Parallel universes and the red planet
Holiday movies are all over the globe this year

by Judith Reynolds

All I want for Christmas is an Alethiometer. The truth meter that Uncle Asriel gives his niece Lyra in “The Golden Compass” enables you to pierce through deceit and uncover what’s really going on. Sounds useful.

For example, an Alethiometer might tell us what kind of a society puts out a combination of hyper-violent and happy-face movies during the holidays? Is it simply the convergence of two strains of American ambition? The run up to the Oscars and a strategy to get families into movie houses during the high-holiday frenzy? What does it mean when the High Five marquee lists an end-of-the-world drama, “I Am Legend,” right under “Alvin and the Chipmunks?” How can the cold-bloodiest film of the year about human depravity, “No Country for Old Men,” calmly sit beside Disney’s fluffy “Enchanted” and the family-squabble called “This Christmas?” What’s wrong with this picture?

Maybe an Alethiometer could tell us which movies to see and which to avoid like a truck bomb. Some aren’t worth a trip to the mall. Others are worth a drive through a snowstorm. Here are some thoughts on both.

• “The Golden Compass,” based on British author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, is the first in what surely will be a trilogy of fantasy films. “Compass” has a lot in common with “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” ye old “Wizard of Oz,” and the Harry Potter franchise. If you liked any of those, see “Compass.” If fantasy isn’t your cup of pretend tea, see it anyway.

The prologue plunks you down in a fictional British college that looks remarkably like Christ College in Oxford. It’s a universe of children and adults where every human has a talking pet, a daemon, the first of several interesting conceits. Daemons function as imaginary friends, an angel on the shoulder, or one’s own conscience. In the film’s climactic sequence, the daemon is clearly referred to as one’s soul, and to be separated from it means a living death.

The children’s daemons constantly change shape. That little tick privileges youthful innocence and openness and demonizes adult rigidity. And for all the press about the film’s attack on organized religion, the work is essentially about the struggle between free thought and mind control.

Like many a fairytale, “Compass” centers on a threat from outside the village. Here children have been disappearing at an alarming rate. It’s a plague of sorts that threatens humankind. Enter plucky Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a youngster who already possesses qualities essential to any hero: intelligence, assertiveness, courage and the ability to know when to tell the truth and when to deceive. Well before the Alethiometer falls into her hands, she’s the embodiment of feminist self reliance. But because of the Golden Compass, everybody, including the most evil forces on earth, is after her. For different purposes, it seems everybody wants to know the truth.

What makes “Compass” thrilling is its strong but simple plot, first-rate cast, space-age pace, and state-of-the art animation mixed with live action. Rotoscoping, which involves tracing directly on film stock over live action, enables the creation of believable talking animals and split-second morphing. Splendid special effects layer floating images that become stories within stories. Every time Lyra consults the Alethiometer, the screen plunges into a golden, dust-filled space that visually provides the answer to a burning dilemma.

In the great tradition of a journey of discovery and adventure, the hero encounters quirky characters. Among others, Lyra meets Iorek, a drunk and damaged polar bear voiced by Ian McKellen. Iorek takes Lyra on a magnificent ride to a northern kingdom where he will engage in a spectacular male-only showdown for supremacy. Then there is Mr. Scoresby (Sam Elliot) who brings in a folksy, stock character from the American West. With his cowboy hat, drawl and fantastic air machine, Scoresby sails through the sky with Lyra and her animal friends in what is clearly a bridge to the next movie in the trilogy. I can’t wait.

• “Enchanted” is an odd duckling of a Disney film. With its reflexive look at its own history of animated fairytales (“Snow White,” “Cinderella”), the movie begins in animation and plunges back and forth into live action. If “Compass” evoked the idea of parallel universes, “Enchanted” makes them visible.

Here’s the story: Giselle, a wannabe princess (Amy Adams), dreams of finding her Prince Charming, which leads directly, in Disneyspeak, to the obvious consequence: a life of eternal bliss. She finds him while still in animation, but she’s pushed out into a world where there are no happy endings, New York City. Live action takes over but flips back and forth in animation as the story line develops.

There are a lot of familiar faces (Patrick Dempsey, Susan Sarandon) and in jokes, the best of which finds Giselle bursting into song and summoning the animals to her aid. In New York, rats, pigeons and cockroaches substitute for cute chipmunks and rabbits. There’s enough here to entertain adults, especially if you grew up on Disney pabulum, so “Enchanted” qualifies as family fare. And if you love New York as a location, add this to your cart of Manhattan picks just to see the crush on Broadway and 45th and be glad you’re not there.

• “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers’ descent into depravity, may be the darkest movie since, well, “American Gangster, “Eastern Promises,” “Rendition,” and “In the Valley of Elau,” just to name a few recent slices of charred reality. What distinguishes “Country” is its coldness, a merciless rendition of evil in the world.

“No Country” is based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, so you get what you should expect, another literary adaptation and the darkness that goes with it. Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is an ordinary Westerner by all standards. He lives in a trailer with his child bride (Kelly McDonald) and hunts animals for sustenance. Instead he finds a suitcase of trouble, a huge amount of cash at the site of a drug deal gone wrong. He keeps the money and, using his inner Alethiometer, knows other people will want it. A pursuit movie ensues with one of the most vicious personifications of evil to enter American literature or cinema: Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The Coen brothers have never flinched from showing cruelty and they never turn away in “No Country.” Unlike the ancient Greek convention of putting violence off stage and having a messenger report it, the Coens, and other filmmakers in today’s bitter world, force us to witness cruelty that leads to random violence, then every twitch and gurgle that follows. Has the age of Abu Ghraib arrived? Has torture become so acceptable we’ve turned a corner? If so, it’s one of those eerie markers that cultural critics will chew on for a long time. Add the Coen’s disturbing proclivity to juxtapose odd bits of banter that serves as humor alongside cruelty. Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chats up a waitress while his county is flooded in blood. Chigurh indulges in menacing word play with an innocent man as he contemplates killing for the fun of it. In such moments, nervous laughter filters through the movie theater and unease spreads like a Stephen King mist.

Movies offer us parallel universes. This holiday season, buy yourself an Alethiometer and choose wisely. •



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