Watching “Stardust”

Claire Daines on unicorn

Saw this last night and loved it. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows my history with Neil Gaiman, and what I’ve already reported about both Neil and original book artist Charles Vess being very positive about the film. I was prepared to love it going in, and I did. STARDUST, the original graphic novel (really an illustrated novella), is my favorite work of Neil’s that I didn’t letter. It owes some inspiration to Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany, and perhaps some to American fantasy writer James Branch Cabell as well, but it’s a thoroughly Gaiman book.

Coming home from the theater I was trying to think of what it is that I find most appealing about Neil’s work. Sure, the ideas are great, the writing is fine, the dialogue choice, and the characters engaging. But what I think I like best about it is the way he has of playing against expectations for moments of surprise and wonder that make me laugh out loud with delight. The first such moment I can recall is from SANDMAN #8 when I discovered that the King of Dream’s sibling Death was a cute goth teenager, friendly and unthreatening, exactly the opposite of every portrayal of Death I’d ever seen. Playing against expectations.

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The STARDUST graphic novel did a lot of that, using wry British understated humor in moments when I might have expected intense drama, having fantasy characters with a no-nonsense down to earth attitude, while at the same time having a main character from our mundane world with his head in the clouds. Knowing the book meant the movie didn’t have a lot of surprises for me, except for the major one that it successfully captured that sort of playing against expectations very well. And the actors were all excellent in their unexpected roles, many playing against type. The only one I didn’t buy completely was Robert De Niro as the feisty airship captain with a secret. I bought him as the rough captain, but didn’t quite believe his other side. He acted it well, but it was acting with just the smallest wink and nod to the viewer, as if to say “you know I’m acting here.”

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Michelle Pfeiffer, on the other hand, took on her evil witch role with obvious relish, and was wonderful in it. Coming out of the theater I was remembering her early film “Ladyhawke”, where she played a young heroine more like the Claire Danes part in this film. (And if you’re looking for a film to do a “reminds me of” comparison to, that one seems a better choice to me than “The Princess Bride”.) Here, she’s obviously having a lot of fun being bad, and I had a lot of fun watching her.

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The romantic leads, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes were both fine. Danes, again, played against expectations for me. I haven’t seen much of her before, but what I have seen gave me an impression that she has a somewhat ironic and sarcastic personality. There was some of that here, but with an underlying sincerity that worked well for the role. Someone called her part in “Stardust” a Gwyneth Paltrow part, but I think Gwyneth would have been a bit too much sweetness and light. Danes had just enough sarcasm to make it work, and make it amusing. Charlie Cox, while not a standout, did fine in his viewer identification role as the youth bumbling his way through all kinds of dangers to win in the end. Some of the romantic dialogue was a bit too treacly, but generally I liked them both.

The worst part of the experience had nothing to do with the movie. I went to a new theater near us to see this film, hoping it would be a good venue, but it really sucked. The film was shown slightly out of focus throughout, not enough to obscure anything, but still quite annoying. I complained to no avail. Then the film broke in the middle of the scene between the Prince and the Soothsayer, and it took them about 10 minutes to get it going again, after which it took another five minutes to turn the house lights back down. I’ll certainly never go to a film there again. I’ll stick to the Regal Cinema further away, but where I’ve had good experiences for the last few years.

So, no surprise, loved it, will definitely see it again soon.

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