Reviews

The Golden Compass

Scruffy and unpolished in the open casting call, Dakota Blue Richards shines in her role as the gutsy heroine.


The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Ian McKewan
Distributor: New Line
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-29
Website
Trailer

The highlight of this adaptation is newcomer Dakota Blue Richards -- she portrays the bold, courageous and fiercely loyal character of Lyra Belacqua beautifully.

This film is a poor substitute for actually reading Philip Pullman's original novel, Northern Lights, first in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and the plot is nearly impossible to follow for one unfamiliar with Lyra and her exploits prior to viewing. That said, if you have read the book, it's possible to fill in the story-telling gaps in the film with prior knowledge, and enjoy the visual display while allowing that the written version is far more satisfying. (In a second disc interview, actor Daniel Craig admits that he agreed to do the movie because he's a "huge fan of the books", and comments that "There are no gaps in [Pullman's] story. Everything joins together." Those are the books he's speaking of, however.)

The film ignores many of the fascinating elements of Lyra's world, which exists parallel to the one we know. For example, the film explains only briefly, and at the very start (which is quickly forgotten as the action of the movie begins), about the existence of daemons (an external manifestation of peoples' souls, they take an animal form, and during their human's childhood they can switch in appearance to that of any creature, but eventually 'settle' into a single static shape as puberty hits). The fascinating and darkly glamorous witch clans are almost completely skipped over, and the Gyptian people, instrumental to helping Lyra on her journey to the far north, are shortchanged, as well.

Lyra's daemon, Pan (short for Pantalaimon) flits quickly from shape-to-shape as she clambers her way through day-to-day life as an apparent orphan and ward of Jordan College at Oxford University -- one college at the esteemed center of academia which does not exist in our world. With no prior knowledge of daemons, the casual viewer probably has no initial idea what to make of the various creatures that accompany Lyra, until she hides away in an inner chamber off the college's main hall and it becomes clear that these creatures are one and the same, and serve rather like an audible voice of reason, almost constantly ignored by Lyra herself.

Before leaving Jordan college Lyra is given an Alethiometer, a 'golden compass' that tells her the truth about any matter she might think to ask it about, and though her burgeoning skill in reading it is largely skipped over in the film, the idea of the device is clear enough. Though she might ignore Pan most of the time, Lyra takes the Alethiometer quite seriously.

There is little chance to observe Lyra's story-telling ability in action until her skill becomes a matter of life and death. She is a practiced liar for one so young, and the perfectly straight-faced Richards pulls off her character's tall tales with aplomb. Richards carries enough attitude to be convincingly courageous when captured in the far north and presented to the current king of the war-loving armored bears as a gift -- she tells the king she wishes to become his daemon, even as he clutches the twisted and floppy remains of a life size doll which looks like it was inspired by Tim Burton's idea of a cartoon corpse.

Some of the computer animation that makes the concepts within the book possible in film version is excellent. The bears who proudly rule over their northern domain are fearsome indeed, and move believably, protected by their weighty 'sky-iron' plates of armor yet possessing an intrinsic grace. Ian McKellan's voice is perfect for the regal Iorek Byrnison, whom Lyra disarms with her childish charm in the northern outpost of Trollesund. Powerful and intimidating though he is, he serves her in return for her help in securing his lost armor.

Though many of the religious overtones of the book have been glossed over in the movie, it was interesting to see how the Magesterium's office in Trollesund was portrayed – for all the world like a dark wooded Byzantine church with thick golden haloes around saintly images. Iorek destroys half of it after locating his armor, held hostage inside: he bursts ferociously though the outer wall panel, conveniently located immediately next to the door. Like all others who meet Lyra, Iorek seems aware of the importance of this particular child and the necessity of helping her in her quest to save her friend Roger, seized by a group of sinister child snatchers.

Though the armored bears are mesmerizing, there is some computer generated imagery that could have used further work. Nicole Kidman presents a reasonably wicked Mrs. Coulter, glamorous, captivating and misguided, but her golden monkey daemon seems a few generations away from ready for his debut on the silver screen. Granted, as is pointed out in the special features section on disc two, monkeys are extremely difficult to animate -- they are constantly shifting and changing the focus of their attention. Not only is he greasy and slightly awkward in appearance, Kidman also outshines her daemon in craftiness and determination.

As a pair, they are unbalanced, and better use could have been made of the monkey's sneaky character to further Mrs. Coulter's goals, but as portrayed in the movie, these two don't work well together. Perhaps another choice of casting for the role would have solved this problem, as Kidman is normally quite capable of stealing all on-screen attention for herself. As Mrs. Coulter shares that same attribute, it is easy to see why Kidman seemed a good choice initially.

On the other hand, Lord Asriel's daemon Stelmaria is a snow leopard who moves with a heavy grace suitable to a savage hunter. Daniel Craig, who plays Lyra's adventurer uncle Lord Asriel, matches this daemon character well, moving with an athletic and dangerous sureness of manner. Apparently, several different studios took on the tasks of different areas of animation, with one being responsible for the armored bears, another for the major character's daemons, and a third for minor daemons. The discrepancies are disappointing, but unsurprising, in that light.

Whoever was responsible for imagining Lee Scoresby's CGI hot air balloon, however, was inspired. The 'aeronaut' is captain of a vessel with not a single, but twinned massive hydrogen filled bubbles that travel through the air with an effective yet ungainly bearing. Sam Elliott is perfect as Scoresby, with his deep Texan drawl and ten gallon hat. Like the Gyptians and witches, however, Scoresby's backstory is just about skipped completely in the interests of moving the plot forward, and it's difficult to tell where he comes from or how he fits into the story.

What is lost in the subtlety of plot development and character detail is gained in the sheer look-at-me visual aspects of the film.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in the film as an adaptation of the excellent fantasy series, this edition is quite helpful because it boasts an extra two and a half hours of commentary segments ranging from interview clips with Pullman, both in his writing library and on set, to the extensive development of fantastic costumes, to filming the bronze casting of the Alethiometers (there were six used on-screen, and one that was actually programmed to wirelessly respond to computer input for the turning of the interior mechanism), to lots of discussion about how the daemons and the armored bear fight sequence were animated. Fun fact: Pullman attended Exeter College at Oxford, and Lyra's Jordan College room in the film is actually his old room.

An especially wonderful aspect of the extra disc is getting to see Richards in initial auditions, as open casting calls were held in four parts of Britain during the quest to find the perfect Lyra; tens of thousands of girls from age nine to 13 tried out for the coveted role. From the very first camera shots the character shines through Richards -- she is scruffy and unpolished, yet delivers the lines persuasively and emphatically with a skill beyond her 11 years.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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