Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Golden Compass

Year: 2007
Running time: 113 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Chris Weitz
Director: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen (voice), Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore (voice)

Lrya searches for truth.
High on the success of The Lord of the Rings, and bolstered by the fact that Harry Potter was fast becoming the biggest grossing movie series in history, New Line thought they were onto another fantasy adaptation winner by developing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The most obvious sign that they slipped up big time is the fact that New Line has stopped any and all work on the sequels, both of which were green-lit before the first part had been released. This is not, as many on the Christian right would have it, because the film is a "war on Christmas" (Bill O'Reilly, as over the top and ridiculous as ever), it is because it made $85 million from a budget of about $180 million. O'Reilly seems to have neglected to notice the film has been all but stripped of any anti-religious message. After watching it for half an hour or so, you’ll be able to see why it fared so badly; it is dreadful. Dreadful. Where Potter and Rings have forged their own movie legacy, while being respectful of and retaining the essence of their source material, this simply tries to make a buck off the back of a trend.

Set in an alternative retro-futurist (if that's possible) British city where people have their souls on the outside in the form of deamons (although that is simplifying the concept horribly; deamons are more a reflection of the soul and in children represent the potential for sin), and everyone lives under the influence of the Magisterium, a religious organisation that was conceived by Pullman as an oppressive alternative Catholic Church, but here it is re-imagined more as a 1984-style Government.  Children begin to disappear and when her best friend Roger (Ben Walker) goes missing Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) decides to try to find him and save him.  On her journey she meets gypsies, a talking and brawling polar bear king-in-exile (an impressive CG creation voiced by Ian McKellen), witches (led by Eva Green's Serafina Pekkala) and a balloon-riding adventurer named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott).

Mrs. Coulter: beautiful, sophisticated, evil.
To help her in her quest she has an Alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the title (although I much prefer the UK title Northern Lights), capable of revealing the truth, a precious commodity where a number of the people Lyra meets have secret agendas.  The villain of the piece is Magisterium-backed Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, who has never looked so incredible and is delightfully evil and the best thing in the film by miles), who is behind the kidnappings and heads up horrific experiments involving forcibly separating children from their deamons.

Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel, a man on a mission to wage multi-dimensional war on the Magisterium and, in the novels, bring down god himself (beautifully imagined by Pullman as a senile useless shell, propped up entirely by the might of the powerful Magisterium).  The lengths to which Lord Asriel is prepared to go to fight ensures, however, that he is no friend of Lyra's.

So what went wrong? It looks gorgeous, both in terms of scenery and characters, and the bear fight is highly impressive (although oddly bloodless, particularly when one of the fighters gets his entire lower jaw ripped off - the price you pay for a PG rating, I guess), but this is not nearly enough to succeed. It feels, for want of a better word, soulless, with the lush visuals failing to cover up a script that has no understanding of the themes of the novel, and turns events and layers and complexities into simple meetings and dull conversations, which in turn, are nothing more than excuses to get to the next meeting and conversation, pointing Lyra in the right direction. No character has a point beyond a brief conversation with Lyra. You can understand why much of the anti-religious undercurrent was removed, but it leaves some elements of the story not making sense - if the deamons don't represent the potential for sin, why is the church (Magisterium) separating them from their children, leaving the kids well-behaved lifeless husks (or dead or dying)? You can't make a story about destroying an outdated corrupt religion marketable to a country in which most people are believers in that very same religion. Everything is lost in translation.
One of countless alternate versions of one city.
It’s not like they didn’t have talent. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliot and Eva Green are all outstanding actors. In the lead role, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does well; her Lyra strikes you as smart, confident and capable, but still naive and innocent, just like Pullman's heroine should be. And it isn’t like they didn’t have the material to work with. The trilogy of books is intelligent, frightening, beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly, utterly fantastic. What it needed was a director and script that understood that and didn’t just want to make eye candy to generate revenue.

A crushing disappointment.

Score: 2/10

Owen at Entertainment Weekly thought much the same but critic royalty Roger Ebert is, on this occasion, wronger than a wrong thing.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Year: 2006
Running time: 120 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Emilio Estevez
Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Nick Cannon, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Laurence Fishburne, Freddy Rodriguez, Christian Slater, Heather Graham, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, Joshua Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood

Marry your gorgeous friend or go to Vietnam?
Emilio Estevez is not the first person that comes to mind as the ideal choice for director of a thoughtful ensemble drama with ambitions of being Altmanesque about the lives of a group of people who were witness to the assassination of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in 1968, but this was his passion project right from the get-go, and it was Estevez who convinced the huge array of megastars to lend their names to the project.

There is a large number of glimpses into the lives of a collection of characters at the Ambassador Hotel on the night which sees the arrival of Kennedy's entourage, and for the most part, the potentially bewildering flitting between them is handled well, allowing the viewer to keep track.  Hotel manager Paul (William H. Macy) is cheating on his hairdresser wife Miriam (Sharon Stone) with switchboard operator Angela (Heather Graham).  Chef Edward (Laurence Fishburne) is preaching his Kennedy-inspired philosophy to kitchen worker Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), while Daryl (Christian Slater) is being fired from the same kitchen for his poor treatment of the Mexican workers.  Virginia (Demi Moore) is an alcoholic singer due to perform at the hotel who is barely being held together by her long-suffering husband Tim (Estevez).  Diane (Lindsay Lohan) is marrying her friend William (Elijah Wood) so he can avoid going to fight in Vietnam.  Doorman John (Anthony Hopkins) is reflecting on getting old and recalling his memories of the hotel with Nelson (Harry Belafonte).  All these threads and more play out to give the film a feel of busy complexity, but Estevez does a good job of juggling each of them, although, with the inevitable time constraints, some plot threads are more effective than others.

Paul and Miriam get some perspective.
Estevez clearly holds his subject matter in high honour, and it seems a little biased, painting Kennedy as the saviour of America, when it was likely there were other sides to him not explored in the movie, but then, this never pretended to be a documentary. The film is also impressively shot, revealing another surprising side of Estevez.

The cast on the whole are as good as you’d expect them to be, with Nick Cannon (surprisingly), Demi Moore and Laurence Fishburne providing the stand out turns, while Anthony Hopkins and Elijah Wood underwhelm a little, never really causing the viewer to feel an emotional attachment.  In fairness, this is more likely due to the brevity of their character arcs than the quality of their acting.

All the different threads are eventually united in shock and grief at Kennedy's murder in a climax that is handled very well, and, while perhaps being a little too American in its cheesy overbearing sentimentality, is nevertheless emotionally effecting.

Not a classic, but highly engaging and very well made.

Score: 7/10

Angie at Empire is in broad agreement, but Kevin at the L.A. Times was less impressed.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Year: 2007
Running time: 104 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack

Mike Enslin, losing his shit.
Okay, I’ll not deny that the premise of this, an evil hotel room (you read that right, an evil hotel room), sounds a little silly. In Stephen King’s hands, however, it probably becomes something altogether different. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t read much horror, because, well, it scares me. Yeah, I know. I’m a wuss.

Mike Enslin makes a living visiting and reviewing haunted inns and hotels, none of which particularly impress him.  Until he pays a visit to room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel and comes face to, erm, wall with genuine supernatural evil.  That's pretty much it for plot and the film then spends the remaining running time trying to scare the pants off both Enslin and the viewer.

There is much in this adaptation of King’s short story that is genuinely unsettling, such as the ghostly conveyor belt of past victims all plunging to their deaths to escape the room.  There is a major jump where Enslin attempts to signal to someone across the street, which turns into a reflection of the room itself.  It really is damn creepy.
Face to face with a devastating memory.
There is an upsetting back story involving a terminally ill child, which sets up a climax that is at once both devastating and heartbreaking, and as a father to a young daughter is a nightmare for me like no other.

John Cusack is as likeable as ever, and when, after the room offers him the only possible way out – out the window, ker-splat – Enslin simply replies "not your way" and proceeds to firebomb the room, you feel like giving the guy a standing ovation. The fact that it changes nothing and ultimately his soul is trapped in the room forever really sucks, but is refreshing in that it doesn't pander to the usual audience desire for neatly happy endings.

Score: 7/10

1408 would appear to be fairly well thought of, as shown in these reviews by Rebecca and Matt.