Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Movie Eruption, plus Narnia

I had a little email going last week with a few friends about the
perfect storm of movies currently out. I can't remember a stronger
crop since the revolution of 94-95 - Swingers, Lonestar, Secrets and
Lies, etc - and even then i don't think there where ever this many
solid looking movies out on one weekend. Either way, this is far and
away, over the horizon, the best month of movies of this decade.

Out now: Walk the Line, King Kong, Harry Potter 4, Narnia,
Syrianna, Good Night and Good Luck, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Memoirs of a
Geisha, Brokeback Mountain, The Producers, Munich.

That's no less than an 11 movies - all diffferent, all distinctive -
that have all the indicators of at least an A-. You could even
throw in at least 2 documentries that are supposed to be excellent but
then, generally, what documentry isn't? Here we have 11 movies, with
actors and budgets and ad campaigns, that all look first rate.

this weekend also marks the first christmas in the last 10 where i'm
a) not with my parents and b) not in a war zone. so i plan on seeing
as many as i can.

In fact, from that list, I'm already at 4 - Walk the Line, Harry
Potter, Good Night and Good Luck (early returns: Walk The Line is the
Movie of the Year until somebody proves otherwise) and, as of an hour
ago, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Of The Big 11, I had the most doubt about this one. It's a
double-whammy of unoriginality: a remake of an old book, and a cash-in
on Lord of the Rings withdrawal. Plus, as ABC/Disney has ceaselessly
pointed out, the old book it's based on was actually written with a
Christ-story theme, perfect for a Holiday release. There has been no
secret at all to the 'secret' marketing campaign being conducted at the
church-level, trying to recapture some of that "Passion" magic from
'04, implicitly promising that Narnia was really a stealth Christian
Message movie. And there was some sort of church-based teenage group
in the theatre with us tonight.
I know they were a church group, because they were well behaved. In
our movie theatre, on our side of town, around our breed of teenagers,
its the only explaination.

And I'm glad they were, because it was a movie that a few loud kids
could ruin - it's a movie based around children, who say childish
things, starring at the center a girl probably, at most, 8. It has
animated animals with funny accents, and several predictable scenes and
themes designed to lure in children's built-in sense of awe. It has
careful timing and fragile plot conciets meant to slip past mesmerized
children, not too-cool-for-school teenagers. A few, "yeah rights" from
the peanut gallery would really shatter this movie.
But if the teenagers in the theatre bight their tongues, the movie
does everything so well - and the little girl in the middle of it, who
plays Lucy, is such a revelation - that, you fall effortlessly into the
same trap.

Four kids, in wartime london, armed only with grey clothing and
frowns, are sent to a country home to wait out the bombs. All four
are perfectly English: the girls with pie-eyes and moon-shaped faces,
the boys with reedy features and nasal overbites. A home run cast from
the the giddy up.
Also, the mid-century English nature of the movie never evaporates,
and that's good news. Most of the creatures are distinctly English,
both friends and foe, and the built-in sensibility of british culture
keep the magical-talking-creature-element grounded. What I mean is:
none of the talking animals tries to talk like they are Hip Hop, Saved
by the Bell or Robin Williams - they're just talking creatures and
haven't got to time to bother with whether or not they should be, what
with the world to save and all the tidying up to do.
Thanks to Lucy, they find a wardrobe which, through some quick but
well-executed baffoonery, transports them to a magical forest in
winter. They soon learn that the forest is ruled by an evil queen - a
role not played by Cate Blanchett but by someone who sure wishes she
was. They travel across the land, hobbitt-slash-gnome-slash-elf-like,
meet talking creatures and then meet Aslan, the Lion King of the realm.
All that above is about as perfectly constructed as you could want -
the world of the kids, from stuffy english house, to bizarre forest, to
cute creatures, to the grand map of the place, is revealed with perfect
pacing. You never question a single leap, and instead find yourself
wondering what's around the next corner.
Aslan and his army are ready for the kids to lead them against the
witch, which they do, eventually.

In the middle of this, in an isolated 10 minutes, you get the promised
Christ allegory.
Knowing it was coming, I thought it was a bit underwhelming. I
wanted Mandy's thoughts on it:
Me: "You know, if a hard core christian had gone to see that
expecting a Christ allegory, they'd have been pissed, don't you think?"
Her: "What Christ allegory?"
That exchange lets you know how thick they lay it on.
This movie does not feel like religious themes have been painted on.
If anything they feel scrubbed off.
And since Mandy and I both went in wanting nothing more than talking
animals and the like, we left happy. But i guarantee the
church-vertising audience left feeling a little cheated.

So while Aslan is rehabing his allegorical injury, the battle begins.
And it's a doozy. I had expected that the climactic battle scene
would have to be pretty soft - it's led by children in a children's
movie. The kid leading it, in his too-big, too-shiny brand new armor,
looks nearly Dubyaian. I figured you'd get some extras pushing each
other to the ground, the requisite archers and some burning barrels and
call it good.
Not hardly.
for a good 15 minutes, two vast armies of hatchet, club, lance,
spear, sword, claw and tooth wielding animals have at each other.
creatures of every concievable combat-suitability are in the line-up
for the two sides, and the attacks are ferocious and constant. The
queen's war chariot is pulled by Polar Bears, a terrifying juggernaut
of queen-bitch-fury not equaled since Tina Turner ran down Mel Gibson
at the end of Thunderdome. The collisions take place at a bloodless
video-game pace, but there's no short supply of bodies falling and
twitching under swords. The fight runs off the main field, back up
into the hills, where it turns into a a defacto-tunnel fight in a
ravine. the main characters here all collide and bounce off the rock
walls like sword-wielding pinballs. It's a great fight, right there
with any of the Rings collisions.

A word on little Lucy: she's played by Georgie Henley, who is 10, says
IMDB. She is miraculous. Her face is a billboard of well-tuned
emotions and as danger and then trickery and then tragedy come and go,
the movie follows pretty much only where her face leads it.
At a key point early, the boys hit a cricket ball through the window
in the country home. They both instantly freeze, the
oh-shit-we're-screwed look on their face. The older sister (weak link
of the bunch) is horrified and angry. Lucy, who'd been cut out of the
game, spins and looks on with a shock of fright at what's to come but
with unmistakable wild glee at the predictment her brothers are now in
and she is not.
She owns the movie from that point on.

More to come.

Narnia - A-

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