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‘Stardust’ memories

Ted Alvarez

“Stardust” isn’t like most movies you see nowadays: It’s a modest fantasy, happy to exist without mind-blowing special effects and trust in the excitement of its own plot. That it employs healthy doses of modern humor goes a long way toward spicing up the kitchen-sink assemblage of princesses, pirates, swords, witches and fallen stars. The film concerns the adventures of young Tristan (Charlie Cox), a grocery boy in the Victorian village of Wall. Raised by his father, he can’t seem to find his way toward being a man, which doesn’t help him woo his intended, the cold and aptly named Victoria (Sienna Miller). After a midnight champagne picnic fails to impress, Tristan swears to bring back a shooting star he sees in the sky to prove his love to Victoria. The ever-understanding Victoria gives him a week to do so. The star, however, fell behind the wall in Wall, a barrier that separates the English countryside from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. When the aged guard bests Tristan’s attempts to go past it, Tristan’s father tells him of how he once crossed the wall one fateful night and conceived Tristan with his mother, the slave girl of a witch. Tristan is given a magical candle that will whisk him to where his heart most desires. The problem is that instead of thinking of his mom, Tristan briefly substitutes his celestial pursuit in his thoughts, and he’s transported to the crater where Yvaine (Claire Danes), an impetuous and radiant star in human form, lies. And thus, in the kingdom of Stormhold, the chase begins. Three witches led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) seek the star as their ticket to eternal beauty and power, while the king of Stormhold’s four surviving sons (of seven, originally) seek the star to earn the crown. Yadda, yadda, yadda. What keeps the film interesting is its sly, playful sense of humor. As the seven sons off one another, their ghosts join an undead Greek chorus that laughs and cries at fantastical proceedings. Lamia consumes the remainder of a previously captured star to have enough youth and magic to find Yvaine, but as she uses her magic (firing bolts of green fire, turning people into goats and back, that kind of thing), she becomes progressively more decrepit, losing tufts of hair and gaining hideous wrinkles and liver spots as she goes. The movie, originally based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, stays lively because Gaiman knows that all good fairy tales need some grotesquery. Lamia and her witch-sisters don’t simply want to possess Yvaine – they need to cut out her heart and eat it to stay young. Fairy tales usually end happily, but some medieval bloodlust can help amp up the stakes. Pfeiffer carries her part with hammy ferocity, reveling in the ability to play off both her well-preserved, golden beauty and the graphic erosion of it. Cox is a tad bland but endearing, and while Danes comes off as often petulant, her sincerity helps add believability to this lark of a film. Ricky Gervais has a funny cameo as a noncommittal fence for forbidden goods. But in many ways, Robert De Niro walks away with the film in a bit part as air pirate Capt. Shakespeare, a ferocious killer who steals lightning from the skies but harbors a deep, dark secret. The secret? He’s actually a mincing pansy, and proud of it, with a penchant for elaborate petticoats and showgirl dancing. He’d rather re-enact the “Moulin Rouge” in his boudoir than slit throats. If Johnny Depp hinted at a fey pirate, De Niro fills in the sketch with bright pastel colors. The movie starts slow under the portentous narration of Ian McKellan, and some of the effects aren’t flashy by modern standards. But they’re effective, and very much endemic of the land of Stormhold, a kingdom perhaps not as amazing as Middle Earth but a great deal more interesting than a robot-riddled Los Angeles. By flying under the radar and subsisting on a story rather more hopeful than hype-filled, “Stardust” hearkens back to “The Princess Bride,” that ’80s confection quite unlike anything that had come before it. Like Rob Reiner on “The Princess Bride,” director Matthew Vaughn isn’t afraid to mix funnies with fencing. It’s a breath of fresh air in a summer crammed with shiny spectacles and empty heavy metal.


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