Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I'm not much of a fan of Neil Gaiman's; I started reading comics at about the time he was moving on to bigger things, and as much as I enjoyed Good Omens, 1602, and Mirrormask, the stuff he's famous for - the "urban fantasy" and "magic realism" stuff - just isn't my usual thing. Still, I did like those things, and the Brattle was having a preview, so why not?

Glad I did, because I can't recommend it highly enough. It's just a whole ton of fun.

Almost done with the Fantasia reviews - Days Seven, Eight, and Nine are updated with links to reviews of The Tripper, Special, Silk, The Unseeable, End of the LIne, and The Fox Family.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2007 at the Brattle Theater (preview)

Stardust is an unprepossessing little fantasy; it takes place in a world literally just next to our own, which is matter-of-factly magical. It doesn't try to oversell an apocalyptic tension or crush the audience with details to show just how hard the creators have worked. Sure, a kingdom hangs in the balance, but that's no excuse to be something other than playful.

There is a wall, and an town called Wall near it, that separates England from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan (Charlie Cox) was born there, after his father snuck through a gap in the wall and met a pretty slave girl. Now seventeen, he pledges to recover a fallen star for his neighbor Victoria (Sienna Miller), only to find it's more complicated than it seems: The star was knocked out of the sky by a locket thrown by Stormhold's King (Peter O'Toole); whichever son recovers the locket (or kills the others) will inherit the kingdom. Oh, and have we mentioned that stars are people (of a sort), and not only is Yvaine (Claire Danes) rather upset about being knocked out of the sky, but a three witch sisters have sent one of their number, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) to recover her and cut out her heart, bestowing youth and magical power.

For all the witches and kings and fallen stars, Stardust is basically the classic story of a boy so fixated on one pretty but uninteresting girl that he does not, at first, consider the possibilities with the far cooler lady right under his nose. The three of them play their parts as well as anybody could hope: Charlie Cox is youthfully oblivious, but charming, and manages to capture Tristan's big heart without making him look like a fool. Claire Danes gets to play Yvaine as justifiably cranky when she first comes to earth, but as the movie goes on we get a sense of her enjoying an adventure without coming off as tomboyish or someone who had never fit in in the sky. Her prickly but genuine perfection easily relegates Sienna Miller's Victoria to merely being the best thing Tristan had seen so far, and Miller is just right as the shallow queen bee that might be easy to idolize when the world is just the one village, but pales in comparison to true beauty.

That's a solid base to build on, but it's the embellishments that Neil Gaiman put into the source material and which the filmmakers put on-screen that make it such a complete delight. Take the septet of princes that the king has sired; as the film starts, only Primus (Jason Flemyng), Secundus (Rupert Everett), Tertius (Mark Heap), and Septimus (Mark Strong) are still alive, but whatever spell or curse controls succession in this kingdom keeps the others around as ghosts until only one is left, allowing them to serve as a witty chorus, with no apparent grudges held among the dead. Then there's the elaborate trap Lamia sets for Yvaine, and the chaos that a unicorn's magic-negating horn wreaks on it. Or the flying pirate ship whose nets catch lightning rather than fish, captained by a Robert De Niro whose boistrous imitation of machismo is fooling nobody.

De Niro is just the biggest name of the numerous scene-stealers that have been assembled for this movie's highly entertaining supporting cast, and one of the most memorable: It's a goofy, broad performance that still comes off as relaxed rather than heavy-handedly playing against type (like some comedic De Niro performances). Other familiar faces include David Kelly as the surprisingly spry old man guarding the gap in the wall between worlds; Peter O'Toole as the monstrously bloodthirsty king who, on his deathbed, is disappointed that his sons haven't killed each other (why, he single-handedly eliminated eleven brothers in his day!); Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, and Rupert Everett, as his (respectively) vicious, noble, and dim sons; Ricky Gervais as a black marketeer; and Nathaniel Parker as Tristan's unusually understanding father. Maybe least familiar but most amusing are Jake Curran, Mark Williams, and Olivia Grant as Lamia's amusingly transformed henchmen.

Then there's Michelle Pfeiffer herself, absent from film these last five years, but back as though she had never left. She makes Lamia a delicious villain, with her tremendous vanity at odds with her delight in having magical power to use, even though it ages her drastically. She's having a great time playing evil, a villain to be taken seriously even if she occasionally makes us chuckle.

Director Matthew Vaughn is good with that - this film will probably get compared to The Princess Bride quite a bit, because it's got the same basic vibe: A fairy tale that's simple and sweet enough for children but smart enough for grown-ups to enjoy even if they don't have kids in tow. He skips the self-referentiality, instead opting to play things relatively straight, getting the jokes from who the characters are and how they react to the absurd situations they find themselves in. He handles the special effects well, too, filling the screen with beautiful images from the crater Yvaine makes when she lands to Captain Shakespeare's blimp-ship. The story moves at a spritely clip, but the on-screen action is never confusing.

There's something fun in just about every minute of Stardust, but it's kind of low-key about it. It manages to be constantly entertaining, but never has to show off.

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