By Michael Calleri

Buffalo Alternative Press Movie Editor

           Fantasist Neil Gaiman has a loyal following amongst devotees of graphic novels and mature fairy tales. His “Stardust” is now a movie. Because I get to see most films weeks before they are released and the hype machine gets rolling - and I can avoid the reams of publicity the studios send the press - I went into the film cold, with a minimal sense of what it was going to be about. Frankly, that’s the best way for anyone to see a movie.
          I was pleasantly surprised by what unreeled before me. I’m of the mind that the more I tell you, the less your innocent joy may be, so I try to be as brief as I can. A comely English lad (Tristan, played by Charlie Cox) is smitten with a beautiful girl in his village (Victoria, played by Siena Miller). He promises her a genuine star - as in from outer space - as a romantic gift. She, by the way, is not smitten, preferring to play coy. The village in which they live is called Wall. It‘s guarded by... a wall. On the other side of the wall is the forbidden world of Stormhold, ruled by Peter O‘Toole in his best kingly baritone. He wants a successor, but he keeps allowing his sons to be killed off.

Soon Tristan enters the forbidden zone and encounters a magical vision in the form of Yvaine (Claire Danes). She has swallowed a giant ruby that turned white and allowed her to become a shooting star and fall to Earth. Meanwhile, a trio of witches, including Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), conspire to get that jewel back and enjoy eternal beauty. Add Robert De Niro gloriously hamming it up as a fey pirate with something other than skeletons in his closet, the always brilliant Ricky Gervais as a fence for stolen goods, and a Greek Chorus of dead princes (including Rupert Everett with half his face flattened), and you’ve got a whiz-bang adventure that only a churl could hate.

         

          The key question is this: Will Tristan find true love with Yvaine or Victoria? “Stardust” offers a pirate ship that flies through the air, humans that turn into goats so carts can be pulled, a mystery about exactly how Tristan was conceived, and a mix of laughs and special effects that do entertain. I truly enjoyed this movie.

         

          I wish I could write that this comic fantasy is as good as it gets, but it does falter a bit towards the end. Why director Matthew Vaughan and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman felt the need to pad this enterprise to 130 minutes is anybody’s guess. The only casting problem is Ms. Danes, who doesn’t seem to get the joke. She isn’t very good at whimsy.

 

          The rest of the cast fares much better, and what can I write about Pfeiffer that hasn’t been written before? She is utterly, truly, breathtakingly beautiful, and it’s a treat to see her temptress character fight to retain her beauty. No good witchcraft here. Pfeiffer’s the evil villain and a darn good one. As for De Niro‘s nuttiness, well, it’s a rich cinematic joke that will delight fans of his movies. If you don’t get the joke, I can’t help you.

 

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          “Golden Door” is a stark exploration of the journey millions of immigrants took to get to the United States as the 19th-century turned into the 20th. In the case of the movie, we are watching Italians (specifically Sicilians) head for our shores, but the transAtlantic and Ellis Island experience also belonged to others, including the Irish, the Germans, and the Poles, many of whom helped Buffalo grow into a mega-city with 580,000 people in 1950.

          The film’s original Italian title is “Nuovomondo” (New World) and if you‘ve ever wondered what it was like in the bowels of the ships carrying these daring, adventurous people, the movie reveals that it was a perilous journey. You’re privy to the ominous sounds of the great vessels lurching in the seas and to the filthy living conditions in decks crammed with sparse beds. The noise of the ship’s engines was frightening. Travelers to America were jammed cheek-by-jowl. Food was what you brought with you. Some emigres died in transit.

          “Golden Door,” which is in Italian with English subtitles, concentrates on one very poor Sicilian family. Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) is the patriarch, a widower eager to build a new life for himself and his sons. He also brings along his proud, stubborn mother, played with heartbreaking believability by Aurora Quattrocchi. You watch the film in awe at the sheer determination of these people, uprooting their lives to head for a land that seemed magical, but was still a place of great unknown. Postcards sent back to Italy from earlier immigrants depict giant fruits and vegetables. America was expected to be a land of plenty.

          On board ship, Salvatore meets Lucy, a strange Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who has lived in, but is leaving, Italy for reasons known only to her. The two strike up a friendship. Others will gossip. Screenwriter-director Emanuele Crialese is determined to have her remain a mystery.

          When the ship finally reaches New York City, all we see is mist and fog. No Statue Of Liberty. No buildings. “Golden Door” then settles its cast on Ellis Island, where the immigrants are given medical exams, dexterity tests, and for some of the adults, an opportunity to marry one of their fellow travelers.

          Director Crialese relishes the chance to deliver moments of sheer surrealism. In a dreamlike scene, young boys carry a giant carrot, perhaps 20-feet long. And if you’ve ever thought of applying the phrase: “land of milk and honey” to the United States, Crialese offers his interpretation.

In a very good way, “Golden Door” is amazingly educational. Arriving as it does during our national debate on immigration, it may actually offer some solutions. Moments of poignancy give way to moments of hope. Through it all we marvel at the resolve of these pioneers, and pioneers is what they really are. This is a very good, very tough movie, with a smart script and direction that brings to mind some of the neo-realist classics from post-World War II Italian filmmakers. You delight in the faces of the actors and actresses.

          And if you watch carefully, you will also see a little bit of fear. Not dread, but a wary apprehension. We, of course, know that the door was not golden for everyone who came to America. In fact, it’s not golden for everyone born in America.

          I liked the fact that Crialese doesn’t take his immigrants - or us - further into the “new world.” Because they do not know what the future holds for them, neither should we. This is an enigmatic movie in more ways than one.

 

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          There has been a touch of controversy surrounding the new documentary “Arctic Tale,” which is a colorful and pleasing examination of the plight of polar bears and other critters in the Arctic regions of the planet.

          It’s being said that the production team, including directors Adam Ravetch (who also did the cinematography) and Sarah Robertson shot their footage over extended periods of time (rather than a compressed period) and used different groups of animals to tell their environmentally adept dual narratives about the  life cycle of a mother walrus and her calf and the life cycle of a polar bear and her cubs. It seems that the polar bears we’re seeing are not always the same polar bears. The same may hold true for the walruses.

          The point of the entertaining and interesting movie is to illustrate the harsh realities of existence in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding ice masses. I’m not really upset about the fact that one polar bear may have been switched for another. Frankly, unless they’ve got name tags reading “Hello - I’m Skippy,” I really wouldn’t be able to tell one bear from another. And the same holds true for walruses.

          Criticizing Ravetch and Robertson for this is like criticizing Michael Moore for being alive. It’s enervating and ultimately pointless. What’s most important is that the movie alerts you to the continuing dangers of global warming, as if most of you needed any further alerting. Polar bears have fewer and fewer ice floes upon which to dwell and from which they hunt the occasionally aggressive walruses. The melting ice cap at the top of the world is threatening the existence of the polar bear. Many are now drowning in search of food.

          The cinematography is top-notch in “Arctic Tale,” and Queen Latifah’s calm, cool, and collected whispery narration doesn’t get in the way of the goings-on, which is exactly what you want from a narrator.

          All-in-all, a good movie that brings another perspective to the table regarding our coal-burning, gas-guzzling society and the havoc being wreaked upon Mother Earth.