All reviews by Loey Lockerby
New Line tried to follow up its “Lord of the Rings” success with this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel, but it didn’t quite work out. Faced with controversy over Pullman’s anti-religious message and an American audience largely unfamiliar with the English author’s books, the studio failed to deliver an appropriately awe-inspiring epic.
The Golden Compass isn’t a disaster, but director Chris Weitz is clearly in over his head. The story is set in an alternate universe where people’s souls reside outside their bodies, polar bears talk and fight, and an organization called The Magesterium rules with an iron theocratic fist. Oh, and there’s a substance called Dust that everyone is worried about, plus the mysterious, much-coveted title object.
All this needs serious exposition for the uninitiated, but Weitz has to pack it all into a 1 hour 45 minute running time. He even cuts off the book’s ending, saving it for a sequel that may or may not happen, given the movie’s lackluster U.S. box office performance.
Dakota Blue Richards, who plays the feisty young heroine, is terrific, and Nicole Kidman was born to play the icy, sinister villainess, Mrs. Coulter. The visuals and special effects are near perfect, and the potential for greatness is certainly there. Now, if only we could get those sequels. At the very least, an extended director’s cut of this one would be nice.
Extras: Weitz provides a detailed commentary; the 2-disc version also contains copious features, on the novel, the adaptation process, casting Lyra, the locations, the music and the press tours. (PG-13). Rating: 3.5
Bella is one of those sweet personal films that makes you feel bad for not liking it more. A nearly plotless tale of regret and redemption, it follows friends Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) and Nina (Tammy Blanchard) as they wander New York City, helping each other deal with their respective emotional baggage. Jose is still reeling from a tragedy in his past, and Nina has discovered she’s pregnant and has lost her job.
Jose is an almost saintly figure, which gives Verastegui little to do but look soulful. He’s like a hippie crossed with a monk. Blanchard has a much more interesting role, and if this were a bigger and/or better film, she might have been an awards-season contender.
Director Alejandro Monteverde creates an intimate, authentic atmosphere and sympathetic characters, making the best out of his low budget. Perhaps because the storyline is so thin, he also includes lots of flashbacks and what appear to be flash-forwards. It’s a technique that can be illuminating one minute and irritating the next (not to mention confusing).
There is real talent at work in Bella both in front of and behind the camera. It's a decent first film for Monteverde, and if he can find more substantive stories to tell his career may be worth following
Extras: Commentary by Monteverde; docs on the production and the struggle to find a distributor. (PG-13). Rating: 3.
Romantic comedies are notoriously formulaic, so it's always nice to discover one that does something different. This adaptation of Cecelia Ahern's novel may not be the cure for what ails the genre, but at least it's not making it sicker.
Hilary Swank plays Holly, a young widow whose husband, Gerry (Gerard Butler), left messages for her to be delivered throughout the months after his death. Each one urges Holly to complete a task that is supposed to help her move past her grief. Bewildered and frustrated at first, she goes along with the plan, rediscovering her own life in the process.
If this sounds treacly, it isn't, most of the time. Director Richard LaGravenese keeps the film moving and allows plenty of off-kilter humor to balance out the sentiment. Butler's character provides an irreverent Irish brogue from beyond the grave, and Holly's friends and family are the usual quirky bunch.
Holly herself is a tough character to warm up to — she doesn't seem to like Gerry much until after he's dead, and Swank has to work hard to soften the character's edges. The script gives her time to do so, however, and by the end it's possible to root for her happiness. Given the insufferable nature of most "chick flick" characters, that's an impressive accomplishment.
Extras: Deleted scenes; a profile of Ahern; an "instructional" video on the Snaps game featured in the movie. (PG-13). Rating: 3.
George Romero has been King of the Zombies for 40 years now, and for good reason. Not only does he make scary, inventive films about the undead, he also sneaks clever social commentary into the carnage.
With Diary of the Dead, Romero goes back to his low-budget roots, using handheld cameras and unknown actors to depict the beginning of an apocalyptic walking-dead outbreak. A group of student filmmakers (making a horror movie, natch) tries to make sense of the news and find some measure of safety, only to discover what people in these movies always learn — there is no safe place when hordes of hungry animated corpses are roaming the landscape.
As always, Romero stages several brilliant scenes, including an extended sequence at a hospital and a gloriously twisted visit to an Amish farm. He also uses modern media to good effect, with websites and cell phones becoming an essential part of the action.
In fact, our plugged-in culture is the target of the movie’s serious message, and this is where Romero fumbles badly. In his past films, this element has been subtextual, but here, the lectures are repeated loudly and often by an unnecessary narrator. After all these years, Romero has either lost his faith in his audience’s intelligence or his confidence in his own skill. Either way, he comes across like an angry old man who thinks those damn gadgets are destroying our society. Unless he’s using them.
Extras: A commentary by Romero (always a fascinating speaker) along with the editor and cinematographer; over an hour of making-of material; deleted scenes; raw footage of some celebrity voice cameos; MySpace short film contest winners. (R). Rating: 3.
Loey Lockerby can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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