Saturday, July 14, 2007

Four Quirky Fantasies

I've been to see the new, fifth Harry Potter movie (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Twice, actually. It was very good. But I don't want to say much about it yet, because there is still a chance some of my HP-fan friends reading this blog may not have seen it. I do want to say it is probably the best movie in the series so far. The script flows more like a single, coherent story (as opposed to a sequence of thematically-linked vignettes). Daniel Radcliffe's acting is starting to improve beyond the level of "embarrassingly bad." Imelda Staunton, as Dolores Umbridge, steals the show.

Umbridge's conflict with Harry culminates in an line of dialogue that actually improves on the original material. And although the special effects aren't 100% convincing, the overall look of the movie is quite effective. I only detected a couple of dropped threads and missed opportunities, which is remarkable when you consider how much had to be cut out of the story in order to fit it in the frame. Watching the midnight showing on Tuesday/Wednesday, when the theatre was packed with enthusiastic young adults who responded very warmly to all the best parts of the film, added another level of entertainment.

To tide you over until I make a more detailed review, here are some of the fantasy films that I got the biggest kick out of. They are funny, weird, highly imaginative, slightly a word, quirky. I'm not sure that's the best word, though, because it suggests something small and subtle, whereas these movies are big and flamboyant. Let me know what word you think I should have used...

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, based on a German folk tale, was filmed under the direction of Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam (whose other directing credits include Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and The Brothers Grimm). What Gilliam's movies all have in common is an abundance of fantastic, not to say phantasmagorical, imagery, often of a rather dark nature, but always of a scale and power that strains the limits of film. Crude animation, puppetry, and pyrotechnic effects combine with unforgettable artistic design and a cast of gifted actors who seem to be having a really good time with their roles (though this may be acting), to bring tales of wonder and horror vividly to life.

I could say a few words about any of the Gilliam movies I mentioned, but I want to focus on the Baron because it is probably his brightest, lightest, most accessible work. It is based on a legend about a man who told outrageous lies, but in such a captivating way that one had to believe them. In Gilliam's vision, the Baron's lies are so good that they actually come true. It's a fascinating idea that I think is worth pondering. Here is a character whose words have the power to alter reality, to bring the nonexistent into existence! And such lies! Munchausen was the character who famously pulled himself and his horse out of the sea by his own ponytail. He visited the moon, entertained the goddess of love, encountered a sea monster, sailed a flying ship, and defied death many times, often with the aid of his four servants who had, respectively, the strongest eyes, ears, legs, and lungs in the world.

Gilliam's achievement is greatly aided by his wonder-working cast, especially the late Oliver Reed, whose every twitch as the Aphrodite-whipped god Hephaestus was spot-on perfect. A very young Uma Thurman plays his glamorous wife. Jonathan Pryce, who had previously played the hero in Brazil, discovers his niche as a campy villain. Eric Idle (also of Monty Python fame) supplies some comic moments, as well as the lyrics to a sadistic sultan's unforgettable opera The Torturer's Apprentice. An uncredited Robin Williams puts on a zany King of the Moon, and John Neville portrays the Baron as a gentleman of substance, wit, careless bravado, and a weakness for beautiful ladies.

The second fantasy film I want to recommend is Being John Malkovich, written by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation), and directed by music-video auteur Spike Jonze (who also directed Adaptation). It features John Cusack as a down-and-out puppeteer who employs his dexterous fingers as a high-speed filing clerk in a very odd office. Only one of the oddities of the office is a hidden door that leads inside the mind of actor John Malkovich. Cusack discovers that he can do more than observe things through Malkovich's eyes; he can actually control the actor's mind and body like a puppet, and even usurp his identity, until the time limit hits and the wormhole spits him out alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. From this follows a hilariously weird and convoluted adventure, full of unforgettable quirks such as the boss who refuses to understand a word his secretary says to him, an educational video about an unusual floor of an office tower, and what happens when Malkovich himself goes down the rabbit hole. The film culminates in a chase through the actor's subconscious mind, and features the talents of Charlie Sheen (as himself), Catherine Keener, Mary Kay Place, and an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz.

A more recent film with a similar kind of quirkiness is Stranger Than Fiction. Will Ferrell finds his perfect role as a starched, pressed, and sharply creased IRS auditor whose life unravels after he starts hearing a British woman's voice narrating his life. After consulting with a literary expert (played by Dustin Hoffman), Ferrell realizes that he is the main character in a book currently being written by a novelist (played by Emma Thompson) who always kills off her main character. Thompson is indeed planning to kill Ferrell's character, but she is suffering from such a case of writer's block that her publisher sends Queen Latifah to prod her along. The literary process comes to a halt when, just as Thompson writes that her protagonist places a phone call, her phone rings. Every time she writes "It rang again," her phone rings again. She picks it up and recognizes the voice of her literary creation, asking her to let him live... This movie is a touching, rib-bustingly funny meditation on the nature of reality and the responsibilities of a creative artist.

Finally, I have to put in a plug for The Fifth Element, which (according to my possibly flawed recollection) was a critical and box-office failure in the United States. Nevertheless I think it is one of the most visually stunning fantasy films of all time, plus a witty farce, a charming romantic comedy, and a swashbuckling action movie, all rolled into one. Bruce Willis, Ian Holm, and Gary Oldman absolutely shine in their roles, with strong support by Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil), Chris Tucker (Rush Hour), and Lee Evans (Mouse Hunt). What other movie has an eight-foot tall, blue alien singing an opera aria no human voice could perform? Where else can you see taxis zooming through the air between the skyscrapers that have completely taken over Manhattan Island? Where else can a British actor's struggle to adopt an American accent pay off in creating an inhumanly evil villain with an unexpected streak of vulnerability? Where else can you find a supreme being in the form of a wide-eyed, scantily-clad girl, and the fate of the world in the hands of a failed cab driver, a couple of nebbishy clergymen, and a shock jock of ambiguous sexual orientation? OK, so the script isn't deep. But it moves along briskly, and it's funny, and the eye candy is unbelievable!

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