Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Monday, April 30, 2018

Inception

Year: 2010
Running time: 148 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite

Time to wake up.
As hard as it is to choose a favourite Christopher Nolan film, I think for me this might be it. Mind-bending, intelligent storytelling with multiple possible interpretations that assumes the audience is able to think for itself is par for the course for Nolan's films, but Inception just has the edge on its peers. Thoughts, memories, dreams and ideas are all related, and it is possible to manipulate them all by influencing dreams, but if you do can you ever really tell if you're awake or still dreaming? This is the concept in its simplest interpretation, and the idea takes us to astonishing places.

In a way Inception is a heist movie. Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to pull a job that will lead to a competitor dismantling his company. Cobb is a thief, albeit an unusual one. He specialises in stealing ideas from the subconscious mind while his marks are dreaming. He is also a fugitive, desperately trying to find a way to get home to see his children without getting arrested the moment he sets foot on home soil. Saito offers him everything he wants if only he can pull off what is generally thought to be impossible. Instead of stealing an idea, the job is to plant one, known as inception. Cobb thinks he can pull it off, because he's convinced he's done it in the past.

Like any heist movie worth its salt, once he accepts the job, the crew needs to be assembled. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusuf (Dillep Rao) are soon on board and are joined by newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page). This a useful and well-used story conceit as we can piggy-back Ariadne's introduction to the world and have it explained to us as it's being explained to her. Each member of the crew has a fairly specific function, and Ariadne's is to design the dreams they will be using to carry out the job; something Cobb could do if it wasn't for the presence of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), consistently manifesting in Cobb's dreams and ruining his plans. In the real world she has died, but in the dreams she is a constant menace, always threatening to derail everything.

A tumbling car in the dream above causes corridors to flip in the dream below.
The mark is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of energy tycoon Maurie Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), poised to inherit his ailing father's empire. Conveniently, it's arranged to have Cobb and his team (including Saito, who insists on coming along) on the same flight, which happens to be a flight to the US. If Cobb fails, he's in handcuffs the moment he lands, but if he pulls it off, Saito has promised to get him through customs a free man with one phone call.

The job is intricate, detailed and involves multiple layers of dreams within dreams, and thanks to Cobb's wild card Mal, begins to go wrong as soon as they begin. If you're not paying attention it is easy to get lost, but if you allow yourself to be absorbed it's gripping. Skipping between different layers of dream with multiple action sequences taking place simultaneously, where time moves at different speeds and what happens in one dream can drastically affect the physical environment in another is such an effective way to inject tension, and time moving at different speeds to generate narrative tension is something Nolan would use again in the also-wonderful Interstellar.

Like The Prestige, the ending is something that leaves the viewer to decide the truth for themselves: has Cobb made it back, or is he still dreaming? There are convincing arguments for both possibilities and that is what makes the narrative compelling; the attention with which it has been assembled, allowing for multiple interpretations, which are set out in this article on the No Film School website.

Original, complex and stunning.

Score: 9/10

Inception is pretty well-loved out there - see Roger Ebert's review, but this review from Kirk at The Hollywood Reporter is (slightly) less emphatic in its praise.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Rain Man

Year: 1988
Running time: 133 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow
Director: Barry Levinson
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Jerry Molen, Michael D. Roberts

I've seen Rain Man a few times now. Since the last time I watched it, we've had the whole Weinstein thing happen in Hollywood, which spread to a large number of actors, including one Dustin Hoffman. When questioned on the accusations and his conduct by John Oliver, Hoffman didn't seem to understand what the problem was, which is an unfortunate attitude shared by many who are happy with the status quo. The point is, it's not easy to assimilate the complicated effect this has on how you see your favourite actors. Hoffman is undeniably an incredible performer, and Rain Man is one of his very best. To disregard Rain Man in light of the accusations feels like a disservice everyone else involved in the making of it, but to wax lyrical about Hoffman's standout performance feels too much like tacit approval of his attitude. If I was to write a review of Kill Bill now, I expect it would be different now I have a clearer idea of what Tarantino put Uma Thurman through, and I have no idea how to approach reviewing a Woody Allen or Roman Polanski film. Anyway, these thoughts belong on a different blog, so to Rain Man.

Ready to clean up.
Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) is a child of the '80s. Gordon Gekko-lite, he is a yuppie car dealer focusing pretty much exclusively on making money, and lots of it. Estranged from his father, he nevertheless expects a significant inheritance when his father dies. Turns out he's not going to get it, as the money ends up in trust for a hitherto unknown brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is autistic and resides in care. In an attempt to somehow get at his late father's money, Charlie takes Raymond out of his care facility and on a road trip.

Charlie has no clue how to deal with Raymond's eccentricities and has little patience with him to begin with. Charlie simply can't get into a state of mind that allows him to understand what his brother is going through, or more to the point, how he sees and processes the world around him. Once it becomes clear that Raymond is a savant, he tries his luck convincing Raymond to try counting cards in a casino with typical selfishness. Slowly, Charlie begins to form a bond with Raymond, and over the course of the film Charlie goes from wanting the cash to wanting to care for his brother - still not necessarily understanding him, but better able to empathise with him.

Charlie's girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino) shares a quiet moment with
Raymond.
Hoffman is undeniably brilliant, injecting Raymond with a striking innocence, making you feel for this man locked inside his own head. You long for him to be able to express himself and throughout the film when there are little moments that indicate that in his own way, Raymond is beginning to bond a little with Charlie too, it's wonderfully heart-warming. An often unsung hero in the film however is Tom Cruise, who has a difficult job with an unlikeable character. Charlie's arc from greedy money-grabber to loving brother is handled beautifully, and in a film without such a powerful central performance Cruise would've been standout. It's easy to forget sometimes that Cruise is a genuinely great performer in the right role.

By the end, it becomes clear, even to Charlie, albeit reluctantly, that Raymond requires a higher level of care than he is able to provide, so the film finishes on a somewhat bittersweet note; Raymond goes back into care, but Charlie has found a family he hadn't really realised he'd lost.

Great acting work in service to a story that's uplifting but just a touch melancholic.

Score: 8/10

Rain Man appears to be highly-praised across the board - see these reviews at the Ace Black Blog and by Emma at Empire.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Snakes on a Plane

Year: 2006
Running time: 105 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: John Heffernan, Sebastian Gutierrez
Director: David R. Ellis
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey

Not what you want to see when joining the Mile High Club.
Snakes on a Plane: the movie the Internet made. It doesn’t matter how good or bad this film actually is, it's still gone down as a cult film along with Tremors and Critters, although compared to those two, it's popularity has waned rather significantly over the years. At the time of release, this film was a cult smash before anybody even saw it. All it took was the news that Samuel L. Jackson was doing a film called Snakes on a Plane and the Internet went mad. Before New Line had got the marketing in place there were a load of fan-made posters doing the rounds, helping the film's reputation grow over the months before its release.

Originally conceived as a rather milder affair, after the massive amount of interest, the makers even went back and filmed extra scenes, adding more gore, more sex and more quotable dialogue for Jackson. In fact, you spend most of the film waiting for it, and when he finally shouts: “I’ve had it with these motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane!” you really feel like cheering.

Hero pose #16.
Jackson is dependable throughout, buying into the concept wholeheartedly - in fact, were it not for his interest from the start, it probably wouldn't have got made. It's a little more polished than you might expect from a film called Snakes on a Plane, and it's clear New Line were willing to spend some extra money on it with a readymade audience built in and apparently gagging for it. While it didn't do as well as hoped (Jackson once referred to the possibility of making a sequel, which he called "More motherfuckin' snakes, on more motherfuckin' planes!" - alas, it was not to be), I find it encouraging that a studio was willing to both spend extra money and up the certificate when the interest is there. It was quite fun, and diverting for a while, but the novelty wears off before it can build up the momentum required to sustain a schlocky franchise.

The plot? Well, there are these snakes, right, and they’re on this plane…

Score: 5/10

It's surprisingly well-reviewed out there - have a look at this review from Dana at Slate or this 10-years-later retrospective from Sarah at Den of Geek.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Big Lebowski

Year: 1998
Running time: 117 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare, John Turturro, Sam Elliott

The Dude and his friends are unimpressed by their latest lane rival.
The Big Lebowski is possibly my favourite Coen brothers film (although Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? do give it a run for its money). From the opening frame until the credits roll it is a joy to watch. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a spaced out bum and Walter (John Goodman) is ‘an asshole’, as the Dude reminds him on occasion. Along with Donnie (Steve Buscemi), Dude and Walter spend their days bowling and talking about nothing very much. That is until Dude gets a visit from a couple of thugs (Philip Moon and Mark Pellegrino) trying to recover money owed by, apparently, Dude's wife. The misunderstanding comes from the fact that The Dude's real surname is 'Lebowski', which is something he has in common with a very different Lebowski (David Huddleston), the 'Big Lebowski' of the title. It is the Big Lebowski's wife Bunny (Tara Reid) whom owes the money. When they realise their mistake, the two thugs leave, but not before one of them pisses on The Dude's rug, which he then spends the rest of the film trying to get compensated/replaced.

The plot is complex, filled with twists and turns, but it is also completely irrelevant. The Dude and Walter will always manage to make it more complex than it is. When Dude gets roped into to a plan to rescue the kidnapped Bunny, the throwaway comment that she probably kidnapped herself leads them down a path of bizarre assumptions and uniquely odd characters. This film is gold not because of its plot, but because of the interactions between The Dude and Walter and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in. In particular, I love the way the Dude will repeat words spoken to him back as a question – "coitus?" in a forever dazed and confused state. The story doesn't really start out that complicated, but when these two have finished with it, it feels mind-bendingly complex.

The supporting cast are as weird a menagerie as you might imagine - likable "Shut the fuck up" Donnie, artistic oddball Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), bowling rival Jesus – not that one (John Tuturro), uptight assistant to The Big Lebowski Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and even Bunny Lebowski herself for the short time she's on screen as well as a slew of others, the Coens and their actors turn potentially forgettable and obnoxious characters into works of comedy art.

So long, Donnie.
The writing is sublime, tying the paths of the characters together in knots, stringing Dude and Walter along with it. In particular, there are two rather throwaway moments (although, as mentioned, most of the plot is made up of moments that feel rather throwaway) that I adore, being The Stranger (Sam Elliott) asking the Dude if he needs to use "so many cuss words", only for the Dude to reply: “What the fuck are you talking about?” and the perfect scene where, following Donnie's unfortunate demise, Walter releases his ashes on the top of a windy cliff (not a good idea). This moment is both hilarious and surprisingly moving as the two friends grieve for their lost buddy in their own odd way.

I don't think it's too much to sum up by saying The Big Lebowski is pretty simply comedy genius through and through.

Score: 9/10

The vast majority of reviews out there as full of praise as I am - Roger Ebert's review was just one example. More interesting however, is this review from Todd at Variety, which I think defines the phrase 'missing the point' more perfectly than anything I've ever seen.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Hobbit

Year: 2012 (Unexpected Journey), 2013 (Desolation of Smaug), 2014 (Battle of Five Armies)
Running time: 182 minutes (Unexpected Journey), 186 minutes (Desolation of Smaug), 164 minutes (Battle of Five Armies)
Certificate: 12A (Unexpected Journey), 15 (Desolation of Smaug, Battle of Five Armies)
Language: English
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Lee Pace, Barry Humphries (voice), Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Mizrahi, Manu Bennett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lily, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Billy Connelly, Conan Stevens, Lawrence Makoare, John Tui

Rivendell - tonic for the soul.
The original announcement around the adaptation of The Hobbit, produced by the team behind the wildly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, but directed by Gullermo Del Toro, was met with great rejoicing. What might the amazing mind of Del Toro come up with when let loose in Tolkien's universe? Unfortunately, it was not to be. Contract-wrangling led to delays and Del Toro had to move on to other commitments, whereupon Peter Jackson took up the reigns. There will always be a part of me that regrets never getting to see the Del Toro version, but Jackson's no slouch.

Lord of the Rings came under some criticism from Tolkien purists for making some changes to the novel, but even so I still think it is evident it retains a healthy respect for the original story while not being afraid to make changes if it served the film. It is, frankly, much harder to make the same assertion when talking about The Hobbit. Just the fact that it is a trilogy almost as long as the Rings trilogy (as with that review, here I am talking about the extended versions available on Blu-Ray, rather than the theatrical releases) with a book only a fraction of the size is a fairly clear indication that there are many more liberties taken with the text. Of course, all of the extra stuff is mostly informed by appendices written by Tolkien himself, but there is still plenty here to outrage the purists.

Bilbo riddles for his life, while Gollum plots murder.
Before the events told in The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo was a young man (Martin Freeman) he was conscripted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into joining a group of dwarves attempting to reclaim their lost homeland from the humongous clutches of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). On the way, Bilbo meets an unusual creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) and comes into possession of a magic ring, which just so happens to change the entire course of history in the future.

The first part An Unexpected Journey takes its time to get going, rather than diving headfirst into the adventure, spending time in Bag End with Bilbo and the dwarves. Much of the criticism the film faced was in regards to the slow pace set in these early scenes. For my money, I'm happy enough to spend time in the Middle Earth imagined by Jackson, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital and New Zealand that I'd probably be happy watching Bilbo wash up for 2 hours. The dwarves are realised in a way that is different to the book; rather than coloured hoods, each dwarf has a distinctive look, usually based around hair. I wasn't quite sure about it at first to be honest, but I soon got used to it.

Bilbo and Thorin, facing up to something awful.
Once we set off, there's no shortage of trolls, fights, elves and underground goblin kingdoms, but the absolute standout scene in the first film is Bilbo and Gollum facing off in a game of riddles in the dark. Serkis, following years of honing his extraordinary motion capture acting techniques is electrifying as Gollum; innocent and childlike one moment, intensely menacing the next. With all the adventuring going on it's easy to miss crediting some genuinely great acting from Freeman as well - he invests Bilbo with just the right mix of curiosity, stuck-up-ness and courage - during his battle of wits with Gollum and afterwards, explaining his decision to help the dwarves regain their home he is wonderful, and only very occasionally now reminds me of Tim from The Office. The ending of the first film somewhat mirrors that of The Fellowship of the Ring, in that there is a pitched battle between our heroes and those that seek to destroy them (but nothing compared to what is to come), and ends with the journey a long way from being completed.

The Desolation of Smaug bucks the trend of the middle film of a trilogy being weaker (as did The Two Towers) and is actually my favourite of the three. There is a great deal of iconic Tolkien imagery brought to life here; Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), Dol Guldur, Mirkwood and the spiders, Thranduil's (Lee Pace) hidden woodland realm, Laketown; for someone like me who can often feel more at home in these locations than in the real world, it's a dizzying smorgasbord of visual treats. Jackson and his team take more liberties than even An Unexpected Journey did, but somehow, the film is just so much fun that most of it goes by, forgiven. The invention of an entirely new character, the female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) doesn't feel out of place - in fact it highlights how starved of female characterisation Tolkien's novel was, and goes some way to addressing that. Falling for Kili (Aidan Turner) might have been a bit of a stretch, however, and featuring Legolas (Orlando Bloom), I must admit, took some swallowing.

Bilbo may have bitten off more than he can chew...But then again, he is a hobbit.
There is a particular sequence that angered many fans of the books and that is when Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the elves by hiding in barrels and riding down the river. It's an action-packed chase full of gags that bears no resemblance to the equivalent chapter in the novel. One way I can tell that movies had a bigger impact on me than books in my youth is that I genuinely love the sequence, despite the liberties it takes with Tolkien's text. Like the riddles in the dark section of An Unexpected Journey, there is a part of The Desolation of Smaug that sits above the rest of the film as a stand out sequence, and it's when we finally meet the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Bilbo enters into another verbal fencing match, but unlike Gollum, he's no match for the wily wyrm. Following his failed attempt to first burgle and then charm Smaug, the dwarves and Bilbo have no choice but to play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse throughout the ruined kingdom of Erebor, ending in an enraged dragon bearing down on the human settlement of Laketown.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up the thread and early on Laketown is laid waste by dragonfire until Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) brings the vengeful dragon low. The third film is about what happens around the power vacuum that Smaug left behind - the Kingdom under the Mountain, empty again, save for a massive pile of gold and jewels. The dwarves, led by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), set up shop and barricade themselves inside. Thranduil leads the elves to the mountain to reclaim some long-lost elven treasure, while Bard brings the now-homeless survivors of Laketown to try to prevent them from starving. Both are rebuffed by Thorin, who is being driven slowly mad by the corrupt Arkenstone, a giant gem from the heart of the mountain that inflicts a dragonish greed on its possessor.

A redeemed Thorin bids his friend farewell.
Thorin's back-up arrives in the shape of an army of dwarves from the Iron Hills led by Thorin's cousin Dain (Billy Connelly). Just as the elves and dwarfs start tearing shreds off each other, a giant army of orcs show up, led by the major antagonist across all three films, Azog (Manu Bennett) - this is another fairly major change from the source material, as Azog is long-dead during these events in Tolkien's timeline. If there is one thing the original Rings trilogy taught us, it's that Peter Jackson knows his way around a battle, and the titular fight here is every bit as amazing, outrageous and epic in scale as you could hope for. Given the time he was denied in the high-pressured run-up to the film's cinematic release, the battle in the extended version is bigger, more graphic and chock-full of imaginative set-pieces.

The over-use of CGI is much-bemoaned in regards to modern films, and there is no doubt The Hobbit is bursting at the seams with digital artwork, but the way in which Jackson employs it makes it much less of an issue that it might otherwise have been. Across the whole trilogy, from An Unexpected Journey's escape from the underground goblin town, through the barrel ride and dragon hide-and-seek in The Desolation of Smaug, through to pretty much most of The Battle of the Five Armies, the film-maker is clearly the same guy who made Braindead, Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles (he is still working with some of the same people, even now). The same manic energy, gift for a surprising-yet-perfect angle and warped sense of humour is still there; he's just using different tools.

One of the most beautiful shots in the series, including Rings, is the brief, dialogue-free moment near the end, featuring Bilbo and Gandalf just sitting there, together alone. The sense of exhaustion is palpable, and one can only surmise is shared by Jackson and his crew. The effort that has gone into making these six films is momentous; decades of work, so this small moment feels appropriate, a short snippet of reflection. Like so many moments in these films, it is a strikingly constructed shot despite being so simple - a testament to the great work of the late Andrew Lesnie, cinematographer on all six films.

Bilbo and Gandalf: Palpable exhaustion.
The Hobbit is a lesser trilogy than the preceding Rings, but considering the source material, this was inevitable. It holds the novel on which it is based in perhaps slightly less esteem, but is made with an abundance of talent and is actually quite a lot more fun than Rings. If the novel isn't like a religious text to you, I think you could find much to like here. If it is, it's probably better you avoid.

Score:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: 8/10
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: 9/10
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: 8/10

As with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I seem fairly close to Empire's take on the films, as shown in these reviews by William, Nick and James. Elsewhere, there is evidence to suggest I slightly over-rate them, although not by much if these Guardian reviews by Philip, Peter and, to a lesser degree, Mark are anything to go by.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Flushed Away

Year: 2006
Running time: 85 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Chris Lloyd, Joe Keenan, Will Davies
Director: David Bowers, Sam Fell
Starring (voices): Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Jean Reno, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes

Roddy and Rita smiling at...something.
Flushed Away was Aardman Animation’s first step into the competitive world of CG, and unfortunately, it shows a little. Aardman brought us the likes of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, full-length feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run, which are all great and brimming with imaginative stories and characters, and on that front, Flushed Away is no different. Teaming up with DreamWorks Animation, they go to great lengths to retain the Aardman aesthetic. The creation of a city in the sewers of London populated by rats, toads and slugs is fabulous, and it’s brimming over with hilarious characters, invention and wit.

Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman, doing a note-perfect Hugh Grant-type) is a pampered pet rat in a Kensington house. While his owners are away Roddy has the run of the house, busy enjoying himself while trying to distract from the obvious loneliness, when another rat makes his way up from the sewer. The home invader goes by the name of Sid (Shane Richie), and Sid thinks he's hit the jackpot and decides to move in. While trying in vain to convince Sid the toilet is a Jacuzzi, Roddy finds himself flushed from his cosy home into the depths of the London sewer system, where he finds a bustling 'ratropolis', mirroring the city above.

While attempting to get home, Roddy crosses paths with Rita (Kate Winslet) and soon gets swept up with her ongoing spat with the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen, the comedic highlight) and his plan to wash away the makeshift city and make a home for him and his tadpole offspring. There follows a fine yarn with much comedy, both pun-based and slapstick, as well as some joyfully funny action set pieces.

Toad fancies himself a bit of a Shakespearean villain.
The sticking point is the quality of the animation itself; it’s just not a patch on the beautiful CG stylings of Pixar, DreamWorks, or even Blue Sky Studios (the animation house producing content for 20th Century Fox). The characters don’t move fluidly, and when they speak it’s almost like a stop-motion technique. It’s likely that the makers did this to make it look like the Aardman output we all know and love, but it just doesn’t retain the charm of genuine stop-motion. If you're going to move onto CG, then commit to it. A shame, because the delightful story certainly deserved more.

Still worth a watch.

Score: 6/10

Reviews of Flushed Away are a little mixed out there: Peter at The Guardian wasn't particularly impressed, but James at Reelviews was rather charmed.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Stardust

Year: 2007
Running time: 127 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Kate Magowan, Sienna Miller, Melanie Hill, Ricky Gervais, Dexter Fletcher, David Kelly, Ben Barnes, Henry Cavill, Nathaniel Parker, Peter O'Toole, Mark Heap, Rupert Everett, David Walliams, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adam Buxton, Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan, Jake Curran, Mark Williams, Struan Rodger, Olivia Grant, Ian McKellen (voice)

Yvaine, wondering what the hell just happened.
Based on Neil Gaiman's novel / graphic novel, Stardust at first glance could be easy to write off as a Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter fantasy adaptation bandwagon jumper. In fact, it’s significantly different to both, being more whimsical and funnier. The English village of Wall appears to be your average rural village in the middle of nowhere. But the wall the village is named after hides a secret behind its ordinary-looking stone. It serves as a barrier / gateway to Stormhold, a fantastical kingdom not found on any map, filled with magic, witches, sky pirates and murderous princes. A young man named Dunstan Thorne (Ben Barnes) fools the elderly gatekeeper (David Kelly) and escapes for a night beyond the wall where, for want of a better phrase, he gets lucky with a beautiful woman (Kate Magowan). Some time later, a baby boy is left outside his door.

When the baby has grown into a naïve young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox), to prove his love to local girl Victoria (Sienna Miller), much to the annoyance of her suitor Humphrey (Henry Cavill), he proposes to recover a fallen star and bring it back to her. This sets him on a quest which will take him over the wall, but not before his father (Nathaniel Parker) reveals to him the nature of his parentage.

He's not the only one on a quest. The sons of the king (Peter O'Toole) are in a deadly race to retrieve an heirloom that will give them the kingdom, as well as trying to stay alive long enough to claim it. This soon focuses on generally honourable Primus (Jason Flemyng) and the ambitious moral-vacuum Septimus (Mark Strong). The ghosts of the deceased brothers wait and watch to see who will emerge the victor. Elsewhere a trio of ancient witches, desperate to regain their youth which, conveniently, requires the heart of a star, despatch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) to hunt for and retrieve said star.

First on the scene is Tristan, who finds, to his great surprise, the fallen star has taken the form of a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), and she is non too impressed to learn of Tristan's plan to bring her back to Victoria. The stage is set for a chase across Stormhold for love, for power and for youth.

Lamia, about to get witchy.
There is much to delight here. The scenery is beautiful and beautifully shot, and the energetic score is a perfect fit for the type of fast-paced fantasy storytelling from director Matthew Vaughn on show. The characters are a major reason why this film shines so much, which is due largely to Gaiman's novel and the adaptation by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. The casting is as starry as is gets (pun intended): Michelle Pfeiffer channels a more sinister and sexier take on Bette Midlers' witch in Hocus Pocus, Robert de Niro is surprisingly funny and obviously having a ball as Captain Shakespeare, a camp skyship captain with a ruthless reputation to uphold. The scene featuring the crew of Shakespeare's airship fighting is filmed as though it is a dance and is an absolute ball. Ricky Gervais' Ferdy the Fence lets the side down a bit, as he basically plays to type, but he’s still pretty funny.

The absolute star, both literally and figuratively however, is the magnificent Claire Danes as the fallen star with a bad attitude. She is marvellous and in the later scenes when she’s falling for Tristan and beginning to shine you are utterly convinced that she is being completely bowled over by love. Her smile is infectious.

The climax takes place in the witches' palatial home, as all the players left in the game converge and struggle for supremacy. Septimus comes off poorly here, and I suspect Vaughn was really pushing the limits of the PG certificate, as he gets a really rather grim death scene. It's probably not much of a spoiler to confirm that love prevails, but there is an interesting decision to make the ending different to the rather melancholy ending to the source material. This is a prime example for me of where sometimes when adapting books into films it is sometimes advisable to make changes. Gaiman's ending is bittersweet and suits the tone of his story perfectly, while the movie benefits massively from the decision to lighten the end. Both endings fit their particular medium, and either would have been made lesser if they'd had the other one.

Much better than you may have been led to believe.

Score: 8/10

It would seem that I'm out here pretty much alone in my high opinion of Stardust, the general consensus being generally more middling like these reviews from Roger Ebert and Dan at Empire.