“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

Below is my review of Disney’s 2004 adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel called “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”

 

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, ”Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent.

This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin’s place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.

I might as well make this short. ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.

Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.

Did I like ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremmer’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.

There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and the actors. One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.

I wish I could say that this version of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying by making such a statement. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste.

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“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review

“HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS” (2007) Review”

I might as well make one thing clear . . . I have never read Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials”. But this did not deter my interest in seeing the movie based upon the first novel, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS”. And quite frankly, I am glad that I had seen it.

Directed by Chris Weitz, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” opened with the beginning of the “HIS DARK MATERIALS” saga. In it, a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), lives at Jordan College (of Oxford University) in an alternate dimension of Great Britain. She saves er uncle, world explorer/scholar Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) from being poisoned by the Magisterium (the dimension’s religious ruling body) after he has revealed his discovery of elementary particles called Dust – something that the ruling body consider a threat to their authority. After her uncle departs upon an expedition to the North to find more Dust, Lyra befriends another scholar and explorer named Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) during a dinner held at Jordan College. While visiting Mrs. Coulter in London, Lyra learns that her hostess is a member of the Magisterium and has participated in the kidnapping of young children, including two of her friends – a kitchen servant named Roger, and a Gyptian boy named Billy Costa. She also discovers that Mrs. Coulter wants her hands on the last alethiometer, a device that resembles a golden compass. This device, which was given to Lyra by Jordan College’s Master, is able to reveal the answer to any question asked by the user.

After escaping Mrs. Coulter’s London flat, Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians, who plans to rescue Billy and the other children. They take Lyra to the Norweigian town of Trollsund, where she meets an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot). She also meets Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) who is a queen of the witches, and an armoured bear named Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellan). With her new friends, Lyra embarks upon an adventure that leads her to a conflict between her friend Iorek and the false king of the amored bears, Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane); and to Bolvangar, an experimental station in the North where the Magisterium are severing the Gyptian children from their daemons. Before the movie ends Lyra learns that Lord Asriel has been captured by Magisterium spies and that Mrs. Coulter plans to assassinate him. She, Roger, Scoresby and Serafina set out to rescue the endangered explorer by the end of the movie.

Like any other movie, good or bad, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. There were three of them that I found noticeable. One, the movie’s plot seemed rather vague on Lord Asriel’s fate after he was captured by the Magisterium’s spies in the North. Serafina gave a brief explanation to Scoresby near the end, as they set out to find Asriel. But still . . . I found it vague. Two, the editing by Anne V. Coates seemed a bit choppy in a few spots. And most importantly, the movie’s pacing . . . at least in the first third, seemed very rushed. Some people have complained that too many aspects of the story had been stuffed in the script. I personally feel that Weitz had simply rushed the story. By the time Lyra and the Gyptians reached Trollsund, the director seemed to have finally found a natural pace.

However, I must admit that “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” had turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Honestly, it is quite good. The story was intriguing. Chris Weitz did a decent job in adapting Pullman’s novel for film, even if he did rush the first third of the story. I simply adored Henry Braham’s photography and Ruth Myer’s costume designs – especially Nicole Kidman’s elegant, 1930s style costumes. But I must commend Richard L. Johnson. Chris Lowe and Andy Nicholson for their sumptious art direction – especially their view of London in Pullman’s world. And Dennis Gassner deserves an Oscar nomination for his production design, as far as I am concerned.

The actors were first rate. What does one expect from a cast with the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam Elliot, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay? I especially have to give kudos to Craig who seemed like the embodiment of the ruthless, yet enthusiastic scholar Lord Asriel. And Nicole Kidman brought great style, charm and ruthlessness to the role of the villainous Mrs. Coulter. But she also gave the character a much needed pathos, when the lady revealed to our young heroine that she was the latter’s mother. It was quite thrilling to see Eva Green as a woman of action in her portrayal of the queen witch, Serafina Pekkala. Ian McKellan and Ian McShane were excellent as the feuding armored bears. And Jim Carter (who is married to HARRY POTTER actress Imelda Staunton) was most intimidating as the Gyptians’ king, John Faa. Seeing Sam Elliot’s portrayal as the charming aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, reminded me why I have remained a fan of his for so long. His scenes with young Dakota Blue Richards really crackled. He seemed like the embodiment of a fine wine that has aged very well.

“THE GOLDEN COMPASS”‘s center . . . the character that held the movie together was none other than first-time British actress, Dakota Blue Richards. This young lady was a find. She was absolutely perfect as the charming, yet bold and cunning Lyra. Some Washington D.C. critic had compared her unfavorably to another actress named Dakota – namely Dakota Fanning. Granted, the latter is an excellent actress, but so is Miss Richards. She managed to convey all of Lyra’s complex traits without turning the character into an adult in a child’s body. She was simply superb.

I am sure there are fans of Pullman’s novels who are disappointed that the movie did not turn out to be an exact adaptation of the literary version. All I can say is I am sorry, but I have never heard of any movie being an exact adaptation of its literary source. And if you are hoping to find one in the future, you will be disappointed. Yes, “THE GOLDEN COMPASS” has its flaws. What movie does not? But it certainly has enough virtues, including a superb leading actress, that made it enjoyable . . . at least for me.

“THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008) Review

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”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008)

Back in 1951, Robert Wise directed a science-fiction film about a humanoid alien visitor who comes to Earth with a warning. The film, starred Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Fifty-seven years later, Scott Derrickson directed a remake of the classic that stars Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connolly.

Based upon Harry Bates’ short story, “Farewell to the Master”, this updated version of ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” ditched the Cold War theme and settled upon humanity’s environmental impact upon Earth. Another change in this latest version centered around the main character, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). In the 1951 version, Klaatu (portrayed by Michael Rennie) started as a “humane” and ended up as a slightly cold alien who threatens the humans during a United Nations conference, with “the big stick” – threatening annihilation if the nations refused to find a way to settle the Cold War. Klaatu experiences a reversal of characterization in this new version. He starts out as cold and tough, with very little hope for humanity. Due to his interactions with Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connolly), Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) and Helen’s stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), Klaatu becomes more humane and compassionate over humanity’s situation.

I wish I could point more of the similarities and difficulties between the two versions. But if I must be honest, my memories of the 1951 version are not that sharp. It has never had much of an impact upon me. It just happened to be one of many decent movies that I did not find particularly mind boggling. Even when I became older. And If I must be honest, I can say the same about this version. In the end, ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008) seemed like nothing more than a solid, yet entertaining science-fiction story with a message about a real life crisis in present-day Earth. Namely our endangered environment. Everything about this movie seemed solid – Scott Derrickson’s direction, David Scarpa’s screenplay and the cast led by Reeves and Connolly.

However, there were some exceptional standouts in both the cast and the crew. Jeffrey A. Okun’s visual special effects struck me as being impressive. I especially liked the updated design of Klaatu’s starship and the fact that it, along with Gort, was biologically based. As for the cast, I was impressed by two performers – young Jaden Smith, who portrayed Helen Benson’s stepson and Kyle Chandler as John Driscoll, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates). Smith did an excellent job of conveying young Jacob’s anger over his father’s death and resentment toward being “stuck” with his stepmother. And Chandler provided another example of his talent for portraying ambiguous and sometimes, dark characters with his portrayal of the frightened and desperate Driscoll.

Other than that, I found nothing really exceptional about this version of ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” . . . anymore than I did about the previous 1951 version. If you are looking for something exceptional, you will be disappointed. If you are simply looking for a solid story that is also entertaining, then ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” is your movie.