December 28, 2007

DVD Review: Stardust

Fantasy films are a hard sell. You are asking the audience to suspend disbelief to a greater degree than your standard romcom or action flick; even then, if the title doesn't include the words Harry, Lord, or Narnia, forget about it, you aren't going anywhere. A good example of this would be the recent big screen debut of The Golden Compass. Sure, it was the top box office hit of the weekend but it was well below expectations and is fading fast. Then again, The Golden Compass really wasn't all that good. Perhaps a better example of this, with a good film at its center, would be Stardust, that is, after all, what this review is about. Here is a movie that was largely ignored at the box office, but it is so good that I hope that it finds an audience now that it is on store shelves.

When Stardust arrived this past August, it was like a breath of fresh air. It arrived as counter programming in the waning summer season, Transformers was still hot, The Bourne Ultimatum was making a splash, The Simpson was showing its legs, and Rush Hour 3 was making its presence known. Do you see a trend there? Stardust was of a decidedly different lineage than those other films. While those other films, by and large played to a large segment of the populace, Stardust stood out as this weird little oddity that no one knew much about. Now this is not a comment on the quality of those other films, as most of them were good if not excellent. It is just they belong to the blockbuster type of film that were targeted at a wider segment of the population. Stardust was of a mindset that had lower expectations, although its quality screamed for more. It was saddled with an advertising campaign that did not hit hard enough and did not give a terribly good idea of what it was about. I remember walking into the theater knowing it was a fantasy film, but beyond that, forget it.

By now, I am sure you are wondering just what makes Stardust so great? Well, those of you who haven't seen it anyway. Let me give you the short answer, it just is. Not good enough?

Stardust presents a world full of magical whimsy, high adventure, and romance. It strips away the seriousness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and does not get into the serialized nature of the Harry Potter franchise. Rather than bring to mind those recent films, it is better to look about twenty years into the past for its nearest kin. That's right, the film draws favorable comparisons to The Princess Bride. While the relationship is apt, do not think of Stardust as The Princess Bride Part 2, it is more of a tonal relationship.

Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), along with co-writer Jane Goldman, took the original story by Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Mirrormask, Beowulf) and created a magical film world that takes a number of plot threads and weaves them all together into an adventurous tapestry that is sure to put a smile on your face and a sense of wonder in your heart.

The plot consists of a group of smaller tales that slowly come together to reveal the bigger picture. The central tale concerns a shopboy named Tristan (Charlie Cox). He is in love with a young woman named Victoria (Sienna Miller). The problem is that she is rather self-absorbed and in a relationship with another suitor, a snobbish fellow named Humphrey (Henry Cavill). One night Tristan makes a last ditch effort to win her affections. While sitting under the stars, Tristan and Victoria see a star fall from the sky. He vows to find the celestial debris and bring it to her as a sign of his love, and his adventure begins.

His journey to find the star weaves together with a trio of witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) seeking the heart of the fallen star, personified by Claire Danes. You see, the heart of a star can restore the witches' youth almost indefinitely, making it a hot commodity. There is a third story concerning the rivalry of the King's (Peter O'Toole) sons as they try to knock each other off for the crown. To that end, they are pursuing a ruby necklace that knocked the star from the heavens in the first place and is now carried around her neck.

It is a masterful trilogy of stories. Each is well developed and none overstay their welcome. Also, while each has a different reason for being, they all focus on the fallen star. They dovetail nicely as we arrive at the climax. No thread is left behind.

This doesn't even begin to touch on the separation of the real world and the magical one, nor of the sky pirate played by Robert Deniro. Nor does it touch on magic candles, enchanted chains, or the level of romance. There is a lot to watch and a lot to absorb, but not so much as to be confusing. Everything in its place.

Audio/Video. The anamorphic widescreen looks quite good. The colors are sharp, there is nice separation, and no artifact problems. Absolutely nothing to complain about, and I hear the high definition release looks spectacular. The audio is just as good. It is almost pointless to review the tech aspects as it is rare that a release comes out with subpar specs.

Extras. There are a a couple of extras here, I just wish there were more.
  • Good Omens: The Making of Stardust. This featurette covers a lot of ground, from the original creation, to the adaptation, to casting, to shooting, to effects. It is quite good and more than a fluff piece, while retaining an entertainment factor. (30 minutes)
  • Blooper Reel. This contains your usual flubbed lines and actors breaking out in laughter. (5.5 minutes)
  • Deleted Scenes. Nothing terribly special, although there is a funny scene with the ghost brothers at Yvaine's crater, and some are just different versions of what appears in the film. (5.5 minutes)

Bottomline. Stardust has the feel of a timeless fantasy tale. It is smart, intriguing, and creates a new world filled with visual wonders. I was caught off guard, in a good way. It is a nice feeling to walk in without a clue of what to expect and leave with a grin plastered on your face and now be able to relive it on DVD, where its effect has not diminished in the least. If anything, it may even be more enjoyable.

Highly Recommended.


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