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Monday, Aug 13, 2007


It’s a week of extremes at the old B&M. On the one hand you have the arrival of the latest opus by a man who makes more than just movies. Indeed, his latest work is as unruly and brilliant as ever. On the other side you have an obscure TV cartoon that made the transition to celluloid in a rather nefarious fashion. The city of Boston will never forget the fear generated by its viral marketing strategy, a plan that ended up being mistaken for a terrorist attack. In between, you’ve got an unfathomable box office hit, an unfairly dismissed thriller, an amazing documentary, and a collection of desirable double dips. Put them all together and the 14th day of August is looking like yet another retail burden on the old bundle. If you can only afford a since disc this week however, make sure you pick up our SE&L selection. It represents the best that the modern film movement has to offer:


David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE


It’s a shame that this director’s output is so infrequent that it becomes an event when he makes a new movie. What’s even more disturbing is that no one would allow the man the artistic freedom to produce and market the final results the way he wanted. David Lynch may be a lot of things – difficult, arcane, incomprehensible – but to deny his impact on cinema, and the amazing films he’s made in the process, seems downright foolish. In fact, many found this latest offering (a shot on digital experiment melding many divergent storylines and characters into a single thematic statement) to be his most daring and definitive to date. Leave it to the jaded genius to self distribute the work, carting it around to theaters all over the country for limited engagements. The DVD promises insights into the production, as well as providing a chance for those not lucky enough to live along the roadshow’s stops to witness its wonders themselves. Most will be flummoxed, while a few will be rewarded. All will have to appreciate a true creator at the top of his game.

Other Titles of Interest


Back to School (Extra Curricular Edition)


No one pegged professional comedian (in a good way) Rodney Dangerfield as a movie star. But after stealing Caddyshack from everyone else in it, he was headed for solo vehicles of his own. While Easy Money is much funnier, this oldster goes to college crack-up is definitely worth discovering. This was Rodney in his prime, banging on all six cylinders and never underestimating his growing fanbase. After this, it was all pretty much down hill.

51 Birch Street


Like Capturing the Friedmans without the horrible hot button issues, this oddly insightful documentary finds filmmaker Daniel Block discovering the truth about his parents’ 54 year long marriage. Within three months of the death of his mother, his father catches up with a past secretary, and the two marry almost immediately. Then Block discovers his mom’s diaries. What they reveal turns his adult life upside down, and argues for the notion that no one really knows their family.

Taxi Driver: Two Disc Collectors Edition


Travis Bickle is back, and ready to sweep the scum off of New York’s seedy sidewalks. One of Martin Scorsese’s undeniable masterpieces, this look at life on the fringes has been released on DVD a few times before. This presentation promises a bonus disc loaded with additional context. If you don’t already own it, what’s stopping you? This is classic cinema, period. For others, a double dip may be in order.

Wild Hogs


Every year, Hollywood has to publicly humiliate itself by offering some god-awful effort (usually a comedy) and cringe as critics cry foul. But a funny thing happened on the way to this junk pile’s journalistic drubbing – the audience ate it up. Trying to figure out how this slapdash crap became a hit will challenge every fiber of your cinematic being. It is not funny, poorly constructed, and relies almost exclusively on its dim star power to shine.


Vacancy


Amongst all the hype and hoopla surrounding the spring hit 300 and the imminent arrival of Spider-man, this decent little thriller failed to find room on the pop culture radar. Like Disturbia, which opened the week before and earned all the press, this throwback to the days of solid suspense was overrun by the tween take on the material. Here, Kontroll’s Nimrod Antal makes a spectacular Tinsel Town bow. Definitely should be rediscovered on DVD.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film for Theaters for DVD


To call Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force (part of its Adult Swim nighttime lineup) a “cult” animated series would be an understatement. This show has flown so far under the channel’s routine radar that its elusiveness should be utilized in the creation of future Stealth technology. Still, for those devoted to its deranged surrealism (the show is about a talking trio consisting of a milk shake, some French fries, and a ball of beef), it’s one of the funniest ‘things’ on television. A movie seems like a creative stretch – the series itself only exists in short, 10 minute installments – and the characters do use their inherent abrasiveness to push the limits of their humor. Still, like The Simpsons Movie that finally arrived this Summer, ATHF more than managed the transition intact. Unfortunately, that meant it was still too weird for mainstream appreciation. The DVD promises to deliver even more unglued hilarity. 

 


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


The hot rumor this week, blazing across the Internet at a slightly ironic warp speed, is the talk that none other than Tom Cruise will make a cameo appearance in writer/director J.J. Abrams 2008 Star Trek overhaul. Buzz has it that Scientology’s slightly askew spokesmodel and former A-list superstar will play Christopher Pike from the classic series in this new tween generation take on the material. For those unfamiliar with the original, and therefore best Trek, Pike succeeded Robert April and preceded James T. Kirk as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. Without getting into the mandatory mythology, this troubled character was crucial to setting up the dynamic that would guide the entire Star Trek series, an aesthetic that would focus more on the human element of the narrative than the extraterrestrial spectacle.


Of course, the rumor mill ran into a wall by Friday, the sizzle slowing to a simmer as denials and refutations flew. Yet the excitement that said announcement generated, both pro and con, should be a good sign for the fledgling filmmaker. With positive vibes still surrounding his viral marketing campaign for the giant monster movie codenamed Cloverfield, and the remaining juice generated by Lost, he appears poised to finally fulfill all his geek promise. Taking on Trek is just his latest smooth move. Generating interest in this dying product seems next to impossible, given the last two decades of sub-space overkill. Yet, floating around names like Cruise and Matt Damon (who has consistently denied interest in playing the young Kirk) has spiked some curiosity. And one should never underestimate the power in Trekker nation. They are a defiantly devoted lot.


Yet the entire situation seems shaky at best. Though adding performance power in the name of known actors seems like a sensible way to approach any revamp, the notion that pure celebrity power alone will save Star Trek seems shortsighted at best. Besides, whenever a new person steps in to ‘blow up’ a stagnant situation - film series, TV show – the desire to insert some new life into a franchise fading and losing its life support has its own unique perils. Granted, doing things the old way has resulted in the current situational stasis. More people would rather see George Lucas continue his overwrought Star Wars than experience another go round with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Carefully considered change is one thing, but transformation merely for transformation’s sake can be just as deadly. So Abrams is either jumpstarting Trek for the next few years, or killing it off in one fell swoop. 


For many, Star Trek remains the gold standard of serious science fiction. With its noble intentions and scholarly scripts (at least, initially) the original series stands as a benchmark of broadcast excellence. Though it died a death too soon for some, the ‘60s celebration of all things futuristic and fair marked a moment when television understood the intelligence of its audience. Cancellation confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and it took nearly a decade before Hollywood recognized the show’s big screen potential. For the uninitiated, Trek was not a confirmed classic from the get go. It received rotten ratings, wandered around syndication, and even tried to revive its fortunes via a beloved Saturday morning cartoon attempt. When Star Wars splashed onto the public consciousness, a young nation hungry for more extraterrestrial adventures leapt onto the Enterprise express. By the time The Motion Picture arrived in theaters, colleges had revived the fantasists’ fortunes, an afternoon with Kirk, Spock and the crew as much a part of the university experience as getting drunk and using your laundry money to buy pizza.


Yet the first film in the eventual franchise proved Trek’s tentative cinematic status. With a general consensus at the time that the film fulfilled the TV show’s financially flummoxed ambitions, current members of Roddenberry nation now feel this first voyage across the landscape was weak at best. Aside from the whole ‘bald headed alien’ element and metal machine mind meld facets, the cast seemed tentative about restarting their space cadet careers almost a decade after being dropped. It explains Leonard Nimoy’s desire to have his character killed off in the mandatory sequel, Wrath of Khan. Of course, the massive moneymaker inspired the actor to return for the rest of the run, getting extra perks like directing opportunities and creative choices.  It was something the other big star – William Shatner – would demand as well. By the time the Next Generation crew were ready to take over, the original series seemed spent.


But that was the great thing about Trek. It could reinvent itself, and did, three more times, hoping that each new version of the standard sci-fi formula would yield a wealth of box office possibilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bankable idea – the public started backtracking. As Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to become full blown phenomenon (while, granted, maintaining and in many cases expanding the franchise’s name recognition and fanbase) Captain Picard and his merry menagerie of intriguing characters became the only viable option. As their efforts became more and more meaningless (there really hasn’t been a good Trek flick since First Contact, way back in ’96), the keepers of the glorious dweeb flame appeared lost for inspiration. In fact, as the Internet burbled with self-created content and far more fascinating fan fiction, whatever new course the creators set for the show, it was hard to match the continuous fascination of the devoted.


So will Abrams do any better? Initial portent suggest ‘No’. According to Trek lore, his will be the 11th film made from the same source material. That spells doom, at least if you believe in the odd/even theory of series’ aesthetic appeal. You see, the second (Khan), fourth (Voyage Home), sixth (Undiscovered Country), and eighth (First Contact) offerings in the series are considered classics. The tenth film (Nemesis) is also cited as special since it represents the end of Next Generation’s tour of cinematic duty. On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we have the first (Motion Picture), the third (Search for Spock) the fifth (Final Frontier), the seventh (Generations) and the ninth (Insurrection) installments. All but Shanter’s subpar effort (#5) are embraced as flawed yet fascinating, but aficionados tend to agree that this collection of films is lacking the true Trek greatness. By coming in on an odd number, grumbles can already be heard. Abrams may be brilliant, but destiny seems ready to undermine his success. 


The other major strike he has working against him, aside from the obvious numerology, is the prequel concept. It’s near impossible to point to an example of this motion picture subgenre that actually works. From pointless looks at how Leatherface became a monster (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) to the horrid hack jobs that illustrated how Darth Vader went from retard to robot, going back in an established storyline to explain its origins is asking for trouble. It’s not that the concept is impossible to achieve – The Godfather Part II proved that Vito Corleone’s early years as an immigrant could be as effect as the modern material – but the pitfalls one needs to overcome are quite monumental. First, there is audience expectation. Having grown up with Captain Kirk and his able bodied crew for almost 40 years, individuals familiar with the Star Trek myth will be expecting certain things from this start up. The list of possible character issues and factual stepping stones is far too lengthy to recall here, but let’s just say that if Abrams screws them up, the backlash will be ballistic.


Then there’s the still shimmering cloud of celebrity. Star Trek made its original cast into cultural icons, individuals whose star rose above mere fame into something similar to supernova. If they never worked another day after the cult of personality built around them, our team of terrific actors would remain symbols of a sensational series, and emblems of man’s higher goals when it comes to the cosmos. Naturally, none of this has anything to do with the actual stories told, but when you’re looking for someone to match the mannered machismo of William Shatner, the calm cool of Leonard Nimoy, the irascible cragginess of Bones McCoy, or the velvet foxiness of Nichelle Nichols, there’s a whole pile of perception to deal with. Even if the eventual Kirk is everything a fan could hope for, if he doesn’t match the original in some unexplainable, ephemeral way, the disguise will be destroyed. Fans will crucify the choice, and the ultimate repercussions and criticisms will sink any chance this project has of achieving its rejuvenating goals. 


And then there is a bigger question – where does Trek go from here? If Abrams is successful at overcoming all the obstacles and expectations, creating a substantial hit, what does the franchise do then? So they keep making more of these prequel projects, expanding the backstory of the original series in ways the first shows could never have imagined? Will the new movie’s mainstream acceptance jumpstart another TV try, preparing yet another group of actors for the eventual leap to big screen fortunes? Will Abrams walk away, leaving future projects in the hands of others who, like the films before them, end up creating a “love ‘em/loathe ‘em” dichotomy? And will the cast, flush from bringing Trek back from the dead, demand the kind of money that could kill any forward motion picture momentum before its even been built? When viewed in terms of all these tentative variables, it is obvious there’s a lot riding on this revamp.


Interestingly enough, the inclusive of Cruise (real or not) seems to indicate such awareness. The crowds at the recent Comic-Con convention in San Diego were wowed by the Abrams panel, especially when Leonard Nimoy himself appeared to welcome the production’s choice for his character, Spock (Heroes homeboy Zachary Quinto). As the preparations continue and the gossip mill churns out more possible scoops, there will be more debates, more cheers and jeers, second guessing, and slam dunking. The legacy of Star Trek may be built on the backs of its past, but by confronting this reality with a revisionist prequel, the true mantle of the material will be challenged. One hopes it can take the imaginative strain. If not, Abrams will be carrying a rather unfortunate label – the man who finally ended the seemingly infinite voyages of the Enterprise once and for all.


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Sunday, Aug 12, 2007


It’s a hoary old cliché – the so-called somber suburbs are actually a hotbed of unfathomable evil. Along with the rampant adultery, everpresent pedophilia, tantamount teen criminality, and infinite unhappy marriages, the biggest stereotype remains the unknown killer next door. You know, the neighbor who’s too quite, keeping to himself and his locked up house in a way that suggests something must be up. Speculation turns to outright suspicion, and soon everyone within a two block radius is avoiding eye contact and wondering why he (or on rare occasions, she) is wearing such a subtle, sinister smirk. There have been lots of movies that have exploited this white flight fear mongering, from the appropriately named The ‘burbs to the terrific Tom Holland horror film Fright Night. Now comes the wonderful Disturbia, a movie that takes an old school Master of Suspense setting and tricks it out with all manner of high tech terrors.


Clearly coping the best bits from Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Rear Window, director DJ Caruso guides rising superstar Shia LaBeouf through the standard spook house situations. After the death of his dad, our sullen hero Kale gets three months house arrest for “an incident” at school. Hopelessly bored and restricted in his recreational options (Mom - Carrie-Ann Moss - has cut off the iTunes, and the Xbox 360 Live), he starts looking in at the houses on his street, including the one super hot chick Ashley just moved into. Their game of cutesy cat and mouse (and growing affection) is interrupted by the news that a slew of local girls have gone missing, and the suspect seems to be a middle aged man with a classic blue Ford Mustang sporting a dent in its fender – just like the car owned by Kale’s other neighbor, the menacing Mr. Turner. With the help of his best buddy Ronny, and the contributions of his new gal pal, our hero begins to suspect the worse.


Similar to the way Blade Runner effortlessly channels the archetypes of noir inside the wholly original world of a futuristic LA, Disturbia drops us smack dab in the middle of a quaint, Cornball, USA, cul-de-sac pulled directly out of a Spielberg spectacle and then paints in plenty of likeable logistical color to brighten the otherwise tired thriller genre. Caruso, who’s been connected to some interesting blips on the commercial cinema radar (The Salton Sea, Taking Lives) really had his work cut out for him here. The slightest misstep, a minor crossover into full blown formulaic territory, and the “been there, done that’ brigade would have made its meaningful presence more than known. But to his credit, this director does what moviemaking experts before excelled at – creating sympathetic and identifiable characters that we come to care about, and then sticking them directly in harm’s horrifying way. Though the eventual tension is tweaked well into the patently obvious (our killer is an evident outsider), because we like our teen heroes, we fear for their eventual fate.


Kudos should be given to star LaBeof who has to walk the fine line between troubled adolescent and too slick Tinsel Town type. The opening tragedy helps establish his angst-driven dynamic, and the situation that sends him into house arrest is handled in a similarly strategic style. So we are ready to support our locked-up lead through any and all manner of misadventure. Wisely, Caruso takes his time getting to the good stuff, building a rapport between Kale and his best friend Ronny, and the flirtatious fascination with new babe Ashley. The director also sets up other ancillary situations (bratty neighbor boys pulling pranks on our house-bound hero, other nearby mischief) that provide their own sense of impending comeuppance. The finishing touch, the one element that really helps Disturbia work, is in the sly insinuation of evil. During the opening hour, snippets from news reports establish the disappearance of local ladies, and our adolescent trio does a lot of ‘Net snooping revealing nasty details of unexplained crimes.


When added together, they create an aura of dread that drives the film toward its last act permutations. The novel use of new tech toys (camcorders, cellphones, laptops, and other electronic goodies) allows the movie to open up, to take the terror beyond LaBeof and his backyard. Ashley follows our inferred fiend to the local hardware store, where his every move is documented by wireless slight of hand. Similarly, Ronny raids the bad guy’s home, looking for clues with a computer connection camera. Kale can then sit back, spy style, and hack through the visuals for the evidence he needs. Still, any film like Disturbia can’t get away with merely suggesting the scares. It has to get our lead directly involved in the fear. This is the moment where the movie either lives or dies, where it overcomes the trappings typically associated with this standard of story, or it sinks back among the rest of the derivative efforts that currently define the cinematic category.


To say that Disturbia shines during its finale would be an understatement. There hasn’t been this kind of controlled, bravura filmmaking in quite a long time. Caruso begins with the basics – lost friend, imminent threat, the return of the everpresent police (Kale has a tendency to trigger his anklet, meaning the cops are constantly coming over to see what’s up), the well meaning mom looking to protect her troubled son. Once LaBeof is required to take on the role of champion and defend his turf, everything begins to fall into place. The investigation of Turner’s house, the eventual discoveries there, the showdown to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, the conclusion of that clash – everything Caruso does zips along like a well-oiled movie machine. Sure, we might wonder why no one saw this killer’s obvious signs before, and some of the logistical elements (the guys underground catacombs are a little out of place) do push the boundaries of believability. But since it established a solid foundation at the start, we buy directly into all of Disturbia’s daft adeptness.


Of course, there will be critics, people who purposefully play wet blanket because they obviously adore the feeling of damp wool. And in all fairness, this is about as far from Hitchcock as any modern movie can get, unable to match the Master’s glorious stylized vision while readily referencing his wealth of procedure tricks. Others can crow about the lack of scares – but that’s really a red herring. Fear is not the major sensory response created by this genre. Instead, the thriller is supposed to produce edge of your seat shivers, the constantly shifting “unknown” working overtime to disorient and disturb you. Under those perceptive parameters, Disturbia works effortlessly. You can complain that it takes too long to get to its denouement, or that LaBeof and the rest of his Gen Xbox cast mates are given too much pre-pulse pound playtime to show off their cultural cliquishness, but the only real measure for this kind of movie is the creation of dread. In that regard, Disturbia delivers.



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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


When fans and admirers inside pop culture think of Jackie Chan, the image is usually the same. In a clever combination of Buster Keaton and butt kicking, lighthearted hero and slightly goofy good guy, we find a noble defender capable of some consistently comic-tinged slapstick action. It’s a carefully controlled persona, one perpetrated by skillfully selected scripts and a film façade that uses humor to brace some serious –and quite dangerous – stunt work. It’s a reputation built on real life risk (Chan is the new Evel Knievel of self-imposed bodily harm) and the torturous demands of his Hong Kong cinema roots. Together, it forges an intriguing dynamic, a joyful juxtaposition of bravery with bumbling, the sly reduction of risk by linking the hazard to the demented delights of old fashioned physical comedy. It’s made Chan famous and fabulously wealthy.


And yet it may surprise fans that one of the most successful films of their favorite martial arts jester was also one of his most serious and solidly suspenseful. Based on the real life case of a kidnapped billionaire, and one cop’s unstoppable determination to find the fiends responsible, Crime Story stands as a unique effort in the Chan canon. Tapping into the then trendy mob war mania that was sweeping Hong Kong cinema (thanks in part to John Woo’s massively influential The Killer and Hard Boiled), this tough as nails thriller finds our usually likable hero suffering through some bad law enforcement mojo. A rich real estate magnet with some questionable business practices is snatched by a secret organization made up of fellow entrepreneurs, criminal types, and a lone rogue policeman. Their goal – tap into his massive wealth as a means of righting wrongs within their own poor professional lot. It is up to Chan’s steely eyed inspector to piece together the clues and solve the case.


Crime Story has a notorious history, one touched on ever so slightly by the new Special Edition DVD release from Dragon Dynasty. Chan was a significant superstar in his native land when the script was offered to him, and initially, he seemed intrigued by playing a character that was emotionally wrought, psychologically scarred, and frequently undermined by his own skewed sense of justice. The narrative was to be as much a metaphysical journey as a standard action workout, with firefights substituting for most of Chan’s signature body byplay. Though he tries not to sound too bitter, director Kirk Wong cites the creative differences between himself and his star (on an enclosed commentary), and such a divide is no real revelation. Pressured by the studios to hurry up his output and very careful to maintain his commercially viable persona, Chan wrangled the camera away from the veteran filmmaker. Yet for all the actor’s interference, Wong’s dark imprint remains.


Indeed, the first thing you notice about Crime Story is how familiar it all feels. We in the West have had only limited exposure to the amazing output of China’s genre-jumping populist cinema, and in that regard, much of the movie feels like one of the archetypal efforts that we’re more or less accustomed to. Smoky, ersatz jazz plays in the background and defiantly ‘80s neon lights flicker behind the action. Wong’s lens arcs and sweeps around scenes, avoiding the slow motion bullet ballet of his fellow stylists. He stages stand-offs in typical chaos supporting set-ups, but then also allows his actors to use the space to amplify the anarchy. During the last act battle between one man army Chan and a cast of corrupt hoods, the apartment block setting is literally blown apart in one of the most spectacular stunts seen on film. Yet Wong keeps our concentration on the character, the interwoven stories of Chan, the corrupt cop, and the off screen victim all working to elevate the angst. 


Equally intriguing is the one element Chan fought hardest to remove from the film. Crime Story was supposed to be a serious psychological study on how the increased violence in Hong Kong (and the surrounding sanctuary provided by places like Taiwan and the Mainland) drove one stalwart policeman to basically break down. There was to have been long passages where a therapist delves into the cop’s complicated psyche, trying to decipher if the mandate to kill (as part of his job) was destroying him inside. Naturally, our good-natured, comedy oriented star wanted none of this, and he was tireless in his efforts to remove it from the script. So it’s safe to say that Crime Story is just the slightest shadow of its former self. But Thanks to Wong’s way with the storyline, we still feel the emotional pull of the material, and dread the outcome of this intricate game of cat and mouse.


Fans may feel a bit cheated by the lack of signature stuntwork here, but it’s not all pistols and posturing. During the finale, Crime Story makes up for its lack of aggressive acrobatics by going balls out on one amazing setpiece after another. The minute Chan steps on the boat to find the important clues to link the case to his fellow cop, the movie is relentless. This amazing actor falls from ferocious heights, jumps off walls with a gymnast’s grace, runs through fire and surrounding explosions, and even does some of his well-loved prop pantomime. Sure, the initial car chase is nothing so special, relying more on strategizing than standard vehicular mayhem, and when Chan chases a suspect through a Taiwanese strip joint, the level of invention is not up to his usual showboating. Yet the tense nature of the narrative, meshed with the memorable performance from our lead (who cares if serious doesn’t sell tickets, he is wonderfully effective here) turn Crime Story into a genuine genre gem.


Representing the 17th title brought to DVD by Dragon Dynasty, the added elements offered to supplement this film are what make this disc so special. As stated before, Wong is upfront and personable, describing how Jet Li was linked to the film. The death of the star’s manager at the hands of the actual Triad caused him to balk. The director also talks about the real life policeman who provided the backdrop for the story. Wong recalls how the cop responded to the numerous phone calls for advice (he wasn’t getting paid, which sort of ticked him off) and how the script was constantly being rewritten during production. It’s a sentiment supported by writer Teddy Chen, who is also interviewed here. In addition, we see a few deleted scenes which tend to support the original intent of the film. Aside from the excellent technical specifications, what makes packages like this essential is the desire to add context and other complementary elements. It helps us understand both the movie and the men who made it even more.


Such perspective is important when viewing Crime Story. You’re typical Chan fan who only knows him as the joking, genial lantern of manic martial artistry will probably wince at the concentration on story over stunts. Few will find their happy hero so winning, especially when he continues to let his loyalty to the force let a corrupt cop off the hook – even at the end. There will the obvious comparisons to Woo, the unfavorable critical assessments in view of the much lighter, and much more popular, Police Story films. But whenever an established name challenges the standards that made him or her a star, the initial uproar is deafening. Luckily, when it dies down, we are left with the movie itself – and in that capacity, Crime Story is a classic.


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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


Where and when, exactly, did Neil Gaiman earn all this geek love credentials? It’s safe to say that, outside the insular realm of select comic book purists (a mighty force, for sure), his name barely garners a blip among mainstream media hawks. Yet his has always been a presence burbling around the pop culture surface – a well received British miniseries here, a couple of sold scripts to Hollywood there. Granted, there is no denying the impact of his Sandman series among graphic novel enthusiasts, and the remainder of his writings (prose, pen and ink, etc.) have only increased his formidable fanbase. Still, when did he become the oft-cited ‘next big thing’, and why would any studio risk their potential summer blockbuster dollars on a basically unproven act. Unfortunately, there’s no clear response from the late in the season release, Stardust.


As a flawed fractured fairy tale, this only average film sputters when it should soar. It saves up its best material for the final act confrontation between good and evil, and then never once doubts the outcome. As fantasy, it’s flimsy, simply regurgitating ideas and elements from past familiar fables. This would be fine if Gaiman, via screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, had anything novel or quirky to add to the genre. But instead, he’s more serious than satiric, dishing out ‘dead clever’ conceits like they’re sweets at an orphanage. We’re supposed to grin at the ghostly visages of the King’s dead sons, each still wearing the manner of their demise. When the fabled three witches discover a new source of their much coveted immortality, we’re supposed to giggle at their glamour gal antics. From a scene stealing sequence of gay pirating (more on this in a moment) to a token take on honor and valor, Stardust wants you to leave happy, ever after. In this case, we’re only mildly amused.


It all starts with a stunted hero, the head over heels in obsession Tristan (Charlie Cox), who determines that he will bring a recent fallen star back to the object of his affection – in this case, the Renaissance fair version of a Hilton sister. When he makes it over “THE WALL” – the ancestral dividing line between his world and the kingdom of Stormhold (don’t ask) – he discovers that the celestial body has transformed into a maiden, the ineffectually ephemeral Yvaine (Claire Danes). Also interested in this newly arrived entity are the three witches Mormo, Empusa, and head heavy, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer). By eating her heart, they can live forever. In addition, the remaining sons of the King (Peter O’Toole) are after a rare gem that will guide the next heir to the throne. Turns out, Yvaine has that too. So it’s an ersatz-epic journey across picturesque Scottish landscapes to save the ‘luminary’, find the stone, and keep the wicked wenches at bay.


With its A-list cast and big budget support, there’s no real reason for Stardust to slump so. After all, if you can’t make Michelle Pfieffer in full craggy cackle mode resonate as pure evil, or a coy Claire Danes radiate with ethereal beauty, there is something wrong with your vision. Part of the problem is obviously Gaiman. He’s cribbing from William Goldman (The Princess Bride) and some lesser sword and sorcery efforts (Stardust frequently feels like Krull combined with the worst elements of George Lucas’ labored Willow) to brace his otherwise stiff English lip. And to think – director Matthew Vaughn (responsible for the heralded Brit crime flick Layer Cake) actually turned down a chance to helm X-Men: The Last Stand to make this movie. True, that eventual Brett Ratner washout wasn’t the greatest example of the super hero genre, but it was far more effective at what it was trying to accomplish than this worn out whimsy.


Vaughn does swing for the rafters, hoping to earn some crowd pleasing points by featuring former Method mob man Robert DeNiro as the gayest buccaneer in the profitable lightning procurement trade. Putting on a macho façade for his typical tough guy crew, he secretly fancies hairdressing, tea parties, and his closet full of fancy dresses. Whether he’s swishing or swashbuckling (and sometimes, both), Scorsese’s go to guy is a sly setpiece stunt, a way of taking the audience’s mind off the previous hour of meandering Magic: The Blathering. He goes over like gangbusters, and it’s within these winning moments that we see the movie Stardust could have been. Mixing genres and tones is never a solid foundation for a film, and it requires a director of deft designs to find the mystical interconnections to make it all gel flawlessly. Vaughn is not quite in that vaunted league. He still thinks swordplay should be shot with one eye on the editing room, the other on the action.


Once De Niro disappears, Stardust cruises on his glorified gimmickry for quite a while. We get the standard “will they kiss” romantic rehash, the transformation of our lead from dork to debonair (thanks to his prissy pirate pal), and a couple of massive logic leaps (it takes Pfieffer’s witch 75 minutes to find our heroes, yet only one jump cut to immediately return to her castle?). During the aforementioned finale, something metaphysically surreal and outside the film occurs. When a special power makes its last act presence known, the viewer’s mind begins asking a simple question – why didn’t they do that before. Like clockwork, the movie steps up and anticipates this charge, delivering an explanation before moving on. Maybe Vaughn thought that was clever. Maybe it’s a jaundice critical eye looking carefully for all the plot holes. Yet it indicates the kind of slapdash feel that Stardust is steeped in. Unlike other, better examples of the fantasy film, the narrative feels more or less made up on the spot.


And this is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in any work of “once upon a time.” In most instances, an audience either buys into the premise or they don’t. They follow your invented logic and brand new legends or they’re lost, never to willingly return to the shores of this daydream nation. With other examples in the entertainment arena – Neverwhere, the Henson Company’s clever Mirrormask – it’s clear that Gaiman will be a fixture in film for sometime to come. Yet it’s his future productions that will most likely leave an imprint. Stardust, however, makes the major mistake of substituting weakness for the wistful. There are parts of this film that actually try to fly. The vast majority though is grounded in a level of labored levity that never provides the wings - or the wherewithal – to get airborne.



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