Stardust (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one of his favourite underseen films of the last 5 years...
Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), is a lowly shop boy with an affection for the prettiest girl in the town of Wall, Victoria Forester (Sienna Miller). Victoria has more or less zero interest in Tristan, but does agree to a midnight picnic, which he doesn’t his best to woo her. Meanwhile, on the other side of the magical wall, the King of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole) lies on his death bed. Traditionally the last living son is given the crown, but the King’s seven sons haven’t managed to completely off each other, leaving three possible heirs. The King releases a magical jewel into the sky, which the remaining brothers are meant to find to capture control of the country. Unfortunately the jewel hits a star, and she’s knocked violently to Earth. Tristan and Victoria see the star as it falls, and Tristan swears to journey beyond the wall to bring the star back to Victoria for her birthday. The fallen star doesn’t go unnoticed by three evil witches in Stormhold, who need to devour the star’s heart to continue their everlasting life and beauty. Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), the defacto leader of the three witches takes the final dose of their last fallen star, and joins the chase.
It’s seldom at this point in my movie watching life (we’re pretty much talking one a day since high school) that I’m surprised when my basic assumptions, based usual on trailers, are proven entirely wrong. Stardust might be the single biggest surprise I’ve ever had, since not only was it quite good, it’s become one of my favourite films altogether. Comparisons to The Princess Bride are in my opinion quite valid, and the more time goes by, the more I’m placing Matthew Vaughn’s film ahead of Rob Reiner’s. Stardust pours wit, oozes affecting romance, and feature some of the most satisfying stylized over-acting since the cob-web caked hay day of Hammer Films. I guess this is a good time to warn you I might be overselling the film because of personal expectations.
Vaughn came to the project, based on fantasy favourite Neil Gaiman’s, after shooting his first film as director – Layer Cake (though he had a big production roll on Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and [/i]Snatch[/i]). All three of Vaughn’s feature films – Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick Ass – appear to have very little in common on genre levels, but feel like part of one whole when taking Vaughn’s trademarks and tones into account. Layer Cake is overall pretty serious, but takes time for ironic humour, and flows like a zesty Michael Mann movie. Stardust doesn’t feature the same level threat of violence, but the witty banter and overall tone are quite similar. Kick Ass is somewhat a mix of the bright eyed enthusiasm of Stardust, the sobering violence of Layer Cake. All three films are also somewhere at the base of their being statements on other films. Vaughn is developing his own means of filmic montage, and his voice should stand out from the dozens of Taratino clones that don’t really get what filmmakers like Godard, Fellini and (most pertinently) Sergio Leone were trying to do. It’s far too early to tell if Vaughn picks it up to Oscar contender status, but so far he’s excelling if extremely different genres, and sneaking in little sign post for us film geeks.
Stylistically speaking there’s no doubting Vaughn affection for Terry Gilliam’s look, and sense of fantasy scope. There’s a lot of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen mixed in the visual stew. This affection not only refers to the film’s visuals, but the character interaction and witty repartee match on a similar level, though they’re slightly filtered by more modern British comedic sensibilities ( The Office, Hot Fuzz, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). Vaughn fails to quite live up to Gilliam’s sense of extraneous detail, and the special effects work is pretty rocky the whole film. But in terms of pacing, winding up the suspenseful elements, and selling the romance to a skeptic like myself, the director acts as a man with ten times experience. Despite Vaughn’s gargantuan efforts in achieving the perfect tone and look (with a moderately modest $88.5 million), much of the praise should be placed on author Neil Gaiman’s shoulders. Stardust puts a modern spin on traditional fairy tales without kitching anything up ala Julie Taymore. Surely it is a predicable story, as are most of the fairy tale tropes Gaiman’s invoking, but there’s still an originality to the film’s universe, and the sense of this particular tale having existed and passed down forever.
The cast is wonderful as well, and patches up the middling special effects, and occasionally extraneous plotting. You know your cast is clicking when Robert Deniro is the odd man out, though his character isn’t really one for subtlety I suppose (and I did still very much enjoy his performance, especially on additional viewings). The leads are as delightful while they banter, as when they woo, and the supporting players, including a troop of British favs, many from the Guy Ritchie films Vaughn helped produce, supply that perfect dry wit, never overstepping into unnecessary satire. But the really great, should’ve been nominated for something performance comes from Pfeiffer who runs a wide gamut without ever becoming a different character. Her performance is huge, but perfectly pitched.
This marks my third copy of Stardust, which already looked pretty good on standard edition DVD. This Blu-ray looks more or less exactly the same as the HDDVD. Vaughn and cinematographer Ben Davis opt for an overall soft, candle-lit look, but never for a single style. The palette changes consistantantly moving from soft golds, to lush greens, to cool blues. The transfer’s finest moments are in the busier shots of the fair, the yellow insides of Ditchwater Sal’s coach, and the intricate confines of the witch’s castle. Details are sharp enough with very minimal edge-enhancement, colours are thick, and blend or stand against each other when needed. The black levels are especially impressive too, considering all the many varying shades that make such a pure performance. Dirt is a non-issue, while grain remains almost non-existent throughout.
Visually this Blu-ray and the original HDDVD pretty much match, but the difference between the old Dolby Digital Plus track and this new DTS-HD Master Audio disc is pretty massive. Stardust doesn’t immeadiatly strike as an effects heavy production, but there’s quite a bit going on in terms of sonic attack. There are horses trotting, magical powers, not to mention some huge thunder and lightning effects. The scene where our heroes are first introduced to airships and lightning catching is quite the aural experience. One major mark up from the old Dolby Plus soundtrack is Ilan Eshkeri’s whimsical musical score. This time around the low end is just a tad richer, the spread a tad wider, and generally higher in fidelity. Ian McKellen’s voice-over narration also bellows stronger over the front three channels.
There isn’t much new in terms of special features, except, apparently a new (it’s not listed on my HDDVD copy) commentary track featuring Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman’s commentary track. The track starts pretty slowly, with a few nervous comments and a lot of blank space. Things don’t pick up too much from there, discussing some of the deleted elements, gushing all over the actors, delving into some of the technical aspects of filmmaking on a modest budget. Frankly it’s a pretty dull, and unengaging listen from two of the most exciting filmmakers working today, and thus a pretty big disappointment.
‘Crossing the Wall’ (HD) is a five part featurette/EPK covering the project’s origins with Neil Gaiman’s book, the filmmakers’ efforts to adapt the book, production and art design, casting, locations shooting, set construction, stunts, and digital and practical effects. ‘Nothing is True’ (10:10, HD, which was on the DVD I believe) is a charming journey around the sets and backlot with an adorably bemused Neil Gaiman, and Charles Vess (the original novel’s illustrator). Next up are five deleted scenes (SD, 5:30), a rather funny blooper reel, and the original theatrical trailer.
I don’t know if Stardust is ever going to find the audience it deserves outside Neil Gaiman’s circle of fan boys and girls, but I mark it amongst the finest romantic comedies of the last decade, and could watch it on just about any occasion. It’s a beautiful, funny, and swash-buckling adventure that really begs a bigger audience. This Blu-ray release doesn’t look any better than the HDDVD release, but I have no complaints, and there’s simply no comparison between the compressed Dolby Digital Plus HDDVD, and this new DTS-HD Master Audio track. Extras are the same as well, but the audio upgrade may be worth the upgrade for those with decent sound systems. The rest of you should just buy this release to have a great movie in you collection.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 7th September 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, German, French, Italian
Subtitles: English SDH, Danish, German, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, French, Italian. Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Finish, Swedish
Extras: Writer and Director commentary, Crossing the Wall, Nothing is True..., 5 Deleted Scenes, Blooper Reel, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Peter O'Toole
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy and Romance
Length: 127 minutes
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