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His Dark Materials (HBO)

Discussion in 'TV Shows' started by Adam Lenhardt, Feb 24, 2019.

  1. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    Premieres November 4.
     
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  2. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    This premiered last night on BBC One in the UK, and tonight on HBO in the US.

    The world building is incredible. So much of it feels like it leapt straight out of my imagination from reading the books years and years ago.

    Dafne Keen visually looks nothing like the dirty blonde Anglo Saxon girl with aristocratic features, but she perfectly embodies Lyra's nature.

    James McAvoy makes a great Lord Azrael, too. His bearing is a little less harsh than the Lord Azrael on the page, and Daniel Craig's take on the character in The Golden Compass. But he captures the character's commitment, and the decency that emerges when he's not consumed by the fervor of his mission.

    My one complaint with the premiere is that there's a lot of exposition that's conveyed, and it's delivered pretty hamfistedly. Part of that is that this is targeted for family audiences, so they want to make sure the younger audiences know what's going on.

    It doesn't appear that the show's shying away from the religious controversy, either. The Magisterium is discussed repeatedly in hushed whispers. The few cutaways to the Magisterium itself is quietly menacing. And it's quite clear in the episode that the Magisterium is an alt-universe Catholic church.
     
  3. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    After the second episode, I continue to be both impressed and frustrated by this show.

    The novels were marketed to children, but I think most children felt a little naughty reading them. They were darker than most children's books, with more adult themes, and relatively little handholding.

    This story is way darker than any US children's show would attempt. And yet, I'm guessing that the BBC is targeting it to children in the UK because there's no other reason why the exposition is so repetitive and heavy-handed. There were way too many instances in both episodes where characters simply announced bits of exposition out loud, for seemingly no one's benefit other than the audience's.

    The scenes featuring agents of the Magisterium are particularly guilty of this. The one scene that felt like the Magisterium of the books was in the car with the journalist at the end, after Mrs. Coulter's party. Brutal but shadowy.

    On the other hand, Dafne Keen continues to be miraculously great as Lyra. Just about every moment she's on screen is magic. Keen makes you feel what Lyra is feeling.

    Ruth Wilson is also phenomenal as Mrs. Coulter, who could have easily been a one-note ice queen. The relationship between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra is perhaps the most complex of the entire series, and this episode got a lot of the nuances exactly right. Mrs. Coulter does care about Lyra, and is trying to do what's best for her, in her eyes. But getting in the way of that is the fact that her day job is absolutely horrifying and barbaric.

    I was really surprised that they introduced our world this early into the series. I figured we wouldn't see it until the final scene of the final episode, if at all this season. The decision to thread Lord Boreal through this season will drastically change what the audience knows, and when. In the first book, I think he's only ever seen at the cocktail party.
     
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  4. Josh Dial

    Josh Dial Producer

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    Two episodes in (waiting for episode three to air later tonight) and I am completely underwhelmed. While the acting is mostly fine, everything else is middling. The directing from Tom Hooper is surprisingly amateurish, and the editing is, frankly, bad. Virtually every scene starts just slightly too late--like the first 10 seconds have been cut out and replaced by a useless establishing shot.

    The show is completely by-the-book. Literally: it's like Tom Hooper has his "intro to television directing" textbook out, dog-eared to the page that says how many scenes go in a 60-minute drama. No invention. No risk. Maybe it will get better with Dawn Shadforth or Otto Bathurst behind the camera.

    The set dressing for the apartment is beautiful. The costuming design is great.

    I'm giving it two more episodes to improve otherwise I'll be dropping it.
     
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  5. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    The editing isn't great, but my biggest problem is with the writing. It's clunky, and Jack Thorne doesn't trust the audience. The exposition gets hammered home, and he loves Big Important Speeches. There are many moments that are played big here that were played small in the books, and they had more power played small.

    There are only a few performers talented enough to triumph over the dialogue they've been saddled with. Dafne Keen continues to be magic as Lyra. Ruth Wilson makes Mrs. Coulter interesting every moment she's on screen. Anne-Marie Duff embues Ma Costa with both warm kindness and fiery determination. James Cosmo understands that when it comes to Farder Coram, quiet plays far more impactfully than loud.

    The world building is incredible. At times when the show is especially frustrating, I think about muting it and just watching the pretty pictures. Attack of the Clones inspires a similar impulse.

    I'm hoping things will pick up in the North.
     
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  6. Josh Dial

    Josh Dial Producer

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    I think the actors are, as I wrote above, mostly fine. However what's frustrating is that I know they could all be better. I think Anne-Marie Duff is actually delivering her lines fairly woodenly--or at least artificially. Same, too, for Keen (her solo scenes with Pan are flat). However, the blame here lands squarely on the directors' shoulders--they just can't seem to get the correct performances out of their actors (or the directors are getting what they want and I don't like it). I think Ruth Wilson must just be ignoring all her directions because she is wonderful.

    The third episode was just as disappointing as the first two. The "acting" in the rally scene with the shouting crowd was abysmal. Who is casting these extras?

    Far too much ADR.

    If Lin-Manuel Miranda can't save this: nothing can.
     
  7. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    I thought the scene where Ma Costa tells Lyra the truth about her mother was a tremendous bit of acting. She's sharing a horrifying bit of news in as kind of a way as she can. And while she's doing it, you catch bits of the nurse that protected this girl as a child; and you see the empathy she has for Mrs. Coulter as a mother, who was separated from her daughter for over a decade and has now had her stolen from her again; and both of those are intermingled with the emnity she has for Mrs. Coulter as the monster who kidnapped her son.

    That's not on Keen, though. The writing for Pan just states the obvious, and the ADRed dialog makes Pan seem disconnected from Lyra. She has too hold together those scenes, and her scene partner is a technological creation that doesn't quite work right.

    What worries me is that he seemed really miscast in the trailers. Sam Elliot was a great Lee Scoresby.
     
  8. Josh Dial

    Josh Dial Producer

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    I didn't get there, personally. Perhaps it was a combination of dialogue I've heard a thousand times, and distracting camera work.

    Oh I agree. As I wrote above it's squarely on the directors' shoulders. Keen is clearly fantastic--when she's allowed to be. Actors have been delivering performances under these circumstances for years now. If a director doesn't know how to get a good performance out of a gifted child star playing opposite a CGI creation with ADR, then it's time for a new director (or showrunner, more likely these days).
     
  9. Yee-Ming

    Yee-Ming Producer

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    I've never read the books, so I didn't feel exposition was a problem. Then again I'd be the first to admit I'm not a particularly discerning/critical viewer.

    Ruth Wilson is, well, Ruth Wilson. She's simply brilliant at playing, for want of a better term, sympathetic psychos: if you haven't seen her before in Luther, please do. Added bonus: Idris Elba is Luther. (I've never watched The Affair, which I realise is probably where US audiences would be familiar with her work, so I have no idea what her character is like in that, but if she's not playing a psycho there, then of course that aspect of her range would be unfamiliar.)

    Agreed Keen is fantastic. Can't blame her if her interactions with Pan aren't as good: even for older experienced well-established actors, playing off a shiny ping-pong ball (or whatever stand-in they're using for sightlines) isn't easy.

    And yes the world-building is pure eye-candy. Although I do think the CGI for the airships is just a touch ropey.
     
  10. Josh Dial

    Josh Dial Producer

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    Well Lin-Manuel Miranda definitely brought some much-needed energy to the show. At times he seems to be the only one who wants to be there.

    The dialogue, directing, and editing continue to be amateurish. This is absolutely not the best version this show could be (from both a creative and technical side). It's impossible not to compare the show with its network mate Watchmen. The differences are striking.

    I'm on vacation next week so I'm going to have to PVR the next episode. Perhaps watching two back-to-back will make for a more enjoyable experience. I know that two episodes ago I wrote that I was giving the show two more episodes, but given the "LMM Factor" and the fact that I can binge two, I think I'll finish out the season. I read that next season the show is moving away from Jack Thorne as the sole writer to a more modern "writers room" model. Maybe that will save it...
     
  11. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    My Thanksgiving festivities wrapped up early, so I finally got a chance to catch up with Monday's episode. While it still had issues, it was the best episode yet.

    It was the first one that captured a bit of the magic that I felt when reading the book. This was the first episode that really showed why Lyra is special, rather than just telling us. Yes, she has important parents and yes, she has the seemingly magical ability to read the alethiometer on instinct, without relying on the books of symbols. But it's the way she handled Lee Scoresby and the way she negotiated with Iorek Byrnison that captured what makes her so important.

    Speaking of Iorek Byrnison, I was surprised how well that character was executed given the problems the show has had with its daemons. It probably helped that Joe Tandberg was actually on set, providing motion capture information and giving the other actors a real performance to play off of. I wasn't optimistic when Tandberg was cast, because I thought he was too young to pull off the history and gravitas of Iorek, and he was replacing the great Ian McKellen. But I actually like Tandberg's take on the character better. He captures the pathos of the character, an armored bear who was destined for greatness but now finds himself having been brought low.

    It's interesting, because based on the trailers he was my biggest point of concern. I was worried that his Lee Scoresby would be nothing like the Lee Scoresby in my head -- and I was right. The character on the page is the kind of character that Lee Van Cleef would have played in an old Western.

    Miranda's take on Lee Scoresby is more like Indiana Jones with a bad Texas accent. But his version of the character works. The performance is more alive than the other adult performers, and his dialog is a lot more fun than the other adult performers. He's the first character we've met who doesn't take everything so damn seriously.

    There was less exposition to unload this week, so the problem that really stood out to me was the daemons. First, the show is really bad about not giving all of the extras in scenes daemons. Usually, only the speaking characters have daemons, with one or two extras thrown into the mix. Second, the proper use of the daemons is as a narrative device to externalize debates that the human characters are having with themselves. This series uses them to simply state the obvious. Third, the sound mixing is just terrible. Every time the daemons speak, it really, really obvious that its ADR. None of the daemon's dialog sounds like it's coming out of the CG creatures. It all sounds straight out of the recording booth.
     
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  12. Adam Lenhardt

    Adam Lenhardt Director

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    "The witches have talked about this child for centuries past," said the consul. "Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved. Do you understand that, Farder Coram?"
    -
    Northern Lights
    /The Golden Compass, Chapter 10
    The latest inexplicable adaptation choice was to introduce Will at this juncture. The use of (a version of) the prophecy as the opening voiceover made a certain sense, because it was presented to the reader during the events of the previous episode. But introducing Will completely throws the viewer off the path that the reader went down. It announces to the audience that Lyra's fate, and the fate of existence, is tied up with another -- and that that other is not Roger. It undermines the stakes right when the stakes should be approaching their zenith.

    The other problem is that the show's failure to get daemons right, both in terms of filling the backgrounds of shots with them so their presence feels ubiquitous, and in terms of defining the incredible intimacy between person and daemon. Because those things don't work, the separation of child and daemon doesn't have the impact it should. I think that's partly why they made the child Billy Costa, rather than a random child, as it was in the book. But that has its own ramifications, because rescuing Billy Costa was one of the key reasons the gyptians rallied to liberate Bolvangar. While we've been told that other gyptian children have been taken, we don't know any of them, so the gyptians' motivation feels less personal now.

    Other than those two complaints, I liked this episode a lot. The mood and tone of Lyra's detour to the village felt exactly how I imagined it. Iorek continues to be exactly as I imagined him.

    The reunion of Farder Coram and Serafina Pekkala is clunkier than it should have been, as most scenes between adults in this miniseries are. But James Cosmo and Ruta Gedmintas effectively conveyed the undercurrent of emotion -- the depth of feeling the two of them have for each other, and the lingering rawness of the loss of their son.

    The final sequence with Lyra's delivery at Bolvangar felt straight out of a horror movie, which is exactly how it should have felt.
     
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  13. Josh Steinberg

    Josh Steinberg Executive Producer
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    The adaptation choices here are just baffling. I think this chronological reordering is robbing the story of both momentum and intrigue, and then the rushed details (like the frequently missing daemons) dull the impact of Lyra’s discovery. The reveal of another world and a connection to theirs and ours should have been held as a season ending, final act twist. I think the story is better when the audience is as in the dark about this world’s mechanics as the Magisterium keeps Lyra and everyone else, so that we can share the discovery with her.

    I’ll say one thing: Lin-Manuel brings the thing to life whenever he appears onscreen. In just a few moments in this episode, he gives the episode moments of actual feeling.
     

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