2007

Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

Elite Squad is about how hard it is to be a fascist stormtrooper in Rio de Janeiro, because not only do you have to deal with militarized criminals, corrupt cops, smooth-talking (and sexy) liberals, you also might have a wife who doesn’t like you being a fascist stormtrooper or some dead kid’s mom come ask you to help find his body because you left it, but the worst thing is how you yourself know it’s wrong to be a fascist stormtrooper and you can’t make the shakes go away.

The only way to make them go away is to fully commit and wouldn’t that development be the greatest tragedy, to watch narrator and “Elite Squad” captain Wagner Moura—it’s not called Elite Squad, it’s BOPE (for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), it’s like if SWAT were officially supposed to be a hit squad—anyway, wouldn’t it just be so sad to see Moura have to give in and be a BOPE officer forever. Because he wants out, but he couldn’t leave until they take out one last drug dealer (Fábio Lago), even if it costs him his marriage to Maria Ribeiro. Once he gets Lago, Ribeiro will take him back. We don’t know Ribeiro will take him back because she leaves his ass after he sticks his finger in her face and screams at her about being the boss of the house. But, in his narration, Moura seems sure. Because in his narration, Moura sounds like a sociopath, which actually sets him apart from the rest of the BOPE officers, who have maybe one scene with any personality and the rest of the time are just action figures.

Action figures without personality is better than the regular cops, who are either entirely corrupt or just plain psychopaths. You have to be more restrained to be a BOPE, so they can only take the sociopaths.

The movie’s actually the story of best friends, roomies, and rookie cops André Ramiro and Caio Junqueira, who are finding out just how corrupt things are with their fellow brothers in blue. Squad’s at its best when Junqueira’s got his whole odyssey through the cops’ corruption racket, how they’ve split up the city into protection zones and squabble with one another to extort the most money. It’s fascinating and beautifully paced. It helps Junqueira’s guide is dirty cop Milhem Cortaz; Cortaz is great during this part of the film. He falls apart later, when he, Junqueira, and Ramiro end up at the boot camp. The boot camp sequence, with Moura’s omnipresent narration, is… troubling. It’s where the film gradually forgets dehumanized fascist stormtroopers are bad and instead, with the narrator guiding the way, decides maybe they’re really cool. Especially when they’re breaking in the newbies.

Because it turns out the only solution to Rio’s crime problem is these BOPE soldiers. The criminals are militarized and every single one of the ones Moura tortures turns out to be lying to the cops, so you know, it’s the poors in the slums too. The corrupt cops you occasionally get to kill when they’re taking payoffs. The smooth-talking, sexy liberals are a big problem—Ramiro’s got an exhausting subplot about law school and liberal rich girl (Fernanda Machado) who runs an NGO in the slums to help the youths at least stay in school-they’re going to try to seduce you away from the real problem.

And what’s the real problem? Elite Squad isn’t one of those “asks tough questions” pro-fascist stormtrooper movies. It’s not one of those “doesn’t ask tough questions” ones either. It just kind of shrugs. It’s not even committed enough to do the “cops as a gang” thing.

Now, as it turns out, some of that lack of commitment to anything might have to do with co-writer Bráulio Mantovani and director Padilha deciding in post to make the movie about Moura and having him record the omnipresent narration and make some other cuts. I mean, it probably helps a lot—without Moura narrating Junqueira and Ramiro’s stories those portions of the film would be rather rough. Ramiro’s boring (though Machado’s good). Junqueira’s just an unpleasant prick. So even though Moura’s actual omnipresent, past-tense narration is really dumb—it occasionally drops in statements like, “So and so later told me,” and it’s like, sure, Jan—it’s a lot better than the thought of Ramiro and Junqueira unaccompanied.

Good direction from Padilha, great editing from Daniel Rezende, great photography from Lula Carvalho. If something goes wrong with either, it’s because of something Padilha’s doing, not Rezende’s cuts or Carvalho’s lights.

Elite Squad is kind of like a grim and gritty G.I. Joe toy commercial going off the rails when it realizes how messed up to be a fascist stormtrooper, but then somehow goes even more off the rails when it decides the coolness of being a fascist stormtrooper is better, actually.

The best performances are Cortaz, Lago, Machado, and Ribeiro (which is something because Ribeiro’s got a crap part). Ramiro’s less unlikable than Junqueira, but Junqueira’s probably better. Moura’s… fine. His narration performance isn’t great or good or even as fine as his onscreen one. If it were… might be better, might not matter. Padilha and Mantovani seemed to think it made the film better. No reason to assume they were wrong.

Just doesn’t make it good. Elite Squad’s a capable production team in search of a better project… with a better cast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel, based on the book by André Batista, Pimentel, and Luiz Eduardo Soares; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Tulé Peak; costume designer, Cláudia Kopke; produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Wagner Moura (Capitão Nascimento), André Ramiro (Aspirante Matias), Caio Junqueira (Neto), Milhem Cortaz (Capitão Fábio), Fernanda Machado (Maria), Maria Ribeiro (Rosane), and Fábio Lago (‘Baiano’).


Waitress (2007, Adrienne Shelly)

For most of its runtime, Waitress is a character study. Writer and director Shelly does give the film an epical arc, which doesn’t get fully revealed until the third act (and, arguably, epilogue), but most of the film is spent watching Keri Russell, her character’s actions, reactions, inactions, and her performance. Russell is a small-town waitress in an undetermined Southern town stuck in a dead-end life. She’s married to an abusive prick (Jeremy Sisto), desperately trying to hide away enough money to escape him—her heart set on winning a major pie baking contest (Russell’s a pie-baking virtuoso)—she works in a local diner (appropriately a pie diner, so she at least gets to do what she loves and her two coworkers are good friends), and her life’s been stalled so long she can’t even remember when it was in motion.

Throughout the film, Shelly introduces a couple big expository devices to reveal more and more about Russell. First, she daydreams up her pie recipes, usually as a reaction to what’s going on in her life, usually what’s going wrong in her life. The second device comes later, after the inciting incident—turns out Russell’s pregnant, the result of an offscreen, definitely not enthusiastically consented night of martial relations (Sisto intentionally got her drunk). Russell’s miserable at the thought of being a mom; fellow waitresses, aforementioned good friends Cheryl Hines and director Shelly get Russell a pregnancy journal. One of the features is a place to write to the baby, which eventually gives Russell an outlet. And the audience a fuller picture of her thoughts and how she experiences the film’s events.

Because even though she’s got good friends Shelly and Hines, they’ve all got their secrets. And those secrets are the most important things in their lives. The only one who can see into Russell’s secrets is Andy Griffith, which seems like the most natural sentence in the world. Who else could.

Griffith’s the crotchety old man owner of the diner where Russell and company work. She’s the only one who likes him; he’s mean to everyone else. He’s just the owner, Lew Temple runs the place. Temple’s a crotchety middle-aged man who’s mean to everyone, Russell included. The reason Griffith’s so nice to Russell is because he sees something wonderful in her. So does Sisto as it turns out. And so does Russell’s new doctor, played by Nathan Fillion. While there’s some reciprocity in the first and third relationships—Russell gets nothing but despondence and multiple kinds of pain from being married to Sisto—Russell’s still being used by Griffith and Fillion. There’s a significant, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit power imbalance to the relationships, which Russell takes a while to fully understand.

It’s a great character arc for Russell and the film. Shelly’s got the plot down, just not the plotting of it. She establishes a deliberate, relaxed pace in the first act, speeding it up a little at the start of the second, but then skipping along as the film nears the halfway point. Whole weeks go by offscreen with character development on pause between scenes. Even with Sisto, whose intensified abuse changes Russell’s trajectory multiple times, there’s very little insight and even less deliberation. When things start getting difficult, Russell clamps up; it’s never clear how much her friends know about her home life, ditto Fillion (once their relationship develops, rather unprofessionally, past doctor and patient), and the journal entries become more sporadic and used for emphasis not insight.

It’s not exactly a rocky finish, but the film never slows down to find a new pace. It’s still successful—Shelly’s direction, writing, Russell’s phenomenal performance, the supporting performances, the crew—none of the quality dips, it’s just Shelly goes for aspirational instead of realistic. She’s trying to find a happy ending in it all, which is going to require a lot of contrivance, a lot of coincidence.

Great photography from Matthew Irving; he and Shelly create this gentle but strong light theme, very focused on the actors, emphasizing their performances. There are some great scenes of Russell and Fillion just listening to each other and considering the other’s words. And Russell’s constant waiting for Sisto’s explosions is terrifying. Sisto’s great. Fillion’s good too, but he’s (somewhat intentionally) never deep enough. It’s not a character study about him, after all.

Hines, Shelly, Griffith, Temple, they’re all excellent. Eddie Jemison has a small part and he’s a lot of fun.

Good music from Andrew Hollander, good editing from Annette Davey. Ramsey Avery’s production design is essential.

Waitress is outstanding. It’s got its issues, but thanks to Russell’s performance, Shelly’s directing, her script, the supporting cast… it’s outstanding. Even though the film gets inside Russell’s head, Shelly showcases her performance like it doesn’t. They’re a great team.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Adrienne Shelly; director of photography, Matthew Irving; edited by Annette Davey; production designer, Ramsey Avery; produced by Michael Roiff; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Keri Russell (Jenna), Jeremy Sisto (Earl), Nathan Fillion (Dr. Pomatter), Cheryl Hines (Becky), Adrienne Shelly (Dawn), Lew Temple (Cal), Eddie Jemison (Ogie), and Andy Griffith (Old Joe).


Superbad (2007, Greg Mottola), the unrated version

Superbad is exceptionally funny. In terms of how often you lose your breath from laughing, it’s hard to think of a better movie than Superbad. Watching Superbad probably burns between 118 and 315 calories. This unrated version anyway. The rated version would burn about four minutes less. Next time I watch it I’ll have to try to measure it on my Apple Watch. It’s one of the funnier films ever made. A smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. It’s a peerless success in terms of those laughs, a combination of script, actors, and material. Utterly obscene teen male virgin comedies—the kind screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg apparently grew up watching—needed the Internet and culture to hit 2007 to fully realize the genre’s potentials.

But it’s just a smartly done, utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy. The script’s got an amazing first act, plotting-wise; the rest of the movie doesn’t. Director Mottola takes a hands-off approach, not really showing much personality until the last shot when you get the feeling he wishes he were making a different, less utterly obscene teen male virgin comedy, but maybe even smarter. Lead Jonah Hill (playing “Seth”) loses his first act protagonist role once the second act hits. By the third act he’s even more reduced. Instead, it’s more about Hill’s best friend, Michael Cera (playing “Evan”), and their awkward third wheel, the hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse. They’re all high school seniors. It’s the last two weeks of school. They’re going to a party.

Mintz-Plasse’s side plot is all about his fake ID, liquor, and two party animal cops (Bill Hader and Rogen—who are playing older analogues to the teen boys, but not generally, it’s not one-to-one). It’s the even funnier stuff in the extremely funny movie. Because even though Hill and Cera have a lot of humor in their own liquor hunt (Hill promised dream girl Emma Stone he’d bring all the booze for her party, Cera promised dream girl Martha MacIsaac he’d bring her a special bottle of vodka), they’ve also got their “best friends since the fourth grade who go to different colleges and can’t be joined at the hip anymore” arc. For all their excellent insights into the male psyche, Rogen and Goldberg can’t crack that arc. Meanwhile Mottola is focused on the “boys finally learn girls are people they want to spend time with” arc, which is really awkward because Hill, Cera, and Mintz-Plasse are way too old for that arc.

Their being too old for it does provide a decent backdrop for some of the jokes, but the only time it gets directly referenced is with dream girl Stone. She’s too wise for Hill; he’s been intentionally confusing maturity and vulgarity his whole life and it won’t work with Stone. Meanwhile Cera gets this strangely paternalist arc with MacIsaac, which—given how shallow Cera’s performance schtick gets as the film goes along—is really bad for her. MacIsaac gets a little more screen time than Stone (it feels like a lot more; Stone’s forgettable) and somehow even less character. They’re both dream girl caricatures (albeit 2007 ones). The film never even hints at them being anything more. MacIsaac’s got friends, Stone’s got parents out of town. Done.

Other big problems include the progressive gay jokes. It’s lazy writing more than anything else. Superbad’s got a really big anti-toxic masculinity statement it hints around making without ever having the balls to make it. Also interesting is the lack of teen male virgin shaming, which sort of breaks the genre.

I also don’t understand how the Richard Pryor shirt Hill wears through the first act didn’t become the Garfield-in-the-car-window of the late aughts. Pryor’s expression gets laughs of its own, like he’s offering commentary on the surrounding events. It’s awesome.

Lots of Superbad is awesome. It’s peerlessly funny. It’s also astoundingly not ambitious.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; director of photography, Russ Alsobrook; edited by William Kerr; music by Lyle Workman; production designer, Chris Spellman; produced by Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jonah Hill (Seth), Michael Cera (Evan), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fogell), Seth Rogen (Officer Michaels), Bill Hader (Officer Slater), Kevin Corrigan (Mark), Martha MacIsaac (Becca), Emma Stone (Jules) and Joe Lo Truglio (Francis the Driver).


Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)

Halloween is very loud. It’s about the only thing director Zombie keeps consistent throughout. It gets loud. It starts kind of quiet–comparatively–then gets loud. Jump scares always have some noise. But once the jump scares are every two seconds, there’s just loud noise. Giant spree killer Tyler Mane destroys a house in the third act, with his bare hands. Because it’s loud to destroy a house. A different filmmaker with different goals might try to have the destruction of his childhood home, where he became a tween spree killer, mean something. Especially since Mane’s current target is long lost baby sister Scout Taylor-Compton (now a teenager). He’s destroying her house too.

But not Zombie. He’s just being loud. The only reason they’re at the house is because Zombie wanted to avoid similarities to the original Halloween. It’s a very strange remake, because you always get the feeling Zombie would rather be doing anything else. Zombie’s not enthusiastic about anything. The noise, sure, and the violence–sort of, it’s violent and bloody as all hell, but not really creatively. Cynically. Zombie condescends to his own film, which is interesting. You can’t really dwell on it too long because loud noises interrupt reflection.

The film spends almost the first hour outside remake expectations. Zombie’s doing his own origin story for Michael Myers (played by Daeg Faerch as a kid). It’s the late seventies. They’re kind of white trash. Mom (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper with a heart of gold. Sister Hanna Hall is a jerk. William Forsythe is Mom’s abusive, drunken, live-in boyfriend who’s immobilized from injury. Zombie’s really bad at the writing of the family. He can’t take it seriously.

Moon Zombie’s almost all right as the mom. She takes it seriously in a way no one else does. Not the stunt cameos, not Forsythe, who’s kind of funny but also clearly very cynical in his performance. Zombie does all these things in Halloween’s first section but he doesn’t do any of them right. It’s not exactly potential, but the most similar thing to potential the film’s ever going to have. Because once it gets to the “present”–the early-to-mid nineties–Halloween’s got zilch. Eventually you hope–remembering the plot of the original–it’ll end after this next riff on a scene from the original but it never does. Zombie keeps it going for ages, just to mess with expectations of the target audience. And also for those viewers who just want to believe sometime it’ll finally end.

And then it gets so loud.

Until the last third or so, the film relies entirely on John Carpenter’s original Halloween score. Maybe a little louder, set to all sorts of scenes it doesn’t fit, over and over. It’s omnipresent. The finale is just Tyler Bates being loud. Because it’s all about being loud in Halloween.

It’s not about Halloween at all though. Loudness, sure. Halloween, not so much. Even though there’s a kid dressed up as a skeleton boy or something, Halloween doesn’t play in during the present day stuff. Not even as Taylor-Compton being too old for it or whatever. Zombie doesn’t care about Halloween. How appropriate for the movie, Halloween.

He likes his cameos, but he doesn’t care about them. Ken Foree has the best one. Though Sid Haig’s isn’t terrible either. Zombie’s got no more enthusiasm for the successful ones than the bad ones. Sometimes they work, most times they don’t. Udo Kier’s is the most superfluous and Danny Trejo’s the most disappointing. Trejo’s turns out to be Zombie at his most painfully obvious and trying. It’s one of the first exhausting elements in the film.

By the time Taylor-Compton comes in, the movie’s only got a few moments of narrative drive left. Zombie burns it all up with the transition from past to present. It gets so long in such a short amount of time. Maybe because Malcolm McDowell can’t even pretend to try. Of course he goes away for most of the film, which doesn’t turn out to improve anything because Taylor-Compton is so unlikable. Zombie doesn’t care about any of the characters so it’s hard to care much for them either. Big problem given Taylor-Compton is the “lead.”

Technically, the film’s competent. Zombie’s not a good director and he composes poorly for the Panavision, but he’s not incompetent. Phil Parmet’s photography is fine. It’s not any good or ever interesting, but it’s not any good. Glenn Garland’s editing is effective. It’s cheap, but it’s effective. Anton Tremblay’s production design is phenomenal. As crappy as the film gets, it always looks amazing. Even when Zombie’s not showing it in an amazing light.

Occasionally it seems like Zombie wants to spoof Halloween, but instead tries to let his contempt inform the film instead. He never succeeds, because it’s bad, but there are missed opportunities. They all have caveats, but they’re around.

The closest thing to good performances are from Danielle Harris and Brad Dourif. Neither have any good material per se, but they at least try with what they’ve got. It’s more than most anyone else is doing. Even the bad actors seem to know not to try too hard with a lousy script.

Dee Wallace goes all out though.

Halloween is long, loud, unpleasant, and underwhelming. If Zombie can’t convince himself his ideas are good and explore them, how can he convince an audience.

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 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).


Smiley Face (2007, Gregg Araki)

Smiley Face is something of an endurance test. How long can the film keep going before falling apart due to its own flimsiness. Thanks to star Anna Faris, it pretty much does make it to the finish. The third act–thanks to the bookending device (the film is told in flashback, narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, who Faris is imagining talking to her)–lacks momentum but there’s only so much the movie could do. It is just about Faris getting too stoned and messing up her day. There’s nothing more to it.

After Browne introducing Faris, the film flashbacks to her morning. She’s got a busy day–an audition (she’s an actress) and she’s got to pay the power bill in person. So she gets a stoned before starting out, only to get more stoned after she eats her roommate’s cupcakes. Turns out they’re pot cupcakes. Now, Smiley Face does a fine job with the attention span and the erratic hold on reality of a stoned protagonist, but there are some leaps–would Faris actually remain conscious after eating so much pot, would she still be stoned ten hours later as the story wraps up. She narrates most of the first act and implies her tolerance isn’t extreme… but whatever.

During the first act she also introduces the roommate, Danny Masterson; they hate each other and he psychologically terrorizes her. He’s one of the film’s many leaps in logic. He’s there to be a punchline (in Masterson’s case, a repeated, non-emoting one). The most exceptional thing about Faris’s performance is she manages to navigate the film’s anti-character development and succeed anyway.

We also meet her dealer, Adam Brody. Who’s a white guy with dreads. Fake dreads, but it’s not clear if the dreads are supposed to be fake (they’re obviously fake). He’s done giving Faris a free ride on her pot, so she’s got to bring him money at a hemp festival–pre-marijuana legalization pot culture is going to be hard to explain someday soon–see, since she ate all the cupcakes, she needs to make more. And then she’s got to pay the power bill and get to her audition.

Smiley Face uses, occasionally, superimposed text cards enumerating Faris’s tasks for the day. It forecasts the story. Maybe the funniest and smartest thing about the script, as the protagonist is debilitatingly stoned, her to do list ain’t getting done.

Besides a mishap getting on the bus–Faris is too stoned to drive (the film, at least until the second act, is often just showcases for her physical comedy skills)–she basically follows the plan. Though she does burn up all the weed and doesn’t have money to buy any more. The audition, with Jim Rash as the receptionist and Jane Lynch as the casting agent (the film’s rife with cameos, mostly in the first half), is pretty funny. Definitely could’ve gone longer but the film’s already started backing up a bit from being through Faris’s perspective, narrative distance-wise, to being about Faris’s experiences.

Eventually John Krasinski comes into the story–he’s a friend of Masterson’s who has a crush on Faris, which is summarized in a hilarious montage–because she needs a ride and someone who can lend her money to pay Brody. They just need to go to Krasinski’s dentist appointment first.

Things don’t go as planned–actually not a single thing in Smiley Face goes as planned; it’s not really a comedy of errors because things going well doesn’t seem remotely possible. It’s just how is Faris going to screw it up. Though she’s decidedly passive in most of her problems in the second half. For example, when she goes to hide at an old professor’s house and his mom–Marion Ross in a fun cameo–mistakes her for the new teacher’s assistant… well, it’s not like Faris can tell her the truth, not given the situation.

The scene with Ross changes the narrative trajectory all the way to the finish, even though there’s some attempt at acknowledging Faris’s original plans. There are talking dogs, there’s John Cho and Danny Trejo as sausage delivery drivers, there’s a workers of the world unite speech, there’s a ferris wheel. There’s even a Carrot Top cameo.

Dylan Haggerty’s script gets real lazy in the third act. The movie needs to be over and the whole journey aspect has gotten slowed way down thanks to all the narrative tangents. So there’s a perfunctory deus ex machina, which comes early enough the narrative could recover. It just doesn’t. Time for the movie to be over.

The film’s competently executed. Shawn Kim’s photography is fine. Director Araki does a little better with the editing than the direction, but Smiley Face doesn’t need a lot of direction. It just needs Faris to be funny; she obliges.

Supporting cast-wise… Krasinski is best, but only because he gets the most screen time. No one’s bad. Not even Masterson. The film figures out how to utilize his driftwood presence. Cho’s actually a little bit of a disappointment, but it’s the part more than the performance.

Smiley Face is eighty-five sometimes long minutes, but there’s always something ranging from funny to hilarious just on the horizon. Until the finale, unfortunately.

1/4

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Gregg Araki; written by Dylan Haggerty; director of photography, Shawn Kim; music by David Kitay; production designer, John Larena; produced by Araki, Steve Golin, Alix Madigan, Kevin Turen, and Henry Winterstern; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Anna Faris (Jane), John Krasinski (Brevin), Danny Masterson (Roommate Steve), John Cho (Mikey), Adam Brody (Dealer Steve), Marion Ross (Shirley), and Danny Trejo (Albert); narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne.


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.


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).


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).


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 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).


Spirit of the Marathon (2007, Jon Dunham)

Director Dunham’s thesis for Spirit of the Marathon is a little iffy. He clearly wants to show the differences and similarities between marathon runners–Dunham and the rest of the crew have zero presence in the documentary, which is fine (eventually). He goes from the people doing it for fun, to people doing it for personal achievement, to people competing for the win. He does a fantastic job evening out the attention he gives each subject.

But he doesn’t really learn anything. Or, if he does, he doesn’t tell. The film ends with postscripts, catching the viewer up with the Spirit’s ostensible subjects. Only, Dunham completely changes how the documentary functions once it gets to the Chicago Marathon, where all the subjects are running.

And the marathon stuff is fantastic. Christo Brock’s editing is great throughout Spirit, but the flow of the actual marathon is phenomenal. It races past, with Dunham concentrating most of the attention on the two professional runners. It becomes a traditional sports movie narrative and no one else’s story is particularly interesting, even when it hints at high drama. There just isn’t time for the regular folks.

Spirit of the Marathon is a little shallow, but it’s never insincere. It’s just too bad Dunham couldn’t figure out a way for the marathon to be glorious for everyone, not just the professionals. He was undoubtedly restricted while shooting the actual marathon but his solution makes those postscripts seem disingenuous on the documentary’s part.

Still, pretty good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Dunham; directors of photography, Dunham and Sarah Levy; edited by Christo Brock; music by Jeff Beal; produced by Dunham and Gwendolen Twist; released by Image Entertainment.


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