TBT – Stardust (2007)

films, fucking sweet, Mark Strong, meh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Neil Gaiman, review, Ricky Gervais, Robert DeNiro, rom-com, romance, TBT

When it comes to romantic comedies I can’t say that I’m a huge fan. I’m much too cynical and, if we’re being honest, it’s all been done a thousand times before. Boy meets girl. Boy tries to make girl fall in love with him. Stuff happens. Happily ever after. I just never find it an incredibly inspiring to sit down and watch them so I avoid them. However, if ever there was going to be a writer who could change my mind about the whole concept it would be Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is the much loved fantasy, horror, science fiction, anything else you can think of writer who has penned such notable works as The Sandman comic book series as well as numerous novels and short story collections. Stardust is, in a way, Gaiman’s own The Princess Bride  (incidentally, this is one of the few romantic comedies that I genuinely adore). Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing and I would recommend his books to anyone. His writing is like magic. There’s nobody quite like him. Yet, I’ve never really been a massive fan of any adaptations of his work. Well, that’s not quite true. I like them but I can’t say I love them. I could read and reread Gaiman’s work any number of times but I don’t think I’d ever watch one his films or TV shows more than once. Except maybe Coraline because that was fucking awesome. There’s something that just gets lost in translation and I don’t have that same connection with them. It’s why I never rewatched this film until I needed something to review for today… and it’s why I’m in no real rush to watch it again.

We’re all pretty familiar with swashbuckling romances, right? A handsome young man goes off on an adventure to win his fair maidens heart and must overcome all the obstacles in his way. Stardust follows that basic plot but gives it a decidedly Neil Gaiman spin. The plot, adapted from Gaiman’s original novel, follows Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) a resident in a quiet little village called Wall.The village has been named for the stonewall than runs along it that, legend tells, separates merry old England from the magical realm of Stormhold. Tristan has fallen in love with the beautiful but selfish Victoria (Sienna Miller) but is about to lose her to his rival Humphrey. Until, after spotting a shooting star in the sky, Tristan promises to bring his love the fallen star in exchange for her hand. Unfortunately, this means a trip beyond the wall and into the unknown.

It also turns out to be rather difficult as the star has turned into a stubborn and sassy young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes) and Tristan has a hard time persuading her to come with him. Then you have the added problem of a trio of witches, headed up by the vicious Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who want to track down the girl, eat her heart and receive immortality. Finally, as if that weren’t enough, Yvaine has taken possession of a ruby that belonged to the recently deceased King of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole) who has declared that the first of his make heirs to find the stone will be the next rightful ruler of the land. All parties end up chasing down the hapless pair as they slowly make their way back to Wall before Victoria’s birthday.

That’s the main problem with Stardust really. There is a lot going on and it all gets a bit haphazard on screen. The plot manages to stay fairly faithful to the book but, in a desire to manage this, everything moves quite quickly. It gets pretty confusing and there are some liberties that are taken to ensure that some sort of narrative structure exists. Things don’t naturally fit into place and there are several awkward moments that are intended for the sole purpose of holding things together. It’s a tad messy and could easily have been fixed with a bit of careful editing.

There are plenty of star studded cameos throughout the film with supporting characters popping up to play their small part in Tristan and Yvaine’s epic journey. It is an inspired cast but some of these moments just feel unnecessary or uncomfortable. By far the best and the worst is Robert DeNiro as Captain Shakespeare, the man in charge of an airship that farms lightening. Though he has the reputation of a fearsome pirate, Captain Shakespeare is a campy relic that should have been left in the 70s. As fun as DeNiro is in the role his performance just feels a bit like an outdated relic.

Aside from that we have turns from fantastic British comedians and comedy actors which work in varying degrees. The ghosts of the the Kings dead sons, all of whom have fallen in the family tradition of brother killing brother in the race for succession, just about work as they hang around like Hamlet Snr. and weigh in on their siblings failures. Ricky Gervais’ time on screen just seems like a desperate attempt to let him be the same character he always plays. I could have done without it. Ultimately, it feels as though the sheer number of famous faces is a bit of a gimmick and it just adds to the already complicated nature of the film.

It tries desperately to let the narrative survive but it comes at the expense of good storytelling. There are obvious comparisons to The Princess Bride and the work of Terry Gilliam but Stardust neither has the original of Gilliam nor the heart and soul of Rob Reiner’s great romantic adventure. Stardust is a sweet and perfectly enjoyable film. There are some great moments and, thanks to Pfeiffer and Mark Strong, couple of incredible villains to amp up the tension. However, it loses itself in the scope of what it is trying to achieve. It’s trying to be a bit of every genre it can think of and it tries to flit between drama and comedy without any real thought. It’s silly but neither it’s not quite silly enough. It’s scary but not quite scary enough. It’s romantic but not quite romantic enough… oh, you get the idea. It’s not a bad film. It’s just not a great one either. I mean, it’s not a great sign when the thing I love most about this film is the Take That song that plays over the credits.

TBT – Righteous Kill (2008)

cops, fucking awful, Robert DeNiro, TBT, thriller

There was no part of my that was at all interested in watching Righteous Kills but my friend at university had been in London whilst the premier took place. She came back with blurry snaps of Fiddy Cent and Al Pacino telling me how much she wanted to see it. For some reason I agreed. Just like Forsaken had more attention than it perhaps deserved because it brought together two great actors, Righteous Kill was talked about because two acting greats would finally share screen time together. Yes, 2008 was the year that finally saw Robert DeNiro acting alongside the rapper Fiddy Cent. Oh and some shit about him finally sharing some real screen time with Al Pacino since they briefly crossed paths in Heat. It was supposed to be the greatest film event of all time. I mean these two could read a bus timetable and make it seem like the best thing you’ve ever heard. So how could Pacino and DeNiro working together not equal success and quality?

In Righteous Kill Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino play partners, Turk and Rooster, in the police force. Both are Detectives with many years experience who have both grown tired of watching guilty men get away with their crimes. When criminals start turning up having been shot by the mysterious Poetry Boy killer they both have to wonder how much of a problem it really is. Until a couple of younger cops (John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) start to suspect that Turk (DeNiro) is guilty of the crimes. Will Rooster (Al Pacino) be able to convince them of his partner’s innocence or will he have to accept that the man he thought he knew is a cold-blooded killer?

I’m going to be straight up with you here: I hated this film the first time I saw it and I felt no better about it the second time. Righteous Kill attempts to survive based solely on the meeting of two great actors. Yes, there is some joy to be had in watching Pacino and DeNiro acting alongside each other but that soon wears off. Then you can’t help but notice that the script is exactly the kind of shitty thriller that was constantly being churned out in the 80s and 90s. It’s chock full of clichés and is just generic. It ticks a lot of crime thriller boxes but offers nothing in the way of excitement or suspense. Director Jon Avnet clearly has no idea what do with the story or his two lead actors and the plot bumbles on to its awkward twist ending.

Let’s talk about that “twist” ending for a second. Not only it is a completely fucking stupid way to end the film but it is also cheap, unoriginal and completely see through. Anyone who watches this and doesn’t instantly see what’s going to happen 100 minutes later is obviously too fucking naive to function in modern society. Every decision about this film was made in order to pull of this impressive trick but it’s just not worth it. Everything that makes even the worst crime drama palatable are sacrificed for something so utterly mindless and unnecessary. Where is the mystery and suspense? There are some questionable narrative and editing decisions that had to be made in order to pull off the world’s least surprising twist. It’s just fucking insane.

The film thinks its better than it is partly because of the aforementioned ending and the questions it hoped to raise and partly because it somehow managed to bag two of Hollywood’s greatest actors. There is a problem with that though: the two heavyweights are completely wasted. The script is so boring and badly written that the pair just become SNL parodies of themselves. For lack of any juicy material DeNiro’s classic acting face just goes insane. I’ve never seen his eyes look thinner than they do for the majority of this films run time. I’m shocked he didn’t walk into more things on set it would have been that difficult for him to see.

Righteous Kill thinks it is telling an intelligent and thought-provoking story about morality and law enforcement. Unfortunately, the story cannot sustain the weight of it’s own self-righteous belief that is has something to say that is worth listening to. It’s hard work to make it through and the film is hardly long. Righteous Kill poses less questions than it wants and is nowhere near as complex as writer Russell Gewirtz clearly hoped. The film is just disappointing in all areas. Plus, it wants to constantly remind us that Robert DeNiro is drowning in pussy. I’d somehow managed to forget the aged DeNiro sex scene but there it is. In fact, I actually think the thing that pissed me off the most about this film is the romance between DeNiro’s character and his colleague played by Carla Gugino. There is 28 year age difference between DeNiro and Gugino and Bobby was 65 when the film came out. Now no offence to dear old Bob but that’s more difficult to swallow than any aspect of the shitty narrative.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Joy (2015)

Bradley Cooper, film, Jennifer Lawrence, meh, review, Robert DeNiro

I still can’t work out what I feel about Jennifer Lawrence. On the one hand, she seems super cool and down-to-earth and I want to be her friend. On the other, she seems really irritating in a “trying to seem to cool and down-to-earth” kind of way. Of course that’s probably just down to how cynical and bitchy I am. Lawrence is a formidable talent and has brought great things to even the shittest productions. I’d probably be willing to watch anything if she had a key role and, it just so happens that I just have. If nothing else, Joy has been a gift to film critics. The title gives plenty of potential for witty quips about being or not being filled with joy as the credits roll. Very fucking clever guys. It means reading reviews gets kind of repetitive so I’ll try not to fall into the same old trap.

When it comes down to it, I still don’t think I’m a fan of David O. Russell’s films. There’s something about his style that I just can’t quite get on board with. I can’t say I had a great deal of praise for either American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook. As far as I could see if it hadn’t been for J Law then neither would have had an awful lot going for them. O. Russell is the kind of director who likes to make real life a bit quirkier and comic but without risking stepping into Wes Anderson territory.

Joy is based on the true story of businesswoman Joy Mangano (J Law), a single mother who found success selling her uniquely designed mop. I say based on because O. Russell has played with Annie Mumolo’s original script to make the story more interesting. The simple examination of the realities of the American Dream told from the perspective of a desperate young woman wasn’t enough for the director. He changed aspects of Mangano’s story and added the unnecessary and undeveloped framing narrative of a trashy soap opera. The soap opera is watched by Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) who, following her divorce, has shut herself in her room and spends her days in bed watching television. The characters on screen are supposed to mirror the people in Joy’s life but it’s a device that never really gets off the ground. It’s picked up when O. Russell an be bothered and then dropped when there’s other shit to talk about. It’s just another step too quirky.

That’s not to say that Joy fails on all counts. O. Russell’s decision to compare Joy’s position as matriarch to that of a mob boss is an interesting concept and the parallels work well on screen. However, this, as with a lot of O. Russell’s directorial decisions, adds very little to the narrative and are clumsily linked together. There are a number of subplots that just sort of happen whilst the main narrative is going on: adding nothing more than what feels like days to the running time. The main story should have been enough for O. Russell to work with: Joy, a young mother, is left fighting to keep her family afloat. Growing up as a creative child, she had to put her desires on hold to care for her divorced parents and the ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) who is living in her basement. After a fairly ordinary accident Joy comes up with her idea for a self-wringing mop and immediately starts drawing up crude plans in crayon. Thanks to a contact of her ex, Joy in introduced to QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and is able to sell her product on the growing network.

Of course, things are never straight forward and Joy has to deal with several bumps in the road before she finally manages to find the success she so desires. Still, it gives Jennifer Lawrence a lot to work with and it’s easy to see why she’s making a name for herself this awards season. Lawrence is a fucking great actress and is by far and away the best thing about the film. It’s also the greatest of Lawrence’s O. Russell performances to date. She plays worn-down Joy with an overall dignity, sense of hope and determination that fights against the chaos that is ensuing around her.

Those surrounding her are a hit-and-miss bunch of supporting characters. Robert DeNiro is back with O. Russell and co to play another intense father though DeNiro is happily more nuanced here than he was in Silver Linings Playbook. The actor proves he still has a great deal to offer if he were offered something worth his talents. Bradley Cooper likewise returns and, whilst I’m still not convince he’s much more than a pretty face, shows that he can do calm and business like as Walker. Although, given that he isn’t actually given a lot to do, it’s not the kind of evidence that would hold up to much scrutiny. The rest of the cast all add something to the narrative but have fuck all chances to develop. Any attempt to flesh these characters out is forgotten once the story starts to pick up pace. This might be in-keeping with O. Russell’s plan to mirror the people of the fictional soap opera but it never quite lands. Instead we have a bunch of random people who just flounder on screen whilst J Law is kicking ass.

Joy is by no means a terrible film. I probably disliked it less than Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. However, it could have been a great deal better than it was. It’s certainly elevated by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance but more work was needed to really give do this story justice. O. Russell once again gets distracted playing with genre and manufacturing moments of dark comedy to really give a shit about the American Dream. It’s not a streamlined affair and there were moments when I was willing the inevitable ending to arrive. So I guess you could say I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy… oh fuck.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Bradley Cooper, dancing, Jennifer Lawrence, mental illness, review, Robert DeNiro
To quote Kate Winslet in the third episode of Ricky Gervais’ popular sitcom Extras, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Bizarrely, in the case of Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, that could very well be correct. For this isn’t your usual romantic-comedy. It’s about crazies so it’s got depth… supposedly.  For this film has been eaten up by critics and the Oscar voters alike as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the now incredibly stale genre. It is certainly the type of film that was bound to get plenty of attention during award season. I think we all have to be thankful that Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated The Fighter wasn’t also set during World War 2 otherwise Cooper would be a certainty for the Academy Award for Best Actor. So it was in the midst of all this hype that audiences flocked to see two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars step into the quirky and thought-provoking world of mentally ill romantic-comedy. But could it live up to it?

Silver Linings Playbook follows the story of former teacher Pat who suffers a breakdown after he discovers his wife partaking in some afternoon delight with a colleague. We meet him after an eight month stint in psychiatric hospital where he was attempting to come to terms with bipolar disorder. Being removed from the facilities against the wishes of his doctors, he finds himself back in his childhood home with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro). He is keen to return to his old life and prove that he can stick to his new, positive outlook: to prove that he can find his ‘silver lining’.

Bradley Cooper cannot be described as the most subtle of actors but he brings a certain frenzied energy to some of Pat’s more manic episodes. All in all though his performance is pretty one-note. Pat is completely motivated by his delusional belief that he is cured and that proof of this will get his wife back. He is not the easiest character to root for and Cooper’s frantic, wide-eyed portrayal of a volatile man coming to terms with bipolar often becomes tedious and far too intense. It gets to the point when it almost doesn’t feel as if Pat’s bipolar is actually that big a deal. It just seems like it’s one of those silly little quirks that people have. Rather than being ill Pat simply has strong feelings about certain songs, is quick to anger and has an obsessive desire to look on the bright side. He doesn’t provide any real drama here and you can’t help but feel that he’d fit better in a Wes Anderson film than he does here.
Thankfully, to offset this, Pat and the audience are offered a certain amount of respite with the introduction of troubled widow Tiffany. Still coming to terms with the death of her husband, the young woman becomes fixated on Pat Jr. and orchestrates her way into get closer to him. She proposes a deal in which she gets messages to and from Pat’s wife (bypassing that pesky restraining) if he helps her take part in a charity dance competition. This premise all sounds rather silly and it often feels like Russell is trying a bit too hard to seem quirky and unusual. However, Jennifer Lawrence does remarkably well to bring us another incredible performance. She brings a depth and emotion to Tiffany that we never see anywhere in Cooper’s Pat. She may be close to him in terms of craziness but she definitely outclasses him on the sympathetic scale. You want Tiffany to succeed much more than you ever want Pat to. Lawrence also does a great job when interacting with the other cast and there are several moments, during which Tiffany attempts to out-crazy the two Pats, which are simply splendid. In fact, the big showdown between DeNiro and Lawrence is one of the stand-out moments of the whole show.
As with so many films of this type the best moments occur in the first 30 minutes or so. This is thanks to the comic potential garnered from Pat’s transition from hospital to the big wide world. There is a great deal of glee to be had in his ruthless honesty and the discomfort it creates for everyone else. Even Cooper’s bull-in-a-china-shop style performance provides some great moments, such as his sudden insistence that he must work his way through his estranged wife’s literature syllabus before deeming it to be full of damaging messages about life. However, the narrative quickly changes pace when Tiffany is introduced and it becomes painfully clear what is about to happen. We move into obvious and stereotypical romantic-comedy territory with everyone’s future happiness becoming linked to the outcome of a football game and the dance competition. The unusual premise that had a great deal of potential quickly descends into something quite forgettable and frustratingly usual. This film doesn’t reinvent the genre, as so many critics would have you believe, it simply adds some mentally unstable characters into a narrative that even the laziest rom-com writers would reject.
Anyway, being surrounded by this many neurotic and eccentric characters, even Pat and Tiffany don’t really seem that outrageous. The supporting cast itself is fairly hit and miss with both DeNiro and Weaver doing the best they can with the material that is being offered to them. DeNiro in particular does a fine job considering he flits between an emotional father trying to reconnect with his son and a farcical version of a man suffering from OCD and a dependency on sporting superstition. The more sentimental moments between the two Pats show that DeNiro still has a great deal to offer but Pat Sr.’s more exaggerated moments played out for comic gain become fairly tiresome. Another brief shining light comes in the form of Chris Tucker’s (I know it confused me too) Danny, Pat’s friend from the hospital. Danny isn’t really important to the plot so he is simply played for comic effect.
I can’t say that I didn’t like this film but, like Black Sawn, it credits itself with more intelligence than it actually possesses. It offers a great deal that it simply never lives up to. You cannot create a new and interesting perspective on this genre by just adding characters suffering from different mental illnesses into a completely bland situation. If these characters had no psychiatric problems this film would have been brushed off as a pathetic affair but, as it stands, all Hollywood needs is a bit of bipolar and OCD to create a masterpiece. We are being lead to believe this is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest meets When Harry Met Sally but the actual results is as corny, contrived and over-sentimental as even the worst Jennifer Aniston rom-com. If it wins any of the many awards it has been nominated for it just goes to show Hollywood is as shallow and predictable as Ricky Gervais accuses it of being.