Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Film Review: Stardust

My Rain Man-like powers for spotting hidden agendas in entertainment can be a curse sometimes. Seems like nobody just makes movies anymore.

For that reason, I was looking forward to Stardust. The trailer (watch it, you'll get the gist) suggested the next Princess Bride -- that cynicism-free breath of fresh air from 1987 of which we could use a second wind today.

First the good news... Turns out there is a big, bright Bride vibe along with elements of The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, a Terry Gilliam-esque comic tone, and thoroughly impressive visual design and effects. Also a heavy dose of old school Brothers Grimm horror -- in reversal of Harry Potter's inversion of evil archetypes -- complete with damsels in distress and haggish witches distressing them.

We also get the fetching Claire Danes doing a heavy but excellent British accent, the ever-hilarious Ricky Gervais (too briefly), and a powerfully resurgent Michelle Pfeiffer -- the rare actress selfless enough to have zeroed out her career to devote key years to her family despite her age in a sex-appeal-intensive industry.

Much of the comedy is brilliant, including a billy goat experiencing serious culture shock after Pheiffer's witch queen turns him into an inn keeper (appropriately named "Billy") and a ghostly peanut gallery of murdered princes joining each other on the sidelines throughout the picture as they bump each other off en route to claim the faerie kingdom throne.

And if you're tired of the anachronisms and pop-culture references of Shreck, fear not. The laughs here are mostly in context and much more subtle.

The bad news is that everything only occasionally gels, largely because Stardust cant decide if it wants to be an earnest fairy tale or a send-up of earnest fairy tales.

It's also a road picture that falls into the road picture quagmire of an episodic plot structure. Too many loosely linked waypoints, too little drama.

Ditto for Stardust's too-obvious romantic comedy template. We know the bickering hero and heroine will fall for each other in the end, and it all plays out more or less as expected -- which is fine in a rom-com with perfect chemistry between the leads. Here, the romance works only in fits and starts, feeling alternately real and contrived.

Then there's Robert De Niro as a (literally) closet gay sky pirate. It's mildly funny at first, but by the time he's dancing around like a can-can girl, it's just lame... (It's tough guy Robert De Niro acting fruity, we get it already.) And we've seen this before, from Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song" to Zorro the Gay Blade. Yet it goes on, waaay past the punchline after that, all the way to a truly gay (in the worst sense of the word) "come out and be happy" message that totally takes us out of the film. Thank you again, Hollywood Gay Mafia.

Parents beware, too, the creepier aspects of the wicked witch element. Animals are sacrificed, entrails are read. (Albeit mostly off-camera. And not to worry, the furry woodland creatures get their revenge in the end.)

...Which all sounds like a thumbs-down, right? Not really. It's an entertaining, mostly original flick that's hard not to enjoy. Just don't expect it to abide with you long after, like the great ones do.

Nor, given all the flaming pirates and witchcraft, can we expect it to become the church youth group, movie night favorite Princess Bride became on its way to universally-loved "modern classic" status.

Bottom line, good film, but I guess I'm still just waiting for that breath of truly fresh air.

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