THE DEAD POOL

By Marc S. Sanders

Sometimes five is too much.  It was for Clint Eastwood as Inspector Dirty Harry Callahan.  The Dead Pool was the fifth and final entry in the famed crime drama series.  Eastwood moves slower this time.  He does not come off as much of a rebel any longer.  Most notably, the story doesn’t have the feel of a Dirty Harry film.  The cop who was infamous for questioning the laws set in place seems to be just slotted into this film. 

The Dead Pool is directed by Buddy Van Horn, who had a long career as a stuntman and assistant director for many of Eastwood’s films, and other actors like Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda.  He does a ho hum job with the picture.  I don’t need to be treated to inventive shots or camera angles to enjoy a movie.  I have yet to visit San Francisco, but at least Buddy Van Horn provides enough locales to feel like I’m getting a serviceable tourist view.

A twisted game is being played in the underground scene.  People are making lists and betting on local celebrities they expect to die soon.  One name includes a heavy metal rock star played by James Carey, later to be known as Jim.  There’s also a snobby film critic who is a deliberate inspiration of Pauline Kael.  (Kael’s reviews were not too kind to many of Eastwood’s films over the years, particularly the original Dirty Harry.)  At the bottom of the list is Harry himself, who is surprisingly favored by the police department officials – first time that has happened – for putting away a powerful mob boss.  A side story consists of the boss giving orders out to his crew to take revenge on Harry and provide some escapist shootouts to move the film along. 

The police department want Harry to cooperate as their hero poster boy.  Harry doesn’t care for fame, though.  It’s not his style.  Yet, a persistent television reporter (Patricia Clarkson) wants his story.  A little romance is implied but Harry is not one for gossip fodder.  Unfortunately, Eastwood and Clarkson are really lacking chemistry here.

The rock star and the movie critic are murdered.  Harry must be next, and a horror film director (Liam Neeson) seems like the prime suspect because his dead pool list had included all three names. 

The Dead Pool is not a terrible movie, but it does not live up to other Dirty Harry installments. Primarily because it does not follow the character’s familiar mantra against the bureaucrats and the flawed system of prosecution and law enforcement that he’s always been challenged with.  At times, I’m looking at Eastwood and I’m asking myself who is this guy?  Sure, he’s got a few one liners of dry wit.  The famed eyebrow stare is there too, and the .44 Magnum as well.  However, Harry doesn’t seem to stand apart so much from everyone else as he did in the other films.  Beyond the giant gun, that is what made Harry Callahan so famous on screen. 

The investigation that Harry is assigned to with a Chinese American cop (Evan C Kim) is very bland.  We hardly get to know any of the victims or what they stand for, and when the true killer is revealed, it turns out to be a last-minute introduction of someone we’ve yet to see.  There’s no surprise to the culprit behind all of this. 

The series is also well known for the partners that Harry is forced to work with.  In The Enforcer, Tyne Daly brought out Harry’s regard towards women working in his dangerous field that demonstrated his initial frustration followed by his reluctant acceptance.  In the first movie, Remi Santori came about when it was okay to say that Harry took issue with all kinds of demographics, including Mexicans.  A chumminess nicely developed between those two guys as they tracked down the killer, together.  The second film, Magnum Force, offered a partner to also care about.  These are good side performers that colored in much of the Harry Callahan lore.  In this movie, Evan C Kim has one standout moment in the first ten minutes where he surprises everyone, especially Harry, with how he disarms a robber by use of martial arts.  It’s a great scene.  After that, though, he’s given nothing to do.  This actor had promise for more interactions with Eastwood.  It just never delivered.

The series started in the gritty times of 1971 when political correctness was not ever considered.  By the time the last two films were released in the 1980s of Ronald Reagan, who famously adopted “Go ahead.  Make my day,” for Gorbachev, there was a new wave of sensitivity abound.  I like to believe with the prior installment, Sudden Impact, Harry Callahan learned something new about himself with regards to the rights women had or were denied of while still applying his own code.  With The Dead Pool, the writing seems reluctant to go anywhere near a potential debate, and so it drips itself into a stale slasher movie with the cop ready to fire his six shooter.

The grand highlight of the film is a car chase on the hilly streets of San Francisco, which is the best place for a car chase, always.  What separates this one from the others is a little remote-controlled car that pursues Harry and his partner, ready to activate its equipped detonator at just the right moment.  The editing of this sequence is really fun, and it’s a great salute to Bullitt and other gritty, urban cop films, particularly the Dirty Harry movies.  This toy car flies over fruit stands and careens through sidewalks and over sewer holes.  Meanwhile Harry screeches down one hill after another trying to evade this pesky rapscallion.  It’ll definitely put a smile on your face while the moment lasts.

I recall being eager for another Dirty Harry movie.  I grew up loving many of Clint Eastwood’s films.  Dirty Harry is a favorite character of mine.  Yet, I also remember feeling really let down when my dad and I walked out of the theatre.  The Dead Pool just doesn’t have the same flavor as the other Eastwood products.  Again, it’s not the worst picture.  It’s standard cop fare coming in at a lean ninety minutes.  Eastwood and the rest of the cast are okay with what they’re doing.  I just would’ve changed the name of the main character listed at the top of the cast list.  He could have been Dirty John Doe for all I care.

SUSPECT

By Marc S. Sanders

Okay. Fair Warning. I am going to spoil this movie with my review. Why? Well, if you haven’t seen Suspect, directed by Peter Yates, then I’m telling you that you absolutely do not ever need to see Suspect directed by Peter Yates.

What is Suspect worthy of 33 years later? Nothing beyond my personal allowance to spoil the film for you. I know! It goes against my principals as a film critic, but I choose, for YOU, MY READERS, to fall on my sword.

Scripts of any variation whether they be stage plays, television episodes or feature films should always show the unusual. If it’s mundane, it should never be made. You don’t want to watch two hours of someone brushing their teeth. You want to watch epic films like Malcolm X or witness a man that flies in Superman: The Movie or the murderous ways a person will devote his affection for his mother in Psycho. Unusual and special stories make the best stories. Unusual! Not utterly preposterous!

Now, I’m sure in the annals of trial law there had to have been a handful of cases where a defense attorney got involved socially and/or romantically with a member of the jury. Otherwise, we’d never hear of the term “jury tampering.” So, there’s something unusual to sink our teeth into. Preposterous though (AND I WARNED YOU) is that within this very same trial, you know the one where the defense attorney and jury member are getting some from each other on the side, that one, the presiding judge turns out to be the killer. Okay. Now Mr. and Mr. Filmmaker, you’re no longer using your imagination. You’re just throwing spaghetti at the wall, hoping it’ll all stick.

Cher plays a public defense attorney named Kathleen Riley. Dennis Quaid is a handsome DC lobbyist named Eddie Sanger serving on the jury. Liam Neeson is the deaf mute title character who is a vagrant homeless person, and John Mahoney is the presiding judge aka the actual killer revealed at the end. Lawyer and juror meet up outside of court to find clues and eventually make out. The judge is the killer. People please!!!! Washington DC is not this effed up, is it? (Maybe don’t answer that.)

Frankly, Kathleen is not a very good attorney. She’s not aggressive enough with her objections and I don’t think she applies herself well enough to win her case. In fact, without Eddie’s self motivation to dig into the case himself and help her out, then this suspect (Neeson) doesn’t have a chance in hell of being exonerated. The victim, a political staff member, had her throat slashed. Kathleen doesn’t even consider if the killer is right or left handed? Really? Eddie did at least. Still, I’m okay with watching an inept lawyer in a movie. Too often, movies show us lawyers that are too brilliant and quick on their toes. They’re almost too brainy. So, okay yeah, I’ll accept a lawyer whose not the sharpest crayon in the box for a change of pace.

On the other hand, Mahoney, the actual killer, is easy to predict when he voluntarily takes this case and then rules against literally every objection that Kathleen brings up. Every single one! Plus it stands to follow Roger Ebert’s economy of characters. There’s only so many characters in your multiple choice of cast members to consider as the killer. I can’t fathom Quaid, the juror, as the killer, nor Cher the defense attorney. So either Neeson, the suspect on trial, is the killer (not likely because then why have a movie) or it’s the judge. Nah! It couldn’t be the judge. Could it? Hmmmm.

Washington DC makes for a great setting for legal thrillers or courtroom dramas. It’s full of secrets and government and dealings and politics. A million and a half motivations and any one of its residents could find a reason to kill. The script for Suspect, written by Eric Roth, never cares to try that hard though. We are treated to a wasteful side story of Eddie doing some lobbying for milk (I’m sorry. MILK? LIKE DAIRY MILK????) when he’s not in court. He sleeps with a congresswoman to get her vote…and why am I seeing any of this?

There’s no build up in the murder trial either. The few expert witnesses called to the stand are forgettable. Nor do they foreshadow anything. Cher’s character doesn’t seem to work hard enough in questioning a witness. Instead, this dumb lawyer relies on a juror she shouldn’t ever be talking to.

Once again, normally, it’s against my policy to spoil a film. After 40 years, I won’t even spoil The Empire Strikes Back, cuz someone out there still hasn’t seen it. However, this film is ridiculous. This would even be too ridiculous for a Maury Povich episode or a Lifetime TV movie. How absurd must one murder trial be?

Think about it. All in one movie. One murder trial. One case. The defense attorney is involved with a juror AND the judge is the killer????? There are odds….and then there are gazillion to one shots.

SCHINDLER’S LIST

By Marc S. Sanders

Oskar Schindler was a handsome, well dressed man. A man of wealth, power, and influence. A successful businessman. He was a womanizer. And Oskar Schindler was a Nazi who saved 1100 Jews from the atrocities of the Holocaust.

On a filmmaking measure alone, Schindler’s List is one of the best pictures to ever be made. Steven Spielberg’s production value is incomparable. Nothing I can recall appears as grand (not sure that’s the appropriate word here???) and authentic as Schindler’s List. How did Spielberg pull off this feat? How did he direct hundreds, thousands maybe, of extras to reenact the vilest human suffering that a generation of people could ever encounter? I’m astounded. Positively astounded.

This evening was only my second time seeing the film. I always put off watching it over the last 30 years; reluctant maybe to see a horrifying truth. The first time I saw the film was on Christmas Day, 1993 at the Hyde Park cinemas in Tampa, Florida with my father. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the beginning stages of the flu with a high fever. Midway through the film, I had to leave the theatre as my illness caught up with me. I mustered the strength to return to watching the remainder of the movie, as I recall I could not go without finishing this masterpiece. I was horrified and yet amazed; amazed that this moment in world history could have ever occurred.

To see a man like Amon Goth (brutally and uncompromisingly played by Ralph Fiennes), a high ranking Nazi, excuse himself from his nude mistress’ bed and perch himself on his balcony to sniper random Jewish prisoners as a means of sport was sickening and twisted to me. Twenty five years later, it is this moment that has always stayed with me, as much of the story and scenes left my memory from so long ago. This moment as well as Spielberg’s choice to highlight a young girl in a red coat amidst a most somber black and white picture have stayed with me all these years. The glimpse of red serves as a truth to Schindler’s naivety. Spielberg is a thinking director. He never follows the manual. He chooses to think outside the box. A glimpse of a child dressed in red in a sea of black and white where mutilated corpses and possessions are aimlessly strewn about. It’s a marvelously telling moment.

Liam Neeson plays Schindler. It will likely be the greatest role of his career. Schindler is a man who even fools the audience until the very end when he reveals that the war has ended and his salvation has rescued these 1100 souls. Finally, his humanity no longer hides and he weeps to his accountant and accomplice, Itzhak Stern (played subtly and beautifully by Ben Kingsley). Schindler weeps for he could have saved more. Neeson is superb in this moment. His commanding stature crumbles, his materialism and wealth have disappeared. Neeson translates all of that clearly, and finally my tears arrive. Prior to this moment, I was numb to the Nazi tactics of gas chambers, careless bloodshed and apathetic separation of families and friends; perhaps because I’ve extensively studied it during my years in Yeshiva. Before Schindler’s List, much of the history on the Holocaust seemed like textbook fare to me. Spielberg made its terrifying and tragic reality real.

Ben Kingsley’s performance is so important as well. The architect behind the list, his portrayal of Stern is countered with contained fear and leveled sensibilities amid the senseless intentions of a dominant force of evil. His instincts kept him alive so that only he could help keep his comrades alive.

Schindler’s List won the Best Picture Oscar for 1993, only 50-52 years following the events of the Holocaust. Many survivors thankfully remained to see Spielberg’s epic premiere. People who I share this planet with experienced the most insane and heinous evil ever encountered. They were well to do people living normally until they were violently pulled from their homes, stripped of their possessions, separated from their families, suffered at the threat of murder, witnesses to other murders and hate crimes, humiliated, beaten, forced into slave labor in tightly contained ghettos and eventually thrust into concentration camps. Yet, these few survivors lived to carry on with their lives and deliver new generations, beyond this morally ugly and evil historic episode.

I’m being redundant as I’ve said it many times before, but isn’t that the point? The Holocaust and the Nazi regime only occurred around 85 years ago. This happened before. This can happen again.

Thank you, Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.

I don’t consider myself to be very religious anymore. Because of moments like the Holocaust, I question how a God could ever be possible. Still, for the survivors and those that perished, I can only say Baruch Hashem, and L’Chaim. 

Peace.  Progress.  Love.

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE

By Marc S. Sanders

22 years after the first Star Wars film made a ginormous cultural impact on the world, George Lucas finally returned to the franchise to make the first film of a new prequel trilogy with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was hyped beyond measure, and it sold gazillions in ticket sales but was nevertheless a letdown for diehard fans and pretty much everyone else. I don’t think it’s a terrible movie. I just don’t understand how necessary the film is.

There’s a lot of irrelevant moments here. Early on two Jedi step off a ship, and a droid introduces herself to them and says “this way please,” and the three figures literally walk out of frame. This takes up time that I don’t understand. Why couldn’t the three just end up in the room they were supposed to be in? There are a lot of “so what?” moments in The Phantom Menace, and it all weighs the film down, hindering a story.

Listening to an audio commentary a number of years ago, one of the visual effects makers pats himself on the back of a shot midway through the film that consists primarily of CGI characters and sets. That was when I realized the conception of The Phantom Menace was completed with a short-sighted intent. Sure the scene might have been a technical breakthrough in 1999, but where’s the story? Fact is, there is no story and little regard for the celebrated franchise in Episode I. Lucas and his team were more concerned with shooting new CGI discoveries blended with human interaction. They offered next to no regard for intelligent plot and storytelling. The film suffers because of Lucasfilm’s hubris.

Consider the pod race. There’s a moment where young Anakin’s (Jake Lloyd) racer falls apart at high speed and he’s gotta get it back together. He uses a magnetic tool to get a cable plugged back in. If this child is “the chosen one” and potentially “dangerous,” why not show the child potentially use the force to bring the cable back in place? Why not show moments where unexplainable power emits from Anakin, to what would imply the inevitablity we are aware will eventually happen?

Lucas is also all over the place in his storytelling and characters. From the Shakespearean manipulator, Senator Palpatine, to the immature cartoon like Jar Jar Binks. I think they all serve a purpose to entertain. Yet while adults and die hard fans will relish the return of Ian McDiarmid (a terrific actor) they’ll be bored to death with actor Ahmed Best in the Jar Jar role. This I expect happens in vice versa with 8 year olds seeing their toy figures come to life. There is a silly charm to Jar Jar, but what 8 year old wants to pay attention or even comprehend debates among galactic senators over taxation and trade? It’s as if Bugs Bunny entered the halls of Congress, or Othello walked in on a pie throwing melee among the Three Stooges. At almost every point in The Phantom Menace something doesn’t belong or seems out of place.

The film moves far away from the tradition of the original trilogy. For the first time the human characters are enormously flat. Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor…all flat, all bland. There’s no snarkiness to them. No sarcasm. Before The Phantom Menace when was it ever said that the Jedi order was so formal in their ways? It doesn’t feel very fun to be a Jedi, like it did for Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill before.

The two redeeming qualities of this film belong to the pod race which is thrillingly edited in sound and visuals. There’s some fun shots of each racer, the pit droids, the crowds in the stands and even Jabba The Hutt. The film really comes alive here much like the memorable cantina scene from the original Star Wars. The other best feature is the villain, the apprentice to the phantom menace, the red and black tattooed Darth Maul played by the agile martial artist Ray Park.

Lucas didn’t use Park enough in the film. With his double bladed lightsaber, the two on one dual Park has with the Jedi characters towards the end is one of the greatest sword fights in film. I would’ve welcomed an additional five minutes of this scene. Shamefully, this would be Ray Park’s only appearance in the film franchise, as well as Darth Maul. This was a great blend of actor and character. Lucas abandoned a good thing too soon.

Yes! I have much to complain about The Phantom Menace. Yet it is not all bad as a whole. I love the political trickery that McDiarmid displays and the senate meeting among the delegates is a nice foreshadowing for what we know will come of it. Visually, it’s a treat as well. (Again, though, what kids are going to be entertained by all of that?) The pod race and lightsaber dueling are masterful as well. There’s some good material here. There just could’ve been a whole lot more….and a whole lot less overall.

ROB ROY

By Marc S. Sanders

In Scotland, in the year 1713, Robert Roy MacGregor, the chief of the Clan MacGregor, protects his people from cattle thieves while trying to endure against starvation and minimal resources. Rob Roy was a leader but never looking to herald a cause. He just wanted to live day by day with his clan, along with his wife Mary and their two children.

Michael Caton-Jones directs Rob Roy with Liam Neeson as the title character and Jessica Lange in a strong performance as Mary. The film doesn’t move with the sense of sweeping adventure that I was expecting. However, that’s the point. Caton-Jones shoots Alan Sharp’s screenplay as a Rob Roy reluctant to rebel or wage war against a selfish monarchy that rules Scotland.

James Graham, Marquess of Montrose (the always effective John Hurt) agrees to lend Robert 1000 pounds to be paid back with interest. Rob is most grateful for the assistance that can help his clan. However, when Rob’s trusted friend Alan (Eric Stoltz) picks up the money, he is brutally murdered on his way back by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, in maybe his best role ever).

Montrose, unaware of what has truly occurred, carries no sympathy for Rob’s predicament and obligates him to the original contract. Eventually, it becomes ugly as Montrose permits Archibald to carry out violent intimidation including slaughtering the clan’s cattle and burning down Rob’s home as well as raping Mary.

Rob Roy moves at a slow pace at times, but that doesn’t take away from brilliant characterizations. Roth as Archibald is a blazing villain. He’s introduced as a snobbish brat dressed to the nines though living off the prosperity of the mother who sent him to Montrose for a better royal upbringing. He carries an effeminate way about him in his long, curled, flowing wigs and garish pink and blue aristocratic wardrobes. He is a bastard though, yet a master swordsman. Like many great scene stealing performances before, Tim Roth has just the right timed expressions for the camera. Caton-Jones captures every best shot of Roth’s presence. Tim Roth, at the very least, deserved his Oscar nomination. I couldn’t get enough of him.

Jessica Lange gives another reason why she is such a celebrated actor for women. She picks smart roles over and over again. I was going into the film thinking she would be playing the dutiful wife and mere damsel. However, as Mary MacGregor she’s incredibly strong before and after she is victimized. She is torn with conflict to share the whole truth with Rob as to what has occurred to her. How will Rob respond? Will it make it worse for him with the monarchy? Will he feel ashamed of Mary? A fascinating character piece.

Brian Cox appears as Killearn, Montrose’s aid and factor. Yet, he is also secretly serving to Archibald’s underhandedness. He’s quite good in his role too.

Liam Neeson is fine as Robert Roy MacGregor; tall, built and athletic. He looks like a real hero. However, I’m not sure if I got a dense enough character from Alan Sharp’s script. Much of the film only comes alive when the other performers are on stage, like Hurt, Cox and especially Lange and Roth.

I was always aware of the famous sword fight in the film and it is quite spectacular. However, maybe hearing the hype over all these years watered down my expectations. The choreography is spectacular and often it really is Neeson and Roth in the moment; not stunt doubles. Yet, I remain more impressed with the work of Errol Flynn and scenes from The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back.

Rob Roy takes some patience to watch. A very good film but not necessarily wall to wall action to consider it a popcorn flick. Watch the film for the performances and take in the gorgeous countryside footage.

I recommend it.

LOVE, ACTUALLY

By Marc S. Sanders

Love, Actually is like a warm favorite blanket to snuggle up in. Richard Curtis writes and directs a collection of the greatest British actors (along with American Laura Linney) in a kaleidoscope of love and relationships against the backdrop of beautiful London, England during the five weeks leading up to Christmas.

I won’t list my favorite characters or actors. In a film this treasured, this loved and this appreciated, that would be like picking your favorite child. It’s impossible when every single storyline is perfectly executed with thought and tenderness.

The stories of love uncovered, love that’s lost, love based in friendship, and love drowning in heartache beautifully jump from one to the next and then back again. Curtis is wise to not show all of the facets of each story early on. Some stories reveal more about themselves later that’ll leave you hurting for those that are not so merry and those that offer plenty of cheer.

I’m especially happy that Curtis did not compromise in the language or subject matter of his tales. Strong language at times makes for some memorable dialogue and nudity presents a normality to how we really are with those we have affections for.

It’s fair to say everyone in life experiences some variation of love. Yes! I mean everyone. Richard Curtis reminds you that love is a natural instinct, and so we can not focus on the easily recognized gloom of our world. To have these stories captured around Christmas time only enhances what we treasure, or what we wish we didn’t have to endure at times. Curtis’ blazing soundtrack helps along the way.

Love is hard. Love is challenging. Love will sweep you off your feet and love will destroy everything you thought you had. However, love will never leave you with complete regret. It’s never the love we have for someone that we regret. It’s only a wish to have it wholesome, healthy, happy and pure.

Love, Actually is all around.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (2008)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrew Adamson
Cast: Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson, Eddie Izzard
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 66%

PLOT: The Pevensie siblings return to Narnia, where they are enlisted to once again help ward off a tyrant and restore the rightful heir to the land’s throne, Prince Caspian (Barnes).


If The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian had been released in a world without the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter franchise, I believe (but cannot prove) it would have been hailed as one of the great works of fantasy cinema, with deeply drawn characters, political intrigues, spectacular battle scenes, and scores of wondrous creatures, some of the best put on film.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, and despite scoring over $400 million at the box office, it fell far shy of its 2005 predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and was declared a failure.

I don’t mean to suggest that previous franchises are to blame for this so-called failure, but in re-watching it, it’s virtually impossible not to compare Prince Caspian to its epic predecessors, especially Lord of the Rings.  Look at the visuals of the final epic battle in front of Aslan’s How.  A massive army slowly advances on a stone-built fortress, while giant catapults hurl boulders from a safe distance.  Narnia?  Or the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King?  At one point, a small army of sentient trees intervenes.  Narnia?  Or the Battle of Orthanc at the end of The Two Towers?  Susan Pevensie wards off numerous attackers using only a bow and arrow.  Shades of Legolas, wouldn’t you say?

Whatever.  It takes a conscious effort of will, but I believe it is possible to enjoy Prince Caspian on its own merits rather than judging it by comparison.  Once you can do that, this is a highly enjoyable adventure.  It captures the spirit of the source material, while also combining a childlike enthusiasm for all things fantastic, from centaurs to minotaurs to talking badgers, with a dark, mature storyline involving Game-of-Thrones-level castle politics.

In Prince Caspian, the Pevensie children are living their lives in 1942 London when they are once again magically transported back to Narnia, where they once ruled as beloved kings and queens.  However, time seems to move much faster in Narnia; whereas only a year has passed in the real world since they returned to London, over a thousand years have elapsed in Narnia.  During that time, the castle where they sat in power has been reduced to overgrown ruins that are barely recognizable.  Narnians (magical creatures) are forced to live in hiding.  And Aslan himself is nowhere to be found.

I found this particular story element rather powerful, but it’s hard to pinpoint why.  If I had to guess, it’s because it’s almost like a post-apocalyptic tale.  “We used to live here, when things were good.  Now something terrible has happened, and everything we’ve known is reduced to ruin.  What do we do now?  How do we rebuild?”  That kind of thing.  I guess.

Anyway, I won’t bore you with a full summary, which you can find online.  There’s a prince who’s been exiled by his greedy uncle, a talking mouse voiced by Eddie Izzard – an outspoken atheist appearing in a movie based on a work of Christian fiction, how ‘bout that? – daring rescues, single combat, an ingenious trap, and a provocative ending that suggests at least one Earthly traveler may have visited Narnia even before the Pevensies.

I think this is one of the most underrated and unfairly dismissed fantasy films in recent years.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrew Adamson
Cast: Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 76% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In London, during the German blitzkrieg, four children travel through a wardrobe and discover the fantastic land of Narnia.


In the ranks of books aching for cinematic adaptations, C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy riff on Christian symbolism surely must have been at the top of Hollywood’s list for years.  With the raging success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films, someone must have decided it was finally time to get this on movie screens.

The only problem is, TCON: TLTWATW [it’s a mouthful] will inevitably be compared to those other immensely successful franchises.  As a result, while the movie itself succeeds admirably, I find myself thinking, “Yeah…but it doesn’t QUITE pack that Return of the King punch.”

But film appreciation/criticism/whatever is not about how a movie performs in comparison with other films.  It’s about how the movie tells its own story in its own way.  So.

This first installment in the Narnia franchise is a good old-fashioned, rollicking fantasy yarn.  Elements of the film will remind people of everything from Star Wars to Spartacus, in all the good ways.  There is, perhaps, a tendency to believe this movie is only for children, particularly due to the talking animals and the fact that the main characters are children.  (There’s also the unexplained appearance of no less than Father Christmas himself.)  But I disagree.  I think the story has a lot to offer to both kids and adults.

Take, for example, the overt Christian overtones of the story.  [SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER, SPOILER ALERT!!!]

Aslan, the lion king of Narnia, sacrifices his life to redeem the life of Edmond, one of the Pevensie children who briefly turned traitor.  The White Witch murders Aslan in an unexpectedly creepy ritual featuring orcs, minotaurs, and what appear to be some kind of vampire hybrids.  But, because of the “old magic”, Aslan returns to life.  There hasn’t been a Jesus story this obvious since E.T.…or maybe The Matrix.

This might make some folks believe the whole film is some kind of Christian propaganda, but it’s not.  To me, it’s a way of simply re-framing an ancient story in a way that brings that story to life for modern audiences.  Robert Zemeckis tried the same thing with Beowulf, of which I can only say, hey, better luck next time.  George Lucas did it with Star Wars, Cecil B. DeMille did it with The Ten Commandments, and so on and so on.

If I’m going to be picky, I give it an “8” instead of a higher score because of the “deus ex machina” nature of the finale, which can hardly be surprising due to the Biblical influence of the story.  It feels a little too convenient.  And I thought the battle scenes, while entertaining, were a little too bloodless…but what are you gonna do, they needed to keep it PG, this is a Disney film, for gosh sakes.