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:

Tales from Earthsea

Poor Goro. Could there be anything more thankless than taking over a project tailor-made for your genius father, a master of animation renowned for his grace and deep humanity, and attempt to match his best work? When it was announced that Goro Miyazaki, son of anime legend Hayao, was directing the adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin‘s Earthsea novels, you didn’t have to be Yubaba the Witch to know that it would end in tears.

Read the rest of my review of Tales from Earthsea at About.com.

Gedo senki. Goro Miyazaki, 2006. **

Pan's Labyrinth – Director's Commentary

Plenty of DVD commentaries are happy to dispense self-aggrandizing anecdotes or reveal information that permanently damages the viewing experience (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson.) Instead, Guillermo del Toro talks about storytelling concerns, structure, framing, staging, color choices, sound design, edits, references and symbolism — in other words, the where and why of creative decisions that make up Pan’s Labyrinth.

If you’re one of the people who sort of liked the movie but ultimately didn’t quite know what to make of its blend of fantasy and brutal historical reality, this track should clear up some of your questions. If you recognized it for the instant classic it is, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the care and depth of thought that went into it. Together with Francis Ford Coppola‘s Godfather track, this is one of the best director’s commentaries I’ve heard.

El Laberinto del fauno. Guillermo del Toro, 2006. *****

Night Watch

Fox Searchlight somewhat helpfully included a defective DVD of the first movie with their schwag bag for Day Watch (along with small size t-shirts and an astronaut sew-on patch for Sunshine). Skippy or not, Night Watch was difficult to sit through. I expected more of Timur Bekmambetov’s flashy Matrix-in-Moscow stylings, but this first movie of the trilogy is a lot darker and duller than its sequel. Vampires, swirling clouds of crows, ancient battles, youngsters who face fateful choices and other stock fantasy elements meet in a Russian setting, but Night Watch has a first-act feel to: things are set up but nothing generates much heat. Day Watch is a significantly more exciting movie, but I doubt it would have made any more sense if I’d seen them in order.

Nochnoy dozor. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004. *

Day Watch

The second installment of the horror-fantasy trilogy that famously outgrossed The Lord of the Rings in its native Russia, Day Watch stages a timeless war between good and evil in the snowed-in streets of contemporary Moscow.

Edited in the high ADD style of the commercials and music videos director Timur Bekmambetov cut his teeth on, Day Watch heaps on fantastic concepts: “Light” and “Dark” “Others” duck in and out of “second-level gloom” while they try to preserve the “Truce” and hunt for the “Chalk of Destiny” and evade the “Inquisition.” “Great Others” chase each other with modified flash lights, somebody drives a car along the facade of the Kosmos Hotel, and sex change magic leads to some mild humor and a hilariously gratuitous girl-on-girl shower scene.

Day Watch sports a fast and exciting surface, but none of it makes a lick of sense. Bekmambetov seems to be making up the contradictory rules of his supernatural universe as he goes along–cardboard characters with mysterious powers can turn around airplanes in midflight and are said to trigger the apocalypse at the drop of a magic rubber ball, but there is no apparent interior logic to the mayhem. It’s obvious why the Matrix-in-Moscow aesthetic pleased Russian audiences; it remains to be seen if the inventively animated subtitles are enough to keep the American mainstream interested. Opens July 11.

Dnevnoy dozor. Timur Bekmambetov, 2006. **

The trailer: