My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 57, Stardust

57 – Stardust:medleyofstardustost_ilaneshkeriJust the other day, I went to myself ‘Matthew Vaughn is awesome, isn’t he?’ – and ain’t that the truth? Mr Vaughn originally started out as a producer – and he’s the man responsible for hits like Snatch, Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Mean Machine – before making a big impact with his directorial debut Layer Cake. Matthew Vaughn is one of those directors who isn’t afraid to drift towards films that aren’t ‘Academy friendly’. His filmography includes the brilliant superhero deconstruction Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class, which helped redeem the X-Men on the silver screen. If you’ve got Matthew Vaughn behind the director’s chair, you can count on having a film that’s a lot of fun to watch and also has a lot of depth to it. So when Disney inevitably give Aladdin a live-action remake, we know who they should turn to. One other thing that Matthew Vaughn is known for is his outside-the-box casting choices. I mean, no one would have thought of James McAvoy to play Charles Xavier – and now look at how excellently he played it. Chloe Moretz wasn’t the first child star you’d think of to play Hit-Girl, and it ended up making her a household name. The film here also features a few of those – and they are every bit as awesome as one should come to expect in a Matthew Vaughn film.

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Just to bring you up to speed, Stardust is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman. The basic plot remains the same – a quest to find a fallen star as an engagement challenge – but the film sort of diverges from the book and develops into its own story. For example, Victoria is actually quite sympathetic in the book, but becomes a straightforward romantic false lead in the film. The lightning pirates don’t feature as much in the book as they do in the film – especially with regards to a certain detail about the captain – and they’re not really pirates in the book. The end of the book is also surprisingly tragic, while the film ends with something a bit more positive. The book is far more adult, with lots more violence and sex – whereas the film emphasises the comedy. But by all accounts, both have their own merits, so we can put our torches and pitchforks away for the time being.

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That includes fiery walls of death as well, Ms Pfeiffer.

Our story’s prologue is some hundred and fifty years ago, in a quaint country town in England named Wall – because a wall runs around the whole place. That’s rather lazy naming if you ask me. Most towns at least get named after the people who conquered them. But there is something special about this wall, as there’s a gap in it that supposedly leads into another world. One man in particular is determined to get through.

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Hello there, early role from Ben Barnes. Just about a year before his headlining turn in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, this was his most high-profile role. As this is the future King of Narnia we’re talking about, he of course gets through the gap and into the magical land on the other side. It’s a kingdom called Stormhold, and you know it’s magic because he meets a princess in distress within a few seconds. She’s under the control of a wicked witch and can’t be rescued, so she just invites the man in for an evening of fun. And considering they finish without the witch finding out, she probably didn’t have much. But nine months later, a baby arrives in a basket on the man’s doorstep. The baby is called Tristan and he comes with a letter from the princess, and a snowdrop as a gesture of affection. We skip past the potty-training and go straight to the end of the awkward teenage years.

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Well near the end anyway.

Charlie Cox was a relative unknown before this film came out – going back to the old Matthew Vaughn trick of casting people you wouldn’t expect. The studio wasn’t keen on the idea, and pushed for a more recognisable name like Orlando Bloom. But once more established stars like Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro and Claire Danes came on board, they allowed Cox to play Tristan. The role didn’t immediately launch him onto anything major, but he did eventually net meaty roles in Boardwalk Empire and his eventual starring turn in Marvel’s Daredevil. The latter is quite hilarious because Tristan’s romantic rival is played by…

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That is indeed a pre-Superman Henry Cavill hidden under the blond hair and moustache. His character Humphrey and Tristan are both campaigning for the hand of the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller). As I noted above, Victoria is considerably less sympathetic in the film than she is in the book. After she sends Tristan out on his quest, she spends the rest of the week worrying that she’s sent him to certain death. In the film she’s more of a typical vapid, giggling Alpha Bitch. Whether that’s to accommodate Sienna Miller – who played a lot of these characters at this point in time – or just to change things up, I’m not quite sure. But Victoria still agrees to a picnic under the full moon with Tristan. She also reveals that Humphrey is planning to propose. And I’m starting to wonder if we’re still not supposed to sympathise with her.

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“I could get the camera to tilt down if you need persuading.”

Victoria admittedly doesn’t string Tristan along. While she agrees to a picnic, she doesn’t flirt or give him any false signals. She’s up front that she’s going to say yes to Humphrey when he proposes – and makes it clear that Tristan isn’t going to get with her. Well until the next plot event happens.

We’re taken back to Stormhold, where the elderly king is on his deathbed. Out of his seven sons, three are deceased and his lone daughter is unaccounted for. Given that one of the four gets pushed off the top of the tower by another, we can guess what happened to the other three. As the king is astonished that the princes haven’t all killed each other for the chance to be the heir, he proposes a challenge. Whichever of them can restore the ruby of his necklace gets to be king – and he throws the necklace into the sky to make it extra hard. It goes so high into the sky it knocks a star right out of orbit – and it comes crashing down. It also takes the form of a beautiful woman, played by Claire Danes.

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Tristan and Victoria see the falling star, and Tristan promises to bring it back in exchange for her hand in marriage. The star is also seen by a trio of wicked witches – Mormo, Empusa and Lamia. All three are implied to be hundreds of years old and withering before our eyes, so three guesses what they want the star for. Lamia is chosen to go and retrieve her, so she takes what’s left of the last star and turns into Hollywood legend Michelle Pfeiffer. She had actually been on a hiatus from films in order to raise her children, but this marked her big return to the silver screen. Upon meeting Matthew Vaughn, the young director told her she would never guess his favourite film of hers.

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Nope.
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Not quite.
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Heavens no.
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Bingo.

I kid you not. Michelle was left quite dumbfounded by the fact that was what made him want to work with her – especially considering the film nearly cost her the role in Scarface. Grease 2 is a film she loves to poke fun at, claiming it was the one film of hers she tried to show her children and they turned it off after twenty minutes. But I’m with Vaughn on this one. You’d never guess what my favourite Michelle Pfeiffer film is.

Back in England, Tristan has a conversation with his father, where he learns of his origins. In the letter from his mother, there’s an item included called a Babylon Candle. Light it and it’ll take you to wherever you’re thinking of. Tristan prepares to light it to see his mother. But at the last minute, he thinks of Victoria and the star – and the candle takes him to where the star fell. He’s quite surprised to discover that the star is actually a sexy-yet-snarky woman called Yvaine. Nonetheless he ties her up in a fragment of the chain that his mother was trapped in (his father cut a piece off when he met her, just to clarify). Yvaine responds to the news that she’s to be a birthday gift for Victoria with the best line in the movie:

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Back to the three princes, who are knocked down to two thanks to some poisoned wine. The remaining princes are Primus, played by the wickedly underrated Jason Flemyng, and Septimus, played by Mark Strong. It was probably his work in this film that helped Strong break into Hollywood as their new favourite Evil Brit. Both princes set out in search of the ruby, while Lamia goes out in search of the star – turning a farm boy into a goat along the way. Meanwhile, Tristan agrees that he’ll let Yvaine have the rest of the candle to return home once he’s shown her to Victoria. As everyone is now on their way, and this is a fantasy adventure, that leaves just one thing.

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Ah, scenery porn.

Seriously though, that music is pretty epic. It got used in many fan-made trailers for the remaining Narnia movies. Lamia comes across another witch Ditchwater Sal – who turns out to be the witch holding Tristan’s mother captive. She gets on Lamia’s bad side by feeding her the Stormhold equivalent of truth serum – and thus gets cursed to never be able to see the star at all. Tristan allows Yvaine to rest against a tree while he goes to find help, and a unicorn comes out of nowhere to free her.

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Lamia’s sisters send word that the star is on the way, and warn her to make sure she cheers Yvaine up. Apparently star hearts give more youth-restoring benefits if they’re cut out while the star is happy. So Lamia conjures up a roadside inn that the unicorn takes her to. The remaining stars give Tristan warnings to try and save her – sending him flashbacks of what happened to the last star that landed in Stormhold. He manages to intercept Primus’s carriage and tag along with the prince. Yvaine arrives at the inn and Lamia makes a fuss over her – and it’s clear that Yvaine is getting less troubled.

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And she’s got a built-in Gaussian Blur to tell us.

It’s too bad that Lamia is a wicked witch, because she makes for a great hostess – giving Yvaine a bath and massage. She’s interrupted by Tristan and Primus calling at the door. She dispatches Primus with a slit of the throat, but Tristan and Yvaine narrowly escape with the Babylon Candle (too bad for the poor unicorn though). The problem is that Tristan says to “think of home”. Yvaine’s home is the sky, while Tristan’s is Wall…

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They’re quickly captured by some lightning pirates, led by the fearsome Captain Shakespeare. He’s played by Robert DeNiro, who around this time was having a lot of fun antagonising overly sensitive fans by playing around with his tough guy image. It turns out that the captain is actually a “whoopsie” as another character later puts it. Matthew Vaughn officially deserves some kind of medal or trophy for casting Robert DeNiro as a camp pirate.

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Before we return to the captain’s antics, Septimus finds his brother’s body and gets information about where the necklace has gone. And when he discovers that there’s a fallen star in Stormhold, that’s another goal on his agenda. Yvaine raises a good point about Tristan’s little quest to prove his love for Victoria – namely that she’s not doing anything to prove her love in return. But more importantly, it’s time for Tristan to get a makeover.

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Erm…

Not gonna lie, I’m flashing back to She’s All That trying to convince us that Rachel Leigh Cook looked ugly before. Anyway after a cameo from Ricky Gervais as a trader, the captain passes Tristan off as his nephew, and teaches him both to dance and swordfight – the two most important skills for the protagonist of a fairy tale movie. And you can probably guess how Tristan and Yvaine progress, especially since she goes all Gaussian again when she dances with him.

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The captain drops Tristan and Yvaine off on the road to Wall, with some bottled lightning and a whisper in the ear. The two come across none other than Ditchwater Sal, who recognises the snowdrop flower as one of hers. Tristan gives it back to her in exchange for safe passage to the wall. She turns him into a mouse. But thanks to Lamia’s enchantment, Ditchwater Sal can’t see Yvaine – so she rides in the back. As Yvaine thinks Tristan can’t understand her as a mouse, she confesses that she thinks she loves him.

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Credit to Claire Danes for making the declaration of love sweet as opposed to sappy. When Ditchwater Sal turns Tristan back, it turns out he understood everything. And he reveals that the captain whispered “my true love was right in front of my eyes, and he was right” – cue big damn kiss. But since there’s half an hour left in the film, there’s of course going to be a misunderstanding. Tristan just cuts a lock of Yvaine’s hair while she’s sleeping to present to Victoria. But she mistakenly thinks he’s gone after her, and so walks towards the wall in despair. It should also be mentioned that a star cannot cross the wall without turning to dust.

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Tristan goes to Victoria but tells her to “get over yourself”, but then discovers what happens to a star when it crosses the wall. But have no fear – Tristan’s mother takes control of the carriage when she sees Yvaine walking towards the wall and stops her from doing so. Lamia gets there too and finishes off Ditchwater Sal – taking Yvaine and Tristan’s mother back to her castle with her. Tristan follows and bumps into Septimus, and the two agree to work together for their common goal. Once inside, Septimus actually recognises Tristan’s mother…as his sister Una!

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If she’s his sister, that makes her a princess. And that makes Tristan…well we can’t dwell on that, as there are three wicked witches to kill. Empusa shows some nifty skills with fire-conjuring, but Septimus demonstrates his sword throwing to make short work of her. Lamia retaliates by creating a voodoo doll of him and dropping it into some water – effectively drowning him. Tristan then eliminates Mormo by setting free all the animals the witches had caged up, which goes how you’d expect.

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“You doubted me?”

He’s protected from Lamia’s magic by the snowdrop flower – which I don’t remember him getting back. The bottled lightning from the captain also comes in very useful. Lamia doesn’t let that deter her and uses the voodoo doll to make Septimus’s corpse duel with Tristan. Our shop boy tries the old falling chandelier trick, to modest degrees of success.

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“Seriously, kid, are you even trying?”

Lamia appears to give up from the sheer stress of it all, telling Tristan he can take Yvaine and go. But it turns out that it was just a yank of the chain to make Yvaine think she’d been saved. But now the star decides to show that her little Gaussian trick actually has some use to it.

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After the last witch is dealt with, Tristan picks up the necklace and the ruby is suddenly restored. As he’s the son of the princess, that makes him the heir to the throne of Stormhold. Cut to the coronation, where we see that he and Yvaine have married, his parents are back together and Captain Shakespeare is winking at Humphrey. The end narration also claims that one who possesses the heart of a star can live forever. So when Tristan and Yvaine achieve a great age and have plenty of whipper-snappers running around, they light the Babylon Candle one last time.

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And they get a headstart on populating Neverland.

Stardust was a respectable hit at the time, but it was the age before umpteen sequels and spin-offs – so they didn’t make a franchise out of it. And I have to say, it is refreshing to watch a fantasy movie that just is what it is. It’s not part of a trilogy or a franchise, and the entire story is resolved by the closing credits. What’s also surprising is how light-hearted this movie is. Filmmakers these days are obsessed with making fantasy gritty, and trying to ground it in reality. While there’s nothing wrong with that (and it worked out rather well in War Craft), it’s always nice to see a movie that embraces the fun escapist nature of the fantasy genre. Matthew Vaughn plays many fairy tale tropes straight, but does so in such an affectionate way. The result is a love letter to fun fairy tale romps, much in the same vein as the 80s classic The Princess Bride. It got the stamp of approval from Neil Gaiman; who viewed it as an interesting deviation from his book, and okayed many of the changes from page to screen. On a more general level, I make no secret of the fact that I love fairy tales unashamedly. I have ever since I was a child, although obviously I went through the “I’m too old for that nonsense” phase in my teen years. But I can credit this film – which I saw on the day I turned sixteen – with rekindling that love and reminding me of the wonderful world of fairy tales. And then Matthew Vaughn would do the same for the X-Men films years later with First Class. So yeah, that man is awesome.

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What do grades do? Well they grade, duh.

*Story? A fun tongue-in-cheek romp that’s a love letter to Heroic Fantasy like The Princess Bride, Willow and Clash of the Titans – not to mention fairy tales in general. Matthew Vaughn blends the comedy, adventure, romance and scariness in a fabulous way. B+

*Characters? This is the mid-2000s so Tristan is admittedly a stock Chosen One lead, and Yvaine is that routine ‘Girl I Don’t Realise I’m In Love With’. But they still work in the story, and the world is peppered with a lot of fun side characters. It’s surprising that the world feels so well-discovered within a standard two-hour film. B

*Performances? Charlie Cox and Claire Danes make a great double act, Danes doing a near-flawless English accent and dishing out plenty of fun sarcasm. Michelle Pfeiffer’s accent is more obvious but there’s a reason she’s one of the best actresses around. Robert DeNiro was ridiculously fantastic, as was Mark Strong. Out of the very solid supporting cast, I really loved Dexter Fletcher as the captain’s right hand man. A

*Visuals? Not as visually striking as some of the fantasy blockbusters of the day, but some nice set designs and costume choices. B+

*Special Effects? The filmmakers got creative in some great places – such as the Septimus voodoo doll scene and the prosthetics to age the witches. A-

*Anything Else? I suppose I should mention the brilliant score that makes travelling across the countryside feel quite epic. B+

Moving onto far more serious subject matter, the cancer dramedy 50/50 is next.

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