Stardust

Stardust [2007]

Actors:  Michelle Pfeiffer, Clare Danes, Charlie Cox, Robert De Niro, Sienna Miller
Directors:  Matthew Vaughn

“I’ve just watched this film four times in three days. It is, quite simply, the most breathtaking film I have seen for years.

Based on — and improved upon — Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, Stardust is the ultimate fantasy-adventure for the entire family.

There are three really great things about this film, two of which are extensions of what is in the book, and one was developed by Gaiman and his co-workers for the film after the book was finished.

The first great thing is the depth and originality of the magical world he creates. Gaiman’s Faerie is as rich and detailed — and exuberant — as Hogwarts, though it’s a darker place. The film brings to life the wealth of detail which was in the book. Despite being laced with special effects, this does not come across as a special effects movie, because every magical transformation is demanded by the plot and flows instinctively from what was there before: a wonderful example of Aristotle’s ‘likely impossible’ being better than an ‘unlikely possible’.

The second great thing is the depth of characterisation. It’s unusual in a fantasy film to have the level of bickering and banter that we get in this film. It’s unusual in any genre to have an exquisitely observed romance develop before our eyes, against the wishes of both main protagonists. The film builds new characters, such as Robert de Niro’s gay pirate Captain Shakespeare and Ricky Gervais’s wheeler-dealer fence, which add additional resonance (and humour). It also nicely develops the characters of all seven sons of Stormhold, and nicely polishes the ghosts.

The third great thing, which is not in the book, is that Stardust the film has a very, very exciting plotline. Gaiman wisely omitted a number of details, and simplified the rather complex relationships. This created the space to focus on the real action, to introduce the pirate interlude, and to replace the entire ending with the most gripping and thrilling magical battle I have ever seen in a film. The last twenty minutes is all new material, making the story infinitely stronger and more satisfying. This is neatly underlined by the reprise of all the surviving characters in the coronation scene at the end — a very nice touch indeed.

Fairy tales need to be told and retold, and improved as they go. Gaiman has seized the rare opportunity of telling his tale better the second time around — though the original novel was nothing to be sniffed at — and he and his co-workers have created a masterpiece.

I loved this film, and would recommend it to anyone — something helped by the removal of the sometimes explicit references which occasionally crop up in the book.

This is not a ‘great’ film, in the sense of Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or The Great Escape. It does not attempt to solve the great questions of human existence, or to plumb the depths of tragedy. But it is the finest film of its kind I have ever seen.

One more thing: both in the film and the book, there are elements which have obviously been ‘inspired’ by other fantasy writers. With becoming modesty, Gaiman, in the epilogue to the book, acknowledges these. The references are not plagiarism, but tributes. The film is all the stronger for them”.

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Top Gear – The Great Adventures (Polar Special & US Special)

Top Gear – The Great Adventures (Polar Special & US Special)

“Top Gear, frankly, is one of those things that has made me feel excited about television again. For a long time, I only really used my TV to watch a DVD/play a game. There was little to nothing for me to watch in terms of original broadcasting. Then my cousin recommended watching Top Gear…and everything changed for me.

The whole premise of the show is just genius. Three big kids, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, loving cars and getting into all kinds of adventures and mishaps is just brilliant. In their own special way, they’re all intelligent, entertaining, quick-witted and produce some hilarious, hair-raising and truly unforgettable viewing together. For me, Top Gear is the best thing on television today, hands-down.

Having developed a love for Top Gear (and subsequent DVD releases) in virtually no time at all, The Great Adventures is doubtless something to be really pleased to own. The reason why this box set is such a mandatory purchase is because it features the two most memorable specials ever in the programme’s history.

Scratch that. BEST EPISODES EVER in the programme’s history.

Starting with the Polar Special, you have Jeremy Clarkson and James May driving an extensively modified Toyota Hilux pick-up truck, competing against Richard Hammond and a dog team…in a 450 mile race to the North Pole. Those who watched this when it was first broadcast will remember it being not only an epic race, but also a tremendous test of survival, very real danger, incredible discovery and a true sense of accomplishment.

For the TV version of that amazing challenge to finally be released on DVD is special in itself, but the thing here is that this version of the Polar Special is actually the Director’s Cut. And this is not a cheap plug with only a few measly seconds of insignificant footage included. This is the real deal. The Director’s Cut is ten minutes longer than the hour-long version that was originally broadcast. The extra footage is absolutely amazing and enlightens the viewer more on what the lads went through in preparation for the adventure, the stress and dangers they endured, and what other astonishing discoveries they made.

The other special included is the U.S. one. This was the first ever episode of Top Gear I watched, so naturally it has such a special place in my heart. Here Jezza, Hamster and Captain Slow have purchased $1000 wrecks to embark on the ultimate American road trip over 700 miles to their destination of New Orleans, encountering all kinds of memorable challenges along the way. These consist of lap races, breaking before alligator-infested waters, preparing a road-kill feast and baiting the people of Alabama and surviving.

The U.S. special is just as excellent as I remember it. The lads’ quest for purchasing American cars on such a low budget, the hilarity of the lads’ road-kill feast, the frightening realism of their dangerous antagonising trek through Alabama are the highlights. And the charitable acts of the presenters to the people of New Orleans merits such respect and admiration, making it the perfect ending to a fantastic adventure.

However, I was very surprised that the lads’ frightening drive through a fierce storm on the highway was cut from this home release of U.S. special. It didn’t deter me from it anyway, but it is a tad on the disappointing side. What’s really disappointing, though, is the music edits that had to be made due to contractual reasons. This is very noticeable during the Polar Special Director’s Cut. A lot of the soundtrack music used here instead of that on the original broadcast really doesn’t have the same quality impact on the presentation. In fact, the substitute soundtrack feels somewhat out of place and like it doesn`t really belong here.

There’s no extras either, which is a shame. Some outtakes and deleted scenes would’ve been really nice. Along with audio commentaries from Clarkson, Hammond and May regarding their own personal reflections of their amazing adventures.

But at such a bargain price, and with such a beautiful DVD transfer, I shouldn’t complain, really. Top Gear: The Great Adventures is a box set that every fan has been waiting for. These two expeditions are events that best showcase why these three guys have every right to be proud of what they do, what an amazing life they lead and why Top Gear is the best thing on television right now. The best DVD release of the show so far? I’d definitely say so”.

Top Gear Challenges 2

Top Gear: The Challenges 2

“Well, here we are again. Another Top Gear DVD, and one that should be considered essential on subject matter alone. Let’s face it, the Challenges are the BEST part of the show as they test Jezza, Hamster and Captain Slow to their limits and beyond, in tasks that are extreme, barmy, exciting, surprising, hilarious and (more often than not) end in disaster.

Top Gear: The Challenges was a brilliant DVD, I thought. It had the best challenges ever in the show’s history, which for that reason alone, made it worth buying and cherishing. However, the DVD was criticised by many regarding the editing and the presentation. The menus were awkward and difficult to operate, the sequence of challenges were broken up and scattered so it was hard to follow them properly, and the scene selection wasn’t as well conceived as it should’ve been. Personally, none of this bothered me, though I could understand why it annoyed others.

But first things first, what exactly can you expect from Top Gear: The Challenges 2? All the best challenges from the tenth series, which is the only logical thing to do, seeing as how all the best challenges from the show’s HISTORY have been released previously.

The Challenges here are Amphibious Cars: The Sequel (where they cross the Channel), The Bugatti Veyron vs. The Eurofighter, Motorhome Racing, Fiat 500 vs. BMX, the lads’ search for The Greatest Driving Road, The 24 Hour Race (at Silverstone) and the epic Race Across London (featuring James in a Mercedes, Richard on a bicycle, The Stig on public transport and Jeremy in a racing speedboat). These challenges are all fresh, and while perhaps not as classic as the last batch, there’re nonetheless excellent, featuring all the essential stuff that makes Top Gear the cracking entertainment that it is.

But…HAVE the BBC listened to all the criticisms that were directed at the last Challenges DVD? YES, THEY HAVE. The structure of the compilation is MUCH better than it was previously. No skipping over to another challenge halfway through the one you’re currently watching THIS time around. Each portion of the Challenges from the shows have been grouped together to form a much better, more structured presentation. You’re watching one Challenge all the way through before moving onto the next one, allowing you to just sit back and enjoy a much-more smoother and better-flowing compilation.

The scene-selection has also been better designed, meaning the chapter-breaks are at much more convenient points. And all the menus operate like they SHOULD. Cursors are where they should be, you have the cool Top Gear theme playing on almost every menu, and there’s a really nice Stig animation that accompanies the transitions between the different menus.

And the icing on the cake? EXTRAS. There’s some really great ones here. First up, are clips from celebrity stars of the last series, Lewis Hamilton and Simon Cowell. Both of their amazing Lap Times round the Top Gear test track are shown here, along with extended interviews. The new cuts are noticeable and thus make these extras even more special.

There’s also a ride with The Stig in the No. 1 Lap Car, complete with an interactive option that allows you to change the camera angle via your remote. Even though there’s only two angles to choose from, it’s still a great addition to the disc. There’s also another interactive multi-angle option featuring the Eurofighter from the Bugatti Veyron race, and although it’s quite brief, it is absolutely breathtaking and seriously worth partaking in. And finally, there’s a nice little video of the Lamborghini Gallardo (from The Greatest Driving Road) driving on the Col De Turini. This is made special by the camera that’s mounted on the front of the car, making you understand why the Col De Turini is SUCH a fantastic road, as the lads have said.

And because this is a BBC DVD, you can naturally expect high-quality presentation. The DVD transfer is as clean and as crisp as always. Sound cannot be faulted, and there’s useful subtitles (as usual) just in case.

Now, if it’s Top Gear, I buy it on DVD for pure entertainment, regardless of how it’s released, because I know I’m getting my money’s worth seeing my favourite moments again and again. But the presentation of this particular release has really impressed me. Perhaps more than any other previous DVD that the BBC have released. Top Gear: The Challenges 2 has everything here. The outstanding highlights, better menu selections and cracking extras. Those who were disappointed with the last Challenges DVD won’t be disappointed here. It’s a fantastic release and like all Top Gear DVDs, should be part of your collection”.