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Stardust (Paramount)

Starring: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Peter O’Toole, Kate Magowan, Nathaniel Parker, Melanie Hill, Jason Flemyng, Rypert Everett, Mark Heap, Ricky Gervais, David Kelly.

Director: Paul Greengrass

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Rating: :3.5stars:

“Stardust” is an amusing, entertaining fantasy intended primarily for adults; kids will probably enjoy it, but may yawn during the mushy parts. Reviews have frequently compared it to “The Princess Bride,” not because the movies are really very much alike (they aren’t), but out of a kind of desperate attempt to link it to something in the reviewer’s (and audience’s) experience. “The Princess Bride” has many devoted fans, but that doesn’t include me; I found the film smirky and somewhat repellent—it played as though it were written by someone who hated fantasy, and was trying to rise above it by kidding the socks off the genre.

That’s not true of “Stardust;” it’s often amusing, occasionally in an anachronistic way, but it’s not primarily a comedy. Like “Princess Bride,” it was adapted from a novel, this one by Neil Gaiman (who functions as one of the producers), which gives it an unusually busy plot, though one with surprisingly few characters, all things considered.

A narrator’s voice (Ian McKellen) tells us of the stars, and wonders if they ever gaze back. We learn later that they do. A hundred and fifty years ago, there was a town called Wall, out in the English countryside. The town is named for a very long wall apparently dividing a field nearby. But the residents know that on the other side of the wall is a completely different world, where witches and fantasy hold sway. An enterprising young man from Wall tricks the elderly guardian of the only breach in the (rather low) wall, and crosses into the land known as Stormhold. In an exotic town on the other side, he’s seduced by the imprisoned slave (Kate Magowan) of a cranky old woman (Melanie Hill). He returns to England.

Nine months later, a baby is left at his doorstep. He names the boy Tristan, and as an adult (Charlie Cox), Tristan is the center of the story. He’s a clerk in a Wall shop, in love with the uninterested Victoria (Sienna Miller), who feels she must marry arrogant Humphrey (Henry Cavill), because he went all the way to Ipswich for a gift for her.

In Stormhold, the dying King (Peter O’Toole) summons his four surviving sons (of seven, the others are dead, killed by their brothers), every one a rotter, and shows them the glowing ruby pendant hanging around his neck. His daughter Una was nicer, but she vanished years before. He drains the color from the gem and sends it flying into space (along with the necklace), where it knocks a star out of the sky. The one of royal blood, he says, who restores the color to that gem will be the King of Stormhold. Dreamy-eyed Tristan wants to roam the wide world, bringing anything back to her. And then they see a shooting star fall to Earth on the other side of the wall. He declares he will fetch it, or part of it, by her birthday; then she’ll see he’s a better choice than Humphrey.

Meanwhile, over in Stormhold, three ancient witches watch the star fall. Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, having a grand time), the most ambitious, declares she will bring back the fallen star so she and her sisters can eat its heart, restoring their youth. She downs what’s left of the heart of their last fallen star, and is restored to stunning beauty. She sets out.

Armed only with a note from his mother left in the basket he was found in, and the candle it was wrapped around, Tristan sets off into Stormhold looking for the star. Which itself, or herself, has awakened in the crater she made. She’s a star, but in Stormhold, she’s a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). That candle Tristan has is a Babylon Candle, which whisks those who light it to whatever destination they’re thinking of. So Tristan falls on Yvane. Elsewhere, the King’s sons continue to murder each other—their black-and-white ghosts hover around afterward, like an irked Greek chorus. They can’t go to the afterlife until that ruby glows red again.

See? You can tell it’s from a novel; it’s taken this much description just to get me to the point where Boy Meets Girl, even if the girl is a fallen star.

“Stardust” has a good pace; it’s not fast, but it keeps going all the time as the story switches from one of these groups to another. They sometimes overlap—Tristan catches a ride with on the coach driven thunderously through the night by prince Tertius (Mark Wall). By now, Septimus (Mark Strong) is the only other surviving son of the king, and both are determined to get that ruby, which they know came to ground with the fallen star.

Lamia turns a passerby into a goat, and hitches him and another goat to a small cart she rumbles along in over the moors. (Much of the exterior shooting was in Scotland.) With her glowing green magic, she whips up an inn, turns both goats into men, and waits for Tristan and Yvaine to arrive. Tristan has decided maybe bringing the star-woman along wasn’t such a good idea; she’s attractive enough, but tends to be sharp-tongued and irritating. She’s hoping he’ll keep his promise to allow her to use the Babylon Candle to return to her home in the sky. Tristan ties her to a tree while he searches for lodging, but a unicorn carries her to Lamia’s inn, where Tertius and Tristan arrive later.

See how complicated it all is? And still one of the most amusing characters has yet to arrive: tough-talking pirate captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro, enjoying himself) eventually takes Tristan and Yvaine captive on his flying ship. It’s held aloft by a big balloon in place of sails, and propelled by vast netting wings. He turns out to be quite different than he first appeared.

Everyone thunders around or soars over Stormhold to the extremely dramatic music of Ilan Eshkeri, who’s new to me. The music is grand and sweeping, sometimes almost satirically overblown. It’s aided at times by the most famous (“Can Can”) segment of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” which seems to be Captain Shakespeare’s favorite music.

The movie is interestingly dark-toned, with no sunlit vistas. The rolling moors, the dark waters, even the frozen sea (a few scenes were shot on an Iceland shore with big chunks of ice scattered around), all belie the glowing promise of the title. On the other hand, when she’s pleased about something—which doesn’t happen all that often—Yvaine quietly shines like the star she is, or was.

The production design by Gavin Bocquet is serviceable rather than striking, though the King’s palace and the witch’s den are large and attractive. Something like this applies to the script by Jane Goldman and director Vaughn (“Layer Cake”): it’s serviceable, not really quotable. Hardly anyone has a memorable line, and the language isn’t realistic—that is, nobody really talks like mid-period Victorians, which is presumably what they are. But it’s serviceable, sometimes amusing (mostly those ghostly brothers), and does neatly weave everything together, though the movie has rather too many climaxes.

The most interesting character is Captain Shakespeare who, as mentioned, is not quite what he seems to be at first. He’s enchanted by England, which to someone living in a fairyland seems itself magical and wonderful. De Niro has only a handful of scenes, but he’s lighter and friskier than he has been in years.

Charlie Cox makes a reasonably good hero, but there’s nothing especially memorable about him, and the script does little to make him a dashing hero, though he does learn a bit of swordplay from Shakespeare, and at one point is turned into an adorable-looking little squirrel-like animal.

The most entertaining characters are Yvaine and Lamia, reasonably enough. Yvaine is initially a complainer and irritates Tristan, though of course their encounter is a classic, if fantastic, Meet Cute, and we know the journey back to the wall near Wall will find them falling in love—as well as meeting all the other characters in the story. Danes is charming and funny as Yvaine; she’s bright and witty, then later adorably bashful and shy. Any wanderer would fall in love with her.

Michelle Pfeiffer is making up for her lost time of the last few years; “Stardust” is one of three movies she’s starring in this year. And like “Hairspray,” here she’s the villain of the piece, scheming, crabby and dictatorial. She cares about little except regaining her own youth (and while she’s at it, that of her two sisters) by capturing Yvaine so she can eat the heart of this fallen star. Pfeiffer is great fun in her role, which requires her to occasionally don extreme old-age makeup—which she seems to enjoy wearing.

Director Vaughn’s “Layer Cake” was a clever, entertaining crime thriller (starring Daniel Craig), but had an unsatisfactory ending. “Stardust” has a near perfect ending, but it’s occasionally clumsy otherwise. It’s a little too long, there’s a little too much of the back-and-forthing between the characters, all destined to collide. But he’s taken on a daunting task here. This is not a deeply serious big-scale fantasy like the “Lord of the Rings” and “Narnia” movies, it’s not basically a comedy like “The Princess Bride;” instead, it’s in a tone familiar to readers of fantasy novels—basically straight with quirky elements and a light touch—and that’s very difficult to bring off. If “Stardust” doesn’t quit attain all its goals, at least it’s trying for something unusual and worthwhile.

Reviewed by: Bill Warren

Reprinted with permission from ModernHomeTheater.com
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