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.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
As a wife and mother Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has a seemingly idyllic life until a sudden accident rips her family away from her. That sets in motion a kind of healing reunion a year later. Her feisty friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince Sarah to join a few other friends on a caving expedition--including Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) a butch caver who impulsively does whatever she wants and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) an overly-cautious climber who needs to map out everything they do. Thing is this thrill-seeking challenge turns out to much more than they expected especially when they are trapped and suddenly notice white shadows squirming around them. Not good. The mostly unknown actresses in this scare fest are all decent in their Descent--and although grappling with one-dimensional characters the women still manage to convey the suffocating feeling of being confined in small spaces. In the dark dripping wet environ they deliver realistic reactions to the horror unfolding around them which is about as chilling as anyone can imagine. MacDonald as the long-suffering widow is a particular treat as she changes from a pitiful whiner to a kick-ass survivor who exacts revenge in different ways. Originally released in England British director Neil Marshall has handed us an appropriately creepy film which taps into primal fears--dark claustrophobic spaces things that go bump in the night--situations we usually see men deal with. So it's quite refreshing to watch women handle it especially in the way Marshall unravels the female camaraderie as expertly as the climbers tie their ropes. The Descent displays squirm-inducing violence that's not at all white-washed just because there are ladies involved. It's gory and brutal. The scariest moments are often obscured by the dark and in some scenes the film resorts to a Blair Witch Project point of view by watching the action through a camcorder. Although this Americanized version has a different ending from the British version (apparently one not so morbid) it's still far better than last year's abysmal The Cave. The Descent will definitely get your heart rate up!
Flimflam man matchstick man con man--there are all kinds of names for them but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional who along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan however is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman) the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious sweet-faced junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living she is instantly smitten. In fact she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like "a duck to water." The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters but with Roy he goes a little over the top as he races through a pharmacy twitching grunting and making "whoop!" sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up Roy's quirks become more subtle as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist she tells Roy "Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows." Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise) the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner and as a typical teenager the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.