The Plank

Away-from-home Movies, Cont'd

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As I wrap up my catching-up with theatrical releases, I wanted to say a few words about Stardust, which has been widely, and ludicrously, compared to The Princess Bride.

Both are both fantasy films. Both have romantic storylines. Both feature a merciless pirate who turns out not to be so merciless after all. But, the best efforts of many film critics (and Stardust's publicists) notwithstanding, that's basically where the similarity ends. The Princess Bride was a consciously hokey undertaking with production values just this side of "Dr. Who." You could restage almost every scene in the film using only those props you found in your local Halloween Superstore. It's by no means a great film, but it's highly endearing in its shabbiness and wry comedy; it doesn't take itself too seriously and gives viewers no reason to do so either. After opening quietly, it made back twice its modest $16,000,000 budget in U.S. theaters and has gone on to be a B-movie classic.

Stardust also appears to be on track to make $30-odd million in theaters; the difference is that it cost $70 million to make, and this expense is everywhere evident-in its overlong 2 hr 10 running time, its frequent eruptions of green witchfire, its flying-pirate-ship-cum-dirigible, its heroine who lights up like a firefly's butt every time she is happy. Money is thrown even at elements the movie doesn't bother to explain or develop: We get repeated shots of the gargantuan digitized castle of the king of a mythical land called Stormhold; but even though a chief storyline concerns the question of who will ascend to the throne, we're never given even the most cursory sense of what Stormhold is like: Who lives there? How big is it? Does it have neighbors? Is it a "good" or "bad" kingdom? In the novel, it was evidently just one kingdom in the larger magical world of Faerie, but the film doesn't bother with such basic context.

Stardust is, in other words, a total mess, and the scale of its ambition makes it an awful lot harder to overlook its shortcomings. Whereas The Princess Bride was content to be a lighthearted comedy with a not-particularly-developed romantic streak (constantly undercut by young Fred Savage's kissing aversion), Stardust aspires to be a comedy, a fantasy epic, an action film, and a Great Love Story and winds up being none of the above.

Charlie Cox is fine as Tristan, the shopboy-turned-hero male lead, though he could win the Orlando Bloom Award for slender, good-looking Brits who really have no business trying to carry a film. Claire Danes is a bigger problem as Yvaine, the (literal) star fallen from the sky for whom Cox eventually falls. The film's tendency to make her head glow with astral light comes awfully close to a straightforward admission that Danes just isn't that radiant or enticing without FX assistance.

As with The Princess Bride, many of the pleasures of the film come in the supporting performances (Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging witch, a witty cameo by Ricky Gervais), but even here the film frequently gets the balance wrong: The crucial character of Tristan's mother is played by the virtually unknown Kate McGowan and barely registers at all; by contrast, Robert DeNiro's turn as the crossdressing captain of an airborne pirate ship-well, let's just say that this is a place where less (much, much less, ideally none) would have been more. It's an adage that is frequently true of Stardust.

--Christopher Orr

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