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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Danes’

The modern world being what it is, it’s quite hard to completely miss a movie that you genuinely want to see – unless you’re living in rural Sri Lanka or the wilds of central Asia, I suppose. But it can still be done. Towards the end of 2007, posters started going up in the language school in Tokyo where I was working at the time, advertising Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (I’ve no idea why the school was promoting the movie – some sort of targeted Anglophile campaign, I expect), which was due out there early the next year. Due to leave Japan in December, I already knew that, due to the lengthy gap between the European and Japanese release of most non-blockbuster films (over 18 months in the case of Slither), I would already have missed Stardust in the UK. But such is life.

However, I was delighted to see that Stardust was one of the featured in-flight movies on the plane from Narita to Copenhagen. I hate flying long-haul and this promised to take the edge off the eleven-hour journey. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the idiosyncratic way SAS organise their onboard entertainment. Most airlines have a system where you choose the movie, push a button, and it plays from the start for you. Not our Scandinavian friends: each movie played on a continuous loop on its own channel throughout the flight, and to see the whole thing in the right order you had to be lucky and tune in at just the right moment when the film was starting. Needless to say luck was not with me that day, and not only did I miss seeing Stardust, I missed seeing it about five times. This has rankled with me ever since and I was recently pleased to finally catch up with the damn thing.

This is not so much a fantasy movie as a full-on fairy tale. Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a young man of unusual parentage living in Victorian England. His village adjoins a gateway to another world, but everyone seems to take that in their stride. But when a girl with whom Tristan is infatuated (Sienna Miller) reveals she is planning to marry another, Tristan vows to enter the other world and retrieve a fallen star (which has taken on the form of Claire Danes), in the hope that this will make her choose him instead.

However, the star has fallen as part of the machinations of the dying king of the other world (Peter O’Toole, briefly), who is setting a challenge to determine which of his sons will succeed him – the wise money is on the ruthless Septimus (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong). Whoever finds the star will be the new king. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the star is also being hunted by a trio of witches led by the vicious Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer – for me this piece of casting had the same whiff of ‘British movie imports slightly past-it American star’ about it as, for example, Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, simply because Pfeiffer doesn’t work very much these days, but I’m probably being unfair. That’s her choice, after all: she’s certainly perfectly fine here.

Well, would anyone be really shocked to learn that as they get to know each other in the course of their adventures, Tristan and the star find their initial distaste for each other considerably mellowing? Thought not. I found Stardust to be a fun film, and sometimes very funny indeed, but difficult to get a grip on. The combination of classic fairy tale tropes with a modern rom-com structure is just one example of the way in which the film slips and slithers about, never quite being what you expect from one moment to the next.

This is, of course, based on a Neil Gaiman novel (he’s also credited as producer). I am, mutatis mutandis, a fan of Gaiman’s work, and the writers of Stardust (Vaughn and Jane Goldman) have worked hard to ensure it sits easily within the canon. Gaiman’s schtick, to the extent that he has one, is to combine classic story themes and ideas with a modern, often knowing sensibility – taking them seriously but not often sending them up. But while it’s smart and funny, Stardust is really lacking in the darkness it probably needs to convince as a genuine fairy tale – much of the time it’s desperately whimsical, occasionally bordering on the twee. It should really be as annoying as hell and the fact that it isn’t is to Vaughn’s credit.

So it’s not quite a parody – the makers of this film are quite probably sick of having it compared to The Princess Bride, but that’s the closest thing to it. I suppose there are also elements from Terry Gilliam films in there too, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he was involved with the project at one point. If Matthew Vaughn doesn’t quite put his own stamp on it, he still does a good job both as writer and director, for this is a film with a definite vision.

Quite who it’s aimed at, I’m not sure – I suspect young children will find some of the story a bit dull and not get many of the jokes, while adults may find the whole thing a bit too sweet and precious and silly for their tastes. I imagine it will probably do very well with a certain type of teenage girl.

Perhaps I am overstating this, as there are lots of good things here for all kinds of people to enjoy: a satisfying, understatedly clever plot, good art direction, and there are some brilliantly orchestrated sequences – the voodoo swordfight being a particular standout. Most of the acting is, shall we say, not especially nuanced, but none the worse for that, with only a few performances that really make you grimance – Robert de Niro takes an axe to his own reputation once again with a deeply peculiar turn as a gay transvestite pirate (another weird tonal choice), Ricky Gervais is, well, Ricky Gervais, as usual, and, above all…

Well, look, I haven’t seen Claire Danes in a lot of stuff – just Romeo + Juliet and Terminator 3 (and I had to check her filmography for both of them) – but I don’t remember her being too bad in either film. Here, though, she gives a strangely over-animated performance that’s deeply distracting. There’s a moment where she has to deliver a lengthy monologue declaring her undying love to a small furry animal, and it’s one of the oddest pieces of screen acting I can recall – eyes rolling, eyebrows waggling, emphasising the dialogue a bit too much. It’s a bit like watching Al Pacino at his least restrained, or the Haitian puppet theatre.

In the end, though, Stardust was worth the wait. The whole thing is as light and insubstantial as a feather, and probably wholly unbefitting of serious analysis (please disregard previous 1182 words), but it’s fun and clever and only infrequently irritating. I would be interested to see a Neil Gaiman movie that was true to the darker elements that feature in his work, but in terms of handling the notes that come from his upper register, Stardust does a pretty good job.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 7th 2003: 

Arnold Schwarzenegger. The name says it all: big, unwieldy, a bit incongruous, totally lacking in subtlety, but still somehow memorable and unique. Those elder days when the big guy was the unquestioned Numero Uno at the Box Office may be a fading memory, but he still commands a lot of respect and affection from moviegoers.

Or maybe it’s just me. Being a sentimental old Awix, as soon as anyone announces their retirement or a radical change in career, I am suddenly overwhelmed with nostalgia, and their final few appearances always seem to me to have a noble bitter-sweetness to them. This even applied to S Club 7 and William Hague, so I should probably worry about this tendency instead of celebrating it in the column, but what the hell: all is grist to my mill.

Anyway, it’s pretty much an open secret that Arnie’s about to pack in acting and go into politics, and while it’s a bit mind-boggling to contemplate him in a career at least partly dependent on his public-speaking ability, the citizens of America have shown entirely willing to ‘elect’ inarticulate knuckleheads over the last few years. So let’s just say ‘may God have mercy on your souls, California’ and enjoy what may be his last outing before he launches himself up the greasy pole: Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

The standard life-cycle of movie franchises follows a pretty strict pattern – innovation is replaced by tradition, and tradition by cliche and/or self-parody. The original Terminator was a virtually perfect B-movie, the most celebrated of a whole series of punk SF films coming out of LA in the early 80s: clearly cousin to things like Trancers, Cherry 2000 and Teenage Comet Zombies. Terminator 2 was essentially a bloated and glossy remake, saved by its sheer scale and genuinely innovative special effects. In turn, Rise of the Machines grinds away what little energy and raw intensity (not to mention coherence) is left in the concept, in favour of flashy spectacle and some questionable humour.

Ten years on from Terminator 2, future-saviour of mankind John Connor continues to live a paranoid, rootless existence in an attempt to prevent evil future-computer Skynet tracking his movements. His efforts to avoid being spotted even extend to morphing from Edward Furlong into Nick Stahl. But before you can say, ‘Hang on, Judgement Day and the rise of Skynet were averted in the first sequel’, the AI decides to settle for second best and sends Tamzin Outhwaite back in time to kill those youngsters who will grow up to be Connor’s sidekicks in the resistance. Okay, it’s not really Tammy, but it looks awfully like her. It’s actually the nasty new Terminator, TX (Kristanna Loken), equipped with polymimetic skin, built-in plasma cannon, technokinetic probes and inflatable breasts (I know which impressed me the most).

So it’s just as well that, yet again, Arnie has also come back in time – he must be racking up those frequent chronic-displacement points (yes, I know he’s once again technically a different character on this occasion). His mission is to protect not only Connor but also feisty vet Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who’s destined to become Mrs Connor somewhere down the line. The problem is that Judgement Day is inevitable after all – and the countdown to it has already begun…

It’s probably fair to say that this is a sequel that nobody was really demanding, and especially not the way it turned out. The list of key personnel from the first two movies not involved in this one is daunting: no Ed Furlong, Michael Biehn, Robert Patrick, or Brad Fiedel, and – most crucially – no Linda Hamilton or James Cameron. Virtually the only person apart from Arnie who does return is Earl Boen, back again as the unlucky Dr Silberman in a superfluous and played-for-laughs cameo, and the impression that this is a crass, jokey and unimaginative cash-in recurs throughout the film – a couple of comic scenes with the various Terminators near the start come particularly close to toppling proceedings over into lame self-parody.

Terminator 3‘s problems aren’t helped by the way in which the previous film fairly decisively closed the door on further instalments by supposedly changing the future. T3‘s riposte is that, well, Judgement Day is inevitable: it is basically destined to happen sooner or later, and what’s more John Connor is destined to always be the leader of the survivors, no matter what. (Destiny turns out to be a useful concept, as it excuses all manner of preposterous coincidences and plot devices.) Quite why it’s inevitable is never explained, it just is, all right? By the end of the film, the supremely elegant time-loop plot of the original Terminator has been lost in a byzantine tangle of alternate time-lines, chronoclastic interventions, and unanswered questions. Such as: why does Skynet send the TX back to virtually the last minute before Judgement Day, thus giving it very little time to complete its mission? If the idea is that the TX is somehow responsible for the rise of Skynet, it’s not made at all clear here. And, given that the TX isn’t actually here to kill Connor, only finding him by a quirk of fate (see, there’s that useful Destiny again for you), why is Arnie sent back to protect him? And so on. A passing reference to Connor’s ultimate fate goes unresolved, and the general impression is one of desperate obfuscation in order to make the plot remotely viable. Continuity with the earlier films is really poor, too: for example, Arnie refers to himself as a T-101 when everybody knows he’s actually a T-800, 101 is his model number.

Of course, Terminator 2 was also guilty of sloppy continuity and messed-up time paradoxes and still managed to be a very good film in its own right. This was mainly due to James Cameron’s marvellously lean and muscular direction, and a terrific, memorable bad guy. Jonathan Mostow handles the crash-bang-wallop quite well – a colossally destructive car-chase and an equally rumbustious punch-up between Arnie and Tamzin in some toilets are especially memorable – but he doesn’t quite have Cameron’s obsessive focus or intensity, and some of the action has an overly cartoonish quality (the means by which the plot is resolved is telegraphed early on, too). And it has to be said that the TX is no great shakes as a villain: the special effects are actually much less impressive this time around, and Loken plays the part like a vapid It-girl, gushing silly lines like ‘I like your gun’. The look on her face upon locking onto her primary target resembles that of a hairdresser who’s just discovered top speed on her vibrator. Robert Patrick had twice her menace and presence as the T-1000 (although, to be fair, Loken has a far more impressive set of buttocks, which deserve to be commemorated in song and story for many years to come), and Loken herself pays tribute to his performance by copying that karate chop thing Patrick did with his hands when running around. It’s never explained why this new Terminatrix is of the distaff persuasion, either – and I couldn’t help remembering that ‘Arnold vs the Bitch’ was one of the concepts James Cameron rejected for Terminator 2, on the grounds of its sheer cheesiness.

So, much of Terminator 3 is poor, but it would be remiss of me to suggest that this film is a complete waste of time. As I mentioned up the page, many of the action set-pieces are pretty good, and Nick Stahl and Claire Danes give quite affecting performances as young people realising they genuinely have no control over their futures. There are some neat special effects, TX aside. And Arnie- well, Arnie is clearly revelling in his role as the Terminator, and so he should given how well it suits his particular talents. He can still knock out the cheesy one-liners when it’s required of him and his sheer physical presence is as potent as it ever was. It’s been a long time since he’s was so effectively deployed, even if the scriptwriters insist on giving him dialogue with words like ‘nanorobotic constructors’ in it.

And above all else Mostow actually manages to restore some of the dark, raw edginess that underpinned the original Terminator but was entirely missing from the first sequel. Okay, he doesn’t manage it often or for long without the trappings of megablockbusterdom swamping him, but it’s enough. The opening sequences dourly evoke the grim lifestyle John Connor has had to adopt, and the vision of a nightmare future that plagues him alone. And the climax very effectively pulls the rug out from under the audience and confounds their expectations, a startlingly bold and downbeat move for a commercial action blockbuster to make. For this alone Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines deserves some credit.

But I think, on the whole, that it’s probably best to forget about Terminators 2 and 3, with their satellite whirl of contradictory timelines and continuity mix-ups, and simply remember the wonderful original – which never really needed a sequel in the first place. It will quite happily stand alone as a classic of low-budget cinema, and a reminder that – no matter how questionable his talent might have been – Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in some damn fine films in his time. Hasta la vista, baby.

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