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Monday, August 20, 2007

Eminently Violable: Stardust

I am not a Neil Gaiman fan. Stop with the pelting already. I'm not not a Neil Gaiman fan, I just haven't drunk the kool-aid and, therefore, don't get what the big deal is. Also, in fairness, my not not state is based only on reading American Gods (which is a wonderful set of short stories and, in my opinion, a very lackluster novel; if I'd edited it, it would have been about 40% the size of the end product and, in all probability, 100% Shadow free, but I digress) and Anansi Boys (a great improvement, and enjoyable, but still didn't grab me). Anyway, that's apropos not much, except for the fact that it may utterly negate for you my feelings about Stardust.I guess validation is possible, just a lot less likely.

I feel bad about not liking Gaiman's writing more. I mean, Diana Wynne Jones, my absolute heroine and, as far as I'm concerned, the absolute pinnacle of fantasy writing, is fond enough of the writer to have "loaned" him the plot for American Gods (from Eight Days of Luke) and fond enough of the man to have immortalized him in the character of Nick Mallory, whom I love as I can only love a DWJ hero. Probably I should just read more, but, seriously American Gods took a lot out of me. And what it took out, it replaced with the cranky and very ready to find fault and be bored.

As to what bearing all that baggage has on Stardust . . . well, probably none. (If nothing else, I forgot completely until about 30 minutes in that Gaiman had anything at all to do with it.) I'm not sure where this movie was until about 3 weeks ago, when the marketing for it began, seemingly as an afterthought. As more facts about it came to light during that period, my unease grew: Robert DeNiro? Michelle Pfeiffer? Ricky Gervais? Claire Danes? Peter freakin' O'Toole (ok, I didn't know about him until we were in the theater, and even then, I didn't think it was really him, because he apparently has access to a time machine)? Based on a Neil Gaiman story (not that this was especially played up)? And no advertising? I smell Mists of Avalon.

But hey, we at the Telecommuniculturey support our local genre films.

And hey! I'm really glad we did. I'm not prepared to put a percentage to the "better than expectations," mostly because I had no expectations whatsoever, but it really was delightfully entertaining. M tells me that it was pitched as the Princess Bride meets Pirates of the Caribbean. I'll call shenanigans on that: It's more The Princess Bride: Newly Expanded with a True Account of What Happened to Westley During His Adventures as the Dread Pirate Roberts.

The story is as old as the hills: How do boys become men? And Gaiman tells that story from the shoulders of giants. The Captain of the lightning ship is the Dread Pirate Roberts, in this case nee Ryan (i.e., he of the infamous bedtime sign off, "Good night Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning"). But of course, as much as Gaiman is borrowing from Goldman, Goldman's having bummed a fiver of those who've gone before is acknowledged in the name the sky pirate takes as his own: Shakespeare. How do boys become men? They go from war to Messina, from Wittenberg to Denmark, to Shrewsbury to London to France, and back again (and, whether Gaiman intended this as pre-Tolkien fantasy or not [as, again, M's information suggests], they go There and Back Again). They make the journey, fight the war, set the wackiness to rights, rake in the chicks, and settle down to rule the kingdom.

One could argue that it's really the only story, so its derivative nature isn't worth talking about. But of course, it matters whether it's rip off or homage (I'm going with definite homage in this case), and it matters from whom one's doing the deriving. Goldman and the Bard are both aforementioned and foregone conclusions. It's hard to go wrong with either. Garth Nix is there, too, in style and content. (As you might suspect, that's a big hit with me.) And there is—and I don't say this lightly—Diana Wynne Jones herself.

Given the giants that Gaiman's chosen to form the base of his narrative pyramid, he's well-positioned to retell the only story ever told. I'd add that retelling it within the fantasy genre has its own peculiar charms. How boys become men is the story, but how men remain boys is vital to the telling of it. In Stardust, Gaiman's characters are irrepressible and forward moving.

They're not undaunted by their missteps and misfortunes, but they are rarely, if ever, paralyzed by them. There is—thank you axe-headed buddy Jeebus (man, I wanted a picture of that to link to, but searches "stardust" and "axe in head" turn up "kid friendly" dissections of the movie, which tragically, do not rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 boobies, but they ought to)—not an iota of emo in Tristan (I understand the name was changed from the more tongue twisting "Tristran" in Gaiman's original, but the nod to another story involving funny ears isn't bothersome if you have the luxury of not being a Gaiman purist) or Yvaine.

Tristan's job at the shop isn't feeding his 7 starveling brothers. He blows his money on a candlelight champagne picnic, and there's no implication that he's killed the cow and taken his first step on the long road to spousicide and capital punishment. He doesn't cross the wall into Stormhold to obtain the last of a rare blossom to save his consumptive mother. He's on a playful, romantic whim. In other words why does Tristan set off on the journey to become a man? To quote Jeremy Goodwin "It's for the same reason anybody does anything: to impress women." Which is rather circular, but so, I hear, is life. And the Tristan of the movie, at least, comes by this honestly: Why did his father go? Because the men who were busily photographing the moon couldn't see the other world right in their midst. He went because it was there.

Which is not to say that there's no peril, no anxiety, or nothing at stake in Stardust. All along, a net is closing around Tristan and Yvaine. The two of them matter quite deeply to the villains of the piece, who would win a kingdom, regain youth, and achieve immortality. And even they are having a good time about it. There's fratricide galore, but no hard feelings. There's remaining-star-heart bogarting, but everyone knows it has to be done and shares a hearty cackle.

Being the only story ever told, being fantasy, there's a core of bog standardness: Tristan is the real heir to the kingdom, his slave girl mother being the missing princess. He wastes the gifts given to him by his parents, and perseveres anyway. All hope is lost, and true love wins the day. It's entirely predictable for adults, and it's filled with surprise reveals and shocking discoveries for the youngsters. And what it's filled with hardly matters, because it's so charmingly told.

I think the secret to its charm is in the balance. For so silly a movie, it's scarier and Grimmer (caps intentional—think of the blood in the shoe!) than any recently told fairy tale (Pan's Labyrinth excepted, but that's another animal entirely): The witches divine with bona fide entrails of recently living critters; the princes off one another and other obstacles in sometimes grisly fashion (sadly not in grizzly fashion, despite the array of animals represented). There's dramatic music aplenty to honor these dark goings-on. But for every beat on the tympani, there's the tinkle of a bell. For every time Michelle Pfeiffer monologues, then magics an unwitting bystander, she gives herself a magical face lift that costs her a double boob droop. It's fun and it's funny and it knows exactly how seriously to take itself.

I'm kind of surprised to learn that this is only Matthew Vaughn's second time in the director's chair. Granted, his stable here is largely populated with self-jockeyed thoroughbreds (too many horse-racing plot lines in my junk TV lately), but it's not like being the newbie to your actors and their potential egos is a sinecure, either. But certainly the unified, exactly right tone of the movie has to be largely attributable to him. But every actor, almost every moment, palpably "got" the movie's vibe and understood its delicate balance.

Charlie Cox was simply wonderful as Tristan. Young, goobery, articulate, spazzing, nerdy, gallant, and thoroughly loveable. Although Nathaniel Parker's role as the elder Thorn is small, their father-son relationship is exceptionally well done and vital to why, exactly, Tristan charms. (And can I say that my heart went pitter pat when I spied the role of Gabriel Oak in Mr. Parker's IMDB credits?)

The sons of the King of Stronghold are side-splitting as a group and delectable as individual. Of course Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng are the only two who have any real material to work with, and yet the strong individual personalities are more than the just the product of their amusingly idiosyncratic corpses. (Seriously, the ghostly Waldorf and Statler Septet just cracked my shit up.)

Michelle Pfeiffer is bitchy and witchy, stupid and vain, threatening and ridiculous in almost exactly the right proportions, and Sarah Alexander and Joanna Scanlon are exceptional wrinkly back-up singers. DeNiro . . . well, he's quite often DeNiro, which is pretty much all he ever is. But he's a very silly DeNiro, and a bittersweet, aging queen DeNiro and that's . . . different (and not in the best taste from time to time, but if you'd described his role to me and told me how well, overall, it was pulled off, I'd have laughed in your face).

And the very minor supporting roles are cast with loving care. Jake Curran as the farmboy/goat and Olivia Grant as Bernard-as-Inn-Wench turned in just superb performances that could have been ham-handed comedy. Sienna Miller managed to give the snotty, vain Victoria just enough gold beneath the tarnish beneath the gold that we never had to fully despise Tristan for wanting her. Peter O'Toole? Do I really need to praise Peter O'Toole? Well, I've got to. He's got a bed-ridden 7-minute, exposition-laden scene and he rocks the fucking house.

My only reservation regarding the casting was, sadly, Claire Danes as Yvaine. Early on, she's entirely too one note. All haughty, more British than British (metaphorically in manner and literally in accent). All pain-in-the-ass, no gooey center. But it's never even near fatal, and she improves decidedly. I should also say that given how strongly evident I felt DWJ's influence to be, I was especially unlikely to be lenient about any lack of complexity in the female characters.

And in fairness to her, I have to say that there's some weakness in the source material (the screenplay, if not the original novella. Please to not be firebombing my house, Gaiman Brigade!): Notice that I've been all about boyz 2 men above. That's not just a sudden failure of torturous gender-neutral jargon.

This is a story about boys and men. While Tristan is learning to fence and to harvest lightning, Yvaine learns how to play the piano and to dance (and, presumably how to lace herself into a corset built for Robert DeNiro). When Tristan is reunited with his mother, she kisses his forehead (no lightning bolt scar, and thus no sounds of uncontrolled vomiting from this quarter), tells him to be the man she knows he is, and meekly complies with his order to wait outside.

True, it's Yvaine who ultimately saves the day (and the next tenants of Witchy Manor will be picking Michelle Pfeiffer out of the carpet for generations to come), but she "couldn't do it without [Tristan]," and somehow her womanly hug seems a bit standard-with-all-models rather than anything peculiar that our heroine picked up along the way. And, in short, although it honors the letter of the Bechdel-Wallace test (many women talking to many other women, and boys almost never come up) it rather egregiously violates its spirit (preoccupation with physical beauty gives entrails a run for their money in witchy conversational terms).

So it's not the girl-power vehicle of the year, but it's a lovely movie nonetheless. And apparently no one's seeing it.

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