Friday, June 27, 2008
I'll say one thing for Marvel's latest remake of their latest action hero, Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk (2008): it's made me actually appreciate the elliptical exercise in mythmaking that was Ang Lee's film (named simply (and--ironic, this--far less pretentiously) Hulk (2003)).
I'm not kidding; where Lee's Hulk was talky, slow, complex, this one's loud and full of special effects (digital effects at that); where the former evokes a hero's genesis from Freudian impulses (he's basically the product of his father's ambitions and sexual urges, combined with his own invention ('nanomeds'--tiny robots capable of repairing the human body)), the latter merely borrows the TV show's creation scene (basically a pair of X-ray machines gone haywire) and immediately gets it on with the bang-bang.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Ferry sinks; 700 missing.
Don't know the facts; don't know anything yet, or if any of the seven hundred (many of them children, as the report says, screaming inside the hull as it rolled over) are still alive.
But we all know what these ships are like; I remember riding one--won't mention the ship's name, or the line--and looking at the diagram outlining the location of the various exits.
It was in Japanese. The boat I was riding on used to be a Japanese passenger ship. And when I checked the date, it was over ten years old. In effect Japanese passenger lines, having fully depreciated their ships and instead of selling them off as junk, sell them to Filipino passenger lines instead, who use them at their own considerable risk.
That was some years back; don't know if it still happens, or if that vessel still plies the Southern Mindanao waters. But--if the ferry capsized because of any number of failed safety policies similar to the ones I saw when riding one of these floating deathtraps, then it's more than outrageous, it's criminally obscene.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Of Brilliante Mendoza, who's a festival favorite at the moment, I recommend The Teacher and John-John. Serbis (his latest) has had mixed reviews, but I haven't seen it, so I can't judge (and mixed reviews will if anything pique my interest). If you must pick one, I say The Teacher.
I recommend all of Joey Gosiengfiao; he's not as outrageous as John Waters, but he has the same camp sensibility, more sophistication, and on a comparable (perhaps smaller) budget. Personally I prefer him to Pedro Almodovar (who I think is overrated, anyway). If you must pick one, I recommend Temptation Island.
Of the Cinemalaya program, I haven't seen everything, but I hear good things about Endo and Donsol, I liked Big Time, really liked The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. The latter is my top recommendation (it's available on DVD, though...)
Of Panorama, again I recommend seeing all, but if you must pick and choose, I highly recommend Boatman, Himala, Midnight Passion, A Short Film on Indo Nacional, Todo Todo Teros, Will Your Heart Beat Faster?, Woman of Breakwater, You Were Weighed and Found Wanting.
If I were to pare it down, I would recommend--uh, tough, but I'd pick Indio Nacional, Todo Todo Teros, Boatman, Himala, Midnight Passion, You Were Weighed and Found Wanting. If I had to pick one, argh--You Were Weighed and Found Wanting.
But wait--You Were Weighed is also on DVD (so is Woman of Breakwater, which isn't O'Hara's very best, but is I think an excellent film). In which case, I recommend the harder-to-see Midnight Passion, Boatman, Himala. If I had to pick one, Midnight Passion (Big admirer of Tikoy Aguiluz's works, and Boatman is one of his best, but not his very best--that would be Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine, 1995)).
Of the newer ones, the two best are easily Todo Todo Teros and Indio Nacional.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) -- so is this Marvel's new style of moviemaking? Get a good actor, pair him off with a competent (more or less) director, throw in plenty of CGI action scenes, mix, shake, ignite? The cocktail comes off well enough here, where the actor involved is Robert Downey, Jr.--he makes Stark's assholiness appealing and sexy, and Favreau is smart enough to keep that damned golden helmet off of him much of the time (when he does climb in we have the luck to be able to peek inside). It was the same issue Raimi had with the Spider-man movies--he kept tearing the mask off Maguire's face (it's always been a problem with superheroes on the big screen--not so much for Superman, but Batman, as one critic put it, 'you're basically casting the chin').
Maybe Downey's best moment comes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow (who's a nicely understated surprise as a supporting actress), when she does impromptu heart surgery on him. Downey's sharp as ever, and even when running rings around the slower-witted Paltrow he's so good he doesn't even forget to make her look good ('I couldn't do it without you,' or words to that effect). Which actually isn't saying much--Downey manages to spark laughs off a clueless robot arm with zero personality, so go figure.
Perhaps my favorite action sequence comes early, when the first armor comes into play--I like the idea of building something crude and improvised in your garage (or in this case cave), walking out , and whipping all the bad guys with the weapons at hand(basically enhanced strength and a dependable flamethrower); I like it that the baddies are using Stark's own weapons against him. Afterwards, when the armor is upgraded into digital, I pretty much lost interest (though Jeff Bridges has his sly moments as Stark's mentor turned nemesis Obediah Stane). Overall not too bad, though I have to note that Favreau has little feel for staging a coherent action sequence, and the digital effects hold little to no sense of wonder for me (nor does Favreau have the talent to overcome that tremendous handicap).
One moment that does leave a bitter taste, the waterboarding scene. Bad enough the moviemakers trying to inject a superficial reference to the Iraq war in a summer flick, but to attribute it to the wrong side--? What the hell? My heart doesn't bleed for the Al Qaeda or terrorists in general, but if we must accuse them of something, we should accuse them of the right things. Getting the facts wrong is Bush's job, not ours.
Mark Osborne and John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda (2008) is surprisingly better than I expected. Kung fu and pandas? High concept crap. That said, the focus on food as a training motivator's an excellent idea (I know I snack heavily myself when doing overnight work), though what's all this blarney about wanting to be a kung fu master when one is in line to own a noodle shop, and learn the secret of a noodle master? As anyone who's lusted and loved the food in Juzo Itami's Tampopo (1985) and many a noodle shop can tell you, knowing how to make good noodle soup is enough. The panda doesn't make sense at all.
Directors Osborne (Spongebob Squarepants) and Stevenson (Shrek 2, The Muppet Show), writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (both King of the Hill veterans) bring enough comic talent to the table; the jokes come fast and furious--some are actually funny, and the plot develops with chop-socky speed. One can list the influences, if one cared to--the filmmakers cite Stephen Chow, particularly his Kung Fu Hustle; there is of course Liu Chia Liang's classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978); Chang Cheh's The Five Deadly Venoms; and in one sequence, if I'm not far off, the snow-leopard villain while escaping is emulating Pazu in Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky. The final battle is Chow, with a liberal dose of Jackie Chan thrown in.
And all for what? Basically your good ole American animation storyline, about a youth pining to be something he's not, and the parent not understanding (Mulan, Little Mermaid, about half the Disney inventory of the past twenty years, anyone?). Kung Fu Panda's not a bad way to while away ninety minutes of your time, and I suspect it's at least as much if not more fun than the upcoming Pixar flick, but it didn't exactly rock my world (And anyway why not noodles?!).
Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007), on the other hand, I'd watch just for the skateboarding sequences alone. Graceful dance on four wheels, in effect, the impossibly beautiful youths (Van Sant can't seem to help eroticizing them) leaping and spinning up and down the concrete ramps, in langurous slow motion.
But there's more: an exchange of glances between youth and police officer evokes some if not all the terror found in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; the sudden support of a friend throws the whole into a more ambiguous light--is the protagonist redeemed or damned, or is the question rendered irrelevant in this modern age? Wonderful film, one of the best of last year.
It received a glowing notice from Robert Koehler in Variety Magazine, and from our very own oggsmoggs when he saw an earlier version of the film, titled Voices, Tilted Screens and Extended Scenes of Loneliness: Filipinos in High Definition (2007))
My own article as follows:
The telltale heart
John Torres' Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside, 2008) starts out with the key event described in the film's title: the revelation that his father had another family, sired three children that neither Torres nor his mother knew anything about.
It's a traumatic enough an event for any family to endure; for Torres it was reason enough to leave home and try make sense of his life not through discussion, or diary-writing, or any kind of easy, tension-relieving dramaturgy (yelling at his father, or at the stars or something), but through some kind of cinematic digestion--taking bits and pieces of his life into himself, meditating over them for a time, then regurgitating them, transformed, on the big screen.
The result is, well, interesting, to say the least. He makes short vignettes, but pulls them together to form a feature; uses documentary techniques and found footage (albeit less than what I remember him using in his previous work, Todo todo teros (2006)) to weave a personal--possibly fictional--narrative; lets voiceover narrative and detailed titles introduce and link sequences together (but at the same time uses the same voice and text cinematically (the voice (mostly Torres) a soothing drone that sets the film's contemplative mood; the titles flashed on and off at precise moments, like exclamation points, the way Jean-Luc Godard would flash text in his film series Histoire(s) du cinema (1997-1998))); gives us a series of failed film projects that in the act of enumeration reveals a completed film. Several times Torres uses long monologues that either describe an episode or present a philosophical stance and you're asked to see through the monologue, past the screen of words the speaker is weaving to hide the vulnerability inside. At one point Torres admits "I'm not a simple person;" you can't help but agree.
One wonders at his filming methods--how much is actual revelation, and how much invented for purposes of the story? In an early scene he has a mother and father talking about how they were so busy with their jobs they would lock their daughters up in their rooms with educational tools. Father warns mother not to say that, adding "that's child abuse!" Mother counters by saying "but it's the truth!" Torres records the conversation, interested not so much in what they actually say, as in the thought processes involved in arriving at what they decide to say. If this is documentary footage then there's the disturbing element of exploitation in seeing them reveal themselves so frankly onscreen; if it's a script, then it's startling how Torres is able to make these non-actors deliver their written-down lines so naturally.
Likewise with the personal revelations: Torres has done this before, and the detail he's able and willing to dig out for audiences seems limitless. If he's simply pulling it out of himself, he's one kind of artist; if he's making some of it up, he's another; of course, he could also be playing one perception against the other, hiding his true self in the confusion. Or not.
Then there's the mixing of found and staged footage--one sensed a distinction, a kind of visual break between what was made for the film and what was archived fare in Todos; here I think the distinction has been blurred (or at least blurred to a greater degree)--it all seems to come out of the work of one cinematographer. Actually it IS just one cinematographer, Torres (he had Albert Banzon for his previous feature, and did additional photography himself)--it's just that the lighting and medium of filming (except for some moments in low-definition video) seems more consistent, less flashy, overall more beautiful.
As for Torres' use of colors--I love the look of contemporary independent Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz's films (Heremias, Book One (2006); Kagadaan sa Banwaan ning mga Enkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), his austere black-and-white video sensibility, but sometimes there's something to be said of color, and the way it points up the beauty and variety of the Filipino foliage. At one point Torres films a tribal dance at long shot: the dancers in their gear (the ribbons of red and orange, the bright squares of yellow or white), stepping in that curious rhythmic gait at once awkward and graceful, surrounded by the tremulous, luxuriant green fur of forest around them, the sun waxing and waning at precise intervals (a brute arclight in the hands of an artist). the trilling, thrilling, bamboo music--it's a hypnotically lovely moment.
Then there's the endless tracking shot of two friends falling in love (perhaps). In black and white, with a little melody playing over the dialogue and a sampling of Torres' more heroic musings heard in voiceover, the scene plays off as poignant, romantic; the same sequence repeated in color, with discordant music in the background and the actual dialogue turned up, is revealed as a free-wheeling comic riff between two longtime friends on the subject of old memories and scoring drugs.
There's the nanny, saying farewell to her employers to work in the Middle East; there's the overseas worker, talking about the tape-recorded love letters she sent to her four boyfriends. There's even footage of Communist Party of the Philippines patriarch Jose Ma. Sison, singing (?!) some of his poetry (The Guerilla is like a Poet). As Sison himself is ready to admit, singing is not his forte.
Finally, there's Torres' long dreamt-of film about Christ.
What unites these fragments, these discordant notes in a life's symphony of sorts, is the idea that each was something Torres hoped to present--whole, complete--to his father. No matter what the subject or who is speaking, it all comes back to this mysterious, often absent, figure, what he might like, what he might not like. We may not come to know him (Torres might not know all that much about him, either) but we do learn things about him: the aforementioned affair, children; the fact that he once ran an empire built out of children's educational aids, now gone--and in fact we see the unsold children's aids piled high into crooked towers along cramped corridors, like abandoned apartment building. You think of a smaller-scale, third-world Kane, with his improvised storehouse full of past successes; you wonder if Torres wonders: while his father achieved and lost just as much, what does he (the son) look like, with all his failed films? As with Kane, what would all the educational aids assembled and put together spell out? What would Torres' own incomplete narratives spell out? The film is full of questions, hilarity, tenderness, confession, pain; it's a storehouse of memories and emotions that defy categorization, constantly inviting one to come, dive in, and lose oneself in its many wonders.
(First published in Businessworld, 6.17.08)
Sunday, June 15, 2008
The film was screened in 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival, the 38th Berlinale's International Forum on New Cinema, and the 21st Singapore International Film Festival. It also received a glowing notice from Robert Koehler in Variety Magazine. Our very own oggsmoggs wrote a nice review of an earlier version of the film, titled Voices, Tilted Screens and Extended Scenes of Loneliness: Filipinos in High Definition (2007).
I've got an article on the film in Businessworld, coming out on the same day as the screening. A brief excerpt from the article:
The telltale heart
John Torres' "Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas" (Years When I Was a Child Outside, 2008) starts out with the key event described in the film's title: the revelation that his father had another family, sired three children that neither Torres nor his mother knew anything about.
It's traumatic enough an event for any family to endure; for Torres it was reason enough to leave home and try make sense of his life not through discussion, or diary-writing, or any kind of easy, tension-relieving dramaturgy (yelling at his father, or at the stars or something), but through some kind of cinematic digestion--taking bits and pieces of his life into himself, meditating over them for a time, then regurgitating them, transformed, on the big screen.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
A Quiz on Cinema (answered exclusively with titles and names from Philippine Cinema--and it works, too)
1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)
Marilou Diaz-Abaya, whose urbane wit and persistent humanism came out most brightly and entertainingly (far more than in her films, I thought) in The Sic O'Clock News, a satire on contemporary Philippines that ran from 1987 to 1992.
2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly.
That's easy: Mario O'Hara, possibly the greatest of Filipino filmmakers, who considers himself more a stage actor than filmmaker; hence the long wait between films.
3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn
Will always remember the stylized evil of his military officer in Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986); the more realistic evil of his Col. Mateo in Lino Brocka's Orapronobis (Fight for Us 1989), and the wonderfully over-the-top evil of his Col. Simon (what is it with Lamangan and the military, and why is he so good at maligning their officers?) in Lav Diaz's Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002), where he throws in a great, larger-than-life reading of one of Lav's poems for free.
4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns Lualhati Bautista's Dekada '70 into a movie.”
Oh wait--someone did.
But as Frank Rivera once told me (and which I happen to agree with), a film or stage version should really be a one-woman show--and unless O'Hara or Laurice Guillen ever get around to remaking it (or maybe Raymond Red suddenly wanting to do something both feminist and theatrical in his inimitable visual style), may it remain imperfectly adapted.
5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake
Charito Solis, who was not only sexier but more talented than both of them put together...
6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?
On DVD--Eddie Romero's Aguila (1980), which I hope to write more about; haven't seen a Filipino film on the big screen for a long time--well, Lino Brocka's Insiang (1976) in the New York Film Festival.
7) Name an actor you think should be a star.
Just one? Well, Irma Adlawan, who's been great (and beautiful) practically forever (check out Dennis Marasigan's North Diversion Road (2006)).
8) Foxy Brown or Coffy?
Quark Henares' Keka (2003)
9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set?
The 1896 mini-series, produced by ABS-CBN 5 about the 1896 Philippine Revolution. Actually, it's really worth watching for one episode: Mario O'Hara's Alitaptap sa Gabing Madilim (Fireflies in the Dark Night), from a story by Lualhati Bautista, about the women involved in that revolt.
10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand?Ruel Vernal, who played Dado in Lino Brocka's Insiang (1976)--a boor and bully in the film's first half, a startlingly poignant victim in the film's second. He also figured prominently in Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari, where his character paid a high price in the quest for the Golden Balisong (Golden Butterfly Knife), the prize awarded to the Bagong Hari, or The New King of underground violence.
11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?
Top it? I don't know--I need to see Eddie Romero's Ganito Kamin Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This Was How We Were Then, How Are You Doing Now?, 1976) again; when I saw Romero's purported masterpiece, I wondered what all the fuss was. Then I re-saw his Aguila (1980) after so many years, and made me wonder: maybe he is a master, after all.
12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men?
Rather, Lino Brocka's Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985) or Orapronobis (Fight For Us 1989)? Not his best works, but Brocka makes both Fincher and Pakula look as if they were confined to wheelchairs. The very act of making the films represented considerable personal courage--the former having been made in the final but still frightening years of the Marcos dictatorship, the latter in the face of the Aquino administration's near-invincible popularity.
13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?
Important film comedy? Comedy that exposes or breaks open attitudes and prejudices we hold dear.
In the Philippines it's slim pickings--but I'd say Mike de Leon's Aliwan Paradise (Pleasure Paradise, 1993), for the film anthology Southern Winds. It's a satiric look at the Philippines' future, and may yet prove to be prophetic (look at the success of slum pictures in international film festivals). It's also a witty, imaginative, sardonic take on a film that in many ways established de Leon's reputation (he produced it, and was responsible for its crucial (even great) cinematography)--as if de Leon were nipping the rear end of the film that made him.
14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.
Middle row, centrally located seat, no one seated in front of you, reasonably good sound system, 35 mm print (that's going to become more and more of a rarity, I predict), and munching on either a bag of fried porkskins (that you squirted with chilied vinegar), or a balut (fourteen day old duck egg, with a fully formed fetus inside) sprinkled with a bit of rock salt.
15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes?Lolita de Leon, especially in Maryo J. Delos Reyes' Laman (Flesh, 2002)
16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?
Wow--I don't know.
There's Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi (The Moon Angered by the Length of the Night, Danny Zialcita, 1983, though the title could apply to anything by Bela Tarr or Lav Diaz, I imagine);
Kapag ang Palay Naging Bigas, May Bumayo (When Grain Turns to Rice, Someone's Been Pounding, Roland Ledesma, 2002);
Pag Dumikit, Kumakapit (When It Sticks, It's Stuck, Humilde 'Meek' Roxas, 1998);
Patikim ng Pinya (I'd Like To Try Your Pineapple, 1996, which has an interesting history behind it. The censors objected to the original title (Patikim, meaning 'to taste'), but when they approved this one, it was pointed out that pinya can be read as a pun on 'p' niya (or 'her pussy'));
Bakit Kinagat ni Adan ang Mansanas ni Eba? (Why Did Adam Bite Eve's Apple?, 1998);
and my favorite:
Diligin Mo Ng Suka ang Uhaw Na Lumpia (Sprinkle with Sourness the Thirsty Eggroll)
17) Best movie about teaching and/or learningTinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, Lino Brocka, 1974). The first major film of the '70s Golden Age of Philippine cinema has an innocent young man learn about morality and mortality not from his father, but from an outcast leper and his insane lover; not through professorial lectures and classroom lessons but through real-life examples.
18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)?
19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs? (Thanks, Girish)
To reach my audience. To get my message out (see 'about me')
20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene
The finale of Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975)
21) Jason Robards or Robert ShawPancho Magalona, who gave arguably the greatest performance in Philippine cinema as the sinister Simoun in Gerardo de Leon's great El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, 1962).
22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie EverKisapmata (Blink of an Eye, Mike de Leon, 1981). Not perhaps the bloodiest, or most repulsive or even the most shocking Filipino film ever made, Mike de Leon's masterpiece does do what few if any Filipino feature dares, to strike at the heart of the (as Tikoy Aguiluz once proposed to me) twin central themes of Philippine cinema: the love of the mother and the survival of the family (here the former is impotent, the latter--well, you have to see the film).
23) Rio Bravo or Red RiverD'Wild, Wild Weng (Eddie Nicart, 1982)
24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.How's this--Celso Ad. Castillo doing a remake of El Filibusterismo? Bared maiden breasts, dwarf altar boys, priests whipping themselves to exhaustion--it could be the Filipino equivalent of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971)!
25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte RamplingJaclyn Jose
26) In the Realm of the Senses— yes or no?
No--much prefer Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985), myself
27) Name a movie you think of as your own (Thanks, Jim!)Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, Mario O'Hara, 2000)
In many ways it's still my own. It's barely been seen, outside of its initial film festival run, and has attracted scant attention since. But as far as I'm concerned, this little film is the finest work of cinema to come out of the Philippines in recent years.
28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos
Not a documentary, but Lav Diaz's Heremias (2006) comes closest of anything Filipino I can think of to approximating the nonverbal feel of these two films. Without the nonstop music, of course.
29) Your favorite football game featured in a movieWe don't really play football in our country (at least not American football). We barely have any sports movies--the occasional boxing biopic, maybe.
30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr
31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the moviesDirtiest? Uh--never had sex while watching in theaters. But not for want of trying.
32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.Watching Gerardo de Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961) sensitized me to the presence of Rizal's novel throughout Philippine cinema--I'm talking about de Leon's Sisa, Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, Mario O'Hara's own Sisa (1998), among many others.
33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers
Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Does Your Heart Beat Faster? Mike de Leon, 1980). Admittedly, Philippine comedy represents very slim pickings.
34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-inWe don't have drive-ins; if we did, the mosquitos would swarm about us and carry us away...
35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power
36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?
It's my mission, in effect. Where is it headed? I don't know, but I don't really like the general direction--major papers letting their top names go, film blogs of inconsistent quality popping up everywhere like 'shrooms, a sort of flattening of our perceptions that goes along with the broadening (our scope may be worldwide, but is it worthwhile?). We're looking at the fragmentation of film criticism into a million little voices, instead of a few big ones (not entirely untalented) dictating what's good and bad, and there's good and bad in that (and not a little relief I managed to survive the shakeout, at least for a time). I still have films and filmmaking talent to discover, write about, champion the best I can; afterwards,who knows?
Sunday, June 08, 2008
Not just another hobbit movie
In Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008) the Pevensie children (Lucy (Georgie Henley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Peter (William Moseley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes)) come back to Narnia, only it isn't Narnia, at least not the one they know: no one they know is there, the landscape and coastline are unfamiliar, and just what are these ruins overgrown with vines and undergrowth doing here?
Turns out that during the year they'd been attending school in England over a millennia has passed in Narnia--and here is where Lewis' classic fantasy departs radically from the better-known, more popular Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our world is linked to Lewis' (we first see the Pevensies on a railway station about to go back to school before they're whisked away by some magical wind) but it's not a simple correlation: time passes at a different rate between the worlds (at about a thousand-to-one ratio, it seems), a rather sophisticated concept for a 'mere' fantasy--and in fact Lewis didn't rely solely on traditional mythology for inspiration: he was familiar with science-fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon (whose imaginations he admired, even if he deplored their unChristian morality). Lewis (who also wrote science fiction--Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; That Hideous Strength) would be familiar with Einstein's theories; oddly enough, while his grasp of time and space is flexible enough to encompass chronological relativity and spatial paradoxes (Tolkien's is more the straightforward type: big is big, little is little, and time moves in a strict straight line), his notions of good and evil stand firm, whether on another planet or another universe entirely (the real moral challenge is in the practice--the ethics of a particular situation, and their many nuances and ramifications).
Lewis wasn't content with throwing yet another supernatural menace at our heroes; this time the threat is strictly human--an entire nation in fact. Narnia has been conquered and populated by the Telmarines; Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) is the youngest descendant of the ruling line, and was to be heir to the throne until a son is born to Caspian's uncle King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), who consequently makes an attempt on Caspian's life. Lucy, Susan, Edmund and Peter's mission is to restore Caspian to his rightful place on the throne, allowing Narnians and Telmarines to live together in peace.
It's great fun on the printed page, with a small puzzler posed towards the reader: why is Aslan so coy about making an appearance in the story, and why only to Lucy and not the others? This little subplot bears much of the novel's ethical and theological weight (let's not pretend--as Lewis himself put it, the Narnian stories are a re-imagining of the Christ story in a fantasy setting), and is actually the key conflict: not the struggle between usurper and rightful ruler, but between belief and disbelief in the existence of a long-absent, long-awaited Aslan.
But that's the book, the second in the series (which--hope I've made it clear by now--I much prefer to Tolkien's trilogy); how does the movie fare? Not as successfully as I would have liked; director Andrew Adamson is no Peter Jackson, even if I did think Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien for the big screen was too reverential. Opening with Caspian's kidnapping is a mistake; it starts the movie on a note of action and suspense, but loses the crucial transition from the quotidian (the Pevensies, sitting in a '40s train station) to the fantastic (a beach, a cliff, the remains of a long-dead castle), and diminishes the contrast between our world and Narnia.
Lewis himself was never able to top the series of images that introduce readers to Narnia--the mysterious wardrobe (which (and I'm willing to bet money on this) inspired Dr. Who writers to create the TARDIS (a police box with a cavernous time-and-space spanning ship hidden inside)); the lamppost standing in the heart of a snowy forest; the fawn with an umbrella. But Lewis does follow the Pevensie's return to Narnia with a scene almost as strong, if not stronger: the gradual realization that the abandoned building the children are exploring is in fact what's left of their beloved castle Cair Paravel, and that momentous changes have occurred during their time away. To his credit, Adamson rises to the occasion, filming the scene with sufficient gravitas and a becoming simplicity; would that he had tried harder to resist updating the children's dialogue (heard between Susan and Caspian, who is visibly smitten: "We would never have worked anyway" "Why not?" "Well, I am thirteen hundred years older than you") to the point that they sound more like modern-day brats than '40s youths; or eschew any and all digital and visual similarities to the Lord of the Rings movies instead of playing them up--the battling trees, for example, or the raging river digitally animated to resemble some Neptune lookalike. Narnia has its own unique charms, and needn't pander to the hobbit crowd.
Still, Adamson does get a few things right: medieval castle architecture, for example, and its means of defense (the castle's gatehouse, the structure's supposed 'weak point,' lures invaders into the courtyard--which with the shutting of the portcullis is quickly turned into a killing field by archers in the upper galleries); the Telmarines' extraordinary wooden log bridge, which looks to be modeled on the bridge Julius Caesar built across the Rhine; and tactics (i.e. the extensive network of underground catacombs, and how they're exploited in battle) not quite seen before, even in the Jackson pictures. Adamson also does well by the Pevensies, who are shown to be as flawed and fragile as in the previous picture, Peter most of all (Peter's strategy of pre-empting Miraz by attacking his castle (a scene invented for the movie) doesn't make sense by any standard, let alone the military's). One might call the picture a children's fantasy version of Henry V, with Peter standing in for Henry, a study in leadership virtue and vice. Actually every Pevensie has his or her moments--Lucy insisting (despite the others' disbelief) that she had seen Aslan (and quietly weeping when she's voted down); Susan quietly flirting with Prince Caspian; Edmund confronting the White Witch (Tilda Swinton in a magnificent, too-brief cameo), knowing all too well of the seductive spells she can cast on a young man.
Even Miraz manages to develop into a nicely rounded character, with strong motivations (he's determined to protect his newborn heir), not inconsiderable flaws (aside from being ruthless and cruel, he's also sarcastic), and even moments of comic vulnerability (challenged to a duel by Peter, he's goaded by his fellow generals into accepting). Only Caspian remains stubbornly wooden; the way Barnes plays him, one can see why Susan is attracted (he's handsome, with a perfect cleft chin), the same time one can see why she'd ultimately refuse (after all is said and done he's a dull boy-toy).
All in all a decent second effort, with much of its appeal coming from the greatly underrated source material, in many ways a darker, more sophisticated effort than its children's literature-oriented predecessor. One looks forward to the third movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; where Prince Caspian emphasized the disparities in time flow between our world and Narnia, Dawn Treader goes in yet another direction--the very edge of the world, which looks entirely different from what we know exists in our universe (yet another feature Lewis' fantasies have that Tolkien's lacked). To be directed, it's said, by Michael Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) the Up documentaries (1970-2005)), Apted isn't known for special-effect extravaganzas, but he does well enough if not better with films strong on character and human relationships. We shall see; we shall hope for the best.
(First published in Businessworld, 6.6.08)