Archive for December, 2007

The Golden Compass

kidman

The latest film inspired by the phenomenal success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Golden Compass, is both complex and interesting, although without some of the magic that helped to make the Rings trilogy a classic.

The Golden Compass is the story of a courageous young girl, Lyra Belacqua (played with aplomb by Dakota Blue Richards). Lyra lives in an orphanage, and is cared for at a distance by her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig).

During a visit from her uncle, she prevents him from being poisoned, but also overhears a presentation by Lord Asriel about “dust.” Dust is some sort of amorphous substance that passes between dimensions, but also, in some fashion, helps to bind humans to their “demons” (aka “familiars”) which are animal companions.

Lord Asriel gives Lyra an Alethiometer, which looks like a golden compass with pictographs around the rim. The purpose of the Alethiometer is to “tell the truth.” It allows the bearer to ascertain information, and eventually Lyra learns to interpret its signals.

kidman2

Lyra also becomes caught up in a confusing political push by the Magisterium (a church- like institution that rules the “England” of this world). She is recruited by the lovely Marisa Coulter (MILF Nicole Kidman), who initially appears to Lyra as a confidante but is later revealed to be an agent of the Magisterium attempting to use both Lyra and her Althiometer for questionable purposes.

Kidman’s Coulter is a beautiful shimmering pillar of statuesque menace, reminding me of the less statuesque but equally menacing Suzanne Maretto in 1995’s To Die For.

In her quest, Lyra befriends and is helped by a cadre of witches led by Serfina Pekkala (Eva Green), a group of ‘Gyptians led by John Faa (Jim Carter), and an a**-kicking polar bear warrior named Ragnar Sturlusson (voiced by Ian McShane). The latter provides one of the coolest sequences of the film, a battle between armor-clad polar bears that is jaw-dropping in a very literal sense of the phrase.

The ending of the film, which leaves a huge amount of room for several sequels, is well done, but somehow left me feeling a little unsettled. I think that my biggest complaint about the film is that it did not provide enough exposition regarding the alternate reality inhabited by the characters in the film.

The movie is an adaptation of the book Northern Lights, written by Philip Pullman. From discussions with those who have read the book, the series is quite well written and provides an interesting alternate reality. Unlike some viewers, I had not read Northern Lights prior to seeing the film. As a result, discussions of “dust” and the alternate reality providing the framework for the film were conceptually strange and unnecessarily confusing.

The film was directed by Chris Weitz, previously known for his work on the movie About a Boy and (uncredited and uncomfirmed) American Pie. His direction is interesting and competent, but I did not have the same feeling of humanity and deep understanding of his subject matter that I had with Peter Jackson and the LOTR trilogy.

Although I enjoyed the film, it seems to be missing many of the movie elements which so richly filled the LOTR universe. I apologize for the repeated comparisons to Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s remarkable movie adaptation. I suspect, howevere, that similar comparisons will be made by almost all moviegoers who have seem both films. I look forward to the next installment from this series in the hope that it will provide further information about the interesting alternate world inhabited by the film’s characters.

I give it *** Jessicas out of a possible 4.

EK

national treasurekruger

I wanted to hate this movie for several reasons. It was the second in a series that I was not certain should have been continued. It was designed to be “family friendly,” and it had been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. However, against my preconceptions, I actually liked this film.

For those unfamiliar with the National Treasure franchise, it is the story of a historian/treasure-hunter named Ben Gates (played with more convincing transplanted hair by Nicolas Cage), his father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), and his techno-savvy but somewhat annoying sidekick Riley Poole (Justin Bartha). The series is a poorly disguised attempt to capitalize on the Da Vinci Code phenomenon, as was its predecessor, the original National Treasure.

Ben and Riley are fresh from the success of their prior escapade. Riley has written a tell-all book and Ben appears to be giving lectures on his historical pursuits. During one such lecture, a page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth is presented which appears to implicate Ben’s great-grandfather in the assasination of President Lincoln. His hair-transplant hackles raised, Ben tries to clear his family name.

In the process, however, Ben and Riley stumble across a plot by England to support the confederacy in the the Civil War by providing access to a fabled ancient american “city of gold.” In the process of searching for the city, Riley and Ben team up with Ben’s almost-ex, the rather hot Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Ben’s mother Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), and a supporting cast peppered with the Hollywood elite.

The overal plot is fast-paced, intriguing and fun. In fact, some of the “clues” that Ben and Riley must unravel are fascinating to watch, including two tables that double as puzzle boxes, ancient Olmec pictoglyphs and the discovery of tunnels within Mount Rushmore. Although many of the “discoveries” stretch the boundaries of credulity, they are fun to watch if you can turn off your internal skeptic long enough to play along.

However, one of the central conceits of the story, that there is a book passed from President to President containing all of the “secrets” of the presidency, “including the truth behind the JFK assassination and Area 51″ is completely ridiculous. I am certain that documents relating to the two issues above are in existance, but I suspect they are widely scattered (if not shredded) and highly unlikely to be documented in a single book.

Overall the story was fun, exciting and had a certain Indiana Jones-like flair that I enjoyed. It is not a perfect movie by any measure, but it was fun and more enjoyable than I had predicted.

I give it ** 1/2 Jessicas out of four.

EK

What would you do if other-worldly creatures invaded Earth under a veil of mist? Damn, did I just give the plot away? Like you didn’t know. Besides, the surprises in The Mist aren’t what drives the story. Thank God. There’s finally a thriller that doesn’t rely on plot twists to make a movie.

The Mist starts quickly, eliminating the build up time before things start to go awry. David Drayton (Thomas Jane), his wife Stephanie (Kelly Collins Lintz) and their son Billy (Nathan Gamble) hide from a violent storm outside that leaves their house in shambles. David and Billy, along with their condescending neighbor Brent (Andre Braugher), drive into town to get supplies and material to fix the house. They notice a thick mist descending from the nearby mountains but shrug it off as two weather fronts colliding. Things start to go badly as a man comes running into the small town’s grocery store, screaming about creatures in the mist. Locked inside the market, several locals fight to keep the creatures from breaking in, as well as fighting to keep other “creatures” from turning the survivors into monsters themselves.

Frank Darabont – who has penned and directed several Stephen King adaptations – does a fairly good job of showing the chaotic nature of humans when placed in a dire situation. In these scenes he brilliantly explores how fragile the human psyche is and how people will search anywhere for answers when they are terrified for their lives.

On other levels, however, Darabont fails to achieve what he’s going for. Aside from some well-executed action sequences (think spiders on crack), most of the action seems bland and slow. It lacks the edge that gives you a chill and makes you bite your nails. But, in the context of the story and how it should be told, it’s ok that these scenes provide lackluster results.

Jane provides a much better performance than he gave in the atrocious Punisher, showing some real range and depth with David Drayton. If he could cry without making a somewhat hilarious howl (I had to fight from laughing, I’m an *sshole sometimes), this would have been a flawless performance. Concurrently, each actor puts forth a strong performance to drive the movie forward.

There’s not really that much to say about special effects because you never really see the creatures in full view, although the ones you do see look very accomplished. The most amazing special effect in the movie is the thick, rolling mist itself. The mist sets the mood for the story and really creates a suffocating feeling for the audience, leading to the assertion that there is no way out.

The only complaint I had is that Darabont, an outspoken atheist, feels the need to overwhelm the audience with anti-Christian sentiment in the form of an antagonist bible-thumper. Though it’s important to the story that this character tries to usurp power from the protagonist, Darabont goes out of his way to make his point about religion being as evil as otherworldly monsters. In the end, it hurts the movie and also makes the premise even more unbelievable. I say this because, would three quarters of the 25+ people in the store really be as desperate for religious saving after only 3 days? A little too heavy-handed to be accurate if you think about it.

All in all, the movie was an entertaining ride with a not-too-shocking ending. The producers advertised the most shocking ending ever, but failed to deliver the goods. This film should have ended 3 minutes earlier to be really shocking, but at least it wasn’t a happy ending when it shouldn’t have been. But I’ll let you decide that part for yourself. It was good enough for me.

**1/2 Jessicas out of four. This movie was entertaining. A little bland in some places and preachy in others, but still very well executed and interesting to watch.

AK

Awake…More Like Asleep

alba
For those readers who have any qualms about Cinemaddict’s ratings system, this movie all but proves how accurate the system is. Jessica Alba – in all her supernatural beauty – couldn’t save this movie by herself.

Apparently, all Ms. Alba is good for is getting almost naked. I hoped and prayed that this might be the one where she finally broke down and gave in to her inner nudist but, alas, not on this occasion. Too bad; that might have paid dividends for this thrill-less thriller.

Awake starts off by giving the audience a heavy-handed account of how great and powerful our protagonist Clay (Hayden “Anakin” Christensen) is and how in love he is with his stunning (and stunningly secret) fiance Sam (Alba). But there is a problem with this picturesque setting: Clay’s heart is failing and he’s been wait-listed for a new heart. (I know…interesting, considering he’s a billionaire. But it’s a movie.) The first act of the movie is dedicated to him waiting for a heart and trying to manage his affairs before the subsequent transplant. Aside from writer/director Joby Harold beating it into our skulls how wealthy Clay is, this first act sets up the possibility of a decent plot concerning love and death.

Then comes the second act.

Interestingly, Harold changes and appears more concerned about using generic narrative twists and gimmicks to get the audience the rest of the way.

(Spoilers be here)
Clay goes under the knife only to be left awake and paralyzed, unable to communicate with the outside world. The movie twists around as, GASP, the entire world is against him. The real shocker is, you guessed it, his new bride is against him too. I wish the gold-digger was a guy for once. Now that would be a surprise. But I digress. The movie finishes off and you leave feeling like you haven’t learned a thing.

Now to give you the sorta good, the bad and the really ugly.

Writer/Director Harold chose a very big task for his first undertaking and, on the surface, it looked like my kind of movie. Trying to create a movie along the same lines as a Hitchcock thriller is not a bad direction to go, but you really have to have something special to pull it off. Harold misses, but from what I saw he missed narrowly. He directed it as well as could be expected for the story he wrote, letting the story develop naturally for the first 30 minutes or so. In the hands of better actors he might have nailed it. As it is, he had to rely on the obvious plot twists to carry the story and that was his downfall.

Alba and Christensen. What can I say that wouldn’t be cliche? They’re bad actors, but nice to look at (at least on the part of Alba). Fans of these two probably won’t be disappointed. But for people who want to actually have a connection with the mega-hot talent will see it for what it was. I’ll never say casting Alba for a character is a mistake, but hiring two bad leading actors is just stupid. Harold mistake #2.

Finally, as interesting as the plot idea was, it failed to deliver on several levels. The movie underwhelmed in suspense and thrills. The audience never feels antsy enough to squirm in their seat, even with the 20-odd ways that Christensen yells “I can feel that! Oh God!” nor do they get genuinely scared about the fate of the main character. The movie also failed to put the audience on an emotional roller-coaster. No one in the audience feels a high or depressed as the actor is subjected to happiness and joy or pain and betrayal. If someone watching the movie cannot feel with the character, how are they supposed to care what happens to him/her?

One fairly bright spot in the movie is when Lena Olin takes the screen. Her scenes are the ones you want to pay attention to, mainly because she brings an air of aged elegance to the screen. The rest of the movie you can turn on your iPhone and rock out.

In the end, this movie took an interesting premise and lumped it together with generic devices, giving the audience nothing to think about afterwards except why they spent ten dollars to go and see it. Luckily for me, it was the second half of a double feature. And free is good for this one.

*1/2 Jessicas out of four, because without Alba, this would’ve been only 1/2 star. I still maintain that had Alba shown the rest of her…uh… “beauty”, this movie would’ve been awesome. But I guess hindsight is 20/20.

AK

Enchanted; Bland Disney Fun

enchanted

My daughter is absolutely apesh*t over the Disney Princesses. Give her Cinderella 12; Prince Charming’s Jock Itch Adventure or The Little Mermaid 23; Mermaid or Girl, Make Up Your Frickin’ Mind Already, and she’ll eat them them up like leftover Halloween candy.

Disney of course, is well aware of the love many small girls have for the Disney Princess franchise. As such, its latest offering, Enchanted, milks the Disney Princess teat with an almost passionate fervor. Enchanted is full of bland delights and some fun.

The story is a simple one. The lead character, Giselle (played with abandon by comely newcomer Amy Adams), is a stereotypical Disney princess, complete with the requisite Prince Edward (James Marsden), evil Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), and singing rodents and birds.

Giselle has been kept from Prince Edward by the mechinations of Queen Narissa and her henchman. However, when Edward and Giselle do meet and fall in love in typical Disney movie style, Queen Narissa pushes Giselle down a well, which contains some sort of a portal to the “real” world.

Once she crawls from under a manhole and into the human world, Giselle is assisted by by the oddly named Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), who is understandingly perplexed by Giselle’s princess-like ways. Robert has a young daughter, Morgan Philip (played by Rachel Covey), and the two of them try to help Giselle to get back home.

As Giselle spends more time in the real world she progressively becomes more “real.” This includes the development of unexpected feelings for Robert, and eventually, to Prince Edward’s chagrin, the two fall in love.

However, for reasons that are not completely clear, Queen Narissa becomes progressively more fixated on killing Giselle. Eventually, after poison apples fail, she changes herself into a huge dragon and attempts to eat Giselle, and later Robert.

The animation is well done during the first part of the movie. However, the computer generated dragon is nothing particularly special, it looks clearly CG and detracts some from the overall film.

There were a few funny and charming sequences. After Giselle wakes up in Robert’s apartment, she recruits an army of cockroaches, rats and pigeons to help tidy things up instead of her typical deer, rabbits and finches. In another sequence, Giselle breaks into song in the middle of a park and initiates a singing/dancing number from the other park patrons in a fun aside.

Overall, however, I found the humor to be a bit staid and generic. Although an interesting twist on the overal Disney Princess storyline, it somehow felt less than original following in the footsteps of Shrek and Happily Never After.

Enjoyable, but bland. I give it ** 1/2 Jessicas out of four.

EK