The Golden Compass

Almost serviceable fantasy adventure based on the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. On the plus side, some nifty ideas (people’s souls walk next to them in animal, or “daemon”, form), spiffy Victorian/steampunk designs, icy Nicole Kidman, and in the lead, an adorable girl (Dakota Blue Richards) with Sarah Polley eyes, trying to save her kidnapped brother. On the down side, it all feels terribly derivative, and most of the CGI isn’t up to 2007 standards — the roar and clang of a climactic ice bear smackdown had the theater cheering but the daemons especially look lousy.

Eva Green descends on a vibrating broomstick to spout fantasy gobbledigook, Sam Elliot and Daniel Craig don’t have much to do, and once you get past the peculiar specifics of Pullman’s world, the story never strays from familiar hero’s journey territory. One key moment is lifted directly from The Empire Strikes Back, a final battle restages Minas Tirith without any emotional investment, and the strained farewell doesn’t have half the rousing ring of the Sam Gamgee speeches it’s trying to emulate. Some of us thought it was a bathroom break, not the ending. There’s just enough talk of religion, authority, and free will to get me curious about the books’ purported atheist attitudes. Opens December 7.

The Golden Compass. Chris Weitz, 2007. **

The trailer:

The Orphanage

From Spain comes an incredibly spooky ghost story by first-time director Juan Antonio Bayona. The Orphanage, produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) was just selected as the country’s entry for the foreign film Oscar. Belén Rueda and Fernando Cayo play a couple who move into an old mansion with their adopted son — who has imaginary friends who may be all too real….

Read my review of The Orphanage on About.com

El Orfanato. Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007. ***

The trailer:

Joshua

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A thriller about the horrors of parenthood, Joshua takes its cues from the tradition of The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, and Poltergeist. In a spacious apartment overlooking Central Park, a family celebrates the arrival of their second child. Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) are squabbling with her mother-in-law (Celia Weston) while Uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts) plays a piano duet with nine-year-old Joshua (Jacob Cogan). But when Ned launches into “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” Joshua throws up all over the fancy Fifth Avenue carpet. Projectile vomiting: check.

You see, Joshua prefers the melancholy music of Béla Bartók, and unlike his scruffy, affable dad, he wears his hair in a neat part. To his mother’s distress, he is fond of embalming his teddy bear, and at night he creeps around corners and pops up behind the closing doors of the stainless-steel refrigerator. Spooky children staring down darkened hallways and pressing their noses against TV screens showing static: check.

To build its oppressive atmosphere of dread, Joshua, directed by George Ratliff and written by Ratliff and David Gilbert, relies on borrowed imagery, but snappy dialogue and memorable acting help to update genre cliches to the present. The film offers apt observations about the fears and anxieties of upper-class parents circa 2007, and especially Farmiga (wasted in The Departed) puts a contemporary face on the fearful mother beset by a screaming baby, meddling in-laws, ever-present construction noise, and the alarmingly intelligent first child who appears to threaten her entire adult existence.

I’ll gladly confess that Joshua had me in its grip for most of its running time. The film provides an involving experience while it lasts, but the payoff is less than satisfying. Without spoiling it, all I can say is that Joshua doesn’t resolve so much as simply end, and the story does not hold up to much retrospection. What must have looked like a clever idea on paper turns brittle on screen, and our willing suspension of disbelief goes unrewarded. Little Joshua will never haunt our dreams like Damien or the lost child from Don’t Look Now.

Joshua. George Ratliff, 2007. **

Joshua
is slated for release on July 6. Here’s the trailer:

Charlotte's Web

Even after more than a decade in the US, strange little pockets of culture shock remain. Americans can’t possibly believe I’ve never seen a single episode of Gilligan’s Island or Three’s Company. (I counter with Augsburger Puppenkiste and Asterix.) Charlotte’s Web, the children’s story by E.B. White, is another blind spot in my education–or it was, until this new film version came along, starring adorable Dakota Fanning, slick CGI, and voices by Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Bates, Thomas Haden Church, and Robert Redford.

As far as stories about swine go, the barnyard Bildungsroman about Wilbur the spring pig and his unlikely friendship with a spider never reaches the lofty heights of Babe II: Pig in the City. The Danny Elfman score is laid on much too thick, and the ending suffers from a few too many sentimental speeches. But Charlotte’s Web is sweet and fun, and there are some very clever lines. When was the last time you saw a movie that raises the narrative question of whether or not the pig is going to spit out the spider’s egg sack the rat brought over? The moral of the tale: “It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

Charlotte’s Web. Gary Winick, 2006. ***

Bonus: Euro Nostalgia
YouTube is dominated by the new CGI Urmel aus dem Eis, so instead, here’s a delightfully trashy techno remix of the Jim Knopf theme, “Eine Insel mit zwei Bergen.” No German my age can resist this stuff. Die Wilde 13 was always my favorite.



The Devil's Backbone

Even the Academy has figured out that Pan’s Labyrinth is destined to be a classic (it’s exceedingly rare that anything with subtitles plays at Kaufman Astoria), and so we’ve been digging back through Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography. Hellboy and Blade 2 aren’t as good as the fanboys would have you believe, and my memories of Cronos are pretty hazy–but this film is very, very good on its own terms and obviously a stepping stone to the grander, more archetypal Pan’s Labyrinth.

Part Pan’s, part Empire of the Sun, part Lord of the Flies, The Devil’s Backbone is set in a boy’s orphanage during the Spanish Civil war. There’s anti-fascist gold, budding artists, tragic love, a Dumbledore who can’t get it up, and a ghost that spills clouds of blood from his fractured skull. Del Toro’s fertile imagination creates scene after haunting scene, and the film is full of proto-Pan images that are still worth absorbing in retrospect, such as the unexploded bomb that sits in the center of the schoolyard like a freeze-frame from the last page of Gravity’s Rainbow.

El Espinazo del diablo. Guillermo del Toro, 2001. ****

[tags]guillermo del toro, 4 stars, film, spain, war, children, orphans, ghosts, bombs, gravitys rainbow[/tags]