The Golden Compass – Review

SPOILER WARNING! I’ll do my best to be vague on the plot points for those of you who have no idea what this movie is about. But I’ll have to talk about a few things, so stay away if you care.

As a book, The Golden Compass was fairly entertaining and a bit offensive, theologically . When I read it a few weeks ago, I knew the movie was coming out and half expected it to translate well onto the big screen. As a movie, The Golden Compass is like having a 10-year old tell the story while hopped up on sugar and cocaine. It moves so fast, I honestly have no idea how people can follow along if they’ve not read the book.

There are obvious shortcuts a movie must make due to the medium. In this case, the opening scene pans over Oxford, through a tear in the fabric of space (which looks freakin cool) into another Oxford as a narrator explains multi-dimensional worlds, souls & daemons, and Dust. I think most of this could have been inferred by the audience, but maybe not.

They took another shortcut with Ms. Coulter. From the start, it’s fairly obvious she’s a bad guy, and they make no attempt to conceal her connection to the Gobblers. In the book, that section seemed to be drawn out and fairly boring. In the movie, it’s played out in two scenes. First, a long explanation of kids being kidnapped, followed immediately by the golden monkey kidnapping kids. When Lyra escapes Ms. Coulter’s house (in a badly changed scene), we’re only twenty minutes into the movie.

I never liked Lyra in the books, and on-screen, she’s no better. The actress (by Hollywood law, named Dakota) does a decent job. But playing a spoiled brat doesn’t make me like her or want to root for her.

The theological issues that have people up in arms have been neutered in the movie version. The Church is only called the Magisterium, and all references to the Authority are left intentionally vague so that it could be “authority” (lower case). On the other hand, some references are left in. Those against the Magesterium are called heretics and the Dust explanation is described as human’s ancestors once rebelling against the Magisterium’s authority (or Authority).

For good things, the actors are all perfectly cast with the best being Sam Elliot. That man can definitely play a Texan. Kathy Bates plays his daemon hare and fits perfectly. Iorek is voiced by Ian McKellen. Not a bad choice, but it was a bit too close to Gandalf.

The CG is also very well done. Pan’s shape-shifting moments look natural and are very cool to watch. When someone dies, their daemon disintegrates into Dust particles. It’s very well done, but a bit overused by the end. The only problem is Ms. Coulter’s golden monkey. I’m not sure if another CG team worked on him, but he’s the least convincing looking in the film. Which is sad because he’s arguably the most important to get right.

The ending is also changed significantly. I’m not sure why the director chose to do this (maybe he ran out of time), but the movie ends far before the book. It leaves less of a cliffhanger, but I thought the movie version of The Subtle Knife had already been greenlit.

So to sum up, if you’ve read the book, I’d watch this only if you’re curious about the changes. If you’ve not read the book, I honestly have no idea how you could keep up with the “blink and you’ll miss something important” pace. Whatever you do, don’t take any bathroom breaks.

Grade: B- (Because I had to kill some time this afternoon, it only cost me $5, and I was curious to see what they did with it)

Amazing Grace – Review

Amazing Grace tells the true story of William Wilberforce, the English theologian who worked his entire life to abolish the slave trade. I’ve read a bit of Wilberforce’s writings and his story is amazing because there are so few people who have truly changed the world for the better. He died three days after Parliament passed the law abolishing slavery in the entire British Empire.

For the movie, Wilberforce is played by Ioan Gruffudd. Don’t recognize that name? He’s Mr. Fantastic in those (Not-so) Fantastic Four movies. It’s good to see him in a different role, but I had a hard time believing he couldn’t stretch his arm across the House of Commons to slap his opposition.

The biggest problem with the movie is the title. William Wilberforce did not pen “Amazing Grace.” Former slave ship captain, John Newton did. Newton is in the movie, but the song seems largely out of place. When Mr. Fantastic starts singing it in a pub (in a wrong tempo) and the drunken patrons start weeping into their ales, it’s hard to not laugh at the absurdity. Then, when he sings it at his wedding, you have to watch that your eyes don’t roll out of their sockets.

A better title would have been Wilber Force. After receiving his mission from God, Ioan Gruffudd could have gone on a quest to get his anti-slavery band back together. With a visit to the Quarry Man, the Smelter, and Jessica Alba, you’ve got the makings of a great movie.

Overall, I just wasn’t in the mood for this movie. It’s been getting fantastic reviews (har har) by critics, so I may have to give it another chance later.

Grade: C+

Angel-A – Review

Many times, I’ll throw a movie into my rental queue simply because I read about it on another site. Sometimes, I get lucky and find something truly outstanding. Other times I go look up “crap” in a thesaurus. Angel-A sits in the median of those limits. No, Angel-A is not an average movie. It just contains equal moments of pure brilliance and utter rubbish.

Made by the same guy who did The Fifth Element, the basic premise is this: take everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, set it in Paris, and trade Clarence for a 6-foot, leggy blonde named Angela. Oh, and have everyone speak French. The plots are similar (they meet on a bridge and the movie is in black & white), but there are no “Here’s what the world would be like if you were dead” moments.

Differences aside, Angel-A really shines in the basic plot points. (But maybe that can’t be helped when you copy a formula?) Besides the obvious sight-gag of Angela towering over a wimpy French guy, the movie stays light and funny, but tackles some emotionally heavy issues. There’s a scene where the two have to dry out in the women’s restroom. After Angela is chastised for having a guy in there, she responds, “Oh him? He is a woman, too.” That scene sets up the rest of the film as Angela tries to restore this man’s masculinity. For the most part, it all works very well.

Angel-A‘s problems come with the ways Angela helps her “assignment.” As a self-described “sexy bitch,” Angela uses only her sexiness to achieve her goal (read that last sentence with your best sleazy French guy accent). In this world, “sex sells” is not only a mantra for advertising, but for angels, too.

The movie tries to give a backstory to Angela, but it’s mostly garbage. I think the director knew this so not much time is spent on it. I’d forgotten about it until it showed up at the end to make a chick-flick cheesy moment, vomit inducing.

So overall, the movie’s not horrible. It’s great in spots, but severely objectionable in others. Watch only if you’ve ever wondered what Clarence would be like as a sexy bitch.

Grade: C

Pathfinder – Review

Pathfinder starts out with the following floating text:

600 years before Columbus
North America was invaded by

ruthless marauders intent on

settling its shores.

Something stopped them.

The opening scene shows a Native American woman stumbling on the ruins of a ship filled with dead vikings. So I think to myself, “Awesome! This is going to be a story about some creature from Indian mythology and how it killed all the vikings.” WRONG! Instead, I got a cross between Rambo II and Disney’s Pocahontas. It was like picking a chocolate and hoping for caramel, but getting toothpaste instead (/obligatory Jim Gaffigan joke).

Karl Urban plays the Pathfinder. Or at least he plays one of them, because it seemed like everyone was called “Pathfinder” at some point in the film. The word is used so much, my MST3K “we have title!” jokes grew stale 30 minutes into it. They do try to change it up a bit with dialog like, “Go. Find her. I must take a different path.” But when literary word play like that gets delivered from a dying man, I started to lose a little support for the WGA strike.

My parting advice: If this one ever crosses your path, find a different one.

Grade: D

Talk to Me – Review

I like biopics. Regardless of how much poetic license is taken, I always feel like I’ve learned something after watching one. Sorta like The Discovery Channel if sharks fell into drugs and booze before turning their life around and finally eating the man that’s been keeping ’em down.

But biopics have to have one thing that separates them from documentaries. They have to tell a story, and they must follow the rule of stories. That is – a beginning, a climax, and a satisfying ending.

Talk to Me is a fine example of why this must happen. The movie begins the story of Petey Green in a 1960s Washington D.C. prison. Petey is acting DJ for the convicts and through a series of humorous conflicts, he ends up in a real radio station.

At this point in the movie, everything is great. The characters are likable. The setting is interesting. I’m really into it. Then, the movie’s big climax comes with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and everything gets even better.

But then the movie falls apart. You see, the whole MLK moment happens about an hour into the movie. With another hour left, there’s really no other place to go but down. Sure, Petey gets rich and famous, but it’s all incredibly slow and boring. The manufactured conflicts that come are nothing compared to the first half. They even made Johnny Carson boring. How is that possible?

As a story, Talk to Me‘s beginning is great, the climax is fantastic, and the ending comes an hour too late.

Grade: C