Based on the first of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy The Golden Compass follows along the same lines as the Harry Potter series. It is set in a parallel universe very much like our own but not quite in which there are witches who fly the skies armored ice bears who rule the north and individual animal spirits called "daemons" who are intricately joined to their human counterparts. And of course there is also the whole good vs. evil milieu. The bad guys in this scenario are the Magisterium a group of high-minded intellectuals running the joint who want to control all of humanity by basically eliminating free will. Our heroine is 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who turns out to be the Magisterium’s greatest threat because she is the child destined to possess the last remaining Golden Compass a truth-telling device. Still with me? Her uncle the scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is captured by the Magisterium while a benefactress Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) takes Lyra under her wing--mind you not for benevolent reasons. Escaping Mrs. Coulter’s clutches Lyra sets out to find her loyal friend who has mysteriously joined the hundreds of children currently disappearing without a trace. Her adventure takes her over sky and ocean to the north and with her band of friends and allies--and the power of the Golden Compass--Lyra will need all her skill and courage to stop the war that’s coming. Whew that’s a tall order to fill for one little girl. But don’t let the little-girl act fool you. As played by the lovely Richards in her debut performance Lyra is one tough cookie seemingly unafraid of the challenges she faces including confronting a 12-foot-tall polar bear charging at her among other things. Much like Daniel Radcliffe before her the plucky actress is quite a find and should The Golden Compass trilogy continue she’ll be an indelible part of it. As will Kidman and Craig as the yin-and-yang parental figures in Lyra’s life--particularly Kidman who doesn’t stretch much but is effective as Mrs. Coulter. The enchanting lady whose daemon is a nasty golden monkey that doesn’t talk (fits the character perfectly) really does have ice water flowing through her veins. Also good are Sam Elliott as Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and Eva Green as the ethereal witch Serafina Pekkala. But the character who makes the biggest impression both literally and figuratively is the armored ice bear Iorek Byrnison an exiled prince from his homeland of Svalbard who is looking for a little retribution. As voiced by Ian McKellen (who else?) Iorek is definitely a force to be reckoned with every time he is on screen. His bear-on-bear battle with the reigning Svalbardian king who kicked him out is one of the film’s best moments. Love the character names too. There’s a lot going on in The Golden Compass which might confuse the smaller ones in the audience. Pullman's books are dense much like the Harry Potter series and one must stay pretty focused to follow all the film's plot points--some of which will with any luck make more sense further down the line. And it is also at times hard to stay emotionally involved in the spectacle of it all (the exception is definitely the ice bears). But still if you allow yourself to be immersed in this fantastical purely make-believe world of gadgetry grandeur and austerity much like the worlds of Harry Potter Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia then you shouldn’t be too disappointed with Golden Compass. Even more amazing is the director who came up with the film’s vision: Chris Weitz best known for helming the little British dramedy About a Boy. Maybe not the first choice but it’s clear the director is passionate about the material as he covers as much ground as possible in the first installment. Probably the most fascinating part are the daemons who are the animal manifestations of their human counterparts interconnected in all ways. Some have smaller domestic animals such as dogs cats mice; some like Lord Asriel have big animals such as snow leopard; some even have insects. It gets your mind wandering about what yours might be.
Former mythology professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) has been in love with--and married to--gorgeous spirited Fiona (a radiant Julie Christie) for more than 40 years. After some turbulence earlier in their marriage (Grant wasn't always as faithful as he is now) they've spent the last two decades in their own private haven a rustic Canadian cottage that lends itself to cross-country ski treks and intimate dinners. But their idyll is shattered when Fiona starts forgetting simple things--like what "wine" is called; they soon discover she's suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. Against Grant's desperate protests Fiona checks into a retirement facility called Meadowlands. There as Grant watches from the sidelines heartbroken she develops feelings for a fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Ultimately Grant must figure out the best way to prove his love. Away From Her is the kind of movie that succeeds or fails almost wholly on the strength of its cast--happily in this case it's the former. Christie is all elegant grace as Fiona from her beautiful mane of white hair to her impeccable sense of style. But she's impulsive and approachable too with an earthiness that grounds her. Her sense of fun and joy is clear from the sparkle in her eyes--when that sparkle starts to dim the audience like Grant mourns its loss. As Grant Pinsent is both stoic and achingly vulnerable; he can't bear watching Fiona slip away but he also can't bring himself to cause her any more pain. In the supporting cast Kristen Thomson is refreshingly forthright as Kristy the Meadowlands nurse who always tells Grant the truth and Olympia Dukakis is believably brassy as Aubrey's wife Marian who's not quite ready to give up on life. Sarah Polley has spent plenty of hours in front of the camera but Away From Her marks the Canadian actress' feature directorial debut. She's obviously learned a lot from the talented filmmakers she's worked with particularly Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) whose aesthetic is similarly spare and minimalistic. Although her long lingering close-ups (Christie's skin is remarkably clear; Pinsent is quite craggy) occasionally feel indulgent Polley has a knack for using light and landscape to evoke the essence of her subject matter: love marriage and loss. It helps that she had good source material to work from; the movie is based on acclaimed author Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." For a first-time feature Away From Her is impressively assured tackling tough topics with sensitivity empathy and the confidence of experience.
As Love Actually begins we are told that perhaps the world isn't such a dire and hateful place that "love actually is all around." Around London anyway. The film explores no less than seven different romantic scenarios within the bustling British capital--all of which interconnect and eventually resolve on Christmas Eve. There's the newly elected dashing Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) who is smitten with his secretary the earthy Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); Karen (Emma Thompson) whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) has strayed with his seductive secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch); Sarah (Laura Linney) the American wallflower who has a crush on her colleague Carl (Rodrigo Santoro); Jamie (Colin Firth) who falls for his pretty Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz)…there are lots more but you get the gist. As love goes things may not get tied up neatly in brightly colored packages for everyone but there's still enough good cheer to spread around.
Showcasing some of Britain's finest actors Love Actually doesn't have a bad banana in the bunch. Floppy-haired Hugh Grant turns in an endearing performance and proves there isn't a romantic comedy he can't handle. He has an uncanny knack for connecting with any actress he happens to be romancing; in this case it's the adorable McCutcheon best known for the hit British TV drama EastEnders. Rickman and Thompson are quite good as the couple whose long-term marriage is beginning to crack; Thompson especially does a nice job trying to hide her pain while being a happy mom. Linney too shines as Sarah who glows with excitement when she finally gets what she so ardently wished for. Veteran stage and film actor Bill Nighy (Underworld) however steals the show as a carefree aging rock star desperate for a comeback. His Billy Mack smacks of Mick Jagger Keith Richards and Rod Stewart all rolled into one.
"I'm worried that we don't have the word 'massacre' in the title " writer/director Richard Curtis fretted to Entertainment Weekly referring to how horror-loving American audiences might not take to his new romantic comedy that is already a huge hit in Britain. True perhaps a romantic comedy starring a multitude of A-list British actors might not bring in the required masses. But who cares about the money (did I just say that)? Curtis who has written some of the best romantic comedies of the last decade including Four Weddings and a Funeral Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary steps behind the camera for the first time here and is able to give each story a unique point of view from the lovesick to the wacky. There actually may be too many stories in Love Actually but it's a small gaffe. Love Actually is a refreshing good old fashioned warm and gushy movie that takes your mind off the bad things for the holiday season and Curtis should feel confident about his directing debut.