A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Closer

October 27, 2011

Closer

As we approach the end of our movie a day project Amanda and I find that we have a number of films left over that don’t make for light watching of a weekday afternoon. Films of a more weighty nature that we haven’t had the fortitude to venture upon. Some of them are movies like yesterday’s and today’s which I have seen before, but which do not really fit with the more fantasy and sci-fi themed feel of the vast majority of our collection.

I cannot for the life of me remember why I bought this movie. It is in no way at all like the kind of movie that I would normally buy. It’s a kind of meditation on romances going bad. Cheating, sex, lies. I suppose it was the cast that attracted me to the movie. As often happens I bought it sight unseen, and it’s just kind of been here our apartment gathering dust since I first watched it. Not because it is a bad movie but because it is a little bit depressing and not something I’d really want to subject myself to on a regular basis.

The movie revolves around four people as they meet, fall in love with each other, hurt each other and leave each other. It starts with a young girl who calls herself Alice getting hit by a car while exchanging glances with a dashing young writer named Dan. He falls for her undeniable waifish charm and she falls for his repressed British loneliness. He writes a book inspired by her, but when he goes to get photographed for the cover he ends up for no reason falling completely in love with the photographer – a woman named Anna. Maybe it’s that Anna is more mature and Alice is too needy. He seems to think that there’s some connection between himself and Anna, and she seems to feel something too. Mostly, though, it’s that Dan is a complete jerk. (That’s one of the themes of the movie, really.)

When Anna refuses to see Dan (because she knows he’s seeing Alice) he plays a bitter prank on a random stranger he encounters through the internet – masquerading as Alice and seducing a horny doctor named Larry into a meeting with her. The prank somewhat backfires when Larry turns out to be a pretty descent guy. He’s a pervert, sure, but he ‘fesses up to it, and he has genuine feelings for Anna. So Larry and Anna start seeing each other, Dan is still going out with Alice, but he’s pining for Anna at the same time.

From there things get complicated. There are off-screen clandestine meetings, infidelity, marriage, break-ups, divorce papers, and lots of general angst. Dan is a self-centered jerk who wants to have his cake (a tender relationship with Alice) and eat it too (his affair with Anna.) Larry wields his larger than life sexuality like a weapon, but at the same time is completely open and honest with Anna. Anna wallows in guilt and self loathing and seems almost to enjoy it. And Alice? Alice is pretty much the most sympathetic character in the film – she seems innocent and needy, but in reality is the strongest of the bunch and the most independent. Maybe it’s that she’s better than any of the other characters at protecting herself from lies. She does have a special kind of armor that protects her, as we find out at the end of the film.

This film has some spectacular performances. It requires a degree of intensity since it is pretty much just a simple character study with only four speaking roles (well except the cabbie and the customs man who have one line each.) Natalie Portman and Clive Owen each won Golden Globes for their portrayals of Alice and Larry respectively. Jude Law is heart breaking as the two-timing Dan who can’t seem to get what he wants because he can’t admit to himself that he doesn’t deserve what he wants. Julia Roberts as Anna is similarly broken – it’s hard to figure out if her character is simply easily manipulated or if she truly wants what she gets in the movie.

What really stands out for me in this film though is the writing. It has a strong “adapted from the stage” vibe to it – because it is adapted from a stage production. It’s full of strong characters caught up in their own warring desires and lies. Patrick Marber’s adaptation of his own screenplay is powerful, brutal and savage. People hurt each other in this movie – a lot – which is why I’ve found it so hard to watch again after that first viewing when I bought it six years ago.

he other thing I found fascinating about this movie is the way it handles the act breaks. The events of the film take place over the course of about four years, but it leaps forward in jumps of about six months without warning between acts. It’s a little disorienting because you pick up with the same characters in a new scene and they reveal through the dialog that a huge amount of time has passed in what appeared to be just a cut to a new location, and you have to infer from the action what has passed in the missing months. It creates a sense of mental whiplash but it also acted to keep me engaged in the production because I enjoy having to use my brain and this film challenges you constantly to figure out what is going on and what you have missed.

This movie acts as a pretty good companion piece to Ghost World, which we watched yesterday. Both are films about people doing brutal emotional damage to each other. I’d argue that this movie is less depressing though. After reading the trivia about the ending of the movie and how Marber altered it for the film I have to say that I’m really glad he did make that change, because otherwise this movie would be a lot harder to watch. As it is, although I respect this movie for the writing and the performances and for the strange way it is put together, I suspect I probably won’t watch it again for at least another six years now. It’s just too difficult to get engaged in the lives and loves of characters knowing how much they’re all going to be hurt.

October 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Pink Floyd: The Wall

September 9, 2011

Pink Floyd: The Wall

I was intimately familiar with the album this movie is based on long before I saw the film. Like most kids born after a certain time “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” was a kind of anthem for me during a certain part of my high-school years. I had The Wall as a two tape set if memory serves me right, and I listened to it incessantly on my walkman. (Yeah, I guess that dates me.) At one point in college, slightly before I finally saw this movie, I transcribed every word on the album from the tapes – including half heard spoken dialog – as something to do one night. When I saw the film at last I was utterly blown away, and even today I still find it mesmerizing and impressive.

The album is, of course, Roger Waters’ masterful rock opera about how difficult it is to be a rock star. I’ve always wondered to what extent the music is autobiographical. Right at the beginning he admonishes us “If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes/you’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise.” Then he proceeds to break down the character of the singer (named Pink Floyd strangely enough) and explore what makes him the way he is. One by one Waters examines the bricks that make up Pink’s wall.

There’s his sometimes indifferent and sometimes over controlling mother. The film ads more back-story for Pink’s father with a song not on the album called “When the Tigers Broke Free” that explains about the death of Pink’s father during World War II. There’s the British school system which tried to dehumanise and homogenise him. There’s the infidelity of his wife (brought on by his own detachment.) There’s the general stress of being a rock star on the road in America. And of course there is an awful lot of drug use to dull the pain.

Ultimately Pink becomes so detached and confused that he descends into a sort of fascist dream where he’s the leader of a neo-nazi regime. The implication is, I think, that in its extremity the walls we build between each other to deal with modern life allows us to dehumanise others to such a degree that it can result in reprehensible behavior towards our fellow man. The only hope, Waters seems to say, is to break down the walls.

What the film does is to take the music of the album and present it with visuals that complement it just about perfectly. It expands on the album and makes it a little more explicit, while at the same time adding some slightly unnecessary scenes of unrelated British riots (which rang a little too true after the events in Tottingham this last month.)

The brilliance of the film, in my opinion, lies in the way it is presented largely as flashback. We get to see Pink initially in his neo-Nazi skinhead appearance, and then the movie sets out to explain how he came to be in this state. We repeatedly come back to Pink in his devastated hotel room and over the course of the film we get to see how it got to be in the state it is in. I’ve always love non-linear storytelling, and it makes for a great hook to keep you invested in Pink’s story.

Of course there is the jaw-dropping fluid animation of long time Pink Floyd collaborator Gerald Scarfe. Throughout the film his nightmare imagery brings the more psychedelic portions, such as Pink’s insecurities, to the screen. In particular there is a lot of imagery casting the women in Pink’s life as predatory creatures that use their sexuality to dominate him. There’s also some great scenes of the titular wall forming and corrupting the peaceful English countryside, the unforgettable marching hammers which are the sign of Pink’s corrupt fascist nightmare. It all culminates in the Trial, where figures from Pink’s past berate him and he is sentenced by The Worm (a talking arse with a judge’s wig) to have his wall torn down, exposing him to his peers.

This movie is a a delirious fever dream. I’ve seen it innumerable times by now which is why my review might appear to be a little cerebral and analytical. In fact it is better to let the film wash over you, as I did the first few times. There is so much to absorb here, from the story, to the music to the vivid imagery. Bob Geldof as the adult pink is brilliant, so damaged and overcome by the excesses of his life. I get the impression that it was a brutal role to play and that Geldof really gave himself up to the part. His singing may not be great, but that doesn’t hurt hte movie any. It’s an overwhelming overdose of a film and I’m always willing to give myself up to it once again.

September 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

James Bond: Goldfinger

September 4, 2011

James Bond: Goldfinger

Tonight we’re continuing Amanda’s James Bond education with the movie that is pretty widely accepted to be the best Bond movie, at least before they began playing with the formula on the last couple. I really felt that this needed to be in our collection if we were going to be exploring older Bond films because it is the quintessential Bond flick. It has the gadgets, the cool car, the mad plot, the babes, the bad puns. There were two films before this one in the franchise, but it wasn’t until this one that everything that you expect in a James Bond film truly came together. This movie established the formula not just for the whole James Bond franchise but for some of the knock-off films that came out around the same time. (For example the two MST3K films Secret Agent Super Dragon and Danger! Death Ray.)

This was one of the classic Sean Connery James Bonds, and it’s a lot of fun to watch him at work. Where his successor Roger Moore, who we watched a couple days ago in A View to a Kill, was cheesy and corny Sean Connery was much more suave. He simply projects machismo, from the moment he takes off his wetsuit in the prologue to reveal his white tuxedo jacket to his banter with the nefarious Goldfinger.

In this film James Bond, suave super-secret super-spy must find out how a madman named Auric (get it?) Goldfinger has been smuggling gold around Europe and devaluing the UK currency. Ultimately of course it turns out that Goldfinger’s plan goes far beyond mere smuggling – he intends to break into Fort Knox and using a dirty nuclear weapon to irradiate the American gold reserves, rendering it un-usable and thus raising the value of his own supply. Along the way Bond naturally sleeps with every woman he encounters and gets to use his usual collection of cool gadgets and toys.

One thing I can’t help noticing about Bond in this movie however is that he’s a bit of a dick. I expect all the womanising – hell that’s part of his charm – but he also spends a lot of time needlessly antagonising Goldfinger. His method of investigation seems to be to go piss off his subject as much as he can for no apparent reason. If he hadn’t messed with Goldfinger’s gin rummy game then the alluring Jill Masterson wouldn’t have been gilded. Then Bond challenges Goldfinger to a golf game and sneakily switches balls to prevent him from winning. Why does Bond go out of his way to antagonise Goldfinger at every turn? I honestly couldn’t say.

I do enjoy his car here though. The other gadget he gets from Q is his high-tech magnetic tracking device which probably seemed high-tech in the sixties but in the day of modern smart phones with GPS seems outrageously dated. His awesome silver Aston Martin on the other hand is as cool today as it ever was. It’s so full of cool tech! It has the rotating license plates, ejector seat, smole screen, oil slick, machine-gun headlights, spinning blades on the hubcaps and bulletproof windows. (All of which have been confirmed effective by Mythbusters, the authority on spy veracity by the way.) When I was in high school my best friend Jeff had a die-cast model of this car with spring loaded missiles, windcreen and ejector seat, which is proof that even in the eighties this car still had appeal to teenaged boys. I suspect that holds true to this very day.

As to the womanising, well, that’s a mixed bag. The first woman Bond hooks up with, a flamenco dancer, betrays him. Then he woos a pair of attractive sisters, each of whom is killed. Finally he aggressively “seduces” the very independent Pussy Galore who insists for most of the movie that she’s immune to his charms. Yes, she does eventually succumb and ultimately betrays her employer because Bond is just that good a roll in the hay, but the means by which he overcomes her reticence are a little too direct for modern audiences. Indeed I have to wonder if the scene where he forces himself on her seemed appropriate even in the sixties. And I had so been looking forward to seeing Honor Blackman of Avengers fame in the role of Pussy. Different times, I suppose.

It must have been interesting for Amanda watching this for the first time tonight. So much of this movie is so firmly entrenched in the modern pop culture lexicon. This movie is lampooned in everything from Austin Powers to the Simpsons. In Austin Powers when Random Task throws his shoe is it as funny if you haven’t seen Odd Job throwing his deadly hat in this movie? I’m guessing that Amanda was well aware of the scene where Bond is strapped to a table with a laser menacing his crotch but she had never seen it in context as part of the movie. Now at last she’s seen the film and she can understand just what the fuss is all about. I think with the four Bond films she has now seen she has a pretty good idea just what the whole character is about down through the years. There’s no need for us to collect all twenty of them I think.

September 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 546 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair – August 29th, 2011

Where the current series of adaptations has stopped and gone back, the BBC series went on for one more in the timeline while they still had the actor who played Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the right age for The Silver Chair. I can’t fault them that, though I have to say that this is my second least favorite of the Narnia stories (the very least favorite being The Horse and His Boy, which I could never quite get into). It’s not the concept so much as the characters. And it’s not the characters in general so much as Jill Pole. I want to like it a hell of a lot more than I do and that’s frustrating.

The thing about the earlier stories is that they’re mostly about grand adventures in the wondrous land of Narnia. The children brought through from our world to Narnia have a sense of epic destiny and importance. And while there’s plenty of danger to go around, there are also friendly allies and the general knowledge that the heroes aren’t alone. This story, on the other hand, is rather dire. And made more so because of the air of missed opportunity. Eustace Scrubb returns to Narnia in this story, having entered when he and a schoolmate, Jill Pole, wanted to get away from some bullies. The thing is, their adventure starts quite differently than all the others. They start in Aslan’s country. And instead of organically finding out what needs doing by exploring in Narnia, Aslan sets out specific tasks for them. Tasks they mess up at every opportunity.

On one hand, things go awry as soon as Eustace and Jill arrive, so perhaps if they hadn’t, Aslan would have just sent them on their way without any instructions and trusted that they’d figure it out along the way. On the other hand, he didn’t drop them directly into Narnia, so I take that as an implication that he was planning on talking to them at the outset anyhow. Regardless, Jill earns some distinct grumbling from me when she shows off, makes Eustace fall over the edge of a cliff and then has such trouble remembering four simple directions from Aslan that she arrives in Narnia too late to convince Eustace of the first one. And that right there sets the tone for the whole thing.

The purpose behind Eustace and Jill being in Narnia this time is to save Caspian’s son, Rillian, from a witch who has kidnapped him and imprisoned him for years. Caspian is now old and sick and they witness him leaving to sail out to the islands, Eustace not realizing that the elderly king is his old friend. Of course, the first instruction Aslan gave Jill was to tell Eustace the first person he saw would be an old friend and he should go to him at once to get the help they’d need for their quest. Jill gets there late, Eustace doesn’t understand what Aslan meant and Caspian sails off without speaking to him. No help for them! Fortunately for them, the talking owls help them out, deciding that the assistance they need is a Marshwiggle.

Now, Puddleglum the Marshwiggle is one of my favorite parts of this movie, and not just because he’s played by Tom Baker, though that is certainly amusing. But he’s one of the few touches of Narnia in the story, since the adventure itself takes Jill and Eustace far to the north. He’s much like Trumpkin the Dwarf was before he believed in Aslan. Very pessimistic and talking down much of what he encounters. But he’s also quite brave and he knows more about the land than either of the two human children, so he’s a good companion to have on an adventure like this. So with Puddleglum in tow, they set off northwards to find the missing prince and return him to Narnia.

And as they go, Jill manages to forget pretty much everything she was told by Aslan. She and Eustace fight and bicker and prod at each other constantly. Puddleglum’s dour and negative nature eventually wear the two others down and they start ignoring his advice. They miss two instructions and end up almost eaten by giants. And through it all I can’t help but think “If Lucy was there, she’d have found Rillian, brought him back and thrown a party by now. Get on with it!

Now, I’m pretty sure that’s the story itself as written. As I said, I’m not as fond of this one as I am of the first three and the last two, so I haven’t read it as many times as I’ve read the others. But given how faithful the other BBC adaptations were, I expect that holds true for this one as well. Which means I can lay it all at C.S. Lewis’ feet. On one hand, I understand that after writing the first three, with the Pevensies and grand armies and adventures with kings and all, writing a different type of adventure must have been nice. They can’t all be romps with royalty through beautiful Narnia. There’s a widening of the world here as Eustace and Jill discover places that we were never shown in the earlier stories. And I appreciate that. I just wish that these dangerous and grim lands had been explored by people a little more likeable, who could see the mysterious magic of their surroundings better than Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum do. As it is, while Eustace is a good deal better here than he was when we met him in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I like Puddleglum as a character, Eustace and Jill aren’t a great pair. It’s as if the entirety of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was told with Lucy and Edmund traveling together, before Edmund spoke to Aslan.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s just not fun to watch this group have an adventure. The movie was shot in lovely country and I like all the ideas of there being a ruined giant city and the “gentle” giants who are only gentle in that they’ll cook you before they eat you. The underground kingdom isn’t anything terribly special, but the costumes are amusing and there’s a nice blueish cast to everything that sets an eerie otherworldly mood. I’ve got no fault with the acting. It’s not the performances that keep me from enjoying this. After all, I like the David Thwaites, who plays Eustace and I love Tom Baker ad Puddleglum and while I don’t like the character of Jill I do think Camilla Power did well with her. And then there’s Barbara Kellerman as the witch. And I really kind of love that the White Witch, Green Witch and the hag from Prince Caspian are all played by the same person, as if all the witches in the stories are one force. It’s the story. And since the BBC sticks close to the stories with these adaptations, there really wasn’t ever going to be anything to help that.

August 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 545 – The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (BBC)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (BBC) – August 27th, 2011

More Narnia tonight, and this one a real departure from the newer adaptations in that it’s been packaged as a single story even though it’s really not. I know originally it was meant to be two separate stories, but by the time it was aired in the US, it had been combined into one. The best reason I can think of is that the first part, Prince Caspian only takes two ½ hour episodes from beginning to end, whereas The Voyage of the Dawn Treader takes four and both The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Silver Chair took six each. So it makes perfect sense for Wonderworks to have stuck the two and the four together to maintain a regular schedule. Then again, if they’d had a daily half hour time slot they could have just shown the entire four story set as a run of eighteen episodes. That’s practically a full season of television. Regardless, we watched them together tonight as a single movie.

Really, they do go well together. After all, they’re linked by the character of Caspian. And it’s clear that they were intended to be watched rather close together. From what I recall of the books, Prince Caspian ends with the children all heading off on different trains to different boarding schools, whereas The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has Susan off in America, Peter visiting with Professor Kirke and Lucy and Edmund stuck spending the summer with their aunt, uncle and cousin. This adaptation, which is as faithful to the books as the first one was, has changed this one thing to bump the stories up against each other. The trip into Narnia to help Prince Caspian claim his throne here takes place as one last adventure for the whole family before Peter’s off to school, Susan’s off to America and Lucy and Edmund go to their cousin’s. And to be honest? I like what it does with the story. It wouldn’t work for a feature film, but for a serial it’s rather nice. And then too, the timeline works out nicely. Narnian time going faster than our time, it works for me to have a short time in our world mean only a few years in Narnia, as opposed to a year or so meaning the same thing when it apparently meant hundreds of years before.

So it’s clear that the two stories were meant to run into each other, regardless of whether they were packaged as a single six episode set or one two episode set and one four. And I like that. In my review of the new adaptation of Prince Caspian I complained a good deal about all the walking and talking that happens in the book. It’s tedious, to be honest. And in an slavish adaptation, it would bog down the entire story. So it’s a little truncated here. Far more present than in the new version, but it’s not allowed to overwhelm the actual story of Caspian fleeing for his life and encountering true Narnians and leading them in battle to reclaim his throne and bring faith in Aslan back to the country.

The thing is, without all the talking and walking and meandering thoughts on the nature of faith, it’s really a rather short story. Caspian flees the castle and meets the Dwarves and Trufflehunter the talking badger, who introduce him to many of the other old Narnians before they all have a wild feast on the Dancing Lawn. He uses Susan’s horn to call for help, which arrives in the form of the Pevensies, who show up at Aslan’s Howe (where Caspian and his people are already dug in) just in time to stop an attempt to resurrect the White Witch. And then Susan and Lucy head off with Aslan to wake the trees while Edmund and Peter challenge Caspian’s uncle, Miraz, to buy time before the battle. Which ends up being not so big a deal since Aslan shows up and scares everyone away before the battle really has a chance to get going. It’s accurate to the book, yes, but it’s amusing to see what the book comes to when all the talking is reduced but the rest of the plot isn’t padded out.

All of that means that Prince Caspian makes for a good introduction to the next story. It shows the differences that have come to pass in Narnia without delving too deeply, since they’re not going to be all that different for long. It introduces a character who, by the next story, will have grown into his role as King. And it primes Lucy and Edmund for going right back into Narnia, which of course they do, given the set-up I mentioned before. So almost as soon as they’re back in England, they see a painting with a Narnian ship and they’re being pulled into it with their cousin, Eustace and there’s Caspian, now a young man, sailing off on a quest.

This version is, like the others, quite faithful to the book, so there’s no additional plot here, just Caspian’s search for the seven lost lords and a trip that goes from island to island, event to event. This being a serial, the episodic nature of the story works far better than it would in a single movie. It feels right to have things happen bit by bit. They go to one island and find slavers and then they deal with that! Then they go to another island and find a different problem, deal with it, move on. Etcetera. There’s no attempt to tie everything together with a villain or additional overarching problem to solve. The only problems at hand are the missing lords and the specific issues at each location. It doesn’t quite translate out to an island per half hour episode, but near enough. And I’m fine with that. I like each island having its own story and its own problem. I like the time allowed for Eustace’s transformation and I like that he changes for internal reasons in this version, as opposed to external reasons in the other.

In many ways, this story is about individual voyages for each of the main characters. Edmund is the only one I can think of who doesn’t get a solo situation to face. But Lucy has to face down her jealousy of her sister. Eustace becomes a dragon and has to cope with his greed and attitude. And Caspian has to face the responsibility he has as a King. Edmund’s only real problem to face down is when he and Caspian argue over the island where the water turns things into gold. But then, Edmund already had his personal journey all the way back in the first story, so I forgive that and I enjoy seeing the group grow. And the movie does it all nicely. It’s lovely seeing all of the ocean scenery and I love the boat used as the Dawn Treader. The end has always disappointed me somewhat, but I credit that to the technology to do what needed doing not quite existing at the time it was made. Overall, though, I just enjoy this movie. It’s the sort of thing I can put in and watch a portion of, then go back to later and it’s perfect comfort viewing.

August 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 544 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (BBC) – August 26th, 2011

Back to Narnia for the weekend, which feels rather fitting. There’s something about traveling to an imaginary land that seems perfect for a stormy day and we’re expecting a hurricane to arrive this weekend. I’ve probably been influenced by Wizard of Oz. Regardless, staying inside and watching a trio of three hour long fantasy serials seems like a fantastic way to spend a nasty weekend. And these three are straight out of my childhood, much like The Box of Delights and A Little Princess. All BBC adaptations of classic children’s books. All shown in the US on PBS’s Wonderworks series. All long and incredibly faithful to the books.

It’s a shame, really, that the budget for this wasn’t higher. These Narnia serials were made to be shown in six episodes each, covering just under three hours. That gives an enormous amount of screen time to a book adaptation and that’s one reason why they can afford to be so faithful. Much as I love and adore seeing books I enjoy on a big screen, I admit that when it comes down to it, I think a television miniseries is a hell of a lot more effective. Just look at Dune as an example. Think about the David Lynch adaptation, then, if you’ve seen it, think about the Sci Fi Channel miniseries of the same book. They’re very different creatures, and while I enjoyed the Lynch version, I thought the miniseries did a far better job of bringing the world of the book to the screen. I’m saddened to hear that the planned Dark Tower movies are in limbo now, but I honestly hope that someone like HBO picks them up and gives them a good miniseries treatment. Because a miniseries allows for a lot more exploration. And so it is with this series. If only it had been given more money.

Granted, the effects aren’t terrible. I’ve seen far far worse. But anyone who’s seen older Doctor Who episodes will understand when I say that it is distinctly obvious that this adaptation is a BBC production. Which personally, I find charming. I grew up with this stuff. It’s nostalgic for me to see the 2D animation for many of the animals and the not-quite-matched-up torsos and bodies on the centaurs. It’s the spirit of the thing that I find important, and I really do think that this adaptation manages to capture that even with a budget that is a tiny fraction of what the newer big screen adaptation surely had.

The story is, of course, much the same as the book. I mentioned already that it is impressively faithful as adaptations go. The Pevensie children, sent away from London to the safety of the countryside during World War II, discover a passage to Narnia through the back of a mysterious wardrobe in a spare room of the country house they’re staying in. Again, Lucy is the first in. Again, her siblings don’t believe her. Again, Edmund follows her then lies to Susan and Peter after having met the White Witch. And again, he sells them out for a pile of Turkish Delight. Again, the children all end up going into Narnia and again, they discover that they are to lead a revolution against the White Witch. The basic story doesn’t change from version to version. But in this adaptation, it feels as if the writers went through the book page by page to decide not what to include, but how to include it. At times, it works very well. At times it’s obvious just how far beyond the means of the adaptation some things were. And that isn’t necessarily a budget issue every time. This was made in 1988. Even the highest budget couldn’t have made some things technologically possible.

Still, I’m not criticising it for its shortcomings. The acting isn’t winning any awards, though I always did like the children who played the Pevensies. Barbara Kellerman as the White Witch chews far more scenery than I ever would have thought possible had I not seen this as a child. I compare all other scenery chewing to this, really. But that works. She’s over the top and incredibly dramatic and I love it. I think my only criticism is Aslan himself. The huge fake lion is well done and all, but there’s something a little too ponderous about his line delivery. It makes everything he says feel like he’s trying to put people to sleep. Which is frustrating, because I like the vocal quality of the person doing the lines, but the delivery is so slow, like they were directed to speak more deliberately to communicate authority or something. Whatever the reason, it just sounds drowsy, not powerful.

Other than that, however, I really do enjoy this version of the story. It’s not lush or epic or spectacular, but it is thorough and sweet and it feels right. It’s faithful, which I’ve mentioned, but it’s also respectful of the source. I’m not saying the newer version isn’t, just that it’s readily apparent here that this was made by people who knew the story and knew the source and who wanted to take everything on the pages and put it all up in visual splendor. And if that meant some awkward bits that didn’t translate perfectly from one medium to another, then so be it. Those bits would still be there so there’d be no doubt that this is the story in its entirety. And I appreciate that.

August 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 541 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) – August 23rd, 2011

I’ve mentioned that I grew up with the BBC versions of these stories and I have to admit that the third story was always my favorite. Same for the books. I loved this story of a voyage at sea, full of all of the perils of such a quest and all of the beauty of it too. I loved venturing past the known lands of Narnia into the unexplored islands and the waters beyond. So I was looking forward to this installment, but I was again nervous. I knew going in that it was going to be a difficult transition from page to screen. I knew that like in Prince Caspian, changes would have to be made. I also knew that they’d run into trouble with the movie during filming. So I think my worries were reasonable. Turns out they were also at least a little justified.

Now, let me make it plain that I really did enjoy this movie. I had fun watching it and it had a lot of what I wanted from it. But it is not the story I loved from the book and it is not the story that the BBC put on the small screen. In some ways that was inevitable. Much as I love the original story, it is almost tailor made for a mini-series. It’s an episodic journey from Narnia to the edge of the world, stopping at one island to deal with a problem, solving it, then moving on to the next. There’s the dragon episode and the sea serpent episode and the Dufflepud episode and so on and so forth. Yes, there is a plot that ties them together, but it seems to have little in the way of urgency.

In the original story Caspian, who is now King, has embarked on a voyage to the Lone Islands and beyond to try and find the seven lords who were loyal to his father and banished by his uncle. And in the original? That’s the plot. Caspian has gone in search of the lords. That’s it. Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse, wants to sail to the end of the world, but Caspian’s just looking for some lords. And maybe it’s been too long since I read the book and there’s some pressing reason for it to be Caspian doing this, but If there is, it’s not really enough of a reason to have made an impression on me. Why Caspian himself? Why would a young king, new to his throne, recently done overthrowing the uncle who’d killed his father to steal the kingdom, leave said kingdom to go sailing? It just seems like perhaps he could have sent envoys to the islands instead. I’m just saying. So I totally understand why this new adaptation felt the need to make the whole thing have more of a pressing need.

Not that said need shows up right away. Caspian’s already on the ocean in the Dawn Treader when Lucy and Edmund and their sulky and obnoxious cousin Eustace get pulled into Narnia to join him. But it’s not long before we get a clue as to the larger overarching plot that’s being introduced. One of the first episodes of the original story involves Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and Eustace being captured by slave traders and auctioned off. And that’s kept mostly intact. But added to it is a mysterious green mist that swallows human sacrifices sent out to it in dinghies. And there you have your overarching plot. Now not only is Caspian out to find a bunch of lords for his own personal reasons, but he has a duty to the people of his kingdom. To people long neglected before he came into power. And I like the concept there. It makes the whole voyage seem a little more important and a little less like Caspian wanted a vacation.

The trouble here is that the whole mist thing then has to permeate the entire movie, tying it together. And it succeeds in some places and not in others. There are places where it feels somewhat organic, and other places where it’s clear just how much needed to be changed in order to give the movie an exciting climax instead of the ending it had originally. Working the mist into places like the island with the water that makes everything into gold? That doesn’t feel unreasonable. Having it be a sort of sign of temptation and fear works nicely. And that’s a common theme in the whole story anyhow, with people wanting to do things they know they shouldn’t. Lucy is tempted to say a spell that will let her take her sister’s place as the favored daughter. Eustace gives in to the temptation to take a dragon’s treasure. Edmund and Caspian fight over the gold water. The Dufflepuds are all but ruled by their own whims and wants, regardless of reason. I get it. I do.

Unfortunately, at the end the movie has to take all of that and work it into a big climax. Using an island from the actual story, where all of your nightmares become real, was a good idea. It means there’s no new locations being added and a truly sinister location from the original story gets more of a featured position. But it also takes the sea serpent and puts it there as the climax. And comparatively speaking, that just doesn’t measure up to the giant battles in the other movies. It feels like it’s trying too hard. And while the serpent itself is well done, I’m also disappointed that it’s shown to be a creation of fear, not an actual thing living in the oceans around the Lone Islands. Battling everyone’s fears to help find the last lord and dispell the curse that threatens the islands? Yeah, okay. It works in theory. But it’s so very different from the original story and from the previous movie adaptations.

As a movie, I think it works in many ways. As always I enjoyed the acting of the leads, this time including the absolutely marvelous Will Poulter as Eustace. Georgie Henley has grown up wonderfully and I truly hope she continues to act, be it on stage or screen. Same for Skandar Keynes. Ben Barnes does a lovely job as Caspian, though as I mentioned in my review for Prince Caspian, I do wish Caspian had been allowed to grow up across the two movies. It’s not the acting I take issue with. And I like what’s changed at the end, with Caspian deciding on his own not to continue on. Not to mention, I love the neverending wave at the edge of the world. And it’s not the necessity of changing things to make a feature film that I take issue with either. It’s that while I can see the germ of a good idea here, and I can see how it was meant to play out, it never strikes quite right. I wish Eustace had changed earlier. I wish things hadn’t been quite so melodramatic. I wish the sea serpent had been worked into the rest of the movie and something else had been incorporated into the end. I think that given how this movie went, it was a good idea to change tacks if this series is to continue. I’ve heard that The Magician’s Nephew is up next, and I think that’s a good plan. It’s got a clear villain in Jadis and it takes the audience back to the root of Narnia, reminding us why we’re supposed to care about the magic of it all. I hope it goes well. I’ll enjoy it anyhow, like I enjoyed this, but I’d like it if more people could enjoy it too.

August 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 540 – The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) – August 22nd, 2011

I grew up with the BBC adaptations of the Narnia books, which meant that I was used to this story getting folded in with the third one. And it’s understandable why that might be done, since the story itself is somewhat simple. Without the introduction of the world to fill the time, the story is mostly a walk through the woods and a climactic battle. The version I was used to uses this story as an introduction to the character of Caspian and whipped right through it all. This version, on the other hand, takes a much different route, expanding the story a good bit and building it up into something more substantial.

Honestly, I like it both ways, but in order to make this story a full movie on its own there had to be some serious adjustment to the story. I went back and reread the book to confirm what I remembered about the canon and indeed, I was remembering correctly. From what I’ve read, C.S. Lewis meant the story to be about the reaffirmation of faith after the corruption of a religion. What that means for the allegory he wrote is that there’s a hell of a lot of talking about whether the old stories are true or just made up. Whether Aslan is real. Whether it’s worth believing in him. Pretty much every character except Lucy and a talking badger named Trufflehunter need to be reminded of their faith in Aslan or discover it brand new. So in the book everyone walks around a lot and talks a lot and sits and debates a lot. The climactic battle is over in a page or two at most and we barely get to see Caspian once he’s fled the castle. That doesn’t really make for a great movie.

So, let’s talk changes. I realize a lot of people were unhappy with them, but I thought they worked fine for a movie adaptation. For one, Caspian’s not a boy here. He’s a young man. There’s a running theme of conflict between Caspian and Peter over who’s really in charge. The whole issue of no one believing in Aslan isn’t quite as heavily laid down and the battles take up a good deal more time. There’s more tension too, which I’ll come to.

The story involves the four Pevensie children being called back into Narnia unexpectedly, right off the train station platform, only to find that hundreds and hundreds of years have passed in Narnia since they were last there. The first story already established that time in Narnia passes much faster than time in our world, so it makes sense that a year for the Pevensies would be centuries for Narnia. In their absence, Narnia has been taken over by people called Telmarines, who are human but come from a long ways away and don’t have any respect for native Narnians or Narnian beliefs. They banished the Dwarves, the Giants, the Fauns and so on and so forth. The talking animals went deep underground, though many animals forgot how to talk and became wild again. The trees stopped talking, as did the rivers and streams. All the magic went into hiding.

Still, some people in Narnia like the old stories and the history, including Prince Caspian and his tutor, Professor Cornelius. But Prince Caspian’s uncle, Miraz, is on the throne, and he hates the old stories. And when his wife gives birth to a baby boy he plans on killing Caspian and taking over the royal line. Caspian flees, meets some old Narnians (two Dwarves and the aforementioned badget) and ends up pledging to lead a revolution against his uncle. Hurrah! He calls for help and that’s why the Pevensies end up there, answering the call of Susan’s horn.

The thing is, in this version what was all done separately by one group and another gets done more as a cohesive whole. In the book there’s a lot of “Now let me tell you the story of how this came to be, which the Pevensies only heard much later on” type narration. And it’s only mildly annoying as a device and works fine for the pacing. In a movie, on the other hand, it just wouldn’t work right. And if it isn’t going to work right as written, best to find a way around it. Having the Pevensies and Caspian meet earlier on is fine by me and most of the major events are kept intact regardless. They do still go to Aslan’s Howe and they do still have to deal with the hag and the werewolf who want to summon the White Witch back. They still have a duel with Miraz and his lords are still duplicitous bastards who stab him in the back and blame Caspian. And Lucy and Susan still go off with Aslan to help wake up the trees. It all just happens in a slightly different order and combination as it does in the book. And I don’t mind that. I think it works well for a cinematic version and keeps the story interesting.

By far the biggest noticeable change is Caspian’s age. I say noticeable because I honestly don’t think the pacing changes and lack of walking are noticeable in anything but a positive way, unless the only thing you like about the book is the discussions of faith. Caspian’s age, however, is a mixed bag. I can’t complain about Ben Barnes as Caspian. He’s got a good dashing quality about him and he’s got a noticeably different look to him than the Pevensie children, specifically Mosely and Keynes as Peter and Edmund. I understand why he was aged up. It created more conflict for the plot so there was more to deal with once Caspian and the Pevensies are united, and since the pacing was changed, that was going to happen sooner rather than later. At the same time, it very much changes the dynamic between Caspian and everyone else. There’s a romantic subplot for him and Susan that’s rather shoehorned in and then was apparently mostly taken out, leaving the remaining bits shallow and confusing. Despite all that, however, my biggest complaint is a nerdy nitpick: Caspian being a young man already in this one makes his relative lack of aging between this and Voyage of the Dawn Treader annoying from a continuity and Narnia canon standpoint.

Overall it’s a gorgeous movie, with good acting and visual effects, which is much in keeping with the first movie. I expected it to be beautiful. I expected lush backgrounds and I expected gorgeous costumes. I expected to enjoy seeing the Pevensies again and I expected to be impressed by the scale of the battle and the whole world. So I have no complaints there. And I felt like they did a good job adjusting the story to make a full theatrical feature. I think where it suffers is in its attempt to take a story that is far far less involved and impressive than the first and put it at the same level, which I honestly don’t think is a resolvable issue. It’s big and impressive, but it lacks the impact of the first movie, which isn’t this movie’s fault. It’s the story’s fault. Can’t really fix that.

August 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 539 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) – August 21st, 2011

I cannot tell you how excited and nervous I was when I heard that new versions of the Chronicles of Narnia stories were being made for theatrical release. I’d read the books when I was a child and I’d loved them, overwhelmingly obvious Christ allegory aside, and then I’d watched the BBC adaptations over and over and over until I knew every line (we’ll be watching those this weekend). So a new version? With a new cast and new sets and new director? Done for the big screen? Well, it could have gone very well or it could have gone very poorly, hence the excitement and the nerves. Fortunately, I was not disappointed by this new adaptation. And I knew I wouldn’t be as soon as I saw the children cast as the four Pevensie siblings.

Casting can’t carry a movie on its own, it has to be backed up with a number of other successful factors. That being said, the casting here was excellent, especially Georgie Henley as Lucy. Lucy, as you might know if you’ve read the books, is a pivotal figure in the story. She has to be young enough to be believable as the baby of the family, but the actress playing her has to shoulder a ton of scenes and a lot of plot. Lucy, after all, is the one who first discovers that there’s a whole other world accessible through the back of a mysterious wardrobe in a spare room of the house she and her siblings are staying in. She’s the first one to go through the wardrobe into Narnia and she’s the first one to meet one of its people and she’s the most vocal about its importance. And Georgie Henley is fantastic in the role. I cannot say enough about how awesome she is.

The rest of the Pevensies are also fantastic, which is such a relief. Skandar Keynes as the initially duplicitous Edmund, Anna Popplewell as elder sister Susan and William Mosely as eldest brother Peter are all wonderful and thoroughly believable both as siblings and as children of the time period the movie takes place in. I couldn’t be more impressed by them and therefore I’d like to offer some thanks to the casting crew. The story needs its four leads to shine and shine they do. Of course, it helps that they’re given a whole lot of faithful-to-the-book material to work with. I’m not going to get ahead of myself by commenting too much on the next two adaptations, but suffice it to say that this one, at least, kept things very close to the book that I remember. There were some fairly hefty changes made to the next two, but whatever changes were made to the first one, they didn’t alter the main characters or main story enough to draw my notice.

I’m assuming most people who might find this review will have read the book already, even though I know that’s an optimistic assumption. After all, I know my Hoot review routinely gets views from kids trying to do compare/contrast assignments without reading the book. Fat lot of good it does them. So I’m not going to do a point by point comparison. I’m just going to go over the basic story. Which is that four children, while staying in the country to avoid London during World War II, discover the magical land of Narnia after going through a portal in the back of a wardrobe. Narnia is under the control of an evil witch who makes it winter all the time (but never Christmas, since the Christ allegory has been banished for the time being). Only four human children will be able to save Narnia from the witch and end the long winter, allowing the lion Aslan (the aforementioned Christ allegory) to return to the land. So they embark on a quest, meeting talking animals, centaurs, fauns, dryads and so on and so forth, all of whom have been waiting for the day when Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve arrive to save them. Told you the allegory was obvious.

Of course there has to be more to stand in the way of the witch’s downfall than a bunch of snow and a missing lion. One of the siblings, Edmund, wanting to be more important than his older brother, is tempted by the witch and betrays his brother and sisters, eventually leading to Aslan’s sacrifice at the witch’s hands. Aslan being a Christ allegory, I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about how well that ends up working out for the witch. So then there’s a big climactic battle and the four children are named kings and queens of Narnia.

Now. I could go into all sorts of discussion about the story and the allegory and how since they’re all siblings and the only humans in the kingdom clearly they’re never meant to have kids or anything and how looking at it as an adult I can come up with lots of Things To Say. But since the book this movie is based on was required reading in at least half of the freshman English classes at my high school. It’s been around for a while. I’m sure it’s all been said. And when it comes to this movie that’s not really the important point. The important point here is that the movie was able to take the spirit of the book, the tone and mood and feel of the book, which is full of this sense of wonder and magic and destiny, and put it on screen. It is an absolutely gorgeous movie that uses CG to wonderful effect to back up some fantastic acting. It feels right.

I really don’t know what else to say about this movie. It’s a lovely story that I remember fondly from my childhood. It’s got that whole vibe of kids who’ve got no power over their lives suddenly finding that they can save the world, which I love (and really, I should have written my thesis on in college). It’s got a fantastic cast, with the amazing Tilda Swinton as the White Witch and Liam Neeson as Aslan’s voice, plus James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus, the first Narnian Lucy meets. And the visuals are fantastic, from the setting to the animals to the costumes. I am still in awe at Tilda Swinton’s outfits, which are all amazingly sculpted felt dresses that I’m sure were a bitch to wear but suit the character amazingly. It is simply an excellently made movie from top to bottom and it is a pleasure to watch it again.

August 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 536 – The Big Six

The Big Six – August 18th, 2011

You know, if we were going to watch a short movie last night, we really should have watched this back to back with its companion piece. But the plans we’d had last night, and the reason for watching Laserblast fell through and we watched it anyhow and saved this for tonight. I guess that’s actually a good thing, because this right here washed all the horrible aftertaste from Laserblast clean away. It’s another story from Arthur Ransome, again with Dick and Dot and their friends on the Broads, including Mrs. Barrable and her dog and Tom and the twins and the Death and Glories. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as much fun for me as the first one and I’m not sure if I can put my finger on why, but we’ll see.

It certainly isn’t because of the scenery or the acting or the overall tone of the piece. Those are all pretty much exactly the same as Coot Club. However, where the first movie was more an adventure story with mischief taking place, this story is definitely a mystery right from the outset. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s not the mystery so much as that in film format, there’s not as much room for explanation for why these characters act the way they do. The tension of the story requires that the vast majority of the village and the surrounding villages believe that the Death and Glories are entirely likely to do what they’re accused of, but if the events in the first movie are anything to go by, they’re well liked by just about everyone around. In a book – and especially in a book as densely written as Ransome tends towards – there’s ample space to explain events that have might have happened in between, or in the past. Likewise for George Owden, who’s clearly a bad sort in the first movie and clearly a bad sort in the second, yet believed far more easily by the adults than one would expect.

The mystery involves someone on the river casting boats adrift and framing the Death and Glories for it. Of course the Death and Glories have nothing to do with it, but wherever they go, boats lose their moorings overnight and people start to get pretty damn pissed. They go up the river to another village entirely, thinking they can hide out somewhere out of the way to prove their innocence when other boats go adrift. Except the villain of the story is specifically targeting them, so they only spread their problem. The rest of the children try to help them in various ways, hiding them, giving them assistance and so on and so forth. It only makes things worse when they help a fisherman land an enormous pike and an innkeeper pays them a hefty sum for it, but only if they keep it a secret so he can make a big unveiling of it once it’s mounted. So they’ve got money and no alibi and some stolen good are planted on their boat and it all seems like they’ll never be able to clear their names when Dick comes up with an idea using the amazing new technology of a flash pan for night photography!

Really, it’s a simple story. And you know from the outset that it can’t have been the Death and Glories, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re being framed. There’s no question there. And there’s no real tension either. It’s just a matter of waiting until Dick has his brilliant idea to solve everything. But between when they realize they’re being framed and then it just feels like there’s a lot of sailing up and down the river. They go up one way, then turn back. The twins go up by a sort of river-based hitchhiking to meet the Ds, Tom and Mrs. Barrable, then they get called back by their father. The Death and Glories go to one village, then have to run for it when more boats are unmoored and go to another village. Not that I really mind seeing a whole lot of sailing scenes on the river. That’s where a lot of the charm of the whole thing lies. It’s just that it starts to feel as though the story is an excuse to show a lot of sailing as opposed to the sailing being an integral part of it all.

Now, this is an issue with the story, not the movie specifically (since I can’t recall if it’s addressed in the book), but part of my issue with mysteries like this one is that there’s often something in the way of the truth and had it been revealed earlier a lot of fuss would have been avoided. In this case it’s the pike. The innkeeper tells them to keep it a secret, which is all well and good when it comes to the general public on the river, including the boys’ friends, but why not tell the police Constable who’s convinced they’re at fault? It would give them a solid reason for having the mysterious money everyone assumes they got from selling stolen goods and it would establish their whereabouts for at least part of the time. But they say nothing. This is something that comes up, frequently in children’s mysteries, and always bothers me. It’s a convenient and in my opinion cheap way to keep a mystery a mystery.

Anyhow, Dick saves the day with his camera and flash pan and with a photo of George Owden and his friend shoving a boat off its mooring the Death and Glories are off the hook. Their pike is revealed and hooray for the boys! Just like we all knew it would go. Truly though, it’s not the story that’s the point of watching this. The point is the boating and the setting and scenes like the kids all trying some smoked eel and finding it revolting and Port and Starboard hitching their way up the river by traveling with random boaters who take them on for a bit. It’s the atmosphere that I love here. And I’ve got to say, I do love the three Death and Glory boys. They’re good fun to watch and clearly having a good time with it. So despite my issues with the story, I still greatly enjoyed this. I think I’d put in its companion first, but I’f probably pop this in right after just to keep the mood going.

August 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment