Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Golden Compass

Based on author Philip Pullman's bestselling and award-winning novel, Northern Lights, The Golden Compass tells the first story in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. There is a world where witches rule the northern skies, where ice bears are the bravest of warriors, and where every human is joined with an animal spirit who is as close to them as their own heart. This world is dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all of humanity, and whose greatest threat is the last remaining Golden Compass and the one child destined to possess it. Twelve year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives an extraordinary life as a ward of distinguished Jordan College. Tearing unsupervised through the streets on mad quests for adventure with her loyal friend Roger (Ben Walker), Lyra is accompanied everywhere by her daemon, Pantalaimon--a small, ever-changing animal that serves as a constant voice of reason. But Lyra’s world is changing. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is embarking on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element called Dust, but the Magisterium would go to any lengths to stop him. At the same time, rumors of children mysteriously disappearing and being taken north become terrifyingly real when Lyra''s best friend Roger goes missing. She swears to go to the ends of the earth to rescue him, and when a new figure appears at the college--Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beguiling scientist and world traveler--she sees her best chance to get away. But Lyra''s been drawn into a trap designed to take from her the one thing she possesses that the Magisterium desperately seeks--the Golden Compass. It is a mystical device that can tell the truth, reveal what others wish to hide and foreshadow--and even change--the future. Lyra realizes that she will have to embark on her own journey to rescue Roger and stop the Magisterium. But fate puts her in the protection of a tribe of seafaring Gyptians led by Lord Faa, Ma Costa and Farder Coram. Banding together an unlikely alliance with the Gyptians, the mysterious witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and Texas airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), Lyra is flung into an adventure that will take her over sky and ocean, to the wilds of the icy north, where she gains a powerful ally in a great armored bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). A great war is coming--with her band of friends and allies, and the power of the Golden Compass, Lyra will need all her skill and all her courage, to stop it.

Alright, let's get the simple stuff out of the way: This is a good to very good movie, in my opinion. If you're a fan of fantasy (literature or films) I can safely say that there's no reason not to enjoy this movie. The movie is only a 113 minutes long and moves at a nice brisk pace, considering the fact many characters must be introduced along with their motivations as well as the overall and rather involved storyline and while I might have enjoyed a longer more in-depth endeavor, the complete experience does not suffer becau
se of the length - if anything, I'm more inclined to watch the movie several more times in order to piece together things I may have missed and that's not even taking into account the fact that an extended edition could be lined up for release on DVD and Hi-Def.

The entire cast, including the voice only acting, is fantastic. My only complaint would be that, because of having to introduce so many characters involved with the storyline, I would have liked to have seen more of certain characters even though they do work wonders with what time they are allowed. Daniel Craig conveys an intense drive for truth and knowledge, Nicole Kidman is chillingly calculative with a smoldering evil and Sam Elliot brings a down to 'earth' every-guy honesty into the mix. Eva Green is appropriately sensually cryptic and, in voice only, Ian McKellan is surprisingly awe-inspiring, gentle and devoted. I must admit that the standout performance, for me, was that of
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. Richards is able to display a huge and shocking range of emotion and maturity - there are times when she is the typical twelve year old followed by moments where she seems like a person two or three times her age trapped in her very small body - I haven't seen such a range since Natalie Portman in The Professional - and yet, Richard's actually takes the maturity level even further. Very impressive.

Now, for the not-so-simple stuff. I would be remiss if I failed to address this so-called 'anti-God' propaganda. I would be willing to wager any amount of money that I could bring together in one lump sum on the fact that the vast (and I mean vast) majority of people who have taken issue with this film have never seen it nor have they read the book on which it is based. The 'issue' comes from the fact that Pullman has no qualms about professing his atheism and the fact that the antagonist in his books is a government based on an organized religion that is striving to be all powerful and controlling while, simultaneously stifling free will and the quest for knowledge. Of course, this ruling religion has everyone's best interest in mind but at what cost? At what point does control and removal of choice become evil? That's one of the fundamental thoughts of the story. Granted, the story may be anti-religion or, more precisely, anti-organized religion but that's an easy concept considering religions are all overseen by man - you know, corr
uptible man. I'm sure you've heard of him. Anyway, after almost two hours of watching the film, I found nothing that remotely hinted to being anti-God, but there was plenty concerning manipulating human thoughts and lives. As I left the theater, I couldn't help but wonder: If an atheist wrote a bestselling cook-book, would the book and the meals prepared from it be considered anti-God?

One last thought: For those of you who think the idea of a controlling, choice refusing, knowledge repressing Religion/Government is a ridiculous notion, here's a little tidbit that you should be familiar with. In the 1600' the Catholic Church pretty much controlled everything and the accepted view of the universe, according to the Bible mind you, was that Earth was the center of everything (indirectly saying that man was the center of eve
rything) and that the sun and everything else revolved around us as in Ecclesiastes 1:5 from the King James version: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." Now several people, most notably Nicolaus Copernicus from Poland, had hypothesized that Earth wasn't the center of the universe and actually revolved around the sun which, of course, was heresy in the eyes of the church. Along comes Galileo Galilei with his telescope and after much observation, begins to write about the things he can see. Here's the outcome of his free thinking scientific endeavors:

In 1611 Galileo came to the attention of the Inquisition for the first time for his Copernican views. Four years later a Dominican friar, Niccolo Lorini, who had earlier criticized Galileo's view in private conversations, files a written complaint with the Inquisition against Galileo's Copernican views. Galileo subsequently writes a long letter defending his views to Monsignor Piero Dini, a well connected official in the Vatican, he then writes his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina arguing for freedom of inquiry and travels to Rome to defend his ideas

In 1616 a committee of consultants declares to the Inquisition that the propositions that the Sun is the center of the universe and that the Earth has an annual motion are absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theology, and formally a heresy. On orders of the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine calls Galileo to his residence and administers a warning not to hold or defend the Copernican theory; Galileo is also forbidden to discuss the theory orally or in writing. Yet he is reassured by Pope Paul V and by Cardinal Bellarmine that he has not been on trial nor being condemned by the Inquisition.

In 1624 Galileo meets repeatedly with his (at that time) friend and patron Pope Urban VIII, he is allowed to write about the Copernican theory as long as he treated it as a mathematical hypothesis.

In 1625 a complaint against Galileo's publication The Assayer is lodged at the Inquisition by a person unknown. The complaint charges that the atomistic theory embraced in this book cannot be reconciled with the official church doctrine regarding the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are ``transubstantiated'' into Christ's flesh and blood. After an investigation by the Inquisition, Galileo is cleared.

In 1630 he completed his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which the Ptolemaic and Copernican models are discussed and compared and was cleared (conditionally) to publish it by the Vatican. The book was printed in 1632 but Pope Urban VIII, convinced by the arguments of various Church officials, stopped its distribution; the case is referred to the Inquisition and Galileo was summoned to Rome despite his infirmities.

In 1633 Galileo was formally interrogated for 18 days and on April 30 Galileo confesses that he may have made the Copernican case in the Dialogue too strong and offers to refute it in his next book. Unmoved, the Pope decides that Galileo should be imprisoned indefinitely. Soon after, with a formal threat of torture, Galileo is examined by the Inquisition and sentenced to prison and religious penances, the sentence is signed by 6 of the 10 inquisitors. In a formal ceremony at the church of Santa Maria Sofia Minerva, Galileo abjures his errors. He is then put under house arrest in Sienna.

Galileo remained under house arrest, despite many medical problems and a deteriorating state of health, until his death in 1642.

The Inquisition's ban on reprinting Galileo's works was lifted in 1718.

In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo's complete scientific works which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue.

In 1758 the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of Prohibited Books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus's De Revolutionibus remained.

On October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Not bad, after trying to control knowledge and condemning a man to serve the rest of his life under house arrest, it only took 350 years for someone from the Church to express regret. What's even more amazing is that the ideas that Galileo proved, were accepted by the Church in 1835, but it took another 157 years for them to actually admit they were wrong.

It is exactly this type of atrocity that The Golden Compass endeavors to address.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Mist

Following a violent thunderstorm, artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are among a large group of terrified townspeople trapped in a local grocery store by a strange, otherworldly mist. Local rumors point to an experiment called the 'The Arrowhead Project' conducted at a nearby top-secret military base, but questions as to the origins of the deadly vapor are secondary to the group's overall chances for survival. David is the first to realize that there are things lurking in the mist...deadly, horrifying things...creatures not of this world. Survival depends on everybody in the store pulling together...but is that possible, given human nature?

As reason crumbles in the face of fear and panic, David begins to wonder what is more terrifying: the monsters in the mist—or the ones inside the store, the human kind, the people that until now had been his friends and neighbors?

Full Disclosure: Huge fan of this particular story. I'm sure I've read it no less than ten times, which means I really had my hopes up going into this flick and was feeling pretty confident considering Frank Darabont's past track record with Stephen King material.

I was not disappointed.

Well, maybe a little, but I'll get to that.

The movie handles the story in a very straight forward manner opening with the intense storm and the introduction of David Drayton, his family, their next door neighbor, Brent Norton, and the animosity between David and Brent. Things move right along to the grocery store, the cast of unique characters of the quaint town and the abrupt arrival of the dense mist. Once the mist has cut visibility to six feet and the store patrons began to fear what may be lurking just beyond their field of vision, the story really begins to blossom. By the time things begin to seen, the real horror has already started to take shape. Thomas Jane, a veteran of Dreamcatcher, another Stephen King based movie, is very convincing as a man trying to deal with an intense situation while simultaneously looking out for his son as he fears for his wife who stayed home, alone.

However, the real star of this film is the breakdown of sensibilities and how accurately they are portrayed. Certain aspects make it perfectly clear how religion steeped in fear could have controlled society for hundreds of years and no character brings that to light better than Mrs. Carmody, played chillingly by Marcia Gay Harden. The character of Mrs. Carmody along with perfectly portrayed 'average people' truly make this a movie worth seeing if only because of it's microcosm display of how seemingly normal, every-day people can be coerced to put aside rational thought and partake in stupid affairs such as burning books and music or condemning scientific endeavors simply because they don't fit in line with something taught in Sunday School. I really had a difficult time deciding which monsters were the most terrifying.

Now, my only disappointment - without giving anything away: They changed the ending and I still haven't decided if I liked it or not. Just so you know, if you haven't read the story, the original ending was one of unknown - a classic 'Alfred Hitchcock' moment that could just as easily contain disaster as much as it could contain salvation. In fact, the end of the story often reminded me of the end of "The Birds" when Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, the rest of the family and those evil love birds pile into the car and drive off into the unknown surrounded by thousands of calm, for the moment, birds. The end and answers were left to your own imagination. That's how Stephen King's story ended. That's not how the movie ends. To be fair, had I not read the story multiple times, I'm sure I would have really been pleased with the end of the movie and I have a sneaking suspicion that, given several viewings, I'll learn to appreciate this movie as it's own entity. I base that notion on another book to movie example: The Bourne Identity. The Bourne movie (and the subsequent films) had next to nothing to do with the book and, at first, I was not a fan of the movie in any way shape or form but, priding myself on my ability to see things from various points of view, I watched the film again and slowly I began to separate the two the appreciate the film for an original story using the book as source material. Since then, I've become huge fans of all three Bourne movies while remaining true to my original fondness for the books. In a way, I've been able to enjoy six Bourne adventures instead of only three. It is with this in mind that I look forward to seeing The Mist again and possibly benefiting from two versions rather than one.