Category Archives: 2007

Stardust (2007, Matthew Vaughn)

Stardust has a problem with overconfidence. The overconfidence in the CG is one thing, but would be easily excusable if director Vaughn didn’t double down and go through tedious effects sequences. Ben Davis’s photography keeps Stardust lush, whether in the magic world or the real world–but that lushness doesn’t help with the CG. The CG is excessive and exuberent–it’s always supposed to be obvious–it’s just not good enough. The CG, technically, isn’t there.

The other overconfidence is the stunt casting.

The film starts in a prologue setting things up. England. Nineteenth century. There’s a small English town with a nearby wall. No one can cross the wall. There’s a nonagenarian (David Kelly) who wields a staff to keep people away. One day, intrepid young man Ben Barnes crosses the wall and gets seduced by a mystery woman.

Nine months later, he gets a baby. Eighteen years later, the baby has grown into “protagonist” Charlie Cox. Stardust, from its narration (by Ian McKellen, natch), is going to be about Cox embracing his destiny as a hero. Until then, he’s just going to make a fool of himself for town beauty Sienna Miller. Cox wants to marry Miller, Miller wants to marry Henry Cavill. But then they see a falling star and Cox gets Miller to promise to through Cavill over for him if he gets her the star.

Except it’s not just a falling star, it’s also the ruby necklace of the King of the magic world, called Stormhold. Stardust doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, like how can this magical world exist across a wall in England and what would’ve happened to it in the hundred years between the movie’s present action and its release date. Because it’s just fantasy. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t have to take any responsility for character if they keep it just genre.

The scene setting up Stormhold is where the stunt casting starts. Peter O’Toole is the dying king, Rupert Everett is his presumed heir. Presumed because O’Toole’s sons have to kill one another for the throne. The ghosts of the defeated princes hang around and watch the film’s events, sometimes offering commentary. They’re fun ghosts, even if they were all trying to kill one another and the film’s heroes.

In the biggest of the prince roles is Mark Strong. He’s not stunt casting. He’s got Inigo Montoya’s hair and Count Rugen’s personality.

So the star falls. Except since it lands in magic land, it’s not a hunk of space metal, it’s Claire Danes. Stars are sentient and they watch the earth because human beings’ love is unique throughout the cosmos. Vaughn and Goldman’s dialogue, which is so entirely expository it’s an accomplishment, is about as obvious and artless as that sentence. Vaughn seems to think he can get away with it because of Davis’s photography, the CGI, and Ilan Eshkeri’s enthusiastic, original, and not great, not bad score. He’s wrong.

Anyway. Cox finds Danes and kidnaps her. He’s going to let her go after he brings her to Miller. Danes points out the questionable behavior of kidnapping someone for a gift, but Cox doesn’t care. His character to this point is: half-prince of magic land, personal failure (he wasn’t good in school at anything, including fencing), and just fired shop boy. Cox doesn’t even get to dwell on being half-magic. He’s too busy dragging Danes through the woods.

Oh, and Danes has the necklace.

So Strong and the other princes are looking for the necklace. Because O’Toole says they don’t just need to kill each other, they also have to get the necklace.

And then Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch looking for Danes to kill her and eat her heart to make herself young. Pfeiffer’s got two sisters, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander, who ought to be stunt casting and aren’t. The makeup on the witches is decrepit faces, but not overly so on the bodies. Like Vaughn didn’t want to be too gross. The witches get played for laughs occasionally, so they can’t be too visually unsettling.

Pfeiffer is terrible with Scanlan and Alexander. Maybe she can’t figure out how to act under the makeup. Once she gets out on her own (and out of the makeup), she slowly gets better. By the end of the movie, she’s almost good, even with some makeup back. She has zero chemistry with Scanlan and Alexander, which doesn’t help things.

Of course, Vaughn doesn’t direct for that sort of thing. Chemistry. Pah. Danes falls for Cox after he saves her from Pfeiffer’s inital trap and Danes decides to help him win Miller’s hand, delivering herself as a gift. Because she really, deep down, loves Cox. Danes, I mean. She’s sacrificing herself. It might make sense if Danes had her stars watch earth because of perfect human love monologue early on, but it’s end of the second act stuff. She’s just making poor choices as far as anyone knows until then.

She also has a unicorn for a while.

Eventually Danes and Cox end up on Robert De Niro’s sky pirate ship. De Niro should be Stardust’s stunt casting at its worst. He’s a closest, effeminate, aging, anglophile gay sky pirate. He has to hide everything from his crew of tough sky pirates. They mine lightning to sell to Ricky Gervais (who’s actually the worst stunting casting). They capture Danes and Cox and De Niro confides in the young couple.

He teaches them to dance, he teaches Cox how to sword fight, he does a makeover on Cox, giving him some romance novel cover hair. He also gives them new outfits.

So then they’re ready for the multiple showdowns–Strong and the princes, Pfeiffer and the witches, Melanie Hill’s traveling salesperson witch who has enslaved Cox’s mom (Kate Magowan). But Cox isn’t look for his mom, because he forgot about her once he kidnapped Danes and he never comes back to it.

Cox is a bad kid. No spoilers, but Nathaniel Parker (as the grown-up dad) gets a shockingly thankless part. You’d think being raised by a single dad in nineteenth century small village England would have an effect on Cox’s character, but since he doesn’t get a character until he gets the hair cut… you’d be wrong.

There’s also a thing where Vaughn’s “magical” direction of magic land is exactly the same as his idealized English village. Cox is just traveling through Disney movies, one without magic to one with magic.

Cox never gets to be the protagonist. Top-billed Danes doesn’t either. They both play second fiddle to the bigger name stars, Pfeiffer and De Niro. Where it’s unfair is how Strong gets to do his own thing without Pfeiffer or De Niro and isn’t even a serious antagonist.

Cox and Danes are fine. Their writing is often lousy. De Niro is not fine. It’s an insensitive, if enthusiastic, caricature. Vaughn’s poor direction of actors is most obvious with De Niro. De Niro’s vamping it up and Vaughn directs it all to beg for a laugh. Ha. Robert De Niro is a miserable, closest gay guy who’s worried his only friends will ostracize or kill him if they know he’s gay. But, hey, it’s De Niro in drag.

Then there’s how Danes is a simply damsel, even if she’s an anthropomorphized luminous spheroid of plasma. Cox is the hero prince, even if he’s been passive in every single one of his scenes. Vaughn needed some confidence in his leads.

Stardust is occasionally amusing, when the bad performances and bad writing aren’t too overwhelming. Danes and Cox are quite likable. The movie’s just got a weak script and lacking direction.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Gavin Bouquet; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman, and Vaughn; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Kate Magowan (Princess Una), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), David Kelly (the Wall Guard), and Peter O’Toole (the King); narrated by Ian McKellen.


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Dead Silence (2007, James Wan), the unrated version

Dead Silence is pretty dumb, but it’s often incredibly well-made, which makes up for a lot of the dumbness. There are a lot of problems with the acting–lead Ryan Kwanten is particularly lacking when delivering the weak dialogue though he’s otherwise acceptable as a scream king. Or, in the case of Dead Silence, where the monster gets you if you scream, he’s acceptable as a non-scream king. But the film relies heavily on exposition. Even when Kwanten’s not talking–or even when he’s listening to one of the better actors (Donnie Wahlberg and Michael Fairman, for example)–there’s the constant threat of a weak performance.

Also bad is Laura Regan as Kwanten’s wife. They’re obnoxiously cute or at least screenwriter Leigh Whannell intends them to be cute. It doesn’t really come off. Partially because of the performances, partially because of the writing. Dead Silence has enormous plot holes and logic gaps. Director Wan manages to get across a lot of them, but there’s only so much style can do. Eventually, the logic gaps catch up with the film. At that point, however, Wahlberg’s got a bigger part so at least he’s chewing the scenery in a terribly written cop role.

Michael N. Knue’s editing is good. The first act is hurried, partially due to the script. It’s only successful thanks to Knue’s editing. He slows it down for the rest of the film, which takes place over a couple unlikely days, and doesn’t get to affect the pace as much. It’s still good editing in the latter part, it’s just not expertly hurried.

Solid photography from John R. Leonetti too, though Dead Silence has been through a lot of post-production for the colors. Director Wan focuses the viewer’s attention, usually obviously, and always pragmatically. Dead Silence is a light film, untold horrors of ventriloquism or not; Wan’s direction at least gives it the impression of heft.

Middling support from Bob Gunton and Amber Valletta don’t really hurt the picture. It’d have been nice if they were better as Kwanten’s estranged family, but it probably wouldn’t have helped the picture much.

Once Dead Silence finds its pace in the middle–after Knue’s no longer keeping things moving through aggressive cutting–it’s a solidly diverting, if questionably acted and definitely poorly written, horror picture. The big reveal is terrible and Wan goes out of his way to forecast it. Maybe not the particulars but at least the concept for the solution. Whannell’s script lacks any depth, it’s just too bad it’s similarly shallow as far as conclusions go.

But Wan does a fine job putting it all together, bad script, weak lead. It’s far more competent than it needs to be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on a story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, John R. Leonetti; edited by Michael N. Knue; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ryan Kwanten (Jamie Ashen), Laura Regan (Lisa Ashen), Donnie Wahlberg (Det. Lipton), Michael Fairman (Henry Walker), Amber Valletta (Ella Ashen), Bob Gunton (Edward Ashen), Joan Heney (Marion Walker) and Judith Roberts (Mary Shaw).


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Highlander: The Source (2007, Brett Leonard)

I wish there were nice things to say about Highlander: The Source. I wish every statement didn’t have to have a qualifier. For example, Adrian Paul is almost fine. He’s got a badly written part but he’s game for it. Same goes for Peter Wingfield, who’s a little less almost fine. He’s bad but his part is even worse written. And so on through the supporting cast. Until you get to Jim Byrnes, who’s just bad.

But The Source has a very specific audience in mind. It’s for people who loved the “Highlander” TV show so much they don’t care about the movie being bad. The film doesn’t ask for anything except to be engaged on those terms. It’s a franchise popular enough to get investors but not buyers. In terms of film industry history, “Highlander” is actually somewhat relevant. It helped prime the world for fantasy and sci-fi properties to be successful, while not successful itself. It fell on its sword.

Stephen Kelvin Watkins and Mark Bradley’s script takes itself way too seriously for The Source to be any fun. Director Leonard doesn’t have his moments because, even though he knows how to compose a Panavision frame at least somewhat competently, he’s shooting on crappy video and cinematographer Steve Arnold can’t shoot it. There’s lots of poorly matched digital backdrops in The Source. It’s knowingly incompetent, begging for an incomplete mark versus a fail; a technical cop out.

I wanted to be so enthused about The Source I was going to post an intentionally misguided response, something about it taking place in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Highlander 2 or having to do with the other planet but it’s not worth it. In the end, I’m just glad Thekla Reuten didn’t get too embarrassed by her lame part. Reuten’s pretty good for a lot of her performance and then the third act just flushes her part.

Not many people should see The Source. I’ve seen every one of the Highlander movies and I shouldn’t have seen The Source. I’ll bet people who worked on The Source never even watched The Source. It’s a feature length fan film made on the budget of a television commercial. It just happens to be produced by the rights owners. The Source isn’t about being accessible or generally rewarding. It’s not even about being good. But it’s also not worth any more words.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Brett Leonard; screenplay by Stephen Kelvin Watkins and Mark Bradley, based on a story by Bradley and characters created by Gregory Widen; director of photography, Steve Arnold; edited by Chris Blunden and Les Healey; music by George Kallis; production designer, Tom Brown; produced by William N. Panzer and Peter S. Davis; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Adrian Paul (Duncan MacLeod), Thekla Reuten (Anna Teshemka), Peter Wingfield (Methos), Thom Fell (Cardinal Giovanni), Stephen Wight (Reggie Weller), Stephen Rahman Hughes (Zai Jie), Cristian Solimeno (The Guardian), Patrice Naiambana (The Elder) and Jim Byrnes (Joe Dawson).


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Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie), the director’s cut

Halloween is a very bad film. It’s an ambitious film but it fails with everything it’s trying to do. Director Zombie wants to do a revisionist look at the original film (and franchise to some extent). He wants to make it real. He wants to write long monologues for Malcolm McDowell’s psychiatrist, long, ridiculous monologues. They make McDowell seem like a joke. Except the script doesn’t function if he’s a joke. Zombie wants to make fun of the original Halloween. Halloween, the remake, is the idea of remake as overcompensation.

Of course, Halloween isn’t just a remake–though it is, for the majority of its runtime, a terrible updating of the original film. Zombie (intentionally) doesn’t give years, but it seems to take place in the mid-nineties, which makes it a reference to the release of the original film. There’s so much symbolism, both visually and in the narrative, it actually gets uncomfortable. I’m not sure if Zombie could make the film more desperately obvious.

Zombie front loads a back story for Michael Myers (played as an adult by Tyler Mane–who actually gives an okay performance given the nonsense going on–and Daeg Faerch in the opening). Personifying Faerch, while teasing his “true” nature, might–in the second part of the film–lead to some audience curiosity about Mane’s actions (instead of focusing on his intended victims’ fright), but it doesn’t do anything. Zombie does a crappy TV movie version of an abusive home life, generic bullies, evil older sisters, drunk stepdads (a hilarious William Forsythe). And even though cinematographer Phil Parmet appears able to handle the lighting, Zombie doesn’t have a style for it. He does a bland Panavision, nothing else. The handful of okay shots in the movie are just because Mane’s really tall and he’s breaking down walls because–to be realistic, of course–the monster has to be an actual monster.

But front loading Mane’s backstory distracts from Halloween’s biggest problem. “Lead” Scout Taylor-Compton is terrible. Zombie writes the teen girls terribly. Intentionally. He wants to get rid of the artifice, he wants to get rid of the sympathy. Because without sympathy, the audience has to get it from the terrible fates of the characters. It’s a slasher movie, right? But it doesn’t work. Zombie’s approaches to the slasher set pieces are all terrible. He even tries to distract from them with ludicrous plotting to keep those viewers familiar with the original (you know, the target audience) guessing where the story is going.

And then Zombie wants it all to be about the death and beauty of the American family. Sincerely. He even gets Dee Wallace to play Taylor-Compton’s mom. Halloween is a movie made for people who get E.T. references. It would’ve been better with more, because at least with bad cameos and lame jokes, Zombie is appearing interested.

Brad Dourif’s okay as the sheriff. He’s not in it enough. Sheri Moon Zombie is almost good as Faerch’s mom. Danny Trejo gets casted for the visual recognition but does a fine job. Danielle Harris probably gives the film’s best performance. Well, except the little kids. Both Skyler Gisondo and Jenny Gregg Stewart are fantastic.

Malcolm McDowell is bad. Zombie doesn’t know how to direct him and he’s got the film’s worst role, which is saying a lot, but McDowell is still bad.

On the other hand, even though I can’t stand the movie, I really want to see it pan and scan. I want to see Rob Zombie’s Halloween cropped to 4:3. Maybe he’s directing for 4:3. I doubt it, because the script would still be terrible and the acting awful and Tyler Bates’s music lame (though not as lame as the soundtrack selections–from Zombie). But maybe.

Wait, I almost forgot–even though her acting is unbelievably bad and anyone would have been better–Taylor-Compton is good at pretending to be scared.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Zombie; screenplay by Zombie, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Phil Parmet; edited by Glenn Garland; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Anton Tremblay; produced by Malek Akkad, Andy Gould and Zombie; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Starring Malcolm McDowell (Samuel), Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie), Danielle Harris (Annie Brackett), Kristina Klebe (Lynda), Brad Dourif (Lee), Jenny Gregg Stewart (Lindsey), Skyler Gisondo (Tommy), Nick Mennell (Bob), Danny Trejo (Ismael), Sid Haig (Chester), Dee Wallace (Cynthia), Pat Skipper (Mason), Hanna Hall (Judith), Sheri Moon Zombie (Deborah), William Forsythe (Ronnie) and Daeg Faerch & Tyler Mane (Michael).


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