Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Tane's Reviews: The Golden Compass, and others

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is the latest of the slew of movies to adapt a popular fantasy novel, in this case Northern Lights, the first of Phillip Pullman’s brilliant but flawed His Dark Materials trilogy. It is set in a parallel world where everyone’s soul takes the form of an animal that travels with them. The plot is too complex to be summarized quickly, but involves a rebellious girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), her father Lord Azriel (Daniel Craig) and various allies – including a talking armoured polar bear – clashing on the totalitarian government and its coldly glamorous agent, Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

In these days of digital effects so realistic they are difficult to tell from the ‘real’ parts of a movie, the most wondrous scenes in any fantasy novel can be brought to the screen. However, this does not guarantee the wonder of the book will come across too.

The problem for moviemakers is that most fantasies are set in alternative worlds, with complex histories, politics, geographies, beings and magics – not to mention large casts of characters and multi-pronged plots. That’s a lot of information to try to bring across in a couple of hours.

Like the Harry Potter movies and the Lord of the Rings, the Golden Compass suffers from trying to be too true to the books and as a result cramming in too much plot. I suspect that if you’ve not read The Northern Lights, you’ll struggle to understand everything that’s going on.

As a result, the formidable talents of Craig and Kidman, the precociousness of Richards, magnificent costumes and special effects, and two smashing battles cannot lift The Golden Compass above mediocrity. It also suffers from being unable to find the perfect pitch – it’s a bit too dark of children, and a bit too shallow for adult fans of the series.

See it if you liked the books, or if you love fantasy, but don’t have your expectations high.


Capsule reviews


Ah, now this is how you adapt a fantasy. Beowulf is an entirely (and beautifully) computer generated version of the oldest story in English, which tells of how an aged Dark Age Danish king (Anthony Hopkins) calls on the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and his men to help deal with the monster Grendel and his mother (Angelina Jolie). It’s a story charged with sex and violence, but don’t be fooled by the promotion – Beowulf is more than just CGI brawn and boobs. As you might expect from screenwriters Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) and the great fantasy author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, American Gods), it’s not only exciting but has humour, depth and emotional clout.



A powerful condemnation of one of the ugliest aspects of the US’s War on Terror – rendition. This has seen terrorist suspects covertly flown to countries where they can be tortured into giving up information. In the movie a man suspected of being in touch with terrorists is sent to North Africa by steely CIA executive (Meryl Streep). There he is questioned by a tough police officer and rookie CIA agent (Jake Gyllenhaal), while in America, the engineer’s desperate wife (Reese Witherspoon) makes contact with an aide (Peter Sarsgaard) in the office of a senator (Alan Arkin) in an effort to get her husband home. There’s also a strong subplot involving the police chief’s daughter and her boyfriend.

Some might find it worthy, but I really liked Rendition. It’s a gritty, well written and very well acted film, a worthy follow up to Tsotsi for director Gavin Hood.



One of the most overrated movies of 2007, Atonement is – to quote Lauren – less than the sum of its parts. Based on what my book-addicted partner tells me is an excellent novel, Atonement is again a case of sticking too close to the source material and not adapting it properly to a different medium.

The film is set in late 1930s England, where a relationship between an upper class woman (Keira Knightley) and a lower class gardener (James MacAvoy), is seen through the fevered imagination of a young girl (Saorise Ronan). Atonement’s strengths are impressive, particularly the ravishing photography and fine performances, and have seduced many critics. MacAvoy is immensely likeable, Ronan is fascinating and though Knightley can still only strike one note – surly determination – at least that note is rings truer than in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

What lets it down is the structure. Jumping around in time is fine in many a novel, where it’s a lot easier to follow, and works in some films. But not here, where the chopping and changing makes the movie disjointed and drains it of most of the drama built up in the compelling first act. Likely to be the worst film nominated for many Best Picture awards.



Sarah said...

Wow, Tane, I can't disagree with you enough about Atonement. I saw it several weeks ago, and it has really stayed with me. I don't think it's utter genius or without flaws, but I think it's better than a large number of recent Best Pictures (e.g. Gladiator, Crash, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago). I agree that the dramatic midway shift in mood and location is jarring, and the movie can't quite recover from it, but I don't agree that any other adaptation could have solved that problem. I think it deserves its accolades for the first half alone, which is so evocative and captures the mood of the book perfectly.

I haven't yet seen the other movies you have reviewed, but I am really looking forward to the Golden Compass (which opens here on Boxing Day). I'm disappointed to hear that it's not the greatest. Maybe the sequels will increase in 'darkness', a la Harry Potter!

Bonnie said...

I thought it was beautifully shot, and the ending was nice and unexpected, but it did get a bit saggy in the middle, especially the silly reverse filming bit. Overall I really liked it.

That being said, I saw a version without subtitles (don't ask) which made it difficult to work out why the three soldiers were wandering around France, and where they were in the war until they showed up at Dunkirk. I thought that bit was wonderful, all done in one long shot. The non-history nerds watching with me thought it was boring and didn't see the point in getting real historical events mixed up in a story.