An enchanting fairy tale likely to appeal to filmgoers across every imaginable spectrum, Stardust is an unqualified delight that offers the most fun to be had in a theater this summer. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, it’s a fantasy yarn in the tradition of The Princess Bride and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only it bests its antecedents by remaining light on its feet and by constantly surprising us with both its visual and narrative vigor. In the tiny English village of Wall, young Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) pines for the stuck-up Victoria (Sienna Miller) to such a degree that he will prove his devotion by journeying to the magical land resting just outside the town’s border and retrieve the remnants of a fallen star that the pair had seen drop from the sky. What Tristan doesn’t realize is that once a star has fallen, it turns into a human -- in this case, a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). But determined to still make good on his promise, he captures the star-child with the intent of presenting her to Victoria. Elsewhere in the enchanted land known as Stormhold, a dying king (Peter O’Toole) promises his crown to whichever of his sons can retrieve a powerful necklace -- an adornment presently around the neck of Yvaine. And to make matters worse, a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) is also searching for the celestial being, since eating the heart of a star will bring immortality (and restore youth) to her and her Macbeth-inspired sisters. It sounds like too much plot for one movie to bear, but Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), co-adapting Gaiman’s novel, do an exemplary job of funneling all the disparate elements into one cohesive narrative. Actors like Rupert Everett and Ricky Gervais are allowed to shine in small comedic roles, while Pfeiffer clearly relishes portraying a villainess as much here as she does in the current Hairspray. And then there’s Robert De Niro, playing a pirate so fey that he makes Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow look as ferocious as Blackbeard by comparison.
Rush Hour 3 *
Thoughts of Max von Sydow have been commanding much of my time these last two weeks. First, the recent death of the legendary Ingmar Bergman brought to mind many of the director’s classics, several of which he made with von Sydow (the pair had a working relationship similar to Ford-Wayne, Kurosawa-Mifune and Scorsese-De Niro). Then there’s the recent DVD release of Flash Gordon, with von Sydow cast as the villainous Emperor Ming. And now there’s Rush Hour 3, which casts the great Swedish actor in a supporting role (narratively, no different than the part he essayed in Minority Report). Exactly 50 years ago, Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he’s shunted to the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there’s a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can’t imagine what it might be.
The Bourne Ultimatum ***
The third time’s the charm with The Bourne Ultimatum, the best in the series of films based on the popular novels by the late Robert Ludlum. While I appreciated the first two films’ efforts to bring the spy flick back to its gritty and less gadget-oriented roots, both felt as if they were constantly getting stuck in the same grooves, with repetitive action sequences, a squandering of great talent in throwaway roles, and a tight-lipped protagonist so one-note that viewer empathy was next to impossible. These problems haven’t all been rectified in Ultimatum, but they don’t nag as consistently as before. Matt Damon, suitably taciturn even though he’s still too young for the role, again stars as Jason Bourne, the former CIA assassin whose continuing bout of amnesia regarding his past perpetually keeps him searching for the truth, even as his agency handlers seek to have him terminated. Taking over villainous duties from Chris Cooper and Brian Cox is David Strathairn, cast as the latest government suit hoping to protect his own nefarious interests by taking out Bourne. The reactions of Strathairn’s character to constantly being outsmarted by Bourne are priceless and provide the film with its brief flashes of humor. And adding some much needed humanity to the proceedings are Joan Allen and Julia Stiles, returning to their roles as CIA operatives of different ranks. More ambiguous in previous installments, these characters are finally defined in terms of their motives and moral imperatives. Greengrass, returning to the series after taking time off to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for United 93, tops himself with action set pieces that prove to be more exciting than those on display in his Supremacy or Identity. One of the lengthy chase scenes is especially impressive, and makes one wonder if Damon elected to forego a straight salary in order to be paid by the kilometer.
Becoming Jane **1/2
Perfectly pleasant yet also somewhat pointless, Becoming Jane comes across less as a motion picture and more as a victim of identity theft. Given the glut of exemplary films based on the works of Austen -- from the fairly faithful (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) to the radically reworked (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless) -- the only sound reasons to create a movie based on Jane herself would be either to suggest some insights into what turned this country girl into one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language or to provide a comprehensive overview of her life and times. But Becoming Jane prefers to take a more narrow view, focusing on one small period in her life (and, based on historical records, a spotty one at that) and trumping up the details of her brief flirtation with a dashing rogue named Tom Lefroy, who would later become Lord High Justice of Ireland. As a result, the Jane in this film never feels real, ultimately coming across as fictional a creation as Elizabeth Bennet or Elinor Dashwood or any other Austen heroine. Still, within its own self-contained chamber, Becoming Jane is an agreeable period romp, missing the spark of the high-end Austen adaptations but firmly in command of its own romantic devices. Anne Hathaway, all-American in The Devil Wears Prada and Brokeback Mountain, adopts a British accent (shades of Renee Zellweger tackling Bridget Jones) and makes for a lively Jane (even if, physically, she more resembles Austen’s contemporary, Lady Caroline Lamb). Meanwhile, James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) brings the proper measure of rakish charm to the part of Lefroy. It all goes down smoothly, and if the incomplete portrait of Jane Austen sends even one person to the library to hunt down more info, so much the better.
The Simpsons Movie ***1/2
Crafting a motion picture from a current television series that’s been around for nearly two decades is a dicey proposition, but The Simpsons Movie fills the larger dimensions of the theater screen quite nicely. Running the length of four combined episodes, this flick takes Homer’s weekly display of idiocy to a new level, as his bumbling disrespect for the environment leads to Springfield being blocked off from the rest of the world by a giant dome, with the town’s destruction the ultimate goal of the overzealous head of the Environmental Protection Agency (voiced by Albert Brooks, billed in the credits as “A. Brooks”). Knowing that Homer is the culprit, the town’s residents soon come a-calling with torches in hand and nooses hanging from nearby trees (baby Maggie’s rope has a little pacifier attached). But if there’s one area in which Hollywood remains blissfully, even blessedly, optimistic, it’s in the strength of the family unit, and as long as Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie stick together, they can lick any and all odds.
For over a decade, John Waters had been unleashing some of the most outrageous movies ever made before deciding to tentatively test the waters of mainstream cinema -- or at least as mainstream as this flagrantly maverick filmmaker could attempt. His tepid 1981 offering Polyester was met with a stone wall of shrugs, even with the gimmick of being presented in Odorama (patrons were given scratch ‘n’ sniff cards that, if memory serves, stank like sour milk no matter what number was scratched off). But his 1988 offering, Hairspray, was another story: An instant critical and cult success, it eventually was turned into a smash Broadway musical and has now been brought back to the screen, with the added songs intact. It’s one of this summer’s few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made Waters’ original film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won’t let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. And her dream is to become famous, preferably by showing off her dance moves on The Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style program that’s a hit with the kids. Her obese mom Edna (John Travolta in drag) is afraid her daughter will get hurt, but her dad Wilbur (a warm Christopher Walken) encourages her to go for it. Impressing Corny Collins himself (X-Men’s James Marsden), not to mention the show’s reigning pinup star Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy does indeed land a coveted spot on the show, much to the disgust of Link’s girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her wicked mom Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer). The movie’s first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated). The weakest cast link is, perhaps surprisingly, Travolta, who may have enjoyed returning to his movie musical roots (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) but nevertheless fails to adequately fill the large shoes of the late Divine, who was simply,well, divine in Waters’ ‘88 screen version.
I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry**
Adam Sandler comedies frequently offer sequences that qualify as case studies in homophobia, so here comes I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry to serve as the popular comedian’s mea culpa, his belated realization that, hey, gays are people, too. That’s a worthy sentiment, and there’s much in the screenplay by Barry Fanaro (TV’s The Golden Girls) and the Oscar-winning team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Sideways) that examines that notion rather than just paying lip service to a PC attitude. In other words, there’s a good movie to be found in the premise of two firemen (Sandler and Kevin James) pretending to be life partners for financial purposes, but it’s repeatedly sabotaged by the desire to placate typical Sandler fans who, God forbid, wouldn’t want their boy to get too, you know, fruity on them. Thus, the movie opens with the promise of an open-mouth kiss between buxom twin sisters, peaks with the sight of Jessica Biel in a Catwoman outfit, and ends with the protagonists happily paired off in hetero unions. There are also the usual frat-boy gags involving flatulence, obesity and racial stereotypes (including an unrecognizable Rob Schneider as a Japanese minister), as well as the added treat of Dan Aykroyd (as the fire chief) discussing his prostate, his sole remaining testicle and his diapered grandmother.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ***
Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus’ first two entries -- both underrated -- focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on decidedly darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by series lead Daniel Radcliffe. Villainy abounds in The Order of the Phoenix, with Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunting Harry’s every move, a fluttering fascist named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) taking over the Hogwarts school, and an escaped prisoner known as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) arriving late to kill off a popular character. Add to those threats Harry’s issues of abandonment and estrangement, and it’s no wonder the lad can’t keep those roiling emotions in check. In this respect, Phoenix operates not only as a story-specific fantasy flick but also as a universal teen angst tale, a far-flung Rebel Without a Cause in which the protagonist tries to comprehend the adult world he’s on the verge of entering while simultaneously struggling to cut the umbilical cord of childhood. Because of this slant, this emerges as the most dramatic of the five films to date, with betrayals coming from both memories (a flashback involving Harry’s dad and professor Severus Snape, again played by Alan Rickman, is startling in its implications) and mortals (Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?) only serving to drive the nail into Harry’s splintered psyche even deeper.
Cinema has given us so many marvelous movies set around the kitchen that it’s easy to lose count among the tantalizing dishes laid out on display. But onto a long list that includes Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Like Water for Chocolate, I never expected to add an animated yarn about a culinary rat. Ratatouille is the latest winner from Pixar, the animation outfit whose win-loss ratio has still managed to equal that of the ‘72 Miami Dolphins. Here, a dreamy rat who tries to get along with his more conventional family while also attempting the impossible (and the taboo) by forging a friendship with a human. The rat is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), whose skills in the kitchen are exemplary, and the human is Linguini (Lou Romano), a skinny lad who possesses none of his late father’s superb culinary abilities.
A movie about robots that turn into cars (and trucks and tanks and airplanes) would seem to have a more limited fan base than many other blockbuster wanna-bes, and the presence of Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as director certainly puts critics on alert. Yet perhaps the secret ingredient here is in the producing credits. Instead of Bay’s usual partner in crime, Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s Steven Spielberg who snags an executive producer citation, so it can’t be a coincidence that in its finest moments -- most contained within the first half of this 145-minute yarn -- this picture harkens back to the sort of filmic roller coaster rides that Spielberg often built during the 80s. What makes the initial hour-and-change so enjoyable is the expository material that former Alias scripters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bring to the table. After quickly explaining that two sets of intergalactic robots -- the heroic Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons -- have brought their battle to our planet, we’re introduced to characters who will eventually gather to help the good ‘bots defeat the evil ones. Chief among the human protagonists is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager who’s so busy wooing a lovely classmate (Megan Fox) that he’s slow to realize that there’s more than meets the eye about his new Camaro. Meanwhile, in Qatar, two members (Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) of an army outfit find themselves trying to stay alive from the metallic menace that has wiped out their base. And the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) tries to figure out what’s going on with the help of a computer analyst (Rachael Taylor) and her “advisor,” a computer hacker (Anthony Anderson). Bolstered by ample amounts of humor and more character-driven than expected, Transformers for the most part does a fine job of balancing action with emotion, which makes the final half-hour -- wall to wall battles -- a bit of a slog.