August 12, 2007

Stardust (08/12/07)

Lettergrade: B+

As much as I love the Harry Potter books (and to a lesser extent, the movies), their colossal success has unfortunately laid the ground work for a bunch of other movies that I frankly have absolutely zero interest in. Fantasy literature aimed at children can be so deep, imaginative and wondrous that I simply cannot understand how they consistently result in dopey, insipid looking movies that all seem populated by the same crappy computer generated creatures. I'm talking about movies like Bridge to Terebithia, The Spiderwicke Chronicles, The Golden Compass, Waterhorse: Legend Of The Deep, Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, 2006's Eragon (which I started to watch on DVD before deciding that shaving would be a better use of my time) and that stupid looking Chronicles of Narnia movie which seems to bear no relationship to the novels I loved as a kid. I remember Bridge to Terebithia being a pretty low-key book... why does the trailer for the film make it look like the bastard child of one of the Lord Of The Rings flicks and The Wonder Years?

Like many of the films mentioned above, the trailers for Stardust are, well, kinda shitty. They make it look like every other fantasy / adventure movie that's been out lately, and therefore something that's not worth the time and trouble to go out and see. Our decision to see it resulted from a compromise: She wanted to see Becoming Jane (which I would have agreed to had I not determined there to be a low probability of Anne Hathaway showing her jugs), and _I _had a morbid curiosity toward Hot Rod, which we both certainly would have hated. Fortunately, Stardust turned out to be a wonderful movie, an artfully staged and inventive fairy-tale that really appealed to us as adults and did not insult our intelligence in the least.

The really neat and interesting thing about the movie is that it is missing the homogenized feeling that fairy-tale flicks normally have. It is not afraid to be gruesome and a little ugly at times (in the best tradition of the Grimm Brothers, of course), and it surprisingly implies that its characters do indeed have sex and sometimes have unusual amorous tendencies. It's subversive, but it's not an overload of pop-culture junk like the Shrek movies, and it's funny, but it's not trying to be a send-up. I've heard a lot of people compare it to The Princess Bride, but it frankly reminds me a bit more of Labrynth, The Dark Crystal and some of the more fantasy based Terry Gilliam pictures I loved as a kid.

Charlie Cox plays Tristran, a boy from a small English village that borders a mysterious wall separating the real world from the magical one. Crossing the wall is forbidden, although Tristran's father did so when he was a young man and stayed long enough to knock-up a woman claiming to be a princess in captivity. Tristran was left at the wall with a note nine months later. Now a teenager, Tristran wants to win the heart of stuck-up bitch Sienna Miller, but she's in love with someone who looks a hell of a lot like Cary Elwes (but isn't). One night while trying to woo her, they see a shooting star which crosses into the magical realm. Tristran promises to fetch it and bring it back to her, and she says that if he fails to do so in a week, she will marry the Elwes clone.

Upon arrival at the crater spot, Tristran discovers Claire Danes, who it is revealed is in fact the star that fell from the heavens. Now here's where my synopsis gets complicated: The star fell in the first place because of the doings of King Peter O'Toole, who sent a magic locket into the sky which came back around Danes' neck. The idea is that the first of his four remaining sons to kill his brothers (a family tradition) and retrieve the locket will inherit the throne. On top of that, there is also Michelle Pfeiffer as one of three witches who are looking for Danes as well (as eating a star's heart apparently works like some kind of Botox for old, warty, saggy, nasty-looking witches). Pfeiffer eats the last remaining bit of the previous star-heart they were able to capture before setting out, explaining why she still has the remarkably-attractive-at-48 look that she has in the trailers and on the posters. Much like Condolezza Rice, however, every time Pfeiffer exercises some of her power she appears a little more grotesque and hideous.

I don't think the above description - which I will not expand upon further for fear of sullying the joy of figuring the story out as it unfolds - quite does the movie justice. Suffice to say that it won me over with its cleverness and sincerity. The stellar cast simply disappears into their roles, including Danes, whom I've never really cared for, but adored here. Among the excellent supporting players are Ricky Gervais and Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley from the Harry Potter flicks) in small, but scene-stealing parts. Even Robert DeNiro, whom I somewhat lost faith in after the Meet The Parents and Anaylize This! pictures, is excellent as Captain Shakespeare.

Mucho credit is due director / co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn, who I previously held a grudge against not only for directing Layer Cake (out of which I could not make a lick of sense) but also for bailing on X-Men 3 at the last minute, allowing soul-dead corporate studio "yes-man" Brett Ratner to take it over (resulting in a competently made film that, in true Ratner form, was neither awful nor was it especially inspired). If Vaughn can take a well-loved Neil Gaiman novel, navigate it through the studio system, and wind up with a movie like this that brims with originality and soul, the guy can't be all that bad.

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