Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: Tale of Tales

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Although with some reservations, I'd recommend Matteo Garone's baroque, occasionally funny and even more often messy "Tale of Tales," a collection of three stories based on the works of Giambattista Basile, who was, for those not in the know, a Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector from the 16th and 17th centuries.

There's not particularly a unifying theme or concept behind the three visually sumptuous stories that Garrone has chosen to interlock here - aside from, perhaps, people learning that valuable lesson about being careful what you wish for - and the stories themselves are a bit uneven. One of them is an absolute riot, another only moderately engaging and a third is pretty decent, but has no ending - and, by that, I don't mean it's open ended, but rather just stops without concluding its story as if the filmmakers forgot its existence.

That last story I referenced is actually the first to unfold and it involves a queen (Salma Hayek) whose need to bear a child is so all-consuming that her husband, the king (John C. Reilly, a great actor who is oddly cast here), enlists the advice of an oracle, of sorts, who tells him that if he slays a sea monster and his wife eats the heart, she will soon thereafter bear a child. This series of events leads to some spellbinding imagery, the most incredible of which involves Reilly's character attacking a large beast underwater.

However, not only does Hayak - whom, as you can see above, does indeed devour that heart - become impregnated, but so does a servant girl, who cooks the heart. The two young boys, both with shockingly white hair, to whom they give birth become friends, but Hayek's queen becomes concerned about her son befriending a peasant and takes some drastic steps to try to separate them. The story starts out strongly, but eventually devolves into some curious plot devices before never-quite culminating.

The second story concerns a randy king (Vincent Cassel, who else?) who becomes entranced when he spots a woman walking down the street with her face and body covered. As it turns out, she's horribly deformed, but with the help of a witch she becomes a beautiful young woman and is soon married to the king. Her sister, also deformed, shows up at the castle and starts making trouble and, if it isn't already clear, that spell the witch cast wasn't meant to last indefinitely. This story has its moments, but it also ultimately ends up getting pushed aside by the film's final - and easily best - tale.

The third story is so bizarre and engrossing that it probably could have been its own film and been the better for it. It starts with a bored king (Toby Jones) whose daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), becomes obsessed with getting married. But before that plot thickens, the king suddenly becomes entranced by a flea - yes, a flea - that dances around on his arm. He takes it back to his room, feeds it blood and, some time later, it has grown to abnormally large proportions.

Then, suddenly, one day the flea dies and the king decides to hold a competition, in which the man who can guess what type of animal the skin of the creature - the flea - that has been hung up on a wall in the palace is will be given the hand of the king's daughter. As it turns out, one of the suitors is an ogre and, well, take a guess. This story, which is alternately weird and gory, is easily the best of the bunch, in no small part due to Jones' hilarious performance as the king and Cave's portrayal of Violet, who goes from being a gloomy princess trapped by the decisions of others to, let's say, something else.

So, "Tale of Tales" is a pretty decent film overall due to its strengths outweighing its problems, of which there are some. As I've mentioned, one of the stories is just so-so and another feels curiously incomplete. However, my biggest issue with the picture is how Garrone cross-cuts back and forth between the stories - and for seemingly no reason. He also chooses odd moments to transition from one story to the other. Rather than leave us on a cliff-hanger involving any particular story, he merely seems to grow bored with one story and then ventures back to one of the others.

For those unfamiliar with the director's name, Garrone is responsible for the impressive and violent 2008 Mafia drama "Gomorrah" as well as the uneven "Reality." His latest, which is also his first film in English, involves some bold and memorable stylistic choices that, ultimately, don't add up to a whole lot, other than some well-made - and grim, pun intended - fairy tales. It's neither a step forward or backward for the filmmaker, but merely a - more often than not - entertaining oddity.

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