Not the best fantasy English-language debut by a Cannes jury prize winning European filmmaker starring John C. Reilly I’ve seen in theaters this week. Hard to believe this was even worse than Reality. No atmosphere or rhythm, just a series of things happening to no apparent purpose. The colors and costumes looked nice, anyway.

I guess there are three nearby kingdoms. King John C. Reilly dies slaying a sea monster to cast a spell so Queen Salma Hayek can have a baby, but her substitute chef also has a baby and they grow up to be albino twins Christian and Jonah Lees, who send messages via water flowing out of a tree root. Second there’s King Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) who loves having sex with ladies and wants all the ladies to have sex with him. He likes the singing voice of Shirley Henderson so her sister Hayley Carmichael semi-competently fools him, then is thrown from his window and turned into young and beautiful Stacy Martin (Young Joe in Nymphomaniac) by a witch in the woods, after which she marries the king. And King Toby Jones is obsessed with his giant pet flea so absentmindedly allows his daughter Bebe Cave to marry a dangerous ogre.

Shot by Peter Suschitzky (Cosmopolis, Lisztomania) and edited by tossing rough-cut scenes in the air and picking them up in any order.

M. D’Angelo:

One tale will be abandoned for so long that its return is like suddenly remembering last night’s dream in the middle of the day. Guy Maddin employed that device masterfully in The Forbidden Room (which premiered at Sundance earlier this year), but he did so by burying dozens of stories inside others, like Russian dolls. Here, Garrone just randomly cuts to someone else every so often, killing the momentum every time.

The CLF in Cinema Scope:

Thanks to very good CGI and a diligent DP, the film looks pleasant if you’re into Middle Ages fetishism, dragons, albino twins, abusive ogres, and that sort of thing. The way Garrone elaborates the source material is pedantic in its refusal to give a moral dimension to the stories (something missing from the original). What is the point of drawing on archetypical forms of storytelling if their transposition fails to meaningfully relate to the present time? Like many films these days, the only good question Tale of Tales raises is: Why was this film made?

“Are you seeing anyone?”
“No, I’m more focused on China. Everything else is history. It’s just a question of time.”

I don’t remember Happiness very well, but saw it twice and gave it an 8 on IMDB so I suppose I liked it. Things I recall: pervy Philip Seymour Hoffman and pervy child-rapist Dylan Baker and Dylan’s unhappy sister-in-law ironically named Joy. Things internet plot summaries are helping me with: Dylan’s wife is named Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), acts superior to Joy. Their writer sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) meets Hoffman then backs out, after which Hoffman meets Kristina, who confesses to murdering their doorman. Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser are Joy’s also-unhappy separated parents. Joy’s ex-boyfriend Jon Lovitz kills himself.

Okay, a decade later… Shirley Henderson as Joy… Paul Reubens as suicidal Jon Lovitz… Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams as Philip Seymour Hoffman… Ciaran Hinds as the pedophile… Allison Janney as his wife… Ally Sheedy as the writer sister… now I should be caught up and ready to watch.

Shot by Morristown NJ’s own Ed Lachman, following his great work on The Limey, Far From Heaven, A Prairie Home Companion and I’m Not There, the cinematography alone almost makes the movie worth watching. The actors are excellent too… the plot, not so much. More Solondzist miserablism. He must attract Emil Jannings acolytes who think it’ll be a great acting exercise to humiliate themselves onscreen.

Joy is now married to Omar Seymour Hoffman, which I wasn’t expecting, and is still tormented by her ex. I assumed since his character (now Paul Reubens) was in the movie that it wasn’t a straight sequel, but no, turns out he’s a ghost, and is annoyed with Joy for driving him to suicide (“I miss my room, my laserdisc collection”), suggesting that she join him.

Joy with Reubens, moments before she threatens him with one of those awards:

Joy joins her mom in Florida, where she catches up with the writer sister, now a huge horrible celebrity (Sheedy, below). Dylan/Ciaran is just out of prison but can’t visit his family, because his wife has told the kids for the last decade that their father is dead. After sleeping with a cynical Charlotte Rampling (I watched this the day after she was all over the news for making an unwise remark about racism and the oscars), he does track down his oldest son Billy in college, having an awkward reunion which is admittedly still less awkward than most of Happiness.

Ciaran’s wife/Joy’s sister Trish, now Allison Janney, is beginning to date Michael Lerner and things are moving quickly and going well, until her youngest son Timmy misinterprets something he’s been told about not letting adults touch him, and breaks up the relationship. I think the final scene was him apologizing to Lerner’s son Mark. Overall the movie is singlemindedly concerned with forgiveness.

Billy’s wall posters brought to you by Merge Records. I spotted Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, Imperial Teen, The Broken West, Oakley Hall, Daniel Johnston, and I’m Not There – another movie casting multiple actors in the same role.

In the 1880’s, writer Gilbert and composer Sullivan are discontent. The reviews aren’t great for their new show, and each is considering going his own way. Then Gilbert sees a Japanese culture exhibit and is inspired to write The Mikado. The theater owner books it, the actors prepare, and the play is a big hit.

And the whole thing is an exercise in futility to me, because the movie seems to presuppose that I know/care anything about Gilbert, Sullivan or The Mikado, which I do not. It’s all superbly acted, and meticulously designed. Some of the performance scenes are wonderfully filmed. I was marvelling at one in particular, detached, realizing that I have no desire to see this scene filmed, but if somebody must film it, Leigh is doing a bang-up job. Seems like it’s all a ton of fun, but the fun isn’t infectious. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but for now, this is the rare film I admire but don’t enjoy.

Broadbent with his large, frowny eyes:

Sullivan (Allan Corduner of Me Without You, De-Lovely) is ill, but still manages to attend the opening of his Princess Ida at the Savoy Theater. After seeing the response, he runs around telling everyone he wants to write a grand opera instead of these “topsy-turvy” musicals. Gilbert (Jim “Inspector Butterman” Broadbent) is crotchety and complainy, having problems at home with his depressingly childless wife. There are parties and rehearsals. I noticed the great Shirley Henderson as one of the actresses, but didn’t recognize Andy “Gollum” Serkis, Kevin “Tommy in Trainspotting” McKidd or Lesley “every Mike Leigh movie” Manville.

I am into Shirley Henderson:

A. Taubin:

The film takes its shape from the characters, their relationships, and the abundance of historical information about the world they inhabit—and the ways in which it’s both distant from and close to our own. When Gilbert uses one of the first telephones in a private home in London to talk to D’Oyly Carte, what’s delightful is not only the look of the phone itself but that he has to work out an entirely new etiquette of communication. Sullivan drops into a casual conversation the tidbit that his relatives, the Churchills, have a handful in their headstrong eleven-year-old son, Winston.

Sully conducts his… masterpiece?

The one bit that sucked me in was when lead Mikado actor Timothy Spall’s solo song gets cut for pacing on the night before the premiere, and the cast holds a nervous stairwell confrontation with a humorless Gilbert, who agrees to reinstate it. That part got me because I felt the tension; I’d hate for anything bad to happen to Timothy Spall.

Like Reichart’s last two movies, this is a bare sketch of a story. The cinematography is better, the film stock is less grainy, and there are more name actors joining Michelle Williams and Will Patton (both returning from Wendy and Lucy), including Paul “There Will Be Blood” Dano and the great Shirley Henderson from Yes.

Eventually the viewer picks up that a small wagon train (three families) is being led by a paid guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood, guy who hires Kirk in the Star Trek remake), who seems to be lost. Action is shown somewhat from the women’s point of view, so when the men converse, making big decisions that affect our trip, they don’t get to participate much, until the semi-liberated Williams starts butting in. The group’s fresh water supply is running out when they capture an Indian who’s been following them, and the men appoint him their guide instead of Meek. One family’s wagon is destroyed when traversing a hill, and the others pitch in to help, but nobody is ever shot, or even gets sick – unusual for a Western. The Indian leads them to a large tree, someone points out that water must be nearby, he wanders off unchallenged, end of movie.

It’s a weird choice, that ending, so to understand the screenwriting I turned to T. Stempel’s column “Understanding Screenwriting.”

I heard a sound from the audience I can’t recall ever having heard before. They laughed, and they seemed to be laughing at themselves for having been taken in for 100 minutes by a movie that is not even going to bother finish telling the story it started out to tell.

So he doesn’t know either, but it seems to me like a self-consciously indie thing to do, a Cache move, as if the director thinks her film will be less artistic if she gives us too much information. Anyway, Stempel also says “the picture is slow, which makes sense because journeying by covered wagon was slow,” but it’s not as slow as Old Joy. I don’t suppose I’ve fallen in love with any of her three films so far, but I always enjoy the experience enough to turn up for the next one. EDIT: upon reflection, years later, I think about them lots, about their look and their moods, and so I suppose I do love them after all.