Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Falling Stars And Babylon Candles

Some links before I get started today. Norma relates her moviegoing experience at her blog. AngryParsnip mentioned the monsoon season down in Arizona at her blog the other day. Lena made a return to her blog with writing tips. And Maria featured the movie Belle at her blog. 

Today I have a movie review....

"A philosopher once asked, 'are we human because we gaze at the stars or do we gaze at them because we are human?' Pointless, really. Do the stars gaze back? Now that's a question." ~ Narrator

"Everlasting life? I imagine it would be kind of lonely. Well, maybe if you had someone to share it with. Someone you loved. Then it might be different." ~ Tristan

"Murdered by pirates. Heart torn out and eaten. Meet Victoria. I can't quite decide which sounds more fun." ~ Yvaine

Stardust is the 2007 film by director Matthew Vaughn, based on the book by comics and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, playing around with a fairy tale theme of a young man seeking his destiny in a Victorian era England... that happens to be right next door to a magical kingdom called Stormhold. We first find a stone wall separating the English village of Wall from Stormhold, guarded by a decrepit yet sprightly old man (David Kelly, who you might remember from Waking Ned Devine). A young man named Dunstan Thorne (Ben Barnes, who played Prince Caspian in two of the Chronicles of Narnia films) manages to get past him and into the realm beyond, coming to a village market filled with strange wonders. He meets an attractive young woman (Kate Magowan) who tells him she's a princess tricked into slavery by the witch (Melanie Hill) who keeps her bound to her service. Though Dunstan can't free her, she takes him into her bed anyway. A few months later Dunstan is surprised when the guard brings him something left at the wall for him- a baby named Tristan.

Eighteen years later, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is working in a village shop, living at home with his kind father, now played by Nathaniel Parker. He's infatuated with Victoria (Sienna Miller), but can't see how shallow and self absorbed she is. She's stringing him along, finds him amusing, but is also involved with another suitor, Humphrey (Henry Cavill). One night Tristan and Victoria are out together, and she informs him she's going to be marrying Humphrey. They see a falling star in the heavens. He offers to bring her back the star for her hand in marriage, and she sets a time limit for him.

They're not the only ones linked to that falling star. The dying king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) has set his ruby necklace into the night sky, decreeing that whichever of his surviving sons recovers it will be the next king. The three surviving sons (four when the scene initially starts) have already killed off some of their siblings, following the example of their father, who ruthlessly killed off his own brothers to claim the throne. The dead sons, however, aren't that far away, all condemned to remain as ghosts in a spectral Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on things as the story progresses, and bickering among themselves. Out in space, the necklace collides with the star, sending them both falling to earth.

Three ancient witch sisters (Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Alexander, and Joanna Scanlon) see the falling star. They know from experience that to consume the star's heart will restore their youth and keep their lives going  that much longer. The first, Lamia, takes up the remnants of the last star the sisters captured, restoring her beauty, and setting out to bring back the star.

Tristan learns from his father about his mother, reading her letter to him, and makes use of a Babylon candle that transports him across space into Stormhold... and into the crater where the star has fallen. A star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) and looking very fetching and not at all like you'd expect a star to look. She's rather annoyed by the young man who's tumbled into her and insists on taking her to see Victoria. And so the two are drawn together into an adventure, meeting witches, ruthless princes, sky pirates, and more along the way. 

I wish I had seen this in theatres at the time. Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman adapted the novel into a screenplay. The story is very much in the vein of The Princess Bride, a fairy tale that turns convention on its head. It's cleverly written, and while it takes profound liberties with the laws of nature- stars do not take the shape of young women- I didn't mind at all. I was completely charmed by the story and the strong characterization of the script. The story also follows the theme of the young hero who must leave home to fulfill his destiny and find his one true love, a theme that goes back to earliest mythology. Vaughn and Goldman's script keeps things moving along swiftly, never slowing down, and tweaks the nose of convention,  such as featuring princes who, instead of being charming, are utterly ruthless and underhanded.

Much of the film was shot in the United Kingdom, with some work done in Iceland, and the result works beautifully. The terrain feels windswept, and gives the story an out of the mists of time sensibility. Villages and homes as we see them feel very much like they fit into the century and a half old setting of the film, as does the technology. Stormhold as a kingdom is a magical place, and so the king's palace is a fantasy design. It looks foreboding and brooding when we first see it, perfectly fitting the ruthless king and his son, and when we see it again at the end, transformed into something else, much brighter and airy, in both cases, it feels very much like a castle out of a fairy tale. The same applies for the lair of the witches, something of a gloomy place, and yet formidable. The set designers and creative artists who came up with the concepts did great work with these locations.

Special effects through the film also were well done. We see that when we first meet a band of sky pirates, men helming a zeppelin up amid the storms. They harness and collect lightning, and the CGI work in rendering their skycraft and the lightning is seamless. The CGI is particularly spectacular in the rendering of the abilities of the witches. Lamia's spells tend to lean towards the violent, and in each case, the magic feels like it's sharing the same space with the actors. I also make note of the music by composer Ilan Eshkari, who gives us a lush, epic score with thrilling accompaniment to action and romantic themes, all fitting nicely into a fantasy tale.

The cast is well cast, for the most part. One exception would be Ricky Gervais, who turns up briefly as a dubious businessman-fence in Stormhold. Essentially he's just playing himself, and as a matter of personal taste, I don't particularly like Ricky Gervais. Fortunately his appearance is brief. Melanie Hill is suitably obnoxious as the witch Dishwater Sal, playing the role as a thoroughly unpleasant soul. Peter O'Toole played one of his last roles as the king of Stormhold, a rotten man who made it to the throne through fratricide, and doesn't mind one bit if his sons are killing each other off. He appears only briefly, but he owns the role. We buy him as a king, albeit a nasty king, because of his long history as an actor.

Kate Magowan appears throughout the film as Tristan's mother. She plays the part in both time periods, as opposed to casting two actresses for the two time periods. Her take on the role is a good one; she's desperate for freedom and seemingly resigned to her fate, but her love for her son is a core quality to the character, and as badly as she's been treated in forced servitude, it doesn't overwhelm her compassion. Ben Barnes first plays Dunstan as a young man, and he plays the role as adventurous and charming; there's a bit of mutual seduction going on between he and Magowan in their early scene. Parker takes over the role- and it's peculiar as to how the two actors seem to look alike. Parker plays Dunstan as a kind, decent father with a quiet wisdom where his son is concerned. He's never married- he met the one great love of his life long ago, and we get the impression he never got over her.

Henry Cavill appears as Humphrey, virtually unrecognizable beneath blond hair and a mustache from the role he would later play as Superman in Man of Steel. He's self absorbed as a person, and something of a bully. Which makes him well suited for the woman he's wooing. Sienna Miller plays Victoria as a completely self absorbed shallow soul, content to bask in the attention of more than one suitor. She doesn't value Tristan for who he is, but enjoys being catered to. We don't like Victoria, can see her for who she is, but Miller does well with the role.

Robert De Niro turns up as Captain Shakespeare, the chief of the sky pirates. When first seen, he comes across as a brutal, ruthless man, and yet that's nothing more than a facade, all meant to maintain the reputation. He's actually a nice guy who took on the family business. He's curious about all things England, took his professional name from the playwright- while his crew seem to emphasize the spear part of his name. De Niro gets to have fun playing a gay man who occasionally cross dresses, and the audience gets to like the character. He's an authoritative leader, who has the respect of his crew, and he's a valuable friend to Tristan and Yvaine, teaching the former to swordfight and the latter to waltz. 

Of the seven brothers, Mark Strong gets the most screen time as Septimus. Strong has been playing a lot of villains and brooding dark roles in films like Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Green Lantern, John Carter, and The Young Victoria. Strong plays Septimus as throughly ruthless, willing to do whatever he must to secure his throne, even if that means throwing a brother out a window or poisoning another. And yet we can't help but like the character, as rotten as he is. Strong makes the character so marvelously compelling just by his performance. Even at a moment late in the film when he's not in control of himself.

The three witches are formidable villains. Alexander and Scanlon are sardonic in their roles, allowing their sister to take the lead, while still calling her into question with great regularity, chiding her on overuse of magic and the effects it can have on the body. They both play the roles as malevolent and as a threat, obsessed with the prospect of eternal life. This extends as well to Michelle Pfeiffer's role as Lamia. Whether it's in a decrepit aged state or in the glory of a younger body, she's a thoroughly dangerous person. Pfeiffer plays her as pure evil, willing to make use of anyone or anything to further her goals, even to be underhanded with her sisters if the occasion calls for it. And yet there's still a sense of the actress having fun with the role- particularly when she gets a look at her naked restored self in a mirror.

The two leads are perfectly cast in their roles, and have terrific chemistry, even when arguing. Claire Danes has a long streak in films of crying at least once in a film, a record that remains in place here. But she plays the role with feistiness and strength. She speaks her mind, expresses herself fully without reservation. She's something of an outsider in this world, of course, but finds kindred spirits in the unlikeliest of places. There's a moment in the film when she's talking about what love means, and you immediately agree with her, because it rings true. While on the one hand she's the fairy tale damsel in distress, the next moment she's the one doing the saving, a refreshing twist on the fairy tale genre. Claire Danes' take on this heroine remains fresh every time I see this film, and I love the banter she has with her co-star.

Charlie Cox (Stone Of Destiny) is wonderful as Tristan. He starts off as somewhat naive and oblivious, not seeing the object of his affections for the brat that she is. He has hopes and ambitions though, dreams of a life lived beyond the quiet village. And yet when he's swept up into adventure, he comes into his own. We see a courageous, driven young man who comes to his own realization about where he belongs. As an actor, Cox plays the role with great charm, bantering with Yvaine in a wonderful way, and yet also coming across as authentic. We root for them as a couple because of the great chemistry they share.

Stardust is a fine adventure film with a splendid pair of lead actors who are well matched. It skews the fairy tale conventions and has fun in the process, but also gives us a magical world we accept. If it's a film you have not yet seen, you really must remedy that.


  1. I remember seeing this film and getting a bit lost in the beginning due to the convoluted twists and turns but as soon as I entered the Kingdom of Stormhold the story took even more turns, becoming enjoyable. Wonderful review William and for those who enjoy adventures this is a great film.

  2. Haven't seen or heard of this but I do love The Princess Bride.

  3. When this movie came out for me it was lost in the shuffle of what was going on at the time. I wanted to see it. But now that you have reviewed it I will zoom over to netflix and watch it.
    Not seeing the film I know many of the actors and can not wait to see it. I must agree with you on Ricky Gervals, what a horrible person and at twit although I really wanted to write another word.

    cheers, parsnip

  4. Ah...another film I haven't seen.

    I just saw The Princess Bride for the first time last week....

  5. On the strength of this review I will watch it. I haven't heard of it either but your writing about it makes me want to see it. I must say I am the only one in the universe that did not like the Princess Bride so this will be a good test of my character. Or lack thereof.

  6. @Eve: it's such a fun film. Every once in awhile I have to see it again.

    @Kelly: you must remedy that!

    @Parsnip: I have no idea why people find him amusing.

    @Norma: did you enjoy it?

    @Carole: have fun checking it out!

    @Shelly: it's such a pleasure to watch.

  7. I can't understand how I've missed this one. I LOVE Michelle Pfieffer! Definitely buying this. Thanks!!!!

  8. I remember this movie! Nice review!

  9. I haven't seen this one. Sounds like something I'd enjoy. I'll have to check it out. Great review!

  10. I'm kind of ashamed to admit that I've fallen asleep in this movie several times. I don't know why--it's the kind of thing I love, and Gaiman is awesome, but it just puts me right under!

  11. Great review, William! I've never seen this movie, but I'll have to rent it. Didn't know it was based on a Neil Gaiman book. I wasn't familiar with Gaiman until my kids had to read The Graveyard book, which we all loved.

    Thanks again for the shout out!

  12. Good review William.. I remember quite enjoying this one many years ago.. very good cast, I lime Michelle Pfieffer and Clare Danes has certainly done well since then.

  13. This was on the television last night. I missed the first bit, but what a great film. It would be great to see on the big screen also. I want to watch it again, soI might see if I can get it on dvd

  14. PS Good review William


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