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Monday 13 August 2007

Movie Review of Stardust

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Written by Neil Gaiman (original novel), Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Kate Magowan, Nathaniel Parker, Sienna Miller, Jason Flemyng, Mark Strong, Melanie Hill, Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan, Ben Barnes, Peter O'Toole, Henry Cavill

Lawrence Person: This is a nice, light romantic fantasy that's reasonably faithful to Neil Gaiman's original novel. You'll laugh in the right places, you'll tear up in the right places, and it's a good date movie. At this point in the dog days of summer, that's more than enough.

Howard Waldrop: It opens with a typewritten letter thirty years before typewriters were invented, but never mind...

This is no Mirrormask. What it reminded me more of than anything else, was a fantasy version of The Hallelujah Trail (that's a compliment): disparate bunches of characters in search of the same thing for their own separate reasons — plus a bunch of (literally) air pirates thrown in for good measure...

LP: Stardust is your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-promises-fallen-star-to-girl, boy-meets-fallen-star-who-happens-to-be-a-beautiful-girl plot.

HW: Stormhold is a realm coterminous with parts of England, surrounded by a wall. The hero (Charlie Cox)'s father (first Ben Barnes, later Nathaniel Parker) has gone through the gap in the wall in his youth, impregnating a slave woman belonging to a witch, resulting in the birth of Tristran, who is brought as an infant to his father's doorstep in England.

After he's grown up, there's a war of succession going on in Stormhold, straight out of The Lion in Winter — Peter O'Toole is even the king here, too. Three surviving brothers — out of seven — are fighting over the king's amulet, which he sends up in the air where it collides with a star and brings it down to earth. Two brothers — after croaking the third and a bishop for good measure — set out to find the bauble. (The dead brothers are characters who watch and comment on the action the rest of the movie Greek chorus style.) For them, the amulet insures the kingship.

Meanwhile, Tristran is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller). Who's going to marry local snide-guy bully Humphrey (Henry Cavill). Tristran says he'll bring her the star they saw fall beyond the wall by her birthday. For him, it means Vickie will marry him, not the bully.

Both: Meanwhile, three Norn-type 400-year-old weird sisters send out the nastiest one (Michelle Pfeiffer) to find the star in order to cut out and consume its heart, and thus restore their own youth and power. In the process she uses up the final remnants of the last fallen star to restore to her to a tenuous semblance of same. (Very tenuous; as her magic uses rises, her body droops correspondingly.) The star that collided with the bauble and fell to earth turns out to be Clair Danes.

HW: Everybody also needs a bunch of Babylon candles (the nursery rhyme 'can I get there by candlelight? Yes there and back again,' is never quoted.) Others — fences for stolen goods, the witch who owns Tristran's mother, and other greedy bastards and bastardettes — also start sniffing around the place.

LP: The script and direction here are both are pretty faithful to Gaiman's novel. The young leads are just fine. However, it's Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil witch queen who owns this film. It's a wonderful role she tears into with such wicked gusto that you can't take your eyes off her. If there's any justice in the world (and if the women of Hollywood can forgive her for looking better at age 49 (at least during the brief blush of her newfound youth) than Claire Danes does at 29), she'll get an Academy Award nomination.

HW: The scenes of Pfeiffer in her goat-cart (only one of the goats is a goat) have mythical power — she looks like some kind of pagan goddess.

LP: De Niro, in the other big supporting role, is more problematic. The role of the airship captain has been both expanded and changed from Gaiman's novel. The expansion makes sense, and supports the classic book-to-film need of paring down the cast and streamlining the plot (the longer voyage gets them further toward their goal). However, the character of the captain has been changed from a kindly old man to The Dread Pirate NancyBoy, which presents a two-fold problem. First, De Niro is obviously trying to out-flounce Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow into a full-blown raging queen (or, in Homer Simpson's words, "I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming"). Unfortunately, despite De Niro's unquestioned acting chops, he doesn't quite seem to be able to carry off a convincing stereotypical gay character; he doesn't so much flame as sputter, and sort of half-minces his way through his gay scenes in a way that falls between two stools. Second, De Niro's character being gay add nothing to the over-arching plot except another interlude of low comedy.

HW: You get to see Robert De Niro eat large amounts of scenery — you can see exactly why he took this role — it's his flashiest since his freelance duct-repairman in Brazil. While he's onscreen, you can't watch anything else.

My co-critic doesn't like De Niro's turn as much as I do (his objection is on artistic grounds, i.e. unnecessarily show-stopping with no payoff). De Niro is playing Cpt. Shakespeare as not-so-much a flaming queen as a, like, cultured, opera-going Manhattanite caught on a Saturday night on a life-raft (the airship) with a bunch of guys from Canarsie (the pirates). He has to tom them in a way that lets them in on the joke — it's a good-natured kidding of the genre (and pirate) tropes. You'll never hear Offenbach's Orpheus In the Underworld the same way again.

They've almost got CGI where they want it now — real without obviously being CGI. You see it and know it can't be anything else. De Niro's airship looks real, like it has inertia and weight. This movie has told me it's time someone made Jack Vance's Big Planet. I can almost see the planet-girdling aerial tramway system now...

LP: The film suffers from numerous small flaws, many vestiges of the plot's transition from book to film. Perhaps the largest is the gap in the wall through which all plot flows. In the book it made sense, because there was a trading festival between the human and Faërie worlds every nine years, hence the need to guard the gap at other times. But without the festival, why spend a lifetime guarding a gap in a wall rather than a day to brick it up?

Likewise, many of the individual plot elements from the novel being paring down for the book make perfect cinematic sense, but collectively this paring makes the armature of the plot skeleton far more obvious, with many carefully concealed plot coupons now nakedly visible as plot coupons.

The movie starts with a deeply unnecessary Royal Science Academy prologue that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. Kate Magowan's Una doesn't work for me; she lacks the raw, smoldering sex appeal necessary to make her wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am seduction of Tristran's father believable. And what is a Church of England Bishop doing ministering a kingdom up in the wilds of Faërie Stormhold?

HW: From what Lawrence tells me, in the original, Stormhold is Faërie (or thereabouts) — that's not the impression you get in the movie. It's like there's an earlier (medieval) England, overlying the Present (well, Victorian) one. Magic works there, yeah, but there's nothing Faërie about the royal family, and as Lawrence asks, what's a fucking C of E Bishop doing right there in the middle of the Faërie crap? (Or maybe the Faërie church folk just like their rags?)

LP: The movie has, perhaps inevitably, traded the novel's series of gentle reconciliations for a slam-bang climax. It's not bad, but does go on too long and is just too climaxy. Not to mention that the Evil Witches' Gothic Castle seems a suspiciously short horse ride from the gap in the wall.

HW: There are things wrong with the movie — the aforementioned typewritten letter. The logic of the wall breaks down on close inspection. You don't notice it while it's happening. But it bothered me on the 1 1/2 mile walk back to the convention hotel (both Lawrence and I were attending Armadillocon this weekend, which explains why you're getting this a day later than usual) in 100 heat...

The cavils are pretty minor; it suffers, as do almost all modern fantasies, from the needs of the screenplay right then — powers, etc. are revealed when they're needed in the script (like Jack-Jack's in The Incredibles, which is one of the few good examples). We're slightly set up for one of them early, but the morons who make and watch movies these days will have forgotten it by the time the film gets to it later...

LP: Finally, there is a meta-criticism to be made of both the way the movie was adapted from the book, and the marketing campaign that accompanied it. The appeal of Stardust was that of a novel that was primarily a romance, but with enough darkness and swashbuckling to avoid driving away male readers repelled by the romance tag. (I don't think Gaiman did this consciously, that's just the way it came out.) However, in Hollywood's mule-headed insistence that every A-list movie must be marked in a way friendly to every demographic segment, I fear they've gone overboard in the other direction (depicting it as a swashbuckling adventure with a little romance thrown in) in an effort to reach a market segment (teenage boys who haven't yet discovered the true hormonal possibilities of the date movie) that I suspect will largely be immune to its charms, while slighting the one (teenage girls and young women) who would otherwise flock to it. Gaiman's work seems to affect teenage girls the same way magnets affect iron fillings, and with a little different marketing emphasis, I suspect the movie could do the same. Hint: Try making a trailer with more kisses and unicorns, and less Robert De Niro.

Both: Actually, we both like this better than our list of nits might lead you to believe. The plot zips along, the low comedy they've added (which is appropriate to the situations and in-character) works, and the movie pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to be. It's a hell of a lot more successful than anything else affixed with the dread "family friendly" movie tag we've seen in the last year.

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