19 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (Brazil | The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)

1985 | Brazil
Gilliam's masterpiece and, until Children of Men, my favorite dystopian movie. Everything about the film rings pitch-perfect to me, and I think it plays much better in our current political era than it did during the Reagan/Thatcher '80s.

One reason this film works so well is that the universe it creates never violates its own style. I think it's important for comedies -- black comedies especially -- to be consistent in their tone. Jabberwocky, for example, failed at this. Every time something funny would happen, it would jar me out of the taken-very-seriously medieval setting. In Brazil, the retro-idiocy of the design of Sam's telephone clearly exists in the same universe in which old women's faces are stretched like Silly Putty during plastic surgery. I would say the same for the ubiquitous ducts, a receipt for a receipt for a snatched husband, a suffocatingly billboard-enclosed highway, or a stenographer recording every scream of pain in an interrogation transcript. Though bits of it may be absurd if transplanted into our world, nothing ever feels out of place in Brazil.

Speaking of the production design: whoa! Outside of Blade Runner, is there a more confident, original, fully-realized sci-fi world on film? The technology used in the film essentially established an entirely new sci-fi subgenre. Some call it "retro-sci-fi"; I kind of see it as a '30s version of steampunk in a way. The tech combined with the sub-sub-compact cars, the gray suits and the art deco/industrial architecture all create a can't-take-your-eyes-off-it setting in which the story and characters rest perfectly.

Brazil might also be called the start of the so-called "Gilliam Curse." In brief: MCA/Universal studio exec Sid Sheinberg thought the film could be made more commercial in the United States if it were shortened and the depressing ending removed. Gilliam took the fight to preserve his director's cut public and eventually prevailed. Not a bad way to start a "curse": Gilliam got what he wanted and generated a large amount of buzz for his movie at the same time. In the The Battle of Brazil: A Video History -- shot in 1996 -- he seems more amused than anything about the whole episode.

By far, Brazil is the best of Gilliam's unofficial dream trilogy. It might be that it's easier for me to identify with Sam -- I'm no longer a child like Kevin and not even close to being as ancient as the Baron -- but I also think he has the best enemy to escape from using his dreams. Bad parents and young punks with their new "reason" are one thing; being crushed in the gears of an unstoppable bureaucracy is altogether something else. (10/10)

Watched: NTSC 3-DVD set released by Criterion in 2006. I'm glad Criterion revisited this movie and gave it a proper anamorphic transfer. Brazil has too much detail in the background to be stuck with a crappy non-anamorphic made at the dawn of the DVD era.

1988 | The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
I regard this movie almost exactly as I do Time Bandits: it's a nice film, but I can never get into it as completely as I would like. My main complaints are the same as for Time Bandits: the pacing is off and we don't get to go on enough adventures. It takes a long 45 minutes before the Baron leaves the theater on his mission to save the town, and then we only get to visit three fantastic places:

  • The Moon (where Berthold is found)
  • A volcano (where Albrecht is found)
  • Inside a giant fish (where Gustavus, Adolphus and Bucephalus the horse were found)
We could've jaunted to two more places had three companions not all been found inside of the fish. And, frankly, the inside of the fish was pretty dull, especially coming after the excellent Moon and volcano sequences. Luckily, we do get a flashback tale of the Baron's first encounter with the Sultan to break up the 45 minute prelude a bit, which is quite a bit of fun.

Though I didn't really care for any of the scenes set in the town, the flashback, the Moon and the volcano scenes make the whole thing worthwhile. Oliver Reed's performance as Vulcan is unsurprisingly excellent. Uma Thurman is the spitting image of the Botticelli painting and the scene of her and the Baron dancing in the air is beautiful. The giant moon royals with their detachable heads and split personalities were incredibly creative. The Sultan's "torture organ" had me cracking up out loud. There is a boatload of color, energy and imagination on screen in this movie.

The "Gilliam Curse" really got going during the production of this film. It famously ran far over budget, causing untold stress on everyone involved. Money was so tight, production was stopped for a couple of weeks and it looked like it might never resume. Unlike Brazil, Gilliam wasn't able to declare victory over the curse for this film. A regime change at Columbia resulted in the movie being shoved aside and not supported during its release. It failed to make its money back and, worse, got Gilliam branded as an out-of-control director. Yet, despite all of the behind-the-scenes pain, not one bit of this shows on the screen. If anything, this alone demonstrates Gilliam's ability to stick fast to his vision no matter what else is going on. (7/10)

Watched: Blu-ray 20th Anniversary Edition released by Columbia/Sony in 2008. Excellent picture and sound.