Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Spinning Yarn: "Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, Dir. Andrew Admamson)

"Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them ..."
-- C.S. Lewis

... and thus begins the Narnia opus, in the dulcet tones that accommodate the classic bedtime fables. The universal compulsion to tell a tale, the passing of knowledge from old to young, dates as far back as the act of storytelling itself. So, too, is the compulsion to jump on a bandwagon when it makes a bajillion dollars. Star Wars spawned dozens of outer-space imitators. Nirvana gave birth to a multitude of mumbly grunge bands. And The Lord of the Rings -- you get the picture.

So now the first of what could be many Narnia films is upon us. Gaze at the broad outlines of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and you'll find the plot and character pivots that graced the Rings cycle: innocent travelers in strange lands, the swell of heroism versus the darkest villainy, exotic creatures engaging in grand battles. But the quotation above exemplifies the subtle difference between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien -- while both fashioned escapist epics in the shadow of real-life world wars, the latter wanted nothing less than to create a mythology from wholecloth, a society buttressed by chivalric notions and painstakingly-created dialects, while the former simply wanted to tell a few good yarns.

As we all know by now, the Narnia series is more than a yarn, it is Christian allegory with a capital C. But it succeeds because it assuages children's fantasies and insecurities -- it celebrates the simultaneous terror and excitement of being lost in a foreign universe, as well as the comforting knowledge that home, hearth, and normalcy is a twist of a ring or a blunder through a crowded wardrobe away. In Lewis's world, a cozy cup of tea with a fawn holds as much thrill as doing battle with wicked witches. If one should learn a few understated lessons about Christian charity along the way, so much the better -- it's certainly no worse than other Disney pap that glorifies less sundry precepts (Uncle Remus, anyone?).

Directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has a heavy brief to fulfill; not only must it satisfy the followers of the Lewis books, but it must also slake the thirst of filmgoers who have become accustomed to a certain brand of fantasy -- that is, Peter Jackson's mammoth take on Tolkien. The resulting product is rife with these tensions. On the one hand, it attempts to capture much of the spirit of the original, down to its modest tale-by-the-fire vibe. On the other, there is plenty of digital legerdemain in evidence, and much of the noisy action (scored with sturm-und-drang strings and chorales, of course) that typified Rings. Oh, and the New Zealand filming locations, too.

The movie is a close retelling of the book, and Lewis shines through most clearly in the film's first and second acts, wherein young Lucy (Georgie Hensley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) find their way through that magical wardrobe into Narnia. Adamson relies only on a smattering of special effects in these passages; more important are the looks of wonder on his child actors' faces, how the snowy woods are as real as any snowy woods one might find anywhere. In an age where every mystical land is represented in motion pictures by heavily-doctored CGI, this is a brave choice, and one that pays off for the most part. While we catch the sparkle of amazement and fun in Lucy's eyes, we also watch approvingly as Edmund, the needy and neglected younger brother, finds his soul mate in the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who baits him with promises of Turkish delight and princely power. Here we have the classic conundrums of a children's story: the pull of dreams and imagined places, the temptations and decisions. Swinton invests her villain with brittle sensitivity -- she may be a wrong one, but she's a wrong one attuned to others' needs and weaknesses -- and her confrontations with Edmund provide the film with its dramatic bite. Adamson directs all this with a light, almost breezy touch, and it's a perfect antidote to all the teeth-gritting misery that permeates most modern epics.

As soon as older siblings Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley) step into Narnia, however, the narrative's dramatic focus dissipates -- a flaw also present in the novel. Peter and Susan are functional but uninteresting protagonists, which just goes to show that "fallen" characters like Edmund have more pull than virtuous leading gentlemen and ladies. As the plot grows swollen with chases, encounters with mystical creatures (including Jesus -- um, I mean, Aslan the heroic CGI lion (played by Liam Neeson, who really needs a break from these "older mentor" roles)), and a flash of a final battle between light and dark that is over almost as soon as it begins, the effects also switch into overdrive. They wobble between seamless (the talking wolves who hunt the children), charmingly corny (the beaver couple who aid our heroes, voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French), and plain unconvincing (many of the locales and lesser beasts). More problematic is the glossing over of much of the book's lore, the intricacies of deep magic and deep magic from before the dawn of time. Lacking the grace notes of fancies like these to hold onto, we're left with another grim countdown to another clash of the armies. The filmmakers may be suffering from Ring fatigue, as we all are -- after the exhausting battles and exhaustive locales we were exposed to in Jackson's cycle, could Adamson have hoped to compete? He gives it a game try, but without the maniac intensity that Jackson invested in his climaxes, he doesn't stand a chance.

Fortunately, the conclusion of this particular tale is bliss on a modest scale. After spending their adolescence in Narnia, the four children (now mature princes and princesses of the realm) wander into the woods, and stumble out of the wardrobe, reduced to their original young selves. It's a narrative fillip that has been stolen by many other stories (even Star Trek: The Next Generation), but it still retains its power, especially when the stunned children receive a final gentle warning by fey professor Kirke (an underused Jim Broadbent). Strange that the image of four bewildered children falling out of a wardrobe and getting lectured by a grown-up holds more sway than a multitude of talking animals doing battle, but such is the pull of a good yarn, and C.S. Lewis knew it -- if this film is the progenitor of a new fantasy franchise, Disney would do well to note the same.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Going Ape: Peter Jackson's "King Kong"

Beware the film (or any enterprise) that features the maker's name prominently above the title. Think M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Think Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4. Think Martha Stewart's anything. Once you've made it, once you're box office boffo and the very utterance of your name sends movie geeks ashiver, then comes the follow-up movie, with its attendant indulgences, the arrogance, the too much of everything. Before you know it, you're raving randomly about some B-grade horror movie (i.e., Quentin Tarantino and Wolf Creek). Or worse yet, you surrender to the lure of standard Hollywood product (i.e., the trailer for Spike Lee's latest offering, Inside Man, which reeks of normalcy). Forget about roads paved with good intentions -- these are expressways lathered with good old-fashioned hubris.

Peter Jackson avoids these roads -- just barely -- in his newest tale, titled, ahem, Peter Jackson's King Kong. In keeping with the extravagances allowed to a hit filmmaker, Jackson goes for a "more is more" policy; where the original Kong (1933) clocked in at a fast-paced hour and a half, this one doubles the length, but instead of extra flab, this one is all muscle, like a steroid-infused bodybuilder. If ever there were a subject ripe for hubris, this is it, but if you're going to go over the top, why not go right to the apex of the Empire State Building?

To be fair, the first Kong was a seminal event in Jackson's childhood, and we can't begrudge him the right to pay tribute to the old classic with modern flair, and even if the film itself is pure geek-out, the outpouring of one man's kid-like fantasies, he has the good grace to bring us in on the fun most of the way.

The very idea of Kong, as established in the original, is a collision of Boys' Own Adventure (with its prehistoric creatures, uncharted isles, and hostile natives), with not-so-subtle riffs on white male anxiety over miscegination and black dominance (the latter is certainly debatable -- for spirited arguments on both sides of the coin, see here). Jackson, rather than updating these motifs as John Guillerman did in his version of Kong (1976), charges full-bore into them, preserving the primal appeal of the source material. We are back in 1933: New York hustles and bustles, the natives are fearsomely native (and just as ready to pilfer white women), Kong takes on the biggest, baddest dinosaurs available, and Naomi Watts (as Ann Darrow) shrieks with the best of them.

But Jackson is no xerox machine, cranking out carbons of the past. As a filmmaker, he has established his own unique take on the world as a charnel house where the dessicated and the creepy-crawly are mere inches away, where old-fashioned emotion and melodrama are stretched into hyper-operatic realms, where every moment of repose is overwhelmed by assaults of digitally-created horrors and equally queasy camera zig-zags. The central section of Kong, set amongst the unrelenting dangers of Skull Island, is the embodiment of this style, and no surprise, it's the best part of the movie. Jackson may steal from Spielberg's Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones pictures, but his pulverizing, no-rest-for-the-weary approach is all his own. Kong doesn't get to battle just one dino, but three at once, trading blows and plummeting down chasms in a ceaseless flurry of movement. Heroic Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) doesn't fight off a single giant spider, he combats a whole hoard of them. Every moment of suspense or grandiose special effect is lingered over, wrung like a wet towel. This would be deadly if your typical hack was at the helm, but Jackson has learned a thing or two from his Lord of the Rings cycle about pace and movement. For such a heavy-handed director, his work is fleet and free of smugness. He may be pleased with his creations, but he never assumes the audience is, and with showman instincts, he keeps his three-ring circus moving along, dashing from one setpiece to the next. It's popcorn, but like other great mainstream entertainers, Jackson knows how to supply the pop.

Where it goes wrong is when Ann Darrow and the King get together. Watts is a fine actress (I still say her turn in Mulholland Drive will stand as one of the best acting jobs of the decade), and she has a grand time conveying her character's pluck and heart, even when the script makes her the butt of the joke. She's at her best in her casual interplay with the beast, as when she hoofs it vaudeville-style to amuse him. But things get sticky once fear and respect burgeon into love, and Jackson strands her with loving close-ups of her tear-stained cheeks, bathetic looks exchanged between girlfriend and apefriend rendered in slower-than-slow motion. We're meant to get caught up in the sweep of doomed love, but Jackson is nowhere near as dexterous with human drama as he is with sound and fury, and his script (co-penned with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens of Rings fame) offers little beyond some clunky foreshadowing ("Nothing good ever lasts"). We can buy Watts' admiration and affection for the big man, but is it possible to buy the prospect of true love? Not with the hokum of a swooning woman and a guy in an ape costume (even if the costume is exquisitely animated, and acted by Andy Serkis). By the time the Empire State finale thunders in, with weepy-eyed farewells and death scenes that reach a crescendo of Shakespearian simian pathos, you may very well wonder: Is this really that tragic? I just want to see him bust up more airplanes. So beware, Mr. Jackson -- you escaped the curse this time, but you best get a handle on this grand emotion thing.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Scared Straight: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005, Dir. Mike Newell)

I approach the Harry Potter movies from what may be a different vantage point. I have read exactly one Potter novel (the first one), and am not immersed in the lore of the series, cannot bring you up to date on every event and winky-wink character name covered over thousands of pages. I'm not well-versed on the movie franchise either -- I had seen the first and second entries in the series (you know, the bloodless, odorless, colorless ones directed by Chris Columbus), and was not annoyed, but not enthralled. On the other hand, I am no muggle pooh-poohing the quality (or lack thereof) of the books or movies -- anything that can sit a kid still long enough to read a 700-page book is okay with me.

The Harry Potter storyline is a fanciful depiction of what it means to be royalty. With wizard blood in his veins, and gifted with powers he is only faintly aware of, Harry could be Prince Hal of ages past, feckless and unsure, counseled by ne'er-do-wells and secret associates as well as the bluest of blue bloods, locked by circumstances into a highfalutin destiny he may not necessarily want, looked upon by his peers with equal measures of awe and suspicion. As such, he is a remarkably passive character, the embodiment of every kid who ever felt helpless at the whim of adults whose motives are often veiled, or switch at the drop of a magical accoutrement. In other words, just about every kid alive, which goes a long way to explain the series' success.

Even now, four movies into the saga, it strikes me how much those basic parameters remain unchanged. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is as likeably milquetoast as ever, his pal Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) still does a mean double take at every strangeness thrown his way, and Hermione (Emma Watson) still lectures and stamps her foot impatiently at how slow these boys are. Meanwhile, the resident profs of Hogwarts remain implacable, whether it's prim-and-proper McGonagall (Maggie Smith), befuddled but secretive Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), or the mordant Snape (Alan Rickman). The special guest star this time out is Brendan Gleeson as Defense Arts Instructor Mad-Eye Moody, and he steals every scene he's in with drunken, craggy charm. And of course there's the usual helpings of Quidditch, the trials by fire, deceptions and mysteries, and another final confrontation where Harry is essentially ordered to follow the adults' directions (be they alive or dead).

And yet, the contrast between this film and the first are remarkable. If nothing else, it's fascinating to see what entropy has wrought on our cast of principals -- once-reedy Radcliffe has filled and flattened out, while Grint, the original shrimp of the bunch, is now positively lanky (it helps that he's cultivated the comic timing to make the most of his gangliness). Most intriguing is Watson, who seems to have entered the "quirky-beautiful" territory once inhabited by Anna Paquin. At times her scrunched-up face looks almost homely, and at other times it's radiant. Fittingly enough, she seems closer to being an actual adult than the other two, and a fetching one at that.

On a more substantive level, it's heartening to see that Goblet of Fire thinks of itself as a movie, first and foremost. The Columbus entries in the series were loyal to the books to a fault, with a sameness to the pacing and tone that called to mind a school play with a Hollywood budget. The surfaces were sparkly, the big moments were carried off in workmanlike fashion, but it was all at a remove, like a dog-and-pony show. I've been informed that Goblet of Fire hews closely to the source material, but Mike Newell wisely grounds the flights of fancy in the tactile. Shot in grays and browns, this is a true Englander's version of Potter's world, where one can smell the mud and feel the pelting rain. It also helps that this is a pivotal chapter in the saga. Not only does the dread archenemy Voldemort (hammed up nicely by Ralph Fiennes) return, but Potter and crew face their sternest test yet: the onset of puberty. While the effects are more accomplished and the action is more visceral than ever (highlights include a airborne tussle with an onery dragon and a downright eerie underwater rescue), it's the awkward ballroom dance lessons, the wizard proms, and the thwarted longings that stick to the memory. Newell may have seemed an odd choice for director coming on the heels of the visually gifted Alfonso CuarĂ³n, who helmed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- after all, no one ever sang the visionary virtues of Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill -- but he is the right match for this material. Awkward romanticism is his stock-in-trade, and he takes care to linger over our heroes' pubescent predicaments. Harry, Hermione, and Ron's emotional discontent dovetails nicely with this episode's underlying sense of menace; by the time the narrative expands to embrace horror, tragedy and pathos, Newell has earned the audience's involvement. It's a far cry from the self-satisfied, manufactured charm of the first two entries, and not a moment too soon.

I'll leave it to the Potter-ites to obsess over the minutae -- such as whether Dumbledore's final eulogy packs the same tenor that it does in the book, or if Katie Leung is a suitable Cho Chang, who I'm told will become Harry's main squeeze. (An aside: is it just me, or does it seem somewhat condescending that many critics are noting how "endearing" it is that a girl of Asian descent has a Scots accent? By that reckoning, I suppose we should be similarly smitten by Asian chicks who speak Valley Girl.) Aye, but there's the rub. There's those darn monolithic books to stay true to. Newell does a yeoman's job of moving the proceedings along, but there's still a touch of stodginess to it all -- you can almost hear the pages turning. The first fifteen minutes in particular, in which Harry and friends are mysteriously attacked at a Quidditch tournament, are shot in disinterested fashion, as if Newell can't be bothered to do much beyond regurgitating the book's events. The most successful films based on novels introduce pleasures that you can't necessarily glean from the written page. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series brought an earthy specificity to Tolkien's heroes and villains. John Huston's Maltese Falcon gilded Dashiell Hammett's tale with a veneer of cruelty. Newell's primary spin on the source material is a surprising warmth in Radcliffe and Watson's interactions that is only hinted at in the books. In contrast, Harry's dalliance with Cho Chang is glossed over, undernourished. It seems almost unfair that the cinematic Harry and Hermione are not destined to be together, and that Hermione's love interest will be bumbling, oafish Ron. I can imagine a freer universe -- or at least, one not unilaterally controlled by J.K. Rowling -- in which the smart, misunderstood girl finds love with the good-hearted, misunderstood prodigy, rather than the class clown. But alas, the order of things in this boarding school universe must remain undisturbed, and uneasy is the head that wears the crown. Like all good kings, Harry is fated for other things that may not be of his choosing. It's to Newell's credit that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire conjures such feelings of dread, loss, and melancholy.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Shards of Time: "In Praise of Love"

In Praise of Love (Eloge de L'Amour) (2001, Dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

This is not a film review. At least, not one of my typical film reviews.

Modern time, today time, is split into fragments, pieces rather than compilations. Some point to MTV (80s MTV, that is); I refer to mp3s -- digestible, bite-sized nuggets ripped away from original sources and contexts. Not that this is new. Think rock 'n roll singles from the 50s, or even mini-concertos in previous centuries. There is something comforting about the miniature, the self-contained, something easily bordered and graspable.

Me, I'm old school. I like curling up with a long read, something that takes physical time to absorb. Some of the happiest moments of my life have occurred at the end of a journey -- the closing of the novel's well-bent spine, the conclusion of a long-running television series, the moment of departure after a few years spent in a foreign land. I appreciate the fractured approach (my recent fiction is nothing but fractured), but like a stubborn codger I treasure something wrought, constructed, built to last, meant to be taken in its entirety.

And then I happen upon something like In Praise of Love. It's not a great film; I'm not even sure it's a good film. But it has stuck with me. I saw it for the first time three years ago, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, with a captive (in both senses of the word) audience. Tonight, I saw it for the first time since then. But that's not accurate -- tonight is the first time I've seen it from beginning to end since then. In the interim, I've seen it plenty, but only scattered moments, glimpses of scenes, bits of dialogue and visuals and music. Two moments in particular -- more on this in a bit.

I'm beginning to learn that what captures my imagination the most are the random bits: isolated dialogue that can be accepted as epigrams, or shots or incidents that suggest whole characters and stories, even when they are merely glanced at, hinted at. If you're looking for cogent commentaries on In Praise of Love, see Charles Taylor's dismantling of it, or Jeremy Heilman's valentine. Like I said, this is not a review, but a reflection.

I have only seen two other Godard films: Alphaville and Breathless, both groundbreaking for their time, both idiosyncratic to this day, wryly puncturing themselves even as they run wild with noir and science fiction tropes. Even then, Godard regarded his characters and the whole storytelling vibe with suspicion; we laugh at as well as with Jean-Paul Belmondo's Bogey poses in Breathless, and chuckle at the thought of bug-eyed, gravel-voiced Eddie Constantine tearing down an entire computer-controlled society in Alphaville. Not surprisingly, in his curmudgeonly old age, Godard has all but given up on characters entirely. In Praise of Love is about ideas, semantics, the "four stages of love" (meeting, passion, separation, and reconciliation, in case you're interested), the death of History, how love and "the State" cannot coexist, the cultural fascism of Steven Spielberg and America, so on and so forth. At its core, it's an almost-love story about an artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) desperate to finish some kind of project about Love, and an outspoken, suicidal woman named Elle (Cecile Camp) who he wants to recruit for the project. It's about all these things (and Heaven knows it taxes the viewer's patience as it gets around to them), but for me, it's about none of them.

Strangely enough, it's isolated moments, the ones freed from what sliver of story there is or Godard's despairing worldview, the ones that are specific fusions of images and sounds (or if you like, pure cinema), that stay with me. This was a startling realization for me, because I am usually all about the story, the plot, the movement. Without story, what is there? And yet, here I am rapt with the stasis of it all, how the camera is content to sit and observe and record striking juxtapositions of people and places. The cinematography is gorgeous; that alone is inspirational. The first hour of the film is shot on black-and-white film in a wintry Paris, littered with casual shots of boulevards at night, homeless folks asleep on benches or cuddling with each other in sleeping bags, crystalline rooms where Edgar auditions actors. One can't miss the point when our protagonist stands before a movie house, a poster of Bresson's Pickpocket and a poster for The Matrix butting heads, but it works, because the image is haunting in its matter-of-factness.

The dialogue ranges from the provocative ("Whenever I think of something, I'm always thinking of something else" -- a line that I will probably steal someday, or "every thought should recall the debris of smile") to the banal ("The question is not how do we go on, but do we have the right?"), with a success ratio of about 20 percent. No matter, there is nothing truly annoying about it, apart from a few scattered potshots at America, the land without History (the heroine gives Hollywood producers the third degree about who exactly is an "American" or of "The United States" -- I'm all for deflating American pomposity, but this is the stuff of social studies class arguments). Regardless, I can appreciate a film that attempts to throw the Big Ideas at you, even if most of them are moldy. If nothing else, they impel me to think: Well, maybe there's a better, or more up-to-date, way of thinking about this.

The second half of the film, which takes place in Brittany, is presented in overwhelming color -- ironic, since it's supposed to take place two years before the first half. To be more specific, it's shot in oversaturated digital video, and to this day I still think it's the most remarkable use of the medium I've seen in a major film. The images leap, but they also have weight, character. An actual story emerges (Spielberg's lawyers buying the rights to a French Resistance couple's story, and threatening to sugarcoat it as a Juliette Binoche prestige flick), but even this is tangential to the isolated moments. Like the one where Edgar and Elle meet for the first time -- an exquisitely framed shot. Or the increasingly frequent images of waves crashing against the shores, or those collages in which the characters seem to be swamped by those very waves, as history and meaning crash, converge, and drown. Which brings me to my two favorite moments of the film.

If you happen to rent or buy this film, skip forward to 1:25:50 (it's the section appropriately named "Red Orchestra" (L'Orchestre Rouge) in the intertitles). At this point, the characters have been talking about impermanence, acceptance, even religion. But all this talk does not compare to what follows: a long, wordless, sustained shot of waves lapping against the shore at night, the town's lights like slivers as they run across them, the water moving back and forth, the soundtrack reverberating with the melancholy warmth of multitracked cellos (a few days ago I finally tracked down the artist and the title of the piece: David Darling,"Song for TKJD," from the album Epigraphs). For me it captures a melange of emotions: nostalgia, loss, permanence and impermance sliding together, and beauty above all.

About eight minutes later, the second remarkable passage: Elle is driving Edgar to the airport, at night, in the rain. We know from earlier in the film that Edgar's project will never be completed, that Elle will commit suicide two years later, that this may be the last restful moment the two of them share. None of this is telegraphed or milked. Instead we see the view out the front windshield, cars passing in the night like figments of thought, rain spattering on the windows, David Darling's piece coloring it all once again, but this time with a more ethereal effect. For me, it recalls every dark night on every rainy road I have ever experienced, and the unexpected muted joys at such moments. The airless discussions that clog In Praise of Love don't have a chance against overpowering cinema such as this, but I come not to bury the film and how its polemics fall short, or even engage it on the level that it demands to be engaged (Jean-Luc may not be too pleased about that). Instead, I come to praise these bursts of light and shadow, the particular mix of electrons, this art seemingly conjured from thin air -- how elements merge unexpectedly to create fragments of time that stir, and suggest, and communicate. For would-be artists like me, there's nothing more invigorating.