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

Gedo senki. Goro Miyazaki, 2006. **

In Brief

We’re about to embark on a longish trip, so expect the emphasis on muckworld to shift to photos and tidbits from the road for a little while. While we’re packing our bags and staying on the line with our cell phone providers to work out the kinks in the international roaming plan, let me catch up with last week’s viewing:

Children of Men
The incredible long takes at the heart of this film look slightly less impressive on the small screen, but there can be no doubt that it’s one hell of a movie. Stories set in alternate realities often rely heavily on Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, probably because the familiar stations of the Hero’s Journey allow us to better absorb the unfamiliar world surrounding it. Children of Men is a particularly potent example, a fully realized dystopia in which hope is hard won indeed. In honor of Theo’s ongoing footwear problems, here’s Cavern, which features one of the truest lines you’ll ever find in a rock song: “Whatever you do / take care of your shoes.” Alfonso Cuaron, 2006. *****

Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe’s sweetly romanticized memories of his early days as rock critic are anything but dystopian, but William Miller’s adventures with Miss Penny Lane and Stillwater are yet another Hero’s Journey, with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs taking over the Magician/Hermit role that Michael Caine plays in Children of Men. It’s one of those movies I find impossible to turn off, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Cameron Crowe, 2000. *****

Poorly paced and predictably told, this movie about teenagers in a performing arts summer camp failed to engage us. Todd Graff, 2003. *

The Gymnast
Feel the fabric! Wolfe Video is releasing this festival favorite about two aging gymnasts who find love while they’re swinging from the rafters. As much as I want to like true independent films like this, you’re bound to be underwhelmed unless you’re particularly fascinated by the world of gay aerialists. Ned Farr, 2006. **

Follow My Voice
Portrait of a group of gay teenagers at the Harvey Milk School in New York who are the beneficiaries of a cover album of Hedwig songs. With Frank Black, the Polyphonic Spree, Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Richman and John Cameron Mitchell. Earnest and likable, if overlong. Katherine Linton, 2006. ***

2 Days in Paris
The less said about Julie Delpy’s dreadful directorial debut the better. Julie Delpy, 2007. *

The second book of Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age graphic novel memoir doesn’t quite have the impact of the first (which is set in Iran), but anybody who has ever suffered culture shock will find plenty to recognize and love. I’m very much looking forward to the movie. ****

In the Shadow of the Moon
The real wonder here isn’t the Apollo program or the digitally restored footage from the NASA vaults, but the spirited and witty memories of the septuagenarian astronauts telling their unique stories. I’ll have a review by the time this opens on September 7. David Sington, 2006. ***

The Devil Wears Prada

This heroine’s journey through the world of high-powered New York fashion is as much a genre fantasy as the Harry Potter books Andy (Anne Hathaway) is sent to procure–with Sixth Avenue instead of Hogwarts, gay Stanley Tucci as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Paris for Mordor. The humor has some snap but the storytelling is painfully obvious, the costumes were better in Lord of the Rings, and it’s all staged according to the most tired TV conventions. Meryl Streep was funnier when she stole a ham. That’s all.

The Devil Wears Prada. David Frankel, 2006. **

[tags]meryl streep, anne hathaway, emily blunt, stanley tucci, david frankel, prada, nyc, fashion, heros journey, harry potter[/tags]

Dune: Extended Edition

The arcana that led to this 177 minute recut of David Lynch’s scifi adaptation are somewhat hard to follow, but apparently, nobody’s too happy with it. Lynch took his name off, and the fans are waiting for some sort of mythical four-hour version that was only screened once. I haven’t seen the 137 minute original since it came out, but those 40 minutes couldn’t fix or ruin what’s wrong with this movie. The wood-paneled gothic future production design is pretty sweet, some of the imagery is vintage Lynch, but the special effects are awful and after a decent setup, Dune unravels in the second and third acts.

Frank Herbert fans won’t like hearing this, but part of the problem is the source material. What’s great about Dune is the world building–Herbert’s universe is fascinating, but the story itself, Paul’s hero’s journey, isn’t all that interesting. It’s rendered as a series of tests: a knife fight with Patrick Steward, a witch with a poison dart, a flying poison dart, drinking the water of life, riding a giant sand worm, etc etc, and finally another knife fight with, of all people, Sting. (The sequels are stuffed with great ideas, too, but almost all of the plots are awful.) In Dune, everything after the Duke’s death feels like denouement.

And since I’m still consulting it daily, here’s what Lynch says about Dune in Catching the Big Fish:

When I made Dune, I didn’t have final cut. It was a huge, huge sadness, because I felt I had sold out and the film was a failure at the box office on top of that. If you do what you believe in, and you have a failure, that’s one thing: you can still live with yourself. But if you don’t, it’s dying twice. It’s very, very painful. […] The filmmaker should decide on every single element, every single world, every single sound, every single thing going down that highway through time. Otherwise, it won’t hold together. The film may suck, but at least you made it suck on your own. So to me, Dune was a huge failure. I knew I was getting into trouble when I agreed not to have final cut. I was hoping it would work out, but it didn’t. The end result is not what I wanted, and that’s a sadness.

Dune: Extended Edition. Alan Smithee, 1984. **

[tags]film, david lynch, 2 stars, alan smithee, scifi, frank herbert, dune, final cut, kyle maclachlan, brad dourif, virginia madsen, jurgen prochnow, toto, brian eno, heros journey[/tags]