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Review: “The Golden Compass” (2007)

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds an unlikely bodyguard -- Lorek the Ice Bear (Sir Ian McKellan) -- in "The Golden Compass."

Young Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) finds an unlikely bodyguard -- Lorek the Ice Bear (Sir Ian McKellan) -- in "The Golden Compass."

Peter Jackson, listen up: Just because a film details an epic adventure doesn’t mean it has to last three hours. That’s right, J.R.R. Tolkien fans “The Golden Compass,” a likable, visually impressive adaptation of Philip Pullman’s 1995 bestseller, has all the intrigue of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy but none of the yawn-inducing running times. If anything, “The Golden Compass,” which clocks in at just under two hours, ends too soon, leaving viewers eager, right then and there, for more. (Call me batty, but this reviewer can’t remember a single person leaving a “LOTR” film and remarking, “Gee, that movie ended way, way too soon.”)

“The Golden Compass,” though, does weave a fairly complex plot which requires some explanation. At the heart of the film is Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a spritely young girl and prankster who spends her days scaling the rooftops of the university where her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), teaches. Her carefree days come to an abrupt end, though, when she meets icy Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), agrees to travel with her to the North and discovers Coulter is part of a sinister underground organization that kidnaps and experiments on young children including Lyra’s best friend Roger (Ben Williams). Lyra makes it her mission to rescue Roger, and she gathers a unique assortment of helpers along the way. There’s Lee Scoresby (the always watchable, husky-voiced Sam Elliott), a tough-as-nails pilot; Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), a gruff “polar bear for hire” of sorts; and Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), a mysterious but good-hearted witch. Helpful, too, is Lyra’s alethiometer, or golden compass, which reveals the true answer to any question … and only Lyra possesses the power to use it.

Like any book-to-film adaptation, some things in “The Golden Compass” get lost in translation. There are potentially intriguing, rich characters (like Scoresby and Pekkala in particular) about whom we know very little; they feel like collateral damage in the effort to pare down length. The most controversial element of Pullman’s book — the figurative “death of God” in society — gets watered down, perhaps to increase the film’s marketability. As reimagined by director Chris Weitz, “The Golden Compass” is a film about the quest for truth and knowledge (called “dust”), a quest the ruling body (dubbed the Magisterium) would kill to stop. This concept works swimmingly in a coming-of-age movie like this, but the blunting of the book’s sharpness is disappointing nonetheless.

However, these are minor quibbles with a movie that’s as thought-provoking as it is thrilling to watch. The animation is well-done and occasionally inspired, particularly the scene where two polar bears battle for rights to a kingdom — perhaps the tensest moment in “The Golden Compass.” The acting is solid as well, with Kidman perfectly cast as the frigidly menacing Coulter and Elliott sinking his teeth into what might have been a throwaway bit part. Roberts is a major find, a plucky young talent with an expressive, open face and a Tom Sawyer-like curiosity about the world. She’s one to watch.

There’s little doubt that there will be people (aren’t there always?) who won’t see “The Golden Compass” because they believe it’s a dangerous work of heresy. What a shame that is, for this stunningly beautiful, intelligent adaptation is meant to be experienced. The film is not some bitter, topsy-turvy argument in favor of atheism. No, “The Golden Compass” is a grand journey, a film that reminds us, gently and quietly, that the quest for knowledge, for truth and purpose, must be an individual pursuit. And ultimately, the idea explored in “The Golden Compass” is a familiar, timeless one: Is the unexamined life really worth living? Plato knew that, but viewers will have to decide for themselves. There are no pat answers to be found here. Still, that’s not bad for a film where nothing gets pitched into a volcano (sorry, Tolkienites).

Grade: B+

Cleaning house (no taking names required)

Happy Nine-Hours-Til-“The Office”-Comes-On Day, readers!

If you’ve been looking at the site, you might have noticed some changes, and you might have thought to yourself: “What in the wide wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?”

(Sorry. I’ve long passed the point where I want to and can suppress “Blazing Saddles” references. It’s a sickness.)

This site has grown a bit of late, and I’m trying to do a little minor housekeeping — making new categories for reviews of old and new films, archives, etc. — that will make this blog easier to navigate. I hope you’ll bear with me during this wee growth spurt.  

So many thanks to you, illustrious bloggers and skilled Web surfers and thoughtful/philosophical random comment-makers, for stopping in to read my movie scribbles. Keep reading and I’ll keep writing.

And I swear on the late, great Teutonic Titwillow to try really, really hard to stop all the shameless quote-dropping.

Review: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Here’s the plain truth: Sidney Lumet’s grim, gripping “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t so much wear you down as break you down … hard. In frame after frame, Lumet uses his disjointed, objective direction to build the momentum, and he never hesitates or shrinks back. Neither do the actors. So the hits — emotional and physical — keep coming until the film steamrolls into a conclusion that’s profoundly unsettling. “Devil” is as draining as it is invigorating to behold.

Part of that energy has to do with the way the story (epic in scope) unfolds. The narrative is nonlinear, so the characters are introduced in jarring flashbacks and meta-flashbacks. This a multi-layered story, with plots and subplots weaving in and out, but there is a common thread: Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who believes money will rebuild his broken life. Andy convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect crime: Rob their parents’ jewelry store, pawn the merchandise and walk away with $60,000 each. It’s a win-win, since Hank is months behind on his child support and Andy’s living light years beyond his means (thanks to his money-hungry wife, played by Marisa Tomei). But Murphy’s law (or karma?) mucks up Andy’s scheme from minute one, and nothing about the robbery goes as planned. Things go very, very wrong, leaving Andy and a shell-shocked Hank with blood on their hands and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), hell-bent on finding out who planned the robbery.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin the experience of watching “Devil.” There are grueling twists and surprises aplenty. In fact, the film feels much like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together wrong, with sharp edges jutting out and pieces shoved into nooks where they don’t really fit. But that’s why “Devil” is so absorbing — the pieces are all there; it’s up to viewers to put them in order. In Lumet’s mind, it seems, the viewers are the detectives. He makes us work for it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for injecting even more energy into “Devil.” The supporting cast is large, but the players make their performances singularly unforgettable. Finney is quietly effective as Charles, a man reeling from the fallout of a crime he can’t fathom. But his is not a one-note performance, for Charles isn’t an ideal father, and Finney isn’t afraid to let the cracks show. Hawke, too, plays it subtle; it might be the best work he’s ever done. Known for playing fake-charming womanizers, he shrinks himself to portray Hank, an emotional cripple whose coddled upbringing didn’t prep him to deal with reality. He cowers when things go wrong. Tomei, who just keeps getting better, is impressive as Gina. Essentially, Gina’s a trophy wife; she spends more time romancing Andy’s platinum card than Andy. But watch what Tomei does with her eyes, particularly in the scene where Andy breaks down. There are hints of depth there. Gina may be one of the film’s few female characters, but Tomei makes her more than just a party favor.

As for Hoffman, this may be his best performance — and he won an Oscar for “Capote.” In “Devil,” Hoffman gets another meaty role, and he does not disappoint. On one level, he exceeds at demonstrating Andy’s many flaws. Here is a man who craves money and success, a preternaturally calm control freak who refuses to admit he’s sinking too fast to pull himself up. He steals and lies, then wonders why the parts of his life “don’t add up.” But leave it to Hoffman to find beauty where there is none. When Andy finally lets loose, Hoffman rips into the pain like a man possessed. He shows that Andy is an insecure man who has numbed his feelings to the point where he believed they no longer existed. It’s the exhausting, awe-inspiring lit fuse that fires Lumet’s exquisitely crafted and tumultuous Greek tragedy character study.  

Grade: A+