Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fantasy/schmantasy, tell me a good story

Summary: Another great weekend of cinema culture dawns today, and, yes, I'm being sarcastic. Why shouldn't I turn up my nose? This weekend, "Stardust" makes its whimsical debut, and Jackie Chan returns to the big screen. Although "Stardust" charmed lots of critics, it left me shaking my head at the idea that Robert De Niro would choose to play a cross-dressing pirate -- and do it badly.

If you want to read several positive reviews of "Stardust," click here. If not, join me in refusing to belabor any of this week's movies. While watching "Stardust," I found myself wishing that all the faux enchantment would end. Based on a much-admired graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, the movie occasionally puts its tongue in its cheek, but the whole business winds up feeling more intoxicated than intoxicating, a bit like a reeling drunk who's attempting to go in as many directions as possible -- all at the same time.

The "Monty Python" troupe often made scatter-shot magic, but director Matthew Vaughn (who previously directed the moderately intriguing British gangster movie "Layer Cake") can't.

Adhering to the theory that nothing succeeds like excess, Vaughn overloads the screen with bric-a-brac and special effects while wandering through a plot about a young man (Charlie Cox) who enters a magical kingdom in hopes of winning the heart of an earthly beauty (Sienna Miller). While traveling around the unappealingly named kingdom of Storm-hold, our hero falls for another woman. Yvaine (Claire Danes) is the living embodiment of a fallen star -- as in astronomy, not Hollywood.

Peter O'Toole creaks through another cameo as a dying king whose vicious sons want to take over Storm-hold. Say this for O'Toole: The man knows how to collect a check. He never gets out of bed for this one.

De Niro's attempts at comic relief probably will have some rolling in the aisles, but for me they felt about as enjoyable as listening to a rock dropping into the bottom of an empty garbage can. The major joke: De Niro's Captain Shakespeare delves into cross-dressing, thereby revealing that beneath the outlaw's macho pose, an inner woman lurks. Let me tell you, a mincing De Niro is not a sight to behold. De Niro's miscast in a movie that looks as if it resulted from a mid-air collision of "The Princess Bride" and "Baron Munchausen."

Michelle Pfeiffer, seen earlier this summer in "Hairspray," signs on as a witch who wants to remain young and beautiful forever. After this effects-laden extravaganza, Pfeiffer might want to consider returning to acting on a less-operatic scale, which she's always done quite well, thanks.

"Stardust" probably had potential, but it's a bit like a ballet staged by someone who hasn't totally mastered the art of dance. As a result, the movie tends to trip over its many plot elements, often at times when it should be moving gracefully forward. Vaughn's "fairy tale for adults" feels as if it's more in love with making magic than with keeping us (make that me) involved.

In the absence of enough suspended disbelief, I exercise what I regard as a sacred and inalienable right: the right not to be enchanted.

Meanwhile, Jackie Chan rejoins Chris Tucker for another helping of "Rush Hour." "Rush Hour 3" takes Tucker and Chan from Los Angeles to Paris, and demonstrate a sad truth. These two guys aren't all that funny together. Never were.

Also, Chan has gotten a little long in the tooth and his best physical work might be behind him. There's one amusing bit modeled on the Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First Routine?" And there's a musical number that's enjoyably silly. This often-showy third edition reaches its climax on the Eiffel Tower, but the big finish lacks the physical genius that marked much of Chan's dazzling Hong Kong work.
Note: Appearances by Max von Sydow (as the head of a world criminal court) and director Roman Polanski (as a cop) are noteworthy. Von Sydow maintains his dignity. Polanski? Don't ask.

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