Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Review - "Stardust"

During a book conversation a few years ago, a coworker of mine asked if I’d read any of Neil Gaiman’s books. I was familiar with the “Sandman” series, but they hadn’t grabbed me in the way that, say, “Watchmen,” or “Maus” had. Good, but not obsession-inducing. But I dutifully read “American Gods,” and was absolutely blown away. Funny, dark, and scary, it was one of those ‘landmark’ books to me. It opened a whole world to me – I quickly moved to Terry Pratchett (who I found had some cursory similarities to Douglas Adams, who I already loved deeply), and I was hooked for a while. I moved on to Gaiman’s “Stardust,” and my man-crush only grew stronger. It was, again, dark and funny and suspenseful.

All that said, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I walked into the theater to see Matthew Vaughn’s film adaptation. Yes, I liked "L4yer Cake" quite a lot. Yes, the casting seemed quite good…Michelle Pfeiffer has just the right amount of untamed wildness to play Lamia, and Claire Danes bringing her innate placid loveliness to Yvaine sounded perfect. But Sienna Miller? She's an empty dress. DeNiro is always a blast to watch. Beyond that…well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Despite uniformly excellent casting, Chris Columbus brought his typical hackery, cement hands and absolutely no magic to Harry Potter. I could see the same thing happening here. Reviews of the film were not encouraging to me – the nearly constant references to “The Princess Bride” didn't help. I LOVE that movie, but I remembered "Stardust" the novel being darker and more sinister.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried. Once I got past my usual initial "wait, what about the scene with (insert plot point here)," Stardust is one terrific movie.

Casting, as expected, is uniformly excellent, but in an unexpected way - Pfeiffer is perfect, beautiful and scary, and DeNiro chews the scenery as he does in most comedic roles - but the real revelation is Claire Danes. Her role - a star fallen from the heavens - could have been a cipher, played only for prettiness. And she's absolutely gorgeous (a surprise to me in itself - she's never done much for me lookswise), but she brings a subtle edge to her performance. Her scenes with Charlie Cox as Tristan (also a nice surprise) have a grace and humor that are enchanting to watch. To tar the movie with a terrible label, on some level this is romantic comedy, but somehow the two leads manage to keep things unpredictable and lively in every scene.

The direction is nimble and light, with a welcome lack of reliance on special effects - in a day where using the word "fantasy" when describing a film dooms you to a slog through a 2-hour tour through the server room at Industrial Light and Magic, Vaughn uses his effects ONLY to advance the story, and even passes up opportunities to push them to the forefront (the first transformation scene with Lamia is wonderfully undersold). At the same time, there's no sense of cheapness or corners cut, only a story first and a spectacle second. Photography is wonderful - the are many long pans of landscape with brave horsemen and a swelling soundtrack are well done and mesmerizing to see.

Overall, the review is: delightful and enchanting. 4.5 / 5 stars.

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