Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m not remotely surprised to hear that STARDUST is knocking test audiences out, even without completed FX or a finished score. When I visited the set, what I saw was a production that certainly didn’t lack for ambition. Matthew Vaughn has always struck me as absurdly confident, and that confidence seemed to be paying off with a raucous film that finally looked to bring the work of Neil Gaiman to life. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this report from Thursday night’s screening:
I attended a screening of “Stardust” in Pasadena a few days ago. The version we saw had scant special effects and a temporary soundtrack. What I realize now is what was nifty about that is without the effects to oooo over, nothing distracts from focusing on the story or acting. “Stardust” is about Tristan, a boy in love who goes into the fairy land to fetch a fallen star he hopes will win him the heart and hand of Victoria, the woman whom he thinks is perfection. Turns out the star is a girl named Yvaine, she’s pissed, and she’s not very damsel-like in how she goes about expressing her distress. Yvaine is being hunted by a trio of vicious witches and a clutch of ruthless princes, all of whom want to cut out and eat her heart to gain near-immortality for themselves. Tristan, heir to a legacy of which he is unaware, has to face wonders and challenges previously unknown in his simple life, keep himself and Yvaine alive, and come out of the whole thing having evolved into a man. The film is directed by Matthew Vaughn with screenplay by Jane Goldman, an adaptation of the novel by Neil Gaiman. While there is a whole bunch of book v. movie neepery one could get into, I think it’s best to only touch a bit on the important aspects of that transition at the end of this piece. The movie is the focus here. I must be honest. I went in figuring the best I could hope for was that “Stardust” would fall somewhere between “didn’t completely suck” and “almost decent.” This is mainly because I’ve had a difficult time wrapping my head around how the guy who either directed or produced the hyper-violent, jet black, uber-male films “Layer Cake,” “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” as being by any stretch of the imagination the appropriate choice to direct an adaptation of this particular book. Yes, the cast is stellar – De Niro, Pfeiffer, O’Toole just to name a few – but every new name announced did nothing to get me past bafflement as to why the Hollywood People would hand over a classical-style, sensitive fairy tale to a guy who mostly does hard boiled. Because I am unfamiliar with other works of the screenwriter, I couldn’t factor in her potential impact ahead of time. So what happens? I go to the screening with a prayer of “please don’t let this suck too badly” on my lips, and left practically cheering. So did, it seemed to me, 90 percent of that audience. Shows you how much I know. This film was such a good time it sends you away with a feeling of I LOVE YOU, MAN! GIVE ME A HUG! The movie is an enormous amount of fun. “Stardust” is closer to being an action film with a heart than it is a chick flick with fairies. It’s exciting, with a couple of most excellent combat scenes, for the most part it’s finely paced, it’s fun, and the sections that are scary/creepy are effectively so without being over-the-top with gory fright. (Fair warning: people who have difficulty with unpleasant things happening to small animals might have more than one moment of eewwww. None of that bothered me, it is old-school magic after all, but it will bother people who are sensitive.) Most of all “Stardust” is funny, which was a huge surprise. A strong argument can be made that what’s on the screen is funnier than what’s in the book. The book has gentle humor laced throughout, but the movie is fall over snorting at times. It’s as if they went through the book, pulled all the humorous parts and cranked them up to 11 for the film. I think one reason it works so well is because the relationship sets are tight, and as performed by the fabbo actors the relationships feel absolutely real. As Tristan and Yvaine, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes start out dangerously close to chick lit cutesy squabbling, but as it goes on the warmth growing between them and the spark they develop as a couple comes across as realistic. The witch sisters, lead by Pfeiffer, convey a sense of competitive rivalry and intra-group duty that anyone who has siblings will recognize. Same with the princes (most of whom are dead, but are with us for the bulk of the movie). Even as they are at each other’s throats, they are not cartoony about it. In fact, as I type I realize nobody is a straight up cartoon. There’s a lot of broad shorthand, but for some reason it all works. I think people care more about the stars, but I’m going to jump out of order and talk about the Stormhold brothers a bit. Due to the unique succession process used by the kingdom of Stormhold, the princes spend a lot of time trying to kill each other. Losers must stick around until one is left standing and chosen king. They are a Greek chorus providing levity, guidance and insight for the audience. They take the edge off, if that makes sense, serving as a bridge between the dark nastiness going on and the relative levity that is most of the film. I’m convinced a good part of the movie would fall apart if they were out of it. If you forgot that the princess who showed up at the opening matters later on, their reaction when she shows up again reminds you. Half the time they’re like a bunch of guys sitting on the couch watching television and yelling at the screen. I thought they were great! I also loved how each of them looked; individually they are a visual joke. Robert De Niro, as captain of the lightning ship, slayed. I cannot emphasize this enough. He practically had people on the floor he was so funny, especially at the very very very end of the movie. All of the sequences on the ship were strong and among my favorites in the entire film. The approach he takes to conveying the dual nature of his character is quite broad, but to me it’s not offensive and comes with a nice social critique. It could be they got away with this because it’s De Niro playing that part. You know how sometimes the vibe of a particular actor’s iconic status can carry them through something another actor would not be able to get away with? What he does in the movie is like that. Still, his character is in some ways a Your Mileage May Vary sort of thing. The audience I was with loved it. It’s possible there are people who can, legitimately, take offense. (And I approve of his character and the ship even though the captain in the movie is in no way the captain who was in the book, and all of the stuff that happened on the ship in the movie is not in the book. The Hollywood People made that up.) Michelle Pfeiffer as the witch queen as also phenomenal. I truly enjoyed watching her, but who doesn’t? Though you recognize her immediately under all that makeup – as long as that woman has those phenomenal eyes, no makeup department in the universe will ever be able to fully disguise her – when she’s in scary witch mode she’s freakin’ terrifying. The way she pulled off her act of manipulation during the climactic battle was so cruel and perfect I wanted to stand up and applaud. One thing that was interesting is how she uses her entire body to convey balefulness when she’s in full-on witch mode. She hunched, swaggered, moved like a creature of immense power and arrogance. It was great. The only other time I remember her doing something similar was in one of those “Batman” movies. Mark Strong, whom IMDB tells me played the last brother standing, was the other major character I thought was completely fabulous. I know I probably wasn’t supposed to root for him, but I ended up doing so. He had kingly authority, he was menacing when needed, he was appealing in a sort of “just trying to get the job done” way. He had a lot of stuff going on in the way he played his part, but I can’t put my finger on all the reasons he really popped. It’s not just because he’s a hottie, though that didn’t hurt. Cox and Danes were very good. They weren’t the strongest actors in the film, but they held their own and were enjoyable to watch. Which I suppose is a good thing since technically they’re the stars and they’re on screen a lot, so if they were annoying it’s a problem. Cox more obviously goes through a change than Danes does, but that’s probably because in the movie this is more Tristan’s story than it is Yvaine’s. One must note that there are bit players throughout who really shine. De Niro’s executive officer had hardly any lines, but through his expressions conveyed so much people loved him. Same with the entire crew of the lightning ship. The guardian at the gap was also a complete hoot. The goat man made me giggle the second he showed up, and you kinda felt badly for what happened to him. I dunno, so many strong third-tier characters helped the whole, I think. Fun as it was, the version I saw wasn’t without a few flaws. I’m in the camp who thinks Danes is a good actress, but she still can’t hold a believable accent for an extended amount of time. Since this isn’t something that anything can be done about at this stage it’s probably of little use to bring it up. I’m doing so anyway because listening to her accent come and go at random was distracting. I also wondered why they had her do an accent at all. Her character isn’t from England, so it wasn’t really necessary for her to try and sound like she was. The deus ex unicorn went on for too long. I can’t figure out a way to say more about that without massive spoilers, though, so let’s just leave it at that. The princess was a slut. I know they want to get right into the story and everything, but that princess? Slut! She and Tristan’s father don’t meet cute. They meet slut, like the way people do in porn movies only we didn’t get to see any of the porny bits. I like horses a lot, but one can take only so many shots of guy on running horse before it gets old. After a while I got to thinking that maybe they were trying to show off the scenery, or maybe there was something special about the horses of which I am completely unaware. I’m still going back and forth on this one, but for the most part my reaction to the voice over narration was eh. It was obvious and sledge-hammer. I wonder if the chorus of princes and the action on the screen is enough to clue us into what’s going on? This one’s a bit spoilery because I can’t think of a way to work around it, so avert your eyes if you care. When one of the secondary witches turns Tristan into a mouse, and then later turns him back into a human and lets him go, it makes no sense. It so doesn’t make sense that this came up during a discussion with a stranger in the bathroom after the screening. In the film they’ve presented us with witches who do nothing but nasty things for the benefit of no one but themselves. They kill people, they enslave people, they slaughter animals for divination. Why do something nice for a random kid? Well, the reason why is in the book, I had just forgotten that part. (When I got home I looked it up.) Would it be too much to add “I kept my word to the letter” to that scene to be crystal so that everybody gets it? Because I’m guessing lots of people coming to this film will not have first read the book, I’m not going to get into a lot of obsessive book/movie comparisons here. Still there are a few things readers of the book should be aware of when go see so not too upset. BELOW THERE BE SPOILERS. STOP READING IF YOU CARE. As always when dealing with an adaptation there are changes to the source material. In this case, many of them are surface and don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the jewel is not a topaz or that it’s worn around her neck instead of her waist; that the moon gives Tristan a nudge instead of the tree; that the nine-year timetable has been changed. But there are a couple of significant alterations that have a profound effect on the base story. The most important one is that the movie story is stripped down in emotional complexity when compared to the book story. Because of this one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book has been excised. There is a level of humane emotional sophistication in the book story that is not in the movie story. This is where the Hollywood People took the most liberties. The movie goes for the quest version of the story and not so much for the nuance. This is something people who have not read the book will not pick up on. But if you’ve read the book this critical change is obvious, and might be helpful knowing that going in so that it doesn’t distract from your enjoyment of what they did create. The type of hero Tristan in the movie is not the type of hero Tristan is in the book. For that matter, Yvaine, Victoria and (to a lesser degree) the witch queen are not the same characters. By making Tristan more of a conventional hero, and making Victoria more of a bitch, and making Yvaine much less substantive than she is in the book, they changed a critical below-surface aspect of the story. I think it all comes down to the change in Tristan. Change the type of boy-to-man Tristan is, everything else had to be altered to fit. This applies even down to the happy ending, which is more overtly happy in the film than in the book. Could the Hollywood People have retained the emotional intricacy if they wanted to? Yes. I saw “Layer Cake” four times so I know this director could have pulled it off. Why they chose not to, I have no idea. But because the direction they went in works extremely well, I don’t particularly care. Had the movie sucked, my reaction to the changes would be far more negative, not the mention hysterical. (Again, I’ve not seen or read anything else by the screenwriter, so I have no idea if she also could have made manifest the character subtleties in the book for the movie.) The other big change is the portrayal of fairy land and its relationship with the town. If you were hoping to see what’s involved trying to navigate the social anthropology of fairy land (for lack of a better term) in the movie, you’re not gonna. All of that stuff is gone. Many fab characters from fairy land, gone. Cute tree, zombie unicorn, little man, all gone. The easiest way to put it is whatever second-tier fairy land person or thing you’re thinking of from the book that you really liked, if that element is not directly quest-related? It’s not in the movie. They got rid of a lot of the township characters, too, so it wasn’t like they just went after the fairies. Normally, changes like this would drive me up a wall. But in this specific case the departures from the source material are not a debacle. What the Hollywood People swapped that stuff out with works, in the same way “Blade Runner” differs from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” but it still rocks. The details are not the same, but the core spirit of the original work survives. At the same time, some of the stuff from the book that they did keep is practically lifted from the page and put on the screen, even down to dialog. I guess it comes down to they changed stuff, but they didn’t entirely screw up the book. “Stardust” is a fun movie. It’s romantic in a way that is not irritating, it has a huge sense of adventure, it’s not boring, the acting is great. When the special effects are in, it’s going to be even cooler. You can safely put this on your list of things to see once they’re done with it. But if you’re a fan of the book, don’t go in expecting to see the book.