18 March 2017

Quality Fantasy Tales

Quality Fantasy Tales
by Kristin Battestella

I confess it was a little tough to find the kind of fanciful viewing I was yearning to watch. Fortunately, in such fantasy pursuits I ended up with this fun and eclectic potluck of fairy tales, viking mayhem, sprite possibilities, and extra special little folk.

Beauty and the Beast – Not that one! Nor that one either! This 2014 French take starring Lea Seydoux (Spectre) and Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) opens with tale within a tale wishes and high seas adventures. The Old World pleasantries turn to country ruins and a colorful autumn patina while fanciful creatures and candlelit feasts pepper the overgrown interiors and natural landscapes. Yellow tavern glows and blue snowscapes match the shady villains or frozen mishaps as beautiful moonlit designs, garden realms, and hidden castles hit home the turning book pages transitions and magical, immersive narration. The pre-Tolkien style fantasy invites the healing enchantments beyond the hedge to enter our world with flashbacks of grandeur and truth revealing mirrors as the familial loss and personal blame add realistic dimension to several bittersweet animals, injuries, and upsetting hunting sequences. The score is both ominous or awe-inspiring and whimsical to match, however, at times the CGI is too obvious. Snotty sisters and a country Belle feel Cinderella derivative, and a vine covered bedroom seem Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty. The Beast's billowing cloaks while scaling castle walls also feel a little Dracula, and though PG-13, the leads' twenty year age difference unfortunately adds to the Stockholm Syndrome innuendo and underlying saucy a la The Company of Wolves. This cruel, scary jailer offers steep life or death threats and unromantic dinner demands. Fearful reflections and rough paws slowly reveal his terrible veneer – a well designed, provocative Beast. In the bonus features, Cassel says he would not have taken the role were it a masked performance and suggests actors should leave ego behind as motion capture realization of an on set performance is making prosthetic designs obsolete. The Beast's camera perspectives brim with up close shots of red lips, stockings, raised hems, and intimate dancing requests. We know what it means when he asks if she could love him, vowing she will be his whether he can fulfill her desires or not. A forceful kiss leads to penetrating ice rescues followed by roses, a more forgiving Beast, and a changed Belle wearing red asking if he will give her a ring now. Despite great costuming, Belle doesn't have much to do beyond running to or from the Beast, and her love grows as the plot says – not because the Beast redeems his brutish ways against nature's magic. The increasingly darker themes are welcome, but man's villainous nature, sacrificial penance undercurrents, and one messianic 'father forgive them for they know not what they do' scene fall prey to nonsensical fighting in the third act, leaving a generic action finale in place of the good-heartedness against cruelty, spiritual waters, and undeserved grace for a Beast who hasn't earned forgiveness. Late unraveling aside, overall this is an entertaining mix of mature fantastics and exceptional production values with no song escapades needed. The subtitles, audio options, and English dubbing by the stars keep this continental tale accessible to fanciful American audiences. Ironically, it's the long-awaited, ridiculously delayed, even buried stateside release that makes this version an elusive fantasy.

The Borrowers – There are certainly more recent updates of the Mary Norton novel, but this 1973 eighty minute TV movie adaption starring Eddie Albert (Green Acres) and Judith Anderson (Rebecca) remains charming. Granted, the videos available are low quality VHS transfers, and the seventies music sing a long moments are dated. Some of the juvenile acting is poor, the adults are occasionally over the top, and the soft volume old fashioned dialogue is tough to hear. Fortunately, the back then pastiche adds to the Victorian phonographs, doilies, and fancy woodwork – this English country manor is full of clutter with nooks and crannies a plenty where lost bits, bobs, and tiny people might hide. This is why one can never find a safety pin, lost pencil, or button. The tiny Clock Family's stove is truly all nuts and bolts and stamp artwork adorns their walls, but everyone takes tea at the same time, big or small. The miniature effects are actually not bad at all, and the under the floorboards whimsy contrasts the stuffy stiff upper lip above with adorable uses for spools, thimbles, or keys. Matches are candles to these crafty little folks, but their scavenging adventures have dangerous shortcuts. Cover your ears when traveling through the grandfather clock! Unfortunately, an eight year old boy moving in is worse than a house with cats and dogs – ugly human boys are clever, hunting and threatening to the titular trio. Does a daughter dare join her father on his borrowing trips with such peril upstairs? The below know how to be careful and not to be seen unless its time to sit and chat with the tipsy old lady of the house before disappearing some china plates from the doll house. Certainly such a big fine house is room enough to share. Why should The Clock Family be forced to live in the cold wilds like their distant relatives? Why must they flee from a suspicious housekeeper when certainly such a big fine house has room enough to share? When these inch sized parents warn their daughter about going outside and getting eaten by monsters, they mean it! Parables on whether outside curiosities or risky adventures are good, bad, or necessary ground the differences. Regardless of their size or initial fears, the children bond with inquisitive exchanges and competitiveness on who's people are more plentiful. Big humans fight and kill each other, and it makes sense that them and all their large stuff would be too much for the planet to hold. Though a fanciful tale, this is a straightforward moral reminding viewers young and old that maybe we should indeed be better custodians for any smaller things in this world that need our help. Acts of kindness and supplies gifted from the dollhouse help alleviate cross culture fears – but not before a dreaded ferret is on the chase!

Northmen: A Viking Saga – This 2014 adventure opens with stranded warriors and superb scenery – long ships, waterfalls, crisp country, brisk cliffs, misty caves, and standing stones. The sweeping vistas and archery zooms feel Lord of the Rings homage and the blues are over-saturated into a faux gritty, but these accents match the quick skirmishes, brief fireside interiors, and fast moving on foot versus horseback pursuits. Though the swords do look slightly plastic, clanging battle sounds and bloody gurgling add to the brutal slices or impalements. When these wet, bearded, angry warriors get dirty, they stay leathered and grimy, too – no pretty coifs and clean nails here. Our lady in red symbolically and visually stands out as well without being a sexy warrior maiden or a damsel in distress. She uses a crossbow and helps save the boys but can't always reload the bolt in time. However, there are also convenient psychic fantasy visions, and the storyline is too modern with no wounded left behind, ransoms on the prisoner princess set for an arranged marriage, and obviously violent dressed in black mercenaries calling themselves a “wolf pack” being obvious with their smudged eyeliner. The acting is wooden, raspy muffled voices make subtitles a must, and there's too much contemporary dialogue – women are birds, our behind enemy lines exiled vikings are outlaws, we shouldn't believe the rumors but “Vikings show no mercy!” and remember, “I'm a warrior, not a climber.” Using more native languages could have helped, but there's drinking game potential for all the Valhalla quotes. Despite cliché characters such as the would be hero son, his soft spoken BFF, the old man warrior, a rival frienemy, and a holy man good for weapons and reflection, it can be tough to tell who is who because they all sort of look like Thor. Early slow motion shouts over melodramatic deaths are too anonymous to care, but the chest pumping viking macho gets better as it goes on, balancing the action pace with campfire pauses on Christian versus pagan trusts and talk of peace that comes with a sword. Feasting songs, mead, and a few chuckles pepper the Pict legends and full moon, high tide deadlines as the quest to escape to a Viking settlement in the south is paved with perilous rope bridges, jumping off cliffs, battlefield sacrifice, and funeral pyres we can appreciate. It's a lot like Centurion actually, with enough twists and epicness that don't take the drama too seriously. This isn't a poor Asylum knock off, but there's nothing wrong with being a B style yarn not looking to franchise, origin explain, or do anything but have a good adventure – I wish more movies would take that hint. Despite its flaws, this remains a well done, entertaining European production with a fun finish.

A Little Documentary Fun

Gateways to Faerie – This ninety minute documentary invites audiences to “Discover a Hidden Realm of Mystery, Magic, and Wonder” by recounting one couple's whimsical connections to all things faerie. Granted, this is presented on Amazon Prize via UFO TV, and the narration is immediately storyteller rather than factual regarding the potential for mystical cohabitation between humans and fey and why people forgot magic and gave in to this veil between the races. Some montages, graphics, and fantasy overlays are silly. Often the subject matter is hokey or New Age in the worst way – i.e. when people negatively peg something as 'new agey' – and the overlong duration is at times a self-indulgent biography of its presenters. This chat is metaphysical, debating the essence of energy that we manifest as anthropomorphic sprites alongside similarities between natural elements and quantum physics or unexplained science phenomena. It would have been nice to have an in tune scientific expert agreeing on this wavelength (hee, puns). However, the once upon a time start makes no pretense about facts or accuracy. This lighthearted presentation has fun with its interviewees, invoking a sense of childhood wonder with which we have lost touch and should revisit in that Victorian sense of fantasy where something creative or magical and closer to another realm may be just around the next bend. Instructional how-tos on building mini faerie houses with natural materials and infusing one's model with unique art and ritualistic design add a tangible can do to the whimsy while pleasant music, lovely landscapes, and rustic scenery make this a soothing background piece for a relaxing evening – whether you fully embrace the more out there beliefs and extra om presented or giggle at the poetic peacefulness. Either way, it's a chance to not be so cynical – I don't think this is meant to be taken so seriously yet reminds us have a sense of humor and not be so flippant about respecting nature. If you believe you can see something with no preconceived expectations, anything you can imagine is possible, so go ahead and craft it, write it down, and inspire. Is this kooky and hippie high? Yes. Ridiculous at times? For sure. Scholars will hate that there is no discussion on faerie history, evidence of past cultures' beliefs, or pagan legends and information, but earth friendly folk and viewers looking for some trippy fun will delight in this whimsical lark. After all, those little store bought fairy garden decorations are certainly popular these days!

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