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.
It’s been 400 years since a virus wiped out most of the planet. All that’s remains is a small walled-in community of sorts Bregna run by the Goodchild Regime. Most of the citizens have no choice but to put up with their quasi-Totalitarianism. But Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) a top operative of the underground Monican rebellion has had enough and seeks revenge on the government she believes destroyed her life. At the behest of the Handler (Frances McDormand) who gives out the orders to the few do-gooders of Bregna she aims to sabotage the Regime. Little does Aeon know however that there is already unrest within the Goodchild clan between brothers Trevor (Marton Csokas) and Oren (Jonny Lee Miller). When Aeon arrives to carry out her revenge she unlocks a number of secrets and finds out who’s really on her side. There are a heap of objectionable themes in Aeon Flux but the real shame is that these actors willingly took part in this film. Granted Theron looks stunning steely and sultry all at once but we thought her Monster Oscar would afford her more meaningful roles so her looks wouldn’t be the focal point. Her acting is hard to gauge here because her stark beauty is accentuated. It’s a step back for her even if taking the role must have padded her wallet. McDormand--who was so good just months ago in North Country with Theron--looks like Tim Burton’s twin sister in Flux with her outlandish makeover. It is only slightly more ridiculous than the robot-like character she’s supposed to be playing. And Sophie Okonedo who plays Aeon’s partner-in-crime is worthy of praise but after her Oscar-nominated performance in Hotel Rwanda you have to wonder what made her do Flux. Aeon Flux just might do in director Karyn Kusama whose only other credit is the 2000 indie darling Girlfight. Most directors work a lifetime to get a big-budget monster like this but unfortunately for Kusama she can’t quite carry the torch. The film looks like Tomb Raider’s jealous younger sibling who still has much to learn. There’s non-stop action in exotic locales smoldering lead actress in skin-tight wardrobes etc. but it leaves you feeling dizzy more than anything else especially since the death-defying action is constantly cutting back and forth between Theron and her stunt double. And everything is only grossly accentuated by awful dialogue that sounds like a satire of an over-acted heavy drama. The film’s set design is spectacularly elaborate and breathtaking but it unfortunately can’t redeem the rest of the film.
The film opens as teenagers Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) are having a sleepover and spooking each other with ghost stories. Trouble is the urban legend Becca retells is all too true as Katie is just about to find out in the most grisly of ways. The story centers on a mysterious videotape that should you be so unfortunate as to view it will kill you in seven days (you know this because someone calls right after you watch it to alert you that you're gonna kick). Katie and her friends watched it and sure enough they're all dead a week later--sparking Katie's aunt an investigative journalist named Rachel (Naomi Watts) to uncover what happened and why. When the trail leads her to the sinister tape she watches it receives the foreboding phone call and consequently sets off on a race against time to somehow save her life by finding out the meaning of what she's seen. She enlists the help of Noah (Martin Henderson) the father of her rather strange and solitary young son Aidan (David Dorfman)--who like all kids in horror movies these days is seeing frightening visions too--and over the course of seven days the two find themselves embroiled in a mystery that involves the tape a twisted family and dying horses.
The acting by all involved is generally good. Naomi Watts who hit the radar with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive last year ably carries the film although there are times in close-up when she looks too self-aware with an almost smug expression as though she's about to smile when the situation isn't the least bit funny. Maybe it's because she knows her Rachel does some pretty mind-blowingly foolish things the most noteworthy among them leaving the deadly video out where her curious son (who annoyingly invokes Haley Joel Osment and looks absolutely nothing like either of the folks playing his parents) can pop it in the ol' VCR. Though Watts is a basically likeable fresh face any number of up-and-coming actresses could have done this role--as well or better.
It's been awhile since jaded horror fans have had something to get excited about. Gore Verbinski justifies his career after the miserable The Mexican with this taut thriller which opens with the teen girls in a truly terrifying sequence reminiscent of Scream. Verbinski is keenly aware of the value of keeping things just out of sight and not resorting to cheap horror movie shlock so there are genuine chills to be had (animal lovers will want to cover their eyes during one particularly horrifying scene). Although the moments that'll really make you jump out of your skin are few and far between the secret behind the videotape is compelling as is the imagery. Without overdoing it The Ring displays some fantastic cinematography particularly with the Buñuel-esque videotape (you could have heard a pin drop as engrossed as the audience was at this review screening) and the shots of gloomy mist-enshrouded Washington State are disquietingly atmospheric. However the last third of the movie is somewhat disappointing and contains several utterly ridiculous scenes--particularly one at the ending (which actually has a nice twist).
This turbo-charged film centers on street racing and the people who live for it. Dominic Toretto (the aptly named Vin Diesel) is one of them rebuilding high performance racecars by day and racing by night. Since the money he makes for winning a race (up to $10 000) barely covers his overhead costs Toretto and his band of staunch followers supplement their incomes by hijacking electronics-filled 18-wheelers. The FBI which has narrowed down the suspects to either Toretto or his arch rival Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) sends in undercover officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) to get the evidence they need and arrest the right guy. O'Connor gets a job at a local high-end auto supply store and soon infiltrates Toretto's gang despite repeated warnings from its leader's steadfast cronies. He wins Toretto's respect and after predictably falling for his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) begins to question his loyalties. It's a stale story line with all the typical elements but who cares? In The Fast and the Furious the story is a mere formality.
Most of the actors in this film have been typecast but for once that's not a limiting thing. It almost seems as though Diesel (Boiler Room Pitch Black) was born to play commandeering ringleader Dominic Toretto. With his gravelly baritone voice and menacing screen presence he dominates every scene he is in. Unfortunately the script calls for him to utter obvious lines like "You break her heart I'll break your neck." Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) is in her element as his cagey girlfriend but could almost be mistaken for a rottweiler on a leash. She scowls and glares over the rim of her shades one too many times but demonstrates once again that she can pack a mean punch. There is a small but surprisingly funny performance by Chad Lindberg as Jesse the mechanical genius whose ADD drove him to a life of crime. But Walker (The Skulls) is as bland as his white-bread character O'Connor and the object of his affection Mia (Brewster The Invisible Circus) is equally unimpressive. But as with the story The Fast and the Furious is not about the acting.
Furious makes up for what it lacks intellectually with pure and unadulterated action. The overly choreographed scenes of cars driving in V-formations are eclipsed by the cars themselves which are the highlight of the film. The race sequences alone will practically leave you feeling compressed and the souped-up Nissans Hondas and Toyotas will make this film an instant cult classic within the car culture. Craig Lieberman one of the import car consultants on the film even provided his own 1994 Toyota Supra--complete with Greddy Turbo and NOS nitrous upgrades three TV screens VCR Sony Play Station 19" Dazz wheels and a $7 000 custom paint job. If the car didn't actually belong to a real person it might be too decadent to be believed. All in all Furious is a dizzying frenzy of noise and speed that serves up what films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Driven promise but never come close to delivering. Despite its screeching drag races and hair-raising crashes Furious probably won't appeal to the masses but expect it to fly when it gets released on DVD.