(On Cable TV, November 2018) On the one hand, Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is an imaginative, clever, exuberant fantasy film. On the other, it’s the kind of film that appears severely limited today by circa-1988 technology: it swings for the fences, but doesn’t have what it takes to pass muster today. It’s also a story of the one-thing-after-another variety, meaning that the picaresque structure may not feel as if it’s tied up together. Still, it’s good fun to see John Neville justifiably hams it up as Munchausen, along with such notables as Sarah Polley, Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Robin Williams in grander-than-life roles. The fantasy between reality and fantasy here is thin, and I’m not too sure that it makes the most out of this quality. Still, as part of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” after Time Bandits (which I didn’t like all that much) and Brazil (which is an all-time classic), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen ranks as a solid, um, average. I like what it’s trying to do, I appreciate that it was almost impossible to accomplish back then, but I’m not all that enthusiastic about the results.
(On-demand video, March 2012) I like to think that I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of the past few years in science-fiction movies, but some things can still slip through the cracks. Missing out on a big-budget experimental SF movie shot in Montréal with tons of special effects, and featuring at least four name actors, is a pretty big oversight. Granted, Mr. Nobody is a very unusual kind of Science-Fiction film: It’s about a 118-year-old man reminiscing, circa 2092, about all the lives he’s led. Most of those occur between 1980 and 2010, meaning that most of the film takes place in contemporary times. Still, there’s little that’s ordinary about this 140-minutes meditation on fate, choices, happenstance and a rewinding universe. Mr. Nobody hints at a multiplicity of lives by showing the protagonist in three different marriages and about as many other fates. The first few minutes show a far future psychiatry station, a spaceship breaking apart, as well as the protagonist getting shot, and drowning in at least two different ways. Don’t hope for a tight movie, though, because in-between the SF framework, Mr. Nobody sometimes takes a lot of time to make its dramatic points: The first fifteen minutes are a fast-paced montage of marvels and the last ten wrap up everything very well, but in-between the film can dawdle for a while. Still, the result is often pure cinematic joy. Jared Leto makes the most out of a complex role(s) and the cast of character around him include names such as Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Rhys Ifans. Director Jaco Van Dormael has an ambitious agenda with this film, but he seems equally at ease with big ideas and small character moments –the film is packed with inspired moments even when they don’t quite sustain critical scrutiny. (Many SF-related details look good but are wrong, and let’s not even get into the role of coincidence in the story.) What is perhaps most impressive from the film, from a critical SF perspective, is how the SF devices are used in support of what the story is trying to tell about the human condition –that’s a textbook-perfect definition of what Science Fiction does in the best of circumstances. For a film that got nearly no attention in North America, Mr. Nobody really isn’t too bad: I hope more people get to see it, even as flawed as it is because its strengths are considerable. Few films are good and meaningful enough to make one viewer happy about life, but this is one of them.
(In theatres, June 2010) This may be a horror movie featuring a monster, but it’s not just a monster movie. Taking the well-worn science-fiction and horror clichés of scientists creating artificial life and then seeing it do horrible things, Splice is noteworthy for the thematic weight it manages to carry around, and how rarely it succumbs to cliché, starting by a delicate inversion of movies premises where scientists engage in mad science to substitute for parenthood. While Adrian Brody is fine as the male half of the protagonist couple, it’s Sarah Polley who gets most of the attention as his girlfriend/lab partner: Few actresses can play smart in a convincing fashion, but Polley can just act as her own bright self. Neither of the protagonists comes out particularly heroic during the events of the film, but it’s interesting to see how each one alternates in the “who’s acting most despicably” derby. That, added to how Splice delves decisively into unpleasant plot developments, make it both a good horror film and one that many won’t want to watch a second time. The grimy depressing Toronto snowy outdoors won’t help either. It all amounts to a film that sounds like just about every single other straight-to-DVD monster movie ever released, but really isn’t: Splice isn’t quite as cheaply anti-science as you’d think (there’s a montage that actually makes bioengineering look hip and fun), it goes places that lesser scripts wouldn’t dare touch, it incorporates some really good special effects, and does quite a bit with a small cast. While it can’t escape a few predictable sequences (including an ending that is telegraphed well in advance), the result amounts to an unpleasantly good little surprise, and another small success for Toronto-based writer/director Vincenzo Natali after a fairly lengthy absence from the big screen. Hopefully, this will pave the way for more films from him.