Tag Archives: 2007

Top 100 Films #42 – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

4-months-3-weeks-and-2-days#42. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)
Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Written by: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov

4 Months, 3 Week, and 2 Days was the first Romanian film I had ever seen, and it instantly turned me onto the largely ignored films from this part of Europe. Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning film is one of the best and most powerful films of the 2000’s, and I’ve hesitated to recommend it to even the most seasoned film fanatics. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days follows Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (or Gabita) (Laura Vasiliu) as they arrange for an illegal late-term abortion for Gabita in 1980’s Communist-led Romania.  The women struggle to arrange for a hotel room where the abortion can be performed, and are forced to lie to the man performing the operation, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), about how far along Gabita truly is.  Things begin to go awry when Bebe threatens to walk out on them, and the women are forced to make great sacrifices in order to see it through.  Once everything is all said and done, it is clear that the relationship between Otilia and Gabita will never be the same again.  As you can probably tell by the brief synopsis, Mungiu’s film is not a playful one.  It’s a deadly serious look at the sacrifices made by people in a desperate situation, and the lengths that citizens of a country must go to when they can no longer rely on aid from their own government.  The historical setting and atmosphere of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is one of the best I’ve seen, with characters having to go the extra mile in order have such a significant operation performed.  The film approaches the story from a very minimalist perspective, which furthers the atmosphere as we aren’t treated to conventional filmmaking techniques like grand establishing shots or tracking cameras through the streets.  We’re confined almost entirely to an apartment building and a hotel room, both of which are dimly lighted and sparsely decorated.  The performances by co-leads Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu are incredible, with Marinca playing Otilia, the supportive and incredibly helpful best friend who is pushed to the limits by the lies told to her by Gabita.  Vasiliu’s Gabita is desperate for aid, but strong in that she’s willing to go the extra mile in order to get the treatment she believes she needs.  Her internal struggle is clear throughout, as is the immense pain she is forced to feel during and after the abortion.  Without these two powerful performances, all that would be left is a palpable atmosphere, and an affecting social commentary about Communist-era Romania.  4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an extremely important film for its social commentary and progressive nature, but is one that should be approached with caution.  This is absolutely not a film for everybody – but there’s absolutely no denying its inherent power.  If Romanian cinema in general sounds interesting to you, I can recommend another Cristian Mungiu film, Beyond the Hills, which very narrowly missed my top 100 list.  While that film is also very minimalist and deliberately paced, it has an incredibly powerful story and great performances, and is probably much more immediately accessible than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.

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Top 100 Films #69 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

 

-#69. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik (based on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell

I was finally able to see Andrew Dominik’s seminal film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford last October, and I adored every minute of it.  While it may seem slow paced to some, Dominik’s deliberate pacing is exactly why the film succeeds in every way.  The Assassination of Jesse James is about exactly what the title suggests – we follow legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and the James Gang as they rob trains and hide out in the woods, as well as at homes of their various members.  Young James Gang member Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has been drawn to Jesse James by the lore that surrounds him – Ford both respects and fears the leader of the gang, and for good reason. Ford and other members of the Gang eventually conspire to assassinate their leader in exchange for the hefty bounty placed on his head.  The Assassination of Jesse James is a beautiful and intimate character study about one of America’s most interesting personalities, and a compelling look at the man who killed a legend for five seconds of fame.  Dominik’s script is carefully paced, placing emphasis on the development of our two main characters, rather than on large action set pieces.  The careful pacing of the film is perfect, building on the obvious tensions felt by the main characters.  By the time the film reaches the point of its titular assassination, I was on the edge of my seat – even though I knew exactly what was to come.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins photographed the film, often giving the film a worn, grainy look to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The film’s famous train robbery scene is easily Deakins’ standout moment in The Assassination of Jesse James, employing almost total darkness and natural lighting that makes the already intense scene feel even more immediate.  Andrew Dominik directs veteran actors Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck to two incredible performances, with both men giving rather subdued, quiet turns as Jesse James and Robert Ford respectively.  We spend enough time with both men to understand their characters inside and out – their motivations and aspirations are clear, as are their totally different views on life.  It’s a shame that the film was released in the same year as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, because it truly is a masterpiece on the same level as those terrific films.  If you’re a fan of westerns or intimate, satisfying character studies, the The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is absolutely for you.

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Top 100 Films #72 – There Will Be Blood (2007)

 

there-will-be-blood-plainview-eli#72. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier

The debate between the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been raging for nearly a decade at this point.  Both incredible films released in 2007 and vying for that year’s Best Picture award, both camps have made some great points over the years about why their film is the superior one.  In my opinion, There Will Be Blood just barely edges out its competition, thanks in part to Paul Thomas Anderson’s meticulous eye for detail, the central performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the themes of greed and the deconstruction of American capitalism.  PTA’s film is about Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an aspiring oil baron in early 20th century America, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a young preacher looking to secure financing for his church.  We see Plainview’s rise to power, his strained relationship with his son HW (Dillon Freasier), their attempted acquisition of Eli Sunday’s land, and his eventual descent into apparent madness.  There Will Be Blood is another film on my list that comes in at well over two hours in length, and yet never meanders or overstays its welcome.  The pacing of PTA’s script (based on Oil! By Upton Sinclair) is perfect in every way, building Daniel Plainview as a man to be reckoned with, and establishing the world in which he exists in – where personal greed, religion, and the pursuit of the American dream all seem to clash.  The Academy Award winning cinematography from longtime PTA associate Robert Elswit is gorgeous, featuring sweeping landscapes, and profound visuals that push the film’s themes without having to say a single word. The towering achievement of There Will Be Blood is the Oscar-winning performance by veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis, whose turn as Plainview is chilling.  No actor alive can match the intensity of Day-Lewis’ method acting technique – he embodies the spirit of Daniel Plainview in every frame of this picture.  Another performance that must be mentioned is that of Paul Dano, who plays something of an adversary to Plainview in Eli Sunday.  Dano’s occasional outbursts can be truly frightening, and his conniving nature is truly frustrating. It’s a shame that Dano didn’t get the admiration he truly deserved for the role, as it probably caused him to lose a nomination for Best Supporting Actor (though the deck was very much stacked against him).  There Will Be Blood is as perfect a film as you’ll find, telling an intricate, epic tale of greed in the booming days of the early oil industry.  It should really be considered required viewing at this point, as it’s a perfect example of how to create a compelling modern drama.

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Top 100 Films #77 – No Country for Old Men (2007)

 

nocountry_004#77. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (based on No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy)
Starring: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly Macdonald

Widely regarded as the best movie of the 2000’s, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is an undeniably powerful project.  It’s a story about circumstance, destiny, greed, and taking unnecessary risks – and is full of morally ambiguous characters and situations.  The film introduced the world to Javier Bardem’s terrifying Anton Chigurh, perhaps one of the most frightening villains of the modern era.   No Country for Old Men took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay, beating out one hell of a stiff competitor in the same year’s There Will Be Blood.  The plot of the movie is simple – Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds two million in cash at the site of a drug deal gone bad.  Moss is pursued by a dangerous and emotionless hitman named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), hired to get the money back, and by Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a nearly-retired sheriff in pursuit of both men. What follows is a bloody, suspenseful, challenging thrill ride matched by few films before it, and one whose influence can be seen in many films that have followed it.  The screenplay by the Coen Brothers is perfectly paced, gripping the audience from start to finish.  It never panders to its viewing audience by imitating popular thrillers, but is instead more than happy to take its time in telling an intelligent, and at times frightening story.  Javier Bardem is unpredictable as Anton Chigurh, bringing an unrivaled sense of dread to the film. While Bardem is far and away the highlight of No Country, we also get impressive turns from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Woody Harrelson, all of whom do their best to match Bardem’s iconic performance.  The awards and praise earned by No Country for Old Men are all deserved, as is its status as one of the great films of the 2000’s.  It’s just that damn good.

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Black Directors Feature #5 – Killer of Sheep (1978)

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)Killer of Sheep (1978)
Directed by: Charles Burnett
Written by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry G. Sangers, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, Jack Drummond

Charles Burnett is widely known as perhaps one of the most under-appreciated and underrated film directors in modern American history, largely due to his work on 1978’s Killer of Sheep.  Burnett wrote the film during his time at UCLA, and quickly went to work on making his screenplay a reality.  Casting friends, family members, and colleagues in the film, Burnett completed Killer of Sheep and spent less than $10,000 in the process.  He opted for a documentary-like style throughout the film, with the camera servicing almost as a fly on the wall for the moments caught on scree.  Burnett’s style is highly reminiscent of films made during the period of Italian neorealism in the 1940’s and early 50’s, a movement that created critically acclaimed classics like Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Nights of Cabiria, Stromboli, and Umberto D.  Though Killer of Sheep is regarded as a triumph today, the film had an incredibly tough time playing to audiences of the time.  Its low budget nature and low quality prints made it hard to screen to mass audiences, and the film’s use of licensed music created legal complications for a wide release.  After fading into relative obscurity for a number of years, Killer of Sheep was restored and remastered and given a theatrical and home video release in 2007 – nearly thirty years after its completion.  Charles Burnett would get the opportunity to work with higher budgets in the 1990’s, directing the acclaimed To Sleep with Anger and later The Glass Shield. Despite having all of the acclaim and talent in the world working on his side, Burnett has opted to make a career out of documentary film-making and various made for television movies, including one for the Disney Channel titled Nightjohn, and an ABC film called Selma, Lord, Selma.  Despite never quite making it into the history books as an all-time great filmmaker with a catalog of revered classics, Charles Burnett has managed to stay relevant and on the cutting edge of his industry in whatever field he chooses to work in.  His influence on independent film-making and black films is undeniable, and the craft and skill he puts into his work is to be greatly admired.  All-time great or not, Burnett will be forever remembered for groundbreaking films like Killer of Sheep, and for carving out his own path in the film industry, and constantly (and admirably) doing it the way he wants to do it.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) in 1978’s Killer of Sheep.

Killer of Sheep takes a documentary-like approach to the lives of a black family in the Watts district of 1970’s Los Angeles.  As such, there isn’t much of a coherent narrative to summarize.  Instead of a flowing act-to-act style story, the film observes their real, mundane lives and makes it something to truly behold.  We see Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a father who spends his time working at a slaughterhouse in the area.  It’s implied that the constant slaughtering of these animals is having a subtle effect on his family life, as we see through Stan’s interactions with his wife, son, and daughter.  Stan’s life is dull, grey, and monotonous, and it causes him to ignore the need for affection that his family yearns for.  The story is told through a number of events, none of them following any sort of strict timeline.  We see Stan nearly become embroiled in some nefarious criminal activities, be offered a job working in a shop owned by a white woman, and his attempts to purchase and transport the engine of a car.  What we really see though, is a disillusioned man struggling with existential ideas that are much bigger than himself.  He feels powerless in changing the course of his own life, probably feels trapped in the beautiful and loving family he has crafted for himself, and completely jaded with the life he is currently living.  Killer of Sheep is an experimental film that is nearly impossible to summarize in a coherent manner. It’s a film that needs to be seen in order to be fully comprehended.

Sometimes all you need when analyzing and trying to make up your mind about an experience like this is perspective.  After taking in all of Killer of Sheep and enjoying it – but not quite understanding it – I took to the internet and read some pieces on the film.  When I came across several references towards Killer of Sheep being heavily inspired by the works of Italian neorealists of the 40’s, everything suddenly clicked for me.  The story here is completely secondary to everything that Burnett is trying to get across with his film.  This isn’t a preachy, cliche-ridden drama like so many black films before and after it had been, but instead an unflinching look at the everyday lives of a family, in particular its patriarch.  It’s fitting that I watched Killer of Sheep and Touki Bouki in the same evening for my first viewing of both films, as they both take a very similar approach stylistically and thematically.  Both films are about people who are unsatisfied with their surroundings yearning for something far more grand, but never knowing quite what they want.  The same disconnected, fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary-like style is employed in both films, making both works feel far more powerful in the delivery of their messages.  The absence of a coherent narrative often throws me off for films like this, but Stan is an incredibly interesting lead character, and I found myself really compelled and wanting to know what he was going to get into next.  Director Charles Burnett shows some truly incredible talent in Killer of Sheep, often making neighborhoods in Watts resemble war-torn suburbs, further stressing the disillusionment and sense of un-fulfillment that Stan is feeling.  Everywhere the camera goes something interesting is happening, whether it’s in the background or front and center.  My favorite scene in the film is a very small, beautiful moment that sees Stan’s wife working in the kitchen while his young daughter sings along to the radio in the next room over.  The scene is incredibly simple and in no way technically impressive, but it managed to really touch me in a way I can’t quite describe.  Stan’s family is very lovely despite everything they’re up against, and yet our lead character can’t see just how much he’s taking them all for granted.  Instead, Stan is focused on fixing his car and setting his sights on escaping in whatever mental or physical way he possibly can.

KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)

Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett) and a young neighborhood boy in Charles Burnett’s incredible Killer of Sheep.

While it may not be an action thrill ride, nor is it the most beautiful and stylistic film you’ll ever see, Killer of Sheep is an incredible piece of art from a filmmaker who has all the talent in the world.  The existential themes of longing for more, escape, and disillusionment are something that many of you can relate with.  It’s a film that resonates with you long after you see it, and one you may not be able to fully appreciate after just one watch.  It’s thematically rich, with an incredible script and a compelling lead character.  It may not be for everybody reading this, but I’m so glad to finally be able to say that I’ve seen Charles Burnett’s incredible debut.  Killer of Sheep is highly recommended.

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Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.


SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.


Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.


Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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Stardust (2007)

stardustStardust (2007)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writer: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Claire Danes, Ian McKellen, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro

Runtime: 127 minutes

Rating: 76% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Director Matthew Vaughn started his career with 2004’s indie-crime film, Layer Cake, which was released to both widespread critical and audience acclaim, and has gone on to become a cult film in the same vain as Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  Since Layer Cake, Matthew Vaughn has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors, and easily one of the go-to filmmakers for action and crime films.  Stardust was Vaughn’s sophomore directing attempt, and Vaughn again manages to hit it out of the park.

Stardust is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, and is about a young man called Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox).  Tristan’s father crossed over the wall into the10stardust-600 magical kingdom of Stormhold eighteen years previous, and met Tristan’s mother, an enslaved princess named Una.  The King of Stormhold is on his deathbed, and after deciding to let his sons compete for the throne, throws a ruby into the sky for his sons to retrieve.  The ruby collides with a nearby star, sending both crashing back down to the earth.  Tristan Thorn travels to the star, and finds a young girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes) who he precedes to take with him.  A group of three witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) learns of the fallen star and decides to find the young woman and eat her heart, thereby recovering the three witches’ youth and magical powers.  With the assistance of his mother and a flamboyant pirate of the sky (Robert De Niro), Tristan must win his true love and save Yvain from certain doom.

Going into a film like Stardust is always a very intimidating prospect, because most films in the fantasy genre simply don’t turn out very well in the end.  In the years 500fullfollowing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, many franchises and stand-alone fantasy epics were attempted, and mostly failed (with the exception of The Chronicles of Narnia), and Stardust looked to be no different.  Fortunately for audiences worldwide, Stardust is loaded with more than enough talent to make it work, and make it work well.  Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to pace a film of this proportion, and his direction is remarkable throughout.  His action scenes flow together incredibly well, and he commands his exceptionally talented cast to some very impressive performances.  Robert De Niro in particular puts in a very fun performance as Captain Shakespeare, the flamboyant sky pirate, easily giving the film it’s most heartfelt and tear-inducing moment towards the end of the film.

The only elements that don’t work for Stardust are its score, composed by long-time Matthew Vaughn collaborator Ilan Eshkeri.  It’s not that the score is particularly bad, just that it feels like and sounds very similar at times to Howard Shore’s score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It took me out of the film in a few moments, and I felt that a less inspired composition might have worked far better.  Overall, Stardust is an incredibly fun and entertaining discovery for the fantasy genre, and a film that completely took many people by surprise.  A talented director and cast help this film rise from a mediocre and forgettable film to a cult favourite that will continue to entertain for years.  I highly recommend Stardust to anybody interested in epic fantasy films.  8/10.

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