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Shining Star

Fantasy film delights, needless sequel bites

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So this is what they mean by the term "movie magic."

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. Every time it appears that the movie has exhausted its bag of tricks, it pulls out something else that's sure to startle and please.

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. What's more, the filmmakers never stint on the expected ingredients: There are action scenes galore, a slew of imaginative special effects, and a tender love story that develops between Tristan and Yvaine.

Cox is an appealing newcomer, and although Danes often strikes me as more earthy than ethereal, she's certainly no hindrance in the part of Yvaine. 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. De Niro's grossly miscast, but that doesn't stop him from diving into the role. He's clearly having a lot of fun, as are we all.

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 (see review in this issue's View From the Couch column). 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 original Rush Hour was a high-spirited lark that milked its mismatched-cops formula well, but the sorry Rush Hour 2 was a prime example of a lazy sequel produced solely to cash in on the goodwill generated by its predecessor. Rush Hour 3 takes that same mercenary attitude and sprints with it -- as far as this type of film goes, it's even more disposable than those instantly forgettable Lethal Weapon sequels.

The plot, involving an assassination attempt investigated by Chief Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) and Detective James Carter (Tucker), barely hangs together, but it's merely an excuse to run the two franchise stars through the paces. Chan, still up for any challenge at the age of 54, has considerably slowed down in recent years, and his up-close-and-personal brand of fighting has lost much of its vibrancy. It hardly matters, though, as even this longtime audience favorite is expected to take a back seat to the incessant shenanigans of Tucker (interestingly, Chan received top billing in the first film, but the order was switched for both sequels). Tucker, whose only film appearances during the last nine years have been in these three flicks, once again lets loose with a steady stream of slurs that targets women, gays, Asians, tall people, fat people, French people (Roman Polanski appears as a Parisian inspector who enjoys performing rectal probes) and doubtless others that have slipped my mind. It's not funny, just tedious -- when it comes to insult humor, he's clearly no Redd Foxx. Nor are Tucker and Chan Abbott and Costello, despite offering a variation on the comedy team's famed "Who's On First?" routine.

There's one great line involving Starbucks, and, as always, the outtakes provide a few smiles. Otherwise, Rush Hour 3 is a total dud, as well as perhaps the worst sequel to appear in this up-and-down summer movie season.

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