Monday, June 26, 2017

Retro Duo: Excalibur (1981); The Fountain (2006)

Excalibur (1981)

Director: John Boorman

This was probably the third or fourth time I've seen this movie over the last 20-odd years. The over-the-top nature of it just gets more and more obvious, though it is still arguably the best film version of the Arthurian legend out there.

Drawing mostly from Sir Thomas Malory's 15th century novel Le Morte d'Arthur, the film is an abbreviated and lavish telling of how Arthur Pendragon came into being, obtained the mythical sword Excalibur to become King of England, and oversaw the unification and defense of the country in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The movie goes all-in with the melodrama, with nary a character speaking in anything less than florid epigrams or acting in any way less than the grandest of gestures. When one takes half a step back from it all, it can come off as rather silly, pompous, and pretentious. If, however, one gets wrapped up in the movie, it can, much of the time, actually be as grand as it attempts. This is in no small part due to the fact that we are dealing with one of the oldest, best-known myths of Western civilization.

The story is the foundation of so much high fantasy. A savior figure is born of blood and sorcery, eventually obtains a magic sword, and forges and era whose name will ring through the centuries. To tell such a story in film, a director needs to swing for the fences, and John Boorman did just that. He brought in a ton of great British and Irish acting talent, including then up-an-coming young actors like Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Liam Niesen, and Helen Mirren, to name just a few. The actors were well-schooled in larger-than-life performances, which fit a film such as Excalibur to a tee. Again, some of it is campy, both intentionally and accidentally, but it's still quite fun. The stand out is Nicol Williamson, whose bombastic, vibrato delivery of his lines as the legendary sorcerer Merlin shows the correct level of ridiculous joy in the role.

One's take on the visuals will depend on how well they can suspend disbelief and look past the limitations of the effects. Certainly, compared to what had been and would eventually be done with advanced makeup, computer effects, and much larger budgets, this 1981 movie will seem cut-rate. But Excalibur has a look that is very much a cohesive representation of what Boorman wanted to do, and it can be very effective much of the time. Through vivid lighting, highly burnished armor, and some trippy visual distortions, many sections of the movie feel just as dreamlike and hallucinatory as a 1,500-year-old myth should feel.

The movie does, admittedly, take some patience and a certain mental state to enjoy. Some scenes can drag, and it does rely on a certain familiarity with the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. If one has those things, though, then this 35-year-old flick will hold up nicely for you. From what I've read of Guy Ritchie's most recent crack at the Arthurian legend, you may be in the mood for a more successful cinematic take on the entire affair.

The Fountain (2006)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

One of my absolute favorite movies, despite being its noted director's least-known film.

Darren Aronofsky, known best for his award-winning movies The Wrestler and Black Swan, as well as his controversial adaptation in Noah, was an immediate critical darling with his first two films, the dark, intelligent, and edgy Pi and Requiem for a Dream. Following that second film, he took several years to create The Fountain, easily his most ambitious movie to that point. He was initially given a sizable budget to bring his impressive vision to life, and mega-stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were lined up to star in the picture. However, after several unexpected changes, Aronofsky was left to make alterations that led to using Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the main roles, and the film having to be made on half of its original budget. The film met very mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office.

I did not see the movie until a couple of years after its lackluster performance in theaters. When I did, though, I was completely blown away. Knowing nothing about the movie, I took in this visually stunning narrative puzzle that did not offer clear, direct answers. The images were mesmerizing, and the acting was so affecting that the movie stayed on my mind for days afterward, as my brain tried to put all of the pieces into place. While I couldn't completely penetrate all of the components of the movie and how they fit together, I was incredibly moved by the themes which I could pick up on, and their conveyance through the impressive and iconic images.

Because I feel that part of one's enjoyment of this movie is in seeing it and allowing it to reveal itself to the viewer, I won't give a complete synopsis but rather a basic description, even though the movie is now over a decade old. It tells three stories in three different time periods: one is of a Spanish conquistador on a desperate mission from his queen, another is of a modern neuroscientist seeking to find a cure for brain tumors, and the final is of a mysterious traveler, moving through space in a glass bubble housing himself and a tree. Explaining much more than that would rob any new viewers of the potential joy of working out the film's connections for themselves.

This recent viewing was my fourth, and each viewing increases my enthusiasm for the film. Across his six feature films, Darren Aronofksy has shown himself to be an exceptionally thoughtful filmmaker who pays extremely close attention to detail. He clearly takes pride in creating tight, carefully-crafted pictures in which little to nothing is out of place, either narratively or visually. This can be seen in his other movies, from his debut Pi to his most recent, Noah. But perhaps in no other film was his dedication to symmetry and cohesion brought to fruition the way that it was in The Fountain. This is why I have enjoyed it so many times. Even after I had worked out the non-linear and less-than-obvious narrative, I was able to drink in the stunning visual imagery running through the entire movie. Between the lighting, sets, costumes, and overall cinematography, many of the scenes and sequences are, by themselves, works of visual art which could be studied in isolation. Movies such as this, which continue to offer engagement viewing after viewing, are rare for me.

Stunning images like this one will likely amaze and baffle
upon one's first viewing. Once it is put into the greater context,
though, its meaning takes on even greater value.
I'm also a sucker for a soundtrack with mournful string instruments, especially when it sets the mood for a romance. And this story is a romance of considerable quality. Amazingly, I am no particular fan of romances, but The Fountain balances what could have been overly sentimental elements with an intelligent, creative narrative device that I find immensely engaging.

It's no great mystery to me why this movie never quite caught on with a wider audience. It hardly follows any standard Hollywood movie tropes: it asks more than a little from its viewers, it is a deeply emotional tale, and it's grand theme is not one that is likely to put a great pep in anyone's step, so to speak. This is, of course, why I love it so much. So much, in fact, that I have a difficult time imagining any point in my life when I won't be able to take several rewards from each future viewing.