Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2007

'Star' search

Gaimain, DeNiro and Co. infuse obvious story with the creative juices it needs

Stardust
Paramount Pictures
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strong, Robert DeNiro, Ricky Gervais, Sienna Miller, Jason Flemyng and Peter O'Toole
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 8 minutes
Opens August 10, 2007
(out of four)

Another movie wouldn't have gotten away with this. It's too easy. From the opening expository scenes of Stardust, we know exactly how all the pieces are going to fall into place. We know the identities of all the "mysterious" characters, and how they fit with everyone else. When the objectives of the plot are introduced, we know exactly how every hole is going to be filled. It's almost absurd.

That is a recipe for boredom. In a movie driven by story (converging stories in this case), what could be more boring than knowing how it all fits together before it's even gotten started?

That should be the case, at least. Stardust is as predictable as an episode of House, M.D., and that may dilute the intended sense of urgency. But there's so much inventiveness on display that the film works anyway. It becomes not about where we're going or even how we're getting there, but about what happens along the way.

The essential storyline involves the young Tristran (Charlie Cox), a young lad with dubious origins of birth who longs to impress the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller). When they see a falling star one night, Tristran promises to bring her back the star and thus win her hand.

To do so, he'll need to cross the wall separating his village from the mysterious Stormhold, ruled by its dying king (Peter O'Toole), who is about to bequeath his kingdom to one of his three remaining sons - whomever can find and restore some kind of magic ruby necklace (just go with it).

Needless to say, Tristran gets over the wall - after taking a beating from the wall guard first - and finds not a pile of stardust or "a bit of celestial rock," as he expects, but a lovely girl, Yvaine (Claire Danes) who was knocked out of her perch among her fellow stars by a flying ruby necklace, which she now wears around her neck. And so for the rest of the film, everyone who is anyone is after Yvaine . . . for varying reasons.

For the three brothers, they need the necklace. For the evil, Shakespearean witches three - led by Lamia (the still-exceptionally beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer, even at 49) - they need her so they can cut out her heart and be young again. Tristran needs her so he can have Victoria as his own . . . though, needless to say, the romance in the movie is between he and Yvaine, not Victoria.

Adapted from a short novel by Neil Gaimain - whose works have only just recently started to be adapted to film, with this one joining 2005's MirrorMask and others, including Coraline, on tap in the next few years - Stardust is a fairly conventional boy-meets-girl, boy-saves-girl, boy-becomes-man, action-adventure-romance, but that's not what drives it forward.

In the moments when the main thread languishes in monotony, there always seems to be some creative element to pull us out of it. Whether it's the comic relief of the king's dead sons - who, as ghosts, observe everything and provide resigned, sardonic commentary - or action setpieces that continually find new ways to do old things, the film is practically buzzing with creative energy. There is a great and surprising swordfight scene that shouldn't even be possible. There are scenes that defy and toy with convention, and moments of sly adult humor.

I assume much of the creativity comes from Gaiman's own ideas, so he deserves a lot of credit. Matthew Vaughn, directing his second feature after 2005's Layer Cake, does a solid enough job and has the benefit of a mostly excellent cast at his disposal. While Danes - one of the few American members of the cast - can't master the English accent (why does the star have to have an English accent in the first place?!) and could have easily been replaced by a handful of other, better actresses, the film's many supporting actors more than carry their weight.

In particular, Robert DeNiro - as the menacing Captain Shakespeare of a flying pirate ship - gives a fantastic supporting turn full of unexpected delights and wry humor. The king's sons - both dead and alive - are consistently entertaining as played by the likes of Rupert Everett and Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, both produced by Vaughn).

And then there's the great, inimitable Ricky Gervais, who has rapidly become the British Christopher Walken, an actor who immediately makes every movie - even the bad ones - better. He's in classic Gervais form as Ferdy the Fence, a provider of goods and services like two-headed guard dogs and the like.

Anyone who has ever seen a movie will have Stardust figured out in the first few minutes. However, there will be things over the course of the movie that they have not seen. Even when the story is cluttered and the outcomes obvious, it is those inventive action setpieces and special effects and subtle comedic touches that make it all work.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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