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:



Robert Zemeckis’ high-tech “performance capture” adaptation of the Old English poem turns actors–Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie–into rubbery action figures. Only Crispin Glover, covered in a disgusting, festering texture, manages to infuse some sort of twisted soul into his Grendel. I saw this in 3-D, which is sorta groovy if you’ve taken some preventive aspirin, but it also further increases the sense of artificiality. The action sequences have all the excitement of a video game cut scene.

Beowulf is only one of a slew of recent movies that wouldn’t have been possible without The Lord of the Rings, and Zemeckis lifts dozens of shots directly from Peter Jackson. Of course, Tolkien in turn would be unthinkable without the Anglo-Saxon poem — and so we come full circle.

Long ago, in the Age of Heroes, I wrote an essay about “hyperfiction” that used the cheap carnival effects of early 3-D movies as metaphor for the teething troubles of a new form. I was tickled to see that even at this late stage, 3-D still means “Poles in Your Face,” along with all manners of swords, naked torsos, dripping saliva, and flaming arrows. It’s true that Neil Gaiman’s script manages to put a somewhat interesting spin on the original epic, but first and foremost, Beowulf is self-satisfied spectacle. I’d rather play God of War. Opens Friday.

Beowulf. Robert Zemeckis, 2007. **

Elizabeth: The Golden Age


In anticipation of the sequel, Marcy and I rewatched the original 1998 movie, a solid historical drama with a healthy Godfather finish and an astounding performance by Cate Blanchett. The new film, also directed by Shekhar Kapur, picks up the story where it left off and sees the Virgin Queen through to the defeat of the Armada in 1588. As spymaster Walsingham, Geoffrey Rush is once again trying to outplot the Spanish. Abbie Cornish plays the maid with the bursting bodice who has the “ear of the Queen” and makes love in front of sundry fireplaces. Samantha Morton gets to stick her neck out as Mary, Queen of Scots. And Elizabeth once again suffers for her country, unable to pick a husband or escape — like Helen Mirren’s QEII — from the constraints of her office.

Yes, there’s a good deal of soap opera in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but by the time the fire ships appear, this movie has become something quite different. The beacons of England are lit (cf. Return of the King), a CGI fleet is tossed about in a storm (cf. 300), the Queen harangues the troops on a coiffed horse, and Clive Owen, as the raffish pirate Sir Walter Raleigh, does some honest-to-god swashbuckling. Forget the soap: we have reached the emotional pitch of opera.

Kapur’s sweeping spectacle forgoes all musty pretensions of middle-brow edutainment, and if you expected a history lesson you’ll emerge from the theater deaf and dumb. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the work of a director who is intoxicated with the power of cinema, and as an aficionado of Revenge of the Sith, I felt right at home in his world. Visually, it’s as overstuffed as any of the Star Wars prequels, bombarding us with new colors, angles, sweeping vistas, and scenery-chewing performances. The soundtrack is every bit as overwhelming as John William’s famous fanfare, and Padme Amidala would have killed for this Queen’s hairdos and extravagant costumes. Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens on October 12.

Elizabeth. Shekhar Kapur, 1998. ***
Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Shekhar Kapur, 2007. ****

The trailer:


Yeah, we snickered more than a few immature snickers at the name of this town in northeastern France. Bitche, pronounced just like you think, is dominated by a massive citadel that withstood an entire year of siege during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Today, you can take an audio-visual tour through the underground fortifications. As you pass through the bakery, the well, the officer’s quarters and so on, bits and pieces of a movie about the siege are projected on screens slyly installed below the vaulted ceiling.

It’s a peculiar way to see a movie, akin to sitting inside the real Helm’s Deep watching a version of The Two Towers where Gandalf and Éomer never show up. But despite the presence of Virginie Ledoyen as the scheming wife of Napoleon III, the film never takes on a life of its own beyond the cheesy illustration of historical events and some vague points about the futility of war in general. We didn’t feel the need to pick up the full-length DVD in the gift shop. Let me tell you though: there’s a patisserie downtown that serves some truly bitchin’ chocolate cake.

La Forteresse Assiegee. Gerard Mordillat, 2006. **

View Larger Map

The Lord of the Rings

After over a year of exile from Middle-Earth, the itch was getting too strong to resist. Much too much has been said about these movies already, so here are just three thoughts: (1) If you’re going to do a marathon, I strongly recommend the theatrical versions over the extended edition. You want the epic span of the story, but you don’t want all the buttnumbing footnote scenes. Sorry, purists. (2) In retrospect, The Two Towers is the weakest of the series. Gollum is terrific and the film’s climax offers good payoff, but the subplots about Faramir, Rohan, and Treebeard just aren’t nearly as interesting as the major storylines in the other two movies. (3) Return of the King has such a wealth of incredible visuals and is pitched at such an intense level of drama that it’s bound to remain a milestone for a long time to come. It also makes King Kong seem especially pointless–everything that movie was supposed to do, Return of the King had already done much better. As epic genre film, as ensemble melodrama, as special effects extravaganza, and as literary adaptation, The Lord of the Rings still reigns supreme.

The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson, 2001. *****
The Two Towers. Peter Jackson, 2002. *****
The Return of the King. Peter Jackson, 2003. *****

[tags]the lord of the rings, fantasy, hobbits, peter jackson, viggo mortensen, sean astin, elijah wood, cate blanchett, orlando bloom, ian mckellen, tolkien, adaptation, trilogy, marathon, film, 5 stars[/tags]