If there’s one thing about film festivals that I enjoy most it’s the opportunity to watch actors accustomed to lavish sets personal trailers and assistants work in a more practical environment and with decidedly more dangerous material. Thanks to the wonderful programmers at the annual Tribeca Film Festival I got to see Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow get delightfully debaucherous in 2008’s riotous Finding Amanda and Chris Klein and Elijah Wood question their patriotism in the 2007 existential drama Day Zero taking risks and showing audiences sides of themselves that Hollywood rarely allows.
This year there’s no shortage of name recognition on the TFF schedule. I was particularly excited to see J. Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed primarily because of its cast of bankable performers but also because of its intriguing -- if familiar -- premise about a pair of ex-cons who kidnap a rich man’s daughter only to get entangled in a web of lies and double-crosses before they can cash out.
Unfortunately I re-learned the hard way that you cannot judge a book by it’s cover. Mr. Blakeson was incredibly lucky to catch Gemma Arterton (Clash Of The Titans Prince of Persia: The Sand Of Time) and Eddie Marsan (Hancock Sherlock Holmes) in between super-sized productions because without performers of their caliber inhabiting two of the three roles in the film it would’ve completely crumbled as a result of his formulaic and predictable screenplay. It’s not the dialogue that ruins the movie; it’s the forced twists thrown into the narrative that unearth more weaknesses than revelations.
The film begins with a procedural look at Vic (Marsan) and Danny (played with tense insecurity by Martin Compston) as they prepare for the coming kidnapping meticulously sorting out every detail in cold silence. Blakeson leaves the actual abduction of Alice (the stunning Arterton) to the imagination probably because the cruelty and horrific nature of the events that follow are traumatic enough to his audience. As we learn more about Vic’s all-too-common plan the aforementioned twists begin to unfurl handicapping the suspense by making this heightened cinematic situation a victim of plausible but cheap coincidences. From this point on The Disappearance of Alice Creed becomes a rather conventional crime thriller; I guessed my way from scene to scene all the way through the end credits.
The film’s victims in fact are its most endearing aspect. Though Alice’s broken relationship with her wealthy father serves as the catalyst for Vic an Danny’s actions don’t assume that she’s just another rich damsel in distress. Arterton gives the character resourcefulness and an inner strength that should be noted by aspiring young actresses. The 24-year-old Brit is a fearless performer who despite her blockbuster status shows that she isn’t afraid to get gritty in the harshest of scenarios. With her facial features and body language she conveys the primal terror that Alice experiences with total sincerity. Even more impressive is Marsan who is frighteningly fierce as the brains and brawn of an operation that he hopes will provide him enough cash to start a new life. The stakes are high and he never loses sight of the finish line or breaks from his character’s terrifying persona even in the face of deceit and defeat.
Though the film’s sharp cinematography and coarse production design will keep you visually engaged The Disappearance of Alice Creed falls short as a casualty of cliché. It borrows generously from other works within the genre be it Ron Howard’s Ransom or Rob Reiner’s Misery and sadly doesn’t give anything in return making for an awfully average and prescribed moviegoing experience.
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.