Friday, August 10, 2007

Stardust Review

Now that the summer is coming to a close, I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by the movies that have been released. And not in the way I thought I would be. In retrospect, I probably gave the two big summer tentpoles (Spider-Man and Pirates) a little too much credit. I was dazzled by many of their special effects, but while watching them I could not help but think about all the problems they had. Spider-Man in particular I saw a great movie lying within the good one that I saw.

Which brings me to Stardust. Movies like Stardust are the reason I love going to the movie theater so often. I went in with very little expectations. I heard some positive buzz about the movie, and knew this was far from Matthew Vaughn's previous directorial effort (the slightly above average "Layer Cake", which shares almost NOTHING in common with this movie). While he does not do anything particularly new or innovating in the fantasy drama, Vaughn excels in telling a wonderful story about an incredible adventure and the pursuit of immortality.

The movie surrounds Tristan (Charlie Cox) who is desperately in love with the seemingly superficial Victoria (Sienna Miller). Realizing he comes from a modest background, he attempts to pull out all the stops to convince her to marry him and plans an elaborate evening next to The Wall. Meanwhile, the king of the neighboring Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), a magical kingdom that is separated from the human world by The Wall, is on his deathbed and tells his remaining four sons that the one who is able to return a ruby necklace back from a piece of glass would become king. The resulting transformation and dispersal of the necklace knocks the star Yvaine(Claire Danes) out of the sky and into the kingdom of Stormhold.

After witnessing what he believes to be nothing more than a small meteorite fall beyond the wall, Tristan pledges to retrieve the star in time for Victoria's birthday to prove his love to her and receive her hand in marriage. Of course, the queen witch Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer), along with her two sisters, is also aware of the star's presence and wants to find, kill, and eat the heart of the star to regain her youthfulness. Sounds fun. And so the quest begins.

If anyone out there considers themselves a fan of fantasy, you should really give this one a shot. While it seems to borrow from other fantasy elements, there is just the sense of excitement that the movie has that really emanates throughout the majority of the picture. Even if you do not like fantasy, I urge you to give it a shot. This is overall, some excellent storytelling that succeeds on so many levels.

Charlie Cox is very good in the role of the likable Tristan and truly does go through a journey from a boy to a man, as the narrator Ian McKellen simply states at the beginning. His start as a love-struck boy to a self-assured confident man is easily apparent. Claire Danes also is rather likable as the fallen star Yvaine, although she does have some instances of overacting and general annoyance when she first appears. Of course, this could be a result of her character not being human and attempting to adopt the mannerisms of a human so its either brilliant acting or slightly below average. That's for you to decide. Yet, since the movie rests essentially on the shoulders of these two, their chemistry more than makes up for any lack of acting on either part. The two of them play off of one another quite well and as the film goes on, there exist many situations in which that chemistry can be exploited.

The supporting cast is what really makes this an excellent movie. Michelle Pfieffer plays evil excellently and was a great villain. Robert DeNiro as the air pirate Captain Shakespeare along with Ricky Gervais' merchant Ferdy add a hilarious element to the movie. Shakespeare in particular is certainly not at all as he seems to be from first appearances and it really adds an unexpected twist to the whole story. Gervais is his usual self and he shows himself to be absolutely hilarious in seemingly every role he takes. And the ghosts of the dead princes added some hilarious comic relief at many unexpected moments.

The intensity of this movie also surprised me, and is one of the reasons I believe this will have a difficult time finding a very wide audience. At first glance, it looks like nothing more than a kid's movie with the aesthetic that it appears to have. But there are also some instances of real brutality and death along with quite a few risque innuendos and situations which would certainly not be present in any "kid's movie". Without a few cuts that were made, I could easily see how this could have obtained an R-rating, although I do not expect that we'll be seeing any "Unrated" cuts on the DVD. Yet, adults may shrug it off as for kids and parents might think that the PG-13 is too intense, leaving it in this unseen limbo.

But there are things that anyone can appreciate. The themes of love and immortality are handled in some surprising ways and it was welcome for me to not be able to predict what was going to happen right off the bat. When there is action, it is exciting and just when I thought that there would be no swordfighting in the movie, a creative, albeit short, swordfight ends up developing. I just feel you cannot give a character a sword unless he plans on using it for more than stabbing things. So fortunately, my swordfight quota was met with the movie.

There are a few issues to be had, though. The movie is a little overly long at two hours and 10 minutes. The first hour or so really takes time to pick up to the point where I found myself rather bored with the movie thinking that maybe this could be it. But once Tristan and Yvaine start on their journey, things seem to move much quicker and it becomes much more engaging. There are also a few other pacing issues that develop throughout the movie but nothing that was too distracting. I was also ready to complain about the swordfighting until the end when it actually happened. While this is nitpicking, also did not understand the concept of the kingdom of Stromhold. When it is shown on the map early in the movie, it appears to be rather small, no bigger than a city. But when they are traveling around the kingdom, it is obviously much larger than some small city. Also, the relationship with the human world is never fully explained, but I suppose it doesn't necessarily have to. The movie is primarily about the quest of one man to find out who he is and become a man, and this journey is followed closely. But I cannot say that I would have complained about the opportunity to understand just what this kingdom is.

Ultimately, this is an incredibly fun movie that had me smiling incessantly for the last hour or so. I was drawn in to this world and was happy I was given the opportunity to see it. The film may not bring anything new to the genre, but it was an exciting adventure almost from beginning to end and would easily recommend this to anyone who loves a good story.


Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum Review

"The Bourne Ultimatum" is probably the best sequel this summer. The reason for this amounts to something very simple. The attempt was made to tell a good story, not to unnecessarily top themselves.

The trap that Spider-Man, Pirates, and even Shrek and some of the others fell into was that the first movies were big, so the attempt is made to keep making it bigger. Bigger battles, more characters, more complex plot. Yet, this is not the case in "The Bourne Ultimatum". The fights are in the same style of the earlier movies, but different. There are no out of control explosions or absurd amounts of gunfire. Only Bourne and his insanely proficient spy skills.

What I found most interesting about the movie is the way in which it is structured. In essence this could be edited together with the second movie to make one epic spy movie. Taking place over the course of about 7 weeks, the movie begins as Bourne (Matt Damon, in case you were somehow living under a rock) is attempting to bandage himself after suffering from a gunshot wound and following his confession to the daughter of his two first murders near the end of "The Bourne Supremacy." Then, approximately 3/4 through the movie, the final scene of the second movie is recreated, albeit now under a different context than shown in the second movie. Which makes the majority of the movie take place between the second to last scene in "The Bourne Supremacy" and the final scene in that movie.

This is a structure that I have never seen before in a movie, unless you count the direct-to-DVD cash-in of The Lion King 1 1/2. Which, fortunately, I do not. Giving context to that entire last scene was something that I was not expecting and that offered a fresh perspective.

In addition to this structural difference, the movie itself was a spy movie at its finest. Almost nothing is done in this film that could not happen in real life. There are no crazy gadgets like James Bond and no face changing like in Mission: Impossible. No, when a fight breaks out, it's brutal. The action is in your face and does not let up throughout the entirety of the movie. The car chases are also incredible and are the only point where the suspension of disbelief needs to be raised just a little bit. The way in which the characters are able to maneuver through traffic seems to be unrealistic, but then again, I am not a professional driver so maybe it isn't. Either way, the car chases are still more grounded in reality than most other movies.

That's not to say that there is no story. On the contrary, the story accommodates the action in such a way that it never feels forced. Bourne only uses force when necessary and never crosses the line. And the film is better for it. Still not able to remember his past, Bourne attempts to put an end to everything once and for all and follow his past back to the beginning. He desperately needs to put it all behind him in order to continue the life that he now wants to lead. Hot on his trail is Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) who knows who Bourne truly is and wants to make sure Bourne does not ruin anything for him. Also brought back into the fray is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) who is convinced that Bourne wants to be left alone but argues with Vosen over what to do about Bourne. The dynamic between these two characters is very reminiscent of the dynamic between her and Brian Cox's character in the second movie. Yet, this time Pamela knows more and is more calm about her decisions than she was in "Supremacy".

What follows is a satisfying conclusion to the Bourne trilogy and an excellent way to end the series. The answers about Bourne's past, who he is, and what he is to become are all answered in a way that does not feel tacked on but part of an elaborate plan set up from the beginning. Given that the movies deviated so much from books, this is somewhat hard to believe but the way it is shown, it works very well.

All is not great with the movie though, as Julia Stiles' character Nicky Parsons seems to serve no real purpose to the story and was almost thrown in there just to give an unnecessary closure to her character. She shows up completely unexpectedly and coincidentally and what follows did not really work for me. I understood what they were trying to do with what they did, I just did not feel that it was necessary. Unfortunately, I cannot say more without giving it away, so I will just have to leave it at that.

All in all, this is an incredibly well-made, thrilling movie that deserves to be seen by anyone who considers themselves a fan of spy movies. Easily the best of the three, "The Bourne Ultimatum" stands strong against its predecessors and I find it nice to see that a sequel was done so well in this summer of disappointing sequels and especially three-quels.