By Katey Rich
Ah, now we're back to normal. After last weekend's lull, in which Awake put everyone to sleep who didn't go see Enchanted instead, we've got a strong number of new releases this weekend, though only one on more than 1,000 screens. Most notably, there are four potential awards-season hopefuls out there, two of which are already strongly rumored to be nominees for Best Picture. But what most everyone will be concerned with this weekend is polar bears, armored up and in battle. That would be The Golden Compass, the adaptation of the Philip Pullman fantasy novel that seems to be New Line's blatant attempt to repeat the Lord of the Rings alchemy. I guess you can't get any more obvious than those first teaser ads, which showed Frodo's ring falling down and turning into, well, the golden compass. In any case, Compass is the only wide release of the weekend, and even though it's facing down the strong holdover Enchanted, it seems likely to land at the top of the heap come Monday.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Opens on 3,528 screens. The first installment in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy introduces Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl who lives with her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who has made a series of scientific discoveries that are looked down upon by the all-powerful Magisterium. Kidnapping Asriel and seeking to bring Lyra under their control, the Magisterium dispatch the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to adopt her. Lyra, possessed with a truth-telling alethiometer, a.k.a. "golden compass," escapes Mrs. Coulter and follows her uncle North, where she becomes involved in a series of adventures that could determine the fate of the world. Eva Green, Sam Elliott and Christopher Lee also star, and Ian McKellen, Ian McShane and Kathy Bates, among others, provide voices for the numerous animals who populate the film.
Unfortunately for New Line, it seems most critics find the $180 million-budgeted The Golden Compass good enough, but not great. "The Golden Compass is an honorable work," writes Manhola Dargis of The New York Times. "But it's hampered by its fealty to the book and its madly rushed pace, which forces you to dash through the story like Lord Asriel." Our Ethan Alter credits the film's "strong ensemble" but finds director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) lacking: "Weitz's direction, in contrast [to Peter Jackson's in The Lord of the Rings], is more distant, almost disengaged. It's as if he doesn't entirely believe in this universe, and if it isn't real to him, it will never feel real to the audience." Ty Burr at the Boston Globe recognized the too-fast pace and Weitz's unsure hand, but "Still, The Golden Compass pulls you in, daft and alluring." And Kirk Honeycutt at The Hollywood Reporter even thinks the film might be able to repeat the Lord of the Rings magic: "Witches sweep out of the night sky, bad guys when shot vanish in balls of flame and the glories of free will get celebrated by championing a child who never does what she is told. What kid won't go for all this?"
ATONEMENT. Opens on 32 screens. Adapted from Ian McEwan's best-selling 2001 novel, Atonement is a complex story of lies and redemption set in World War II-era England. The first third of the film takes place in one day at the Tallis home in southeast England, where 13-year-old aspiring writer Briony (Saiorsie Ronan) dreams up stories and plays for the enjoyment of her family. Her imagination takes a dark turn, however, when she spies on her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and their maid's son Robbie (James McAvoy) in what is in fact a budding romance. Briony turns these misunderstandings into a lie about Robbie that sends him to prison for the next five years. The rest of the film rejoins the characters once Robbie is out of prison and serving in the British army in France, while Cecilia and Briony are both nurses in London, though they no longer speak. While Cecilia and Robbie struggle to maintain their romance through the war, Briony seeks a way to atone for her childhood mistake.
Despite the potential dangers of adapting a beloved novel, Atonement largely hit all the right notes with critics. "One of the few wholly satisfying movie versions of a literary success, and an instant favorite for this year's awards season," writes our Kevin Lally. Rex Reed at The New York Observer is even more enthusiastic, indeed, about as enthusiastic as he's ever been: "Atonement is everything a true lover of literature and movies could possibly hope for. It is unquestionably, without any reservations, my favorite film of the year." And The Washington Post succinctly says, "Simply too exquisite for words." It's worth noting, though, that the film has some prominent detractors, among them A.O. Scott of The New York Times: "The film, after a tantalizing start, sputters to a halt in a welter of grandiose imagery and hurtling montage." And David Denby at The New Yorker says, "You have to admire it, when so much of the competition seems inane and slack, but you can't help wondering, with some impatience, what happened to its heart."
REVOLVER. Opening on 18 screens. Guy Ritchie's latest was released in Britain in 2005 but is only now seeing its theatrical debut here. It features tough-talking criminal types (Jason Statham, Ray Liotta) and loan sharks (Andrew Benjamin, Vincent Pastore) and the guns we're used to from Ritchie films. This one, though, also comes with some serious mysticism, and philosophical questions about the very nature of human existence.
Unfortunately most critics don't care what the film is about whatsoever. "So bad it should star [Ritchie's] wife, Madonna," writes our own sharp-tongued Frank Lovece. The Village Voice is also disappointed, writing, "It's no return to rock, this, but rather Ritchie's soporific, proggy-conceptual Film of Ideas." And Newsday kind of spoils the ending, but probably does us a favor in the process: "But the real sucker in this scheme is you. The film's ending is so obvious that you'll kick yourself for spending 106 minutes convinced it must be something far cleverer."
JUNO. Opening on 7 screens. I covered Juno's reviews pretty thoroughly on Wednesday when it opened, but isn't there always room for one more rave review of this movie I love so much? Of course there is. "The point is that Juno represents an almost magical configuration of very talented people with very much the same brand of whipsaw humor," writes Andrew Sarris at The New York Observer. OK, moving on.
GRACE IS GONE. Opening on 4 screens. John Cusack stars in this Sundance hit about a father raising his daughters (Shelan O'Keefe, Grace Bednarczyk) alone while his wife, Grace, serves in Iraq. When two soldiers arrive at the door to tell Stanley that Grace has died in action, he reacts by not reacting, taking his girls on an impromptu road trip to Florida to delay breaking the news. After a visit with his brother (Alessandro Nivola) and finally arriving at their destination, Stanley finally has to face the truth.
Many critics fell for this small-scale tearjerker. '"Evokes the daily lives of a father and his two children in perfect, unassuming performances and with a close attention to detail that makes you feel like a fifth member of the family," writes Stephen Holden in The New York Times. Our Harvey Karten, like others, singled out young O'Keefe's performance as the eldest daughter: "[She] runs the emotional gamut from a 12-year-old who is never as carefree and fun-loving as her kid sister, but displays subtle changes as she becomes increasingly suspicious that something ominous is going on that her dad is not telling her." Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, finds the film tipping to the schmaltzy side of metaphor and sentiment: "Grace Is Gone grabs on to a name, a war, and the metaphor-come-to-life of a theme park with rides going nowhere. And we, the people, are spun around and shaken for tears."
THE WALKER. Opening on 3 screens. Finally we have Paul Schrader's latest, a murder-mystery drama about a Washington high society "walker" (Woody Harrelson), who knows all the secrets of all the Capital's political wives (Lily Tomlin, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lauren Bacall). He eventually gets caught up in a murder case and a scandal, which our our bluesheets guide I referred to as a "gigolo imbroglio." Sorry, I just wanted to get a little more use out of that line.
Reviews on this one are a little mixed, if not seeming exhausted by the effort of making it through. Our Doris Toumarkine finds it "entertaining, a guilty pleasure, a tease, and a jab at the Capital's powerbrokers," but also notes, "The Walker is as slow as its title character's Southern drawl." "Although script sparkles with twinkly bon mots and cynical quips, pic's midsection feels a little flabby, as if the writer-helmer were just going through the motions," writes Variety. Newsday appreciates the effort, but concedes it's a bit of a mis-step: "Schrader's reach exceeds his grasp, but his intentions are interesting, and the artifice he creates - including Harrelson's decidedly weird performance - contributes to the otherworldliness of his Washington."