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Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Golden Compass

I woke up this morning and lay in bed thinking about The Golden Compass, which I saw yesterday at the Essex Cinemas. So much folderol has been written about how the Catholic League and a whole hornet’s nest of Christian groups have opened a can of whoop-ass on this movie because they say it is a bunch of blasphemy. Meanwhile, the atheists are just as ticked off because they think the movie-makers soft-pedaled on the original book’s themes and turned what was supposed to be a tirade against organized religion into a powder-puff piece of children’s goo. In other words, everybody’s happy since it seems this project was doomed from the start to be a lightning rod for people who were invested in the source material to be upset. Me? Not so much. The truth be told, I’d never heard of The Golden Compass until the previews for the movie started being shown before what seemed like every single film released in the last six months. Frankly, I was glad it was finally being shown if for no other reason than to be able to start my movie-going experience with something different besides The Golden Compass trailer every week.

After seeing the actual movie, though, I was less impressed with the religious controversy as I was with its biggest selling point, Nicole Kidman. This was one of those times when I liked to imagine myself like “Peanuts” Lucy Van Pelt, the sidewalk therapist, only instead of charging five cents I’d charge a quarter since I’d only offer my advice to movie stars. I’d even offer them a couch and a classy office for that price. I can picture it now…

Nicole would glide gracefully into my posh, book-lined office (as she never actually seems to walk). She’d be followed, naturally, by a team of eleven ~ two personal assistants to place her strategically and carefully on the couch, a hair and make-up couple to attend to any unexpected but requisite touch-ups, a young woman with a portable steam iron to blast any unfortunate wrinkles on her Oscar de la Renta gown, a lighting director and his go-fer, her personal Botox technician, a water boy, her publicist/manager and, most importantly, her attorney. Once Nicole was comfortable, her entourage would retire to a gallery area behind her and, on her command, insert iPod earplugs into their ears and begin listening to music so we could have some “privacy.” The thought of her actually being alone, dismissing her entourage, is simply non-negotiable and not worth bringing up.

“Good afternoon, Nicole,” I greet her. She nods slightly. Nicole tends not to speak unless absolutely necessary as it stretches the face muscles that can lead to wrinkles, so I take no offense at her lack of reciprocation.

The Golden Compass,” I begin, “What drew you to this particular project?” I ask.

Nicole’s smile broadens. “Well, Larry~” I put my hand up to interrupt her.

“I’m not Larry King, Nicole. You don’t need to give me the rehearsed answer here, dear. This is your therapy. The truth. Just between us. It will go no further.”

I can see her brow try to furrow, but it can’t thanks to the magic of Botox. Her eyes start to well and before a tear can fall both assistants trip over themselves to offer her lace handkerchiefs. She takes them both and waves the interrupting employees away. “It’s because of my awful husband,” she sighs.

“Keith Urban?” I ask incredulously.

“No, my other awful husband. Tom. Tom
Cruise. He took my own beautiful children when we were divorced and has turned them into little Scientologist robots, just like when the Magisterium takes the children in the movie and separates them from their daemons, with are basically their souls. I get that the Church is upset with the movie, but, to me, it’s about that other so-called-Church.”

“Very interesting,” I reply, suddenly aware that I sound like a cross between Sigmund Freud and Arte Johnson from “Laugh In”, a reference that makes me feel older than dirt.
“Did you enjoy making
The Golden Compass?”

“It was hard work. Dakota Blue Richards, the girl who played Lyra, was a sweet child, but this was her first movie and she was a bit star-struck, especially around Daniel Craig, who I had already worked with on The Invasion. Daniel can be soooo charming, and for a 13-year-old making her first movie, well… I think she had a little crush. Anyway, most of what we did was with a green screen, and almost half of the characters, like the animals, were computer-generated, so we were mostly acting and talking with thin air. It was tough on her, but I was used to talking into thin air. It was just like when I was married to Tom. Any time I stood next to that shrimp and tried to have a conversation, if I didn’t practically squat, I’d be talking into thin air.” With that, Nicole let loose a hearty laugh, and even I couldn’t resist a chuckle.

I tried to regain the formality of our session. “You were very good in the film, but you play such a cold-hearted ice queen. Was that difficult for you?” As I asked, I noticed that many in the gallery of her employees snickered quietly, making me wonder just how “private” this conversation really was.

“You thought I was an ‘ice queen’?” she asked. “I was just being reserved. In this universe where
The Golden Compass takes place, my character, Marisa Coulter, is a very wealthy woman, and she acts as she must to maintain her status while also promoting her own moral agenda. Basically, I was playing Tom in a dress, which was easy because it’s not like I haven’t seen… well, you get the idea.”

It always comes back to Tom, doesn’t it? I still can’t think about Nicole and not think of her weasely ex-husband. When I watched The Golden Compass, I guess I was channeling my inner Nicole because I felt like the parallels to the diabolical scheme laid out by Mrs. Coulter (who, by comparison, must be the doppelganger to our world’s vile talking head Ann Coulter) sounded more like something Scientology does than the Catholics do, and that’s not easy for me to say because I haven’t got much love for the Catholic Church. Now before you write letters, let me just say that I was raised in the Catholic Church and even went to a parochial school, so I think at least have an “informed opinion” about my feelings for the Catholic Church, but that’s really got nothing to do with The Golden Compass, so I’ll get off that subject as quickly as I can.

In truth, as my faux-Nicole pointed out, the real stars of The Golden Compass are the CGI effects, which make up almost every scene. The sets are in a glamorous art deco period and they are filled with exotic animals, which represent the souls of the people in the scene, for in this world humans live with their souls, called daemons, outside of their bodies, as companion animals. Hence the need for CGI to supply the actors with a zoo full of critters, from tigers to hummingbirds. Oh, and they all talk too, which is one reason kids will want to see this movie even though they probably shouldn’t.

The plot is as tangled as Amy Winehouse’s road to recovery and it took me a good twenty minutes or so just to figure out the whole “political” structure of what author Philip Pullman had created in this alternate universe, where the word “dust” has a taboo meaning not to be spoken of in polite company and where children regularly disappear thanks to a mysterious group known as the “Gobblers.” Apparently there is no Chris Hanson or “To Catch a Predator! ~ Dateline: NBC” around and nobody in particular cares all that much, including the
parents of the missing kids.

That’s right. This is a movie about kids in jeopardy. There are talking polar bears and even a precious ferret that sticks his tongue out in play with his human companion, but it is still about kidnapping and performing a life-altering surgery on them. Basically, any kid snatched up will either die or end up like he or she is lobotomized before the Magisterium is done with them, so you may want to think about that before you take your six or seven year olds to see the “fun” movie with the talking animals. Dr. Doolittle this ain’t.

That’s not to say
The Golden Compass isn’t a well-made movie and one that is entertaining. It’s just that it isn’t meant for crazy religious zealots who are going to go ballistic or for little ones who might be traumatized by scary movies or crazy religious zealots. Otherwise, it’s a rollicking adventure quest with a girl at the center of the tale instead of a boy and with a variety of episodic encounters guaranteed to keep a viewer interested, if not simply amazed at the flawlessness by which the people whose names we know do their work ~ those computer animators who breathe life into a supporting cast with more personality than the leads. (Sorry Nic. Sorry Dan.)

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