Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and re-conceived by director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas James and the Giant Peach) in 3-D stop-motion animation Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) opens a world of twisted wonder when she passes through a secret door in her new house and suddenly discovers an alternate existence mirroring her own life but making it so much more interesting and satisfying until her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) tries to turn her little visit into a permanent one. Fanning is the ideal Coraline -- curious fickle frightened and determined. She does an excellent job bringing to life this young girl suddenly caught up in an extraordinary adventure that rivals what Dorothy went through on the road to Oz. Hatcher is properly bland as her real mother and slippery as her Other -- she’s clearly having fun ditching Desperate Housewives. Standout is Keith David voicing an exquisitely drawn but quite mysterious Cat. There’s also brief but amusing work from the team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (Absolutely Fabulous) as Coraline’s very very British and very eccentric neighbors and an even wackier Ian McShane as the Russian Mr. Bobinsky. Selick has created a modern classic that tops even his brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas turning the world of Coraline into something we’ve seen before. It’s Alice in Wonderland times 10 but despite its soft PG rating is really dark stuff. Kids won’t be turned off by this but some not-clued-in parents might. The film will be shown in both 3-D and regular formats but go for the 3-D version if possible. It’s a mind-blowing use of the technology and perhaps the best yet put on screen.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.