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Epically Bland

'Compass' can't find its head, but it's not that bad

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Previews

Opening Friday, Dec. 14, is I Am Legend, yet another version of the apocalyptic 1954 novel by Richard Matheson. Will Smith is the military's virus guy, taking over the role previously played by Charlton Heston (The Omega Man, 1971) and Vincent Price (The Last Man on Earth, 1964). It seems some really nasty virus has wiped out life on Earth except, possibly, Robert Neville, and the film follows his daily routine in a deserted Manhattan that is being reclaimed by the wild. Besides foraging for sustenance, he sends out daily signals in hopes of finding other survivors. Smith is usually an interesting actor. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence. 110 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna, Mill Creek and the Minor.

With the failure of The Golden Compass to rack up big box office numbers last weekend, the next great hope is the family comedy Alvin and the Chipmunks, which is based on the 1980s TV cartoon series about a group of chipmunks who sing 45 rpm records at 78 rpm speed. Jason Lee (TV's My Name Is Earl) plays David Seville, creator of the computer-generated creatures. Presumably, the music has been updated. Rated PG for some mild rude humor. 98 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

José (Mexican actor Eduardo Verástegui), the star of Bella, is a chef in his brother's Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, but when waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard, The Good Shepherd) is fired for tardiness, José quits as well. When Nina reveals that she is pregnant, José tries to talk her out of having an abortion and helps her find a new job. José's selfless actions may be influenced by an event in his past. The film won a People's Choice Award at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief disturbing images. 101 m. At The Movies.

Reviews

THE GOLDEN COMPASS: The Golden Compass is a film that is both impressive and disappointing. Based on the first novel of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, published in England in 1995 as Northern Lights, the film is adapted and directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy).

I have not read any part of the trilogy, but having done some research and talked to a few acquaintances who have read the books, I gather the original is widely seen as "anti-Christian," although the author denies any such agenda. In a recent interview by Time magazine, he said in part, "I wouldn't want to be a part of any movement that had an agenda. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, ‘Once upon a time, this happened.'"

Nonetheless, groups such as the Catholic League for Religious and Spiritual Rights have condemned both the books and the film even though the latter is "watered down." In an ABC news article by Emily Friedman posted on its website on Dec. 8, 2007, a spokesperson for the Catholic League said, "Every single religious character is a terror in these books," said McCaffrey. "There isn't one who isn't. And the heroes of the book — the children — are taught that churches are all the same and that they obliterate good feelings."

Well, "watered down" certainly describes the film. Although the Magisterium may remind some of a highly structured and hierarchal church, the only direct reference to religion is a passing comment about heresy.

The narrative line revolves around the acquisition by our protagonist, the orphan Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who is highly likeable) of a compass-like device called an alethiometer, which allows the possessor to see the truth, and the attempt by the dark forces of the Magisterium to steal the device from her for their own nefarious purposes that involve experiments on children.

With the help of the compass and her friends John Faa (Jim Carter), head of the Gyptians, the Queen of the Witches Serafina (a wonderful Eva Green), Texas "aeronaut" Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot), an armored ice bear (voiced by Ian McKellan) and, of course, her shape-shifting daemon Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore), Lyra sets out to rescue the children, including her friends Roger (Ben Walker) and Billy (Charlie Rowe). The main obstacle in her path is the icily evil Marisa Coulter (perfectly embodied by Nicole Kidman), who is the public face of the Magisterium. Toward the end of the story, Lyra discovers a certain fact about her Uncle Lord Asriel, who is trying to discover more about the "dust" and alternate universes, a narrative line that I assume will be pursued in the next two books.

The cinematography in the film is gorgeous and Weitz keeps the story moving along smartly. But the film asks little of its performers. Kidman, for example, simply needs to look beautiful and sinister; her acting talent is mostly wasted. And there is a sort of blandness to the film that has nothing to do with its expunging of religious references that, in any case, would not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the books.

On balance, though, this is a very entertaining film and I look forward to its sequels. Furthermore, religion expunged or not, many viewers will find that the attempt in the film by the Magisterium to suppress all other viewpoints is disturbingly familiar. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. 123 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and the Fortuna.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a strange film. Despite being directed by Sidney Lumet with a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei, the film has a distinctly indie feel.

Perhaps this is largely due to its narrative structure, which shifts back and forth in time prior to and subsequent to the inciting incident of the robbery. Additionally, the same scene is shown more than once from different point-of-view and camera setups. So, although the viewer is able to piece together the story from its inception, he/she does not experience the events that way, and each version of a given scene adds to the spectator's understanding of the characters' subtexts. This is also the sort of narrative where the screw turns ever tighter once the first turn is made; we watch as helpless as the characters as they move toward inevitable implosion.

Although brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Hawke) have their problems before they make the decision to rob their parent's mom-and-pop jewelry store in a strip mall, once the deed occurs their lives are over. The film simply details, without psychological explanation, the tawdry events of their unraveling.

Andy, who conceives the robbery, is the payroll manager for a brokerage firm. He has major money problems and is in a troubled marriage with Gina (a very effective Marisa Tomei). Hank, who executes the robbery, is divorced and uneasily shares custody of his daughter with in-your-face ex Martha (Amy Ryan, who was so good in Gone Baby Gone, in a minor role here) and is headed nowhere in life He's also having sex with his brother's wife every Thursday.

Hank unwisely hires wannabe hood Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne) as an accomplice and before you can blink, Bobby is dead, along with Hank's mother (Rosemary Harris), and his father (Albert Finney) is both distraught and looking for revenge. From here, the characters spiral down into spiritual death. Interestingly, the police play virtually no role in the story; the demons here are internal rather than external.

The film may be melodrama, but with its effective direction and excellent acting, it's high-order melodrama. Plus, it reminded me how much I enjoy Marisa Tomei's acting. Recommended. Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language. 127 m. At the Minor.

Continuing

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.Love story set in the 1960s amid war protests, mind exploration and rock 'n' roll.Rated PG-13. 134 m. At the Minor.

AMERICAN GANGSTER.True, juggernaut success story of cult crime hero from the streets of 1970s Harlem. Rated R. 157 m. At the Broadway.

AUGUST RUSH.A street musician in New York that was orphaned by circumstance, August Rush uses his talents to find the parents from whom he was separated at birth. Rated PG. 113 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

AWAKE.A man has "anesthetic awareness" and is awake during his heart surgery while his wife deals with her own demons. Rated R. 84 m.

BEE MOVIE.A bee, disillusioned with the prospect of never-ending honey collection, breaks bee rules and talks to a human. Rated PG. 91 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

BEOWULF.The mighty warrior Beowulf slays the demon Grendel and incurs the wrath of its monstrous yet seductive mother, in a conflict that transforms king into legend. Rated PG-13. 114 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

ENCHANTED.A fairytale princess changes her views on life and love after being thrust into present-day New York City by an evil queen. Rated PG. 108 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

FRED CLAUS.Saint Nick's rabble-rousing big brother Fred jeopardizes the jolliest holiday of the year, Christmas. Rated PG. 116 m. At The Movies.

HITMAN.Agent 47, a professional assassin, gets caught up in a political takeover and is pursued across Eastern Europe by Interpol and the Russian Military. Rated R. 100 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

INTO THE WILD. College grad abandons his material possessions then hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wild. Rated R. 149 m. At the Minor.

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM.Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a strange, fantastic and magical toy store where everything comes to life. Rated G. 94 m. At Mill Creek and The Movies.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.Coen Brothers' adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy touches on themes as varied as the Bible and this morning's headlines. Rated R. 123 m. At the Broadway.

STEPHEN KING'S THE MIST.A small town comes under attack by creatures prowling in a thick, unnatural mist said to be originating from a nearby, top-secret military base. Rated R. 127 m. At the Broadway.

THIS CHRISTMAS.The Whitfield family reunites for Christmas with emotional baggage in tow. Rated PG. 119 m. At The Movies.

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