December 04, 2008 9:39pm EST
Chronicling the rise of blues label Cadillac Records this rollicking musical charts the emergence of the blues musicians as popular hit makers and leads up to the birth of rock and roll. Focusing on several well-known early blues and rock legends Cadillac Records mixes issues of race infidelity payola violence and other things -- providing a turbulent backdrop for its portrait of an era full of great talent and great heartache. It starts in 1947 when bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) hires a young blues combo: guitar wizard Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and an edgy harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). This leads to a record deal and the formation of Chess label company. With other musicians such as Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) the label is rolling nicely down its own track when in 1955 Chuck Berry (Mos Def) walks through the door. Rock and roll is born taking Chess and his artists to the mainstream. Drug addiction drinking women tragedy and personal relationships -- including Chess’ own with a new discovery Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) -- form the core of this engrossing showcase paying tribute to those who paved the way. The ensemble cast that forms the heart of Cadillac Records is brilliant. Wright is powerful and surprisingly musical as the legendary Muddy Waters. Short (Stomp the Yard) is an impressive newcomer as the erratic but supremely talented Little Walter the Tupac of his time. Brit Walker (Prison Break) is particularly compelling to watch explosive and vibrant as Howlin Wolf Muddy Waters’ chief rival. Best of all is Mos Def alive and hilarious as the unpredictable Berry. His musical sequences are a highlight and his Berry impersonation really gives the man himself a run for his money. Also standing out is an amusing Cedric the Entertainer as the appropriately named Big Willie Dixon and Gabrielle Union fine as always as Muddy’s long-suffering wife. Brody as the head of the company is largely unsympathetic as the conniving Chess but the actor does manage to convey his drive and ultimate concern for the livelihood of his stable of musicians. Then there’s the sensational Dreamgirl Beyonce (who also co-produced) as the inimitable Etta James. She not only sings up a storm with such James standards as “At Last ” she proves she can really act in a couple of rousing dramatic moments. Writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) manages to bring an energy and informed musicality to Cadillac Records that sets it apart from other movies in the shopworn musical biopic genre. By focusing on a group of artists Martin manages to give each of her prodigious stars their own moment to shine. Wisely letting the cast do their own singing Martin manages to get an extra air of authenticity and electricity. Ultimately Cadillac Records is a stirring tribute to the artists who brought blues and rock into the mainstream and even through personal tragedy and financial problems manages to finally get their just rewards. This unheralded 2008 sleeper hit sneaking into theatres just before the holiday crunch is a gem.
November 13, 2008 7:00pm EST
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.
October 16, 2008 10:20pm EST
Rushed into production last spring in order to make an October release date right in the heart of a presidential election director Oliver Stone’s W hits the bullseye with this fairly well-balanced portrait of George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) a man who grows up in the shadow of a larger-than-life father and goes on to serve in the White House four years longer than his “Poppy” did. Stone’s biographical study of the brash cowboy from Texas chronicles his early years as an oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress his work on his father’s presidential campaign his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where he still sits today. We also see his courtship of Laura (Elizabeth Banks) and particularly his awkward dealings with his dad (James Cromwell) a complex relationship that ultimately forces W to rise up and compete with the legacy of his father and mentor. It’s that difficult dynamic between Bush Sr. and Jr. that forms the heart of the film and reveals the enigma that remains George W. Much of the story centers on the buildup to the decision to go into Iraq. Those sequences set in the White House situation room are at times hilarious in a Dr. Strangelove way and also a somewhat sobering if speculative window into how the Bush Administration does things. This film could not succeed if it was played as simply a Saturday Night Live sketch favoring impersonation over interpretation. Stone asked his actors to get the “spirit” of their respective characters and the results are impressive indeed. Brolin hits a career high and leaps into the Oscar race with his portrayal of George W. Bush. He’s close enough physically although more movie star in looks but he neatly captures the bravado and masked insecurities at the heart of the 43rd President particularly when dealing with his father brilliantly played by Cromwell. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time but certainly captures what we think we know about the former First Lady. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush is charming and winning. As for the Bush Administration figures who play a pivotal part in the proceedings Richard Dreyfuss stands out playing VP Dick Cheney as a Machiavellian figure out to create an empire in the Middle East. He loses himself in the skin of Cheney with almost effortless ease. Equally impressive is Toby Young who not only resembles political mastermind and Bush operative Karl Rove but turns this polarizing figure into a three-dimensional human being. Stacy Keach as a religious influence and Scott Glenn as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also shine in their few scenes. Less successful are Jeffrey Wright lacking authority as the imposing Colin Powell and Thandie Newton trying too hard to become Condoleeza Rice. There is no question Oliver Stone knows his way around this kind of controversial subject matter but what may shock many is the measured and thoughtful way he approaches the material. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser’s take on Bush is to present a man haunted by the legacy of his father with a need to prove he is tougher and stronger. Stone approaches it as straight biography while also treating it as part comedy. Despite its dramatic structure W. is often subtly played for laughs. Clearly the cast of characters in this almost Shakespearean tragedy gives the filmmaker lots of fodder but they are presented in a surprisingly respectful manner. Even W comes off as an empathetic and sometimes likeable figure a cowboy in the White House. As always Stone’s command of the medium is impressive and this is one of his finest films in many years. There’s something about a president that sparks him creatively whether it’s J.F.K. Nixon and now W.. Ultimately he holds back his own views and presents the man warts and all; he lets the viewer decide what place in history there will be for George W. Bush and by extension the film Stone has made about him.
July 13, 2008 5:20am EST
Actor Josh Brolin was arrested on Saturday after a bar brawl in Louisiana.
The actor was on a break from shooting his role as George W. Bush for filmmaker Oliver Stone's forthcoming biopic W, when he allegedly got involved in a fight between revelers at a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana.
According to the state's Shreveport Times, the actor, as well as W co-star Jeffrey Wright, were arrested at 2 a.m. after they tried to impede local police officers who were splitting up the brawl.
The pair received misdemeanor charges for interfering with police, according to Usweekly.com.
Brolin was charged at the city jail and was forced to pay a $334 cash bond.
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February 29, 2008 4:16am EST
Based on the sensational 1968 trial of the Chicago 7 (a group of anti-war protestors charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot) Chicago 10 is part documentary part motion-capture animation. The Chicago 7 was actually eight people and Chicago 10 is named after the group's two attorneys who also went courageously to jail. The men on trial included Abbie Hoffman the outspoken icon of Chicago-based activism and Jerry Rubin a 20th century celebrity in his own right. Chicago 10's cartoon portion tries to recreate the drama of the real-life trial. The jury listens skeptically and a crotchety old judge (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) gives the defendants’ opposition. It’s a commentary of the farcical nature of the trial--and the surreal standards behind it. Connecting the dots is a music video-like series of documentary images spotlighted by horrific scenes such as the Chicago police and National Guardsmen striking back scores of protestors. Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys songs underlie violent tableaus. For Americans born 1980 and after this era of left-leaning cultural dissent can be a foreign world. The 1960s’ silencing of voices questioning the government in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War has been echoed with the Iraqi War. But protests like Chicago 10 are a rarity today. On display are the voices of a handful of top Hollywood stars--including Mark Ruffalo Jeffrey Wright Nick Nolte Liev Schrieber and Hank Azaria--as the voices of the courtroom players. As with many star-studded animation productions the result is not greater than the sum of its parts. Although Scheider in his last performance provides the most distinctive voice as Judge Julius Hoffman Ruffalo Wright et.al are lost in the mix. Partially because of a limp-ish script the actors have to inject excitement into a static courtroom environment--but compared to 12 Angry Men or Primal Fear it just doesn’t engage. Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) comes with a fresh visionary perspective. He brings a vibrant attitude to this anti-war flick but it's one poorly executed or at least unevenly so. At the heart of the film's animation there are technical problems. The character's eyes are dead and their movements clunky despite the lively body motions. Compared to a higher budget movie like Beowulf the animation is many years behind. It's a big reason to discount the slowness by which Chicago 10 chief concept operates. The animation doesn't provide enough dramatic potency to involve the audience and becomes more like a gimmick. Messy psychedelic assemblage of documentary footage--though culled reportedly from thousands of images and minutes of tape--doesn't add insight beyond common knowledge. Unfortunately it just isn’t much different from what we've already seen.
January 25, 2008 4:37am EST
I say "creepy" because Untraceable’s theory could actually be a reality. The possibility of a tech-savvy psycho setting up a Web site that displays graphic murders could happen with the fate of each of the tormented captives left in the hands of the public: The more hits the site gets the faster the victims die--and in the case of Untraceable die in very gruesome ways. Of course Untraceable also gives us a peek at the good guys--the FBI division that is dedicated to investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. Special Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is one such Internet expert who along with her co-worker (Colin Hanks) is stymied by KillWithMe.com’s untraceablity. But soon the movie turns predictable as the cat-and-mouse game gets personal and Marsh must race against the clock to stop the madman. Lane has certainly looked better in her past movies. For obvious effect they’ve made Agent Marsh rather worn-down with dark circles under her eyes and very little makeup as she sits in front of the computer hunting the bad guys all night on the late shift. The fact that she’s also a widow having lost her cop husband to the job and caregiver to her young daughter doesn’t help the woman get anymore rest. Then when the crap starts hitting the fan and people close to Marsh get hurt the actress really shows the pain on her already haggard face. Marsh even admits “I do a lot of things well but I don’t lose people well.” It’s a standard tough-FBI-agent role and Lane is very capable at it. Supporting her is Hanks (Orange County) as the resident comic relief (what little of it there is) as well as Billy Burke (Fracture) the local cop trying to help Marsh catch the psycho Internet killer. As for the killer himself the actor who portrays him (and I won’t give it away) is very effective in the role. There are a couple of other things Untraceable has going for it besides the chilling premise: director Gregory Hoblit who knows his way around a crime thriller having directed gems such as Primal Fear and Fracture and the dank Portland Oregon locale. Hoblit creates just the right amount of tension and dread as the clock ticks down and the race nears its end but something about an overcast rainy environ just lends itself to more doom and gloom doesn’t it? Of course there are also the torture scenes which add a certain level of Hostel-like horror. What Untraceable lacks is a compelling narrative. The bevy of writers involved (never the best of signs) tend to throw in too many conventional thriller plot points--like the red herrings on who the killer is before he’s revealed and explaining why the killer is doing what he’s doing. All these things dilute the film’s initial potential. Still let’s just hope this doesn’t spawn real-life copycats.
November 21, 2007 7:49am EST
For the past 11 years--his whole life--Evan (Freddie Highmore) has been an orphan but that’s about to change along with his name. Evan has "always heard the music " even when it’s not playing and one day he decides to follow it in hopes of finding the parents he’s never met and whose musical genes he has inherited. It takes him out of the orphanage he has always despised and into Manhattan where 11 years prior he was conceived. As we learn via flashback his parents both young musicians at the time were an unlikely match: Lyla (Keri Russell) was a shy dainty cellist while Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was a brash Irish rocker. Their mutual love for music ultimately brought them together on a rooftop for just one night of which Evan turned out to be the product. But when Evan is born prematurely Lyla’s father (William Sadler) does what he thinks is right for her career and gives the newborn up for adoption without her knowledge. Lyla and Louis have since reluctantly given up music but Evan is about to pick up where they left off in New York City. While there he is discovered by a seemingly well-intentioned "manager" named Wizard (Robin Williams) who renames the prodigy August Rush. Before long Wizard is booking gigs in hopes of capitalizing financially while August hopes to use his music for a slightly nobler purpose: tracking down and reuniting his parents. Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate) is as much a child-actor prodigy as August Rush is a musician; he’s truly in a class of his own. It’s not just that the British youngster seamlessly ditches his accent to play an American—better and more undetectably than many of his elders are able to do might I add—or that he’s able to pull off the musical aspect (he reportedly mastered the guitar and conducting for further authenticity) but rather that he advances the never-dormant story every step of the way. And it’s not every day that a teenager can handle being the centerpiece of a big Hollywood movie (see The Seeker et al.) but Highmore makes it a non-issue. Russell and Rhys Meyers meanwhile add a classy touch of adult to the story with their opposites-attract arc. Russell borders on too pristine and precious at times and Rhys Meyers is written as the stereotype of Irishmen but they make you believe in the commonality of music as a matchmaker. Williams however misfires with his portrayal of the somewhat ambiguous Wizard. It is unclear whether he is a reincarnated pirate or just a well-traveled New Yorker and Williams plays him with that lack of clarity but kids will laugh nonetheless when the actor gets loud and hyper. Terrence Howard as a concerned social worker and Mykelti Williamson as a pastor turn in solid supporting performances while young Jamia Simone Nash may incite standing ovations with her singing. The concept of August Rush is most certainly aimed towards those too young to discern between realism and fantasy but at least director Kirsten Sheridan (Jim’s daughter) doesn’t patronize kid viewers the way most preteen movies do. While the young director doesn’t exactly steer clear of clichés and sap she makes a concerted effort to place the film’s music and sheer energy at the forefront. Sheridan also does the best with what she’s given which is a highly predictable occasionally preachy script—with a tendency to give Highmore cringe-worthy voiceovers (i.e. “Open yourself up to the music around you”)—written by Nick Castle (Hook which August Rush often resembles) James V. Hart (The Last Mimzy) and Paul Castro. Just as impressive as the film’s omnipresent music—both “found” (basketball dribbles etc.) and orchestrated—is the look of a somewhat magical Manhattan that is as fun for kids as it is mildly scary. All in all Sheridan’s first big movie is a different if slightly uneven kind of kids flick but not so different that the target audience won’t dance along.
October 12, 2007 6:45am EST
There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.
August 17, 2007 10:41am EST
What no "giant sea pods" this time? Instead The Invasion skews the Body Snatchers scenario by making the alien invasion a virus rather than plant life. Said virus which comes to Earth via a mysterious crash of a space shuttle is transmitted by some form of bodily fluid-to-bodily fluid connection. For example throwing up into people's faces or coffee cups is a fun way to spread the disease. The end result however is the same: Once the infected person falls asleep they undergo a transformation and wake up looking the same but are unfeeling and inhuman—and ready to organize. As the infection spreads and more and more people are altered there are a few humans left fighting for their lives including psychiatrist Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) and her doctor friend Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). Carol’s only hope is to stay awake long enough to find her young son who may hold the key to stopping the devastating invasion. But we won’t tell you how. OK it has something to do with an immunity but that’s all we are going to say. Nicole Kidman has had a string of bad luck since winning that damn Oscar for The Hours. One wonders if maybe the golden statuette might actually be a curse (Cuba Gooding Jr. anyone?). Still regardless of the movie--be it Bewitched The Stepford Wives or Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus--Kidman manages to turn in a decent performance. The same goes for The Invasion. Her mother bear act is quite believable as she races to find her son (played with spunk by Jackson Bond) while trying to stay awake and pretending to be cold and unemotional among the pod people--oh excuse me the virally infected people. You root for her all the way. Craig doesn’t have as much to do but still delivers when it counts. In a supporting role Jeremy Northam does a nice job as Carol’s ex-husband a CDC doctor who is one of the first to get infected. As does the always good Jeffrey Wright as a very clever genetic scientist. Even Veronica Cartwright one of the survivors in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a cameo as one of Carol’s patients who tells her “My husband isn’t my husband!” Famous last words. Body snatching must be a popular water-cooler topic at the movie studios. Starting with the 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Kevin McCarthy barely escapes his small town with his life running into highway traffic screaming “They're here already! You're next! You're next You're next...” there have been at least two other versions including the above-mentioned 1978 film and the 1993 film Body Snatchers. To its credit The Invasion switches things up a bit nixing the pods and making it more relevant to our current socio-political climate. It even begs the question: Could we be better off if we didn’t have emotions? But the movie is still mired by its derivativeness and too-pat ending—and it also apparently had problems getting off the shelf. Originally wrapped in early 2006 rumor has it the studio didn’t like German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut and brought in Matrix’s Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski for rewrites and James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) to direct the new scenes. Again to its credit The Invasion surprisingly feels cohesive despite all the different influences. Let’s just say whoever came up with the tense car chase in which Carol tries to throw off the pod people (it's just more effective calling them that) draped all over the car kudos to them.
August 13, 2007 11:38am EST
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.