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After seeing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword in 2017 and being disgusted, I had high hopes that The Boy Who Would Be King could redeem Arthurian films, but while it was leaps and bounds better than King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it falls short of the magic one wants from a movie about King Arthur.

The kids in The Boy Who Would Be King, left to right:Lance, Bedders, Alex, Merlin, and Kay

The premise is good enough and the film appears to be well-intended, but its delivery is lackluster at best. The film begins with a cartoon prologue, in which we are given the story of Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. Then we are told his evil sister Morgana fought against him. She was defeated and eventually buried in the earth, but she vowed she would one day return. Arthur replied that when she did the sword would return to. This opening sequence moved rapidly and was a bit hard to follow, plus the drawing was mediocre, setting the tone for the mediocrity to come.

The main storyline, however, opens well enough. We are introduced to a modern-day young boy, Alexander, who along with his friend Bedders, is bullied by two older children, Lance and a girl named Kay. It is notable here that Alexander and Lance are white while Bedders looks to be of Indian and Kay of African descent. I applaud the film for the multicultural characters that reflect the current face of Britain. This sets the tone for a more egalitarian version of the Arthurian legend and is one of the film’s few strong points, which the film makes apparent in more detail later.

Anyway, Alex finds the sword in a piece of concrete in a construction site that he stumbles upon while trying to escape his bullies. Eventually, the bullies find him and want the sword, but when a group of skeleton-like knights appear and attack the kids, the bullies soon join forces with Alex and Bedders. Alex, of course, recognizes the sword as Excalibur because he has a book about the Knights of the Round Table that his father gave him. His father has disappeared from his life, apparently because, as his mother says, he had “his demons” but he inscribed the book as “To Alex, my once and future king.” Alex realizes that now he is King Arthur, or at least meant to play the role of King Arthur—he’s not a reincarnation—and that his friends are Sir Bedivere (only everyone in the film keeps saying Sir Bedsivere, which is very irritating) and Sir Lancelot and “Lady” Kay.

Alex begins to believe he must be from Arthur’s bloodline through his father and that his father’s demons were the real-life demons that Morgana is sending to attack them, but in time, he will learn from Merlin that this is not true. Merlin shows up as a young boy who enrolls at the kids’ school, Dungate Academy. (That Merlin is naked in his first appearance, although we only see an unrevealing side view of him, is a weird decision in a children’s film.) Merlin is a nerdy kid so Alex and Bedders at first try to avoid him since they’re already being bullied and don’t want to be bullied more, but eventually Merlin convinces the kids he really is Merlin and explains their mission to them. They must defeat Morgana before she can ascend from out of the earth and make everyone in Britain into slaves. The kids agree to the mission and despite the bullies occasionally causing trouble, eventually they band together to fight Morgana and her minions.

The film makes use of Arthurian locations by having the children travel to Stonehenge, Tintagel, and Glastonbury Tor. Unfortunately, none of these locations are used well in the film—we get no really good cinematography of them that makes them feel magical or inspiring. The most powerful moment in the film comes when Alex learns his father was just a drunk and not at all a descendant of Arthur. Merlin, who usually appears as a goofy young wizard, now appears as an adult. (Patrick Stewart plays the role, and he’s one of the few redeeming features of the film.) Merlin tells Alex that greatness has nothing to do with birth or who your parents are, and if their stories and legends say it does, then it’s time to rewrite the story—this is the egalitarianism the film promotes that I was talking about early.

The kids now get to Glastonbury Tor where they discover a secret passage into the cave where Morgana dwells. This was the worst part of the film in my opinion—Morgana is twisted up in a bunch of tree roots in the cave and she has power over trees, causing roots to come up from the ground and grab the children at times. These rootlike connections also flow over into her serpent depictions—she flies about like a flying snake or gargoyle and later as a dragon. Overall, her depiction is insulting to the character and also misogynistic. There is a long history of women being associated with serpents as a symbol of them being evil which goes back to the Eve and the Serpent and depictions of Lilith and the medieval fairy Melusine. More recently the villainess in Bram Stoker’s novel The Lair of the White Worm is a snakelike creature, as is Geraldine in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel.” No one can forget the sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and so it’s not surprising that Morgan is like a winged serpent and later she turns into a dragon—it’s just tiresome. I hate when Morgana is simply depicted as a villain—her character is more complicated in the legends, yet the film makes no effort to develop her and she barely even gets any lines. We don’t know why she was evil or hated Arthur.

Morgana’s Skeleton Army – really, yet another film with a skeleton army!

Alex quickly stabs Morgan in the cave, she’s dead, and the adventure is over. It was anticlimactic and I was ready to go home and forget the movie, but then Merlin shows up once the kids return home to say Morgana was only wounded and will attack during the eclipse. Alex then manages with Merlin’s help to rally his school to prepare for battle. The kids even end up wearing armor (which looks ridiculous since they have shoulder pads but their chests and stomachs are exposed). Soon Morgana’s skeleton army attacks, and she leads the charge in the shape of a flying dragon. Of course, good triumphs over evil, and ho hum, after a big battle scene that fails to be inspiring or creative, life goes back to normal.

The film does end with a positive message. Alex says that the world with Morgan defeated is no better than it was before, but Merlin (as Patrick Stewart, probably the film’s only real asset) explains that the kids have it in them to make the world a better place in the future. He then gives Alex a copy of the book his father gave him, only now the cover has changed to show Alex and his friends depicted on it. It will be up to them to rewrite the future and King Arthur’s story as well. (And, after all, isn’t that what every generation has done—adapted the legend for its own needs in its own time?)

Patrick Stewart as Merlin – this tender moment at the end of the film felt unwarranted – I guess Alex sees Merlin as a replacement for his lost father.

As I said, the film is well-intentioned, but it lacks true creativity or inspiration. How many films with skeleton armies do we need? If Morgana wanted to conquer the world, why would she go after a boy with a sword and attack a school? Any villain with half a brain would have headed for Parliament instead. None of the Arthurian landmarks are used to any real purpose. It isn’t even clear why the kids have to go to Tintagel or Stonehenge. Even the soundtrack is dull—music is essential for a film to make us feel emotion, but I was left not feeling anything. Granted, I am not the film’s ten-year-old target audience, but I have watched other children’s Arthurian films—The Sword in the Stone (1963) and A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995) come to mind—and felt the magic. The most magical moment in the whole film might be when Alex explains to his mom that the Arthurian legend is real and to prove it, he fills the bathtub with water, then asks the Lady of the Lake to bring him the sword and her hand pops up with it. This was a bit different, and manages not to be cheesy. I do give the film points for its sincerity—it never tries to make a mockery of the legend but tries to repurpose it for a new generation.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, this is one where you will want to wait for the video. Overall, I would give the film a C-. It’s two hours long—about thirty minutes longer than it needs to be, the violence is likely scary for younger children, but boring for adults who will have seen it all before, and the sense of wonder just isn’t there. There are a few worse Arthurian films like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), but there are also many that are better, Knights of the Round Table (1953), Camelot (1967), and Excalibur (1981) lead the list; heck, even Quest for Camelot (1998) and Prince Valiant (1954) with Robert Wagner in a ridiculous wig are more fun to watch.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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I had intended to write one blog post about the last four episodes of Starz’ Camelot, but so much happened to comment in the final episode that I’ll leave that for one final post.

Camelot on Starz

Through the first six episodes, I wasn’t yet completely won over into even thinking Camelot was a good show, but episodes 7-9 did not drag as much for me and they actually seemed like there was a forward moving plot beginning with episode 7. I did enjoy watching them, but I can’t say, other than there being a plot, that the show got any better since the plot bordered on being ridiculous as times.

Episode 7 doesn’t start off that well. Morgan’s having another dinner party like she had earlier, only this time more than Arthur and Merlin are invited. At least this time Merlin has enough brains to be accompanied by half the court and some knights. Of course, Morgan has ulterior motives, such as making people believe the castle is attacked, that people are turning against Arthur, and that her own men have defeated the enemy. I love Eva Green so I think whatever faults she portrays as an actress in this show are due to bad scripts–Morgan is given some truly over the top lines, and in this episode I found myself actually becoming irritated by her. The delivery of her lines is so over the top that she sounds like Norma Desmond trying to impersonate Katherine Hepburn. The problem is Morgan’s behavior and dialogue is so corny that it’s unbelievable often when she’s trying to deceive people; Green can only do what she can with the strained and unbelievable plotting and dialogue. One gets the sense from watching her that even she knows how ridiculous her lines are and she’s doing all she can not to laugh.

In this episode, a knight named Harwel confesses his love for Morgan, resulting in his lying about the supposed attack and turning against the king for her sake. She’s attractive, so I don’t completely blame him, but why make up a character named Harwel? Where’s Accolon, her usual lover whom she seeks to control and who she charges to kill Arthur? There are so many intriguing characters in the legend that there’s no need to make up new characters.

In this episode, Merlin continues to be his stupid self. It’s like he is completely incapable of acting or taking control of the situation–he’s the most incompetent wizard imaginable. He makes a point of telling Igraine in this episode that Morgan poisoned Uther but that no good can come of Arthur’s knowing. What good can come of keeping it a secret and letting Arthur think his sister might really loves him? Of all the criticism I have seen about Camelot, most people think Merlin is the redeeming grace of the show, but I cannot see that at all. Joseph Fiennes may be a fine actor, like Eva Green, stuck in a bad role, but that’s the most good I can say about Merlin.

Meanwhile Morgan comes to realize that she can destroy Arthur by bringing out the secret of the Arthur-Guinevere affair. She does so by disguising herself as Igraine and returning with the others to Camelot while Igraine is kidnapped and imprisoned in Castle Pendragon.

In Episode 8, Morgan keeps causing trouble in her disguise as Igraine. There are a few moments when one thinks perhaps Morgan has a heart, such as when a small boy, who is friends with Igraine, accidentally dies, but the moments are few. She couples with Merlin, but the reason for her doing so is lacking. And again, how stupid is Merlin if the great sorcerer can’t figure out Igraine isn’t who she claims to be. Finally, we get to the point of the episode when Igraine/Morgan gets Guinevere to confess she’s slept with Arthur and then Igraine/Morgan blabs it to Leontes to make him angry at Arthur, something she hopes will turn Arthur’s knights against him.

Meanwhile, Vivian has a moment of sense when Igraine manages to kill the guard and escape and Vivian does nothing to stop her. Vivian isn’t much good for anything. She’s not a good villainess obviously. Why is she even in the program? She’s been subplanted by Sybil early on. The episode ends with Igraine arriving at Camelot to be confronted by her own image–Morgan in disguise.

In episode 9, Igraine tells Merlin what has been truly going on. He thinks she’s mad at first to claim she was imprisoned by Morgan, but he finally believes her. Then this brilliant wizard decides he and Igraine will go to Castle Pendragon to confront Morgan. Of course, they go with no other warriors to accompany them. This move would be okay if Merlin could shoot balls of fire from his hand or something to protect them, but instead, he and Igraine get captured and hauled back to Camelot in chains, while Arthur is away fighting at Bardon Pass. Seriously, Merlin is the most incompetent wizard ever–have I made that clear yet? I want to think Merlin allows himself to be arrested so Morgan will go to Camelot and show her true colors to the people, but I have a hard time thinking Merlin is really smart enough to manipulate things that way.

Disney's Merlin from The Sword and the Stone - now here's a smart Merlin

Meanwhile, at Bardon Pass in the middle of fighting off invaders whom Arthur and his knights don’t realize are really Morgan’s men, hostility between Arthur and Leontes makes Kay realize something is wrong, and eventually, Arthur confesses that he slept with Guinevere on the same day she wed Leontes. The men are disappointed in him and Kay tells Arthur what any television viewer with half a brain has already figured out, “You’re not a worthy king.”

As I watch these episodes, waiting for the climactic final episode and watching how the plot thickens toward it, there are moments where I find myself curious about what is going to happen, but in summarizing the plot, I can’t help realizing how silly the whole storyline is and the characters’ motivations and actions.

I will admit there is a lot of interesting stuff that happens in the final episode, so stay tuned for my next post–but don’t be surprised that there are some more stupid things that happen as well.

In the end, what has been the best part of Camelot? I’m intrigued by the nun, Sybil, and as over the top as Morgan is, I still like a good villainess. But the true kudos go to the castle of Camelot–it’s beautiful, and perhaps because it doesn’t have any badly written lines, it escapes criticism as part of the supporting cast.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Since I don’t have Starz, I’ve been anxiously awaiting a chance to watch Camelot and finally found it online at http://www.watchseriesonlinehere.com/camelot-s01e01-episode-1/ thanks to a member of the Facebook King Arthur group. It’s an annoying website full of pop-ups, so if you’d rather wait to watch the show on TV, it will be airing on CBC this fall.

Camelot StarzThere is a lot to say about Camelot, so I’ll only discuss the first three episodes here. Of course, I’m eager to watch any program about the Arthurian legend, but I think this program has more marks against it than positive points, and I’m not surprised that it was announced recently that it would be cancelled, based not just on the cost to make a historical production piece but also for the flaws in the story and characters and that the episodes drag a bit. I’m not saying I dislike the show. I don’t think there’s much on TV worth watching anymore so it’s one of the better shows out there, but for lovers of the Arthurian legend, there’s much to complain about it. It’s too bad because nothing would make my TV viewing more pleasurable than a long-running Arthurian series.

Here are my issues with Camelot:

  • The actor playing King Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower, just doesn’t do it for me, and that’s a big problem since he has the lead role. He may be a good actor, and yes, Arthur was young and naive when he became king, but Bower’s Arthur looks more like a rock star wannabe bad boy than a young man capable of becoming king. Nor is he in any way an imposing or kingly figure–his bio on IMDB says he’s six feet tall, but Guinevere looks taller. And seriously, how can we believe Guinevere would pick this Arthur over Leontes, a trained warrior, better looking, better built. I don’t mean to be offensive to Bower, but King Arthur he just is not. As I watch the show, I keep wishing Peter Mooney, who is playing Kay, were playing Arthur; he much more looks the part.
  • Arthur’s sword – why is the Sword of Mars or Sword of the Gods, or whatever they are calling it being called anything but Excalibur? I suspect because in legend, there are two sword stories–the sword pulled out of the stone which Arthur loses, and then the sword the Lady of the Lake gives him. In the second episode of Camelot, Arthur manages to release the sword, but since it’s sticking out of the middle of a waterfall, when he pulls it out he loses his balance, and consequently loses the sword when he falls and goes underwater. The whole waterfall scene is rather stupid in my opinion, but I do like that the show makes a point that Merlin planted the sword there and planned out the entire thing, much like in Malory. But a smarter Merlin wouldn’t have put the sword where Arthur was likely to lose it.
  • King Lot – he dies in episode 2. That’s a big difference from the legends since he gives Morgan le Fay (or more commonly Morgause her sister; they are often confused and one or two people depending on the version) four children, namely Gawain, Gareth, Agrivaine, and Gaheris. Not to mention being a pseudo-father for Mordred once Morgause/Morgan gets pregnant by Arthur.
  • Gawaine – obviously, he’s not Lot and Morgan’s son in this version.
  • Vivian – why is she black? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not prejudiced, and in the Merlin series, while I was surprised that Guinevere was black, at least that series is far more like fantasy. Vivian is traditionally the Lady of the Lake; instead, here she’s acting like a servant to Morgan. What’s the reason? Perhaps there will later be a Nimue as Lady of the Lake since Nimue was the original Lady of the Lake while Tennyson renamed her Viviane.
  • Merlin – I know Joseph Fiennes is a fine actor, but I like my Merlin’s to have at least a little bit of beard–just a little gray to make me believe he’s old and wise–pretty please? Never mind, obviously this Merlin isn’t very smart. As if putting the sword where Arthur will lose it isn’t enough, he makes a totally idiotic decision when he and Arthur go to visit Morgan at her castle without bringing along any guards, or even that they go at all. And of course, Morgan uses her spells on them–they couldn’t see that coming? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Did what happened at the castle make good television viewing–sure, but not at the expense of logic and characters with common sense. If this Merlin were in a slasher film, he’d play the dumb blonde girl who goes back into the house with the ax murderer.
  • The Nudity – right off we have a nude scene in the first episode – Arthur fooling around with a girl whom Kay is apparently interested in. And what’s the point? Gratuitous nudity from the start. Merlin shows up to say Arthur is the true king of Britain, and Arthur rides off, taking Kay along–poor girl got naked for no reason. She’s not spoken of again. Taking your clothes off just isn’t enough for a long-term role in Camelot apparently. Later we get a wild sex scene between Morgan and Lot, and of course, sex between Arthur and Guinevere. I’m not going to complain though when Eva Green as Morgan drops her clothes to have sex with a wolf. She’s stunning–but seriously, a wolf–I know a metaphor for some dark spirit, but still–bestiality?
  • Leontes – the number one thing people have been Googling to lead them to my blog is Leontes. Everyone wants to know who he is–is he from the legend. NO. He’s completely fictional. Why is he in the story? I don’t know. He seems to be some sort of juxtaposed Lancelot figure. Traditionally in the legend, Arthur and Guinevere are married but Guinevere is in love with Lancelot. Camelot‘s creators apparently decided to twist the storyline and have Guinevere engaged to the made-up Leontes, and then have her in love with Arthur. By episode three, Guinevere and Leontes are married, after Guinevere had sex with Arthur. I can’t wait to see how this triangle is going to work out. I’ll bet Leontes ends up dead–or worse, it won’t be resolved because the program’s already been cancelled and it was planned to be on for five seasons. I will say that Philip Winchester, who plays Leontes, is a great actor and I used to enjoy watching him in the cancelled TV series Robinson Crusoe (2008-2009) on NBC. I hope a series picks him up that will make him a success.

Okay. That’s enough of ripping on the show. There are a few things I like about it. Here they are:

  • Camelot itself – the set of the castle is stunning. I love that it’s an old ruin that Arthur will revitalize. It’s beautiful. In fact, all the scenery and sets are very well done. It’s filmed on the Guinness estate outside Dublin according to an interview with Joseph Fiennes.
  • Eva Green as Morgan – as far as I’m concerned Eva Green is the reason to watch this show. Ever since I saw her in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), one of my all time favorite movies, I’ve thought she was one of the most distinctively beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She’s incredibly sensual–who doesn’t want to watch her suck food off her fingers like Orlando Bloom enjoys doing in the film? She’s equally beautiful, if not quite as exotic, in Camelot. She’s a wonderful actress but I feel like the script may be holding her back. Her character is a bit cliched, but still it’s an interesting role, and Morgan le Fay is perhaps my favorite Arthurian character anyway.
  • It’s a TV series about King Arthur – yes, there are some bad King Arthur films, but for the most part, Camelot is a good show. It’s entertaining. The episodes may drag a little. It’s not perfect, but similarly, I now really like the Merlin series, but it took half-a-dozen episodes to win me over and go from disgust actually to appreciate the talking dragon. Will Camelot have the power to win me over as I watch the rest of the episodes? I’m a bit more skeptical if it’s been cancelled already, but I’ll keep watching. I’m sure I’ll watch it several times over.

As I watch the rest of the episodes, I’ll be posting more of my impressions and where Camelot coincides or strays from the various versions of Arthurian legend. I don’t suppose I’ll be lucky enough to see the program create a child for Arthur, so I can add another chapter to King Arthur’s Children.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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