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

    Poltergeist(1982)-Dir. Tobe Hooper; Warner Brothers 25th Anniversary Edition DVD(2007)

    Poltergeistis a perfect blend of Stephen Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. It manages to be both a special effects bonanza that retains a certain amount of nostalgia while at the same time expressing Tobe Hooper’s horror sensibility. I am assuming that it is Hooper’s sensibilities since we have never really seen Spielberg work in that medium again but this is a film in which it is hard to tell where Spielberg the producer stopped and Hooper the director took over. It certainly feels like a Spielberg movie, for the most part, but then again, isn’t a good collaboration about creating a seamless project that doesn’t reveal who worked on what?

     It is also one of the rare horror movies that has achieved blockbuster status. It is a movie that you almost feel obligated to see because it has worked its way so deeply into America’s popular culture psyche. So much so that Heather O’ Rourke’s character Carol Anne sitting in front of the television saying “they’re here” along with Craig T. Nelson have been adopted for the switch to digital television ad campaign.  Particular scenes, the characters, and lines of dialogue from the movie are as iconic as many of the other films Spielberg has worked on.

    The film is also unique because of the fact that it is a special effects ghost story done in a way, thanks to Industrial Light and Magic, that hadn’t been seen before. Horror movies usually are not the films to get the budgets and that is usually a blessing in disguise. But in this case there is no way the story that Spielberg wanted to tell could have been brought to the screen without them; being able to combine a few scenes of visceral scares with the impressive effects of a house disappearing into a sinkhole, a closet that open up and sucks everything into it, and beams of light moving through a house are all pretty impressive. What is impressive too is that we don’t lose track of the characters. They manage to remain at the forefront through the whole movie. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play perfectly in Spielberg’s suburban fantasy( a theme he has mined on several occasions-most notably in the almost simultaneous 1982 release of E.T.) as the relatively easy going typical suburban parents and their typical suburban kids  whose lives are disrupted when their house becomes the center of not so typical spectral activity. 

    Throughout the whole movie, the creepy and alarming things that go on in the house, even Carol Anne’s disappearance, are handled in the same matter of fact way that Steve Freeling argues with his neighbor over the t.v. remote signals crossing during the football game or the children sitting around the table at breakfast. The only indication of something being wrong at first is the way that Craig T. Nelson’s character looks after JoBeth Williams’ character excitedly shows him what the chairs can do in the kitchen. At this point in the movie we are left wondering if Steve Freeling is the only sensible person in the house or just an adult who works too much and has no connection to the childhood fantasy world.  I don’t think that question is every properly answered but it does become clear as events take a supernatural turn for the worst that there are no adults equipped to deal with the evil that is wrecking so much havoc. That is really no comfort for any child being terrorized by a dark force but the film suggests in several not so subtle ways that adults have as much control over events as children do in some cases, and sometimes even less than we like to think.

    Whatever your opinion of Stephen Spielberg and his films might be, whether you see him as just an example of a bloated hollywood system that churns out special effects movies, or as someone who just has a natural gift and the “magic touch” when it comes to creating images and movies that resonate with popular culture, Poltergeist seems to exemplify a little of both sides of the argument.  That being said, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it, for no other reason than to be able to be a little more literate in film and culture.  Besides, how often do you get to see ghosts and giant monsters rampaging around the house?

    Up Next the October Horror Movie Series movies from haunted houses to haunted ruins as we pay a visit to the Tombs of The Blind Dead(La Noche Del Terror Ciego); the first film in Amando De Ossorio’s 1970’s blind dead series.

    I would also like to extend a warm welcome to my good friend Jennifer Sutphin who has joined me here on the movie series staff. She will be helping design the page, contributing movie titles, and many other things.

    I am a few days behind in posting the first two films of my October horror movie series but better late than never, so lets get started. Before I do though let me introduce this column to all of you and thank you for taking the time to stop by and read my humble little movie review journal. Each month I will be taking a look at film currently on dvd from a wide variety of genres, directors, actors, actresses, and pretty much every possible way you can think to group movies together. I will be looking at old and new releases and offering up my thoughts and opinions for your reading pleasure. My hope is that if you are familiar with the title, you will have a new way of looking at the film, or if it is new to you, you might go and watch it. If anyone ever has any titles of interest they would like to share or just opinions about the films reviewed, please feel free to leave comments. All right Here we go….

    Phantasm(1979)-Dir. Don Coscalleri ; Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

    So here is a film that is very minimal on gore(except for a scene involving a fountain of very 70’s blood effects) and that relies heavily on creepy atmosphere and moody music to set the tone for the bizarre story that plays out over the four films of the series. Last year Anchor Bay released this dvd along with Phantasm III Lord Of The Dead and this year they released Phantasm IV:Oblivion but I have not found anything on Phantasm II which, for better or worse, is not available on dvd yet. It would be great to see them put together a really nice box set of all 4 films as they have done an excellent job cleaning up the prints and putting some nice features together for the films.

    Combining science fiction and horror elements, Phantasm tells the story of a young boy who literally stumbles into the horror that is The Tall Man, played with the quiet restraint of a real terrifying presence by Angus Scrimm, who reprised the role 3 more times. The Tall Man steals dead bodies and murders people and brings them back as undead slaves who strangely resemble the jawas from Star Wars. After being chased and terrorized  by nightmares, a severed finger that morphs into a demonic fly, and followed by the notorious killer ball(which along with Angus Scrimm growling “Boy” is probably the most iconic aspect of the film), a young Mike(A. Michael Baldwin), older brother Jody(Bill Thornbury), and ice-cream truck driving best friend Reggie(Reggie Bannister)come face to face with what really goes on at Morning Side cemetery 

    Low budget horror never looked as good as it did in the 1970’s which along with the 1930’s and 40’s, saw the greatest strides(I am convinced) in the development of the genre. The 1980’s just took the foundation  70’s films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween had built and splattered blood all over it. Even in this context though, Phantasm  is an anomaly of 1970’s horror. Even The Exorcist or its regretable sequel did not have some of the bizarre qualities that this movie contains. THe film manages to never take itself quite so seriously while still maintaining a creepy atmosphere and that is very impressive. Combining the science fictional element of a other-worldly dimensional hell that is being populated by the dead from our world and the classic horror element of the lone figure who brings death and destruction and cannot be stopped(at least not until after several sequels) is also a nice touch. Good horror films always seem to know how to effectively use minimalist sets most effectively to create claustrophobia and fear and Phantasm makes exceptional use of the cemetery, mortuary, and elements of the town in reoccurring images that set a very deliberate mood. The whole idea of dreams and being pursued continually set up the idea that this is an inescapable horror. Of course, it is the perfect set-up for several sequels because it leaves so many elements of the plot a mystery but the original chill from that you get from this movie is satisfying enough and I was so absorbed in the atmosphere and strange vision of the film that I was not too concerned with being given an explanation of the events I just watched unfold. In fact, Phantasm works best without any further explanation because it is exactly that which makes this a chilling experience. “Less is more” almost holds true for horror films and this is why many of these films from the 1970’s are so great.

    Up Next is the last film(for now) in the Phantasm  series, Phantasm IV: Oblivion  which I will be posting later this afternoon. Posts for this column will come out regularly every week. I will also include movie reviews and halloween related news and events so stay tuned……..