Longtime readers of this site know that once upon a time, I was captured in a photo alongside one fine, upstanding individual who went out for Halloween dressed as a manly scalawag only to find himself dubbed “The Fruity Pirate” when the pic surfaced on these pages. Of course, it didn’t help his cause that I ran the photo directly below a shot of me strolling down the avenue with a camera bag slung over my arm that looked suspiciously like a purse. After that it was all argyle sweaters for this Ed Wood.
Well, proving there are no more original stories to tell, I have finally come across a film that features “The Fruity Pirate” in a pivotal part and played against type by probably the last actor you would expect to grab that role.
And with that, we’re on with the show. (As always – Please comment below).
Here it is – “The Fruity Pirate” movie and said pirate, one Captain Shakespeare, is played by the raging bull Robert DeNiro, who turns in his lightest, most entertaining performance in years. Best of all, he actually looks like he is enjoying the part and not just cashing a paycheck (like he and the other half of the Dynamic Over-Acting Duo, Al Pacino, have been doing for the last decade or so).
When Stardust premiered, many comparisons were drawn to The Princess Bride. I don’t make the same connection. While both films tell love stories set against a fantasy backdrop, The Princess Bride is more self-referential, aiming for the laughs and tearing apart fantasy archetypes while Stardust tells a fairly genuine love story. Sure, it’s got all manner of witches, ghosts and magical talismans surrounding it – but at heart, it’s an old-fashioned love story.
Stardust was written by Neil Gaiman (The Sandman) and directed by Matthew Vaughn, who wisely retired himself from the bloated-by-committee X3 – The Last Stand in favor of this pic. At the time of his departure from the third X-Men flick, rumors swirled that Vaughn was intimidated by the demands of an effects-heavy picture. Well, I think he puts that all to rest here, as Stardust is brimming with magical, mystical sights. In fact, the digital artisanship coupled with the gorgeous English countryside achieve the same effect that Peter Jackson did when he applied CGI to his Kiwi vistas and instantly conjured Middle Earth.
Like most fairy tales, a synopsis can sound silly, not that I won’t try. Stardust follows a young man, who journeys into a hidden realm to acquire a “fallen star” (Claire Danes) as a show of love for his crush (Sienna Miller). The “star” finds herself hunted by a gaggle of ghosts who require her talisman to grab sovereign rule of their kingdom as well as a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who yearns to nosh on her heart and achieve endless youth and beauty. And of course, there’s Captain Shakespeare who commands a rogue’s gallery of pirates and thieves who sail the great wide yonder in their flying galleon. Shakespeare harbors a secret, leading to some fun scenes with DeNiro playing against type.
This was just a very enjoyable movie – not to be taken seriously. While I’m not a huge fantasy fan (I tend to like them darker like The Lord of the Rings flicks), I found myself enchanted by this one. And I enjoyed Vaughn’s confident direction. He rose up as second-unit director to Guy Ritchie in flicks like Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Vaughn seemed cut from the same cloth in his directorial debut, Layer Cake, but with Stardust and the forthcoming Kick Ass (based on the Mark Millar comic) he is showing some great range. This is a director to watch.
2. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
As with Stardust, there are some films that are better off not describing. Their concepts are just so crazy that it is hard for mainstream America to grasp the entertainment value. Me – I like all genres and will watch anything – meaning I’ll jump from Y Tu Mama Tambien to The Host without blinking an eye.
The original Hellboy was a great cult classic that earned its sequel the hard way (it took DVD success to bankroll a follow-up). Based on the Mike Mignola comic series, Hellboy told the whacked out tale of a large, red Hell demon drafted by the US Government to combat the dark things that go bump in the night. With echoes of Men in Black, this secret agency fights off inter-dimensional beings, resurrected Nazis and corporate bureaucracy with equal vigor. They bump back.
The original Hellboy was handled by celebrated director Guillermo del Toro, who has really carved a nice niche for himself. Del Toro refuses to be pigeonholed and simply jumps from one passion project to the next – pinballing from haunting pieces like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth to funhouse flicks like the Hellboy series and Blade II. He’s a kissing cousin to Peter Jackson, which should pay dividends when del Toro grabs those reigns to the forthcoming Hobbit flick(s).
In Hellboy II, del Toro takes the goodwill he earned from those healthy DVD residuals and plays on a much larger canvas. While I thought the first film had a more compelling conflict and a nasty set of villains including the reanimated Rasputin, this film fills the screen with a vast menagerie of devilish delights. There are creatures everywhere – some to serve a purpose and others there simply as eye candy. It’s the same approach Lucas takes with his Star Wars flicks however where those films have grown cold and utilitarian, del Toro exhibits that same macabre whimsy that Tim Burton has made his stock-in-trade.
Deserving special notice is Doug Jones, del Toro’s go-to guy for creature work. Jones played the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth (as well as that uber-creepy Pale Man) and here he slips on Abe Sapien’s wet suit. Del Toro always looks to Jones for the Creature Double Feature and later in the film, Jones portrays the pivotal Angel of Death. While this creation appears on loan from Labyrinth, it serves a crucial role in the story and neatly underscores a dilemma first raised in the initial film. This sequence alone has me jonesing for another piece of Big Red.
3. Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tim Burton was the absolute best choice to helm this pitch-black rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s gruesome musical, having built his career on mining the dark shadows to extract the beauty within and showcase some Grand Guignol gallows humor.
Going into this film, I knew of the musical but couldn’t hum one damn song, which was odd as I’m married to a trained singer and musical enthusiast and can pretty much belt out my share of the show tunes. I thought this one would be right up her alley but when I approached Andi last Sunday looking to see if she wanted to join me for a little sing-along with Johnny Depp, she quietly demurred. She was intrigued by the set list but not so much with the slit throats.
Yes, this film is bloody. The arterial wine bathes the sets at times, with geysers of gristle erupting from all those bare necks. That said, it’s done in such an over-the-top theatrical style that I never felt queasy. So, if you are gore-averse, I think you could still stomach this tale of one wronged barber and his nefarious scheme to rid London of its vermin, get his revenge on the loathsome Judge who ruined his life, and restore Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie emporium with a little secret recipe.
Of course, it’s a musical – meaning, there is a lot of singing. Some people love them. Some loathe them. As a guy who waltzes around his house warbling chore orders – “Your Boots. Your Boots. Pick up your damned boo-ooo-oots” – I happen to reside comfortably in the former. Musicals just have a way of transporting you. They are the definition of film as fantasy. After all, no one talks like that in real life. No one expresses their inner-most thoughts and dreams in song. No one sane, that is.
Of course, you can parade a billion cats on roller skates and I won’t be affected. The story has to be worth a damn. And in this musical, Burton and Depp have latched onto a good one. It infiltrates. It sticks to your bones. It haunts.
Oh, and as an added bonus, we learn that Borat (Sasha Baron Cohen) has a decent set of pipes on himself as well.
4. District B13
You know how we all wised up and stopped paying Hollywood for all that action-flick dreck that Stallone and his cronies steamrolled us with in the 80’s. Well, the rest of the world loves it. Which is why a flick like Timecop can bomb here and then play for half-a-decade at Cannes.
For years, the knock was that nobody made action films like Hollywood, which was a complete fallacy as Hong Kong was busting out the wire-fu way before Neo ever took flight. And guys like John Woo were told to pack their doves, temper their flair and head to Hollywood for a decent paycheck and the opportunity to make karaoke versions of their action arias.
Around the same time that Hollywood was ogling Hard Boiled, Luc Besson was taken France by storm with La Femme Nikita – an influential action flick that would inspire later properties like Run Lola Run and television’s Alias. Now, over the years, Besson has moved away from the action histrionics in a bid to paint on a larger canvas – offering up such wildly diverse films like The Fifth Element and The Messenger. In the meantime, he was doing his best to grandfather a stable of French-born action auteurs in a bid to turn the tables and teach Hollywood some new tricks, while turning the gravy train around and feeding the hungry American action fan with some delights they have not yet tasted. Where Hong Kong gave us wire-fu, France (and Besson’s buddies) supplied parkour – or free-running.
You’ve seen this in action in Casino Royale, as Bond chases baddie (and parkour co-founder) Sebastien Foucan up and over scaffolding, swinging cranes and elevator shafts, pinballing his body at breakneck speed with precious little wire work or CGI-enhancement to keep him safe. That opening Royale action scene was a great showcase but it’s this film, District B13, released in 2004, that arguably placed it on the map.
And it’s purely on the basis of stunt work that I am marginally recommending this flick. Where Besson (who shares co-scripting duties) is looking to reinvent the action genre and show us things we’ve never seen before, the scenario is well-worn territory. Specifically, this is the French Escape from New York – with a criminal drafted by a totalitarian government to infiltrate a walled-in ghetto, home to society’s undesirables, and locate their missing McGuffin. In Escape, it was the President of the United States. Here, it’s a neutron bomb primed to explode and destroy a whole lot of innocent people.
Same difference, really.