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Stardust and Becoming Jane

Michelle Pfeiffer shines in an escapist treat; plus, a bloodless Jane Austen not-biopic

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Michelle Pfeiffer still has Hollywood power. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

At age 49, Michelle Pfeiffer has nearly reached that inescapable stage in a film actress's career when opportunities usually come knocking in the form of legal-based TNT television series or Hallmark Hall of Fame movies.

Still, after a five-year absence from the silver screen, Pfeiffer has returned in two films over the past month: her campy vamp turn in Hairspray and now as a wicked witch in STARDUST. No matter that both parts call on Pfeiffer to tap into her inner Cruella de Vil for a heaping helping of scene chewing. They also represent her best work in years, perhaps since Frankie and Johnny and Batman Returns.

As the sometimes sultry, usually sneering Lamia, Pfeiffer ably assumes the role of antagonist in this adaptation of author Neil Gaiman's erstwhile 1997 comic novella-turned-hardback sensation. Inside the fantastic land of Stormhold, the three surviving sons of a dying Lord (Peter O'Toole) race to retrieve a mystical ruby and with it the keys to the kingdom. However, the falling ruby also takes with it a shooting star(let) in the form of Claire Danes, which in turn attracts the attention of a trio of sisters­—including Lamia—who desire the star's heart for its age-restoring properties. Meanwhile, in the human village of Wall, a hapless youth named Tristan (Charlie Cox)—the spawn of a human father and an enslaved princess from Stormhold—decides to capture the star in a foolhardy attempt to impress Victoria (Sienna Miller), the fetching but cold object of his adolescent desire.

Thirty minutes in, Stardust's narrative feels as banal as it is byzantine. Unicorns, magical spells and sundry other genre gimcracks abound in a screenplay that takes Gaiman's reprise of pre-Tolkien English literary fantasy and transforms it into a cheeky adventure-comedy penned by filmmakers who have clearly seen A Princess Bride a few too many times. However, a funny thing happens on the way to the Land of Nod as you gradually become immersed in this fantastic universe and, more notably, an irreverent Gen Y verve that begins to take root. At its heart, Stardust is a simple tale about a teenage nerd, spurned by the most popular girl in school and constantly beat-upon by the class bully, who exacts revenge by scoring the prettiest girl and best job in town. There is also a subtle game of sexual politics at play: Villainy takes the form of at least four aging women while Tristan's champions are his spunky gal-pal and a dandy, foppish pirate named Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro, prancing about in women's clothing—yep, you read that right).

For his successful sophomore effort, director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) lends sterling cinematography and set design to complement an enthusiastic, eclectic cast; in what other movie would you see Peter O'Toole, Robert De Niro and Ricky Gervais? The final product is not transcendent or even a cult classic, but it partly rekindles the feeling of exhilarating escapism every child—and adult—seeks from the movies. —Neil Morris

Stardust opens Friday in select theaters.

How did those words get there? Anne Hathaway plays super-famous writer Jane Austen. - PHOTO BY COLM HOGAN/ MIRAMAX FILMS

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, is one of the most popular novels in English literature. The book has been filmed repeatedly: notably in the classic Hollywood era with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier; for BBC TV with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth; as a parody, Bridget Jones' Diary with Reneé Zellweger and Colin Firth (again); and most recently starring Kiera Knightly (in Britain) and Aishwarya Rai (in India) as heroine Elizabeth Bennett. The plot is so sure-fire, as one of my friends said, ants could act it out and still you'd watch it.

Perhaps it is irresistible to speculate on the life of "the ironical little authoress" Jane Austen. BECOMING JANE attempts to shoehorn her scant biographical details into an outline resembling her most famous work. The result is reminiscent of an MGM "great wo/man" biography of the 1930s, one that would have starred Norma Shearer at her starchiest.

The first, insurmountable problem is that Becoming Jane's Jane, Anne Hathaway, is far too pretty. With her burnished hair, thick lashes and trembling moist lips, there is simply no reason to believe she must live by her wits alone. Unbankable Anna Maxwell Martin (the mousy heroine of Masterpiece Theater's Bleak House) should have played Jane, but instead portrays Cassandra, Jane's sister. James McAvoy (Last King of Scotland) plays Tom Lefroy, a sly rogue in a green velvet frock coat, who steals Jane's heart much in the manner of the fictional Mr. Darcy.

An inescapable modern feminism tints the proceedings. A passionate embrace is more credible, however, than Miss Austen stepping up to hit a cricket ball out of the pitch. Mr. Lefroy suggests that she should read Henry Fielding's lusty Tom Jones, unfortunately evoking a film as high-spirited as this one is bloodless. Nor does the gamboling naked bath, undertaken by some of the men, benefit by comparison to a similar romp in the witty Room With a View.

The Hogwarts-heavy cast is excellent, particularly haughty Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham, the model for Pride's Lady Catherine de Bourgh (the character played by Judi Dench in the 2005 film), and Julie Walters, worrying frantically as Jane's mother. The costumes are appropriate to the late 18th century (many versions push the tale a decade or two later because the frocks are more fetching), and the country settings shot in Ireland are lovely.

Jane's furtive scribbling of one of Lady Gresham's remarks for later use as a well-known line of Lady Catherine's is a little silly, but no more so than the montages of Miss Hathaway struggling to pen Pride and Prejudice. A visit to Mrs. Radcliffe, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, results in one authoress's advice to another: Use your imagination. Would that writers Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams and director Julian Jarrold had used theirs either a little more—or a little less. Still, Jane Austen completists should not be discouraged from seeing Becoming Jane. —Laura Boyes

Becoming Jane opens Friday in select theaters.

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