Several hours after I emerged from the documentary The 11th Hour, in which Leonardo DiCaprio solemnly explains how humankind is doomed if our species doesn’t work with instead of against nature, Brooklyn was hit by its first tornado since 1889. The next day, I watched Max von Sydow—a week after the death of Ingmar Bergman—fail to hold his own against Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan in Rush Hour 3, then get gunned down by a French taxi driver who had just discovered his inner American cowboy. An hour later, I gazed on Robert De Niro—under the direction of Madonna’s husband’s best man—as a closeted pirate captain prancing to the “Can-Can” in a tutu. I haven’t checked the Rapture Index, but surely this is a cosmic convergence. The end might well be nigh.
Portents of apocalypse aside, I had a good time at Madonna’s husband’s best man’s film, Stardust, a romantic fantasy loosely based on a novel by Neil Gaiman (i.e., they paid him a lot of money, none of which he should spend on a ticket). It’s puffed up in obvious ways but disarmingly puckish in others. As that capering pirate, De Niro is god-awful—yet his gung-ho spirit wins him Brownie points. Michelle Pfeiffer plays a withered wicked witch who transforms herself into Michelle Pfeiffer and at least one critic into a slobbering cretin: When the camera revolves around her as she changes and ends on her “new” face, she’s so stunningly, mythically gorgeous that the fairy-tale universe becomes real. The magic of cheekbones. Pfeiffer plays the same stereotypical shrew as in Hairspray, but this time her slow burns have great punch lines: With exquisite annoyance she flings out an arm and turns a goat into a man, a laddie into a lassie, and a rival into a flaming torso. Give the lady her due: When the script calls for witchy cackles, she does not cackle witchily halfway.
The Pirates of the Caribbean people would have stretched this material out to eight-plus hours, while a visionary genius like Terry Gilliam would have royally screwed it up by putting more emphasis on the scenic wheels and pulleys than the narrative. The model here, luckily, is The Princess Bride with a dollop of The Black Adder—and, to cut the facetiousness, nonstop rhapsodic heavenly choirs. After about five prologues, a star falls from the sky into a walled magic kingdom nestled somewhere in the English countryside west of C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, and the young shop clerk Tristan (Charlie Cox) goes off to get it; he wants to impress the featherbrained rich girl (Sienna Miller) he loves. I’ve left out key details, but the big thing is that even though the star makes a stadium-size crater, it turns out to be the size of Claire Danes. In fact, it is Claire Danes.
Having to embody a star could, in theory, put an end to one’s stardom, but Danes is one of the few actresses who can bring off guilelessness. Accepting her—and not rolling our eyes when she smiles and the white light radiates from her being—is a kind of pact we make with the filmmakers. It made me feel rather noble—and resent Tristan when he ties her up to take back to his girlfriend. (“Nothing says ‘romance’ like the gift of a kidnapped injured woman!” Danes exclaims.)
Director Matthew Vaughn’s first film was the violent, self-congratulatory thriller Layer Cake, and Stardust has a fair amount of grue for a storybook romance. (It’s a little off-putting when one of the villains skewers the comic relief.) But some of the best gags are the nastiest, like the family of princes who murder one another for the crown but stick around as crabby ghosts—their throats still cut, faces smashed, etc. Ricky Gervais pops up as a scheming but buffoonish black marketeer; his haggles with De Niro and Pfeiffer are polished vaudeville bits that—unlike a lot of his self-humiliating shticks—go on just long enough.
Considerably shapelier is Death at a Funeral, a dark British farce whose conventionality should not be held against it—old-fashioned farces are murder to bring off. Two keys to doing so: Wind the jack-in-the-boxes in full view of the audience and arrange them to pop up, with trigonometric precision, at the most embarrassing moments; and choose a venue in which the embarrassment will be especially acute (the stuffier the setting, the funnier the shitting). Dean Craig’s script has an ideal venue (upper-crust English memorial service) and a heap of good jack-in-the-boxes (mislabeled hallucinogens, scandalous gay photos, expulsive bowels). It goes soft, but even a gelded traditional farce is more potent than most of our slob comedies.
The movie has an unfunny and utterly perfect center: Matthew MacFadyen as a son of the deceased, a man of meager talent but capacious soul. Forever in the shadow of his hotshot irresponsible novelist brother (Rupert Graves), this grave fellow must rise to the occasion when an interloper (Peter Dinklage) arrives with a mysterious relationship to the dead man. I’m not sure how we should feel about the Dark Other being embodied by a dwarf, but Dinklage is in clover: He finds a marvelous balance between avarice and heartbreak. The final nail in the patriarchal coffin is the accidental ingestion of a designer hallucinogen by an earnest lawyer (Alan Tudyk) who wants to make a good impression on his fiancée’s family. Perched naked atop the manor house, radiantly at one with the universe, he is a thing of farcical beauty—“the Thinker” on acid.
Frank Oz directed, and his metronomical pacing helps. Farce is better when the audience knows pretty much what’s going to happen and more or less when it will and yet laughs anyway. The element of surprise is lost, but it’s replaced by something more rare: an admiration for the elegance of the machine.
The 11th Hour says the machine that is the Earth is breaking down. It isn’t much of a movie (unless your aesthetic was formed in high-school science class), but it will be hugely informative to aliens who land on this planet in a thousand years and wonder why there’s no welcoming committee. It opens with a barrage of catastrophes—floods, avalanches, and fires intercut with high-resolution photos of an embryo, plus a voyage through the birth canal. The point is that children are being born into a world in its death throes: It seems a tad hysterical until you see Dorothy Gale fly over Bay Ridge.
My friend Bill McKibben has been crying in (and from) the wilderness about climate change since his great eighties book The End of Nature, which helped get him branded “an environmental wacko” by Rush Limbaugh and heaps of ridicule in more respectable circles. Last week, Sharon Begley’s superb Newsweek cover story on the global-warming denial industry traced the origins and funding of the skeptics—who in any other culture would be the ones labeled wackos (or worse). The 11th Hour, directed and written by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, mixes in enough hard science to make the Deepak Chopra New Age flummery less easy to snicker at. I think “tree-huggers” have a lot to say, but the people who make the strongest cases here do so from a purely economic vantage. The corporations heating up (and ripping up) the planet for short-term economic gains are—as Thom Hartmann puts it—depleting the Earth’s ancient stores of energy. Their methods are a monument to waste. Their checkbook is insanely unbalanced. Among the brilliant speakers are David Orr, Andy Revkin, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, David Suzuki, Paul Hawken, Stephen Hawking, and even Bill McKibben. For narrator Leo’s sake, though, someone should have told the directors that shorter, punchier sentences work better than longer ones with lots of internal clauses.
Jason Kohn’s gripping Manda Bala (“Send a Bullet”) is the opposite of a high-school science doc. It’s a free-form portrait of a place—Brazil—with scary running motifs: kidnapping, mutilation, plastic surgery, bulletproofing, and frog farming. On a breathtaking widescreen, Kohn surveys a city, São Paulo, in which abduction and ransom are big business, in which plastic surgeons get rich replacing earlobes sliced off and mailed to families, in which corruption reaches from the country’s most powerful senator to its least powerful slum-dweller—a kidnapper who muses that maybe one of the ten kids he mutilates people to support will grow up to be president and change things for the better. The sums skimmed from northern Brazilian frog farms are nothing compared to, say, what Halliburton makes off the average bungled Iraqi plant or hospital, but it’s enough to play havoc with the Brazilian Amazon, which is enough to accelerate global warming. And there goes Dorothy over the Verrazano!
Stardust novelist Neil Gaiman has a vast imagination. But it can hinder him. As he told Rain Taxi, “I’d love to write some porn, but I don’t know if I have the right engines. When I was a young man and I was tempted to write porn, imaginary parents would appear over my shoulder and read what I was writing; just about the point that I managed to banish the imaginary parents, real children would lean over my shoulder and read what I was writing.”
Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Paramount Pictures. PG-13.
Death at a Funeral
Directed by Frank Oz. MGM. R.
The 11th Hour
Directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners. Warner Independent. PG.
Directed by Jason Kohn. City Lights Pictures. NR.