Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
March 2008

Is that all there is?

'Penelope' seems like a charming movie . . . but where did it go?

Penelope
Summit Entertainment
Director: Mark Palansky
Screenplay: Leslie Caveny, based on the novel by Marilyn Kaye
Starring: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Richard E. Grant, Peter Dinklage, Simon Woods, Nick Frost and Reese Witherspoon
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Opened February 29, 2008
(out of four)

I don't have a problem with short movies; I have a problem with short attention spans. Spare me the sociological reasons - I don't have time for it.

But I hear the complaints all the time. This movie is too long. That movie needed to be shorter. I don't want to watch this movie because it's too loooooong. The basic premise seems to be, long = bad. Somehow, it's the movie's fault that you don't want to miss too many text messages.

To be sure, there are plenty of movies that could use a solid trimming. But there are also a large number of movies handicapped by the very same thing. Be it in the writing process or the editing room, there's pressure to cut films down to as manageable a size as possible, to increase the number of showings and get people out of the theatre quicker so they can get back to their busy lives . . . which apparently don't leave enough time for movies.

This is the kind of thing that leads to butchered studio versions of good - or at least better - films. We want 'em anywhere between an hour-and-a-half and two hours. Anything more and you're just trying our patience.

This is not new, though it is starting to become more prevalent. But count me out. Long does not equal bad - any more than short equals good, or vice versa. It all depends on the film. Cries and Whispers only needs 91 minutes. The Purple Rose of Cairo only needs 84.

Horse Feathers? Sixty-eight.

Now, Penelope is not better than any of those movies by a longshot. But what it does need - what it deserves - is at least a fair chance to be as good as it can be. It doesn't get that chance.

A movie should be as short or long as it needs to be, and no shorter or longer. Ninety-minute movies are fine/great/wonderful as long as that runtime doesn't come at the film's expense. Runtime, in and of itself, is not the issue.

Penelope is one of the ones that needed to be longer. I can only speculate as to why that's the case. We don't know whether Leslie Caveny's script never gave itself any more room to breathe than what we see in the finished product, or whether the studio or director merely wanted to save time and cut it up. I have no idea which category Penelope falls into.

But I get the feeling that a pretty good movie was made here. If so, that movie was not released.

Penelope, based on a novel by Marilyn Kaye, is a visually absorbing and well-acted fable about a young woman, Penelope (Christina Ricci), born with a pig's nose due to a curse put upon her family many generations ago. Only through the love and acceptance of Penelope - as she is - from someone of royal blood like hers will the curse finally be lifted. And so her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) have spent their lives enticing blue-blooded men to marry their daughter . . . only to see them all run away (or, as the case may be, jump) in terror.

Her parents don't give her credit as a human being, of course (the mother in particular). They are ashamed of her - and more for their own well-being than for hers. But then two elements come into the story that will essentially force Penelope to introduce herself to the world, snout and all - the wily Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a muckraking reporter who would like nothing more than to get a snapshot of the pig-faced girl and slap it on the front page; and the charming, down-on-his-luck blue-blood, Max (James McAvoy) . . . the kind of romantic interest that only has a backstory when the plot requires it.

Needless to say, he's the Prince Charming with ulterior motives, who has to come clean, find forgiveness and make amends before he can get the girl, and in the process find himself again.

Of course. But while we may be able to see most of the events unfold two miles away (though there are a few nice surprises in the third act), that doesn't have to be a complete drawback. The visuals are at times sensational, and help create an experience of the story that wouldn't be possible with anything less. The art direction and set design are rich with details and color, crafting images of a cozy, storybook world transplanted onto a 21st-Century sprawl. And director Mark Palansky knows how to navigate within it, and does so particularly well during Max and Penelope's first meetings (they play chess on opposite sides of a two-way mirror and seem to make eye contact by intuition alone) and during Penelope's entrance into the real world, which is all completely new to her. But then things start to happen in the plot . . . quickly.

The events of the storyline start to impose. It isn't that they're not necessary - they are, of course - but they come so abruptly and so frequently that we have too little time to take anything in. (And, visually speaking, there's plenty to take in.) For instance, about two-thirds of the way through, the story makes an important directional shift, and does so with so little exploration or explanation that it almost doesn't make dramatic sense.

Or consider the introduction to Reese Witherspoon's character - a chummy type to stand by Penelope's side. They meet, exchange pithy remarks, and then we break into a Friendship Montage. After about a minute of music, they've been BFFs for three weeks already.

All the elements make for a charming fantasy, and the actors - particularly McAvoy and Dinklage - make for fine characters. But then, we could have, and should have, spent more time with these characters. Why are we always in such a rush to get to the end?

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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