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Jim Carter

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Life in a Northern Town.

This is the North, where we do what we want.” Welllll…unless you’re Brian Clough, of course. After a rough start of Alice and Brooklyn on Friday, movies #3, #4, and #5 of last weekend righted the ship considerably. Those would be the dark and very worthwhile Red Riding trilogy, based on the four-book crime series by David Peace (also the author of The Damned United.)

Consisting of Julian Jarrold’s Red Riding 1974, James Marsh’s Red Riding 1980, and Anand Tucker’s Red Riding 1983, these, unlike the various threads of Brooklyn’s Finest, are three interlocking crime stories than actually enhance and deepen one another, all the while telling one story. And, like The Wire and unlike Brooklyn again, nothing is spelled out for the audience, and all the pieces matter. Over six hours, it all adds up to a grim, complicated, and often harrowing portrait of the Evil that Men do in deepest, darkest Yorkshire.

In the first and arguably best installment, it is the Year of our Lord 1974, and a young girl has gone missing. On the case right away is Eddie Dunford, an enterprising journalist just back from a long stint in London (Andrew Garfield, late of Gilliam’s Imaginarium), who very quickly — too quickly, for the cops on the case — ties the disappearance to two earlier murders. But when the child’s body is found, with swan wings stitched into her back, no less, the case officially passes into the hands of Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan, late of Sherlock Holmes), the paper’s lead reporter and something of a worthless drunk.

Regardless, Eddie’s interest is piqued, and he continues to follow the leads where they take him — from the arms of a beautiful-but-sad Girl of the North Country (Rebecca Hall) to the clutches of the local developing magnate (Sean Bean), who holds grand ambitions and no small amount of pull in the community. And, while Eddie first thought his drinking buddy Barry (Anthony Flanagan) was a wee bit paranoid for ranting on about disappearances and death squads in li’l old Yorkshire, he starts to wonder about it some when Barry becomes the victim of a horrible sheet glass accident. Was Barry in fact murdered? And if so, how deep does this rabbit hole go?

Deep enough that Detective Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is still trying to sort things out six years later, in the Year of our Lord 1980. A Manchester cop reassigned to this beat to help catch the Yorkshire Ripper, or at least to figure out why he hasn’t been caught after thirteen victims, Hunter and his team (Tony Pitts, Maxine Peake) uncover some…discrepancies in the case files of one of the victims. Either the police work is exceedingly shoddy, or the Yorkshire Ripper now has a copycat — or maybe it’s just convenient for some murders to look like Ripper victims.

This all brings to mind the last time Detective Hunter found himself in this godforsaken corner of the North. That would be six years earlier, when he was assigned to look into a bloody crime scene that left a few extra bullets and lots of unanswered questions. The problem is, some folks in town don’t seem to want either of these mysteries looked into anymore, and Hunter has left himself dangerously exposed by recently engaging in an illicit office romance. Something’s gotta give, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be the wall of silence that surrounds so many of the sinister goings-on in this riding…

Cut to the Year of our Lord 1983, when, just as the Ripper’s bloody swath through this area is at last fading into grim memory, another local girl goes missing. This conjures dismal memories of the case nine years earlier for Detective Superintendent Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey, a.k.a. “The Next Doctor“), one of the higher-ups on the Yorkshire police force, who we’ve seen engaged in some dodgy behavior in the first two installments. (He’s known as the Owl, not to be confused with the Wolf, the Swan, or the Badger.)

Meanwhile, on a visit to his late mother’s home, a local solicitor (Mark Addy, soon of Robin Hood) is guilt-tripped by his old neighbors into revisiting the case of the developmentally disabled man (Daniel Mays) convicted of the 1974 child murders. Suffice to say, there are some troubling holes in the prosecution’s story, and they seem to point right back at “enhanced interrogation” practices in the Yorkshire PD. And when another local man (Gerard Kearns) is taken into custody for this new child disappearance, well, it starts to seem like this has all happened before — and the good lawyer’s father might have been deeply involved.

In all honesty, the story skips off the rails a bit in 1983 — A medium becomes involved in the previously played-straight story, and the original village conspiracies get to be a bit too baroque for plausibility. (Even notwithstanding the huge body count at this late date, there would now seem to be [spoilers-highlight to read]two different and almost-completely unrelated shady operations at work by now.) And, in any event, the overarching three-film plot becomes so byzantine at times that it does get quite hard to maintain the thread. (I’m still unclear as to why [same]the cops shot up the Kirachi Club after Eddie left in 1974. What were their intentions anyway?)

But taken as a whole, this glum trilogy has an admirably dark mojo to it. I mentioned The Wire early on, but perhaps the best analogue for these films is to think of them as sort of an extended British version of Zodiac. If you can handle the violence, the accents, and the unrelenting Yorkshire gloom, the Red Riding trilogy is worth the trip…just be careful who you talk to while you’re there.

No Alice Aforethought.

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings. And why this film was stinking rot, and so darn bad it stings… Sigh. Well, if you were going to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the box office numbers seem to indicate that you probably already have. Nonetheless, I’m sorry to report that — Mia Wasikowska, some of the art direction, and perhaps a scene or two notwithstanding — this Alice is a thoroughly woeful enterprise, and just an aggravatingly bad adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world. If you hold any fondness for the book, trust me, you’ll leave Mad as Hell.

I say Lewis Carroll’s “world” because, as you probably already know, this is not a straight-up adaptation of (the often-combined) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. Rather, this movie takes up Alice’s tale as a teenager on the threshold of womanhood (Wasikowska), who, while weighing the pros-and-cons of betrothal to a rich, haughty, and very Burtonesque suitor (Leo Bill), finds herself Down the Rabbit Hole and back once again in, uh, “Underland.” So, in other words, at best this iteration of Alice already feels like reading somebody’s random Lewis Carroll fan-fiction on the Internets.

Worse, the fan in question seems to have really dug The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, to the point of just grifting liberally from Narnia to write this sequel-story. Now, Alice is basically a Pevensie-ish “Daughter of Eve” prophesied to free Won…uh, Underland from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Note the picture of Alice at the top of this post, brandishing the sword and armor on the battlefield(?), and standing next to Hathaway the White like she’s at Minas Tirith — Does that look anything like Alice in Wonderland to you?

So yeah, all the playful word games and off-kilter logic puzzles of Carroll’s book, and your usual Alice adaptations for that matter, have been thrown out the window here. Instead, we are left with…well, basically your average dumb summer movie. The Mad Hatter has become a major character, for seemingly no other reason than to accommodate the presence of Johnny Depp. We are told Alice is destined to slay the Jabberwocky early in the second reel, which means we spend the rest of the film just sitting around waiting for this prophesied shoe to drop. And — spoiler alert — when our heroine finally accomplishes the deed at the Big Battle and puts the dragon (and by extension the audience) out of its misery, she even gets to throw in a John McClane/Schwarzenegger one-liner. (“Off with your head!)

Put simply, this is just a blatantly stupid movie, and looking back on it, I can think of only one or two grace notes worth mentioning. As you might expect from most any Tim Burton production, the art direction is quite impressive at times (The 3-D, on the other hand, is muddy, and really doesn’t add anything to the experience.) So, for example, the design of the Red Queen’s soldiers is rather appealing, but these flourishes still aren’t really enough to keep things moving along. There’s one very brief scene involving frog and fish servants of the Red Queen that made it seem like the overall film would be much more fun and imaginative. And, while Wasikowska herself is actually quite solid throughout the movie, this Alice only manages to capture some of the real Wonderland magic in the Eat Me/Drink Me sequence early on.

Otherwise, tho’, hoo boy. While Tim Burton and the screenwriters clearly deserve the lion’s share of the blame for this fiasco, there’s more than enough Terrible to go around. (For his part, Depp is strange as usual, but is neither a plus nor a minus, really — Just don’t get me started on the breakdancing scene.) Somehow, someway, Crispin Glover, a.k.a. the one-eyed Knave of Hearts, seems like he’s overacting even when surrounded by talking dogs, rabbits, and pigs. But even he isn’t as lousy here as Anne Hathaway, who is high-school-production-bad. (I should know — I was in one.) As the White Queen, I couldn’t tell if Hathaway was trying to riff off of her Princess Diaries co-star Julie Andrews, or whether she was just totally lost amid the CGI, Natalie Portman-style. Either way, this isn’t a career highlight.

So, to sum up, Alice in Wonderland is pretty much just a travesty. (Or, to quote the lady of the hour: “Of all the silly nonsense, this is the stupidest tea party I’ve ever been to in all my life.“) One way or another, and just like Alice, Tim Burton has managed to accomplish an impossible thing here. He’s taken a beloved children’s classic that seemed very well-suited to his strengths, and somehow managed to suck all the magic out of it.

Stripped Bear.

“If you was to crack it open, you’d find no living thing in there. No animal nor insect at any rate. There’s a clockwork running in there, and pinned to the spring of it, there’s a bad spirit with a spell through its heart.” So the mentorly Gyptian scholar Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) tells young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) of a robotic wasp that’s tracked her down, at the behest of the villainous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Alas, the same could be said of Chris Weitz’s disappointing version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The film looks nice enough, but it’s ultimately a plodding and mechanical take on Pullman’s fantasy, one missing its own inner daemon, if you will. And the mischievous, anarchic spirit that drives Pullman’s story has been so thoroughly confined in Hollywood drek and by-the-(Box-Office)-numbers banality that it barely resonates at all.

I was rooting for Weitz here: I quite enjoyed About a Boy and In Good Company (which he produced), and thought his leaving the film for awhile suggested he was aware of the epic scope the project required. And, while Pullman can be a stunningly self-inflated and ungracious sort, I thought the first book of His Dark Materials, before the trilogy bogged down in its own self-importance and anti-religious fervor, was a particularly good fantasy yarn. Alas, the movie as presented — I get the sense we may see another cut of it someday — does Pullman and Compass a severe disservice. All the subversiveness has been drained away from the story, and what we’re left with is virtually indistiguishable from any other B-level Rings clone. It’ll probably just be remembered the one with the polar bears.

Compass establishes its debt to Peter Jackson’s Rings films early — Like The Fellowship of the Ring, Compass begins with a “world as we know it” establishing prologue, setting up the conceits, the McGuffin, the good guys and bad guys, before keying in on one happy-go-lucky youngster who’s the focus of our story. The child in question is one Lyra Belacqua (Richards, good with what she’s given, and she avoids the cute-kid trap very well), an orphan living at Jordan College (i.e. the alternate-dimension version of Oxford). Lyra spends her days frolicing with the town children and getting into trouble with her daemon Pantalamion (Freddy Highmore) — In this world, you see, every person has their own animal-spirit companion which reflects their nature, following them around, sharing their pleasure and pain, and offering advice and conversation as needed. (This is quite different from our world, where my animal companion spends his days chasing his tail, barking at evil, and passing out on the couch.)

But Lyra’s world is about to come undone: Her free-thinking uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, also quite good given the circumstances), has upset the ruling order of the Magisterium (Think the Vatican, except with Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee in tow) by arguing not only that parallel worlds exist, but that they might be accessible through the omnipresent interstellar medium known as Dust. And, when Asriel — now that the whole world looks Dusted — decides to continue his research in the polar North, Lyra herself gets caught up in the great events, particularly after an undercover agent of the Magisterium, one Mrs. Coulter (Kidman, seeming somewhat lost — she was better in Margot last week), takes a shine to her, and it is determined Lyra can read an ancient and powerful device known as an alethiometer, which invariably speaks truth to power. Is Lyra that child, the one prophesied to come by the witches of the North? Well, definitely maybe…

There are some elements of The Golden Compass that work rather well. As I said, Richards is an appealing presence, and it’s hard to imagine a better Lyra than her. Daniel Craig and especially Sam Elliot, as the aeronaut-cowboy Lee Scoresby, breathe much-needed life into the story in their brief moments onscreen. The daemons are for the most part cleverly handled, with particular plaudits for Mrs. Coulter’s vicious golden monkey (It really seems like it leapt off the page.) And most of the polar bear sequences, featuring Ian McKellen as the deposed bear-king Iorek Byrnison and Ian McShane as the evil usurper of the throne, Ragnar Sturlusson, are as good as one could hope for.

But McKellen’s inherently Gandalfian qualities further cement a comparison which doesn’t work in Compass‘s favor. If anything, Weitz’s film proves how important composer Howard Shore (like production designer Alan Lee) was to the success of the Rings trilogy. In Compass, as in Rings, characters are prone to describe places they’ve arrived at with a burst of description and a musical flourish. (“Svalbard, kingdom of the ice bears!“) But Alexandre Desplat’s score is so leaden and overbearing that it makes these bouts of exposition seem like, well, exposition. As a result, there’s much less magic in Compass than there should be — Like Chris Columbus’ first two installments of the Harry Potter series, Weitz’s film at best feels like a book on tape.

Or does it? Daemons and polar bears aside, the thing that made Compass an interesting read was Pullman’s subversive intent. In fact, I’ll admit to being more than a little curious as to how the heck The Subtle Knife and especially The Amber Spyglass, with its overtly Miltonic war against “the Authority” (i.e. God), was ever going to translate into a Christmas blockbuster. The answer the studio suits came up with, it seems, was to disembowel the film almost completely. Perhaps, given his haughty disdain for other authors’ fantasy works, Pullman even deserved to see his Golden Compass turned into an eviscerated Disney ride — Polar bears without the Coke. But fans of the book sure didn’t. Somewhere, somehow, somebody at New Line clearly decided that Compass needed to be more upbeat if it was going to make any money.

As a result, the ending of the movie, which cuts off a few chapters early (despite scenes of the Northern Lights in the trailer), was such a flagrant sucker-punch to the audience that I left completely disgusted with the film. If you’d never read The Golden Compass, you’d be hard-pressed to follow what’s going on anyway, or to give the overarching story the benefit of the doubt when it’s so often drowning in exposition. If you have read The Golden Compass, then you know how it ends, or will remember as it goes along, and don’t expect to see anything different. But, no, in keeping with its resolute ambition throughout not to offend anyone, Compass is (currently) given a syrupy, platitudinous ending before Lyra et al reach the Crack in the World. It’d be as if the Coens transformed the end of No Country for Old Men, or Joe Wright his new version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, just to make it feel more upbeat and “viewer-friendly” and thus improve the box office. (In fact, if anything, it reminded me of the disrepect George Sluizer showed his audience with the feel-good American version of The Vanishing, which recently came up over at THND.) I was on the fence, leaning negative, about The Golden Compass up to that point. But those closing moments encapsulate most of what’s wrong with this saccharine adaptation. Say what you will about Philip Pullman — He’s definitely more fun with claws.

The Polar Express.

A brand new trailer for The Golden Compass materializes online, and apparently Christopher Lee (Magisterium Big Bad), Freddie Highmore (voice of Pantalamion), and Ian McKellen (voice of Iorek) have all signed up for duty in Chris Weitz’s film. They join Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Sam Elliot (the latter as Lee Scoresby, but reeking of The Big Lebowski.)

Compass Golden?

Even more Comic-Con riches: A new, extended, walk-you-through-the-plot trailer for The Golden Compass is now online, and it looks…well, to be honest, it looks pretty darn good! Big ups to the art direction and casting people — Iorek (the polar bear), the daemons (particularly Miss Coulter’s twisted golden monkey), and the main players (Lyra, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, Lee Scoresby) all look note-perfect.

Lyra, daemons, and bears, oh my!

Another big fantasy trailer comes in the wake of Harry: New Line plays the LotR card to help sell audiences on the new teaser for Chris Weitz’s take on Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Well, the actors and the polar bears look pretty good…I’d like to see more of the daemons.

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