The 10th Kingdom (2000)

2014 #104a
David Carson & Herbert Wise | 416 mins* | DVD | 4:3 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15**

The 10th KingdomCreated by British screenwriter Simon Moore (writer of Traffik, the Channel 4 miniseries that went on to inspire Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film, and the first Dinotopia miniseries, which could not-too-inaccurately be described as “The 10th Kingdom with dinosaurs”), The 10th Kingdom is a miniseries that I seem to remember Sky made quite a fuss about when they aired it over here, nearly 15 years ago. Sadly it flopped on NBC in its native America, so we haven’t been treated to the mooted sequel(s), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating now: unlike the abundance of Lost-inspired rolling TV narratives that are ruined when (almost inevitably) they’re cut short, The 10th Kingdom tells a complete self-contained story.

Said story takes place in both present-day (well, turn-of-the-millennium) New York and the fantasy world of the Nine Kingdoms — unlike the depiction in the title sequence, New York doesn’t mutate into a fantasy kingdom. Although it may not be storyline-accurate, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s one of the greatest title sequences of all time. In just a couple of minutes it conveys the style and theme of the show with effective, striking imagery. OK, the CGI is a little dated now, looking kinda rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad that it diminishes the sequence’s impact. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design, and it was well deserved.

ManhattanitesAnyway, the Nine Kingdoms is the place all our fairytales come from — the part of the narrative set there takes place “almost 200 years” after the “Golden Age”, when the events we know from stories actually happened. We’re led into this world by Virginia (Kimberly Williams) and her dad, Tony (John Larroquette), after indolent monarch-to-be Prince Wendell (Daniel Lapaine) flees to our world while escaping the Evil Queen (Dianne Wiest) and winds up taking the two New Yorkers back to his world. Along with Wolf (Scott Cohen), a chap with animalistic tendencies, the quartet try to stop the Evil Queen’s evil machinations.

So it’s a quest narrative, the staple of fantasy storytelling; but, in this case, that allows Moore to explore a fair chunk of the world he’s created. It goes about that at its own, somewhat literary, speed. Published alongside the miniseries’ airing was an epically-sized novelisation by Kathryn Wesley (a pen name for couple Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith), which is how I first got into the programme. Unlike the innumerable sub-par novelisations published in the history of moviedom, this one was very good (and well-reviewed, if I recall, so it’s not just me). It’s ironic to me, then, that the series itself feels like a page-for-page adaptation of a novel. It’s something to do with the pace and style — the amount of time it’s prepared to devote to certain scenes or story elements, the way big twists and developments aren’t perfectly timed for episode endings (for example, our Manhattanite heroes enter the Nine Kingdoms just before the one hour mark — right in the middle of the first episode as originally aired, somewhere early in episode two of the ten-part version). Mummy dearestIt also means the way it’s been edited into one long movie on DVD feels quite natural: it’s one long story with arbitrary breaks, not a series of finite episodes. (If you’re thinking, “of course it’s one story, it’s a miniseries”, plenty of single-narrative series and miniseries still function as discrete episodes that build to a whole.)

Like a certain recent TV programme, the Nine Kingdoms is a world stitched together from numerous familiar stories; but, unlike that programme (the less said about which the better, in my opinion), it isn’t a land of po-faced ‘adventure’. Instead, it’s loaded with wry humour — after all, “fairytales are real and all took place in the same place” is a pretty silly concept, so why not mine it for laughs? As one character informs us, “things have gone down hill a bit since [the Golden Age] — happy ever after didn’t last as long as we’d hoped”. Rather than that meaning things are Serious and Troubling (and, based on how Once Upon a Time turned out, inadvertently laughable), things have gone to pot in a way that is amusingly reminiscent of our own world. This is mainly through a witty appropriation of real-world tropes: it begins at Snow White Memorial Prison, for example, with a worldmap that features a large arrow proclaiming “you are imprisoned here”; when some trolls believe they’ve been trapped in a witch’s pocket, they hope that if they behave they’ll be let out after serving only half the spell; later, there’s a cocktail bar that serves “A Long Slow Spell Against the Wall”; and so on (I don’t want to spoil them all!)

Wolf for the chopThis gives the whole thing a heightened comedy tone, emphasised by many of the performances. A gaggle of troll siblings are irritatingly over-played, but Cohen’s meat-obsessed Wolf is a hammy delight (pun very much intended). The entertainment value means we quickly warm to the characters, so that when more perilous aspects of their quest do come into play later on, we care what happens. Plus, like most of the original fairytales (as opposed to Disney-style sanitised re-tellings), there’s the odd darker undercurrent. For instance, you may think the story of Snow White ends with a kiss and “happily ever after”, but here we’re told how the stepmother who poisoned Snow White was made to wear fire-heated iron shoes and ‘dance’ at the wedding until her feet were burnt raw, before being thrown out into the snow. Very dark and grim (and possibly from the original tale, for all I know).

In the main, however, The 10th Kingdom takes fairytales, not for their grimness, but for the chance to subvert, play with, or expand on them. So, for example, when Wolf and Tony come across a woodchopper who’ll tell them what they want to know if only they can guess his name — and if they get it wrong, he’ll chop off one of their heads — Tony signs them up without a second thought: he knows this one. With Wolf’s head on the block, he declares “Rumpelstiltskin!” The woodchopper replies, “wrong!” Uh-oh. This feeds into Tony’s growing annoyance with why people in this world can’t just tell you things, or exchange money for services, but instead always pose riddles — real-world logic clashing with the fairytale tradition. And it has a funny pay-off, too.

My precious...Little details in this vein abound: an apple tree has grown by Snow White’s cottage (don’t eat those apples!); the site of her glass coffin is now a tourist attraction; if you break a mirror, you genuinely get seven years’ bad luck… There’s also a pair of golden shoes that can turn you invisible, but the more you wear them the more you desire to use them all the time — what a precious idea (wink wink nudge nudge). These subversions also manifest in a strain of pleasant practicality; for instance, the abundant magic mirrors aren’t “just there”, but instead have been manufactured by dwarves. It lends the feel of a fully-conceived and rule-bound world, rather than an “anything can happen”, “just because” environment.

Even with all this, there remain a few major fairytales that aren’t touched upon. The Little Mermaid is one; another obvious omission is Beauty and the Beast — except there is a version of that included: the romance between Virginia and Wolf. The comparison isn’t drawn out in the text, particularly as Wolf isn’t an ugly hairy monster (though he does have a tail), but the similarities are there: his first encounter is actually with her father; he pursues Virginia even though the attraction isn’t mutual; she gradually comes around to him; there’s a third-act complication (spoilers!), before they eventually end up together (surprise!) It doesn’t have the same thematic heft as a proper retelling of Beauty and the Beast because it doesn’t have the whole “seeing the true beauty inside” thing — Wolf may give in to his urges once or twice, most notably in a storyline set in a town dominated by the Peep (as in Little Bo) family, where prejudice comes to the fore and Virginia has to defend him, but he’s never a full-on monster. There are elements of the tale’s other subtext, about a woman having power and control (or not) over her future, but, again, not in quite the same way: Wolf is besotted with Virginia and she doesn’t (initially) reciprocate his numerous advances — Animal attractiona world away from being locked in a castle until you change your mind. If this sounds like criticism, it isn’t. I’m not arguing the love story element of the series is unsuccessful — I’m sure it engages plenty of fans as the series’ primary attraction, even — but, on reflection, I’m not sure reading it as a Beauty and the Beast variation is actually that illuminating.

That’s fine, because the value of The 10th Kingdom lies not in how it retells its fairytale inspirations, but how it takes their familiar symbols and tropes and then reconfigures and expands on them, how it follows their implications through with real-world-logic, or mashes them up against the banalities of our world, often to comical effect. It’s a series that requires a basic knowledge of the tales used as its basis — not in an academic way, but in the way most of us have, thanks to exposure through childhood story-time or endless Disney movies. By playing on such ingrained knowledge, the pay-offs can be huge. Put those amusing subversions alongside likeable characters and a story that is at once world-endangering and deeply personal for our heroes, and you have top-drawer entertainment.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fascinating articles collated at Movies Silently, and come back here on Tuesday for my second contribution, a review of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of La Belle et la Bête.


* That’s just under seven hours to you and me. Most DVD releases present that as a non-stop movie, however in the US it was originally aired as five two-hours (which is reportedly how it’s presented on the 2013 DVD re-release), and in other regions (including the UK) as ten one-hours. ^

** Yes, it really is a 15. That must be thanks to some kind of technicality (use of knives, imitable violent techniques, etc), because it feels completely unwarranted. ^

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

2011 #4
Charlie Kaufman | 119 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Synecdoche, New YorkDespite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to crop in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.

This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”

And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.

At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; Fiction meets realityand I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.

That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.

Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:

The set of a set

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.

3 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 17th April 2015, at 12:40am (so, technically Saturday 18th).

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

2007 #125
Woody Allen | 95 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Bullets Over BroadwayThe final Woody Allen film of this little ‘season’ is that rare thing: one that doesn’t star him!

This is its biggest flaw, as John Cusack spends the entire film doing a blatant and middling impression of the writer/director. But he nonetheless does OK, and when the rest of the cast are note-perfect, the script pacy and funny, the photography gorgeous, and the long takes never more appropriate, it’s hard not to be impressed. Special mention for the final scene, a four-way shouted conversation between two high windows and the street — it’s beautifully written and executed.

Another underrated Allen film, and probably the most down-right entertaining of his I’ve seen so far.

4 out of 5