December 23, 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

If you decide to go see Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe you will witness many marvels and wonders. And yet by the final frame, I had found no marvel greater than one little girl's ability to love so openly, freely, and selflessly. I've seen cuter and prettier little girls in movies, but Georgie Henley — who's credited first and deserves to be — towers above the lot of them. Watch her eyes the first time she steps through the wardrobe, and you'll see the wonder so many of us felt the first time we entered Narnia through the pages of a worn old library book. When real terror undercuts that fantasy, she grieves openly and with the fullness of her being. To love is to suffer loss, and one of the film's other great wonders is its steadfast refusal to shy away from consequences or suffering, or let its characters either.
When the Christ parallel reaches its inevitable climax, the movie forces us to watch — and young Susan and Lucy too. They witness the brutality unflinchingly, taking solace in each other of all things, and then grieve over the body and repair some small shreds of dignity to this disfigured form. It won't do any good, they know, but the movie is smart enough to understand the meaning in it. These are children who were raised in an age of horrors, before MTV made genuine feeling passé. Every triumph and loss shines over them; investment in the characters is very nearly unavoidable.
The supporting cast is impeccable. James McAvoy captures the look and spirit of Mr. Tumnus perfectly. I've never heard a beaver talk, but if one did I have little doubt it'd sound like Ray Winstone. Tilda Swinton very nearly Barbara Kellerman as the White Witch in my head, and Kellerman has my childhood on her side. In fact one of the strengths of the movie is the visual interpretation of Narnia, which seemingly springs almost directly from my head. The movie is like a realization of my memory of the BBC miniseries, capturing all of the amplification and texture that my childhood imagination could muster and removing the tell-tale signs of reality that would trip me up today.
Most impressively, it's a fantasy film that remembers colour. The Lord of the Rings series and the last two Harry Potter movies exist largely in a world more grey and dismal than our own. Narnia, especially once the descendants of Adam and Eve rouse it, remembers that fantasy has the potential to be truly fantastic.
And then there is Liam Neeson as Aslan. He is not perfect — the deep throaty rumble of my memory suits a lion far better than a soft Irish brogue, especially one as majestic as Aslan. It bothered me for a while, but then the power and sincerity of what Neeson did achieve took over and I was hooked. More Gandalf than Dumbledore, Aslan doesn't protect our leads from their own failings — or relieve them of sorrow and despair. He does help them realize the potential within themselves for facing and overcoming them. While I would have liked a little greater sense of danger, the famous book declaration that “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” still applies. One of the great feats of the movie is that by the time He returns the characters have already decided to soldier on without Him, whatever the cost or outcome.
During the final battle, the brothers dive into battle while the sisters nurse the fallen lion's wounds and marvel at his resurrection. It is perhaps an inherently sexist statement, but I left the theatre with the firm belief that the girls were the more heroic.
Finally, I most commend the film for rousing one of the great classics in children's literature from those dusty shelves in the back of the library, and so accurately capturing its many facets. Now perhaps the lingering image of a glowing old lamppost in the middle of a snowy forest clearing won't be limited to the childhoods of the dwindling ranks of the eccentric and exceptionally resourceful variety. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 07, 2005

Rent

Rent is like every other Chris Columbus movie I've ever seen. It is impossible to enjoy it without reservation, but the good outweighs the bad in the end. In case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, Rent is an update of Puccini's opera La Boheme. Paris's Latin Quarter become New York City's Alphabet City. The painter Marcello becomes the filmmaker Mark Cohen. The poet Rodolfo become the rocker Roger Davis. His object of affection is a stripper, not a seamstress, though still named Mimi. The flirtatious Musetta become the flirtatious Maureen. The philosopher Colline becomes the professor Collins. Tom Collins. Schaunard becomes Angel Dumott Schunard, a transvestite.
The soundtrack is amazing, brimming with with and invention. For many, myself included, the only exposure to this production had been through the Original Broadway Cast Recording. If you too are one of those people the first half of the film will be especially awkward as songs are rearranged and bits that were sung are now spoken, even though the words rhyme. It's an awkward mechanism, and makes segueing into song more difficult than if the whole thing hadn't been song. I was more enamoured of the visual creativity that went into translating a stage production into the three-dimensional universe that film is capable. Right from the get-go, I couldn't imagine seeing this production on the stage.
The movie finally connected emotionally with the first rendition of La Vie Boheme, my favourite song. It is a massive group performance with insane choreography sold by the complete and utter joy on each and every face as they bring it to life. This sequence alone was enough to hook me. So it make the tragedies that followed all the more powerful. I felt the pain in "I Should Tell You" and "Take Me Or Leave Me" even as I acknowledged how over the top they were. Love done right is supposed to be over the top. We tread back into familiar territory and then "Without You" hit with unexpected power and pain. It was the first time I got choked up in a movie theatre in long time, the height of film musical craft, with visuals that reinforce and deepen what I hearing. There are some startling contrasts to earlier visual moments and one bit of manipulative flourish that absolutely positively works. To say anything more would be to deprive of the experience. If you've already seen it, you know which one I'm talking about. With a set-up like that, the reprise of "I'll Cover You" would have struck home no matter what they did to it. "Goodbye Love" is equally magnificent, with a performance by Rosario Dawson that is piercing, and tragic, and transcendent. Adam Pascal does an equally amazing job on "Finale A"/"Your Eyes"; another scene where the emotion struck right in the chest.
Once "Finale B" finished, I wasn't ready for it to be over. It ties with Revenge of the Sith for the most dramatic turn-around of 2005. Viva La Vie Boheme! ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

December 06, 2005

Dick

Dick tackles the Watergate scandal with the broad yet pointed humour that "The Simpsons" used to be known for. It is therefore not a surprise that one of the chief architects, G. Gordon Liddy, is played with an utterly hilarious moustache by the voice of Montgomery Burns. A casual understanding of the scandal will enhance the humour and make some of the peripheral punch lines hit home. If you've spent even as much time looking into Woodwood and Bernstein's investigation as I have, some of the key scenes fall apart — even ignoring W. Mark Felt coming out as Deep Throat (which one can't fault the film for since it was made first) But it covers the bases nicely, bouncing earnestly from sight gags and drug humour to wicked satire to delightful character sketches.
It's the characters that make Dick work. We follow two fifteen-year-old girls who are dim and seem shallow but prove spirited and resourceful as they soon find themselves wrapped up completely within the unravelling Nixon White House, but we get to see wonderful little asides that they obviously miss. Many of the featured White House staffers appear in both Dick and All the President's Men played in wildly different fashion. But while that straighter take chose to capture the panic in their voices, Dick seems to capture the essence of people in such positions more clearly — with liars and thieves whose calm confident voices say one thing while their wild and darting eyes say something completely different. Dan Hedaya's performance as the President is masterful: after Dick I understood both the qualities that attracted people to Nixon and the qualities that led to his downfall — and how they were often the very same things.
Will Ferrell is better than average here, playing Woodward in the broad strokes one would expect from one of his performances but without the baggage of past successes. In fact, Ferrell is only one of the many guest shots from cult heroes. Dave Foley plays Bob Haldeman like the straight man in the most zany of sitcoms. Watching him as he is confronted with one colossal disaster after the next is a truly hilarious treat. Ana Gasteyer is also fun as Nixon's secretary whose loyalty to the president borders on obsession. Ted McGinley was a casting masterstroke as the operative placed to nail the mother of Michelle Williams's character. The fact that he's Ted McGinley tells us all we need to know about him. Ryan Reynolds pops up in an early role that perfectly sets him up for the huge disaster called Just Friends that was to come. Then there's French Stuart at the beginning as an news interviewer clearly patterned after Larry King. Casting French Stuart as essentially Larry King is a fairly good representation Dick's approach to history.
If this movie were even a hair meaner, it would be a failure. It is not nearly enough for a comedy to make people laugh. It has to make people smile as well. What keeps this one afloat is a good-natured inspection of humanity at its sleaziest. Sure, the events didn't play out like this the first time around, but they might as well have. Watergate, when it comes down to it, is just a case of school children not willing to play fair — played out upon a national stage. Dick remembers that, and mines all of the humour such an understanding entails. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT