Terry Gilliam's curse is that his ambitions usually run afoul of crumbling budgets or a malign universe. The setbacks haven't kept him from directing magnificent films - Brazil, Time Bandits and, released this week in a two-disc edition, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) - but they have necessitated a few footnotes. The biggest is the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, detailing the problems that undermined Gilliam's attempt to reinterpret Don Quixote.
Munchausen's problems began with the decision to shoot the film in Spain and Italy with a producer, Thomas Schuhly, who apparently promised more than he could deliver. (He is given a fair chance at rebuttal in an exhaustive 72-minute documentary included in the two-disc set.)
Gilliam regrets placing his trust in the wrong people, but Munchausen co-star and Monty Python colleague Eric Idle says Gilliam invites such troubles with his me-against-the-world approach to filmmaking. He is an artistic genius, Idle says, but "I have two rules in life: You must never be in a Stanley Kubrick film and you must never be in a Terry Gilliam film ... because they're sadistic, insane people." Where Kubrick shot endless takes, Gilliam puts his actors through physical hell on a pressure-cooker set. Ignoring his own advice, Idle played one of Munchausen's sidekicks, and says "it was a truly horrible experience."
Despite getting excellent reviews, this visually spectacular fantasy was all but buried by the studio. Now, after receiving splendid treatment on a Criterion laserdisc years ago and stumbling along since then with a bare-bones DVD release, the film has finally received the DVD respect it deserves. Along with the documentary and deleted scenes, the new Sony set provides a commentary by Gilliam and also by co-writer Charles McKeown, who reflects wryly on Gilliam's excesses.
For his two leads, Gilliam turned to Canada. The great British stage veteran John Neville was running Ontario's Stratford Festival, and took a long leave of absence to play the spinner of tall tales created in the 1700s by R.E. Raspe. His fake nose was so big he couldn't read while it was attached. Sarah Polley, who even at 8 wore a preternaturally wise expression and who today recalls the shoot as "an extremely traumatic experience" because of all the explosions, plays a theatrical waif who tags along with Munchausen on his adventures.
That means riding in a hot-air balloon to escape a city under siege, being swallowed by a sea monster and dropping in on the god Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and the goddess Venus (Uma Thurman, emerging in the buff from a giant clamshell). And it means travelling to the moon, in what was to be an elaborate sequence with Sean Connery as king of the moon. When budget cuts forced the moon's cast of thousands to be reduced to two, Robin Williams agreed to play the king "for no money," but was so worried that the producer would use his small role to sell the film that he insisted his name not appear in the credits or in the publicity. "I didn't want to give Thomas Schuhly anything he could pimp," he says now.
The conceit of Gary Leva's two-hour, made-for-cable documentary Fog City Mavericks is that filmmakers active in the San Francisco area benefited from an independence and isolation that set their movies apart from the usual Hollywood product. The thesis weakens a bit when it moves from George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and John Lasseter to directors such as Chris ( Home Alone) Columbus, and the film's tone is close to idolatrous. But there are interviews with everyone who matters and many useful film clips.
The film identifies a striking parallel in the lives of Lucas, Coppola and cinematic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge: that life-altering calamities (respectively a near-fatal car crash, a year's paralysis from polio and a crushing stagecoach accident) helped steer them onto their career paths.
The DVD of Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, which interweaves three domestic and foreign stories bearing on the war in Afghanistan, is an unabashed plug for United Artists, the MGM company resurrected two years ago by Tom Cruise and partner Paula Wagner.
This film, co-starring Cruise, Redford and Meryl Streep, is the new UA's first project. The DVD kicks off with a two-minute promo for Bryan Singer's let's-kill-Hitler thriller Valkyrie, UA's second film, also starring Cruise and scheduled for a fall release. And along with a commentary by Redford (who wanted Lions for Lambs to be "provocative ... without slipping into propaganda"), there is a bracing seven-minute tour through more than 50 films ( The Gold Rush, The Night of the Hunter, The Manchurian Candidate) made by United Artists since Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and the gang founded the company in 1919. A tough legacy to live up to, even on Cruise control.
Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning performance as oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has come to DVD, though even the two-disc "collector's edition" provides no word from Anderson or Day-Lewis. What it does offer is The Story of Petroleum, a promotional film from the 1920s, created by the U.S. Bureau of Mines in conjunction with the Sinclair Oil Company, about how oil gets from ground to gas station. It's an odd pairing, though. The silent film was intended as a celebration of progress, but the accompanying score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (who wrote the score for There Will Be Blood) is almost mournful.
Extra! Extra! Extra!
The two-disc "unrated widescreen edition" of the musical biopic spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is the gift that keeps on giving. There is the 96-minute theatrical release with John C. Reilly as an amoral chameleon of a singer, sending up such films as Walk the Line. There is a 120-minute "Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director's Cut" with commentary by Reilly, director Jake Kasdan and others noting which bits they chose to cut. Then there are deleted and extended scenes, performances of the film's songs, audio demos of songs by Marshall Crenshaw and others, a 25-minute mock interview show hosted by The Daily Show's John Hodgman, and - wait for it - a segment with somebody interviewing the genitals of an actor who stands naked next to Reilly in an orgy scene.