The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; Dir. Andrew Adamson

 Perhaps it was a feeling when The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe came out that Disney was not the studio I wanted to see working on this film but I recognize that I have been very biased against this film series since its inception. I have very fond memories of reading the books when I was younger but I cannot say that they ever really captured my imagination the way other stories did and while I have always admired the writing of author C.S. Lewis(as much as that of J.R.R. Tolkien for the worlds and mythology they were able to create and the characters they populated them with) I suppose I have to admit that it never really interested me that much and while that might not be the best way to start of a review of this movie, it is the most honest way that I can because it was not an issue I could sidestep while watching Prince Caspian.
Faithful literary adaptations present filmmakers with a very fine line to walk. Especially in situations where the source material is a bit dry or even lacking in some details that would make for a good movie, the filmmaker has to dig beneath the surface of the work to excavate some of the more “cinematic” moments and thematic gems. Characters are flushed out, scenes are brought to life, and the action of a story congeals around what is central to the story, even when it is not directly stated by the author. Andrew Adamson seemed to completely miss the mark in this aspect and ended up creating a movie that seemed to exist only to make room for the next in the series.  Visually, the film glistens with impressive scenes and sets. It is a far cry from the BBC series based on the same material from the late 1980’s, but I am not convinced that this is the definitive interpretation of The Chronicles of Narnia in the way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings was. The problem is that there is too much on the surface of the film and not enough beneath that to really make a difference. The allegory of the story itself is very powerful and is historically very compelling when looked at in the context of World War II and the struggle between good and evil. I would not blame  Andrew Adamson for this. He is very capable of telling a meaningful fantasy story as he demonstrated with Shrek and Shrek 2. The fault, I believe, lies with Disney, whitewashing to deliver a movie that spends a great deal of time talking about things you do not understandand, establishing relationships that are sterile and add more confusion to the story and building the conflict to a level that results in a battle sequences which almost feels like an entirely different film than the one you had been watching for the last hour.

There are two scenes in the film which stand out and make you wish that the filmmakers had used this to set the tone for the rest of the movie. The first comes after a disastrous attack on the castle in which Prince Caspian breaks the plan they had developed to lay siege in order to seek revenge against his Uncle, the man who is laying claim to the throne. As Prince Caspian and his forces are driven into retreat, there is a moment where they look back at the men left behind and you realize that the whole attack was a waste of life. The other scene which contains the emotional core of the film is that in which Prince Caspian wavers in his faith and is about to give power to the White Witch in order to defeat his Uncle. Andrew Adamson creates a great deal of dramatic tension in this scene and it is surprisingly not overplayed, as you would expect from watching the rest of the movie. What is disappointing is that these scenes are never quite able to congeal along with the rest of the movie. Perhaps, though, it is more disappointing that they are never allowed to. The characters and plot feel restrained in a way that any creative work should never be and again, I would not not blame this on Adamson’s direction or the story. The acting of Ben Barnes, who plays Prince Caspian the way one would play a tortured prince whose kingdom is being taken away from him, far exceeds that of the actors and actresses who play the Pevensie children and unfortunately, the rest of the cast feels like caricatures of who they are supposed to be portraying, stock characters who try very hard to fit into the picture as if the audience might not be able to figure out who they are supposed to be.

This could  sum up the entire movie. It is like that person at the party who wants everyone to like them and moves from group to group making sure that there is no ambiguity about who they are or what they are about. There is something rather ingenuous about such an experience and one cannot help but feel that there is something  ingenuous about Prince Caspian. I would hope that someday, someone will get it right and make a Chronicles of Narnia that relies on the merit of being a cinematic epic. But I suppose that movie will come as a completely different series with a completely different production company.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

Mongol

December 1, 2008

Mongol(2007); Dir. Sergei Bodrov. New Line Home Video(2008)

  • Format:Color, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Language: Mongolian
  • Rating:
  • With sweeping, dramatic camera movements that cover the vastness of the Mongolian landscape, one gets the sense while watching the epic Mongol that director Sergei Bodrov is also attempting to give the viewer a sense of the vastness of time as he inter cuts scenes from the childhood and adult life of the main character Temujin in a prophetic tone that anticipates his rise to power as the formidable Genghis Khan, a conqueror and feared warrior across the known world. As we watch Temujin develop from a young boy who watches his father die, to a young man captured and recaptured into slavery, as well as being hunted and imprisoned by the Tangut, we see a character emerge who is pushed towards his destiny by divine and human forces. Temujin, the film surmises, must achieve this singular purpose and there is never any doubt that he will.

    For anyone knowledgeable about 13th century Asian and European history, they are well aware of the importance that Genghis Khan played in this time period and what is known of his life. Perhaps it is this sense of destiny that the film makers imply in every action Temujin undertakes that leaves the film feeling a little shallow. Some of the grandiose aspects of the story actually work at times but when we are constantly made to feel that we are watching the development of greatness and a leader whose destiny was anointed by the gods and the unfolding of history, it is easy to loose a sense of the man Temujin. There is almost something mythological in the portrayal of Temujin. No matter how many times he is captured or beaten or chased, he always manages to come back to the track of his destiny. Sergei Bodrov approaches the subject of his film with reverence and a sacred timidity that does not seem to fit such a bold historical figure as Genghis Khan.

    There is no doubt that Mongol is a powerful film, just as Oliver Stone’s Alexander or Zac Snyder’s 300 were powerful films. They were powerful because they invested a sense of otherworldly significance into the actions of the characters and the events which they participated in.  But like these other pictures, Mongol offers very little of what could be a true character study or even much speculation about what drove these men to such vast conquests. Why did Temujin wish to unite the Mongol people? What was the political and social climate like at that time period? These are questions that I could not avoid while watching the film and wished that the film makers had taken a bit more time with the story and attempted to really construct the character of Temujin and 13th century Mongolia. Historical fiction is indeed a very fine balancing act but that does not always make for good film making.

    Charles Jacob;   vanheck123@hotmail.com

    Salo or the 120 days of Sodom(1975); Dir. Pier Palo Pasolini. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

    Format:Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen

    Subtitles: English

    Rating:

    Number of discs: 2

    Run Time: 116 minutes

     

     

    I have decided to post my review of Salo before I posted the one for Mongol because it was such a disturbing experience that I felt the need to commit to writing my impressions of the film before I moved on to anything else.  Salo is not only notorious for its extremely graphic content and its lack of restraint in showing and speaking about any kind of human depravity that is imaginable but also for the circumstances surrounding the film and the fact that the director, Pier Palo Pasolini, was murdered shortly after completing the film in 1975. I would like to separate the film from some of its notoriety and examine it as a philosophical and social statement.

    Salo cannot be viewed in the same fashion that one would view Hostel or any of the Saw movies, where characters are graphically tortured and murdered for the shock value and entertainment of the audience. In those movies, we are supposed to believe that there is some moral compass that has gone horribly off course and we have ended up in a nightmare of torture for torture’s sake. The makers of Saw go so far as to try and convince us that this man murders people who do not appreciate the value of life because he himself is dying and cannot stand people who squander such a precious gift. These are so called “torture porn” films and I also wish to seperate Salo from these films because the purpose and intent of Pasolini was firmly rooted in the history of fascist Italy and the rule of Benito Mussolini. Here, the moral compass has been stomped on and completely discarded.

    In this sense the graphic scenes of defecation, urinating into someone’s mouth, anal sex, and the depraved stories told to the group of captives get progressively  worse and worse until they culminate in the brutal scalping, tongue removal, hanging, and burning of the child victims, all play into this philosophy and view of Italy under fascism. What Pasoliniasks us to understand is that the children rounded up by the group of government leaders and imprisoned in a castle where they are subjugated to these acts of brutality is, I think, the way that Mussolini and his government, held Italy captive and both literally and figuratively tortured the country. Each act of violence committed in this film represents a lower and lower level of depravity committed against the minds, bodies, and souls of the Italian people. Taken from the works of the Marquise De Sade, the stories of increasing depravity and violence, I think also illustrate worst aspects of human nature and Pasolini makes it all the more worse but intercutting the violence with scenes of the government officials sitting around for tea, discussing philosophy and their ideas about life. Perhaps the most disturbing scene of the film comes at the end when the government officials are doing a chorus line around the the brutually murdered bodies of the children. It is not whimsical or light hearted in an ironic way, but a revolting dance of death that really highlights the casual disposal of life.

    Salo is above all a radical film from a radical and controversial director and to truly understand his films or any of his work, you must understand modern Italian history and the philosophy that Pasolini held as a communist, homosexual, atheist, and anti-fascist. If you are going to sit down and watch Salo then you must also watch The Gospel According To Matthew which is a very personal statement of reinterpreting Jesus Christ as an Italian peasant in a very realistic and stripped down style, or Mamma Roma which is the story of a struggling prostitute. Taking only one of his film such as Salo or even his poetry and novels, and looking at them in an isolated context cannot be done with such a complex director.

    As a film, Salo might not be one of Pasolini’s best, but it has such a visceral impact that it has often taken its place at the top of his body of work. While watching the movie it is difficult to remind oneself that you are watching actors portray the monstrous government officials and they are not actually committing these atrocities against the captive children. The violence is pornographic but what is most disturbing is that the camera angles make you feel that you are participating in these atrocities. We are placed as if we are actually sitting in the room where all the children are abused and must listen to the graphic stories of sexual depravity from one of the women and at the end of the film we look through the binoculars with the government officials as the children are being murdered in the courtyard. You have to wonder then if Pasolini’s intent is to implicate us in the atrocities as much as those directly responsible. We, as the audience, must bear the guilt and shame of what was done to these children and by extenstion, what was done to Italy during the rule of fascism and Mussolini. Salo, coincidentally, is the name of the town where the children are captured, and where in real life, a great deal of atrocities were committed by the Mussolini government. While the Criterion Collection copy of Salo is wonderfully remastered and packaged, I am certain that I will never sit down and watch this movie again. But, for those who have never watched the film, it is a work that will challenge you more than most other films can do  and it is undeniably important. But it also demands a lot out of the viewer and I wonder if the notoriety of the film’s violence will always overshadow its purpose.

    Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

    Scream, Blacula, Scream(1973). Dir. Bob Kelljan; MGM DVD (2004)

    Scream, Blacula, Scream is certainly a product of its time. I strongly doubt that you would see a movie like this made today, although, Vampire In Brooklyn and Bones come to mind as direct descendants of this movie and the original which this sequel is based, Blacula. For better or worse, Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Screamare some of the first black horror movies and whether or not you consider these films or the other titles in the so-called “blaxploitation” genre good film making, they are a significant portion of American film history that cannot be ignored or simply brushed off as dated.

    In some ways, the historical context of this film and the story behind the studio that made Scream, Blacula, Scream, American International Pictures and executive producer/founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, could eclipse the films that this studio released through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Besides giving directing jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, and virtually starting the careers of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, AIP was also one of the leading genre studios in the United States during this time, specializing in horror, action, and in the 1970’s, “blaxploitation.” While Arkoff and AIP tapped into African American viewers and brought them into theatres in a way that no other studio had done or has done since, in hindsight, one can also see the damage this did to black movie actors and actresses in a system that still offered them limited and stereotyped roles.

    It is important to have that in the back of your mind while you are watching Scream, Blacula, Scream, not because this is a poignant commentary on race or a really strong story in itself, but because a “blaxploitation” movie is often taken as a fun, cultural novelty that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even if this picture was intended to be nothing but entertainment, the performance of actor William Marshall alone saves it from that. A Broadway and Shakespeare trained actor, William Marshall conveys such a deep sense of anguish and longing as he pursues Pam Grier’s character Lisa in an effort to free himself from the curse of being a vampire. The story itself is very thin and does not quite come together the way it should but William Marshall’s presence really carries the film.

    Lisa is the member of a Voodoo cult whose leader has just died. The opening scene shows a power struggle within the cult(with a lot of jive talkin’) and then shows Richard Lawson’s character, Willis, collecting Bones from a voodoo man and bringing them to life in the form of Blacula. Willis thinks that he is going to control Blacula and have him get rid of Lisa so that he can take over the cult, but instead, Blacula turns him into a vampire and begins to collect his own army of the undead. Blacula wanders through Los Angeles causing death and mayhem until Don Mitchell’s character Justin and the police department begin investigating and become convinced that they are really dealing with vampires.

    The back story from the first film is that Mamulwalde was an African Prince bitten by a vampire and he became one. In this film, he believes that he can find a cure through Lisa and her voodoo practices after meeting her at a party and being enraptured by her. The last portion of the movie becomes intercutting scenes of Lisa trying to exorcise the vampire out of Mamulwalde and the police facing off with his vampire army. There is plenty of screaming from the female actresses, even from Pam Grier who usually had stronger roles. She is always the strong female character who fights against the bad guys, but here she seems a little more relegated to Mamuwalde’s love interest and hanging onto Justin. She is supposed to be a voodoo woman who has not quite discovered the full extent of her power but that is really not conveyed that well in the story.

    While this is an interesting modern take on the Dracula legend, and there are several suggestive scenes in the movie which play with the idea of vampirism as a sexual experience, some of the story also feels a little incongruous with the atmosphere of the story. What is wonderful to watch is that the film makers did not try to reign in the expressiveness of William Marshall’s performance. He really does steal the entire film. He even gets the best lines in the film, which he delivers in his rich and booming voice(a baritone that resonates and deeply with emotion the same way that James Earl Jones’ does). Even when the dialogue seems interjected with statements that come across as calculated to resonate with the audience, Marshall delivers them in a way that adds emotional impact and meaning.  For a “wham, bam, thank you mam” picture, Scream Blacula Scream has some wonderful moments that come from Marshall’s commanding performance.

    Up Next For the November Movie Series Director Sergei Bodrov explores the life of Ghengis Khan in the epic, Mongol.

    charles;

    vanheck123@hotmail.com

    Phantasm IV:Oblivion(1998); Dir. Don Coscarelli. Anchor Bay DVD(2008)

    Sadly, the film series with the tongue in cheek tagline “The Sequel With Balls” seems to have lost a few along the way to this fourth installment which attempts to explain the origins of the dreaded Tall Man and the undead horror he unleashed on mankind. Origin stories are such a tricky business, especially when they come years after the original film. While this film works in continuity and following the characters who have been played by the same actors across the series(except for Michael in Phantasm II), the emotional connection that the viewer should have with them just does not exist. It is often difficult in horror films to convince the audience to care about the characters because they are usually convenient plot devices to kill off. This is not the approach that Phantasm IV attempts to take but it falls short in clearly stating what the characters should be doing besides wandering around and fighting for their lives.  The fact that Michael’s brother Jody was converted to The Tall Man’s service in Phantasm III and returns as a force of good or evil trying to either lead Michael down the wrong path or help him is ultimately lost as the film progresses because of the ambiguity of the relationship they have with each other.

    Reggie Bannister again reprises his role as the freewheelin’ ice cream man who has become a soldier in the war against the Tall Man’s minions and is in hot pursuit of Michael as he goes to fulfill his destiny with the Tall Man, who again is played wonderfully by Angus Scrimm. Throughout much of the movie, the action centers around Reggie(who is definitely the most fun character to watch in the movie) more than it does for Michael and in some ways they feel like two story lines that never really intersect except the scenes that involve Jody. Two of the best scenes in the movie involves Reggie’s character and an evil state trooper fighting it out on the highway but at this point the movie has drifted away from creepy, atmospheric horror, to something that resembles mad max meets night of the living dead. Then there is the scene with the woman he saves on the highway and tries to get lucky with only to find out she has killer orbs for breasts and is trying to do him in. The film meanders like this for many scenes, incorporating flash backs from scenes that must have been cut from the original film(which is actually a refreshing use of stock footage rather than recreating the scenes in fuzzy black and white recollection style) and despite the revelation of where the Tall Man actually comes from there seems to be no real resolution to the chain of events set off in the first movie.

    I have to say that after watching Phantasm I would not have foreseen the story taking such a sharp turn into apocalyptic territory. Maybe it is just me, but this seems a little outside of the scope that the story is capable of operating in. The blend of science fiction and horror still works in this film where it becomes an inter-dimensional saga. However, this time travelling and collision of past and present seem to work contrary to the atmosphere of the film which is supposed to be a world in which no one is left. Is the Tall Man supposed to be like a plague that sweeps over the land? Why does he pursue Michael so intently?

    As I stated in my review of  Phantasm, this is the type of movie where the first film was satisfying because very little was explained and the horror was much more palpable. While the acting and production value has certainly not decreased with the passage of time, the more that has been explained the less makes sense as you are watching this series. In the end, I am not sure what to make of this film except to say that it is good fun as long as you don’t try to think about the philosophical issues it attempts to raise or the hints of apocalyptic good vs. evil it tries to mix into the story line. But in the end, isn’t having fun with a movie like this what it’s all about?

    Up next the October Horror Movie Series might be located on top of an old indian burial ground in the Stephen Spielberg produced and Tobe Hooper directed classic Poltergeist.