By Noel Vera
Dir: Matthew Vaughn (2007)
of Stardust (2007) didn't look promising--"secondhand Narnia," I
thought; "maybe third-hand Lord of the Rings," and forgot about
it. When I heard enthusiastic praise from enough people though,
my curiosity was aroused, so I went for a look.
I wasn't wrong
in thinking it looked like a third-hand Lord of the Rings ripoff--Matthew
Vaughn (he directed the gangster flick Layer Cake, which looked
and felt like secondhand Guy Richie (and in fact Vaughn, a friend,
produced two of Richie's pictures)) has included one too many horse
chases edited to look spatially disjointed (see the similar chase
between Frodo and the Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship
of the Ring), not to mention a heroine that makes the viewer want
to bend his head low and cough "Gah-ladriel! Gah-ladriel!"
And the sky pirates--did the filmmakers see Hayao Miyazaki's Tenku
no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky, 1986) with its airbag ship
filled with ostensibly vicious pirates that at one point sails through
a lightning storm? One wonders.
help that much of the CGI effects look cheap, that the light-and-sound
show that accompanies the climactic duel seem (as do most magical
confrontations nowadays (I'd throw in the latest Harry Potter movie,
while I'm at it)) especially underfunded, and that the cast seems
composed of actors that have been picked out of a hat.
said--it's not bad; not bad at all. I'm not being sarcastic; the
picture just about won me over when it introduced the seven fratricidal
princes (Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett, among others) and their
senile father-king (Peter O'Toole); "now that," I told myself as
one brother pushed the other off a high balcony, "I haven't seen
in a fantasy pic yet; or at least not recently (I'm thinking of
Jean Cocteau's 1946 La belle et la bete (Beauty and the beast),
with its trio of shrewish sisters and a buffoonish suitor)."
The brothers take on the appearance they had at the moment of their
deaths (one looks darkly toasted; another has an axe sticking out
the side of his head; another has distinctly flattened features
(he's the high diver); another--but you get the idea), and if they're
not lucky--if, say, an heir to the throne is not chosen from one
of their bloodline before they're all eliminated--then I suppose
they'll be stuck in this world as wraiths, looking the way they
do for all eternity.
it turns out, was adapted from the novel-length fantasy written
by one Neil Gaiman; the moment I heard his name, the dawn broke--I
was wondering who could be so openly, cheerfully macabre, so eccentrically
humorous this side of Roald Dahl. If you've read any of Gaiman's
graphic novels--he's best known for his stint writing Sandman--you'd
in all likelihood recognize his voice in this picture, that combination
of deadpan whimsy, mordant sadism and the odd, steady whisper of
Gaiman is a
welcome, fairly new voice in fantasy (fantasy cinema, at least).
We've heard from him a few times before--bits of wayward humor found
in his translation of Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke,
1997--yet another chain linking Gaiman to the animator's works),
the screenplay to a rather beautiful (in my opinion) oddity called
This may be the first time we've seen him working on a relatively
conventional narrative (by "relatively conventional" I mean--well,
you have to see MirrorMask); all the familiar elements from the
classic tales are present: the youth longing for adventure; the
brothers sent out on a quest one at a time (each in his own unique
way failing); the inn whose occupants are in magical disguise; the
princess under a curse; so forth and so on. Stardust isn't as radical
and disorienting a feature as MirrorMask--one reason I suspect that
film failed to find a large audience was that its very strangeness
is rather off-putting--so the former has done better business (relatively
speaking; it's not doing Harry Potter-sized business).
is possibly the purest dose of Gaiman I've yet experienced on the
big screen; in it you feel Gaiman's love for the grotesquely poetic,
for (among many other sources) both L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of
Oz and Charles Dodgson's Alice books; you also feel the disdain
for easy emotional payoffs. The protagonist's ostensible quest--to
find the eponymous mask and save a queen in enchanted sleep--is
the merest slip of an excuse to present a monstrous, Borgesian menagerie
of dream creatures, one more bizarre than the next, with (as dream
creatures are wont to do) not-so-immediately-discernible analogues
in real life.
In Stardust Gaiman takes the opposite approach; he throws up a storm
of fantasy elements--Babylon candles, fallen stars, magic threads,
walls between worlds, seven mistrustful brothers, three evil witches--that
act as garish distractions, that eventually fall away as if in a
striptease, leaving behind the love story at the heart of the film.
It's hard to
pin down the nature of Gaiman's appeal, actually; like a half-remembered
scent--half-remembered not because it wasn't memorable but because
your mind was never allowed to focus on it exclusively--you struggle
to recall the effect, a combination of modern-day cynicism and anachronistic
romanticism and brief bouts of bizarre violence, whipped vigorously
together to give a temporary semblance of coherence.
The mix isn't for everyone--Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum,
for one, disliked what he described as the movie's "cruelty," and
there are even knowledgeable connoisseurs of fantasy who can't stand
Gaiman's work--but for others it's like stumbling onto your favorite
fix lying across the road--for all you know (or care), freshly dropped
out of the sky.
to put it? I enjoyed this far more than the most recent Potter movie--well,
more than every Potter movie ever made save Cuaron's (always better
when a real filmmaker is directing); I enjoyed this more than Jackson's
hugely overrated Lord of the Ring trilogy (unlike the "Ring" pictures
it's got sex appeal and (more important to me) sexy repartee, it's
free of even a whisper of pretension, and it doesn't take more than
a third of a day to watch); I enjoyed it more than Narnia (the one
movie in this little group based (in my opinion) on truly great
material (if only it had a filmmaker to match)). Like I said--not
bad; not bad at all.
First published in Businessworld, 10/12/07.
Comments? Email me at email@example.com