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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Golden Compass: Lost Bearings

When was the last time a movie broke your heart? It happened to me 45 seconds into the New Line Home Entertainment Widescreen release, The Golden Compass , as a voiceover narration proceeded to explain in itemized fashion almost every mystery the narrative holds. Yes, the 2007 film was co-produced with Scholastic and comes in a family-flagged white jacket, but kids are smarter than that. It is a fundamental tenet of entertainment that an audience must be engaged, and the story’s unique eccentricities (which will be recognizable to viewers familiar with certain popular anime programs) are there precisely to beguile the viewer, to keep the guessing and wondering going so the actual plot has time to build its own momentum. To use a metaphor that is intrinsic to the story itself, the opening narration separates the movie from its soul. For godsake, even if you are eight-years old, scan past the beginning and start watching the movie at the 2:05 mark. The quality of the film will be improved substantially.

Not that it is anywhere near being a perfect film, however. In fact, for the moment at least, the production will be most remembered for the financial scandal it has caused, bringing down the independently spirited New Line as it attempted, with the utterly wrong director for such ambition, to replicate the success of New Line’s Lord of the Rings series and Buena Vista’s first Chronicles of Narnia film. In an alternate universe, a young girl travels to the Arctic to rescue her friends, enlisting the help of those rebelling against the world’s establishment, as well as a talking polar bear warrior. The program has many special effects (it won an Oscar for them), but that, too, becomes a problem, because although the movie’s budget was substantial, the actual ratio of cost per effect appears, at best, to be modest. Not all, but many of the CGI animals, for example, are no better looking than the animals inJumanji. What the 113-minute feature becomes most reminiscent of, however, is David Lynch’s Dune. Like Dune, some of the individual scenes are thrilling, the movie’s fantasy foundation is stimulating, and there is a viable amount of character development augmented by suitable star power (Nicole Kidman has the best showcase. Sam Elliott stands out, too, butDaniel Craig ends up in what amounts to a cameo part, thanks to the truncated ending, and we had to watch the special features on the Platinum Series version to find out where Ian McKellen, Ian McShane, Kathy Bates and Kristin Scott Thomas, or their voices, at least, figured in), but it tries so hard to compact a longish novel into a standard-length film that it has no time for the sort of digressive details and transitions that would make the movie more than a bullet-point abridgement of its source. If your perverse sense of curiosity sends you searching for proof of what a failure the film is, by the way, then don’t miss the laughably awful title song, which plays over the closing credits.

The letterboxing has an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is terrific, but that can bring out the shortcomings of some of the effects work. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound, with EX-encoding, and crisper DTS track, with ES-encoding, has a wonderfully active surround presence and delivers all that can be expected of it. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.

New Line’s 2-Disc Platinum Series release includes a commentary track by screenwriter and director Chris Weitz on the first platter. Unless anger over his basic incompetence prevents you from having the patience to listen to him, he does supply a serviceable talk, describing the production, sharing stories about the cast and explaining his alterations and compromises to author Philip Pullman’s novel as if each choice he made were perfectly legitimate. He hints, incidentally, that the narrative from the final three chapters of the book was actually filmed before it was dropped to create a more succinct conclusion, which might explain why the ending feels so sudden and out of rhythm.

The second platter contains an impressive 168 minutes of production featurettes, including a substantial amount of interview material with Pullman and informative looks at the casting process, production designs, special effects and so on. Many of the featurettes are also accompanied by good still frame collections of design art and production photos.

June 18, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon