Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Bargains Were Made

I know I am quite behind on episode recaps.  It's convention season, and the convention for which I volunteer is particularly short-staffed this year, meaning I'm working in three different departments. The event is next week, so after April 8, more timely posts can be expected.  It certainly helps that "Once" won't be airing new episodes until the end of April.

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 16: "The Miller's Daughter"
The New York group reconvenes with Snow and David when they reach Storybrooke, Bae having sailed Hook's ship there.  The group hurries to Rumpel's shop, where he tells Emma how to cast a protective spell upon it (being too weak from the poison to do so himself) and the others prepare for a fight with Cora and Regina.  When Rumpel asks Snow to get something out of a cupboard for him, Snow is shocked to find the black candle given to her by Cora so many years ago.  Rumpel advises her to use it on Cora, instructing her to get Cora's heart in order to cast the spell.

Rumpel makes what he believes is a farewell phone call to Belle and reconciles with Bae before Cora and Regina break through the barriers.  While David, Emma, and Bae are distracted by the fight, Snow slips out and heads for the mausoleum, where she finds Cora's heart and casts the spell that will exchange Cora's life for Rumpel's.  Realizing Snow is gone, David eventually goes to find her, but not before Regina confronts Snow.  Snow manipulates Regina into believing that the reason Cora is so power-crazed is because her heart is missing (which is actually true, as we learn from the fairybacks) and offers the cursed heart to Regina, who takes it.

Returning to the antique store, where Cora is about to kill Rumpel with the dagger in order to become the Dark One herself, Regina reinserts her mother's heart, believing this will stop her from killing Rumpel.  Cora genuinely smiles at her before collapsing to the floor and dying from the poison.  Snow runs into the store, shouting for Regina to stop, but it is already too late.

In the fairybacks, we meet a young Cora who is tired of being mocked for being the miller's daughter.  After having to apologize to a princess who tripped her while carrying a large sack of flour, Cora attends a masquerade ball and chats with an enamored Prince Henry.  His father recognizes her, however, and calls her out.  Cora boasts that she can spin straw into gold, and after convincing the king that it takes time, she is locked in a tower and told to have it done by morning or face execution.  Enter Rumpel.

Rather than accepting the bargain of giving up her first-born in exchange for his spinning the straw into gold, Cora demands to be taught how to do it herself.  This intrigues Rumpel, who takes a liking to her and changes the bargain so that Cora will give him a child of his own.  He instructs Cora to harness the power of her emotion to cast magic, and she successfully transforms the straw. 

In exchange for the gold, Cora is betrothed to Prince Henry, though she continues her dalliance with Rumpel.    As her wedding night nears, she is torn between the power she will gain as Henry's wife and her love for Rumpel.  She decides to take the king's heart and run away with Rumpel, but after a conversation with the king, in which he says love is weakness, she changes her mind.

She meets Rumpel as planned, but tells him that she will be marrying Henry.  When he inquires whose heart is in the box, she admits that is her own, for it is only without her heart that she will be able to leave him.  Rumpel demands the contract be fulfilled by her first-born, but is reminded that the contract no longer requires such a trade.  Cora leaves him fuming there, and, months later, gives birth to Regina.

Continuing the trend of good writing, this episode explored the reasons behind Cora's hunger for power, while making the audience sympathize with her for the first time.  Her rags-to-riches story certainly doesn't exonerate her, but it at least humanized her.  I wish that this story arc had been extended to season's end, or that this particular episode ended the season.  

What was more interesting was Snow's decision to use the black candle.  We had seen her vow to set things right no matter the cost, but having her actually dupe Regina into killing her own mother was perfect.  I'm looking forward to seeing how this further affects Snow's and Regina's relationship, and I hope to see Snow continue to do what's in the interest of the greater good.  It sometimes feels to me like David is trying to shelter her from the evils of the world, attempting to make her into a passive homemaker.  Whether or not she does anything else "dark," I certainly hope that she stands up for herself in regards to her wishes to remain in our world.

Aside from a feeling that the denouement of the Cora story arc was rushed, another good episode.  Where do we go from here, though?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dream Factory: Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer
Directed by Bryan Singer
Warner Brothers Pictures 2013
Rated PG-13

We all know the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk:" Jack sells the family cow in exchange for magic beans that cause a beanstalk to grow, leading to the realms of the giants.  Jack climbs the beanstalk, steals a golden egg and magic harp, and has a bit of an adventure, coming home a rich man.  While there are numerous Jack tales, this is probably the most famous and most adapted.  Thankfully, the screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Darren Lemke, and Dan Studney do a significant amount of world-building, breathing fresh life into what could have been a tired retread.

In an animated opening sequence, we learn that centuries ago, the giants came down their beanstalks and pillaged Albion until King Erik was given a magic crown that could control the giants.  This story is passed down as a rhyming ballad, and no one believes it to be true, save for young Jack.

An orphan living with an uncle, Jack is asked to sell as horse and cart in town, but is intrigued by a performance of the giant legend.  A girl his age is also in attendance, and when she is accosted by a group of men, he attempts to stop them, though it is the royal guards who deter the men and reveal the girl's identity as Princess Isabelle.  When Jack leaves the theatre, he finds his cart has been stolen.  Approached by a monk who seems desperate to leave the city, he trades the horse for so-called magic beans and claims if Jack comes to his monastery he will give him gold as payment.

Returning home empty-handed save for the beans, Jack's uncle scolds him and leaves.  That night during a storm, Isabelle arrives at his stoop, having fled from her arranged marriage.  While the two are talking, one of the beans falls through a crack in the floor and sprouts into a beanstalk, savaging the house.  Jack and Isabelle try to escape, but Isabelle remains trapped inside, leading to the main phase of our adventure wherein Jack and the king's guards climb up the beanstalk to save her.

Of course, it would be a rather dull film if they just climbed up, found the princess, and returned home again. Instead, there are two subplots involving the legendary crown: one involves Roderick, Isabelle's betrothed, and the other Fallon, the leader of the giants.  Both want to use the crown to gain power for themselves.

Aside from the world-building, what I found particularly enjoyable was Jack's reliance on wit to save the day, rather than strength or bravery.  While he does slay giants, it's usually by tricking them, including one incident involving a bee's nest.  It was also wonderful that he didn't fulfill some prophecy or traditional heroic mold; he was just some quirky kid who happened to have a life-changing adventure.  To me, clever heroes who take brave or noble actions simply because it's the right thing to do will always be the best kind of heroes.

While I don't think the film fulfilled its goal of becoming a fantasy classic like The Princess Bride or Labyrinth, only time can really tell, as those films became ingrained in the minds of 80's kids after years of being replayed on cable television.  A well-acted, fun adaptation of a childhood classic, Jack the Giant Slayer may not win any awards, but it's a good popcorn movie for those who enjoy fantastic tales.

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Once Upon a Time...Searching for Treasure

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 15: "The Queen Is Dead"

Summary: In New York, Bae takes Henry to do a bit of sight-seeing, while Rumpel asks Emma to try to convince Bae to accompany them back to Storybrooke.  When the group returns to Bae's apartment building, Hook rushes into the lobby and stabs Rumpel in the chest, although Emma manages to knock Hook unconscious before he can do any more harm.  The hook had been laced with poison and without magic, Rumpel cannot heal himself.  Left in New York, he will die.  However, Bae reveals he has experience sailing ships and offers to commandeer Hook's ship in order to sail to Storybrooke and save his father.

While Emma secretly hopes to reconcile with Bae, he reveals that he is engaged when they go to borrow his fiancee's car to drive the group to the harbor.

Meanwhile, in Storybrooke, it's Snow's birthday.  She never celebrates it because her mother died on her birthday when she was a child.  So she is surprised to receive a gift: her tiara from the homeland, sent to her by her old nurse, Johanna.  While visiting Johanna later that day, Snow hears something in the woods nearby and goes to investigate, learning of Cora's and Regina's plan to steal Rumpel's dagger.

She goes to the police station to tell David what she has learned and finds him unconscious, having been attacked by Hook (who pilfered his hook and escaped to New York as mentioned above).  The two decide to try to find the dagger before the witches can.

First, Snow meets with Regina, warning her that Cora likely has ulterior motives for wanting the dagger, but Regina blows Snow's concerns aside.  Snow and David then meet with the Blue Fairy, but even she cannot break the protection charms on Rumpel's shop.  Receiving a call from Emma, the location of the dagger is relayed to them, and the two rush to the clock tower, where Rumpel has hidden the dagger behind one of the clock hands.

Soon after, Regina and Cora appear with Johanna in tow.  Regina rips out Johanna's heart and demands the dagger in exchange.  After a tense moment of deliberation, Snow gives up the dagger, Regina returns Johanna's heart, and Cora shoves Johanna out the clock face.

In the fairybacks, it is Snow's birthday and she is to be presented to the kingdom.  When her nurse Johanna wears her tiara, she berates her, acting quite the spoiled brat, until her mother intervenes.  The queen admonishes her behavior before collapsing.

The doctors don't know what is wrong with the queen, but they suspect she is dying.  Snow goes into the woods to beg help of the Blue Fairy, who gives her a candle made with dark magic.  If Snow burns both ends and whispers the name of another person, her mother will live and the person mentioned will die.  Snow  is told never to reveal this information to anyone, but she confesses to her mother that she cannot do it.  The queen tells her it is the right choice and dies.

After the queen's funeral, the Blue Fairy arrives to pay her respects, but it actually Cora, using the same spell that led to Regina's incarceration earlier in the season.  She reveals that she had poisoned the queen so her own daughter could rule and that she hopes to turn Snow's heart black.

The writers really surprised me this week.  I was not expecting Hook to attack Rumpel at all.  Considering that I can usually predict this show with my eyes closed, this is a huge compliment.  Keep it up, writers!  Surprise me!

What surprised me even more was the allusion to one of my favorite Grimms' tales, "Faithful Johannes."  Johanna is a feminine form of the name, and she acted very much the part of the faithful servant here.  Although it wasn't Johanna herself who warned Snow of the witches' plan for the dagger, it was because Snow had visited Johanna that she learned of it.  I am hoping the writers follow through with the rest of the story and revive her, but I'm not keeping my hopes up.

What disappointed me, though, was Snow's failure to make the right decision regarding the dagger.  What happened to the greater good?  Sometimes, one must die so that others may live.  And yes, it's terrible and painful, but it's necessary.  And where did trusting the deal get Snow?  She had neither the dagger nor her nurse.  At least it appears that she's finally learned her lesson, if the funeral scene is any indication.

I also appreciated the revelation that Cora was the mastermind behind everything from the death of Snow's mother to Regina's rescuing Snow from the frightened horse.  I am curious if she did this merely for her own desires, or if it somehow aligns with Rumpel's plans for the curse.  Given that he was once her teacher, I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter, but I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Dream Factory: Lo

Directed by Travis Betz
Theatrical release: Drexel Box Productions 2009
DVD release: Entertainment One 2010
NR; mature content

Justin's girlfriend April has been taken by demons.  Desperate to save her, he summons the demon Lo with a mysterious book she left behind.  But the crippled Lo is not all he seems, as Justin reflects on his time with April and the sacrifice he's willing to make.

This is a low-budget independent film and obviously so.  However, that does not mean it's equivalent to The Room or the works of Ed Wood.  While it has its problems, Lo is a solidly made indie that is meant to be enjoyed, not laughed at (although some of the dialogue is intentionally funny - feel free to laugh at that).  

Some of (okay, probably most of) the acting is pretty wooden.  Aside from Jeremiah Birkett, who portrays Lo, the cast seems like a small-town community theatre troupe.  The acting is never so bad as to distract viewers from the story being told, but it is definitely noticeable.  It's also the primary reason I awarded the rating I did.

That being said, the effects make-up for the demons is pretty good.  I personally love old school effects, and I expect most of the budget was used on them here.

What really made this particular film enjoyable for me, though, was the story.  While Justin's character wasn't explored in-depth, his relationship with April was.  As Justin described events like their first meeting and first Christmas together, a new version would be acted out as a scene by the actors portraying Justin and April, revealing new information to Justin that altered his perception of events.  Given the limited budget and set constraints, I thought it was an interesting way to convey the story.

In addition to the theatre segments, there are other quirky devices like a soft rock ballad interlude performed by a demonic band (Jeez and the Go-to-Hells) and internal monologue.  While I anticipated the twist ending before the big reveal, I thought it was well-done and not completely predictable.

If you like off-beat love stories and don't mind low budget stuff, please give Lo a chance.

Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Once Upon a the Big Apple

Once Upon a Time Season 2 Episode 14: "Manhattan"
Summary: In New York City, Emma, Rumpel, and Henry go to an apartment building where Baelfire supposedly is living.  Emma deduces that the blank buzzer likely corresponds to his apartment and calls the apartment, pretending to be a UPS delivery-person.  This roots him out, and she chases after him while Rumpel and Henry remain at the apartment building.

When Emma catches up to Bae, she immediately recognizes him as Neal, and the two go to a bar to talk.  Neal/Bae assures Emma that he didn't know who she was when they met and that it was a coincidence, not part of Rumpel's master plan.  Emma asks him to return to the apartment building to speak with Rumpel so she can fulfill her end of the bargain, but Neal refuses.

Returning to the building, Emma lies about having found Neal, so Rumpel hits all of the buzzers, winning him entry.  Once in Neal's apartment, he questions Emma, aware that she is lying to him and begins to threaten her for breaking the bargain.  Neal enters, demanding that Rumpel leave her alone, which proves to Rumpel that the two know each other.  Seeing Henry, Neal repeatedly asks how old he is, realizing that Henry is his son.  Upset that Emma previously lied to him about his father, Henry runs out on the fire escape, and while Emma tends to him, Neal agrees to talk with Rumpel.

Neal resents what he views as Rumpel's abandonment and has no desire to reconcile.  He then exits to the fire escape to speak with Henry.

In Storybrooke, meanwhile, Regina finds a Dewey Decimal call number in Belle's bag at the hospital, which she discovered through magic (which we learn was recorded by Greg on his cell phone).  Regina, Cora, and Hook go to the library, where they find a map leading to Rumpel's dagger, which they hope to possess in order to force him to kill David, Snow, and Emma so that Regina can have Henry all to herself again.

And in the fairybacks, Rumpel is conscripted into the army during the Ogre Wars.  While at camp, he is asked to stand guard over a blind redhead girl with eyes in the palms of her hands.  She predicts his future, saying that his actions will leave his son fatherless.  Rumpel takes this to mean that he will die in the war and begins to seek a way out, eventually crippling himself with a hammer.

He returns home to find that his wife has given birth to a son.  Ashamed that Rumpel has become a coward like his own father, she speaks venomous words and leaves.

Years later, after having become the Dark One and losing Bae, Rumpel meets the seer in the woods and demands information from her about how to find Bae.  The seer predicts that he will be reunited with him after a curse is cast and that he will neither be the one to cast nor break the curse.  Feeling this is still not enough, he takes the seer's power from her.  Before dying, the seer foretells that Rumpel will be reunited with Bae by a boy who will lead to Rumpel's undoing.

Obviously a long recap, but there were a lot of details in this episode!  While I had predicted (back in season one!) that Baelfire would be revealed as Henry's father, I still really enjoyed this episode.  Allowing the magic to take a backseat to the human drama was a wise choice on the part of the writers, and the acting here was some of the best in the series.

I'm very much looking forward to the ensuing drama from the last line of the seer's prophecy.  With the boy now revealed as Henry, Rumpel's plan to kill him will be a great test of character.  Will he kill Henry, who has the power to unite all of Storybrooke's major players, in order to save himself?  Or will he sacrifice himself heroically to stop Cora?  There are some really interesting possibilities here.

I am, however, growing increasingly irritated with Regina's wavering character.  Given the progress she had made earlier in the season, I really can't see her working with Cora to murder Emma, Snow, and Charming.  Unless she is only pretending to play along so that she can somehow kill Cora?  I hope it's the latter.  Regina deserves to be the complex, nuanced character that we saw at the beginning of the season.

And can we please just oust Greg already?  I don't feel like he's adding anything to the plot save a minor diversion.  Even with his video footage, I don't think many will believe him.  There's this thing called VFX, you see...

Anyway, one of the best episodes of the season.  I hope we get more episodes like this.