Stardust is not (to get that out of the way) great fantasy filmmaking. Too much CGI for my taste, some of the action scenes seem clearly modeled after the Peter Jackson house style (lots of circling shots and mismatched landscapes), and the music could be more original. I hear Gilliam was first offered this, and I wish he did take it; for first half hour I kept thinking he could do wonders with the material. But then 1) Gilliam's done this before, and 2) I can see where it doesn't present too many sides to capture his interest.
Then I learn it's Neil Gaiman, which explains a lot. The script has a macabre humor all its own (seven fratricidal brothers; three witches out to cut out and eat a girl's heart; a sky pirate with a deep, dark secret), and the kind of inventive, tightly paced plotting that betrays Gaiman's comic-book background (writing for comics isn't completely without its virtues--Alfred Bester learned how to tell a story this way, for one). The cast certainly agrees, because they throw body and soul into the project (at the very least it's obvious they're having a great time). Easily outdoes the past two Harry Potter movies in the enchantment (the emotional kind) department.
Herzog's Rescue Dawn--did someone say The Bourne Ultimatum was the best action film of the year, of several years? Beg to differ; there's this film, and Michael Mann's Miami Vice, just off the top of my head.
This is more of an escape picture than an action film, I suppose, but the pleasure here is in Herzog being granted the giant toy train set that's a Hollywood production, and seeing how far he runs with it. I think he can play with the best of them--unlike, say, Greengrass, he knows when to do a shaky-cam (immersive shots where the camera takes on the character's point of view, emphasizing his helplessness) and when to go for smooth crane shots (objective POV, where the point is to create suspense, or a sense of approaching menace). The plane crash--the single most spectacular sequence in the film--glides by with a touch of unrealism: the plane comes down, flames and smoke, breaks apart, and hatches Dieter into the rice fields, like some kind of mosquito larva, all in what almost seems like a single smooth motion. I can imagine Herzog playing with our notion of emergency landings, turning it into some kind of unstated joke, a quick wink at what Hollywood plane crashes are supposed to look like (at the same time outdoing the standard-issue crash with careless grace and skill).
Then there are the touches uniquely his--the great, slow, downward pans from the tips of mountains to their base, filling the whole screen, showing us the immensity of nature; the little cameos of insects, from a beetle whirling on string to a huge butterfly on someone's limb, wings flapping lazily to a caterpillar on a leaf, doing its level best to clamber onto Steve Zahn's face.
There's the sense of heat, humidity, of sheer mass of foliage pressing all around; sometimes the jungle seems like a thousand-fingered hand, reluctant to release Deiter (Christian Bale) and Duane (Zahn), the two Vietcong prisoners making their bid for freedom.
And I love some of the lines, which are pure Herzog. "This is not a village;" "no, it is a village." "I dreamed there was a fire." Herzog's heroes struggle under extreme conditions, and as a result of all that suffering they've lost their grasp of reality, must assert or debate it out loud; Zahn is so unsure of what happened he has to tentatively suggest he only dreamed there was a fire, there, of course, was--yet another of Herzog's sly pranks on his characters.
The American flag-waving seems a tad much, but for some reason I can actually see Herzog buying into that; it's just something I sense in him, a need to want approval from a country whose commercial cinema has had little use for his own work, save for the occasional plagiarism (see Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now with reference to Aguirre the Wrath of God). He seems to want to take the relationship to a whole other level.
That said, he does give one a sense that the Laotians aren't stereotypical Asian tormentors or merely sadistic prison guards (check out Cimino's odious The Deer Hunter, or even interestingly enough John Woo's Bullet in the Head). They're people with a sense of real anger (not unjustified) at the United State's unadmitted bombings of their country.
And I love the little details--the question of toilets and defecation in a jungle prison (always an important question, but one you never hear from Rambo), of food and water, and laundry (I love it that they're shown actually doing their laundry). I love the dynamic between prisoners, how emotions of trust and affection and anger flow freely between them, intense and open like irrigation canals. I love how physically expressive Herzog makes Bale and Zahn, always touching each other, putting head on shoulder, cuddling against each other for warmth. That's how people who've spent time--months and years--in prison behave, even stay sane.
It's not Herzog's best, and I can see where the argument that he's sold out might stick, but if he is selling out, I wish he'd done so decades ago; it's head and shoulders better than anything from Hollywood nowadays.