The Gryphon and I spent a quiet weekend, with him playing his online videogame and me working on my book, My Wedding, My Way: Real Women, Real Weddings, Real Budgets, and sifting through submissions for Wild Violet.
We also watched a couple DVDs we rented, both of them set in magical worlds, Stardust and Penelope. Each possessed their own charm, borrowing from the traditions of fairytales and fables.
First, we watched Stardust, based on a Neil Gaiman novel, a personal project that, according to the behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD, he was surprised and pleased to see turned into a film.
The story is set in the mid-1800s, in a small English called Wall, named after the stone wall that divides the town from a magical realm.
One elderly man guards a hole in the wall to prevent villagers from crossing the wall. A young man, Tristan (Charlie Cox), smitten with the haughty village beauty (Sienna Miller), promises to retrieve a fallen star which falls on the other side of the wall. She agrees that if he returns with the star before her birthday, she'll marry him. Thus begins his adventure.
Now, because the star landed in the magical realm, Stormhold, it manifests as a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes). This poses problems for our hero, as you might imagine. Not to mention the fact that an evil trio of witchy sisters, headed by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), also seeks the star, with the goal of cutting out her heart and restoring their youth and beauty. He also unknowingly competes with several royal princes, who seek the star because she is wearing the magical necklace their dying father threw into the sky. Whoever claims the necklace will assume the throne.
The movie uses the motifs of the quest tale, where the hero is given magical objects which become useful during the adventure. They encounter other characters who aid them on their journey, such as a quirky sky captain, played by Robert De Niro, whose crew captures and bottles lightning to sell. This is perhaps the strangest role I've seen De Niro play, and he clearly enjoyed every minute of it.
Naturally, the film is filled with special effects and pays a lot of attention to details, such as scenery and costume. It is playful good fun, although at times a little predictable because of sticking to a fairy-tale plotline.
Although a number of things happen that could have been quite violent and scary, the filmmakers found ways of making them less so, by showing most of them off camera. There are some deaths in the movie, so it's not appropriate for very small children, but it's also not graphically violent. Older children should enjoy it, and adults will enjoy traveling across the wall into the imaginary world of fairytales.
Rating (out of 5): ****
Penelope is a modern fable about a young woman, Penelope, played by Christina Ricci. She's the victim of a family curse, put on her great-great-grandfather when he spurned a servant girl in favor of a socialite. So Penelope is born with the face of a pig. The curse can only be lifted if someone of her kind, meaning a blue blood, pledges undying love to her.
Her mother, mortified by her daughter's condition, fakes the death of her young child. Then, when Penelope reaches marrying age, the mother uses a matchmaker to try to find her a husband, offering a healthy dowry. All potential suitors must sign a confidentiality agreement as the family plays a balancing act between finding her a match and keeping her name and likeness out of the newspapers.
The plans are compromised when a reporter, played by Richard Dinklage (who was brilliant in The Station Agent), who is holding a grudge against the family for personal reasons, gets an inkling of what's going on from a disgusted former suitor. He plants his own potential suitor (James McAvoy), with the goal of snapping her picture.
But as the young man gets to know her, through talking to her through a two-way mirror, he begins to have genuine feelings for her. But of course, such romances can never be easy, and there are complications that cause trouble, plus some wonderful surprises I won't ruin.
Reese Witherspoon, who produced the movie, plays the supporting part of Annie, an artsy, leather-wearing free spirit whom Penelope befriends in a bar. And Catherine O'Hara is at her comic best as Penelope's pushy but well-meaning mother.
The director found some marvelous ways to make a modern setting feel magical. One is through the use of color, with bright red used to represent Penelope's vivid inner life. Her costumes all have fanciful touches, such as handmade embroidery and flourishes that Penelope herself probably added. After all, she's been shut away in her room for years with nothing but her imagination to keep her company.
Penelope is appropriate for all ages, as there's nothing violent or sexual in it. The most objectionable thing is that several characters drink alcohol. This magical tale contains a lot of social commentary and teaches good lessons about self-acceptance, showing that it truly is OK to be different. I loved the acting in this movie and found Christina Ricci charming in the title role. Like Stardust, it rises above the conventions of fable, producing a sweet tale of acceptance.
Rating (out of 5): ****
Fairy tales are truly timeless.