Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
A curious fantasy epic that never quite satisfies, Chris Weitz´ The Golden Compass takes us to a wonderful, original mythological world but fails to present any kind of isolated story to take us through: it´s an incomplete part of a potentially great whole, based on the first book of author Philip Pullman´s His Dark Materials trilogy, and feels more incomplete than any of the Lord of the Rings film taken on their own. While I hesitate to recommend the film as a whole, there are many aspects I liked and it’s a step up, in my humble opinion, from the first Chronicles of Narnia and the most recent Harry Potter films.
Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards stars as Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in a kind of alternate reality that resembles 1960´s England; notable changes include flying witches, talking polar bears, a magical truth-telling device, and animals called daemons that accompany each human. Lyra´s Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has potentially discovered a dust that may connect parallel universes in the North; this brings him into a conflict with the powerful Magisterium and imposing Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who fear that examination of the dust will contradict hundreds of years of their teachings. With her uncle in need of aid, and her schoolyard friends disappearing, Lyra heads to the North with the help of seafaring pirate-types known as Gyptians, witch Eva Green, cowboy-like Sam Elliott, and talking polar bear Iorek Byrinson (voiced by Ian McKellan).
We´re rushed through everything, however, most notably character development – even at two hours, the film feels short. Director Weitz (of American Pie and About a Boy fame) may not have been the right choice for this kind of epic material; the film looks great, but is never as compelling as it ought to be. Much of the talented cast is given little to do, though McKellan stands out as the voice of Byrnison, as does Kidman in a juicy, multi-layered villainess role. But Richards is the true star of the film, and excels in the lead: she stands her ground against the eclectic cast and cgi-heavy fantasy universe, and carries the weight of the entire production on her shoulders. But we´re only left wanting more, the film whetting our appetite and never quite filling it. That isn´t always a bad thing – I do look forward to a sequel – but judging from initial box office receipts, a sequel may not be coming. Catholic protests are mostly unfounded – if anything, the film is an apology for the work of confirmed atheist Pullman, with anti-religious ties between the Magisterium and the Catholic Church barely noticeable.
A by-the-numbers thriller with that distinct made-for-cable feel, Xavier Gens´ Hitman should´ve and would´ve premiered on a lesser medium if it weren´t based on the popular video game series of the same name. And it would have been better off for it: this Bourne-lite pic is watchable and competently made, but best suited to late-night cable viewing, where a jumpy narrative and tonal shifts would be less distracting. Timothy Olyphant stars as Agent 47, emotionless hitman with a barcode tattooed on the back of his shaven head, bred to be an assassin by the mysterious Agency. A needlessly complex double-crossing, with 47 sent to kill the Russian president, leaves our hero the target of the Agency, inept Russian police, and Interpol agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott). Russian hooker and presidential mistress Nika (Olga Kurylenko), also targeted to be killed, joins 47 in trying to make sense of the situation. Olyphant is a terrific actor and does his best with the thankless role of an expressionless automaton; the shaved-head look, however, just doesn´t suit him – executive producer Vin Diesel would have been better suited to the role. Kurylenko comes off best as the frisky, vampy Nika, whose ball-of-fire personality is nicely played off of Olyphant´s Agent 47; their relationship makes little sense in any kind of logical way, but it´s one of the things I liked best about the film. Action scenes are most disappointing, with director Gens trying (and failing) to emulate Paul Greengrass´ quick-cut, handheld-cam Bourne stylistics.
Lackluster doc presents a nice overview of John Lennon´s post-Beatles life, but glosses over most of it and offers nothing new. Sole focus is on Lennon´s transformation into pro-peace activist and his perceived threat to the Nixon-led US establishment; title is derived from attempts to deport him to England, though anyone expecting an in-depth look at the actual trial will come away disappointed. Use of original footage – such as John and Yoko lying in bed, hounded by photographers while prophesizing their “give peace a chance” message – is the best thing about the film, but the filmmakers simply present the footage as is, failing to explore anything in-depth. The usual cavalcade of talking heads, Yoko, G. Gordon Liddy, Gore Vidal, and a bunch of obscurities, seem to ramble on without much direction. While praised for the mere documentation of it’s subject, film is a failure as an objective documentary, and, with the cooperation of Ono (needed in order to obtain rights to use most of the footage included) paints Lennon as a saint and fails to even acknowledge his contributions to the worlds of art and music. Those unfamiliar with Lennon’s post-Beatles life may find a lot of wealth in the film; everyone else can feel free to skip it.