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Justice done for Lewis masterpiece

By Lady Liberty
web posted December 12, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

*** out of ****

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeI was first exposed to CS Lewis' masterpiece when I was an eight year-old third grader, and our teacher chose "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to the class — a chapter a day, every day after lunch. I was hooked. As an adult, I revisited the first of the seven book series, and then I read the rest of them. They were still utterly captivating. For me, a movie couldn't come soon enough. But as part and parcel of those hopes come some very high expectations. The books are classics, and movie makers had best not mess with perfection if they know what's good for them! Just as importantly, they need to rise to that level themselves if they don't want to risk alienating loyal fans by diminishing the wonder that is Narnia.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe harks back to World War II London when Nazi air raids were a terrifying and all too frequent reality. Among those living in fear of the next bombing run over London is the Pevensie family. After yet another midnight alert, their mother packs the four Pevensie children off to the country for their safety. The kids aren't thrilled — their father is already off fighting in the war, and now they're going to have to live without their mother, too — but they do as they're told and board a train for the countryside.

The dour Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne) picks the children up at a rural train station and brings them to the mansion where Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) resides. She tells the children in no uncertain terms that they must behave themselves, and they do try. But boredom sets in on a rainy day, and little Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) suggests they play hide and seek in the big old house. The smug Edmund (Skandar Keynes) agrees only because there's nothing better to do. Older sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) goes along with the idea; so does the eldest, Peter (William Moseley), who promptly begins to count to 100 while the others run off.

As she hears Peter nearing the end of his count, Lucy still hasn't found a place to hide. Edmund bullies her out of one potential hiding spot; as she hurries to find somewhere else, she ends up in a spare room containing a large and intricately carved wooden wardrobe. Lucy quickly opens the door and jumps inside. Fearing she'll be seen too easily at the front of the cabinet, she pushes her way through some fur coats only to find she's soon brushing aside fir branches!

Just that quickly and easily, Lucy finds herself in a winter wonderland populated solely by snow-covered trees and a burning gas lamppost. As she looks around in awe, she's surprised by the sudden appearance of a faun who is at least as startled to see her. The two recover themselves, however, and promptly begin the process of becoming friends. Mr. Tumnus (James MacAvoy) invites Lucy to tea, and she's pleased to accept. It's then that she learns Narnia has been stuck in winter for upwards of a hundred years, and that she's in grave danger from the Queen who wants to keep Narnia frozen forever.

Once she returns to the Professor's mansion, Lucy tries to tell Peter, Susan, and Edmund about her adventure. Of course, no one believes her. Lucy is frustrated beyond bearing, and sneaks out of bed one night to return to the wardrobe. Only this time, Edmund follows her and he, too, travels to Narnia. But his experience is a bit different when, instead of meeting a friendly faun, he meets the Queen herself (Tilda Swinton). The Queen lulls Edmund's fears and sweetly invites him to return along with his entire family. But when he finally does, all of the children learn that the Queen is really the White Witch and discover she's determined to see to it that the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are killed!

Peter, being the most sensible, immediately determimes that they must leave Narnia. Some of the woodland creatures who long for a return to the rule of the benevolent Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), beg him to reconsider. But Peter is adamant, and Susan is on his side. It's then that the children discover that, while they argued, Edmund has slipped away. Determined to rescue their brother, Peter finds himself drawn against his will into a classic struggle of good against evil where the price of failure is his life — and the life of the land he's coming to love.

The children who star in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are almost all relatively new to their craft (Anna Popplewell is the exception), yet all of them are very good. Particularly impressive is the young Georgie Henley who is making her debut in this film. Tilda Swinton is distant and cold as need be, but she also brings a heated passion to her anger and her ambition that suits the White Witch character perfectly. James MacAvoy is a delightful Mr. Tumnus.

Supporting cast members are also good, including the voices of Liam Neeson, Ray Winstone (Mr. Beaver), Dawn French (Mrs. Beaver), and the Fox (Rupert Everett). But those voices couldn't be what they are if there wasn't a body onscreen to speak with the voices. Several special effects houses worked together to ensure those bodies were there and they were as realistic as possible (among them was New Zealand's WETA Workshop that so impressed the world with its extensive work on the Lord of the Rings series). Combining make-up and prosthetics with animatronics and CGI, the goal of realism was not only met in the end, but significantly exceeded.

Look into the eyes of Aslan the lion and you'd swear he was a real lion (the "eye problem," long a bane of computer animators, has apparently been thoroughly solved). His fur moves in the wind; when he walks, his heavily muscled haunches ripple under his skin. Have you ever imagined what a centaur might look like? They're as big and as real as life onscreen in this movie. Fauns? Talking beavers? Ditto. The gryphons (part eagle, part lion) are masterpieces; the CGI wolves are so well done that there are scenes filmed alongside real wolves and (unless one talks, of course) you can't tell which is which. These creatures are so entirely real that scenes involving some of these animals being hurt made me ache for them; Aslan's pivotal scenes had me in tears.

Director Andrew Adamson (check the irony of that last name, Narnia fans!) did a fine job with piecing together the live and computer generated action, and he certainly knew how to film some truly epic scenes. With a story like CS Lewis wrote, a director who cared enough to lavish the production with details, and a production team — ranging from top notch cinematographers to the best special effects houses in the world — that could keep up with both men, this (hopefully) first of the Chronicles of Narnia films (all seven books were optioned) is at least as good as you've heard it is. If you want to draw religious parallels to the story, you're welcome to do so. But this tale of love and betrayal, and courage and redemption loses nothing in the telling if you simply see it for what it is: a really, really good story that we're lucky has been made into a really good movie.

POLITICAL NOTES: The denizens of Narnia are monitored much of the time thanks to hidden eyes in the forest. They're encouraged to spy on each other and, if they don't, can face severe penalties for knowing something they don't report. Criticism of the Queen is frowned on at best. No wonder an underground group of revolutionaries is planning to take the country back!

As Mr. Tumnus looked over his shoulder and shuddered that the trees themselves might be watching him, I thought of security cameras on every light post in some cities. As the Queen punished "people" for failing to give her information, I considered the various authorities who have encouraged us to report anybody behaving in any unusual way, and recalled drug legislation that would see us actively punished if it was discovered we knew about a drug crime and failed to call it in. And then there are those in the Bush administration who have likened criticism of the War on Terror to actually aiding and abetting the terrorists. It's apparently wintertime for freedom in America these days, too...

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rated PG for "battle sequences and frightening moments." Parents should be warned that the battle sequences are intense; frightening moments include not only the fight itself, but the punishments meted out by the Queen, sometimes to creatures we care a great deal about. I'd suggest you keep the littlest ones (those under the age of six or so) away from the theatre for this one. I'd encourage virtually everybody else, though, to get a ticket as soon as possible to get a look at this truly remarkable film.

Syriana

* 1/2 out of ****

SyrianaThere were two major factors that induced me to see this movie, typically not the kind of thing I go for: First, it was obviously overtly political. And secondly, it was written and directed by the same man who wrote the very good Traffic. The end result, however, proved to be almost as much a mixed bag as are the snippets of film spliced willy nilly together to make the whole.

Syriana is based in part on the book by Robert Baer entitled "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism." (For the record, "Syriana" is, according to an interview with the author published in The Washington Post, "...a fictional place, a term used inside the Beltway, to describe redrawing the borders in the Middle East to suit our interests. It's a made-up name.") The author alleges that everything from the oil companies' manipulations of price and politics to terrorism itself is directly attributable more to politics than to ideology. The movie makes that case.

Much of the story of Syriana revolves around aging CIA operative, Bob Barnes (George Clooney). He's an expert on the Middle East who speaks fluent Farsi and who knows — mostly — how to navigate the turbulent relationships between various political factions there. By virtue of what he does and what he's charged with finding out, Barnes sometimes engages in some fairly shady transactions including the provision of a pair of missile launchers to one contact. Everything in the exchange goes as planned until Barnes takes note that one of the launchers is given, in turn, to someone else. He immediately sends a memo to headquarters to determine what he should do next.

Meanwhile, several power struggles occur simultaneously:

In one of them, the ailing Emir (Nadim Sawalha) of a Persian Gulf country wants to step down. At issue is which of his two eldest sons will take over for him. The elder, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) is well educated and has concrete plans to reform the political system in his country and bolster its fragile economy for the benefit of the average citizen. The second son, Prince Mashal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha) doesn't care about reform but rather seeks only to ensure that the oil and the cash keep on flowing.

In another, two large American oil companies seek the approval of Congress to merge. Killen Oil, headed by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) is the smaller of the two companies. To make itself more attractive to a buyer, it's somehow managed to secure sole access to some newly discovered oil fields overseas. Connex is a larger company looking to expand its already huge influence with the acquisition of Killen. The problem both companies have, however, is getting approval for the merger when some in the Department of Justice are already questioning just how it was that Killen managed the deal it made.

In a much smaller but just as heated venue, a group of Arab men find themselves out of work when the Chinese move in after submitting the winning bid for oil from a particular source. Left at loose ends and seeking jobs anywhere they can, they turn to their religion and to discussions of just how they might improve their lot.

This framework is all loosely tied together with the economic predictions of analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon). Woodman, who suffers personal tragedy even as his career is on the rise, eventually finds himself in the position of giving advice to some very highly placed persons indeed. But when the various threads of the story merge, he finds that more than money is at risk, and that nothing can stop the steamroller of politics when expedience and perceived necessity are involved.

The acting in Syriana is top notch all the way around, and the story is fascinating to say the least. Unfortunately, it's also very hard to follow as the scenes jump from one subplot to the next, sometimes at breakneck speed. All too often, the snippets we're given seem less than important, or are too cryptic at the time to fully grasp. Both the screenplay and the editing are to blame here, and the director should have taken matters a little more in hand to correct those flaws (it's entirely possible that director Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the screenplay, merely compounded problems with his two-pronged interpretation of the story).

While the bottom line comes across nicely — politics rules and overrules all — a good deal of impact is lost as the suspense continuously stops and starts in fits and jerks. Adding insult to injury is the fact that some fairly important threads of the storyline seem to fade away, or worse, end abruptly with little or no sense of finality. And don't even get me started on the scenes that apparently exist for little or no reason at all! For all of its good points — and there are some — Syriana left me feeling strangely unsatisfied.

The film is esoteric at best and, while it may fare well with some critics, won't be nearly so well liked by audiences in general. That's too bad since the matters described in the film deserve broad consideration by as many of us as possible. Unfortunately, while Syriana makes no pretense of offering solutions to these all important problems, it also fails to phrase the questions themselves in a remotely clear way.

POLITICAL NOTES: Syriana is obviously political from start to finish, and on virtually every level. That being said, it does seem to do a reasonably even-handed job at spreading blame around though there are a couple of exceptions to that. For example, one character takes note of the fact that, though the US has 5% of the world population, its military expenses add up to about 50%. He calls that an indicator of a loss of power and respect; I'd frankly say that's because a lot of our military hardware is quite a bit more high tech and thus more expensive than that in much of the rest of the world (well, and in many cases, we've got more of it). Then, of course, there's the fact that — rightly or wrongly — we're saddled with protecting others, too.

As a whole, politics is shown as being dirty within American oil companies, American intelligence agencies, and the American government itself (arguably true). It's also, however, viewed as dirty from within the traditional Arab governments, particularly when reformers are disregarded at best (again, a point that has merit). The only viewpoint for which I have virtually no sympathy at all is the apparent rationale given suicide bombers who are depicted as having little recourse to escape from their downtrodden existence.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Syriana is rated R for "violence and language." Though there is some of each — a scene involving torture is particularly difficult to watch — it's not as graphic as you might expect. From the perspective of the scenes that earned the rating, I don't really see a problem with mature kids of about age 14 and up seeing the movie. No, the real problem arises when moviegoers of almost any age actually watch the film and try to follow the plot. If you can sit through this lengthy presentation (the film clocks in at just about two hours, and it seemed longer) and aren't too worried about understanding each and every scene, there are some valid talking points made. But if economics and international politics doesn't hold a lot of intrigue for you, then neither will this movie.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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