Doctor Strange


He's a magic man, he's got the magic hands.

He’s a magic man, he’s got the magic hands.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Durden, Topo Wresniwiro, Umit Ulgen, Linda Louise Duan, Mark Anthony Brighton, Meera Syal, Amy Landecker. Directed by Scott Derrickson

 

It was Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey who once said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, that’s assuming that there is no magic but then again if there was such a thing it would likely end up being explainable by scientific theory once we understood it. Then again, there’s always the possibility that magic is real.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is one of the top neurosurgeons in the world. He has saved literally thousands of lives and lives in a Greenwich Village apartment that is more palace than apartment although it is somewhat sterile in many ways. Dr. Strange is a bit of an egotist, something that has made his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) fall apart, although they are still fond of each other – it’s just that Strange is just a little bit fonder of himself.

A terrible car accident puts paid to all of that however. His hands – those marvelous, life-giving hands – hae been badly injured. He can barely hold a scalpel anymore and has zero control over his nerves. His hands shake like an epileptic at a disco revival. He has tried every surgical option and drug known to man but nevertheless his situation remains unchanged.

Desperate, he discovers the case of a man named Jonathan Pangborn (Bratt) who was told he’d never walk again by plenty of doctors, including Strange himself. Amazingly he was not only walking but playing basketball. When asked what his secret was, Pangborn sends Strange to Kathmandu to find a particular order of monks. While searching the streets of Kathmandu for it, he runs into Mordo (Ejiofor), a disciple of the person Strange is looking for. Mordo takes Strange to The Ancient One (Swinton), an ancient Celt who reigns as Sorcerer Supreme, a title of respect and the latest addition to the McDonald’s Value Meal menu.

Despite being unable to accept on faith the powers of the Ancient One being a man of science, Strange nevertheless manages to convince her to train him in the mystical arts, although she’s reluctant at first. She thinks he’s an arrogant close-minded twit and she’s essentially right but arrogant close-minded twits are people too, no?

And she’s in need of all the help she can get. One of her former disciples, Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), has essentially gone mad. He wants to create a world without death and in order to do that, he has to summon Dormammu – an ancient creature from another dimension that predates the Gods and who wants to wipe out all life in our universe. So a world without death is a world without life, right? Those tricky old god bastards!

Kaecilius is a powerful sorcerer and Strange is just learning his way around. As Kaecilius races to destroy all the wards that protect our dimension from beings like Dormammu, Strange discovers that he has been chosen by a pair of powerful artifacts – and that the way to beat a god is to think like one.

After a couple of subpar Marvel offerings, it’s nice to see that they’re back on track with a movie that sums up everything right about the Marvel films. Firstly, this is a movie about characters and not superpowers. Steven Strange is an interesting human being full of human frailty despite having the power to warp reality itself. Cumberbatch does a marvelous job of capturing the good doctor that I remember from the comic books, although I have to admit that he sounds a little bit strange with an American accent. Ouch.

The special effects here are pretty impressive, although they do borrow heavily from other sources. Certainly the reality warping takes a page right out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and some may find that to be a bit of a cop-out, but at least it’s utilized in a more physical way than Nolan did. The spells look almost scientific in nature just as you’d expect a man of science to relate to casting magic spells. All in all, some of the best effects we’ve seen yet in a Marvel film and that’s saying something.

The relationship between Strange and Palmer doesn’t generate a lot of heat; there’s more of a bromance between Mordo and Strange. Ejiofor is a reliable performer who always seems to get the most out of every role he tackles. Swinton is simply put one of the strongest actresses working today; the role of the Ancient One, who in the comics was an elderly Asian gentleman, was rewritten extensively to suit Swinton who is none of those things (elderly, Asian or a gentleman).

The action is pretty much non-stop once it gets going, although it takes a little while to. In essence, once again Marvel has done it – created an entirely different superhero movie that retains the feel of the comic book, the consistency of a shared cinematic universe but able to retain individual identities for each film. Any franchise filmmaker will tell you how extraordinarily difficult that is. In any case, it’s a fitting lead off to the holiday blockbuster season. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone who likes entertaining movies shouldn’t see it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are mind-blowing. The story and characters are as good as any in any Marvel movie. One of the best supporting casts of any Marvel movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The film seems to exist on its own plane outside the rest of the Marvel movies.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of violence and carnage, some mind-bending changes of perspective and a car crash sequence that’s rather intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The appearance of the comic book character was based on actor Vincent Price and even had the middle name of “Vincent.” In recent years the character’s look has been modernized, with a goatee replacing the pencil mustache he’d had since his inception.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shadow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Amanda Knox

Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

Your Highness


Your Highness

As proof of the disintegration of etiquette, an epidemic of pointing has broken out in Hollywood.

(2011) Fantasy Comedy (Universal) Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, Damian Lewis, Simon Farnaby, Deobia Oparei, B.J. Hogg, Charles Shaughnessy. Directed by David Gordon Green

Have you ever wondered what The Hangover would be like set in a world of Dungeons and Dragons? Wonder no more.

In the Kingdom of Mourn, King Tallious (Dance) rules wisely with two sons – the heir apparent, Prince Fabious (Franco) who lives to go on quests, is good and noble and pure, and is loved by the people as a handsome and model prince. His brother Thadeous (McBride) not so much – he’s overbearing, selfish, whiny and more interested in chasing women, weed and drink than dragons.

Having botched an alliance with the High Dwarves, he returns home to find his brother Fabious returning in triumph, having slain a Cyclops and bringing home a bride for good measure, the lovely Bella Donna (Deschanel) – putting a big crimp into the plans of the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux). Fabious, being Fabious, asks his jealous brother to be the best man at the wedding. Thadeous, being Thadeous, blows it off to get wasted and chase sheep.

A good thing too, or else he would have been caught when the evil wizard Leezar showed up at the wedding to steal back Bella Donna and inform all assembled that he intends to use the virginal Bella Donna as his bride in a ritual that will give birth to a dragon and give Leezar control of the entire world.

Naturally that’s not a good idea, and Fabious wants to go rescue his bride understandably but there’s no way he can go it alone. The King decides that Thadeous should accompany his brother who he is understandably reluctant, but when the King threatens to banish him if he doesn’t, well, Thadeous really has no choice.

Along the way there’ll be vicious amazons, perverted amphibian wizards, a five headed hydra and Isabel (Portman), a warrior who might be better than even Fabious who has her own grudge against Leezar and is not to be trusted by those who might get in her way.

From the team that essentially brought you Pineapple Express comes this send-up of fantasy films ranging from 80s B-movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer to more modern entries like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is not quite as bad as the guys that brought you Vampires Suck and their ilk, but it isn’t very good either.

Portman just won an Oscar and Deschanel is one of my very favorite actresses but they don’t really have much to do but act as adornments for the guys. Franco was nominated for an Oscar but here he really is kind of personality-challenged. In his defense, it’s hard to do a character that’s so perfect without making him seem bland, but still he doesn’t really have much spice to him at all and he could have used a little.

McBride has developed a niche for himself going back to The Foot Fist Way and through movies like the aforementioned Pineapple Express and Land of the Lost which this is roughly analogous to in terms of quality. He plays the somewhat arrogant and stupid selfish guy in most of his movies and to his credit he does that role well. Hopefully one of these days we’ll see him stretch a little.

This is not that movie – even though he’s supposed to be somewhat romantic (all the chicks dig him, after all – many of them topless) he’s no romantic lead and in a sense, that’s one of the more funny aspects of the film.

The effects are decent enough although chintzy in places (and I think that was done on purpose) with plenty of lights and lightning bolts to light up the screen, as well as a minotaur penis (don’t ask) to darken it.

The problem is that while there are some very funny moments, there aren’t really enough of them. Repetition is only funny in small doses guys and some things are rammed down our throats until they are no longer funny even retroactively to the first part. Dropping F bombs in a medieval setting may be big yucks for the stoner crowd but even they will stop laughing by the fortieth or fiftieth time.

Now I have nothing against stoner humor or the like, even though I’m not able to partake (I’m allergic) but I’ve heard from friends who do that even they found it a bit too much. Give me a Cheech and Chong movie any day.

REASONS TO GO: Some fair special effects. A few good laughs here and there.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on shtick. Not enough funny moments for a comedy. Too much oafishness and too many “Thines” and “Mines.”

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of crude humor, some violence, a bit of foul language, plenty of drug use, some nudity here and there and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was a script, director David Gordon Green noted that nearly all of the dialogue was improvised; only a plot outline and written notes were used on set.

HOME OR THEATER: Despite everything, the scale and the special effects are big screen-worthy

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The House Bunny

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One

Harry and Hermione share a rare tender moment in a dark and dismal place.

(2010) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Alan Rickman . Directed by David Yates

As someone who’s been with the Harry Potter series from the beginning, I had always thought it a young adult fantasy series but I was wrong. This has always been a series for adults; we just didn’t know it at the time.

After the events of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Radcliffe), Hermione (Watson) and Ron (Grint) are on the run. No longer is Hogwarts a safe place – in fact, it only puts in a cursory appearance in the movie. Instead, the three are on the run, chased by Deatheaters who are looking for Harry specifically.

Lord Voldemort (Fiennes) and his cohorts, including Lucius Malfoy (Isaacs), his son Draco (Felton) and cousin Bellatrix Lestrange (Carter) have taken over the Ministry of Magic as well as Hogwarts itself and have launched a campaign to stamp out Muggles, using propaganda and fear. The overall impression is of a totalitarian Nazi-like state with Voldemort a Hitler-like figure at the top.

Harry is seeking the horcruxes, special items in which Voldemort has placed parts of his soul. Harry has found several of them but there still remain several to go. The stress and weariness are getting to Ron, who notices that Harry and Hermione are getting close. Into this mix comes the Deathly Hallows, but what exactly are they and how are they the key to victory over Voldemort?

This is movie is dark, dark, dark. If Half-Blood Prince was dark, this is pitch-black. This is serial killer-dark. This is your mom is dead-dark. You get the picture. In fact, the mood is so unrelenting in its grimness that you actually feel it weighing on your soul as you exit the theater.

I have tried to avoid reading the books before I see the movies so I can’t really say how closely this follows the book, which the studio has ultimately decided to split into two movies ostensibly at author J.K. Rowling’s request but, I suspect, also as a way of wringing out twice the revenue from the same book which will be the final installment in the series. Along the way it has become the most successful film series of all time on a per-film basis (the Bond series has brought more money in overall but has had 22 films to do it in) and more or less a license for Warner Brothers to print money. It’s not hard to see why they’re disappointed that the cash cow is coming to a close.

Part of my issue with the movie is that there is just so much information being crammed into it, and so many characters – nearly everyone from the first six books who haven’t died either in the series or in real life is here. It’s very difficult to keep everybody straight and by the time the two and a half hour movie comes to a close, you feel a very real sense of overload.

And yet there is much going for the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become fine actors and have essentially grown up with their roles. Harry is showing the heroism that his character has always threatened to be, while Hermione is not only a charming and beautiful young woman but brilliant and resourceful as well, every bit Harry’s equal. Ron is the most human of the three, filled with doubts and flaws, but yet in his own way more courageous than either of them. The three make a formidable team, three terrific friends who are stronger together than they are separately.

The special effects are jaw-dropping at times, particularly an early broomstick and motorcycle sidecar battle, as well as a wonderful animation that introduces the Deathly Hallows into the film (the animator Ben Hibon has recently been rewarded with a feature film of his own). While a dark and terrifying place, the wizarding world is no less dazzling than it has been all along.

One gets the impression that the second film of the two Deathly Hallows movies will be much better in the sense that the resolution that is approaching like a bullet train is going to be something special. Much of that has to do with Rowling, who may sometimes not get her due simply because the books appeal to children. She is simply put one of the best writers of our age, regardless of genre or audience.

This is still a movie worth seeing – it is in many ways the weakest movie in the series simply because it feels so incomplete and yet it is the equal of all of them, but that is a function of the split. It is a movie of putting aside childish things and stepping into a frightening world. It is a movie of accepting responsibility and standing up for what is good and what is right. It is a movie that while on the surface may seem to be about running away and hiding is in reality about acting in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible penalties. Bad things happen to good people in this series – not everyone comes out of the movie alive and many come out badly injured at least. It is a movie about conquering fear, and what better lesson can we give to young people than that?

REASONS TO GO: Simply put, this is marvelous to look at and all the threads of the first six movies are beginning to draw together into a recognizable tapestry.

REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark – this is not your older brother’s Harry Potter. There is a good deal of information crammed into this movie which will probably all be necessary for the second but it sure does slow the pacing down quite a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: This is dark, dark, dark – the wee ones are going to be plenty scared by the violence, both on-screen and implied. The evil of Voldemort and his Deatheaters becomes much more realized and I would have a serious talk with any younger kid before seeing it to make sure they understand it’s just a movie. If they are prone to nightmares or particularly sensitive, I’d really think twice about taking my kids to see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After escaping the attack at the wedding, Harry, Hermione and Ron end up in a London diner, where one of the posters on the wall is for the West End production of “Equus” which star Daniel Radcliffe starred in.

HOME OR THEATER: You will see this on the big screen, if you haven’t already.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Last Legion

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Alfred Molina is disturbed to discover that Nicolas Cage has blue balls.

(Disney) Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell, Alice Krige, Omar Benson Miller, Jake Cherry, James A. Stephens, Gregory Woo, Peyton Roi List, Nicole Ehringer, Ian McShane (voice). Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 The world is a magical place, even the parts we can see. There exists a whole world, however, that we can’t, one in which the impossible is commonplace, and in that world good battles evil incessantly, barely in the lead although not without cost.

Balthazar Blake (Cage) is one of the three apprentices to Merlin (Stephens) – yes, that one – back in 840 AD, along with Veronica (Bellucci) and Horvath (Molina). All of them are in conflict with Morgana le Fay (Krige), who wants to enslave the world by using a spell called The Rising, which will raise the dead into an army for her. She probably should have put in a call to George A. Romero.

Horvath betrays his fellows and Veronica takes a bullet for Balthazar, winding up imprisoned along with Morgana in a grimhold, a nesting doll that acts like a prison. As the years roll by, Balthazar adds more of Morgana’s followers to the grimhold as additional layers to the doll until he finally captures Horvath himself.

But Balthazar’s work is far from done. The dying Merlin told Balthazar that only one sorcerer can truly destroy Morgana and it is Balthazar’s job to find him. It only takes about 1200 years, but Balthazar finally locates him. Talk about determination!

Young Dave (Cherry) goes on a school field trip and spends most of it trying to get the attention of a comely young blonde named Becky Barnes (List), whom he asks in a note if she’s interested in him as a friend or a girlfriend. Becky checks the appropriate box, but a coincidental wind blows the note all the way to a curio shop named Arcana Cabana which is run by – you guessed it – Balthazar. Using the test of a dragon ring, Balthazar realizes that Dave is the one he’s looking for; the Prime Merlinian. Note to writers: where do you come up with these names? It sounds like something dreamed up by a panel of math geeks at an MIT calculus conference.

Because he’s nine (or ten, depending on who you ask) years old, Dave manages to release Horvath from the nesting doll…err, grimhold, and all Hades breaks loose. Balthazar and Horvath manage to be sucked into a magical urn that will hold them for ten years to the day. Why? Just because.

Ten years later, the adult Dave (Baruchel) is a physics nerd at NYU when he runs into old flame Becky (Palmer) when he runs a physics primer for English majors, which is an idea which no doubt the administrators at NYU are scratching their heads and wondering “wha…?” about. Although apparently without a job and no visible means of support, Dave has placed several eight-foot Tesla coils together in an unauthorized lab in a subway turnaround. Why? Just because.

Of course, now the two wizards are out of their urn and looking for that grimhold, Balthazar so that he can protect the world and potentially destroy Morgana once and for all, and Horvath because he wants to resurrect Morgana and destroy the world. Why? Just because.

Balthazar knows he needs to teach Dave the basics of magic and quickly because (queue serious music) the fate of the world rests in his hands. Why? Just…oh you know what comes next.

The trio of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Turtletaub and Cage has previously teamed up in the two National Treasure movies, which I found to be a seriously entertaining take on the Indiana Jones movies. This one is less effective although it still remains entertaining. This movie is a bit of a mash-up between genres, an action movie blended with a fantasy movie, sort of like Harry Potter in Die Hard. Expelliarmus mothereffer!

Cage and Molina are effective here, and you get the feeling there is a bit of a nudge and a wink in their work. They spend most of the movie lobbing plasma balls and one-liners at one another. Baruchel is less effective for me. He is the perennial dweeb in movies over the last few years, and I can understand why he was cast – Dave is certainly a science nerd. However, his hunched over posture, perpetual whining coupled with his inability to make intelligent choices, made it very hard for me to root for him. I was kind of hoping that Cage would turn him into a newt and save the day.

There is plenty of eye candy and most of it is pretty decent, although there’s a ton of plasma balls, fire streams and lightning bolts hurtling around. Some real cool sequences include a Chinese dragon (which while it was chasing Dave, made me think inadvertently of the much better movie How to Train a Dragon which featured Baruchel’s voice) and a steel eagle from the Chrysler building. There is also an homage to the sequence in Fantasia that inspired this movie which I enjoyed.

The trouble with movies about magic is that sorcerer’s should be pretty much invincible, particularly ones as powerful as these. For example, there is an extended car chase sequence in the last third of the movie; very well done, but it seemed to be fairly pedestrian. They could have easily done a chase with something more imaginative – invisible horses, beams of light, anything – and you would think that a sorcerer could wave his arms and turn the car into a mule.

Similarly, a crucial plot point involves Becky moving a satellite dish so that a spell can go awry. Wouldn’t the sorcerer casting the spell be able to move the satellite dish back into place? After all, they’ve been moving objects telekinetically throughout the movie.

But I digress. Anyone going to a movie like this and expecting Scorsese is a lunatic. This is Bruckheimer, and he excels at movies that entertain on a visceral level rather than inspire or educate, and that’s fine folks – we all need mindless entertainment once in awhile. However, I would have expected a movie about magic to be more, well, magical. Definitely this is entertaining, but it could have been done so much better with a bit more imagination.

REASONS TO GO: Cage and Molina do some pretty solid work here. The eye candy is effective.

REASONS TO STAY: Baruchel is a bit too whiny and foolish to get behind as a heroic lead. The whole car chase sequence seemed unnecessary and could have been handled more imaginatively.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of fantasy violence and some scenes of brief sexuality, but for the most part should be okay for audiences of all ages, although some of the creatures might be a little scary for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abigail Williams is based on an actual person who was accused of being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century, ran away and was never heard from again.

HOME OR THEATER: There are enough sequences that have the gee-whiz factor that I give a slight nod towards seeing it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: My Life in Ruins

Stardust


Stardust

Danes and Cox are bemused by DeNiro's assertion that Martin Scorsese taught him how to waltz.

(Paramount) Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, Ian McKellan (voice), Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.

This arrives to us from the mind of Neil Gaiman, one of the most respected names in the Graphic Novel field today. The man who gave us such works as Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living and Coraline also gave us this, his version of high fantasy.

The village of Wall in England is so-named because of a long wall running along the edge of the town. It seems like an ordinary wall, with a breach in it where the stones have collapsed over the year – it’s a very old wall, after all – with the town on one side and pleasant fields on the other. However, persistent town legend has it that crossing through the wall takes you to a place not known to man. The legend is so widespread that the town actually has a guard posted 24-7 at the breach, although few in Wall are so addled as to wish to see what lies on the other side.

One night, a young man does so and meets a girl, a beautiful girl who says she is a princess being held captive by a witch. The young man and the girl do what comes naturally to young men and girls and nine months later, the young man has a special delivery from the wall guard – a baby, who the young man is charged with raising.

Years later – 18 of them, to be exact – the baby has grown into a young man himself, a shop boy named Tristan (Cox). He is deeply besotted by Victoria (Miller), a town beauty who is very rich and being wooed by equally rich (and equally shallow) Humphrey (Cavill). However, she finds a soft spot for the lovestruck Tristan and agrees to go on a late night picnic with him. Tristan is devastated by the news that Humphrey has gone to Ipswich to buy an engagement ring which he intends to present to Victoria at her birthday party a week hence. She intends to say yes to Humphrey.

Just then they are interrupted by the descent of a falling star. In a moment of romantic passion, Tristan promises to retrieve the star for Victoria. She agrees if Tristan can do this, she will be his. In the meantime, the star has landed and it’s not a piece of rock or a chunk of metal. It is, in fact, a beautiful girl (Danes) who goes by the name of Yvaine. Her arrival has signaled a time of great changes in the land – not England, for the Wall is in fact a magic dividing point that separates the land of reason (England) from the land of magic (Stormhold). The King of Stormhold (O’Toole) is dying, and as is customary in that autocratic land, the crown princes are murdering one other in order to be the last prince standing in line for the throne.  It turns out that since four…er,  three princes remain and the King doesn’t have time to wait for the others to go about finishing the others off, he sets a challenge – the prince who can retrieve an amulet and restore the color to the ruby within it will be King. The trouble is that the ruby is around the neck of Yvaine.

There is also a wicked witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who knows that the heart of the star bestows youth and beauty on those who know how to use it. For her and her sisters, it is absolutely vital that they retrieve this star since their last one is almost gone and the old girls are beginning to show their age.

Everybody is after the star, but it is Tristan who finds her first. He promises to help her return home to the heavens once he’s presented her to his true love, so Yvaine – who doesn’t like this overly earnest and awkward young man – begrudgingly agrees. This sets in motion a series of perils, pirates (led by the able Captain Shakespeare, played with panache by De Niro) and all manner of really bad people.

This is a movie of charm and wit. There are some great moments and a few real good laughs, but there are some moments of poignancy and real insight as well. Director Vaughn, best-known for Layer Cake, balances all of the elements very nicely. Yes, it’s definitely a fantasy but there isn’t an over-reliance on special effects. Sure, there are some breathtaking moments like the Sky Pirate Ship landing on the water, or a duel between Tristan and Lamia, but the appeal here is in a lovely simple story and some solid acting.

Cox is very likable in his role, and De Niro is obviously having a good time in his role as the pirate captain with a reputation to uphold, but it is Pfeiffer who in all ways is the real reason to go see this movie. She makes a really terrific villain (as those who’ve seen her in Hairspray can attest) and isn’t afraid to have a ton of make-up and prosthetics applied to artificially age her, despite being one of the most beautiful women in the world (still). She plays the part with supreme self-confidence and unleashes one of her best performances in years. It’s a surprisingly demanding role and one critical to the movie’s success, but Pfeiffer pulls it off admirably. This may not be necessarily Oscar material, but it’s the kind of work that gets the kind of work that a good actress wants to do for her.

I was enchanted with Stardust from the very first moment when McKellan’s stentorian narration begins. The world here is richly detailed, which is I think one of the great selling points to most fantasy readers, in the same way that Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is, or Lewis’ Narnia. Stormhold is a world that is lived in and watching this you naturally want to live in it too. I highly recommend Stardust for anyone who loves fantasy movies, fairy tales, adventure stories or romances – and especially for those who love all of the above.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming and witty. Lovely performances, particularly from Pfeiffer. A fully realized fantasy world that you want to live in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle. Some of the plot points are a bit worn thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor violence and sexuality but nothing not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Captain Shakespeare’s vessel, the Caspartine, is named after director Matthew Vaughn’s two children, Caspar and Clementine.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil