Friday, December 07, 2007
Let's establish one thing first of all: I love Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. Out of the ever-decreasing memories of my childhood, reading those books stays firm and strong. If the Lord of the Rings films were my generation's Star Wars, then His Dark Materials are my generation's Lord of the Rings books. Which would make the His Dark Materials films the next generation's - never mind. The point is, I was always cautious approaching the film adaptation, The Golden Compass. Especially when I found out that New Line Cinema had forced the filmmakers to tone down the overtly atheist themes of the book. Ultimately, though, I just decided that the film was never going to do justice to the books anyway, or at least my memory of them, so went in blind. The result is a pretty firm 'all right'. The dæmons are incoporated well into the visuals, with some obvious but pretty CGI. Also, when Lyra is shown a bustling, retro-futuristic city (more CGI), it's a steampunk wonderland. I totally believed in this universe, I just didn't care about it very much. As with that other fantasy literary franchise, Harry Potter, the films can't fit in all the of the book's complex ideas without wandering out of family-friendly running times. This means that sub-plots are only glimpsed, histories are only suggested and the excellent supporting cast (Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot) are given around ten lines between them.
Still, the fast pace keeps things entertaining, and means that the filmmakers have to find more original ways to introduce Pullman's ker-azy ideas. As for the God business, the film is, if not anti-religion then certainly anti-religious authority; an idea that should have been explored further. But, as with the books, the sub-text will always make you insist that it's not aimed purely at children, and the distributors won't listen. Although the film didn't really stay with me once it ended, there's one thing I learned: polar bears are awesome. Seriously, if I had a talking polar bear to kick ass and take names then just about all of my problems would be over.
From a gun emplacement on the coast of Santa Monica, Justin Timberlake gives a brief alternate history (and future) of the United States government. He then flicks through a bible and focuses his huge rifle on the beach, before informing us that he's about to tell the story of 'the way the world ends'. And so begins Southland Tales, the new film from Richard 'Donnie Darko' Kelly, and the second half of a saga started in graphic novel form. As far as ambition is concerned, it's up there with the Big Bang. Take a deep breath, here's the basic premise: it's 2008, and the Republican government control the internet while engaging in World War 3. Boxer Santaros, a movie star with amnesia, has written a film-within-the-film with porn star-turned-entrepeneur, Krysta Now, which fortells the end of the world. In order to research his role, Boxer is following police officer Ronald Taverner (who is actually working for a Neo-Marxist cell, posing as his twin brother Roland). Meanwhile, Boxer's mother-in-law watches everything through surveillance-within-surveillance that seems to encompass everything. Oh, and there's an eccentric billionaire who has created a way to remotely power everything on earth from a machine that harnesses the ocean's waves.
Kelly seems to be attempting to set himself up as a new David Lynch, one who's hip to the jazz. Nothing feels real, probably in an attempt to emphasis the act of watching, which in turn highlights the prominent theme of surveillance and information streaming. The only thing to really save the film from being completely self-involved is the heavy presence of references - to the Bible, to pop culture, to Donnie Darko, and to itself. But if Donnie Darko's weirdness was off-set by the genuine human drama, the oddball characters in Southland Tales only serve to feed the many layers of strangeness (especially when the cast is comprised of a series of jokey cameos). This film is fascinated with itself - and that's not entirely a bad thing, it makes you want to know what all the fuss is about. Although it's very messy, and much of the humour falls flat, I have to salute Southland Tales for sheer gall and originality. Any film that explores an apocalypse that isn't caused by asteroids or maniacal villains is all right by me.