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Rupert Everett

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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.

Die Hard with an Ogre.

In the preview bin, the brand new teaser for Live Free or Die Hard (a.k.a. Die Hard 4) and the full trailer for Shrek the Third. I can’t see either on my current connection, so sorry if they’re terrible.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005


[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Aslan Walks.

Sorry, R. Kelly…four children trapped in the closet isn’t what you think. It’s Andrew Adamson’s long-awaited version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which opened today. I was a Middle Earth kid growing up — I only read the Narnia books once, and I don’t even think I read them all. Still, the movie mostly accords with my memories and impressions of C.S. Lewis’s world. The film isn’t nearly as resonant as PJ’s Rings trilogy, and it’s also much more obviously aimed at kids. But those hold true for Lewis’s tomes as well, and if nothing else Adamson has provided us with a faithful, A-list adaptation of an enduring classic of children’s literature.

The story is thus: The four Pevensie children, sent to the labyrinthine country manor of their professor uncle in order to escape the Nazi bombing of London, encounter within a wardrobe-shaped portal to the magical realm of Narnia. This faerie land, they soon discover, has fallen into a century-long winter due to the machinations of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton, deliciously evil), who now rules with an iron fist (or, alternatively, a velvet glove laden with Turkish Delight.) And the many bizarre residents and talking animals in the land speak not only of a suspiciously Christian lion running around (Liam Neeson in mentor mode) but of a Prophecy involving two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve, who will show up to free Narnia from the witch’s influence. This would be all well and good, but young Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) just can’t seem to get on board with the program…

I’m not going to give away the whole story, suffice to say that everything culminates in an arch-Christian sacrifice and, as back in London, a big battle for the fate of the world (one dominated on both sides by splendid WETA creations, even if all the centaurs began to remind me more of Xanth than Narnia.) Plus, the Pevensies each learn to grapple with their various fears, which is my only real quibble with the movie: The kids are all fine actors (particularly Keynes and Georgie Henley as Lucy, the youngest), but, Edmund excepted, they’re given burdensome character arcs that feel grafted on by Hollywood screenwriters. (Also, while I’m complaining, some of the FX — particularly Rupert Everett’s Fox — are noticeably worse than the rest.)

As for the Christian allegory…well, it’s like Yoda‘s tree: You’ll find in the film only what you take with you. (Indeed, the same goes for Frodo.) Adamson doesn’t shy away from the Aslan-as-Jesus stuff, but he doesn’t wallow in it either, and I suspect it’ll fly over the heads of the movie’s target audience in any case (as it did for me when I first read the book.) But, don’t fret, right-wingers — there are explicit nods to conservative values in the film: Mr. & Mrs. Beaver seem not to mind in the slightest that the Pevensies wear gimongous fur coats in their home, and that interminable pagan Santa shows up to give the children (Narnia-)assault weapons for Christmas. That being said, a public service announcement for any children who happen to come by this site: Stay in school, don’t do drugs, and, whatever this movie seems to suggest, don’t ever accept teatime invitations from strangers, and particularly bare-chested strangers with cloven hooves.

Narnia in Nine.

Warning: Here there be spoilers. From the Battle of Britain to the Battle for Narnia, this new nine minute supertrailer for The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe pretty much walks you through the entire movie. That being said, it does look right nice, and I’m looking forward to more of Tilda Swinton. (Liam Neeson, on the other hand, has done one too many mentor roles by this point.)

(Ice) Maidens & Minotaurs.

Coming Soon acquires a slew of new images from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The White Witch seems fearsome enough (although I can’t say much for her battle dress.) And it looks like WETA has turned in more stunning work (although I’m a mite concerned about CGI Aslan.) Update: The full trailer is now online, and an impressive one it is.

Chronic Town.

In case you missed the Kramervision version last week, the first trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is now officially online.

Your Lion Heart.

The AICN gang get their hands on (and quickly disavow) a Kramervision look at the first Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe trailer. It’s a bit Lemony Snicket-meets-LotR, and unless you’re a fan of the books I’d skip this Shakicam boot and wait until an official version leaks…but, otherwise, this is looking pretty solid, particularly Tilda Swinton.

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