Friday, December 14, 2007

Leave your Daemon at the door - GOLDEN COMPASS - reviewed!

All hail the almighty weekend - coming in all its glory in a mere matter of hours.

Man, I am only mildly excited to see I AM LEGEND. I love the concept but am very skeptical of Will Smith-led action movies. Sure, like everyone else I loved Big Willie in Independence Day ... when I was twelve (okay I still love that movie, who am I kidding). But the one that really soured me on him was I, ROBOT, which could have been an awesome movie if it had not been injected with liberal doses of Will Smith as Will Smith, complete with obligatory "aww, HELL naw!" But, that being said ... I am dyin' to see I Am Legend In IMAX, simply for the opportunity to see the first six minutes of DARK KNIGHT that is playing along with the IMAX cut. I mean, holy kickass trailer, Batman, I am so onboard for this thing. Regular readers of the blog that few things cause me to geek out more than Batman, and after this week's torrent of DK-related info, from new posters to the promise of six minutes of Bat-riffic footage (set to feature Heath Ledger as THE JOKER offing none other than WILLIAM FICHTNER!). Yes, I am basically frothing at the mouth to see anything Dark Knight at this point ...

But this week, I did catch a much-hyped movie of a different sort ... so, here's my review ...


- This has been an interesting time for the big-budget fantasy film. Since the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a number of contenders have cropped up looking to capitalize on the resounding success of that superlative franchise. However, while a few of these fantasy films have really worked, a number have faltered, and it seems like a lot of directors are having little trouble translating the visuals to screen, but a lot of problems adapting the dense narratives and complex fantasy worlds that the source material creates. I thought that, overall, The Lion, The witch, and the Wardrobe did a nice job of bringing CS Lewis' book to the screen, and I eagerly anticipate future entries in the Narnai franchise. Another excellent fantasy film came this year in the form of Stardust, which was a bit messy at times but as a whole was a highly imaginative and fun movie.

Now we have The Golden Compass ... My impressions are that, somewhere buried within the theatrical cut of this movie may in fact be one hell of a film. All of the ingredients are there - a great cast, some awe-inspiring visuals, and a number of interesting underlying concepts. However, the edits make for a movie that is ultimately confusing and hard to follow. Characters are introduced abruptly, ideas quickly explained without being fully fleshed-out, and, in the end, the world of The Golden Compass, which I imagine to be fully-realized in the books, here feels as though the surface has barely been scratched. I guess what I'm saying is - I came out of the film intrigued by this world I had just visited, but without ever having felt fully immersed in it.

First, let me run through some of what made this movie really click on certain levels. For one, there's a lot of cool ideas at play here. In this world, for example, all people have little animal familiars that follow them around called "daemons." When you're a child, your daemon is constantly changing shapes to match your mood / personality of the moment, but when you're an adult, your daemon becomes fixed and no longer changes. The daemons apparently are the vessels which house a person's soul, so removing a person from their daemon is akin to stripping them of their very essence. And that, of course, is exactly what an evil governing body wants to do - they've been capturing kids from across the land and performing tortorous experiments that aim to strip them of their daemons. Why? Well, the religious subtext is tha the daemons represent a kind of free will / original sin / individuality. By removing that, well, then there's nothing to stop the evil ruling body from being even more all-powerful than they already are. The daemons are one concept that the movie handles really well both visually and narratively - it's a really unique idea that makes the world of The Golden Compass unique and distinct from its fantasy peers.

However, many other facets of this world do not fare as well. Of course, there's been a huge amount of discussion about the religious subtexts of the books and film - it it anti-Catholic? Geez, I haven't read the books but this movie is about as tame as can be, in my opinion, to its own detriment. Sure, you could equate the Magistarium with the Church - but that would pretty much be all your own inference. Here, they are no different from The Empire in Star Wars, Big Brother, etc - any typical ruling body that wants totalitarian control over its subjects. If anything, I'd almost like to see more ties to real-world religion a la Narnia, as it makes for an interesting dichotomy to have fantasy mixed with established religious mythology. But here, the Magistarium feels woefully one-dimensional. Who are they and what do they want?

It's a problem that plagues a lot of The Golden Compass. In a film like Stardust, that plays more fast and loose with its concepts, its enough to say - oh, of course, sky pirates! - and just accept it as another crazy aspect of this universe. But the way The Golden Compass is set up - it's done in a way where you feel there ARE complex backstories and origins behind all of thes concepts and characters, yet we're simply not getting them.

I mean, I'll talk more about him in a bit - but Sam Elliot as a heroic cowboy ... I mean, he's awesome - it's Sam Elliot as a badass cowboy, for crying out loud. But, um ... why is there a sterotypical American cowboy in this world? Who IS this guy? It's like we're just meant to accept him and move on. But in a world where there seem to be complex rules and backstories for everyone and everything, the idea that we should just meet this cowboy and accept that he's on board for the long haul, it just seems like things were rushed and that w'ere missing key information.

The movie tends to gallop from one character to another, from one plot point to the next. and it's a ll a bit much to take in. I mean, at one point, we see Nicloe Kidman's character recruit our young heroinne, Lyra, to accompany her on an important mission. Lyra seems to eagerly volunteer. But within moments, the implication is that Lyra has been kidnapped and forced to go against her will, and I never caught any explanation for the sudden shift in Lyra's view of her journey. Like I said, this is a very jumpy movie, and it seems to throw a ton of stuff at the viewer without much context or explanation.

I mean, in the world of the Golden Compass, there are witches, one of whom is played by Eva Green, and who seems to be a force for good. At one point though, Sam Elliot looks up at the sky, sees a ton of witches flying around (great visual), and ominously seems to indicate that whoever they are after is screwed. So are they good? Evil? Later on though, the swarm of witches arrives as the cavalry in a climactic battle, kicking ass with their magic left and right. Cool, right? But, um, I had no idea how to feel about any of this, since I never got ANY idea who these witches were or why I should care about them other than the fact that they look cool.

So what you end up with is a collection of cool moments that don't exactly add up to a cohesive epic like they should. Still, the movie is really elevated by a terrific cast. I mean, man, this movie is overflowing with talent. Christopher Lee of all people appears for like one minute - I mean, if you're trying to get quality actors for bit parts, you can't go much better. Lee's Lord of the Rings counterpart, Ian McKellan, does the voice of a badass, exiled Polar Bear king who throughout the course of the movie tries to reclaim his throne. Yes, you heard me, and yes, the polar bears in this movie kick all kinds of ass. A lot of time and care seems to have been spent on 'em, and the one-on-one bear-on-bear smackdown brawl that occurs midway through the film is truly great -- an exciting action scene that at the same time slows down and FOCUSES and draws you in - something that can't be said for much of the movie. In any case, McKellan is great as always with his vocal work here. Nicole Kidman does a nice job as a cold, conniving agent of the Magistarium. Again, she is just kind of there as a femme fatale without much baclground or context. When a particularly interesting revelation about her relationship to Lyra is dropped, it's kind of a "meh" monet, because while it's fun to watch her be evil, we never are really invested in hercharactr one way or the other. Same goes for Daniel Craig - he makes a promising entrance as an adventurous, somewhat rebellious uncle to Lyra, but then drops off the map. We know he SHOULD be important, but I'm still nto sure why we're supposed to care about him, except that he is tracking the secret origins of something called "Dust." Unlike the daemons, Dust, magic particles that fall from the sky. that have something to do with other worlds and dimensions, is a VERY vague concept here which we leave this movie knowing next to nothing about.

Despite some weak characterization, this is certainly a VERY fun cast to watch. Kidman, Craig, etc all light up the screen even if we're eventually left wondering what's up with their characters. Sam Elliot, like I said, purely kickass here, playing a cowboy as only he can. Why his character exists is a bit of a puzzle, but most of the time, let's be honest, we just want to hear Elliot say cool-sounding cowboy-things, shoot up some varmints, and do that mustache-twitch thing.

Really though, the brunt of the movie is carried by a twelve year old girl. Dakota Richards is simply great as Lyra, and from the get-go is a different tpe of young heroinne than what we're used to seeing in these types of films. She's a good guy, the hero of the saga, sure. But she's a sly one - clever, a bit manipulative, and almost unnervingly adept at concocting truthful-sounding lies. Richards does a great job here, and its constantly fun and exciting to follow Lyra on her adventures.

Visually - again this is a pretty great-looking movie. The production design is amazing, and everything looks cool as hell for the most part. The polar bears in particular are tons of fun, and the odd mix of Victorian steam-punk with more traiditonal fantasy and mythological elements make for a constant feast for the eyes. And really, the SPIRIT of high fantasy and adventure is here - like I said, underneath all the jumble is, somewhere, a really great film. But this is a jumbled movie, messy, and incomplete-feeling, and that doesn't really help with the fact that the ending is extremely abrupt and essentially a big fat "tune-in next time for the thrilling second chapter!" It leaves you with a bit of a bad taste, because this movie felt like it should have set up everything for Part 2 but, really, we are just left with a ton of questions - very little was actually set up. Overall though, I enjoyed the movie and am curious about potential sequels - the strength of the cast alone means that a Part 2 has many of the necessary elements to be great. But as for Part 1, well, good, but not quite golden.

My Grade: B


- Alright, I'm out for now. Have a great weekend.

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