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Weak pull

‘Golden Compass’ misdirected.

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POLAR BEAR EXPRESS
  • POLAR BEAR EXPRESS

So again we navigate the murky, shrieking eel-infested seas of film adaptations of popular novels, but this time we chum the water with controversial anti-religion themes. Can we blame the studios for taking the easy way out?

Yes, we can, but we'll sympathize while we do it.

For those of you not sufficiently hep: “The Golden Compass” is the first installment of Philip Pullman's popular “His Dark Materials” adolescent fantasy series. The books got a fair amount of notice (but surprisingly few boycotts) for being on balance very good and unafraid to challenge the authoritarian nature of organized religion.

The story follows the tribulations of a young orphan girl, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in a world in which human souls partly inhabit animals called “daemons.” Her uncle is a powerful man investigating what could be the scientific find of the century, something the Magisterium (in the novels the ruling church, but we'll get to that) has denounced as heresy. Lyra finds herself thrust into the middle of a deadly war between the Magisterium and the heretics and ultimately — well, there's really not enough space to get into it here, but you can see the situation from the filmmaker's perspective.

Studios are usually terrified of adapting controversial novels directly, but stripping out too much of the religious content might have turned off the fans, so they had a lot on the line here — damned if they did and damned if they didn't, if you'll pardon the pun.

They've walked that line admirably for this first adaptation, I think, removing all overt references to the Magisterium as a religious body while still leaving in the symbols and vestments and vocabulary of the church. There's no way they'll be able to keep it up in the sequels, when the undertones become major plot points, but for now it's satisfying enough.

The movie is weakened by New Line Cinema's cowardice, but it suffers more from the writer/director's infantilizing touch, portraying Pullman's realistically complex characters mostly as just good guys and bad guys. The two exceptions here are Lyra herself and the sinister Mrs. Coulter, played to perfection by Nicole Kidman.

The film is entertaining but standard fantasy fare that is good in places, but it's impossible not to compare it to what it could have been. Kids will love the movie, and scared parents need not worry that they will be corrupted by independent thought. Unless, of course, they want to read the books, too.

Matthew Reed

‘Redacted'

Knowing that war is hell is hardly enough to keep us out of trouble. Over a century of images has confirmed the cliche, framing charred bodies, scattered cannonballs and exploding shells in a language we can understand. Cinema, and particularly documentary, has begun to take its representation to another level. But “Redacted” commits one of the deepest disservices we can pay to the many casualties of war: forcing logic upon this stubbornly inexplicable abyss.

On March 12, 2006, five U.S. soldiers station in Al-Mahmudiyah walked 200 meters from a checkpoint manned by their six-person unit to an Iraqi residence. Once there, four of them murdered a mother, a father and a 5-year-old girl while another stood lookout. Two of the soldiers then proceeded to rape the 14-year-old eldest daughter, shoot her in the face, and light the lower half of her body on fire.

The ringleader of the assault grew up in Midland, Texas, an irony that director Brian De Palma, given his evident penchant for easy platitudes, might have found irresistible when adapting the atrocity into film. The veteran filmmaker excels at constructing little hermetic snow-globes of suspense, but his more agenda-driven pictures fall flat under the weight of his simple worldview. “Redacted” struggles under over-determined and self-righteous direction, which consigns characters to that martial hell on a bitterly fast track. If you see a redneck in the first act, he's bound to hoot and holler and do something horrible by the last.

To come to terms with such an atrocity he gets the soldiers drunk, drapes their bunks with Confederate flags (!?!), and has them painfully mourning fallen comrades. But the actual event harbored fewer mitigating factors. De Palma's soldiers stumble drunk into a situation that quickly goes out of control. The real crime didn't require alcohol or night vision goggles.

Derek Jenkins

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