Making an earnest cinematic argument for the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife without delving into mushy sentimentality is a difficult task for even the most gifted and “serious” of filmmakers. Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson discovered as much last year when his sappy grandiose adaptation of the ethereal bestseller The Lovely Bones opened to scathing reviews. Critics by and large tend to bristle at movie renderings of what may or may not await them in that Great Arthouse in the Sky.
And yet filmmakers seem determined to keep trying. The latest to make the attempt is Clint Eastwood who throughout his celebrated directorial career has certainly demonstrated a firm grasp of the death part of the equation. His filmography with a few notable exceptions practically revels in it: of his recent oeuvre Invictus is the only work that doesn’t deal with mortality in some significant manner. With his new film Hereafter Eastwood hopes to add immortality to his thematic resume.
The film's narrative centers on three characters each of whom has intimate experience with death and loss. Their stories in true Eastwood fashion can ostensibly be labeled Sad Sadder and Saddest: Marie (Cecile de France) is a French TV news anchor who’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks after she loses consciousness — and briefly her life — during a natural disaster; George (Matt Damon looking credibly schlubby) is a former psychic whose skills as a medium are so potent (the slightest touch from another human being triggers an instant powerful psychic connection a la Rogue from X-Men) they’ve left him isolated and alone; Marcus is a London schoolboy who retreats into a somber shell after losing his twin brother in a tragic car accident (both brothers are played rather impressibly by real-life twins Frankie and George McLaren).
Humanity offers little help to these troubled souls surrounding them with skeptics charlatans users and deadbeats none of whom are particularly helpful with crises of an existential nature. Luckily there are otherworldly options. Peter Morgan's script assumes psychics out-of-body experiences and other such phenomena to be real and legitimate but in a non-denominational Coast-to-Coast AM kind of way. Unlike Jackson’s syrupy CGI-drenched glimpses of the afterlife Eastwood’s visions of the Other Side are vague and eery — dark fuzzy silhouettes of the departed set against a white background. Only Damon’s character George seems capable of drawing meaning from them which is why he’s constantly sought out by grief-stricken folks desperate to make contact with loved ones who’ve recently passed on. He’s John Edward only real (and not a douche).
Marie and Marcus appear destined to find him as well but only as the last stop on wearisome circuitous and often heartbreaking spiritual journeys that together with George’s hapless pursuit of a more temporal connection (psychic ability it turns out can be a wicked cock-blocker) consume the bulk of Hereafter’s running time. We know the three characters’ paths must inevitably intersect but Morgan’s script stubbornly forestalls this eventuality testing our patience for nearly two ponderous and maudlin hours and ultimately building up expectations for a climax Eastwood can’t deliver at least not without sacrificing any hope of credulity.
It should be noted that Hereafter features a handful of genuinely touching moments thanks in great part to the film's tremendous cast. And its finale is refreshingly upbeat. Unfortunately it also feels forced and terribly unsatisfying. Eastwood an established master of all things tragic and forlorn struggles mightily to mount a happy ending. (Which in my opinion is much more challenging than a sad or ambiguous one.) After prompting us to seriously ponder life’s ultimate question Eastwood’s final answer seems to be: Don’t worry about it.
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.