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Good Fantasy Movies (2000-05): The Lord of the Strings

MassieTwins2As the year 2000 loomed, it wasn’t the ongoing military and political conflicts that seemed to strike fear into the hearts of average citizens. Boris Yeltsin’s actions against Islamic separatists in Dagestan and Chechnya; the war in Kosovo and NATO’s Operation Allied Force response; the magnitude 7.4 earthquake in Turkey and its death toll above 15,000; and an overthrown Pakistani government and its intensified fighting with India over Kashmir, couldn’t seem to ignite woes quite as much as the Y2K bug. ~ The Massie Twins

The Day the Doom Did (Not) Arrive

In an ironic link to sci-fi/fantasy, radically overblown harbingers of doom (or mere millennial theorists) warned of absolute Armageddon, all thanks to a widespread inability of computers to handle four-digit year entries. As it turned out, the only real thing to be afraid of was undue panic.

That dread translated pointedly into the fantasy-oriented box office bomb “The 13th Warrior” (a rough adaptation of “Beowulf”); the wildly inventive mind/body controlling, magical existentialism/realism picture “Being John Malkovich”; the end-of-the-world comedic nonsense of Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” which infuriated as many people (namely followers of Catholicism) as it entertained (fans of irreverent humor and and the View Askewniverse); and, to some lesser degree, the discouraging outlook on the state of superheroes in “Mystery Men” – as if to say that there are no inspiringly larger-than-life characters left to save humanity from shortsighted flaws in computer programming, let alone supervillains.


Wondrous Fantasy Movie Recommendations

‘Happy Accidents’ (Brad Anderson, 2000)

It’s ostensibly just a romantic comedy, with Marisa Tomei as a hopeless romantic who always ends up with the wrong guy, and Vincent D’Onofrio as the right guy – a sweet, thoughtful, honest fellow she meets in a park. But his murky past quickly becomes a cause for alarm; it’s difficult to ignore his claims that he comes from the year 2470.

In an either brilliant or overly ambitious, unwieldy twist, “Happy Accidents” incorporates notes of fantasy, science-fiction, time-traveling, and manipulating the space-time continuum. But it’s mostly just light comedy, with a certain charm that defeats the more unfitting elements of the plot (by the end of the year, it even landed on several reputable “Top 10” lists). In the beginning, its greatest strengths come from the disbelief mustered from his wild story, which Tomei’s character tries desperately to ignore. Optimistically, he’s just a standard crazy person with whom she can fall in love – and not an actual spaceman.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story’ (Brian Henson, 2001)

Although technically a television mini-series, this live-action retelling of the classic fairy tale works best as a single, continuous, three-hour epic, soaked up in one sitting. With an all-star cast (including Matthew Modine, Mia Sara, Vanessa Redgrave, Daryl Hannah, Jon Voight, Richard Attenborough, and James Corden) and the joint production values of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Hallmark Entertainment, this very unusual vision is greatly deserving of a theatrical revisitation, if only for the profound concept of the giant world’s time passing significantly slower than present day on Earth (a novel idea seen in episodes of “Star Trek” and, most recently, in “Interstellar”).

The protagonist of the picture is a descendant of the original Jack from the ancient stories of a gargantuan beanstalk and a land of behemoths, living in a modernized world where profits and board meetings stifle the whispers of legends and curses. But a scorned lover, vengeful giants, a solitary magic bean, and the Goose of Prosperity summon him to a fantastical realm of mountainous beings, where he must right the wrongs of his ancestors and foil the plotting of his business manager. Darker than the usual Muppet fare, but also far more complex and morally sounder than the false heroism of conquering alien territories seen in Benjamin Tabart’s source material, this production demonstrates Henson’s political correctness in the face of stuffy English yarns in need of wholesome rejuvenation.

‘No Such Thing’ (Hal Hartley, 2001)

It’s strange to think that this modernized, romanticized take on “Beowulf” came from the much-lauded independent-film director of “Henry Fool” and “Trust.” Having garnered acclaim at both Sundance and Cannes, Hal Hartley took a rare opportunity to rework a horror genre idea into something far more dramatic and sociologically compelling – for major studio MGM – while still tackling his signature scripting of iconoclastic antiheroes and strong women fascinated by dangerous men (or, in this case, a deadly man-beast, played by Robert John Burke, who had recently performed the title character in “Robocop 3”).

Funded in part by an Icelandic production company (contributing to the setting), “No Such Thing” follows Beatrice (Sarah Polley) as she pursues a rumored monster living in a remote village. Plagued by invincibility, a murderous streak, and a strong desire to die, the scaly creature accompanies the young woman back to New York, where they hope to locate a mad scientist (Baltasar Kormakur) who can help with an unconventional assisted suicide. In the meantime, the monster promises not to kill anyone, all while he becomes a local celebrity through the efforts of an exploitive media mogul (Helen Mirren) – and winds up undergoing physical and mental tortures at the hands of cruel experimenters. And somewhere in this bleak perusal of the horrors of humankind is a hint at a “Beauty and the Beast” love story.

‘Strings’ (Anders Ronnow Klarlund, 2004)

When the Emperor of Hebalon dies, it’s up to young Hal Tara (voiced by James McAvoy) to ascend to the throne. But when he learns that a conspiratorial assassination ploy by sworn enemies, the Zeriths, may have led to the emperor’s demise, Hal leaves his kingdom behind for a perilous quest for revenge.

The high fantasy setup, which borrows motifs from Shakespeare and “The Lord of the Rings” in equal measure, is actually the most basic component of this unbelievably innovative endeavor. The film is entirely composed of – and acted out by – marionettes, whose dependence on strings has been weaved into the very fabric of the narrative. Severed strings result in lifeless body parts, creating a demand for donor marionette pieces, harvested from poor citizens and prisoners. Every character has wiry cords reaching into the heavens, generating not only restrictions on movements but also a belief system for a higher power that controls the tethered inhabitants. One of the most captivating concepts is this universe’s method of procreation – by whittling new puppet children out of wood, who are then endowed with magical, life-giving strings from the sky.

‘Touch of Pink (Ian Iqbal Rashid, 2004)’ (Rupert Wyatt, 2009)

A nervous, homosexual Canadian man is in for a comic culture clash when his progressive London life is pitted against the conservative Muslim traditions of his devout mother, who wishes to find him a nice young woman for a wife. Fortunately, the underdog protagonist is aided by the spirit of Cary Grant (hence the play on “That Touch of Mink”), who offers up advice when the going gets tough.

Blending concepts from “Harvey” and “The Birdcage” with a sometimes impressive impersonation by Kyle MacLachlan, “Touch of Pink” intends to mimic a fast-paced screwball comedy that might be inhabited by Grant if he were transported to the modern era. It can’t quite manage tonal consistency, but it is successful when it comes to bringing traditionally narrowly-marketed, gay-themed leading characters to a wider audience – premiering favorably at Sundance before being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for a U.S. theatrical distribution.


State Of The Art

The fantasy genre almost always wanders into the realms of historical, biblical, horror, science-fiction (as in space operas), or quasi-medieval environments, giving it a particularly rich and sweeping range for cinematic inclusions. Even without visualized magic, mythology, or escapism, this wondrous form of speculative fiction (a term popularized by controversial author Robert Heinlein) provides just as many tremendously famous masterpieces as it does a plethora of overlooked works worthy of closer examination or reevaluation.
Do you have a favorite of the era? If so, please tell me in the comment section below!

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