Friday, December 30, 2005

You can't go home again: "Munich" shows mature Spielberg


directed by Steven Spielberg
written by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
based on the book “Vengeance” by George Jonas
starring Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, others

My father and I have never seen eye to eye on Steven Spielberg. I’m a fan, while Dad’s always thought of him as a bit of a hack: not that he isn’t great at what he does best, namely, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but he should stick to the sharks, dinosaurs, and Indiana Jones. As far as my dad’s concerned, “serious” Spielberg is just a kid trying to imitate his elders, who gives himself away every time he lays on the schmaltz.

I mention this only because I saw “Munich” recently with my parents, and afterwards my father remarked, in a tone of mild surprise, that Spielberg had “matured.” And while I don’t entirely agree with him on Spielberg generally, I have to say I’m with him on this. Not that the director’s inner child has disappeared—it hasn’t, and I hope it never will, because without it Spielberg just ain’t Spielberg. But the Spielbergian assurance that the child will come home again, and all will be healed, has been dimmed, if not extinguished.

It may be that this has less to do with Spielberg’s growth as a director than with the movie’s subject matter; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after all, is a subject guaranteed to make even the squishiest sentimentalist throw his or her hands up in despair. Still, I don’t think he’d have been able to tackle such a minefield at an earlier stage in his career. There’s been a lot of controversy about his PR tactics, motives and timing in taking on “Munich,” not to mention the reliability of his source material (the movie’s based on a book that’s been discredited in some quarters), yet everything about the finished film breathes the conviction that it was a deeply personal project. “Munich” doesn’t play like a self-serving bid for Oscar consideration, but a genuinely thoughtful examination of questions of searing moral and historical importance—not just for Israel and Palestine, but for the entire world.

The movie begins with a quick, taut recreation of the tragedy at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually killed by members of the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. The bulk of the film, however, focuses on its aftermath—specifically, a series of reprisal killings supposedly set up by the Israeli government and targeted at the men who planned the Munich massacre. The Israeli government has never admitted to ordering any such mission, and the writers are careful to note at the outset that the movie is only “inspired” by actual events. Nonetheless, the whole film turns on the premise that the assassinations were state-sponsored retribution, approved by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir herself (Lynn Cohen). An Israeli secret service agent named Avner (a delectably worried-looking Eric Bana) is chosen to head the top-secret retaliation squad, which includes a cleanup man (Ciarán Hinds), a paperwork man (Hanns Zichler), a toymaker-turned-bomb man (Mathieu Kassovitz), and a general rough-and-ready strongman (Daniel Craig, future James Bond). Officially, the team doesn’t exist; unofficially, they answer to a dour fellow named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) and a safe-deposit box where funds are magically replenished for their perilous enterprise.

Spielberg follows the group’s movements across Europe, as they track down and take out Palestinian leaders who they’re told had a role in plotting Munich (what role exactly, they never learn). Between hits, they reflect on the ethics of their assignment, revealing varying thresholds of acceptance and discomfort; the cleanup man, Carl, seems the most disposed to discuss the issue, while man’s man Steve bluntly declares that the only blood that matters to him is Jewish blood. Avner, for his part, says the least but feels the most, and meanwhile pines for his wife and newborn baby. The general moral ambiguity of their position is thrown into even sharper relief by Avner’s dealings with Louis (Mathieu Almaric), a Frenchman who trafficks in classified information and becomes their principal source for locating their targets, and Louis’s father, known simply as Papa (Michael Lonsdale), whose genial manner and seeming affection for Avner hardly mask the coldly amoral nature of his family business. As the death toll mounts on both sides and the security of Avner’s own team grows more and more precarious, his resolve doesn’t falter, but his sense of righteous purpose becomes increasingly clouded.

“Munich” isn’t Spielberg’s best work—its structuring is sometimes a tad clunky, its tonal shifts can feel forced, and it’s marred by an ugly metaphorical rape of a woman who, it’s implied, deserves what she gets. But overall, as a movie, it’s still pretty damn good. Each hit is orchestrated with the kind of technical virtuosity in which Spielberg is still unrivaled, yet the brutality of the end result is never romanticized or aestheticized. The thrills of execution and vengeance quickly give way to a bitter aftertaste of fear and doubt. As for the film’s underlying politics, such as they are, I find myself frankly baffled by the storm of criticism they appear to have dusted up. The most prevalent accusation, as far as I can tell, is that Spielberg treats the avengers as morally equivalent to the terrorists. He does no such thing. Not for a moment does the film suggest that the Munich murders were anything but a dastardly act that cried out for vengeance. What it does suggest is that violence begets more violence, rather than peace, and that even the most justified killing will always leave its mark on the killer. “Munich” also probes the proposition, offered by Golda Meir, that “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its moral values” —a statement that could be a mantra for today’s war on terrorism. That the film questions this idea without offering any clear answers or alternatives is a testament to the thorniness of the issue, not any inherent weakness or disingenuousness in its own perspective.

To the extent Spielberg puts a human face on the terrorists, the value of such an exercise all comes down to whether it’s necessary to try to understand the motives of those who commit evil acts. I believe it is; and this, in turn, requires understanding them as human beings, not as demons. Perhaps the best scene in “Munich” is a late-night dialogue on the Palestinian question between Avner and a young Palestinian terrorist, Ali, who doesn’t know that Avner is working for Mossad. Ali is a passing figure who delivers much of the same rhetoric that we’ve already heard from Avner’s targets and others, and we certainly aren’t expected to condone his conclusion that the Palestinians will never rest until every Israeli is dead. Yet he’s also a charismatic man, and the passion with which he speaks of the Palestinians’ desire for a home, something that “none of you will ever understand,” gives him a kind of power that Avner is forced to acknowledge can’t be killed, not even by justice. Later in the film, Avner enjoys a brief visit with his mother, who assures her son that no matter what price he’s had to pay, it was worth it, because they now have a home, always and forever. This echo of Ali’s language isn’t some half-baked attempt to equate Ali with Avner’s mother. It merely underlines the power, but also the cost, of that precious concept of *home*—as well as its terrible fragility. In a very real sense, Avner loses his home through fighting to protect it, and unlike Spielberg’s other lost boys, he can never regain it. Dad was right: Stevie’s all grown up.


Also saw:

3-IRON (Bin-jip)

directed by Kim Ki-Duk
starring Lee Seung-Yeon, Hee-Jae, Kwon Hyuk-Ho
Korean, w/ English subtitles

This is the story of a man who turns into a ghost, and the woman who falls in love with him. Well, that’s one way of reading it, anyway; see the movie and you’ll no doubt come up with several possible alternative interpretations. Ostensibly, “Bin-Jip” (which, literally translated, means “Empty house” —but the golf club plays an important role, too) is about a youth who, for no discernible reason, spends his days breaking into homes that are temporarily uninhabited while the residents are on vacation. He doesn’t steal or destroy anything; he just lives there for a while, takes pictures of himself, tidies up the place and fixes things that are broken, then moves on—sometimes before the residents return, sometimes not exactly. In one of the cushier houses, he meets an abused young wife, who eventually ends up accompanying him to other people’s houses and sharing his routine. This may be the point at which you start to glance at your watch. Be patient: the movie takes a very odd turn in the third act, venturing into a domain borderline-mystical, which may work for some better than for others. It worked for me, though the movie doesn’t probe deeply into its ideas so much as throw them out there for the viewer’s self-amusement. Still, “Bin-Jip” is a delicate, offbeat charmer of a film, less schematic than director Kim Ki-Duk’s much-praised “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and then Spring” and certainly much wittier. Sit back and let your mind play with it; you’ll be glad you did.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"Kong" delivers a beauty of a beast


directed by Peter Jackson
written by Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens
starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis

According to several accounts, the original “King Kong” was the movie that made Peter Jackson want to make movies. It’s only appropriate, then, that his new “King Kong,” more than any other movie this year, has reminded me why I *go* to the movies—and why I keep going back.

No, it’s not a cinematic landmark in the way the 1933 film was. It’s probably not going to win any awards, other than the expected nods for special effects, and at 3 hours and 7 minutes run time, it does feel a bit overstuffed. But never dull. From start to finish this “Kong” is pure, undiluted entertainment.

True, there’s a lot of setup before moviedom’s “tallest, darkest leading man” makes his first appearance. Yet somehow the film doesn’t flag—at least, it didn’t for me. Jackson takes his time laying out the Depression-era backdrop of 1930s New York, where pretty, plucky vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) finds herself out of work, food, money, and prospects. As fate would have it, Ann runs into the equally desperate Carl Denham (Jack Black), a movie director/producer who’s short a leading lady and frantically trying to outrun his investors before they pull the plug on his current film. He persuades Ann to sign on, and before long they’re on board a dingy tub bound for the distant, uncharted Skull Island, along with the rest of Denham’s cast and crew. Playwright and part-time screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), against his will, also comes along for the ride; before long, he and Ann, framed against the light of a rosy sunset, are performing an excellent dry run for “Titanic.”

The romantic interlude proves brief, however, as Jackson adeptly builds an atmosphere of mounting dread, using some of the oldest tricks in the book—shrouds of fog, forbidding coastlines, and enigmatic comments by squinting, weatherbeaten old sailors. Once our adventurers land, it’s one can-you-top-this thrill ride after another, as they find themselves attacked by everything from snarling zombie-like natives to rampaging dinosaurs and squirm-inducing giant slugs, and, of course, the King himself. The natives capture Ann and offer her up to the big fella, who takes a fancy to her and, in the movie’s showiest sequence, fights off another pack of even toothier dinosaurs to protect her. Needless to say, after all this labor he’s pretty PO’d when Driscoll (who’s got to be the most intrepid playwright ever) manages to whisk her away. He pursues them furiously to the shore, unaware that a trap’s been sprung by the ever-opportunistic Denham. Add several caseloads of chloroform, a ship’s hold that must be bigger than it looks, a carefully elided voyage back to New York, and, well, the rest is history.

But this isn’t your granddad’s Kong—the major difference being the central girl-gorilla relationship. In this version, Ann progresses rapidly from Kong’s screaming captive to his kindred spirit, as she entertains him with vaudeville tricks and teaches him the word “beautiful.” (And no, she’s not talking about herself.) Their bond, however, remains strictly platonic, the filmmakers having chosen wisely to remove all the racy (and subliminally racist) sexual undertones of the 1933 film. Some of the racial subtext inevitably remains, but only to the extent that the original Kong myth—the capture of the savage “other,” his pursuit of a blonde, his running amok in the heart of “civilization,” and his eventual defeat by technology—plays off the archetypal fears and fantasies of western imperialism. Jackson et al. seem to want to address this particular aspect of the narrative by interposing a recurring reference to “Heart of Darkness,” but exactly where they’re trying to go with it is never made clear.

Far more successful as an answer to the imperialist romance is the film’s effort to humanize Kong and his attachment to Ann. The CGI Kong is a stupendous creation, which puts to shame everything in “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harry Potter,” and “Star Wars” combined. But the soul behind those amazingly expressive eyes comes from a live actor. The Academy really ought to create an Oscar to give Andy Serkis (who also plays the ship’s cook): if you thought his work as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” was impressive, try imagining how he channeled the behavior and movements of a 25-foot gorilla while interacting with Naomi Watts. Though their relationship sometimes verges on the treacly, especially when they meet again in New York, both actors succeed in conveying a convincing connection between these two lonely souls. It makes Kong’s final fall poignant rather than iconic, an effect heightened by the fact that even the “eighth wonder of the world,” properly scaled, is dwarfed by the New York skyline. (For more discussion on this subject, see this thoughtful observation on the total defiance of scaling in the original KK.)

Next to these two, the rest of the cast gamely play a collective second fiddle. Jack Black does surprisingly well as the unscrupulous Denham, channeling his trademark manic intensity into the shameless single-mindedness of a director determined to make his film at any cost. One can’t help wonder if Team Jackson wasn’t poking gentle fun at their own leader’s fanatical devotion to this project, especially since the whole movie seems to be operating at some level as one long in-joke about the business of making movies. (There’s a funny bit near the end where Kong pauses in wreaking havoc to pick up every passing blonde he sees, inspect her, and then toss her away upon discovering she isn’t Ann; I wanted to make a silly crack about the disposability of blondes in Hollywood.) The fact that Jackson pulls out all the stops to entertain us only underlines the fact that “King Kong” is, in a sense, a story about what society is willing to pay for its entertainment.

Your soul? Maybe not—leave that to Denham and Jackson. But this “King Kong” is definitely worth your ten bucks.


Broken hearts on "Brokeback Mountain"


directed by Ang Lee
written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
based on the short story by E. Annie Proulx
starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini

Forget the hype. “Brokeback Mountain” is a good movie: nothing more and nothing less. Or at least that’s all it would be in a better world. In the world we have, of course, it’s poised to become the latest pawn in the so-called culture wars, despite recent efforts to finesse the controversy by marketing the movie as "just a love story." (For a very interesting discussion on that subject, go here.) Yet the truth remains that the film’s only real “agenda” is narrative; it carries no other except what the viewer brings to it.

For on some level, "Brokeback" *is* just a love story, with a twist. A Jack Twist, to be precise. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two cowboys who first meet in the 1960s while herding sheep together one summer on Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. Ennis, an orphan who comes from ranching stock, is taciturn and inexpressive; but the chattier Jack, a rodeo rider, gradually draws Ennis out of his shell—and, one frigid night, into his bed. The two fall headlong into an intensely physical yet oddly innocent affair, which they only half realize might be love. Of the two, Jack seems to realize it more clearly; Ennis, on the other hand, insists he isn’t queer, and reaffirms his intention of marrying his sweetheart, Alma (Michelle Williams), when the summer is over.

Marry her he does, and begets two daughters by her. Jack, too, goes his own way and eventually tumbles into a marriage of his own, to lovely Texas rodeo queen Lureen (played by Anne “Princess” Hathaway in a succession of increasingly unfortunate hairstyles). But then, one fateful day, Jack swings through Ennis’s town for a visit. It takes about two seconds for them to re-kindle their affair—with a crushed Alma watching from a window—and two decades to live through the consequences. While Jack cherishes hopes of their setting up a ranch together, Ennis rejects any such goal as an impossible pipe dream and limits their time together to “fishing trips” twice a year on Brokeback. Much misery follows, tearing Jack, Ennis, and their families to pieces, as the two men can neither be together nor give each other up.

What’s most remarkable about “Brokeback” is how *un*remarkable it is at bottom. I say this not in disparagement but a kind of quiet awe that such a thing could be possible. The film is a well-made, conventionally structured tale of forbidden romance, repressed yearnings, and eventual tragedy. (The guy who dubbed it “Remains of the Gay” wasn’t far off the mark.) But—and this is a big but—what sets it apart is, of course, the fact that the forbidden romance is between two men. Any attempt either to denounce or to downplay that fact runs the risk of perpetuating the homophobia the story implicitly critiques.

So how comes it, then, that the love story at the movie’s core feels so familiar and tugs at the heart strings in ways we recognize from other love stories? It’s one part acting, one part writing, and two parts directing. Choosing Ang Lee was a smart move, if not the most obvious one. Though he’s had his share of misfires, he has a rare gift for rendering previously marginalized “niche” or genre films—whether Jane Austen adaptation, wu xia epic, or gay romance—accessible to the broad middle swath of moviegoers. He achieves this not by pandering to the lowest common denominator, but rather by bringing a peculiar blend of involvement and detachment to his material. Fittingly for a Taiwanese director who’s been embraced yet not wholly assimilated by the Hollywood establishment, he always seems to have one foot in the world he’s filming and one foot outside it. From this measured perspective, he manages to draw out the pathos (or humor) of a human drama without losing sight of the larger social or cultural context that envelops it.

In this respect, “Brokeback” plays to Lee’s strengths. Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, as adapted and expanded by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the film has a spare, desolate beauty that evokes both the sharp tang of Proulx’s writing and the hard-edged post-western sensibility behind “The Last Picture Show.” Lee etches a poignant visual contrast between the idyllic vistas of Brokeback Mountain and the cluttered, airless domestic interiors of the del Mar and Twist households. In so doing, he underlines not only the emotional suffocation wrought by years of frustrated desires, but also the social realities of an American West in which the cowboy was rapidly becoming an economically endangered species.

None of this, of course, would work without full contribution by the actors, and they deliver in spades. Ledger’s pretty much a lock for an Oscar nomination, and with good reason. Up till now I never really got why he was worth a fuss, either as an actor or as a heartthrob, but this movie’s made me a convert—at least as far as his acting is concerned. (We’ll see if “Casanova” wins me over on the other count.) As Ennis, his face is like granite, but his body language speaks the volumes his tongue and features can’t. Periodically, his expressionless calm explodes into a frenzy of physical violence that hints at the depths of his inner conflict; awaiting Jack’s first visit to his home, he says almost nothing, yet his restless movements betray the feverish pitch of his excitement. When he does attempt to articulate his feelings, his words dig like spurs. The last line of the movie— “Jack, I swear” —is Ledger’s, and it may be the most heartbreaking line in any movie this year.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, too, though in some ways he has the most difficult part to play, since Jack—the dreamer, the hopeful one—is not quite as fully developed a character as Ennis, and perhaps as a consequence, not quite as convincing. At times he sounds more like a petulant child than a tortured, angry man, though that may be as much a function of Jake’s baby face and voice as the way his character is written. But when he’s good, he’s fantastic. There’s a sequence in which Jack turns up unexpectedly at Ennis’s door, having heard of the latter’s divorce and assumed it means everything will change. In the space of maybe five minutes, as he learns it means no such thing, his face hardens from boyish expectancy to crestfallen disappointment, and, once he’s alone again, dissolves into tears of wordless anguish. That five-minute sequence says more than almost anything else in the movie.

Williams and Hathaway turn in solid supporting performances, though the film overall gives considerably more time and sympathy to the former than the latter. Even less developed is Linda Cardellini as a later girlfriend, and indeed it’s at about the point that she pops up that one begins to realize the movie may be trying to cover too much in a two-hour span. It’s not a perfectly constructed narrative by any standard, and there’s something a little monotonous (and a little abrupt) about the regularity with which it shifts from “Ennis’s life” to “Jack’s life” and back, in between Brokeback reunions. Lee also makes the mistake of inserting a repeated flashback in which Ennis recalls being taken as a child to see the mutilated body of a rancher who was murdered for daring to live with his male lover. Obviously this memory figures into his own fear of settling down with Jack, but it would have been enough for him to tell the story, without having a heavy-handed visual reenactment hammer home the point.

Fortunately, subtlety resumes sway in the final act. Near the very end, Ennis learns that his elder daughter is getting married. There are no recriminations, reproaches, or confessions; only an indirect acknowledgment of the pain that his own pain caused others, and his concern that she not fall victim to a similar mistake. It’s one of the best scenes in “Brokeback,” and it embodies the film’s essence: not a political tract, not a “statement” of any kind, but a sad story of love thwarted by self-deception, fear, and inexorable societal pressures. If it seems to derive greater resonance from the nature of the love and the societal pressures than it would otherwise have, that says more, perhaps, about society than it does about the story.


Also saw:


directed and written by Noah Baumbach
starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin

Finally got around to seeing this movie after intending to for months. Was it worth the wait? Almost. Based on director/writer Baumbach’s own experience of parental divorce, “The Squid and the Whale” is a clear-eyed, sharply written drama of family dissolution that presents its characters with biting humor and a touch---but only a touch---of compassion. That's possibly more than they deserve, given that these characters are for the most part thoroughly dislikable: the parents (Daniels and Linney) exemplify the worst features of the New York smart set (especially Daniels), while the two sons (Eisenberg and Kline) fall into textbook patterns of mimicry and dysfunctionality, respectively. Each son initially takes a side in the pa-ma faceoff, and then, with predictable symmetry, gradually shift places as they realize that both their parents are deeply flawed, if not deeply shitty, human beings. It’s a tribute to Daniels, one of the most underrated actors working today, that he manages to imbue his outwardly arrogant, inwardly deflating egoist with a measure of pathos and humanity. Linney, as always, is wonderful, and her character easily the most intriguing, if not the most admirable, of Baumbach’s quartet. Still, you can't help wonder what's wrong with a movie where the most sympathetic adult figure in it is a vacant tennis pro played by Billy Baldwin.

RATING: ** ¾

Friday, December 16, 2005

The O.C. Report

Nothin' like a good old-fashioned Chrismukkah miracle to ring in the holidays...even if it was the most ludicrously contrived miracle ever. Oy humbug, indeed. I didn't take Johnny for an idiot, but after tonight's episode I must conclude either he or I am missing something. How in hell would holding up a convenience store get him enough money to do anything?

When I first saw that gun I guessed (as I'm sure many did) he was going to commit suicide, and thought oh, how trite. But that would have been downright sensible compared to its real purpose. Geez, talk about lazy writing...And let's face it, the whole Johnny-Marissa-Ryan triangle is played out. Just as well it looks like Miss Cooper will be returning to Harbor in the not-too-distant future...and another Miss Cooper will be joining the party. The previews for upcoming episodes look mildly promising - who knew Marissa's little sister was still alive? And all grown up! All soaps need a bad girl, and with Haley long-gone, another wild-child sibling will fill the vacancy nicely.

Meanwhile, our old stalwarts labor faithfully to keep the Chrismukkah-mitzvah rama-dama-dingdong spirit alive, with somewhat better success. I've never been to a bar mitzvah, but I suspect anyone who's had one would be nodding wryly in response to Seth's memories. And how cute was it that Summer almost went to his? Her interaction with her dad, too, was surprisingly sweet. But I swear if the writers cook up a romance between Dr. Roberts and Julie Cooper, I am going to throw in the towel. Hasn't this show already made everyone else related to each other in some way? Summer was the lone holdout, and now they're pulling her in to the inbreeding zoo? Ah well, that's the O.C. fer ya. Resistance is futile.

Line of the week:
Sandy, persuading Marissa to join the Cohens for a picture: "Come on, you're practically family!"
Seth: "Well, technically I think she is."

Gratuitous thong shot of the week: Julie Cooper - I forget why she was bending over, I just remember the orange thong.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Like this blog? Check out Cinemarati!

I'm delighted to report that Cinemarati, one of my favorite sites for quality film discussion, has inducted me as a member critic.

The member critics write and administer the blog; however, anyone interested in movies can and should post comments. So you should all visit, early and often.

I just posted some thoughts on "Rent" (the movie) earlier today, so you can look for that post while enjoying the elegant and intelligent commentary of my fellow Cinemarati.

"Chronicles of Narnia" now accepting viewers - smartasses need not apply


directed by Andrew Adamson
starring four young tykes, Tilda Swinton, and what amounts to a cameo by Jim Broadbent
based on the book by C.S. Lewis

Ok, first and foremost: Narnia is *not* the new “Lord of the Rings.” (Nor is it the next Harry Potter—if for no other reason than that C.S. Lewis had about fifty years jump on J.K. Rowling.)

That’s not to say it doesn’t share certain common elements with Tolkien’s trilogy. Like “LOTR,” it’s a fantasy culminating in an archetypal battle between good and evil, conceived by a tweedy British literary scholar at a time when the armies of darkness seemed in a fair way to conquer the real world. But there the resemblance ends.

Tolkien’s universe is a study in darkening shadows, deepening fear, and a kind of stoic hopelessness that finds a small measure of solace and meaning in courage, will, and loyal comradeship. (It’s very much the sensibility that permeates “Beowulf,” which Tolkien translated.) There is no overarching faith, no higher order that protects the struggling and suffering heroes. By contrast, Narnia is painted in clean, bright colors and suffused with a sense of divinely benevolent purpose; it is, after all, a land made to be ruled by children. But it doesn’t have the snap or down-to-earth wit of those cheeky Hogwarts kids, any more than it has the epic sweep of Middle-earth heroism. What it does have are moments of great spiritual beauty—and no, you don’t have to be a Christian to feel their power.

Unfortunately, spiritual beauty is a tricky thing to translate into a studio film, and doesn’t quite make it into this one. And for all the hoopla about Disney supposedly marketing the movie for Christian audiences, this is not an overtly religious film. While there’s no denying that “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a classic Christ allegory, complete with Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, it’s as much pure adventure as it is New Testament narrative. It’s everyone’s childhood fantasy of escaping to another, much cooler world where magic is real and tangible, and even the most ordinary boy or girl can do great things. And that’s how it’s filmed, from the moment little Lucy Pevensie (saucer-eyed Georgie Henley) sets foot in the mysterious wardrobe-portal to the coronation of all four Pevensie children in the castle of Cair Paravel.

In fact, the screenwriters have added their own, subtly secularized spin to LWW by turning it into a tale of a broken family. At the story’s outset, the children are sent to the countryside to escape the London air raids of World War II—a fact imparted in passing in the book, but much more dwelt upon in the movie. We learn that the father is away fighting in the war, and that his absence has strained relations among the children—particularly between Peter (William Moseley), the eldest, and Edmund (Skandar Keynes), the second youngest. To establish this point, the film opens with a horribly fake air raid and scramble to the family bomb shelter, and cuts to the children’s sendoff (storylines handled with infinitely more grace and delicacy, by the way, in John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory”). Thereafter, Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings tracks back to the loss of his father and his resentment towards Peter for attempting to fill the paternal role.

Thematically, that’s not a bad way to go, even if it relies too much on facile psychologizing. It makes Edmund’s redemption less about divine grace than the healing of familial rifts and affirming of familial love—though in some sense it’s also about finding the ultimate father figure, in the form of the Great Lion Aslan (aka God, as voiced by Liam Neeson). Family dynamics thus take front and center stage in the film, with mixed results. The actors—all unknowns—really do look like a family, but some of their bickering feels rather obviously scripted and stiffly played. Still, when Edmund finally comes through for his kin, it’s still rousing enough to bring a tear to this old softy’s eye. Unquestionably, LWW requires you to check your skepticism and wisecracks at the door, and become like a little child again. (Which is as much to say, if you can’t shake the impression of Mr. Tumnus as a child-molester, the movie is lost to you.) I couldn’t do it at first, but eventually something clicked into place. It helps to watch the film with young children, I think.

Apart from beefing up the WWII backdrop, the writers remain faithful to the book, though they throw in a few extra dollops of action and suspense that aren’t quite enough to stave off a sagging feeling about midway through. The production values are high, thanks to a monster budget, and the resulting film looks very polished and pristine—perhaps a bit too much so. There isn’t enough *dirt*, and no blood. The computer animation, no doubt state-of-the-art, still looks unmistakably like computer animation—or maybe it’s just my entrenched unwillingness to suspend disbelief in “real” animals moving their lips to speak. That said, there are some nice touches—figures dancing in a fire to represent stories being told, trees that assume fleeting shapes of dryads, the ice palace of the White Witch—that make this Narnia more than just pretty shots of New Zealand overlaid with CGI.

But what really saves the movie from pleasant innocuousness is the great Tilda Swinton as Narnian Public Enemy #1, the White Witch. Not only does Swinton look the part, with her ivory pallor and eyes and cheekbones that could cut glass; she projects exactly the right combination of imperiousness and seductiveness, shifting like quicksilver from serene to terrifying without so much as a break in her liquid voice. You can believe both that she’s evil and that she could convince a skeptical child to accept sweets and promises. Within the beautiful but morally polarized world of Narnia, that’s about as close to complexity as you’re likely to get.

RATING: ** 1/2

Friday, December 02, 2005

The O.C. Report

So pardon me for stating the obvious, but how exactly can a show with half of its major characters in Providence, RI, and the other half in northern California still be called "The O.C."?

Oh well - that's next year's problem. Maybe they'll change the show's name to "The Virtual O.C.," or "The Quasi-O.C."

That said, Seth is a perfect fit for Brown. (He'd be a babe magnet there.) Summer, not as perfect, though I like that she's shaking up the sorority-chick stereotype a bit next week. And it would be sad to see those two separated again - especially since they do look cute in those dorky furry caps. But since when did they go from being the Taylor girl's mortal enemies to a love triangle to her only friends? A lot must have happened in the last few weeks...Speaking of which, good riddance to Jeri Ryan and bravo to Julie Cooper for once again proving she's more bark than bitch.

As for Ryan & Marissa, you could see the U.C. regents coming for Ryan from the moment Seth bailed out on his daddy's dream and Sandy's friend stepped over the Cohen threshold. Contrived, but inevitable. And not nearly as contrived as Marissa's 24-hr turnaround from surfing groupie to Berkeley-bound conqueror of demons. This is at least the third time the writers have pulled that kind of stunt. The next time any character says (s)he's heading out to sea for a long time, I'll believe it when I see it.

I've decided I like Johnny. We'll see how long that lasts. But I will always remain a Ryan-Marissa 'shipper. After all, what's the O.C. without their angst?