Monday, May 19, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”

USA. 2008. Directed by Andrew Adamson. Screenplay by Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis. Starring: Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Sergio Castellitto, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Vincent Grass, Pierfrancesco Favino, Cornell John, Damian Alcazar and Alicia Borrachero.

Rating: ★★★

The first time we visited Narnia in 2005’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, its citizens were threatened by the mercurial White Witch. In this second installment of the beloved series of books by C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, the heroes discover that the threat comes in the form of a corrupt human ruler. No doubt that Lewis felt that a greater, more relatable challenge to the resilience of the young heroes would be an evil that is not an external force but personified in greed and tyranny.

The story wastes no time in whisking the Pevensie siblings, Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) away from WWII Britain into the land of Narnia. What was only a few years since the events of the first film in the real world has been 1,300 years in Narnia and they find that the human Telmarines have driven the Narnians into near extinction. Among the Telmarines, there is the treacherous Lord Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) who now wishes to eliminate his nephew and would-be heir to the throne, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) after his wife, Queen Prunaprismia (Alicia Borrachero) has finally bore him a son.

Caspian barely manages to escape the attempt on his life thanks to the early warning from his mentor, Doctor Cornelius (Vincent Grass) and finds himself in the midst of Narnians. The latter group is reluctant to trust a Telmarine like him at first until he shows his extensive knowledge of the Narnians, including talking animals, Centaurs, Minotaurs and others including Trumpkin the Red Dwarf (Peter Dinklage). As they realize that the Telmarines led by Miraz will come to hunt all the Narnians down, the Pevensies, Caspian and the Narnians band together to battle against the impending threat.

The original C.S. Lewis books have been read by millions of children worldwide and one thankful note is how director Andrew Adamson (who did the first two Shrek movies) and his co-writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote both the first film and this one, have not diluted the allegorical themes of the source novels. They may rely much more on spectacle this time around than in the first one and the climactic battle at the end does substantially blow up a small portion of the original book. But they retain the lessons of faith particularly in Lucy, who still believes the Christ-like lion king of Narnia, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) will come again to restore order to the land. While Peter, Edmund and Susan provide good role models for children in their fierce, admirable mettle (even if they cannot imitate their surprising fighting skills in Narnia), Lucy reflects how there may come a point when we must consider allowing God to step in and do the rest.

Besides those deeper lessons, Adamson and his visual effects crew have improved on the scale and sweep of the original, which is perhaps why the time of release was switched over to summer instead of Christmas in the first film. We can certainly see the $100 million budget particularly in the extended climax as we see the camera swoop over skies to capture large mythical birds and, in a very neat shot, slides under to show a booby trap launched by the Narnians to literally “pull” the ground down under the Telmarines. I could have, however, done without some of the slow motion shots of the one on one battle between Peter and Miraz that dulls its ferocity and glamorizes it a bit too much. There is also no escaping that this film, despite its PG rating, probably has just as much furious swashbuckling as The Lord of the Rings, just with a less amount of blood.

The actors all do a fine job though I do wonder whether the kids will grow up by the next film as markedly as they have from the first one. I certainly hope that will not affect the future casting of young Georgie Henley who, as Lucy, really is the crucial moral center of the story and brings just the right amount of pluck to balance her bedrock values. Tilda Swinton also gets to make a juicy cameo appearance as the White Witch, whose representation and context is actually slightly improved from the original book as she tries to tempt Prince Caspian into selling his soul.

It is remarkable in many ways how an explicitly Christian-themed series of books have provided such a wildly popular, accessible escapist fantasy (though the overt religious references do get progressively more implicit in the series). Part of it is a tribute to C.S. Lewis’ vivid imagination to project his values and messages to an otherworldly universe and much of it is the filmmakers’ ability to translate it without being too didactic. And with this film’s battle brought down to a more accessible human level, more children and adults alike will identify with this battle that many loyal fans will readily recognize not so much as a metaphorical battle of David vs. Goliath but actually David vs. King Saul.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Redbelt

"Redbelt”

USA. 2008. Written and directed by David Mamet. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Emily Mortimer, Alice Braga, Tim Allen, Max Martini, Joe Mantegna, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Rodrigo Santoro, Randy Couture, Ricky Jay, David Paymer, Enson Inoue and Cyril Takayama.

Rating: ★★★

“There is nothing from which you cannot escape,” says the martial arts instructor protagonist as his chief principle in David Mamet’s Redbelt. But you know that since he is the hero of a David Mamet film, he will be put through the gauntlet of deceptions and con games and have that very principle severely tested beyond the realm of physical defense. Few can spin out the con games better and this one provides another compelling one up until a finale that unfortunately forgets that it should remain a shell game.

The hero is Mike Terry, who, as played by the always terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor, has echoes of the Forest Whitaker character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Like that other character, he is a man who fiercely lives by his own values of teaching Southside Jiu-jitsu, not to pick a fight but to prevail and survive. His gym has faithful students such as L.A. cop, Joe Collins (Max Martini) but never really earns enough of a profit for Mike and his wife, Sondra (Alice Braga). She in turn runs a fabric business that barely keeps the couple afloat financially while barking at him about his adherence to his own life code hindering their ability to make ends meet and live a comfortable life.

Then he meets a series of people who could potentially shatter through his guarded way of life. One is an emotionally distraught PTSD victim, Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), who accidentally rams the side of his truck and then, in a frenzy misunderstanding, takes Joe’s revolver and shoots out the gym’s front window. Upon the urging of Sondra, Mike goes to the nightclub owned by her brother, Bruno Silva (Rodrigo Santoro) to see about taking a loan. In that club, he then meets an action movie star, Chet Frank (Tim Allen) who recklessly picks a fight and starts to get beaten by some men until Mike intervenes.

Chet thereafter decides to hire Mike to help choreograph more realistic fight scenes in his latest film. As all movies written and directed by David Mamet progress, of course, not everyone he meets including a fight promoter, Marty Brown (Ricky Jay), Chet’s wife, Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) and his producer, Jerry (Joe Mantegna) is who he or she seems to be and his trademark crisp dialogue always reflects that as if the characters are consistently worried that they are revealing something that can be used against them. His dramatic hook, as in his previous films from House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner to Spartan, is to insert an unassuming protagonist into the web of deceit to force him to take drastic measures potentially to the detriment of their own morals, which, for Mike, is to enter a martial arts competition. While some may wonder how Mamet could graft this theme into the martial arts genre, it becomes hardly surprising ten minutes into the film how Mamet can graft his trademark themes onto the consistent trend of lone warriors marginalized by their insistence on following a noble code of conduct.

He has also found an ideal actor to play the central lead in Ejiofor, who is just about the most versatile actor working in movies right now. To see his work in Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually, Four Brothers, Serenity, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, Talk to Me, American Gangster and on and on is to watch a real chameleon of an actor who can absorb any accent or personality (or gender in the case of Kinky Boots) and interpreting Mamet’s dialogue (which includes his signature reinforcement of the beginning quote several times throughout) is but another acting challenge he meets and clears. Most importantly, he has enormous screen presence that he hardly has to rely on an emotional acting tic to convey this man who finds his abidance by his value system of decency turned and twisted against him.

Mamet often manages to bring out surprising dimensions within an actor and this time it is Tim Allen, who suppresses his goofball antics to give a highly effective performance as a middle-aged action celebrity. Mamet regulars Rebecca Pidgeon and Joe Mantegna also dot the screen as appropriately ambiguous figures, particularly Mantegna who can play a masterful, scheming manipulator as well as anyone. Emily Mortimer and Alice Braga similarly provide valuable support and the former in particular has a very good scene where, after admitting to Mike that her PTSD is due to her being recently raped at knifepoint, he shows her how to re-enact a physical defense tactic within the situation.

The characters and situations are very interesting for the first two acts that it is more than a little disappointing to see Mamet settle for the generic requirements of the martial arts genre in the third act. Perhaps Mamet meant it as a parody but whether the embrace of the hero’s morality is played sincerely or cynically, it comes at the expense of undermining everything the story has developed before. It does not help that Mamet’s shortcomings as a visual stylist shows most prominently here as he does not even bother trying to give the real sense of a fully crowded stadium in his camera angle choices.

So does two-thirds of a riveting film with an unsatisfactory conclusion make a worthwhile watch? I guess, for most people, it will come down to how much one enjoys Mamet’s skill in eloquent, succinct dialogue and the performances of the skilled actors that understand its rhythm. I tend to because I relish the genuine building of human suspense in deciphering what is said and unsaid. And because Ejiofor takes the character and makes it resonate beyond the fallacies of where his character ultimately ends up.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

“Iron Man”

USA. 2008. Directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. Based on comic book characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Sayed Badreya, Bill Smitrovich and Clark Gregg.

Rating: ★★★½

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood realized how classic comic books can make such rich, ideal source material for intelligent, full-blooded blockbusters when done right. Richard Donner started it first in Superman back in 1978, Sam Raimi raised the bar in the new millennium in his first two Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan re-energized the increasingly lifeless Batman franchise in Batman Begins. Now here is actor turned director Jon Favreau as the unlikely man to reinvigorate another superhero thought to be forgotten in Iron Man.

Diehard comic book fans would know that Iron Man was one of the earlier Marvel superheroes from the 1960s but this first cinematic adaptation keenly updates him and his alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to the current postmodern age of military warfare. In fact, the opening act of the film has that Catch-22 feel reminiscent of Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War as it introduces Stark as a rich, womanizing owner of a large weapons manufacturer. His weapons are only supposed to support the American military fighting in Afghanistan but the chaos of war never provides any means to ensure that it stays in their hands.

Stark finally comprehends that when he is captured after a surprise military attack from the Taliban. He was originally there to give a military demonstration of his latest weapon but while in captivity sees firsthand that the guerillas can have just as easy access to his products, too. Thankfully, he is also a highly resourceful man who, with another fellow captive, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), plans and succeeds at an escape by building a bulletproof metallic suit armed with small missiles and rockets to make him fly. When he comes home, he decides to perfect his body suit while having a change of heart about making destructive weapons.

All of this may sound a little too serious for a summer movie but it is easy to forget that the comic book is really a serious art form, too, with greater emphasis on the human flesh and blood dimensionality behind the mask (as originally enlivened by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby). Favreau and his writers, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway respect that tradition here and are not afraid to sell their superhero as one that battles with his smarts and not his might and not against just a cartoonish adversary but a real world of political hot zones. It is also a great asset for them that Robert Downey Jr. is simply fantastic in perfectly balancing the humorously playful aspects of his hedonistic billionaire persona and his emotional and physical heroic transformation into seeing the errors of his moneymaking ways and becoming Iron Man.

None of this is to say that the film is without its impressive CGI, of course, and Stark’s initial trial and error stages of perfecting his crude Iron Man suit provide the similarly relatable, crowd-pleasing appeal that Bruce Wayne offered in Batman Begins. The visual effects are all seamless though the final climactic battle does slightly pale to Iron Man’s sensational escape sequence and another where he flies in to save a group of Afghan refugees (partly because the real villain of the story is easy to guess). But the effects are all the more memorable because they are so compellingly inhabited by the actors, particularly Downey Jr. when we see his gee-whiz wonder reactions to the computer displays behind the Iron Man helmet. They are also never chaotically overloaded like last summer’s “robotic” film, Transformers.

A top-flight supporting cast is just as crucial to add further dimension to the world of the superhero and a clear standout is Gwyneth Paltrow who does some of her best and most vivacious work in years as Stark’s sassy, long-time personal assistant, Pepper Potts. Of course, we know that Stark as a changed man will come to really fall for the only girl who really sticks by his side and the two generate some electric chemistry in their snappy, witty navigation between the professional and the romantic. The ever dependable Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges also provide able support as Stark’s best friend, Jim Rhodes, and business partner/mentor, Obadiah Stane, respectively (a double-take from Howard in particular in his admiration for Stark’s body suit generates some big laughs).

Favreau previously directed the surprisingly enjoyable Will Ferrell vehicle, Elf and the space adventure, Zathura but Iron Man is a big stride forward for him as a director who can handle spectacle pictures as well. One can sense his boyish ardor for the comic book medium and, unlike Neil Marshall’s recent disappointing homage to post-apocalyptic B-movies Doomsday, his equally palpable love for the cinema trusts the roots of classical storytelling to sweep in non-readers into the comic book feel. His zeal for both mediums translates well to make more fans out of those not familiar with the man of iron, who, for my money, is far more intriguing than anything the man of steel has been up to lately.