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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007
Stars, but no sparkle
"People who know" say that fantasy is the next big thing in Hollywood. "People who know" obviously haven't seen "Stardust" yet.
Yes, one can point to the "Harry Potter" series or "The Chronicles of Narnia" and see dollar signs flash before one's eyes. But one can also point to "Brothers Grimm" or "Dungeons and Dragons" and claim that fantasy filmmaking has already moved from its bullish period into the bear.
What to say about "Stardust?"
"Like 'Brothers Grimm,' except worse." "Perfect, if you're a 10-year-old girl who's off your Ritalin." "For children of all ages . . . provided they've been lobotomized."
Yes, "Stardust" is a truly a film to inspire critics to twist the knife.
This critic would have to think long and hard to recall a film as stupefyingly witless as "Stardust," and that includes the Steven Segal flick I caught on late-night TV the other night. This is one of those films that it's hard to imagine was ever previewed on a live audience (of humans, thank you) before being dumped in the theaters.
This fairy-tale fantasy must have looked like a sure-fire thing in the conceptual stage, what with its shameless fusion of elements of "Harry Potter," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Lord Of The Rings." Unfortunately, someone forgot to add any form of drama, humor or romance along the way.
"Stardust" does have the power to make you believe in miracles, though — it is surely some kind of miracle that both Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer were persuaded to appear in this utter rot.
"Stardust" is set in a fairy-tale world of ghosts and witches, pirates and princes, and based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman ("Sandman"), who also produced the film, so he can't take the usual writer's escape clause and say "the director ruined my brilliant work!" Gaiman is supposedly the thinking man's graphic novelist, but no evidence of that is on display here.
The story concerns a village idiot named Tristan — that might not be how the filmmakers see him, but that's how Charlie Cox's performance comes off — who is pining for village beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller), a real piece of work. To impress his girl, Tristan boasts that he will cross the wall outside their village — which is in fact a portal to another dimension — to retrieve the falling star they saw plunge from the sky. Victoria gives Tristan one week to accomplish this feat or she will marry handsome cad Humphrey.
Tristan crosses the wall and finds the star, which turns out to be Claire Danes. He ties her to a magic rope and starts hauling her back to his beloved. The star, of course, is none too pleased. Meanwhile, unbeknown to Tristan, a trio of witches is also seeking the star, as cutting out it's heart and eating it will restore them to their youth again. The princes of this magic kingdom, all vying for the throne after their father's death, are also seeking the star and an amulet in her possession. Like "Pirates Of The Caribbean," none of this makes a lick of sense, but it's effective at keeping people chasing after things for two hours.
This fairy-tale atmosphere may have been charming if director Matthew Vaughn had any idea how to direct his leads, who turn in singularly unlikable performances. Danes over-emotes wildly, jerking and twitching her face around like she's on bad crystal meth. (This would have been a great performance in "Spun.")
Cox suffers from having to play a pretty freaking thick character for most of the film, while still also having to come across as a romantic lead. The man has obviously got talent, though: he's able to maintain a toothy grin as rock-solid as rigor mortis even while talking. But as a swashbuckling action hero, Cox makes Orlando Bloom look like Sylvester Stallone.
De Niro suffers the indignity of playing a closeted gay pirate captain, who gets to do a little "Queer Eye" makeover on Cox that is notably unfunny. Let's hope the paycheck covers the losses on De Niro's turgid vanity pic, "The Good Shepherd." Pfeiffer suffers the indignity of having her face both aged and restored to youth by CG so many times that even when she looks naturally good, you suspect that she's been tampered with.
About the only relief is Ricky Gervais ("The Office") playing a motor-mouthed merchant.
If you're at that point in life where boy-band singers and unicorns are your deepest desires, then "Stardust" is your film. If you're old enough to be reading a newspaper, that might not be your demographic. With a 10-year-old actress (Ivana Baquero) who puts the whole cast of "Stardust" to shame, "Pan's Labyrinth" should be the fantasy film you see this month, as it stretches the genre artistically and psychologically.