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Claire Danes

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It Happened One Night.

What do stars do? Well, apparently, they mince around in petticoats. Although, like Knocked Up, Matthew Vaughn’s well-meaning but uneven Stardust is probably best enjoyed as a date movie, preferably with a large crowd of similar Princess Bride-leaning folk, I went ahead and caught an empty matinee of said fantasy yesterday afternoon, as it’s the last mainstream summer outing (with the possible exception of Ratatouille) I had any interest in seeing before the fall film deluge.

And, well, I wanted to like it, being a fan of both the genre and of Vaughn’s first feature, the sharp Brit gangster flick Layer Cake, and Stardust has its moments, scattered here and there — In fact, I think it eventually even comes off better than the sum of its parts. But, for most of its run, I thought the film overshot its intended target of whimsy and landed on the far side of twee. The movie’s two leads — Charlie Cox and Claire Danes — are affectionately engaging, and Michelle Pfeiffer chews up the scenery with aplomb as this fairy tale’s most wicked witch. But, to be honest, there’re just too many notes, and the film barely hangs together as a whole. If anything, Stardust reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s (superior) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an ambitious and episodic attempt at high fantasy that doesn’t quite work. But, then again…as the Dylan song goes, true love tends to forget.

Much of the action of Stardust takes place, Ian McKellen’s authoritative voiceover informs us early on, in the enchanted realm of Stormhold, which happens to be connected to our mundane world via a hole in the wall near the sleepy English village of…uh, Wall. In said village, eighteen years after his father indulged in a happy dalliance over on the Other Side, a shopboy named Tristan (Cox) decides he will woo the town beauty (Sienna Miller) by tracking down a fallen star for her in what he first presumes is a nearby field. (Would he feel the same if he knew about her Steve Buscemi daddy issues?)

The problem is, this star isn’t the hunk of smoldering space rock one might expect, but a delicately shimmering and seriously annoyed girl named Yvanne (Danes), who’s just been randomly pelted out of the sky by a large, translucent ruby. This magical gemstone, recently sent aloft by the spirit of King Peter O’Toole (still looking like Berkeley), holds the key to the kingdom, so to speak, and thus all of the monarch’s living (and dead) heirs are mercilessly tracking it down. But Stardust is much too complicated for only one MacGuffin — Three wicked witches (most notably Pfeiffer) also seek out this fallen star, in order to cut out her glowing heart and restore their vanished youth. So, by the time our hero arrives on the scene via a teleporting “Babylon Candle” (as with a lot of fantasy, there’s a lot of setting up of the ground rules here), he discovers he’s now in a much bigger pickle than he bargained for…and, eventually, that love has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it.

As I said, Stardust‘s problems are myriad. For one, a lot of what should come across as sly, understated British humour a la Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or (naturally) the author here, Neil Gaiman, is instead telegraphed and overdirected to feel like a poke in the eye. (See, for example, the poisoning of the archbishop scene.) For another, the film aims to be wryly dark at times — there’s quite a bit of fun with reading entrails — but we’re still in Belle & Sebastian, Lisa Frank lunchbox territory a lot of the time. (I’m looking at you, unicorn.) For yet another, Stardust is burdened with one of the most bombastic and intrusive scores in recent memory. (Ilan Eshkeri did great work with Layer Cake, but this is just bad.)

And then there’s De Niro, preening in a supporting role as the cross-dressing buccaneer Capt. Shakespeare. I know De Niro is lauded as one of the greatest actors of his generation, and I’ve got Raging Bull sitting on my coffee table at the moment to prove it. But, lordy, is he terrible here. Making Elton John seem as in the closet as Larry Craig, De Niro’s wildly over-the-top performance is a flat-out cringeworthy embarrassment. It plays like he’s never met a gay person in his life, or as if some abrasive guy at a party was doing an impression of De Niro doing an impression of Liberace. (Along those lines, The Office‘s Ricky Gervais, in an extended cameo, seems like he’s playing his character in Extras here — he even gets in Andy’s unfortunate catchphrase. Waking Ned‘s David Kelly and the Lock Stock boys are hanging around too, but the funniest cameo is probably Mark Williams, a.k.a. Arthur Weasley, as an ornery old goat of an innkeeper.)

All that being said, I thought the movie did manage, somehow and despite itself, to stick the landing: However caustic and subversive Stardust pretends to be at first, it’s ultimately turns out a rather staid and traditional fairy tale about the enchantment of true love. And, with that in mind, I found myself willing to forgive the film most of its substantive flaws — and there are many — by the time the inevitable coronation coda rolled. However cynical I get as the years go by, it seems, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

Venom and Stardust.

Venom (Topher Grace) comes to the fore in the final, very spoilerish, and Comcastic trailer for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3 — really, it seems like more of an executive summary than a preview. And, also up this weekend is the trailer for Matthew Vaughn’s version of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, featuring, among others, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, and Peter O’Toole. Not a bad cast, that, and with Layer Cake‘s Vaughn at the helm, I’ll go see it, even if this trailer is a mite underwhelming.

A Handful of Dust.

I’m a few days behind on this one: Layer Cake‘s Matthew Vaughn is writing, producing, and directing an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which will star Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro, and Michelle Pfeiffer. I haven’t read Gaiman’s book, but all signs point to this being a very interesting project.

2003 in Film.

Well, it’s that time of year again, New Year’s Eve. So, without further ado…

Top 20 Films of 2003:
[2000/2001/2002]

1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If you didn’t see this pick coming, welcome to GitM. Ever since this blog started four years ago, I and it have been breathlessly awaiting Peter Jackson’s trilogy, and, boy, he delivered in spades. Even in spite of the pacing problems mandated by the TE running time, Return of the King is a marvel, the perfect ending to this epic for the ages and easily the best third-movie in a series ever. There’s so many ways these films could’ve turned out atrociously. (To take just three examples, think Brett Ratner doing the Pullman books, or the Wachowskis faltering on the early promise of The Matrix, or how Chris Columbus has made the magical world of Harry Potter so four-color monotonous.) The fact that they didn’t — that they instead shattered all expectations while staying true to Tolkien’s vision — is a miracle of inestimable value. In the post-Star Wars age, when epics have been replaced by “blockbusters,” and most event movies have been hollowed-out in advance by irony, excessive hype, dumbing-down, and sheer avarice, Peter Jackson has taught us to expect more from the cinema once again. Beyond all imagining, he took the ring all the way to Mordor and destroyed that sucker. So have fun on Kong, PJ, you’ve earned it.

2. Lost in Translation. It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing. Like a dream in the night, who can say where we’re going? I still think Sofia Coppola cut a little close to the bone here in terms of autobiography, particularly given her recent split with Spike Jonze. Still, I find this tale of chance encounters and foreign vistas has a strange kind of magic to it, and it has stayed with me longer than any other film this year. Bill Murray comes into full bloom in a part he’s been circling around his entire career, and while I suspect he’ll get some stiff competition from the Mystic River boys come award-time, I’d say he deserves the Oscar for this one. Lost in Translation has its problems, sure, but at it’s best it’s haunting, ethereal, and touching like no other film in 2003.

3. Intolerable Cruelty. I expect I’ll be in the minority on this pick – This more-mainstream-than-usual Coen joint only got above-average reviews, and hardly anyone I’ve spoken to enjoyed it as much as I did. Still, I thought Intolerable Cruelty was a pop delight, 99.44% pure Coen confection. George Clooney is used to much better effect here than in O Brother (gotta love the teeth thing), and everyone else seems to be having enormous amounts of fun along the way. Light and breezy, yeah, but I thought it was that rare breed of romantic comedy that actually manages to be both romantic and hilarious. In the post-Tolkien era, it’s good to know we can always rely on the Coens for consistently excellent work, and I for one am greatly looking forward to The Ladykillers.

(3. The Pianist.) A 2002 film that I caught in March of this year, The Pianist is a harrowing and unique survivor’s tale that’s hard to watch and harder to forget (and I can’t have been the only person who thought post-spider-hole Saddam bore a passing resemblance to Brody’s third-act Szpilman.) Speaking of which, I said in my original review of Adrien Brody that “I can’t see the Academy rewarding this kind of understatement over a scenery-chewing performance like that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.” Glad to see I was wrong.

4. Mystic River.: The waters of the Charles are disturbed, something is rotten in the outskirts of Boston, and it’s safe to say the Fates are wicked pissed. Much like In the Bedroom in 2001 (and Clint Eastwood’s own earlier Unforgiven), Mystic River is inhabited and propelled by a spirit of lumbering, impending, inexorable doom…what Legolas might call a “sleepless malice.” It is that existential malice, rooted so strongly in local color, that gives this River its considerable power. And unlike Cold Mountain, where stars stick out here and there with showy turns, the ensemble cast of Mystic River never overwhelm the strong sense of place at the heart of the film — indeed, they sustain it with consistently excellent and nuanced performances. Big ups for all involved, and particularly Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden.

5. X2: X-Men United. Laugh if you want, but I can’t think of any other movie where I had more fun this year. Arguably the most successful comic film since Superman 2, X2 improved over its rather staid predecessor in every way you can imagine. From Nightcrawler in the White House to the assault on the mansion to Magneto’s escape to Ian McKellen and Brian Cox chewing the scenery in inimitable fashion, X2 was ripe with moments that seemed plucked directly out of the comics, if not straight out of the fanboy id. To me, my X-Men.

6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s a long title, it’s a long movie. But a good kinda long…in fact, as I said in my initial review, it seemed to move to the langorous rhythms of a long sea voyage, one that I may not take again for awhile, but one that I still thoroughly enjoyed. And I’ll say this for Russell Crowe…somewhere along the way in each of his films, I tend to forget that he’s Russell Crowe. His Capt. Jack Aubrey was no exception.

7. The Matrix Reloaded. If we can, let’s try to forget the resounding thud on which the Matrix trilogy ended. For a time there, five short months, the fanboy nation was abuzz in trying to figure out exactly where the Wachowskis were going after the second chapter. Previous Matrices, previous Ones? How was Neo manipulating the real world? What was Smith up to? It all seems kinda pedestrian now, of course, but at the time Reloaded was a sequel that outdid its predecessor in pizazz while building on the questions that animated the first film. I won’t defend the first forty-five minutes or the ridiculous rave scene. But, right about the time Hugo Weaving showed up to do what he does best, Revolutions found a new gear that it maintained right up until the arc-twisting Architect monologues at the end. And, as far as action sequences go, it’s hard to beat the visceral thrill of the 14-minute highway chase.

(7. The 25th Hour.) Another 2002 hold-over, and the best film yet made about the aftermath of 9/11, (which only seems natural, given that it’s by one of New York’s finest directors.) Haunted by might-have-beens, what-ifs, and what-nows, The 25th Hour feels real and immediate in its attempt to grapple with both 9/11 and the slamming cage in Monty Brogan’s future. Only once, with the Fight Club-like fracas in the park, does the film flounder. Otherwise, it’s a thought-provoking meditation throughout.

8. The Last Samurai: Breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, furious suicide cavalry charges, rustic untainted pre-modern villages…no, it’s not Return of the King, just the warm-up. [And, as I said earlier, I prefer my anti-modern nostalgia hobbit-like (peaceful, environmental, epicurean) rather than samurai-ish (martial, virtuous, stoic)] While I think Cold Mountain got the Civil War right, I ultimately found this film to be the more engaging historical epic of December 2003. So take that, Miramax.

9. Finding Nemo. Oh, my…I almost forgot about Nemo. (Just like Dory sometimes.) Pixar’s films have been so consistently good that there’s a danger of taking them for granted. They hit another one out of the park in this tale under the sea. As with the Toy Stories and Monster’s Inc. before it, just an all-around solid kid’s movie filled to the brim with eye-popping wonders.

10. Dirty Pretty Things. Although it becomes more conventional as it goes along, DPT starts very well, features a star-making turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and manages to include a Audrey Tautou performance that isn’t fingernails-on-the-blackboard bothersome. As with Hugh Grant in About a Boy last year, that deserves plaudits if nothing else.

11. L’Auberge Espagnole. Hmm…two Tautous in a row….perhaps I should stop playa-hatin’. At any rate, while Lost in Translation trafficked in existential detachment, L’Auberge Espagnole showed the fun Scarlett Johannson could’ve been having, if she’d just lighten up and get out of the hotel once in awhile. This paean to the pan-Continental culture of the EU captured the excitement and possibilities of youth in a way that was both sexier and funnier than any of the teen shock-schlock emanating from our own side of the pond. Road Trippers, take a gander.

12. The Quiet American. A bit by-the-numbers, perhaps, but Phillip Noyce’s take on Graham Greene’s novel was blessed with timeliness and two great performances by Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, both of whom expertly exemplified their homelands’ diplomatic tendencies without becoming overly tendentious. I’m not sure if giving away the end before the credits was the right way to go, but otherwise the film rarely falters.

13. The Fog of War. From Alden Pyle to one of his real-life counterparts, Robert McNamara, who now only remains quiet when questioned about his own culpability over Vietnam. Despite this central failing, a spry McNamara succeeds in penetrating the fog of time to examine how he himself became lost in the maze-like logic of war. If you can withstand the frequent Phillip Glass-scored barrages, it’s worth a see.

14. Pirates of the Caribbean. My initial upbeat opinion on this one has faded somewhat over the autumn and winter months. Still, at the time PotC was a surprisingly good summer popcorn flick, and rollicking fun for about two of of its two and a half hours. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were great fun, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom make for great eye candy, and Sam Lowry was in it. I’m just going to assume it was much, much better than The Haunted Mansion.

15. The Station Agent. Ok, it’s got Sunday afternoon bored in front of the IFC Channel written all over it. And not much happens for the last forty minutes or so. Still, The Station Agent proves that if you write a few interesting, well-rounded, complicated characters and throw them in a situation together, the story almost writes itself.

16. American Splendor. The first of a couple of movies that I seemed to like less than most people. Sure, I thought Splendor was well-done, but it never really grabbed me, and I’d be more impressed by its breaking-the-fourth-wall daring if it hadn’t already been done twenty-five years ago in Annie Hall. (Similarly, I thought this kooky underground comic world was captured better in Crumb.)

17. Spellbound. Could you use it in a sentence? Again, people seemed to love this flick, and I was definitely entertained by it. But, when you get right down to it, what we have here is kids spelling for two hours…I couldn’t imagine ever sitting through this one again. And, as I said in my original post, I thought Spellbound was more manipulative than it lets on. Less kids and more complexity would’ve made the film more satisfying. S-A-T-I…

18. Cold Mountain. I’ve already written about this one at length today, so I’ll just refer you to the review. To sum up, occasionally beautiful but curiously uninvolving and way too top-heavy with star power distractions.

19. 28 Days Later. Great first third, ok second third, lousy finish. The film was much more interesting before our team makes it to Christopher Eccleston’s countryside version of Apocalypse Now. And I can’t stand horror movies where the protagonists make idiot decisions, like driving into tunnels for no reason or taking downers when surrounded by flesh-eating, spastic zombies. But the cast — particularly Brendan Gleeson — do yeoman’s work, and the opening moments in an empty London are legitimately creepy.

20. T3: Rise of the Machines. Before he was the Governator, he was the T-1000 one (last?) time. Let’s face it, this movie is mainly here by virtue of not being bad. I mean, c’mon, it was better than you thought, right? Well, me too. Claire Danes was insufferable, but Nick Stahl and Kristanna Loken give it the ole college try, and the story takes a few jags that weren’t immediately apparent. Bully to Jonathan Mostow for not running James Cameron’s franchise into the ground.

As Yet Unseen: 21 Grams, Bad Santa, The Cooler, House of Sand and Fog, In America, Love, Actually, Something’s Gotta Give.

Best Actor: Bill Murray, Lost in Translation. Sean Penn, Mystic River. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dirty Pretty Things. Michael Caine, The Quiet American.

Best Actress: Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation (who’s sort of here by default…I expect competition from Diane “Something’s Gotta Give” Keaton, Samantha “In America” Morton, Jennifer “House of Sand and Fog” Connolly, and Naomi “21 Grams” Watts.)

Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River, Sean Astin, Return of the King, Billy Boyd, Return of the King, Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai.

Best Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain, Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River, Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent.

Worst Films: 1. Gods and Generals, 2. Dreamcatcher, 3. Scary Movie 3. 4. Underworld.

Worst Disappointments: 1. The Hulk, 2. The Matrix: Revolutions, 3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Ho-Hum: 1. LXG, 2. Bubba Ho-Tep, 3. Big Fish, 4. Masked and Anonymous. 5. Tears of the Sun. 6. Veronica Guerin, 7. The Core.

Its the End of the World as we Know it…

and I feel…well, disappointed, really. Both of these recent films, particularly the former, showed flashes of potential, but in the end they both bog down in been-there, done-that.

28 Days Later: Between Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, I had high hopes for this Romero revision at first. But, while I was entertained throughout, the movie ultimately fails to deliver on the dread of the first few scenes, when Jim (played by Cillian Murphy, an actor whom I suspect will play hell with my keeping up with Gill‘s reviews on Google) wanders around a hastily vacated London (“The End is Extremely F**king Nigh” was a nice touch.) Unfortunately, entirely too much of the plot from then on revolves around terrible decision-making by the uninfected — Why exactly does Jim enter the gas station? Why not take the long way out of London?, etc. etc. And the final act, involving Christopher Eccleston’s turn as Col. Kurtz, seemed like it was taken out from a different, much less interesting film. By the time the good guys and bad guys square off in the long, badly executed fight at the close of the film, I was strangely reminded of the equally haphazard and ponderous duel at the end of Order of the Phoenix. To my mind, this movie should have stuck with its original premise and dropped pretty much everything that happens outside Manchester. Too bad, because, like I said, it started off as quite a creepy film.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: I went into T3 with extremely low expectations, and I’d say they were almost satisfied. Arnold is Arnold, Kristanna Loken does a surprisingly good job as the T-X, and the end of the film takes a few nice twists and turns that almost redeem the whole two hours. But, frankly, T3 doesn’t live up to either of its predecessors, and – while it’s not an embarrassment to the franchise – it does end up seeming rather unnecessary. Part of the problem is simply bad timing. The crane-firetruck chase near the beginning of the film has a more visceral crunch to it than anything in Reloaded, but still, I thought the whole sequence paled in comparison to the highway sequence of Matrix 2.0. Then, we have Screamin’ Claire Danes, who, when not shrieking at the top of her lungs, basically plays Betty Ross from The Hulk, right down to the military dad and the secret desert hideouts (Moreover, both Connelly and Danes seem to have recently sacrificed their youthful attractiveness upon the altar of Atkins. Eat something, y’all.) I enjoyed this film more than The Hulk, because I was expecting so much less from it. And, to be fair, I suppose T3 works as two hours of mindless summer mayhem. But – in the context of the other two Terminators – I can’t say I really recommend it.

Blockbuster Friday.

So this Friday, I finally caught up with a number of films I’ve been meaning to see, among them:

The Ring (US): A very scary premise, and after the teenage sleepover setpiece I thought this might be one for the ages. But, although the ending somewhat redeems it, this film feels like a missed opportunity. I haven’t yet seen Ringu, so I don’t know how it measures up, but turning the bulk of the film into a Nancy Drew mystery was a straight-up horrible call. After a truly frightening intro, the movie then spends most of its running time lining up all the images on the tape with the ghost story at hand, with all-too-frequent flashbacks in case you’re a short-term amnesiac or something. What everybody involved seems to have missed is that the movie would’ve been much scarier, at least to my mind, if some portions of the tape had just been left unexplained. Instead, the powers-that-be left unexplained key plot elements in the story, such as how little boy Watts sees dead people. I think in another director’s hands – a director unafraid to take risks and one who has a little more faith in her audience to put two and two together – this could’ve been very, very scary. (Although it’s not as bad a swing-and-a-miss as the US version of the The Vanishing.) So, with that in mind, I’m looking forward to seeing Ringu.

Igby Goes Down: I’m really not a big fan of the “unrealistically erudite young NY sophisticate” genre – I liked Rushmore a lot less than most people I know and I find Whit Stillman films to be absolutely insufferable. So when Igby suggests his brother’s a pedantic bore for liking Rilke and later wryly namedrops “The Island of Lost Toys,” I visibly shuddered. But, all in all, Kieran Culkin is rather appealing in the title role, and – with solid support from Susan Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Amanda Peet, Bill Pullman, and Jared Harris – this one turned out to be more enjoyable than I had earlier feared. Claire Danes seems miscast, and I just don’t get what it is about the one-note “clipped and distant” monotone of Ryan Phillipe’s delivery in every film that anyone finds appealing (he’s got less range than Keanu), but, in the end, this one made for a decent rental.

Far From Heaven: I’m hit-and-miss with Todd Haynes films – I thought Safe was splendid and bizarre, but didn’t vibe into the puzzling Velvet Goldmine at all (I am looking forward to his Dylan biopic project.) And, to be honest, this one suffered a bit from being the middle child in my Friday triple feature – I found my attention flagging quite a bit in the early going. Which is a shame, because in the end this turned out to be quite a good film, if a little on the slow side. I thought the retro look and feel started out rather gimmicky (for example, in the lime green police station where Julianne Moore picks up her husband), but settled down as the story took over. And I think I probably would have liked it more if (a) I hadn’t just sat through Igby and (b) if I were more well-versed in the films of Douglas Sirk. But, worth seeing, and Dennis Quaid and Patricia Clarkson were particularly good.

The Core: Without a doubt a poor, poor film, and yet I enjoyed myself much more than at the drab and slow-moving Dreamcatcher. It helped that this film is stocked with actors I generally root for – Aaron Eckhart, Bruce Greenwood, Delroy Lindo, and Stanley Tucci. (As for Hilary Swank…well, I haven’t yet seen Boys Don’t Cry, but I gotta believe she’s much better in that than she was in this, although Halle Berry won recently too and – frankly – she’s rarely any good either.) To be sure, the special effects are well on this side of lame – for example, when the crew get stopped somewhere in the center of the Earth and find themselves inexplicably on the Star Trek: TNG Away Team set…I half-expected Morlocks or Cave Trolls or something to show up. And the story makes very limited sense (as a friend of mine pointed out, how does gravity work on this ship? Everybody’s standing around normally while this bird is digging straight down.) But, as a popcorn film, The Core was reasonably entertaining for two hours, even though I really can’t recommend it.

Next up, I’d like to catch The Good Thief and Ghosts of the Abyss before the fanboy films start flying fast and furious on May 2, with the so-far-well-received X2.

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