Wednesday, July 18, 2007


I don't know how much they paid Robert De Niro to play gay pirate Captain Shakespeare in director Matthew Vaughn's unfortunate big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Stardust, but unless he's now one of the five richest men in the world, it wasn't enough. It's humiliating for an artist of De Niro's caliber to flounder around in lame shit like Analyze That, sure, but Stardust is another conversation entirely. We're no longer discussing his reputation as an actor; that battle has been fought and lost, long ago. Now he's starting to sacrifice...and I say this not to insult the man, but out of real concern...but he's starting to sacrifice his basic human dignity.

I was literally, without embellishment, embarrassed for De Niro throughout his mercifully brief role in Stardust. I don't want to give too much away...but at the same time, I don't want you to see this I'm torn. Suffice it to say that the key joke around which De Niro's character is based SUCKS. He's asked to inhabit a degrading, mincing stereotype that's completely beneath Neil Gaiman, Matthew Vaughn, Robert De Niro and most of all the American and British moviegoing public. I actually feel like I am a worse person for having seen De Niro in this film.

Even if the remainder of Stardust was a work of genius, under no circumstances could the final product warrant any grade higher than a B-. Like failing to stick the triple lutz, this is just the kind of error that will mar an entire undertaking.

Krazy Krossdressing Kapt. Shakespeare is the most unfortunate float in the Parade of Incompetence called Stardust, but many other examples could and will be provided.

Most bad Hollywood films are a failure of vision - some mediocre but easily marketed ideas thrown together lackadaisically to produce something cheap, moderately entertaining and disposable. Stardust doesn't have this problem. It has plenty of interesting, fun ideas (most of them, I'm assuming, taken from Gaiman's book, which I have not read). Flying pirates who bottle lightning, telepathic unicorns, witch rivalries, wisecracking ghosts of slaughtered princes, undead swordplay...Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman definitely had the raw materials for at least a passable fantasy-adventure film.

They simply have no idea what to do with them. Any of them. At all. Every one of these concepts, and dozens of other possible avenues for amusement, are squandered, wasted and ignored. At times, such as the atrocious Ricky Gervais cameo, I could tell the movie was trying and failing to be funny. But for much of the film's midsection, there didn't seem to be any jokes at all. Just situations that resemble other films, but don't build to anything. Vaughn's film plods along toward an inevitable storybook conclusion for 2 hours and even its protagonists don't seem to actually care. They just mosey around the wilderness in silly outfits because that's all there is to do in these movies. You walk around, you ride some horses, you discuss prophecies, you have a sword fight and you cash your check. Bada bing, bada bang, bada boom, learn from the pros, kid.

The result is a movie that clearly aimed for the inspired silliness of The Princess Bride or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but plays like a high school production of "Fellowship of the Ring" on opening night. A lot of recognizable characters, scenes and concepts, but jumbled together, performed in an awkward, halting manner and entirely unconvincing.

Okay, so, the set-up...150 years ago, in England, a guy named Tristan (Charlie Cox, the human embodiment of a double Nyquil shot) tries to hit on his cute neighbor Victoria (Sienna Miller) by promising to fetch for her a falling star. She agrees to marry him (this being the 1800's and all) if he can return with the star by her birthday the following week.

So Tristan crosses the magic wall separating England from the magical fantasy-world of Stormhold in search of his star, which itself turns out to be a beautiful lady named Yvaine (Claire Danes). In Stormhold, I guess, stars are not balls of gas at all, but beautiful ladies that hang around in space...but glow. And are magic.

Danes, stepping into the Jeff Bridges role, is really really terrible in this film. (If you laughed at that sentence, Welcome to Dorkville...Population: You). I mean, Yvaine the Star Woman is not by any stretch a sensational role...don't get me wrong...The "rules" governing her behavior and her situation aren't very clear, and thus I found it kind of hard to relate to her. Is it fair to ask an actress to simultaneously play scared, angry and bored? Isn't that kind of contradictory?

Still, Danes could not be more aloof or distant as Yvaine if she were starring in a remake of Persona. For the first half of the film, she's arguing with Tristan despite not appearing to actually be mad, and then she pulls a 180 and falls in love with him without ever once appearing to give a shit. At any point during the film, Yvaine could have said, "This planet sucks, I'm outta here," turned into a star and disappeared forever and it would not have seemed out of place.

I don't know if Gaiman's book made any more sense on this front, but I'm not sure I get what Yvaine is, why she's here or why she's doing what she does. At first, she's focused entirely on returning to outer space or something, but she also craves love, attention and warmth in order to retain her starlike brilliance or whatever.

But this is even more description than you need. I'll keep it simple. She's supposed to be an embodied star, right, that fell from the heavens to earth accidentally when a dying king (Peter O'Toole) tossed his ruby necklace skyward. (I wish I were just rattling this off as a joke, but it's the actual plot of the film). So you'd think that being on Earth would be a new and exciting experience for her, and we'd get some Daryl Hannah in Splash kind of scenes with the mythological woman exploring our familiar world.

But after years of watching Earth from above, Yvaine's entirely nonchalant about being an embodied human on Earth. You'd figure, even if a star knew what Earth was all about, it would be a considerably difference experience to come down here in a woman's body and walk around, meeting people and falling in love and having adventures. Rather than Hannah in Splash, the Danes performance here reminded me of Michael Jordan in Space Jam, who wanders into the Looney Tunes Universe without registering the least inkling of surprise or alarm. "Hey, Bugs Bunny...what are you doin' here?" That's about where Claire Danes is at in this film.

The only character I found even remotely appealing was Witch Queen Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer with some actual relish and personality. The best shot in the film is Lamia's rapid transformation from an old hag into the only somewhat-old Michelle Pfeiffer, which is funny and even kind of sexy. I'll admit, I did wonder why a witch casting a youth spell on herself would turn into the middle-aged version of Michelle Pfeiffer. Shouldn't it have been Fabulous Baker Boys Michelle Pfeiffer? Or even Scarface Michelle Pfeiffer? I mean, we are talking a realm of sorcery and magic. (I'm making fun of Pfeiffer a bit, but she's the only one who really commits to this world and her character, and she gets almost all of the films best little jokes and moments, so I really appreciated her presence. She gets more laughs out of an arched eyebrow than 2 hours of quipping spirits and effeminate sky sailors could muster.)

Anyway, Lamia is after the Star Girl because she wants to cut out her heart and eat it, thus permanently restoring her youth-ish beauty. The last-living son of dead king Peter O'Toole, the evil Septimus (Mark Strong), is after the Star Girl because she's wearing his father's ruby necklace, which he needs in order to establish his rule over Stormhold. Tristan needs the Star Girl so he can prove his love for cruel taskmaster Victoria. And so all manner of poorly-shot swashbuckling, poorly-conceived shenanigans, poorly-written banter and poorly-executed effects sequences ensue.

The effects work, as you can probably tell, really bothered me. Either Vaughn lacked the resources to realize the story as it existed in his head or he doesn't know what the hell he's doing. De Niro's flying pirate ship just looks silly (and particularly unimpressive on the heels of ILM's work on the Pirates franchise). There's none of the scope or majesty of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films (this is much more reminiscent of the forgettable Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe). Lamia's "magic" effects are particularly dire - her outstretched hand oozes a glowing green mist that looks like something out of a "Tales from the Crypt" re-run.

Lamia at one point has a "witches' battle" against Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). I bring up this scene for two reasons. One, it represents a common and peculiar motif of Stardust: showdowns between two antagonists, neither of whom has garnered any sympathy thus far with the audience. Two, Vaughn's finished footage perfectly recreates the dailies from the Harry Potter/Voldemort showdown in Goblet of Fire, before they added the actual effects. Vincent Price and Boris Karloff have a duel in the 1963 Roger Corman-directed comic spin on The Raven, and I swear to you, it looks cooler than the Sal-Lamia faceoff in Stardust.

I had a similar reaction, overall, to Matthew Vaughn's directorial debut, Layer Cake. Not in terms of shoddy effects work, but just the feeling that he was grasping at something considerably out of his depth. Twice now, Vaughn has attempted a recognizable genre (in the case of Layer Cake, the hard-edged British crime film) and rendered it without grace or style, utterly failing to make it his own. This is never a good thing, but working with specific sub-genres that a lot of other directors do particularly well (like dryly funny crime movies or postmodern fantasies), Vaughn's kind of asking for trouble. Perhaps he should start with something less ambitious? This kind of irreverent, idiosyncratic material, straddling the line between children's adventure and satirical comedy for grown-ups, can't be the easiest thing to pull off, and it's only the guy's second film. Perhaps a nice buddy road movie might be more his speed?


Cory said...

nice starman reference!

- Mayor of Dorkville

Anonymous said...

I'm heading back over to AfterElton to thank Brian Juergens for referencing your review.

To mine a cliche: You had me at "I don't know how much they paid Robert De Niro..."

Very articulate and effective review. I'm bookmarking your blog.

Lons said...

I wish it was simpler to leave comments at AfterElton. Brian wrote such an interesting piece on the film, and I wanted to provide some additional insight.

Namely, that Capt. Shakespeare is specifically meant to be gay and not just feminine or a cross-dresser or whatever denial the studio is planning to concoct. There's a shot late in the film where he makes flirtatious googly-eyes at a young man. You know...just in case we didn't get the "joke" earlier...Sigh...

LW said...

I'm very belatedly posting on this blog but only saw the film recently and landed here after a Google search re how embarrassing De Niro's turn was - I was sure others had to have commented on it! You are entirely right that those scenes mar the entire film - the rest of which I thought was, as you said, essentially wasted potentially good ideas. The Pirate Captain character is basically offensive not only to gay people but to anyone who knows gay people, or in fact to anyone with a brain.

LW said...

I should qualify that comment - some of the ideas are obviously naff - necklace in the sky and angel falls, as you say. But there was probably an Ok fantasy film here if it could have been delivered.

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