it as another twist in their adventure.

Prior to being locked up, when Sally and the Baron first meet the King of the Moon, his appearance is incredible. The King has a detachable floating head that separates itself from his body and goes off in pursuit of knowledge, while his body pursues…bodily things. As that head floats into the screen for the first time, Robin Williams appears in what is a strong contender for his funniest cameo ever. His head and body are at war with one another, the latter being obsessed with physical appetites, and the former suffering delusions of grandeur from the information it has attained. Uttering lines like, “You must refer to me by my complete title: King of Everything, Rei di Tutto. But you may call me Ray,” followed by “I think; therefore, you is.” Williams delivers the humor perfectly, and he embodies the magic and danger of this world with its unpredictable curveballs. Watching him now makes his recent passing all the more tragic.

Sally and the Baron’s other adventures are as unpredictable as their run-in with the King of the Moon. They are searching for the Baron’s four former companions, so the five of them can stop the invading Turks from destroying the European city where Sally lives. Their extraordinary encounters turn from delight to danger in an instant as they climb down from the moon on a rope, fall through a volcano, meet Venus (Uma Thurman) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and combat a sea monster.

Taking a page from The Wizard of Oz, the dangers that the Baron and Sally face reflect the dangers facing Sally’s world back home. Several of the characters they meet are portrayed by actors who double as members of a theatre company run by Sally’s father (Bill Paterson). However, the similarity between fantasy and reality functions both ways. The theatre company performs productions of the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen, and everyone is shocked and incredulous when a man shows up claiming to be the actual Baron. Everyone except Sally, who innocently accepts his word as if there is nothing unusual about the tales she has grown up hearing.

It is not surprising that Sally easily accepts the Baron’s word. The opening scene makes clear that she neither understands nor cares about the proper rules and conventions that reason and practice dictate. Her father’s posters read “Salt and Son,” because that’s the way it is done. She adamantly insists that her father either reveal her non-existent brother or fix his posters.

Sally’s sense of wonder and her appreciation of fantasy is something that is sadly missing in the enlightened, logic obsessed Age of Reason. That obsession with logic and reason and disdain for fantasy is personified by the town’s mayor, the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson, who smugly tells the Baron he has no grasp of reality, to which the Baron happily replies, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” The Baron’s reality may appear to be nonsense, but to quote Theodor Seuss Geisel: “[Nonsense] wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

 

Content Advisory: Sexual innuendo throughout, partial nudity, and mild peril.                    MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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WALL-E

Year of Release: 2008     Directed by Andrew Stanton.  Voices of Ben Burtt and Elissa Knight.

Have you ever been in love with a film as a work of art?  A film that not only entertains you, but challenges you, inspires you, and takes you on an adventure to another world, giving you what seems to be a glimpse of Heaven?  Every time you watch it, you notice something new which only increases your admiration even more.  If so, you will forgive this review euphoric rave, because WALL-E is one of those films for me.

The very first shot of WALL-E instantly begins the transportation to another world.  The camera pans across an animated shot of the universe, with breathtaking clarity and beauty, looking every bit as realistic as an actual photo, making the viewer feel as if he is truly admiring the night sky.

Unfortunately, the wonder and beauty of the universe in the opening gives way to the mountains of garbage that have taken over the earth.  All human beings abandoned the world seven hundred years ago, leaving the Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class (WALL-E) robots to clean up the planet.  Now the titular robot is the only one left.  As he goes about his daily work, compacting the trash into squares, he saves small, simple treasures that he finds: a Rubik’s cube, bubble wrap, Christmas lights, a Frisbee, a paddleball,  a toaster, an incandescent bulb, the box of a diamond ring (not the ring) and a VHS of the 1969 film, Hello, Dolly! to name a few.

Simultaneous with the opening shot of outer space, a voice sings, “Out there, there’s a world…full of shine and full of sparkle.”  That voice belongs to Michael Crawford from Hello Dolly!  Director Andrew Stanton said he selected Hello Dolly! because he played one of the leads in his high school production of the musical, but the choice is surprisingly appropriate, especially given the two songs that WALL-E most frequently watches: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment.”

WALL-E’s own adventure will mirror the adventures of Crawford’s character in Hello Dolly! which begin and conclude with those two songs.  When WALL-E goes “out there” to outer space, he will find a world “full of shine and full of sparkle.”  On his adventure, he meet will make surprising friendships: giant robots of himself, an OCD cleaning robot, and several whimsically malfunctioning robots.  The screen literally sparkles during a dance through the cosmos fueled by the foam from a fire extinguisher, which may be my personal favorite sequence in any film ever.

However, the more striking use of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” inversely reflects the trajectory of the people whom WALL-E meets onboard the spaceship during his journey.  When WALL-E first boards the spaceship, these people are unaware of any world outside the virtual reality that computers have substituted for actual reality.  Needless to say, like WALL-E, they will discover another world out there and full of beauty.

In Hello Dolly!, “It Only Takes a Moment” refers to the love which blossoms between Cornelius and Irene (his beloved) at the end of the story.  WALL-E quickly discovers that type of love when he first meets EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), but this song metaphor also goes much deeper as well.   WALL-E (the film) is all about the small moments that make a difference.  Those moments are first reflected in the opening sequence as the viewer admires the natural beauty of the world, and are then continued as WALL-E (the robot) finds simple joys in his daily work.

As with the previous song, “It Only Takes a Moment” also refers to the journey of the people whom WALL-E encounters.  Simple things that occur in an instant, such as an accidental collision, a service delay, or tampering with electronic equipment irrevocably alter the outcome of several story lines.

The adventures undertaken in WALL-E are foreshadowed through hommages to one of the greatest space adventures, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  When WALL-E first enters outer space on the outside of the rocket, The Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss forms the underscoring; it also underscored the first outside shots of the spaceship floating through space in Kubrick’s masterpiece.  The computer that jeopardizes the mission has the same red eye that HAL 9000 has.  At a crucial moment, WALL-E’s soundtrack uses the dramatic opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which 2001 made famous.

Thomas Newman’s original music works just as well as the classical music.  The repeating staccato melody captures the whimsical and inquisitive nature of WALL-E as he goes about his daily work, always alert as he browses the dump for valuables.  The descending arpeggios suggest the vast expanse of garbage in which WALL-E lives alone, as well as the tragic state of the earth due to poor stewardship.

Those who see the film as a preachy, environmentalist message film have completely missed the point, and unfortunately I know quite a few people who do.  The film does say that mankind needs to be good stewards of the earth, which is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church.  It says nothing about global warming or climate change or whatever it’s called now.  According to the film, the best way to become good stewards of God’s gift of the environment is to savor the simple moments that awaken one to the encompassing beauty of the world, which can be found anywhere: in the midst of a heap of garbage to a network of computers to the vast night sky.

Many scenes are shown reflected in WALL-E’s eyes to remind the viewer that the film is his adventure, and ours as well, provided that we can adopt his wonder, awe, and simple acceptance of the beauty surrounding him.  When a major event happens in the first half of the film that disrupts WALL-E’s routine, the impending arrival of that event is shown through a reflection in his eyes.  At the most significant moment of that event the camera cuts to a shot through WALL-E’s eyes, so the viewer can experience the moment as WALL-E does.  Other shots that make brilliant use of this technique are WALL-E admiring his collection of treasures or seeing the universe for the first time.  The shots reflected in WALL-E’s eyes reinforce the idea of seeing the world from a new perspective and appreciating the simple, natural beauty of the environment.

WALL-E provides a dazzling and heartfelt perspective of the world, a perspective that is too often forgotten in the frantic rush that can predominate our culture.  Stepping back and appreciating even the simplest things can make one see a transformed world, redeemed and “full of shine and full of sparkle” as God intended it.  When one sees this world, the best response is to echo WALL-E’s “Whoa!”

Content Advisory: Mild Peril.                                      MPAA rating: G

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Life of Pi

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Ang Lee.  Starring Suraji Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, and Gerard Depardieu.

I know that I will be in the minority on this, but here is my opinion of a deeply flawed film.  As a disclaimer, the film managed to push all the buttons that most irritate me.

“When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” – G. K. Chesterton.  Conversely, when people believe in anything, even things that contradict one another, they ultimately believe in nothing.  This is the problem at the heart of Ang Lee’s new film, Life of Pi, and from my understanding, the book on which it is based.

As a young boy Pi is interested in all religions, and he maintains that interest throughout his entire life.  As an adult Pi describes himself as a Catholic Hindu who is also a Muslim who practices Judaism.  There is nothing wrong with being interested in many different religions; however, Pi wants to adhere to them all simultaneously: Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, denying that any of them have flaws or contradict one another.  He takes what he likes from each religion and ignores the rest.  This attitude completely undermines the point of religion; at the most basic level, any religion is a belief system that is meant to help orient mankind towards a final goal and establish a relationship between him and God (or gods).  If one only follows the parts of religions that he likes, while ignoring the unpleasant parts, he is serving only himself and destroying any relationship between himself and the spiritual.

Pi’s father, an atheist, warns Pi when he is a young boy that if he believes in everything he will ultimately believe in nothing.  He tells his son that it would be best to pick one belief system and practice only that one so he believes in something and has a defining core principle.  The film tediously attempts to prove Pi’s father wrong while also painting faith and reason as mutually opposed to each other.

The film does encourage abandoning reason in spiritual matters, because it portrays the world in too bleak a light.  Towards the end of the film, Pi tells another character two stories, both of which attempt to offer an explanation for a tragic event.  The first one is supernatural, mystical, optimistic, and (supposedly) inspiring.  The second is dark, disgusting, violent, completely natural, and filled with despair.  When Pi’s listener, an atheist, points out that the first story is more hope filled and a better story, Pi responds that it is the same way with God.  Religion solely offers another more positive explanation for the events of life.  It is relegated to emotions that make its practitioners feel good.

I would not want to believe in a god as lame as the god described in this film.  This god has no power or control over the events of the world.  All that belief in him does is give one a warm, fuzzy feeling inside that makes tragedy seem slightly more bearable, because sooner or later he will somehow make things better.  (Even though he has no power or presence in the first place and his edicts are completely contradictory.)  When Pi’s listener hear Pi’s explanation for religion, his atheism melts away and tears well up in his eyes.  I expect this was the point when the filmmakers wanted the audience to be reaching for tissues; I wanted to be reaching for a barf bag.

The film is so busy trying to be about big important questions that it noticeably neglects the how of filmmaking.  There is no engaging story, no empathetic character, and no consistent mood or atmosphere.  Admittedly, films do not have to tell a traditional linear story; Tree of Life was an incredible film.  A film can provide a glimpse of a world in which there are no empathetic characters; I, for one, think Chicago is a excellent portrayal of the tragedy of crime in prohibition era Chicago.  For its many flaws, Avatar managed to create a consistent pace and atmosphere with visual effects that were truly stunning.

Life of Pi has a meandering episodic plot where one event follows another without any sense of progression or conflict.  At the beginning of the film there is an anecdote unrelated to the rest of the film concerning Pi’s name; the character who inspired his name is mentioned briefly in this story and then does not appear for the remainder of the film.  After the shipwreck, there are many scenes between Pi and the tiger, none of which have any sense of urgency.  On an exotic island a new threat suddenly arises, but quickly disappears.  None of this managed to generate any interest or concern about the characters.

The only character who has enough screen time to make any impression on the audience is Pi, and he is foolish enough to isolate viewers from caring about him.  While isolated on a boat with a tiger who has tried to kill him multiple times, he manages to get onto the boat when the tiger had jumped off.  Instead of leaving the tiger stranded on the side of the boat, he helps it back on board because he cannot bring himself to kill it.  There were parts where I was beginning to hope that the tiger would kill him so the frustrating story could end.

The film does not even make impressive or remarkable use of its 3D technology, and that is what irritated me most.  (There were previews before the film that blew it away regarding special effects.) To be fair, there were some sequences which were technically stunning, but these were few and far between and mostly shown in trailers for the film.  The blue whale, the storm, and of course the purely CGI tiger were all impressive achievements.  However, for many scenes, especially close distance shots, the viewer does not need to wear the glasses.  The shot is perfectly clear without them, and all the glasses do is make the screen look dark and dull.  There is one striking 3D scene which briefly overcomes the film’s absurdity.  Pi and the tiger stare over the side of the boat and watch a fight between a sperm whale and a giant squid.  The creatures then dissolve into other creatures, such as a giraffe, a turtle, a lion, to show the interconnectedness between all living things.

In this two hour movie I glanced at my watch six times and nearly stood up to leave twice.  At one point I noticed a random glaring flaw: Pi’s lack of facial hair.  After months at sea, Pi was completely clean shaven, even though the film did show substantial hair underneath his armpits, which would imply he was old enough to grow a beard.  I could have overlooked the new age anti-religion spiritualism and praised artistic achievements, but the film’s pretentious boredom made it seem that lame relativistic spiritual themes were the main point and everything else was secondary.  I imagine that many people will highly enjoy Life of Pi; it has impressive camera work, some decent use of 3D, and the sentimentality will probably touch most viewers.  I even respect others who can find a vague metaphor for the importance of faith in the film.  But for me it was “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Content Advisory: Mild crass humor, some scenes of peril, and much new age relativism.                         MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: D-

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The Princess Bride

Year of Release: 1987     Directed by Rob Reiner.  Starring Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, and Chris Sarandon.

Since you are reading this review, I would like to say: “Thank you very much.  Very nice of you.  Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.”  So begins a grandfather (Peter Falk) as he reads a book to his sick grandson. (Fred Savage)  Not just any book, mind you.  A book that his father used to read to him, he read to his son, and now he is going to read it to his grandson.  A book about fencing, torture, revenge, poison, escape, miracles, and true love that should keep even the most skeptical audience awake.  And his grandson is quite skeptical about this book, The Princess Bride.

Unfortunately, many movie viewers seem to share the grandson’s  skepticism.  While the film certainly does have a decent number of ardent fans, there is also a large number of equally ardent detractors who focus on the small flaws and write it off as a dumb film for children.  The Princess Bride is not a children’s film; it is a film that viewers of all ages can enjoy, with solid moral messages about true love, excellent performances, great directing, hysterical humor, a very well crafted story arc, and countless quotable lines.

The story concerns Westley, (Cary Elwes) a farm boy who worked for Buttercup, (Robin Wright) doing everything that she wished.  Eventually she realized that he loved her, and was surprised to discover that she loved him in return.

Since Westley had no money, he set out to make his fortune and was murdered by the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Buttercup swore she would never love again when she heard the news.  Several years passed, and Prince Humperdinck (Charles Sarandon) chose Buttercup to be his bride; thus she became the titular princess bride.  He knew that she loved someone else, but he said that she would learn to love him in time.  On the day of their engagement, she is kidnapped by Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik. (Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant respectively)  Vizzini plans to murder her in order to start a war, a prestigious line of work with a long and glorious tradition, even though Inigo and Fezzik don’t think that is right.  As inconceivable as it may seem, Westley had escaped death from the pirates, and when Buttercup learns this, she knows that he will come for her.

Almost all the protagonists are driven by a form of love.  True love is shown to be unconditional, and the movie portrays all forms of love: affection, friendship, romance, and charity.  Even in the face of death, Westley keeps going in order to save Buttercup.  He understands the sacrificial nature of love, which is first shown when he was a farm boy.  He would always say, “As you wish,” to Buttercup, showing that he was willing to sacrifice himself for her.  Buttercup is willing to risk danger, such as the fire swamp, to be with Westley, and will sacrifice her happiness for his safety.  Inigo Montoya is driven by love for his father and never abandons his search for his father’s murderer.  Director Rob Reiner said that the main theme to this film is a grandfather who visits his grandson to teach him that true love is the most wonderful thing in the world.  The Princess Bride shows that a true sacrificial love will conquer all obstacles, regardless of whether that love is between family, friends, or lovers.

The score by Mark Knopfler utilizes a docile theme played on guitar for true love in all its forms amongst all the characters.  Variations of this theme occur whenever love becomes the focus of a scene, whether that is Westely and Buttercup working on the farm, Inigo Montoya discussing his father, or even Fezzik helping his friends.

There are some small flaws in the screenplay.  Nearly all the characters have omniscient knowledge regarding actions and motives of other characters.  For instance Inigo Montoya somehow knows that Westley loves Buttercup, and that she is engaged to Humperdinck when he had no way of learning that information.  However, the omniscience of all the characters contributes to the whimsical, fairy-tale atmosphere and can easily be overlooked in light of the film’s charm, humor, and other strengths.

The arc of the story is nearly perfect.  The multiple conflicts simultaneously reach their low points as well as climax and resolve together.  Once Westley’s conflict for Buttercup reaches its climax, the film immediately cuts to the climax of Inigo Montoya’s conflict.  An early line of Westley’s foreshadows several developments and setbacks that occur later in the film.

The entire cast gives great performances.  Cary Elwes and Robin Wright are endearing as the young lovers.  Mandy Patinkin is energetic and compelling as Inigo Montoya, bringing conviction and believability to a role that easily could have been a goofy stereotype.  Peter Falk is perfect as the caring but tough-love grandfather.  Chris Sarandon and Christopher Guest are malevolent and completely embrace their evil actions, which adds to much of the humor.  Finally Billy Crystal and Carol Kane have an hysterical cameo as an eccentric miracle man and his wife.  Reiner reportedly had to leave the set for their scene because he was laughing so hard.

So let me explain.  No, there is too much; let me sum up.  The Princess Bride is a great film with great themes and great craftsmanship that the entire family can enjoy, not just watch together.  There’s a shortage of near perfect films in the world.  It would be a pity to miss this one.

Content Advisory: Mild peril including a couple scenes of torture, some swashbuckling, an instance of profanity and mild crass language.                        MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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