A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 169 – Stardust

Stardust – August 16th, 2010

I have been dragging my heels at writing this review. I’m just not in the mood tonight. I was perfectly fine watching the movie but I’m just not really up to prodding my thoughts on it into anything resembling order. Which is really a shame, because I enjoy this movie quite a lot and I really do feel like I should write a good review for it. But then again, I don’t want to have to. I don’t want to take something I just plain enjoy and pull out serious thoughts on it. But I’m going to. They might not be terribly coherent or deep, but I’m trying.

A week for a young man to accomplish an impossible task to win a bride. A star fallen from the sky and hunted by witches for her heart. A dead king and his three homicidal sons out to claim his kingdom. A kidnapped princess in hiding. Love, vengeance, murder and magic. It’s all very plainly fairy tale fodder. This was, after all, originally written by Neil Gaiman as a fairy tale graphic novel, beautifully illustrated by Charles Vess. I was initially worried by this story being redone for the big screen because Vess’ illustrations are so perfect to me. I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to do the story justice in the way that they did. It’s not an unqualified success, in my opinion, but it does do many things right.

For one, the mood of the movie feels right. From the first glimpse of the magical village on the other side of the stone wall there’s the sense of wonder at all these marvels that are invisible from our world. You have to actually enter it to see it. I’m not going to recount the entire story here, but it does a good job with that too. Sure, things have been changed from the book, but things would have to be. I’ve beaten that horse a good deal and I think I’ve said I’m holding off on my big talk about it until we get to my very favorite book-to-movie adaptation, so I’ll leave it there. But as I said, the story is done well. It’s a magical quest, as many fairy tales are. Tristan Thorn, son of two worlds, embarks on a journey into the magical world of Stormhold to retrieve a fallen star to prove his love for village sweetheart, Victoria. There are witches looking for the star as well, princes looking for a gem that knocked the star out of the sky, and many other obstacles along the way. Of course. This is a quest, after all.

I don’t particularly like Tristan for much of the story. He’s the sort of young man who sees women as things, objects to be won or lost or taken. And despite all evidence to the contrary, he continues to treat the star, Yvaine, as a thing instead of a person. It’s a nasty character trait. Even after being told what danger Yvaine is in, even after finding out what’s at stake, he still plans on taking her to Victoria until well into the movie. Fortunately, some time during the montage of maturity on Captain Shakespeare’s lightning harvesting ship he figures out how not to be so thoroughly dense. Good for him.

Yvaine, on the other hand, is really a pretty awesome character. She calls Tristan on his bullshit and takes matters into her own hands even after some rather intense trauma. Her main flaw is that she’s naive, but seeing as she’s in what amounts to a foreign land, that’s not terribly surprising. I can handle her naivete, even if it does result in an unfortunate lack of agency for the female lead of the movie. But god, I do not want to go tearing into the movie for that. I could. I could pull out a whole bunch of arguments about gender roles in this movie. But you know what? Screw it. The movie has “traditional” gender roles, which means the men do manly things and the women are either evil or get rescued. That sucks. It would have been nice to have this story do something different. Turn things around a bit. But really that’s criticising the movie for doing what so many other movies do. So let me turn that criticism outwards. Why don’t more movies turn things around? Get on that, people. Make me a kickass fantasy movie that passes the Bechdel test, or at least has the princess saving the day. Someone adapt Cornelia Funke’s The Princess Knight, for fuck’s sake. They adapted Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Shrek. They can give me Violetta.

But I’m way off topic now. Sorry. Back to the movie, now that I’m done being pissed at gender roles in general instead of a movie that’s really just giving us what exists in pretty much every story. By the end I do like Tristan and I like Yvaine enough that I think the love story works fairly well. Still, while the love story is supposed to be the heart of the movie, there’s so much else in it that charms me more than the love story does. I take the love story as the backdrop for the epic story of keeping Yvaine out of the hands of the witches who want her heart and of the sons of the last king of Stormhold vying for the crown.

I love the dead princes. I love them so much. They’re one of the things I really and truly adore about the movie adaptation. They require a little bit of explanation. The tradition in Stormhold is that the king has a whole bunch of sons and lets them fight it out through his life, killing each other off until only one remains. So by the time the king dies there’s only one heir. But there are four still living out of the seven when the king dies. So he sends them on a quest to retrieve a ruby and they kill each other off along the way. Now, the thing about this is that it’s played both seriously, as these men are more than a little vicious and certainly willing not only to off each other but other people around them in order to get the job done. But it’s humor too, as each time one dies he joins the ghosts of his dead brothers, following the survivors around until a king is crowned. And they’re all stuck in the state they were in when they died. One had his throat cut while he was in the bath. Yes, he’s naked.

I also love how detailed the movie is, from touches like the princes’ clothing (each of them sporting a pattern made of the Roman numerals for their birth order), to all the things in the marketplace. It’s lovely. It’s magical. It’s very much a fairy tale. I love the cast. I think Charlie Cox does a fine job as Tristan, and it’s likely to his credit that I like Tristan by the end. Claire Danes’ accent threw me at first, but I do like her attitude as Yvaine. Michelle Pfeiffer is a fantastic evil witch, and Mark Strong is awesome as the villainous Septimus. Oh yes, and Robert DeNiro throws himself into one of the biggest departures from the book as the crossdressing Captain Shakespeare.

One thing I can’t decide how I feel about is Yvaine’s ending. In the book, it’s a bittersweet ending, with Yvaine dancing in the highest tower, having fallen in love but forever apart from her home and her sisters. The movie ends with a happily ever after. The book feels far more traditional fairy tale, but I like that the movie takes a cue from classical mythology.

I will admit that this movie has flaws. I’ve mentioned the ones that bother me the most, but they really don’t bother me enough to make me dislike the movie. I enjoy it too much, which is why I really didn’t want to pick it apart. I have fun watching it. I want to visit the world. I promise I’d be the sort of woman who wouldn’t wait for a man to rescue her.


August 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment


August 16, 2010


We follow up Sunshine from yesterday with Stardust tonight. Of course this is no tense space drama. Instead it’s a great fantasy adventure full of magic, romance, good and evil. It’s based on a book by Neil Gaiman, which means that it’s the tale of somebody from our world who finds themselves in a land just outside of ours where they have a special destiny.

In this case it’s young Tristan Thorn. He’s grown up in the town of Wall, an English hamlet that guards a gap in an ancient wall from which it gets its name. On the other side of this wall it is not England, but a magical kingdom of fairie (here in the movie it’s Stormholm, though in the book it is a far more dangerous and tricky place.) In Stormholm the king is dying. He’s in the unprecedented position of having more than one son alive (he had already killed all of HIS brothers long before HIS father died.) To decide the succession, therefore, he casts his giant ruby necklace into the sky, telling his sons that the one who can restore it will be king in his place. The necklace hits a star, knocking it out of the sky.

Tristran is wooing his true love Victoria when the star falls, and tells her, in a fit of bravado, that to prove his love for her he will cross the wall and bring back the star. Little does he know that his father has a secret about his own origin, and that he is not the simple motherless peasant that he thought he was. His father, you see, once crossed the wall in a fit of bravado himself. So Tristran sets out on a quest which will change his life.

This is, in my opinion, one of the single greatest fantasy adventure films ever made. It has action, adventure, magic, danger, great love and great evil. It has moments of peril and moments of wit. The acting is superb too. Charlie Cox is fun as the earnest Tristran, and Mark Strong is great as Septimus, the most ruthless of the four surviving princes of Stormholm (It’s nice to see him here with his skin all on, as opposed to his roie in yesterday’s movie), but it’s really the female leads that make this movie. Michelle Pfeiffer, who you may recall I said made a great bad-guy in the musical version of Hairspray, is the evil witch Lamia, who wants the star that fell from the sky for her own nefarious ends. She does a wonderful job, working under a variety of heavy old-age makeup and even poking fun at her own apparent agelessness. Without the very real sense of menace that she brings to the film it would have a lot less power.

Then there’s Claire Danes as Yvaine, the star herself. (Yes, in Stormholm the stars are anthropomorphic beings apparently.) Without her powerful performance this movie would have no heart. I’m mesmerized once again every time I watch this with the way she’s able to capture emotion in her expressive face. Be it the disdain and eye-rolling disregard she has for Tristran when he first comes upon her or the radiant and pure love she is able to project later in the film. She has a lengthy speech at one point about how difficult it is for the stars, looking down and watching mankind with their wars and their hatred and their killing, and how the beautiful love that mankind is capable of is the only thing that makes it worth while. “So yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know that it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable and strangely easy to mistake for loathing.” The delivery of this speech, the passion in her eyes, the wonder and the joy of it, never fails to move me to tears.

Add to the peril of the great evil in Stormholm and the beauty of Yvaine a healthy dollop of swashbuckling and humor and you have a mighty fine film. There’s plenty of laughs to be had from an ensorceled farm-hand named Bernard and a goat made to look like an innkeeper. And there’s the hilariously fearsome Captain Shakespeare played with scenery-chewing abandon by Robert De Niro.

And, oh, the soundtrack! To accompany the fantastic visuals, effects and acting Ilan Eskeri has composed a rousing and sweeping score that pulls my heart right out of my chest and raises it up to the heavens. Yes, it really feels that good to me, the music is as much a part of the magic of this movie as the great sweeping fantasy vistas or the huge collection of fantastic special effects.

My one complaint would be that there’s a little bit of playing with the timeline in the film. Through the power of a montage Tristran learns swordsmanship, gentlemanly etiquette and dancing within the space of what is probably two days aboard Shakespeare’s ship. It’s a little like the way that Luke learns all the ways of the Jedi in a single afternoon of training with Yoda. Ahh, the montage… the greatest form of film magic there is.

Still, that’s a very small quibble in an otherwise pretty much flawless film. This movie makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it fills me with joy. I don’t know any higher complement. I’d say that in my estimation this movie sits just above The Princess Bride, which in many ways this feels like a spiritual successor to. For any movie to top Princess Bride, well, you know it must really be something special.

August 16, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment