Thursday, December 30, 2010

Somewhere


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1421051/
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101221/REVIEWS/101229995

Somewhere is another art-house film that’s getting buzz these days, largely due to its having been written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the daughter of famed director Francis Ford Coppola. This is not Sofia Coppola’s writing/directorial debut. She’s had some successes, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the comedy Lost in Translation (2003) starring Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson a movie that was also nominated that year for Best Picture. She’s also had some relative flops, Marie Antoinette (2006), even though that movie did win an Oscar for best Costume Design. Somewhere definitely plays to her strengths of writing and directing off-beat comedy.

Somewhere asks the question, what do you do if you reach all your personal goals rather early in life and reach them in spades? Steven Dorff plays a late-30 to early-40 something Hollywood action star named Johnny Marco who finds himself successful perhaps beyond his wildest dreams, perhaps even without having exerted a great deal of effort, but wondering what now?

The opening sequence sets the mood. One sees a curve in a road on a flat plain apparently somewhere out in the Mohave Desert outside of Los Angeles. One hears the rev of a sports car approaching. It’s a black Farrari. The driver slows down, turns, shifts, the engine revs as he speeds up and disappears. You hear the car engine quiet as the driver apparently approaches another turn, shift, and then hear the rev of the engine as he accelerates again. You hear the sequence again, and the black Farrari appears on the screen again after what appears to be a rather short circle. You hear the car engine relax again as the driver (off screen) turns the car again, shifts and accelerates, soon appearing on the screen once more, and the same 10-15 second cycle repeats two more times. Finally the driver, Johnny Marco, stops his car and gets out to perhaps take a new view of the same desert terrain that he’s driving around in circles for some time now. Not a word has been spoken, but the scene sets the tone for the rest of the film.

There are a lot of telling, poignant scenes with few to no words being said in this movie as Sofia Coppola lets her camera tell the story.

Johnny Marco is so bored that in one of the early scenes of the movie he’s hired a pair of blonde 19 year old pole dancers come to his rented suite in a relatively famous Hollywood retreat for the stars. Dressed in tight pink short-skirted outfits, they try to perform a rather cheesy “synchronized routine” on the poles that they brought with them. They do their routine to a song called “Who’s your hero?” Johnny falls asleep during their dance. The twins don’t seem to mind. Smiling as sweetly as they did through the whole of their performance, they disassemble their poles, put them into their tote bags and go home.

Perhaps embarrassed that he fell asleep on them, Marco invites the twins over a second time a few days later. This time they are dressed in checkered green, white and brown (plaid?) string bikinis. They’re smiling and pole dancing away again and Johnny Marco is straining really hard to stay awake for them this time. When they are done, he invites one of them over to his bed for a kiss. Of course, he gets her name wrong. She comes over for the kiss anyway, but blows a small bubble from the bubble gum that she’s been chewing into his face. Was she irritated, being playful or just vacuous? Regardless or perhaps feeling rejected, he crashes asleep again.

He wakes up to another blonde, who turns out to be his 11 year old daughter (played by Elle Fanning), signing her name on his cast. His ex had brought her over. One realizes that he’s apparently broken his arm some time earlier. Yet his 11 year old daughter is the very first to sign the cast.

The ex tells him that she’s going away for a couple of days and so to take care of daughter while she’s gone. Marco asks the 11 year old what she wants to do. The ex reminds Marco that the 11 year old has a figure skating lesson that afternoon. Marco takes her to the lesson. The 11 year old skates happily on the ice. She’s not bad but it's clear that she's not exactly "Olympic caliber." Does Marco realize that his blonde 11 year old daughter had about the same amount of talent as those 19 year old pole dancers he had in his room before? Does he realize that those pole dancers were smiling as sweetly as his 11 year old was smiling now? Does he get it, that _his_ eleven year old could be dancing in the hotel room of a 40 year old 8 years from now?

This is a remarkable, gentle yet articulate movie.

One more vignette. During the course of the movie, Marco is invited to Italy to receive yet another film award. The ex is gone again, so he has to take his 11 year old along. They are lodged in a 5 star Italian hotel of one’s dreams with their suite having its own private adjoining indoor swimming pool. The pool is exquisite, mosaics and classical statues adorn its sides. Yet, as soon as the 11 year old jumps into the pool, it is clear that it is _too small_. She can only take two strokes before she reaches the other side. Marco tries to help her, giving her suggestions of what to do to keep from becoming bored – hold your breath, now swim the distance of the pool underwater – but to no avail. The pool is just too small. Back in Hollywood, the two go to the outdoor pool of the resident hotel where Marco is staying and lie down on the run-of-the-mill aluminum and plastic cots beside the pool, sunglasses on, face skyward and the scene extends out to infinity.

It is clear that what gives happiness to the 11 year old and life to her father _through her_ are things that are available to everyone.

Somewhere is a shoe-in for a nomination for best original screenplay at the Academy Awards and Sofia Coppola could get a nomination for best director as well.


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The Rabbit Hole


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB () Rober Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0935075/
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101222/REVIEWS/101229994

I do believe that movies about death and dying need to be taken at a distance. Those immediately effected by tragedy need both respectful presence and space for them to slowly regain their bearings. However, movies such as The Rabbit Hole can be good for those a few steps away from those immediately grieving the tragic loss of a loved one. In the case of The Rabbit Hole, the couple in question is grieving the sudden loss of their small child. He child had run into the street after their dog and was hit by car driven by a teenager who didn’t see the child coming.

Using a both a family and a support group setting, the movie quite respectfully portrays a wide array of possible initial responses and conflicts that can occur with the sudden loss of a small child. Some will lean on their faith, while others will go the other direction and blame God for some time. Some will want to start cleaning out the house of the toys, clothes and other reminders. Others will want to keep _everything the same_ for a while. Some will come to yearn for lost intimacy from their spouse, others will simply not be ready for some time.

Anyone who has gone through anything like a loss like this will understand, but please _don’t_ try to push this movie on someone who has recently lost a loved one. The Rabbit Hole like most other movies of this genre is more for the people a few steps away from the tragedy to help them better understand the thoughts, feelings and conflicts occurring within those closer to the tragedy.

The screenplay for The Rabbit Hole was written by David Lindsay-Abaire who also wrote the stage play by the same name. The movie is directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The grieving couple is played by Nicole Kidman (Becca) and Aaron Eckhart (Howie). Strong primary supporting roles are played by Dianne Wiest (as Becca’s mom), Tammy Blanchard (as Becca’s sister) as well as Sandra Oh (as a leader of the grief support group that Becca and Howie attend), Miles Teller (as Jason, the teen who accidently killed Danny, Becca and Howie’s child), as well as others playing lesser roles of various friends and family.

As noted above, The Rabbit Hole was originally written for as a stage play. Thus while the primary roles were certainly played excellently by Kidman, Eckhart, Wiest, Blanchard and Oh, the script and direction are probably the most important here. There is deserved talk of Kidman being nominated by the Academy for Best Actress for her role. The other actors as well as director did a good job, but probably won’t receive much immediate recognition for their work here as I don't believe the film was able to completely shed its "stage feel." Still the fact that the movie was made will probably guarantee that this stage play will circulate throughout the English speaking world (and in translation perhaps beyond) for some time to come. It's a good and powerful story.


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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The American


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1440728/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/a/theamerican.shtml
Roger Ebert's review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100831/REVIEWS/100839999/1023

Recently released on DVD.

The American is one of a number of movies that I consider among the 2010's best but came out before I started this blog.

It is both a “quiet” and “dark” movie with some very nice panoramas of the Abruzzo region of Italy. Thus it is the type of movie that really would be best enjoyed on the big screen of a movie house. However, I could imagine it would work reasonably well on a nice HD TV with the lights dimmed and not much noise to help one focus on the screen.

There isn’t much dialogue in this movie as it is about Jack, a skilled, professional assassin played by George Clooney, who needless to say doesn’t talk much about his work. Indeed, The American is based on the novel by Martin Booth tellingly entitled “A Very Private Gentleman” and just about the only thing that a bystander could possibly surmise about Jack (by vestiges of an accent and _perhaps_ hints in his dress/demeanor) was that he was "probably an American.”

So it’s a very lonely life reduced to focusing on the mechanics of one's work, getting the parts together to assemble the “made to order” weapon for the particular job assigned, and then calibrating it to make sure it works. About the only people that Jack talks to in this movie are to his boss (who's simply a voice on the phone), his latest client's representative (played by Dutch actess Thekla Reuten) who does meet him personally, the town priest (played by Italian actor Paolo Bonacelli) who knows pretty much everybody in town and so notices him even as Jack otherwise successfully leads a life invisible to most others, and finally to a prostitute (played by Italian actress Violante Placido) who Jack pays not merely for the requisite sex but clearly and above all for intimacy. This is an understated story with a very little "u".

I would rate the adapted screenplay, direction (by Dutch director Anton Corbijn) and cinematography among the best of this year. I’d also give George Clooney a nod for a “Best Actor” nomination for his role.


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Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan [2010]


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (O) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0947798/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/b/blackswan.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101201/REVIEWS/101209994

Let it be said right at the beginning that Black Swan is _not_ for everybody.

I find it to be an excellent movie. I do think that Darren Aronofsky will probably (and deservingly) be nominated for Best Director for the Academy Awards. Natalie Portman will probably be nominated (also deservingly) for Best Actress and even Mila Kunis might be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

However, Black Swan definitely deserves its MPAA R rating and is clearly intended for an adult audience. Yes, there are various quite graphic sexual issues in the movie (without nudity however) as well as some (club) drug use. However, the _biggest issue_ is simply the movie’s _intensity_. I would recommend to parents who would consider taking their kids/teens to this movie to _please see the movie first_ and only then reflect on whether or not to take the kids. I personally do _not_ see any screaming necessity for someone under 17 to “have to see” this movie.

Ok, why then do I consider this to be an excellent movie? Well, it’s about art (ballet), it’s about excellence, it’s about a fair question that can be asked regarding excellence in any field (in the arts, in sports, in your job): How much are you willing to sacrifice to achieve excellence, to become “the best?”

This turns out to be a surprisingly universal question and _perhaps_ the arts today have come up with an interesting (and surprising) answer to the dilemma.

Referring here to the recent review that I wrote about the movie Tron, I wrote then that the first Tron movie in particular needed to be understood in terms of the conceptual art movement that began in the latter part of the 20th century. According to conceptual art theory, any work of art can be broken up into two parts: the first being the idea or _concept_ behind the work of art and then its _representation_.

Conceptual art theory suggests that sometimes the _concept_ behind a work of art can be legitimately more important than its _representation_. In the case of the Tron movies, I argued that the _concept_ behind the Tron movies exploring the analogy between the relationships of Computer Programmer/Program and God (Creator)/Man (Creature) was, in fact, more interesting than its _representation_ in the Tron movies and interesting regardless of whatever else one may have thought of those movies.

I noted in that review of Tron that conceptual art theory is actually quite _democratizing_ because, let’s face it, most of us, when asked to draw, could only represent people/things with little more than stick figures. Conceptual art theory suggests that as long as the _concept_ sought to be expressed was interesting enough, even _representing_ it through stick figures would be legitimate. Hence, many more of us could become "artists" than we ever thought possible ;-).

Black Swan looks at the other, representational, side of the equation and asks a legitimate question about the _cost of perfection_, that is, about the cost of _perfect_ representation.

Many folks _laugh_ at modern art and even specifically at “conceptual art” saying it’s a cop-out: Why not seek to produce art which is _both_ strong in _concept_ and of high quality in _representation_?

Well, the movie Black Swan points out that the cost of “perfect representation” can be _very high_. As I pointed out above, this insight has validity outside the realm of the arts, extending to athletics, to one’s job, to any “professional field.” At what point is something perfect enough? or the _cost_ of "perfection" begin to exceed its value/usefulness?

So conceptual art theory is not only “democratizing” allowing “stick figure artists” a chance to express ideas that more technically gifted artists may never think of, it is also more _humanizing_. This is because in the end, it may be better for the artist (and even for the art form) to allow a “chubbier, more stilted ballerina" on stage than to have “the best” who risks destroying herself in the process. Is "good art" (or "good" anything) really worth human sacrifice?

"What profit one to gain the whole world but to lose one's very self in the process?" (Mt 16,25)


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Sunday, December 26, 2010

True Grit [2010]


IMDb (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/t/true-grit.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101221/REVIEWS/101229997

The Coen Brothers are probably the best screen writers in Hollywood today. They also direct very well. As a result, hardly a year goes by without one of their movies being in contention for (and often winning) a host of Academy Awards.

True Grit is destined to be considered another Coen Brothers classic along with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man along with other lesser but often hilarious hits. In each case, the Coen brothers enter and then thoroughly mine a distinct American subculture for story and (with perhaps the single exception of No Country for Old Men) for comedy. The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit certainly fits the pattern.

Now True Grit as a movie has its own story. The 1969 version of the movie became the vehicle for John Wayne to finally win an Oscar after a legendary career. Still the 1969 version became such a John Wayne movie that the original story was largely lost. So enter the Coen Brothers 2010 film version which restores much of the original story and dialogue of the 1968 book/Saturday Evening Post serial by the same name written by Charles Portis.

A key difference between the 1969 and 2010 versions is that in the 2010 version, the main character of the story is not the John Wayne character Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cockburn (played by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 version). Rather the main character is the 14 year old Mattie Ross (played in the 2010 version by teenager Hailee Steinfeld) who hires Cockburn to hunt down and bring to justice Tom Chaney (played in the 2010 version by Josh Brolin) who murdered her father.

Hailee Steinfeld plays the role so well that I hope that she gets nominated for Best Actress for her performance. She does not necessarily deserve to win, but her performance is both spot-on and hilarious as she strings together _sentence after sentence_ of dialogue in spitfire fashion that _no_ 14 year old today would EVER say, but which appears as part and parcel in any “good” pulp-fiction western novel! She is gr8! ;-)

And this makes for the principal reason why I would recommend this movie. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THE ACTORS / ACTRESSES in this movie -- Jeff Bridges as Cockburn, Matt Damon as the young/rookie “Texas Ranger dandy” LaBoeuf (he's _so sweet_ in being _so proud_ of being a Texas Ranger :-), Brolin as Chaney, Steinfeld as “Mattee” – thoroughly own their roles and play them to the hilt.

I would also recommend this movie for young teenagers and especially young teenage girls. Go as a family. At 14-15 that might be the last time that going as a family would work ;-). But Steinfeld plays Mattie _so well_ that she _could be_ an inspiration to teens. Teens are often quiet and don’t say anything. Mattie is _not quiet at all_ and is able to convince all kinds of older, more experienced adults to do what she wants. And she does so, not through pouting, but through smiling and a spitfire dialogue that _no one_ could say no to.

Again, this is a great, “before your family completely grows up” family movie ;-).


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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter


MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (4 stars)

IMDb listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0964517/
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/f/fighter.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101215/REVIEWS/101219988

In a remarkably spare year when it comes to movies and performances deserving of Academy Award nominations The Fighter is a movie destined to boast a sackload of them. Let’s count them:

(1) For Best Picture (goes without saying)
(2) David O. Russell for Best Director (a first for him but again goes without saying)
(3) Scott Silver and Paul Tamasay for Best Screenplay (once more, goes without saying)

(4) Mark Wahlberg for Best Actor, playing the role of Mickey “Irish” Ward of Lowell, MA struggling for a shot at making a career of welter-weight boxing despite poverty, lack of options and horrible family disfunction

(5) Christian Bale, a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor (if not _also_ for Best Actor) playing the role of Mickey’s older and troubled brother “Dickey,” whose claim to fame as the “Pride of Lowell” was that he _may_ have knocked down boxing Legend Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight.

(6) Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress, playing a Lowell, MA barmaid, who was once “a contender” herself with a scholarship to U.R.I. for track and field (high jump) but who had blown-it through too much partying at school and who becomes Mickey’s girlfriend during the course of the story.

(7) Finally there’s also Melissa Leo who’s also a virtual shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress playing Mickey’s chain-smoking and (in the past) very fertile mom, who insists on being Mickey’s micro-managing boxing manager.

The Fighter is probably the best of a steady stream of excellently written stories coming out of blue collar Massachusetts in recent years. Again let’s count them - Mystic River (2003), The Departed (2006), The Town (2010), Conviction (2010) and now The Fighter (2010). Add to them other recent blue collar themed movies (some already recent classics) made by Clint Eastwood on the West Coast - Million Dollar Baby (2004), Grand Torino (2008), The Changeling (2009), and even Hereafter (2010) and one sees “a trend” and a good one. These hardhitting and often painful stories are told and hopefully (with time) will be heard. The arts are often prophetic. Cumulatively, these movies express a lot of pain and betrayal being experienced on mainstreet in America. The pain is certainly there. The question becomes, what will become the response to this pain both at home and abroad.

Will non-Americans, for instance, come to see Americans as being far closer to them than they previously thought? Certainly The Fighter could have been set in almost any industrial city in the world – Gdansk / Kladno / Novosibirsk, Manchester / Liverpool, Monterrey / Sao Paulo / Bel Horizonte, Manila / Shangai or Bengalore and still ring very, very true.


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The Tourist


MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (1 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1243957
CNS/USCCB Review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/t/tourist.shtml
Roger Ebert’s Review -
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101208/REVIEWS/101209973

The Tourist is a movie which reminds one that there is no substitute for a good screen play and/or direction (director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is largely responsible for both).

The movie sports two of the most sought after actors in Hollywood today (Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie) and is shot in some of the most romantic and evocative locations in the world, beginning in Paris, settling in Venice with the train trip of one’s dreams in between. How could one possibly screw this movie up? Enter the screen play. It has bankers, it has Interpol, it has (Russian) mobsters. The story has twists and turns, some canned, predictable, others surprising. Again, what could possibly go wrong? The end just doesn’t make sense. Some reviewers have accused Depp of a lackluster performance. Perhaps. However, I believe that he was either given a role that fundamentally didn’t make sense or more probably was horribly misdirected through most of the movie.

The result is very disappointing. With possibly better writing and/or certainly better direction this movie could have compared favorably to the Thomas Crown Affair or even to Casablanca. Instead, The Tourist is destined to be remembered as a rare flop in the otherwise storied careers of two of Hollywood's hottest stars of our time.


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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron: Legacy


MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1104001/
CNS/USCCB review -
http://www.usccb.org/movies/t/tronlegacy.shtml
Roger Ebert’s review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101215/REVIEWS/101219986

I suspect that Tron: Legacy will be a movie that many people will probably still not like. It will probably do better in the box office and reach a wider audience than the original Tron movie because we are far more at home as a culture with computers than we were in 1982 when the first Tron movie came out.

Nevertheless, Tron: Legacy will continue to irritate many viewers because it remains true to the original by choosing to place more emphasis on concept and form than on actual or sensical execution of the story. One must recognize this as a legitimate if “avant-guardish” choice made by Tron’s makers, which promises to make the movie “cool” to some, notably to techies as well as to a generally younger crowd, while being distracting to incomprehensible to others who may miss or reject the film makers’ choice of emphasis.

To better understand what I’m talking about, consider that the basic premise of conceptual art (which became popular in art circles in the last decades of the 20th century) has been that any work of art can be divided into the object/representation (the actual work of art) and the idea/concept behind it. In conceptual art, the idea/concept behind the work of art can become more important than its representation to the point that at its extreme the object/representation begins to disappear.

A criticism of conceptual art can be that it’s a cop-out. Why not strive for art in which _both_ the object/representation and the idea/concept behind it are of high quality?

Defenders of conceptual art can respond by noting that there are times when our ability to express or represent an idea/concept may not be up to the task. This can be the result of the lack of ability of the artist (let’s face it most of us probably can only draw stick figures rather than realistic representations of people). It can also be that the whole society is as yet incapable of fully or adequately expressing/representing/realizing the idea or concept in question. So we can only do the best that we can with the limited tools and abilities that we have at our disposal _and_ producing an incomplete or imperfect representation of the idea/concept in question may be preferable to not trying at all.

From an even more general perspective, a hallmark of our postmodern era has been to approach difficult questions through team or interdisciplinary approaches, which seek to arrive at solutions through increasingly accurate approximation rather than direct mathematical solution. Arguably, the postmodern era was born with the advent of quantum mechanics where it was discovered that the structure and dymamics of matter at the molecular, atomic and subatomic level could only be arrived at through approximation.

The great triumphs of postmodernism would then be the internet itself and then heretofore unimaginable projects on it like wikipedia (conceptually related to but not to be overly confused with its evil and probably shortlived cousin wikileaks) where a _master programmer/editor_ and _elite staff_ have been supplanted/replaced by a far larger, open and even self-correcting _ad hoc team_.

Very good, but how does this all apply to the Tron movies? Tron is strong in concept. It seeks to call attention to the relationship between a programmer (creator) and the computer programs (creations) that the programmer creates.

In the Tron movies, a human being (a programmer or more generally a user) finds himself sucked into a computer video game and to his surprise encounters the programs operating within the computer anthropomorphized, that is, represented _as people_. The programs inhabit and travel among well designed chips that look like complex cities. Games or contests played out on the computer screen appear to the programs inhabiting the computer as if they were being played out on a large stage or playing field. And one quickly learns that the "people" to avoid are those representing the computer system’s “security programs” (the computer system's "security police"/Gestapo/Stasi/ICE) especially if one finds oneself to be an unexpected “intruder” in the system.

The analogy is imperfect, and while technical marvels in themselves, many people will find the “special effects” in the Tron movies to be irritating to impossible distractions.

Still, the concept behind Tron series is compelling: Could we see ourselves as “computer programs” living in a universe “a physical device/computer” created by a programmer (creator) living outside of the device?


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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)


IMDb Listing - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0980970/
CNS/USCCB Review - http://www.usccb.org/movies/c/chroniclesofnarniavoyage.shtml
Roger Ebert's Review - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101208/REVIEWS/101209969

I’m really happy to say that with the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third installment of the Chronicles of Narnia series based on C.S. Lewis’ books by the same name, that I believe I’ve finally found my footing in the series, grasp and appreciate (IMHO) much better what C.S. Lewis was trying to accomplish in this children’s series and, as a result, liked it very, very much ;-).

I say this because after generally liking the first installment, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I didn’t particularly like the second, Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia. And I write this as something of a life-long C.S. Lewis fan, who’s read a rather wide variety of his works from his adult parables, The Screwtape Letters / The Great Divorce, to his great apologetic work Mere Christianity to his autobiographical reflections, Surprised by Joy / A Grief Observed. However until the first Narnia movie had come out, I had not even realized that he _also_ wrote childrens’ books (what an unbelievable talent!).

As a result, I do confess that I approached the Narnia series rather skeptically. And I do believe that if you’ve ever read Mere Christianity, an excellent, well argued defense of Christianity, you’d understand my skepticism. It’s just so hard to imagine that someone could write so well in one way or even several ways to be able to write well in another. After all, Oxford and Cambridge philosophers, lay speculative fiction readers and 10 year old children are all very different audiences!

So I approached even the first installment of the Narnia series unconvinced that he could really pull it off. And as is often the case, if one approaches anything skeptically, one does find flaws. For instance I thought the extended battle sequence at the end of the first installment (an installment that I generally liked) was either needlessly long or somewhat dated. I was able to excuse it (somewhat) because I realize that C.S. Lewis was writing the Narnia series in the years immediately following World War II and that there was a need at the time for both society in general and for kids who grew up in that violence to process or come to terms with the traumatic events that had just happened all around them. However, 60 years later, I thought that the extended battle sequence could actually invite young viewers and their sincere Christian parents to look for conflicts around them (or story-telling remedies to them) that may be misplaced.

In the case of the second installment, I found the harping on the story’s younger brother Edmund’s jealousy of his older brother Peter to probably not be worth an entire episode. And I found the symbolism to be, at times, rather heavy-handed, even if somewhat “pro-Catholic” ;-). Edmund, the younger, is a very English name, Peter the older brother evokes the Papacy and Rome ;-). Symbolism of this kind is ever present throughout C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. At times, it is even surprisingly “pro-our side,” though, _to me_ expressed in a somewhat dated, heavy-handed manner. However, be that as it may, after the introductory episode, one simply needs to appreciate that each subsequent installment is simply part of a greater whole. Further kids are the primary audience, parents reading to their kids (or watching with their kids) are the secondary audience, and so one has to let C.S. Lewis “play” while weaving his tale.

C.S. Lewis’ clear focus on the kids in the story endears me more to the story with each episode. And I confess that one of the things I enjoy most about the Narnia series are the creative ways that C.S. Lewis invented for transporting the children from their world (of World War II torn England) into the world of Narnia. In the first installment, that gateway to Narnia was found through walking though a closet (a wardrobe). In this third installment, the gateway is between the two worlds is equally creative and endearing ;-).

Then the messages for child viewers are also good. Yes, there is good and evil (the primary point of the first installment), jealousy can get you into all kinds of trouble (the primary point of the second installment) and temptation can come in many unexpected forms (possibly the primary point of this third installment). These are all good lessons, especially when tempered in positive language. Lucy is briefly tempted in the third installment to be jealous again of her older sister and she’s told by Aslan, the lion, “Don’t be jealous of your older sister. Instead, just focus on becoming what you’re supposed to be.” What a lovely message! And in a line it expresses what the entire 2 hour previous episode was largely about :-).

But then, in this line is expressed the grandeur of the Narnia project. It is a series of books (films) which “talk to each other” and together express a whole. The books are already available. The movies will be coming out in episodes. Together, they give a nice Christian family with small kids much to talk about and look forward to.


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