Skip to main content

The equilibrium of the world must be maintained.

Tale of Tales
(2015)

(SPOILERS) A rich, absorbing, decidedly adult take on fairy tales that might put one in mind of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, but more for want of other similarly grown-up-skewed fare than direct tonal similarities. A selection of three cautionary stories based on the works of Giambattista Basile, which in turn influenced the more renowned likes of the Brothers Grimm, Matteo Garrone’s film features as its protagonists three different women in three different states of empowerment/disenfranchisement, but it might be a mistake to overtly construe meaning from that; this is more about the traps our desires set for us generally, rather than an express exploration of gender straightjackets.


The tales are only obliquely linked, through a funeral and a wedding in which the various royal characters gather, but Garrone ensures that, rather than a sequential portmanteau, the unfolding narratives keep pace with each other. At first sight, the second one we are introduced to, The Flea, appears to be the least enticing, concerning a king (Toby Jones, beautifully blinkered) who becomes devoted to a flea rather than his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) whom he formerly doted on.


However, it quickly plunges into the progressively weirder, as the King begins feeding his tiny pet first his blood and then rare steaks; it grows to an enormous size, and thanks to design work that lends it a rather forlorn, cartoonish expression, the creature manages to be simultaneously repulsive and cute. Before it expires through being over-indulged. That the tale then takes a further distinctive left turn, as the daughter’s hand is offered to whoever can guess the provenance of the enormous flea skin hanging in the throne room (an ogre does), and we are thrown into the world of Violet’s captivity, rape, escape and recapture (the latter a grippingly shocking scene, as the caravan of travelling entertainers who rescued her are attacked and slain by the ogre), makes it the most compelling and unpredictable of the trio.


The least of the three, although it ends in suitably grisly fashion, The Two Old Women, finds a licentious king (Vincent Cassel) obsessed with the singing of who he believes to be a beautiful young maiden, but is in fact an aging crone, Dora (Hayley Carmichael), living with her similarly spinsterish sister, Imma (Shirley Henderson).


There’s commentary on the illusory nature of beauty here, albeit in a rather unfinessed manner; after being rejected by the disgusted monarch, Dora is transformed into a young woman (Stacy Martin) by a travelling witch, and thence gains the king’s hand in marriage. Most involving, however, is the tragic twist of poor, simple Imma, unable to adjust to her sister’s good fortune, having herself flayed on the understanding that it was this that brought Dora her youth and beauty. It’s here that the film finds its starkest contrast between the dream logic, magic wand waving of fairy tales and the sour reality of death and decay. Overall, though, the sequence is insufficiently commanding in and of itself, and additionally hampered by some terrible old age make-up that wouldn’t look out place on Billy Crystal’s Magical Max in The Princess Bride (it isn’t clear why Garrone went this route; it isn’t as if Carmichael also plays her younger self).


The first tale, The Queen, begins in full flight of fantasy, as the husband (John C Reilly) must slay a sea monster in order that his Queen (Salma Hayek) may give birth. She’s a stern, unsympathetic figure, failing even to give the King’s body a glance when the heart of the beast (which she must feed on) is presented to her, and refusing to allow her resulting son (Christian Lees) to spend time with his magical twin (Jonah Lees), born of the virgin who prepared said heart. It’s the relationship between the boys, well-played by the Lees brothers, that provides the pulse of this segment, and the Queen discovers to her cost that her unyielding will (“Violent desires such as yours can only be satisfied with violence”) will be directed back on her.


The moral aspect is most explicit here, but there’s an underlying thread throughout of selfish desires leading only to sadness, pain and loss, and perhaps too that, as the Necromancer advises, that “The equilibrium of the world must be maintained”. This isn’t a film interested in force-feeding a presiding theme, however (Cassel’s character goes ostensibly unpunished for his lusty predilections, save for losing a wife, which I’m sure he will get over); it is designed to work on a more instinctive, intuitive level, reflecting the original stories from which it derives.


Garrone’s achievement is extraordinary; you’d be hard-pressed to believe this only cost $14.5m. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is quite breath-taking, distinctive and evocative (he hitherto worked with Ken Russell, lensed The Empire Strikes Back and is Cronenberg’s regular director of photography). They take in a variety of Italian locations that blend seamlessly with stage sets (the aim was to evoke heraldic images and seventeenth century landscapes), passing from undersea realms to pristine banqueting halls (the Queen, in white, messily devours a bloody heart), to clifftop passes and forbidding forests. 


The use of special effects (aside from the aforementioned make-up) is entirely complementary, mixing CGI, prosthetics and animatronics to yield a tangible, eerily distinctive quality that sets them apart from standard Hollywood pixels. And the score, by Alexandre Desplat, a composer I find very variable, is quite magnificent, perfectly uniting the storylines with a dreamy, lyrical insistence that this is just how things are, must be, and ever were.


Garrone’s film could possibly have done with a bit of tightening, but the Desplat score actually works in favour of that loose approach. And if his eclectic casting recalls the kind of Europudding pictures of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (Reilly doesn’t quite fit), with at variance acting styles and nationalities, the visual flavour and tonal unity of Tale of Tales makes it seem entirely appropriate.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Yeah, she loused up one of the five best days of your life.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
(SPOILERS) The zeitgeist Best Picture Oscar winner is prone to falling from grace like no other. Often, they’re films with notable acting performances but themes that tend to appear antiquated or even slightly offensive in hindsight. Few extol the virtues of American Beauty the way they did twenty years ago, and Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t quite seen as exemplifying a sensitive and balanced examination of the fallout of divorce on children and their parents the way it was forty years previously. It remains a compelling film for the performances, but it’s difficult not to view it, despite the ameliorating effect of Meryl Streep (an effect she had to struggle to exert), as a vanity project of its star, and one that doesn’t do him any favours with hindsight and behind-the-scenes knowledge.