Archive for May, 2008

“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” (2008)

Movies based on books almost never do their source material justice. There are those notable few that manage to capture the essence of a narrative and project it onto the screen, transcending two very different mediums. Some books just adapt well to film and others do not.  Myths often undergo several retellings, each new iteration highlighting themes and motifs that build on the source.  The recent adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia have produced similar results, and yet cause terrible consternation among those who cherish the original works.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the latest effort by director Andrew Adamson and Walden Media to bring C.S. Lewis’s masterpieces to the big screen, falls among these efforts.  And while the resultant adaptation may cause split reactions among fans, it remains a conscious, devoted effort to maintain myth and grand storytelling to a young audience in desperate need of good stories.   

A year since their fateful stay at Professor Kirke’s estate, the four Pevensie children deal with their longing to return to Narnia in different ways.  How long, a frustrated Peter asks.  How long until we can go back?

Meanwhile, 1300 years have passed in Narnia, and many things have changed.  An evil usurper with an eye on the throne has just learned that his wife has given birth to a son.  This man Miraz immediately orders the death of the young Prince Caspian to secure his kingship.  Caspian flees, aided by a tutor, who sends him away with a familiar old horn.  Use it when all hope is lost, he tells the prince. 

Caspian heads to the woods, pursued by Miraz’s sinister men.  There, Caspian encounters strange creatures; creatures he thought lived only in myth. Desperate and surrounded, Caspian blows the horn – summoning the four kings and queens back to Narnia. 

Adamson and company shuffle various story elements of the book in order to avoid some of the challenges a beat-for-beat adaptation would present.  Much of Caspian the book is told in flashback, and doesn’t lend itself as well to adaptation as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW).  The shuffle helps maintain a more cinematic narrative, keeping the action set pieces closer together, thus keeping a younger audience engaged. 

In the midst of this shuffle, however, the film steps around one of the two key themes of the book: “restoration of the true religion after corruption.”  In the world of Caspian the book, storytelling is outlawed, and “Old Narnia,” the world of Aslan and talking beasts is nothing more than a fairytale, and just as easily dismissed.  But while the filmmakers have received criticism for leaving this out, it hardly creates a vacuum.  Caspian remains, like its source, a myth for kids.  And like all great myths, various themes rise out of the narrative that enrich and nourish. 

Peter and Susan (William Moseley and Anna Popplewell), largely static in the book, receive a rounder development in the film. Susan remains the most pragmatic of the four, eager to embrace adulthood and leave childishness behind.  In the opening moments of the film when she finds Peter fighting with some boys at the rail station, she scowls just like a mother hen.  Peter’s aggression, we quickly realize, stems from a growing impatience, both for a return to Narnia, and to reclaim the warrior adulthood he found in that magical place. 

Two themes unique to the film’s narrative rise from these developments.  Susan, even in the context of the books, has always wanted to grow up quickly, a trait that comes into play in the final volume of Lewis’s chronicles.  Her attraction to Caspian later in the film, then, touches that same yearning, while still providing a slant for doe-eyed teenage girls in the audience. 

Peter’s endures a suffering faith journey throughout the film, constantly trying to discern the will of Aslan while faced with what he feels in an interminable silence from the great lion.   His conflict with Caspian, and his temptation by the return of the White Witch, both offer a profound examination of a believer’s struggle to find the right path, while remaining extra-canonical story elements developed for the sake of the film. 

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost makes a great point when he writes that most fans are walking away disappointed because they can’t make the leap from reader to movie-goer.  The diverging needs of both mediums require different elements in order to successfully tell a story.  The added siege on Miraz’s castle, while a big deviation from the book, makes for a terrific cinematic sequence. Caspian, then, becomes a much better film than LWW.  The returning cast falls into their roles with greater confidence and poise, and newcomers, such as Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin, breathe real life into characters once bound to a page.

Adamson and his crew have created a stirring war movie, one that gives kids who teeter on the edge of discerning their purpose shining examples of courage, belief, strength and valor (especially in the character of Reepicheep, making the jump from page to screen in bold fashion), played out against immense struggle and powerful doubt. 

For an audience that never ceases to express their disappointment in a Hollywood that consistently disrespects their religion, there seems to be little tolerance even for a Hollywood that gets it right, even if it doesn’t hit all the beats one might wish.  Is Caspian the movie exactly like Caspian the book?  No.  Go see it anyway.

“Panic Room” (2002)

If GM could roll out a Chevy put together by the hands of the people who put together the high-end Lexus models, you’d have a pretty nice ride. But it would still be a Chevy. Panic Room feels a little like that–a by-the-numbers thriller put together by a master craftsman. 

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) visits an upscale brownstone townhouse in Manhattan, looking to purchase a place to live with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart), due to a recent divorce.  Of particular interest is a hidden room tucked behind the wall of the master bedroom on the second floor–a private phone, survival kit, video monitors keeping an eye on every corner of the house, reinforced on all sides by concrete walls, and locked behind a thick steel door.  Everything you need to survive the home invasion cooked up by the filmmakers to your endless peril. 

Meet the trio of invaders–the young and ignorant architect of the plan, Junior (Jared Leto); the professional, Burnham (Forrest Whitaker); and the muscle, Raoul (a very wily Dwight Yoakam). 

Once Meg and Sarah enter the protective womb of the panic room, the conflict revolves around the crooks’ need to get inside. A safe in the floor, says Junior, hold three million dollars. Soon, it’s a battle for each side to outsmart the other, and a promising start slowly begins to stumble, kept alive by judicious choices in the writing, and David Fincher’s inspired direction. 

Much of the film feels like a riff on some of Hitchcock’s more claustrophobic tales.  The story keeps within the walls of the brownstone for the duration, keeping the cats and the mice enclosed in deftly constructed maze. 

Screenwriter David Koepp has built a career crafting fast, punchy plots, and he certainly keeps things moving well here, delivering a perfect example of a bankable script: a handful of characters, one set, and a lean running time. Koepp’s penchant for one-liner wit, a cause for distraction in many of his scripts, finds its way into just about every character’s dialog, and even finds some appropriate use.  Any chance the dialog has to devolve into a competition for the best zinger, Fincher swoops in for the rescue.

Fincher’s approach runs similar to Robert Zemeckis’s work on What Lies Beneath (2000), supposing Hitch was to make a film with all the contemporary digital tools of today at his disposal.  We slide between walls, even fly right through the handle on a coffee pot, all to shape a fluid tension to help along the suspense.  Fincher knows when to keep it simple, however, and stick to the fundamentals.  The most suspenseful moment in the film doesn’t use a single visual effect–just plain and simple slow motion. And it winds a tight knot.

The cast turns in a fair performance, most keeping to tried and true technique we’ve seen a hundred times before, but Whitaker and Yoakam bring their game. Yoakam in particular looks nothing like the smooth persona of his music videos. Whitaker sticks to an understated criminal-in-over-his-head rhythm, and could have used a little more development.

The tight web of tension everyone manages to weave starts to weaken as the film enters the second and third acts.  Certain moments that establish set ups early on never receive a pay-off.  Little gaps in the overall logic appear here and there, particularly near the end where the film starts to borrow perhaps a little too much from the innovative thrillers of yore that inspired its creation.  Jodie Foster even steals a bit from Audrey Hepburn’s courageous actions in the closing moments of Wait Until Dark, but to much less impressive ends. 

In the hands of lesser talent, this film could easily have become a forgettable addition to the discount bin at Best Buy. Its flaws nearly send it there, keeping a brilliant concept from ever reaching the fully realized potential Fincher usually brings to his work.  As a follow-up to the impressive work he put into Fight Club (1999), Panic Room flies a little wide of the bull’s eye. It’s still a Chevy.  But Chevys ain’t all bad.