Saturday, September 01, 2007
In Theaters: Stardust
And with August over, I near the home stretch of my now-a-little-over-a-monthlong moviegoing marathon. I know Cinemark’s pre-show entertainment by heart, have heard every song they play, and still haven’t made sense of that Forrest Whitaker “Please Silence Your Cell Phones” spot. On my first attempt at seeing STARDUST, I was foiled by a hipster couple who insisted on supplying a running commentary and who, when shushed, explained “We can talk, it’s a theater. If you want quiet go home.” This kind of anti-logic left me without a reply (also, I’m not good with witty rejoinders), so I simply walked out after the first ten minutes and, to the theater’s credit, got a refund. I’m telling you, we need bouncers for these places. Or at least ads that don’t softpedal the whole “don’t talk during the movie” concept. My point is, when you watch a movie, shut up. Unless it’s ROCKY HORROR.
Sorry about that. Anyway, STARDUST. It’s a fun little movie, the kind of fantasy that isn’t a massive epic but instead zips along an adventurous path. It’s more funny than dramatic, more romantic than apocalyptic, and more agreeable than not. An adaptation of the novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, the movie captures some of Gaiman’s wit and supplies plenty of visual splendor. I realize I’m tempering my descriptions even more than usual (it’s a bad writerly habit I have to break sometime), but this is that kind of movie; it’s not superlative, it’s not terrible, it’s better than mediocre, and more than anything else I would say it is pleasant. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but there’s something to be said for pleasantness, especially coming at the end of a packed summer.
In the village of Wall, there is a large stone... barricade surrounding what townsfolk whisper may be the gateway to another world, which is dismissed as nonsense until one of them crosses over and not only discovers there is an entire magical kingdom on the other side, but manages to father a child with a kidnapped princess. Said child, Tristan (Charlie Cox), comes of age and tries to woo one of the lovelier, snootier village girls (Sienna Miller, looking like a young Elle Macpherson), which is a problem as she’s just about to get engaged to what looks like the richest snot in town. He manages to lure her out to the wall for a picnic, and that night they see a star fall. He says he’ll get it for her, and she says that if he does she’ll marry him instead. So he crosses the wall into the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where said star, like all the other stars in the sky, is a person, Yvaine (Claire Danes)- she was knocked out of the sky by a ruby sent into the heavens by a dying king (Peter O’ Toole, himself obviously out to make it perfectly clear that he is not yet dead), so that one of his squabbling sons can find it and thus prove himself the worthy heir. Meanwhile, a trio of witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) have seen the star fall, and for them a fallen star means a chance to renew their aging bodies (which is especially vital as every spell they cast puts them deeper into crone-hood.) So the witches want the star, the princes want the star, the star just wants to get home, and Tristan, having zapped himself to her location early by using a magical candle, is intent on taking the star back to his presumed true love- but despite his and Yvaine’s obvious conflict, the two slowly start to get along and a relationship forms. Somehow this inevitably involves a transvestite pirate played by Robert DeNiro.
It’s not the most elegant of plots, I’ll admit, and the pacing is pretty lackadaisical. Things don’t always happen for the clearest of reasons, while at other times plot elements pop together too conveniently. But it still holds together in a ramshackle kind of way, and in some ways that askew construction helps reinforce the feel of a lighthearted romantic fantasy instead of a full-on heroic saga. The individual elements are pretty entertaining, too, taking place in a well-realized fantasy world that’s obviously more detailed than we know about, and drenched with a very knowing, decidedly British kind of humor. The way magic works in the film is particularly entertaining, since it often relies on real-world traditions and superstitions, such as rune-casting and entrail-reading, the key difference being that these give very precise and reliable answers in Stormhold. At the same time, there’s some original stuff, like lightning literally held in bottles, candles that take you anywhere so long as you think clearly enough, the ghosts of murdered royalty waiting around in the state that they died until the new heir is finally found, and the way that the radiance of stars is determined by their happiness. There are a lot of neat little things to keep the viewer occupied even when the main story is slacking.
And there are the pirates- lightning pirates, to be specific, catching electricity from stormclouds in a flying ship (it’s not entirely clear why this is piracy- they don’t board other ships and steal their lightning, though they do apparently have to watch out for lightning marshals), led by a captain who puts on a gruff act to conceal his flamboyant interior. (This is one of DeNiro’s funnier performances, reminiscent of his role in BRAZIL. I’d like to see him tackle some heavier stuff soon, but this works.) It’s funny enough stuff, and provides great visuals on top of it.
Despite some structural weirdness, the film does handle its central romantic element rather well. Tristan and Yvaine have a troubled start to their relationship, what with his capturing her and trying to drag her back to the village, but they strike an agreement and begin to like each other. By the midway point we know that their relationship has a lot more promise than his with the village lovely, but to her credit Sienna Miller doesn’t completely overplay the shallow, materialistic side of her character- she shows some signs of human vulnerability and at least is willing to give Tristan a chance. There are a couple of decent twists on this front, and an exploration of just what being in love is all about.
STARDUST is slightly forgettable, but leaves a good impression; it’ll definitely age well on video, especially with the kind of crowd and demographics that made LABYRINTH and A PRINCESS BRIDE and so on cult hits after unspectacular theatrical releases. It’s always good to have another one of these movies, something offbeat, imaginative, quirky and agreeable. Not something you must see, but catch it sometime anyway.
From the novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess
Screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn