The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen movie poster

 

Terry Gilliam’s mad, brilliant yarn The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a strongly anti-war fable to which every kid (and adult!) ought to be exposed. Like the best of its kind (including Ratatouille and Gilliam’s own Time Bandits) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen works on multiple levels and is accessible to all ages. It is, however, a Gilliam film, as as such possessed of a certain degree of darkness and naughtiness. But depictions of tobacco, decapitation, and brief nudity (of the young Uma Thurman variety… thank you, Terry!) were evidently A-OK for kiddies in its era, and merited a mere PG rating. Special mention must also be paid to the spirited performance by a very young, adorable (but in a non-cloying way) Sarah Polley.

John Neville and Sarah Polley in The Adventures of Baron MunchausenOops, we threw the budget projections overboard…

What must be the most ironic caption in cinema history, “The Late 18th Century: The Age of Reason,” is followed immediately by harrowing imagery of warfare that wouldn’t be out of place in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Further driving the point home for the slower members of the audience, a trip to Hades finds Vulcan (Oliver Reed) forging ICBMs out of hellfire. In a theme straight out of Noam Chomsky, the military industrial complex (personified by Jonathan Pryce’s hilariously accented bureaucrat) imprisons the people within the walls of their own city with a sham state of perpetual war. In the end, the Baron (John Neville) defeats these villains not with more violence, but by inspiring the people to throw open their doors and thus their minds.

Uma Thurman in The Adventures of Baron MunchausenUma comes out of her shell

Must read: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fun facts from Dreams, the Terry Gilliam Fanzine

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John Adams

John Adams

 

The Dork Report celebrates Independence Day 2008 in a New York City Starbucks, tapping out a review of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Believe it or not, the timing is accidental, but July 4th has proven to be an auspicious date in American History. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same date, exactly 50 years after the ratification of what they called The Declaration of Independency. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a period of apparent dormancy following the natural conclusion of flagship original programs Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the premature cancellation of Deadwood and Rome, and the criminal abbreviation of the final season of The Best Television Show Ever Made (sometimes referred to as The Wire). Finely pedigreed, this lavish, over seven-hour miniseries by history buff Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone is based on the biography by David McCullough. However, it fails to reach the epic profundity of The Wire and Deadwood, which in the opinion of this Dork Reporter, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.

John AdamsAmerica’s second first couple

This Dork Reporter does not consider himself a patriot, and is not especially moved by stories of early American history. However, the dramatization of these legendary events and the characterization of dusty old American heroes were intriguing enough to make me consider picking up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encompassed such elementary school social studies touchstones as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In short, Adams was not only present during many of the key points in early American history, but a crucial participant. Nevertheless, history has chosen other heroes. As Adams was a statesman and not a military man, and indeed spent most of the Revolutionary War on a frustrating mission abroad in Europe, we don’t see reenactments of such key events as the Boston Tea Party, which one might have expected of a lavish big-budget HBO production. It makes sense, but there is unintentional comedy when a character remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Party last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m paraphrasing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Revolutionary War (waged in part by “godless Hessian mercenaries,” including one of my ancestors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States United only to be turned right back around for his appointment to the impossible, thankless job of ambassador to former mortal enemy Great Britain. There’s a brilliantly tense scene in which Adams meets the slightly odd but clearly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams finally came home for good, he suffered persistent criticism at having been safe and coddled in Europe throughout the turmoil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talking point of the newspapers). But the miniseries makes clear that the biggest sacrifice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his family. He loses a son to alcoholism and a son-in-law to naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.

John AdamsIf I had a dollar…

As the second president of the States United, Adams and his veep Jefferson both had the same aims: avoid war between France and England at all costs. Adams was stuck in the peculiarly ironic position of having a truce with Britain and antipathy with France, the exact opposite of the nation’s situation during the Revolutionary War. His administration grappled for the first time with many issues that still resonate today, including the concepts of freedom of speech, a deliberate national deficit (as espoused by Alexander Hamilton), and so-called “enemy combatants” (which were, at the time, specifically understood to be French refugees suspected of remaining loyal to an enemy monarchy). Adams reluctantly supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wishes of the people’s representatives in Congress. During his administration, he and Abigail moved into the partially completed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This Dork Reporter should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.

As Dork Report first lady Snarkbait opined, John Adams is a showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is the most interesting, and surprising characterization. As portrayed here, he kept his own council and was somewhat shy, far from the loquacious and commanding personalities of many of his contemporaries. Adams, however, correctly perceived the quiet man’s powerful opinions about independence, and drafted him to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could also be proud, and his effrontery is priceless as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) quickly produces a red pen to make amendments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indisputably brilliant, but a massive egotist and hedonist. He was technically correct about how to effectively operate as ambassador to France, but it didn’t stop him from selfishly enjoying his job. He gamely played the role of “rustic” in coonskin cap, took mistresses (although Wikipedia does point out he was a widower at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to discuss politics (which was: most of the time). Originally a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antagonist in France, and Adams appears never to have forgiven him.

John AdamsAmerica’s First Rascal shows John around his crib

George Washington (David Morse) is portrayed as gruff and humbly diplomatic, but also quite intelligent and perceptive, not to mention physically imposing. He was such a popular hero after the Revolution that his inauguration was a forgone conclusion, but it was later alleged John Adams would have actually won the electoral college vote without a conspiracy to anoint Washington as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) figures significantly in the Early Continental Congress, and now we can finally see what Sam did to deserve having such a damn fine beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this Dork Reporter had never heard of was John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek). As the representative from Pennsylvania, Dickinson argued passionately against splitting from Britain, and correctly foresaw the Civil War as an inevitable result. And finally, there’s a plum role for Laura LInney as Abigail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrubbing the floor with no motion to help from her husband. But clearly it was not just lip service when John Adams late in life claims Abigail was his most trusted advisor.

John AdamsI apologize for failing to mention Dork Report favorite Sarah Polley in this article

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dresses down John Trumbull, the painter of “The Declaration of Independence” (now residing in the Capitol building – which was also, incidentally, built by slaves), for historical inaccuracies. Ironically, the scene is an invention, according to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been consistent with Adams’ beliefs and preoccupations. In his retirement, he was concerned that the story of the American Revolution and his own reputation would (or even could) be reported accurately. He predicted a romanticized version in which future Americans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his electrical rod and out came Washington and Jefferson.” It seems he may have been correct; Franklin and Jefferson are heroes to this day, while he remains relatively obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scandal or legend about his character and personality for schoolchildren to latch on to. Jefferson had Monticello and his inventions, and Franklin had his aphorisms and, well, inventions of his own. One other reason Adams is not exactly a popular hero is that he first made himself known for defending English soldiers accused of perpetuating an unprovoked massacre. The defense attorney was never a much-loved profession, but set an early precedent for lawyers becoming presidents.

Finally, two smaller observations: The miniseries was partially filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, but many other locations were realized with superlative special effects. Beyond the obvious recreations of old Boston and Philadelphia, the DVD bonus features reveal that certain shots I never questioned, such as Adams ascending the staircase to a impressive European mansion, were in fact part CG. Also of interest are the examples of the medicine of the day: exsanguination, inoculation, and mastectomy, all without anesthesia.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/johnadams

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The Sweet Hereafter

The Sweet Hereafter

 

Lest the brevity of this post indicate otherwise, The Sweet Hereafter is one of my favorite films. Although I’ve read the original novel by Russell Banks and seen Atom Egoyan’s film several times, I feel ill-equipped to “review” it. It is quietly heartbreaking and devastating, and difficult to capture in words.

Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin tale runs through the film as a metaphor. A tragedy of the worst kind imaginable, the death of an entire generation of a small Canadian town’s children, reveals that everybody, everybody, has demons. Lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) descends upon the town, claiming to be able to help the surviving families avenge their children’s deaths. His zeal convinces many of families to join a lawsuit, but his true attraction to this particular case are complex and personal, and it becomes clear he is possibly an even more tortured soul than any of his clients. His crusade only further pulls back the veil on the town’s deepest secrets, and it falls to the young survivor Nicole (Sarah Polley) to put an end to it all.

The Sweet Hereafter

One excellent scene that demonstrates the high level of filmmaking at work: when we finally see a flashback of the accident in question, parent Billy (Bruce Greenwood) watches in shock as an overturned school bus carrying his two children skids slowly to a stop atop a frozen lake, pauses for a heartbeat, then begins to crack through. The whole thing is filmed from a locked-down vantage point, at a distance, with muted sound design. Every element of the sequence shows astonishing restraint on the part of the filmmakers.

The Sweet Hereafter

Official movie site: www.finelinefeatures.com/sweet

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Away From Her

Away From Her movie poster

 

So far, it seems The Dork Report is definitive proof of the truism that criticism is cheaper than praise; it’s easier to pick apart what’s wrong with a bad or mediocre movie than it is to praise what’s good. So sitting down to write something about a really great film like Away From Her, I find myself at a loss for what to say.

Already a seasoned actor at 29, Sarah Polley proves herself a mature and sensitive writer/director on her very first outing. Although concerned with Alzheimer’s, Away From Her is thankfully not a movie “about” a disease. I felt the biopic Iris, although finely acted by no less than Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, and Jim Broadbent, fell into the trap of educating the audience about a disease more than looking at the experiences of the real-life figures whose lives were surely defined by more than Iris Murdoch’s disease.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From HerJulie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From Her

Fiona (Julie Christie) and long-time husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) are already aware of her relatively early-onset Alzheimer’s as the movie begins, but react to its sudden progression with different degrees of preparedness. Worse, as her short term memory leaves her, memories of old traumas resurface just as it is time for her to enter an assisted living community, making an impossible situation no easier for either of them. The next time Grant sees her, she appears to have forgotten him altogether… or has she? The possibility that Grant may be reading his fears into Fiona’s behavior and lapses is one of the most powerful questions of the film.

Sarah Polley directs Away From HerSarah Polley, writer/director of Away From Her

The still-gorgeous Julie Christie deserves an Oscar for her Canadian accent alone. Christie’s long resume and Oscar nomination put her in the entertainment media’s spotlight this winter, but Gordon Pinsent is excellent as Grant, arguably the lead role. Away From Her may be a powerfully sad movie, but not one that anyone should be afraid of being bummed out by.


Official movie site: www.memory-catcher.net

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