The Man Who Hates the World, Part 2

29 Dec

When I was in high school and college and grad school, I was a seven-movie-a-week sort of guy. At least. Sometimes I’d see two or three movies in a single day, so I might miss a day here or there, but I always made my quota, as it were. And the count sometimes went higher — rarely lower — than seven a week.

In recent years, what with, oh, you know, work and family and, frankly, movies seeming to get worse and worse with each passing year (and, yes, I realize I’m generalizing ridiculously) my moviegoing has decreased to the point of near non-existence. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget increasingly obnoxious audiences and the fact that DVD’s and a killer home theatre set-up make going out to a movie almost unnecessary.

In any event, I go to a lot fewer movies these days than I used to. And when I do go out to see a movie, I usually end up disappointed. I mean, so many of ‘em are all bluster and explosions and CGI nonsense. I just don’t have the patience.

Still, I miss the movie-mad guy I used to be and so, the week of Christmas, I got off my duff and went to see as many movies as time permitted (a pathetic three) and, wonder of wonders, ended up loving — not liking, but loving – all three. I think of this as my little Christmas miracle…

The movies were The Golden Compass, Enchanted and Juno. Three very different films (though I guess they all have female leads, which probably says something…). Let’s look at them one at a time.

The Golden Compass

I’ve been waiting for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series to hit the big screen for years. I really wanted to make the game, long before the film came out, but that’s another story… If you haven’t read the books (The Golden Compass — or, Northern Lights, as it’s called in the UK, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), stop wasting your time reading this and go get ‘em and you’ll understand my enthusiasm. Come back when you’re finished. I can wait.

Back? Cool. In the books, Pullman went after, as my lovely wife would say, “mighty big game.” Just in case some of you are slackers and didn’t take my advice a minute ago, and haven’t read the books, I won’t spoil it for you by going into specifically what sort of big game here. Let’s just say the books are about life, death, religion, the nature of god and humanity. Nothing big. Pullman was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which should give you a clue, and he’s annoyed some of the insecurely religious along the way, which I’ve never understood. Shouldn’t faith be challenged and tested?

Anyway, the books are long on ideas and feature some of the most amazing characters, settings and situations since Tolkein. Great books — books I try to reread every year, finding something new each time.

The movie? Not quite so great, but really darn close. Frankly, while the conservative religious crowd’s negative response to the film comes as no surprise, I am surprised the book’s fans aren’t being more supportive — seems like a lot of folks are disappointed that the movies aren’t exactly like the books, which is darn foolish, if you ask me. Sure, some of the more controversial content may have been toned down, but just a bit. If you’ve read the books (you have all read the books by now, right?), you can fill in the blanks for yourself and for those who haven’t there’s still a dandy story being told up there on the screen.

Other than some cuts (necessary or not), the movie sings — at least to me. The acting is first rate. I mean where did they find the kid who plays Lyra? And the rest of the cast is right there with her. Perfect casting, top to bottom. The visuals are amazing. The daemons (please read the books and you’ll know what daemons are…), well, they’re just fantastic — among the finest CGI characters ever (though, as I’ll talk about later, they were outdone in Enchanted). In terms of production design, everything in the film lines up with the world I imagined when I read the books. Everything.

Perhaps most amazing to me, the pacing’s right on — amazing in a world of movies that overstay their welcome and/or weary viewers with MTV-style quick cutting. The Golden Compass just moves. In fact, it ends kind of abruptly, leaving me wanting more. When was the last time you felt that way at the end of a film? I just pray The Golden Compass does well enough to warrant the sequels necessary to tell the rest of Pullman’s story. And that the film-makers have the guts to go where Pullman did.

Enchanted

The Golden Compass was Wednesday’s movie. Thursday, I went to see Enchanted. Disclaimer time: Enchanted is a Disney film. Disney now pays my mortgage. That fact is completely irrelevant.

Disney film or not, I was enchanted by Enchanted — much to my surprise. I don’t know what I expected. A (pardon the expression) chick flick? A kiddy movie? A look-how-cool-we-are condescending look at fairy tales? Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Enchanted perfectly and completely embodies Disney’s “movies for the entire family” concept. The lovely wife and I shared a theater with dating couples, dads and their daughters, entire families and, if laughter, tears and gasps are any indication, everyone found things to like in the movie.

Again, the cast is fantastic. Amy Adams and James Marsden are great as a cartoon princess-to-be and her prince mostly-charming. Timothy Spall is wonderful as the required Disney comic henchman with a heart that’s, at least, gold-plated. Patrick Dempsey makes a fine world-weary lawyer who learns the power of love and magic. And Susan Sarandon. ‘Nuff said.

The film opens with a cartoon sequence that totally sets the tone for the entire film. It takes itself seriously enough that the kids in the audience can enjoy it at face value but it’s ironic and self-aware and over the top enough (just enough) that adults will get that the movie’s as much as send-up of the Sleeping Beauty/Snow White/Cinderella fantasy as it is a retelling of those myths. And when the film moves to the real world — when that princess-to-be arrives in Times Square — the film kicks into a whole new gear. I was constantly surprised. Not by the plot, which is, to be fair, let’s just say predictable, but by the specifics, the details, the way in which events played out.

I kinda feel like I’m flailing here and if I were an actual film reviewer, which I haven’t been in years (as I’m sure you’ve all noticed!) I’d be a little worried. Anyway, cutting to the chase, Enchanted was clearly a film made by people who love the source material they’re spoofing — they know their fairy tales and their Disney animated features inside out and respect them enough to satirize them in knowing, affectionate ways. The film’s serious enough for kids and ironic enough for adults.

Oh, and there are two more things that make Enchanted enchanting:

First, it’s a musical. People burst out into song at various points and ordinary people — lots of them — dance in the streets. Your mileage may vary, but I love musicals and have long lamented the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make ‘em anymore. Well, with the High School Musical movies and, now, Enchanted, my employer has brought musicals back and I’m pretty pleased about it. Who knew Amy Adams, James Marsden and Patrick Dempsey could sing?

Second, there’s Pip. A chipmunk. Who steals the show. In the cartoon part of the film, Pip struck me as sort of a Bugs Bunny-ish twist on the animal-friend-of-the-princess character from every Disney film. In the real world portion of Enchanted, Pip morphs into a CGI character who can no longer talk and has to act out anything he wants to communicate to the hapless humans in the film. What a performance. I swear, this is the most amazing acting job by a CGI character ever. No kidding.

Look, I know nothing I say is going to get shooter-crazed, deathmatch-obsessed gamers to go see Enchanted. Their loss, I say. If you have an ounce of magic in your soul, the least bit of innocence in your heart, any memory at all of what it was like to be a kid, go see it. And if you HAVE a kid, take him or her along, too — you’ll both have a great time.

Juno

Things quieted down for me, movie-wise, on Friday. No magic, no crazy visual effects, no chipmunks playing charades with dim-bulb cartoon princes. Just a kid having a baby. Talk about a movie that wasn’t made for me — a 50-something, no-kids, male videogame developer. And yet, this little movie, this jewel of a movie, was the perfect way to end the week.

Ellen Page, who plays 16-year-old, pregnant Juno, is a wonder — the third great female performance in three movies. I remember when the TV series My So-Called Life debuted years ago and everyone described the teenaged star, Clair Danes, as “luminous,” well, Ellen Page has a smidge of that glow-in-the-dark quality about her. The character she brings to the screen is sarcastic and serious, strong and overwhelmed, smart and child-like — she offers a spot-on portrayal of adolescence as I remember it, not as it’s typically portrayed in movies.

The adults around her feel like real people — not Good and Evil, not anything, really, just folks trying to get by, the way we all do. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw people — real people — on the screen, with all their flaws and strengths and foibles and loving and pettiness on display in the service of a wonderful, simple story. I’m drawing a big blank.

The dialogue is fantastic — capturing the way teenagers talk to each other (okay, as I imagine they talk to each other, since I have no actual experience in this area that isn’t decades out of date!)… capturing the way adults talk to each other… capturing the way kids and adults talk to each other (and often fail to communicate in any meaningful way).

Juno’s tone is tough to pin down. It’s funny and sad and moving and exhilerating. It’s about growing up — and knowing when not to. In no way is Juno an “issues picture” — it isn’t trying to Make a Point About Teen Sexuality… it isn’t about abortion or adoption or anything. It’s just a story about life and love and maturity and being a kid. Still, if seeing this film doesn’t get teenagers thinking about the consequences of their actions (you know what I’m talking about…), and offer kids and parents the opportunity to talk about some Important Topics (again, you know…), nothing ever will.

Juno includes not a single explosion or car crash or death. Its pacing is deliberate and its editing features none of the MTV-ish seizure-inducing quality so loved by today’s filmmakers. Despite the lack of these modern-day-movie must-have features, it was as exhilarating as any movie I saw in 2007.

So there you have it.

My Christmas break — a serious fantasy film dealing with Big Themes, a family friendly animated musical comedy fairy tale(!) and a more-or-less realistic, modern day, comic drama about teen pregnancy. Other than maybe that first one — the serious fantasy — I’m not sure I’m in the target demo for any of them. Still, I fell in love with these movies, and it must be said, with The Movies, in a way I’ve really missed the last few years.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

15 Responses to “The Man Who Hates the World, Part 2”

  1. mark3000 December 29, 2007 at 4:27 pm #

    The “any good feeling” really isn’t the best thing to teach children. I could vouch for this having to deal with them at holiday time. I really wouldn’t want them taking that to heart. :-)

    Quote:
    “Skadi later extends her criticism to all organized religion: “That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.” (By this part of the book, the witches have made reference to how they are treated criminally by the church in their worlds.)”

    Is there any defense of churches or God?

    Quote Pullman from Wikipedia:
    “Nevertheless, Pullman’s antagonism toward religion appears to be focused upon Christianity in particular. “I suppose technically, you’d have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.”

    I didn’t read the book but with comments like this from Pullman why should I read someone who takes sides in his stories rather then describing each point of view or taking each point of view seriously and dissecting it.
    That’s why I like allot of your games Warren but in the end you work out what’s best, not smash God. George Martin seems to give religion a semi-fair hearing although he is agnostic.

    God is a forgiving who forgives your sins, not a ruthless tyrant, although he does discipline. And man isn’t perfect so cannot be totally trusted. I wouldn’t tell the kids in my family to trust in witches or anyone for that matter, or they turn bratty or get abused. Right? Spiritualism is usually very seedy anyway.

    I’ll check out those other films too and I am enjoying Pirates! right now (a newer game). Pretty good game. I still have to play Metroid too.
    I tried Blade Runner the game. So extremely promising with all the old actors from the film and some amazing new ones but it dudds out. Way too short. Too short, I finished it in a sitting! They had the promise of dynamic AI’s walking around but didn’t extend the game to make use of it. It just abruptly ended.
    Probably because it was a licensed title and they needed it done quickly as a companion to the Blade Runner Directors cut movie at the time in 1997.

  2. mark3000 December 29, 2007 at 4:28 pm #

    The beginning of the first post was for His Dark Materials.

  3. melomel December 31, 2007 at 9:29 am #

    Why do people do this? I’m pretty sure this isn’t the place to repeat the tedious, ill-informed debate about the particulars of His Dark Materials.

    So… please, if you wish to opine, just read the books (and not just the biased Wikipedia article) before hijacking a blog for a poorly-informed critique. The books develop the proper context over three books for the remarks made, it’s not fair to criticize on the basis of a few sentences selected by people with their own agendas.

    And they’re really excellent books, too.

  4. jin23 December 31, 2007 at 1:02 pm #

    Hey Warren, of you’ve got time watch “Eastern Promises” starring Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts. I loved that movie, Viggo Mortensen is really a great actor by the way.

  5. exmachinax January 2, 2008 at 10:25 pm #

    Dear mark3000, quit being stupid and using “copy and paste” ideas and READ anything you want to criticize or judge. You will be amazed by how nice can be to one CREATE his own thoughts instead of stealing someone’s else.

    QUOTE:
    “…why should I read someone who takes sides in his stories rather then describing each point of view…”

    This is bloody impossible for us, well, humans. We always take sides. You take sides by criticizing “His Dark Materials” without even having read it.

    Any kind of author in any media always take sides, even when he/she think is not doing so. All stories have some meaning, message that is the main point of the plot, even if some ppl interpret them really different.

    Deus Ex, for instance. All 3 endings, as different as they seems to be, in the end they are all very similar in a way. Deus Ex’s endings are saying that the current kind of government is just wrong, outdated amd flawed, and we need to do a step to change it to something that fits better humanity.

    I just have to quote that BRILLIANT sentece from Morpheus: “GOD is a dream of a good government”.

  6. nonsink January 3, 2008 at 5:26 pm #

    I would like to submit an informed opinion of someone who has read the books, and didn’t enjoy them.

    First, Pullman makes no pretentions about why he wrote the books. He is an outspoken atheist who wrote HDM as a response to the Chronicles of Narnia, which he believed “brainwashed” children about Christianity.

    Not to be outdone, he has written a heavy-handed, obvious rant against religion. He is welcome to do so. But to elevate that writing to masterpiece status is a little silly. I am sure there are people who subscribe to his views, and are so pleased to see them in print that they overlook his lack of talent as a writer. Just as some “religious” people (whatever that means) object to it based solely on subject matter, I have seen enough posts by “non-religous” people who love it for the same reason (I wonder why no one questions if people who “like” the works have read them?).

    So let’s drop the drama and get right to the books.

    Chronicles of Narnia (I assume most of you haven’t read them). Is a masterpiece of allegory. There is no religion in it if you are not looking for it (obviously Pullman was looking for it, since he is the only reviewer of the books that categorize them as “brainwashing”). You can enjoy the books simply as adventure stories for children, but it also brings up complex characters that have moral conflicts. The theme of betrayal and forgiveness are central themes in the first book, and there is no Jesus-speak getting in the way.

    Pullman’s work, on the other hand, is a good story marred by an agenda. There is no moral ambiguity in any of the stories. Everyone associated with religion is bad. There is nothing subtle in this. God is bad, and I don’t mean some abstract concept of God. GOD IS BAD, and he must be killed by the magical knife. Allegory? Who needs allegory when you have the 10 ton hammer of atheist smiting?

    HDM is not a complex, deep book. It is pure agenda in novel form. Maybe if Pullman wasn’t so obsessed with his own religious agenda, he’d manage to write a decent book.

  7. telka January 3, 2008 at 7:28 pm #

    One of the things I loved about Juno was, to me, its ability to let you decide how you want to feel about the characters. I think this had a lot to do with what you mentioned – there is no obvious good or evil – just decisions everyday people make. Jason Bateman’s character is my favorite example for this. You can vilify his actions or you can be sympathetic… possibly apathetic. Life still went on and what was done is done. I liked feeling disappointed with him but ultimately understanding his reasons to the point that I was not sure if I would have handled it differently.

    By the way, Charlie Wilson’s War is worth seeing if you are not movie’d out yet. :)

  8. kingdude January 3, 2008 at 11:57 pm #

    well, I love the books but I haven’t seen the movie yet. maybe it’s because i’m a tiny bit worried about the ‘toned down’ content that i’ve heard about or maybe i just don’t want to do anything to interfere with my experience of the books. mind you though, if someone i respect as much as you (game design-wise) said it didn’t make a travesty out of the books, I guess I might risk it…

  9. glipe January 4, 2008 at 12:47 pm #

    Finally! Someone who liked Northern Lights who also has a good opinion of the movie! I’ve not had a chance to see it yet and had been warned off it by His Dark Materials fans. Enough of the hmm-ing and ha-ing; TO THE CINEMA!

    Anyway, the reason I was commenting was to answer a question you asked. Where did they find the girl to play Lyra? Well, they held massive, open auditions! Thousands of parents with their children were lining up in Oxford to see if they could get their little girl to be a star. I think they got an absolute gem in Dakota Blue Richards (What a name!?!). How do I know without seeing the film, you might ask? Well, I’m living near Oxford at the moment and all the hype has been blasted out over every form of media available ever since she was picked. She seems like a great kid and loved Lyra and the books before the movie was even announced. Good luck to her!

  10. aiusepsi January 7, 2008 at 8:12 pm #

    Anyone who thinks that His Dark Materials is a heavy-handed, militant atheist work hasn’t read the thing.

    I don’t want to mention names for fear of spoilering for those who haven’t read, but the militant atheist character is portrayed as being as misguided as the religious fanatics he fights.

    The story is very firmly about Lyra and what she does and discovers along the way. That’s the heart of the work, and it’s a beautiful heart, too.

  11. adrianhon January 7, 2008 at 10:59 pm #

    I’m surprised you like the movie of The Golden Compass; as a real fan of the first two books (not so much the third), I was quite disappointed with it. While it basically *looked* fine, I thought the screenplay was awful. The problem is not that the director was unfaithful to the books – it was that he was too faithful. Practically every single event in the book makes it into the (short) movie, resulting in a frantic jumble; one of the most glaring examples of this is when Serafina Pekkala lands on the ship, completely unheralded, and proceeds to data dump reams of information to Lyra.

    There were various visual inconsistencies (e.g. why are there LCD screens in Svalbard?), bizarre pieces of direction (when Iorek jumps out to save Lyra from the wolf-daemon at the end, exactly how did he manage to creep up unnoticed), and completely illogical moments (why doesn’t Iorek bring all the bears?).

    It’s also implied that Billy Costa’s loss of his daemon, Ratter, is in fact not really that bad. He doesn’t die, and his mum promises to find Ratter again – hooray! Which also implies that the excision procedure is essentially reversible.

    I can overlook a few problems, and I really wanted to like this movie, but my heart started sinking when the opening monologue about Dust kept on going, and going, and going, and I could feel the audience gradually slipping away. I suppose I did like the fact that Jordan College is apparently part of my old Oxford college, Queen’s. And I agree that the casting was great.

    Ah well. Maybe someone will do a better job in a couple of decades’ time.

    Incidentally, one of my friends spoke at length with Philip Pullman about games (specifically, alternate reality games). Pullman doesn’t like videogames at all, although his wife does. I was inclined to go ahead and make an unauthorised ‘His Dark Materials’ ARG just for the hell of it, to show him that games don’t have to be a bad influence, but then work got in the way.

  12. sonictail January 18, 2008 at 7:43 pm #

    It’s good to hear you enjoyed the Golden Compass, I just wish the producers had the conviction to give it a LOTR treatment, rather than the “it’s a kids flick” that it recieved.

    All the movie was missing was ten minutes of dialogue, one chapter, less cuts and Dame Judi Dench ^_^

    Nice to see that other people are seeing the point of His Dark Materials.

    Has anyone checked out the movie tie-in? Bit depressing seeing Shiny’s logo on the front.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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