14 October 2011

Stardust

Note: Written in 2007, this an old review for a favorite movie of mine.

This movie based on the Neil Gaiman novel was released on Friday and I saw it that afternoon. Here's what I have to say. Don't make me force you to go.

The lead is Charlie Cox. He is in love with Sienna Miller. He promises her ownership of a star if she agrees to marry him. She says yes and sends Cox out to get her a falling star. Our falling star is Claire Danes. Cox isn't alone in his desire for Danes. Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch trying to kill Claire Danes so as to gain immortality. Robert De Niro is a pirate who rather accidentally becomes an ally to Cox and Danes. Also in the mix is a prince who needs Danes so that he can ascend to his father's throne. As you can imagine, these three forces all converge in their plans to get Danes. (Just guess who wins - the how is more fun than the who anyway.)

If anyone compares it to The Princess Bride movie, what they mean is that both films share similar attitudes toward fairy tale clich├ęs. This one, however, takes the postmodern spirit that Neil Gaiman is known for and makes it all its own for this cinematic version of his novel. It's clever, but not insufferably so. It's hip, but not in a smugly ironical fashion. It basically takes the audience along as an equal and doesn't betray that trust. It's still the work of storytellers, though, so be prepared for the twists. It's a pity that more movies based on novels don't succeed as excellently as this one. While Neil Gaiman-approved, it's still director Matthew Vaughn's own vision (as he co-wrote, co-produced, and directed it). This is still a fairy tale with innocence and terror in the old-fashioned way, but it doesn't make itself at the audience's expense. There are metanarrative elements in the film, but they operate more to underline what we as the audience already do as people who suspend disbelief (or at least who sit in the dark and ask to be told a tale). In any case, these elements don't feel smug at all. If you can take Tarantino or Whedon, you can take the postmodernity of this film.

The movie's message is one about love, of course, but it's mainly one of fantasy. As a Neil Gaiman theme, the movie is about "fantasy" and "reality" living side by side. In the movie and in the book, a wall separates the two; it's a wall that one can easily step through, however. Love and imagination here are two things that live in the fantastic and the realistic. Both are unreal, but are still based in the real: we mediate them in our imaginations. As in the movie and in real life, both have consequences. Our hero does have to step into the fantastical to save his love, but that's the consequence. One makes the action so forcefully that one eventually makes it a reality. It only depends on how one mediates between the two. There's not always the happy ending, but that's always the realism of some things.

All in all, Stardust the movie does no disservice to the original material. Vaughn pulled it all off with imagination, fun, and brio. His realisation is impressive. The costumes are great because they add to the characters so very well. The spectacle of everything is superb in that it does what it does and doesn't call more attention to itself. It still amazes, but it's not overkill like Spiderman recently. The heart of it all, however, is the acting. I can't think of a single actor not given their due. Everyone really shines and wins us over. Our young lovers Cox and Danes are a lovely pair. (Cox, quite understandably, continually has the look of a man who can't believe his luck - ahem, ahem Claire Danes.) Cox is a newcomer and does very well. Danes is already quite famous, but here she really shines (ha ha). The most fun is had from Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, however. Their experience comes into play here, of course, but the fun and professionalism that they bring to their respective roles really make them shine. I just wish there was more Peter O'Toole, though. (He, as ever, rocks.) Each of the royal princes (well, the ones not chasing the stars, but you'll see what I mean) is a riot. I thought they were great, too. Actually, I'm amazed at how Pfeiffer, De Niro, and Rupert Everett all let their egos get beaten up a bit by the good humour of the film. Pfeiffer is a hag most of the time, Everett gets an interesting and unglamourous end, and De Niro gets to do something very un-Bicklesque. But Vaughn pulls it all together and makes it work exceedingly well.

Also, this movie gets the award for most inventive use of a voodoo doll.

It's a delightful movie, but the fact that it succeeds on so many levels makes it even more enjoyable. Whether you study fairy tales, avidly enjoy Neil Gaiman, avidly enjoy fairy tales anyway, or just need a good movie, Stardust does it all very well. I love this movie and can hardly stanch my enthusiasm. I walked in not knowing what to expect besides fun and I left incredibly entertained. Even a little moved. I'm still smiling about the movie.

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