PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (B)
U.S.; Andrew Adamson, 2008, Walt Disney
Prince Caspian, the second of the Walt Disney Studio's lavish, no-expense-spared adaptations of C.S. Lewis' classic '50s children's series The Chronicles of Narnia -- once again directed and co-written by Andrew (Shrek) Adamson -- is even more spectacular than the first (2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), though not as charming or as magical. That earlier film was a bang-up chase picture, with a ferocious climactic battle, but it was largely devoted to the establishment of the wondrous fantasy world that the four Pevensie children stumble upon in the back of an old wardrobe at kindly Professor Jim Broadbent's digs: the Narnian land of perpetual winter ruled by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and challenged by the forces of the heroic lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson).
This one, once again directed and co-written by Adamson, is set many centuries later in Narnia time, but only a year or so by London's clocks. The four Pevensie kids are back -- stalwart Peter (William Moseley), faithful Susan (Anna Popplewell), troubled Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and the absolutely delightful little Lucy (Georgie Henley, now 12) -- and so is Aslan, and for one brief, horrific scene, Swinton's wily White Witch. But much of this movie is consumed with two huge, terrifyingly bloody battle scenes, and the preparations for them -- not to mention smaller fights and duels galore.
Those big, bloody brouhahas involve the meanest-looking catapults I've seen in some time, backed by lots of sneering villainy from Sergio Castellitto as double-dealing King Miraz and Pierfrancesco Favino as his dour General Glozelle, vented against the rebellion of pretty boy Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the Narnian creatures. And they create a mood far more continuously violent, though not necessarily more exciting, than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
There are magical forest scenes and wondrous beasties and creatures, and there are some marvelous new characters -- including Peter Dinklage as the gruffly heroic dwarf Trumpkin, who scowls and glares and plunges into battle like a tiny Viking. But Prince Caspian will probably have much more depth for audiences who have seen the first. By the way, one thing I really missed this time around were those terrific beavers who originally guided the Pevensies; the brave but homey, bickering animal couple voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French. I realize we keep leaping ahead through centuries of Narnian time in these stories. But couldn't those beavers somehow get a return engagement?
White Dog (B+)
U.S.; Samuel Fuller, 1982, Criterion
Why was this movie blasted and shelved back in 1982, effectively ending the Hollywood studio career of one of Hollywood's best: the cigar chomping, pistol-packing, headline-chewing journalist/auteur Sam Fuller? The movie has been called racist, but it obviously isn't. It looks well-shot/slick but seedy, but what Fuller movie doesn't?
It has a weirdo cast and a scary premise: Kristy McNichol is a struggling young movie actress who adopts the white dog she accidentally runs down and then discovers he's an attack dog trained to assault blacks. Jameson Parker is her boyfriend, Paul Winfield is the trainer trying to crack the dog's racist conditioning, and Burl Ives is his avuncular co-worker-pal. (And wait'll you see the role Fuller gave Ozzie and Harriet's neighbor, Parley Baer.) But how many other '69 movies had weirdo casts and dicey concepts and were still released? White Dog, which was co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) is a powerful movie with a fascinating theme, a terrific dog actor and a climax that summons up that French handle name for Fuller's style: Cinema Fist. It might even have made money.
Armond White and Jim Hoberman do a great job of defending the movie in the accompanying booklet, and that's just one reason to buy this Criterion edition. (Another is Fuller's interview with the dog.) I'm not kidding when I say that I'd rank this near the top level of Fuller's tough, nourish canon -- right under The Big Red One, The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor. And the pity of it is, White Dog probably would have made money too.
The Grocer's Son (B+)
France; Eric Guirado, 2007, Film Movement
Life in Provence is presented in The Grocer's Son> with a realism and affection that wins your heart. The writer-director, Eric Guirado, is, like the Dardenne Brothers, a documentarian turned fiction feature maker. Like the Dardennes, he excels at seemingly low-key realist portrayals that beat with inner intensity.
His protagonist here is a Parisian guy, Antoine (Nicolas Cazale), who comes home to his village to help take care of business for his mere and pere (Jeanne Goupil and Daniel Duval), when his dad becomes ill. Part of that business is a traveling grocery van that Antoine takes over, helped by the woman he adores, late-blooming college student Claire (Clotilde Hesmen) who has come to the country with him to study and cram for entrance exams.
This was a big French hit, and it captured me completely. As Orson Welles said of Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine, when the story starts up, "the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared. It was just life." Creating life is not an inconsiderable feat. This movie makes us a gift of it. (In French, with English subtitles.)
Casablanca (Ultimate Collector's Edition) (A)
U.S.; Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner, Blu-Ray
Play it again.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (A)
U.S.; various directors, 1916-1921, Flicker Alley
Doug Fairbanks was one of the great silent movie stars -- the movie's first and preeminent swashbuckler and a costumed hero of unmatched ebullience, the most dazzling of smiles and leaping, soaring high spirits. In movies like his silent era Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and The Black Pirate, he set the mold for derring-do: Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, Gene Kelly (in his loving tributes to Fairbanks in The Pirate and Singin' in the Rain) and Gerard Philipe (in Fanfan le Tulipe) are only a few of his bright movie progeny.
But we don't watch Doug Sr. enough these days. And when we do, we usually miss the movies in this marvelous five-disc package: 11 features or mini-features that include one of the best of the classic Fairbanks swashbucklers (1920's The Mark of Zorro, with Doug as Johnston McCulley's mincing fop turned dashing fox) and 10 films he made in his previous mode: as a contemporary Chaplin-Keaton-style comedian, a dreamy young man of boundless idealism who wanted to revive the spirit of the romantic past and made both a fool and a hero of himself doing so.
These movies are more obviously comic than the swashbucklers, but they're made in the same jubilant spirit and they're crucially linked to them. When Fairbanks started making his costumed adventures, he was realizing the dreams of the go-getting Harold Lloyd-ish character he had played previously. And he was realizing them spectacularly.
Fairbanks, a great chum of Charley Chaplin's, was the main creative force here. He picked the stories and writers and his directors (including Allan Dwan and Victor Fleming, whom he discovered and gave his start). He had a sometimes dark sense of humor -- The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is his celebrated cocaine detective-comedy -- but his movies almost always gave audiences a glorious high. If you've missed them, if you think you don't dig Doug -- and especially if you've missed these intoxicating early comedies -- you have a glorious treat in store.
Includes: His Picture in the Papers (John Emerson, 1916, B); The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (John Emerson, 1916, B+); Flirting With Fate (Christy Cabanne, 1916, B+); The Matrimaniac (Paul Powell, 1916, B); Wild and Woolly (John Emerson, 1917, B+); Reaching for the Moon (John Emerson, 1917, B); The Modern Musketeer (Allan Dwan, 1917, A); When the Clouds Roll By (Victor Fleming, 1919, A); The Mollycoddle (Victor Fleming, 1920, B+); The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920, A); The Nut (Theodore Reed, 1921, C+).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Timur Bekmambetov, 2008, Universal
Wanted is a mixed bag of violence and satire. I enjoyed the first third of this action-thriller from the director of the Russian Night Watch and Day Watch series, because it starts off like a crazy mix of The Office, Pulp Fiction and La Femme Nikita.
James McAvoy is a beleaguered white-collar schnook who is plucked from obscurity and groomed for a new job as an international hit man by an assassination company, led by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman. But the midsection, in which McAvoy gets his brutal tutoring in the art and craft of the rubout from Jolie and others, turned me off, and the ending, which puts him through more twists and turns -- and an astonishing hellbound train fight -- doesn't redeem it.
Can you make a really sympathetic movie about a contract killer or assassin? Well, there are the Bourne movies, Melville's Le Samourai with Alain Delon's gloomy assassin, Day of the Jackal, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the Brangelina version) and the recent In Bruges, in which Brendan Gleeson does wring sympathy for the damned. Generally speaking though, it's a hard trick, unless the movie is played for dark comedy or unless the hit man is trying to quit -- and McAvoy doesn't turn the trick. It is now and then an exciting show, though -- especially during that wild train ride -- and Bekmambetov seems to relish diving into the snazzy Hollywood formulas he once copied back in cold Russia.
Step Brothers (C)
U.S.; Andrew McKay, 2008, Sony
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, whom I often like (but not too much here) play two 39-to-40-something guys who still live in their comfy upper-middle-class homes in Step Brothers. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are their mom (Ferrell's) and dad (Reilly's), who get married and, like the Brady Bunch, bring them all together. The movie, from the Apatow factory, doesn't waste time on logic; these guys have to share bedroom space in their huge house right away because Reilly has a drum set in the only free room.
Anyway, first they meet cute, then they hate each other, then they love each other. Whatever. The ending takes place at a Catalina wine festival where the stepbrothers are just itching to replace the Billy Joel '80s cover band as entertainment. (So why didn't Ferrell sing the Sinatra-romantic '70s Joel hit "Just the Way You Are" to Reilly? It works for me.)
Step Brothers suggests that the Apatow group is getting lazy -- which makes sense since all they basically make are movies about lazy, immature guys getting high and screwing up. (Pineapple Express, by the way, proves that formula can still work.) Ferrell co-wrote the script with director McKay and it isn't much better than Semi Pro -- and not as good as Talladega Nights. It'll make you laugh, if you have nothing better to do. But these characters are only funny when they're losers, and Ferrell and Reilly, unfortunately, let them win.
As Billy J. says, "Don't want clever co-o-onversation. Never wanna work that hard...."
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (C)
U.S.; Chris Carter, 2008, 20th Century Fox
In this week's run of flawed big movies, the second X-Files film has a slight edge on some, because it's more intelligently written and has better lead performances, by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, as that well-liked sleuth couple Mulder and Scully. We won't get into the plot, because you've seen it before anyway, but Duchovny and Anderson make a sexier couple than Ferrell and Reilly.
The Longshots (C)
U.S.; Fred Durst, 2008, Weinstein
Based on real life -- which has however been shamelessly abandoned and left for dead -- The Longshots
It's a better movie than star-producer Ice Cube's recent string of banal family comedies. (We'll except Barbershop.) But it's still bogged down in outrageous melodrama and almost nonstop clichés -- and, for my taste, the football scenes tend to go by a little fast. But director Durst is good with actors, especially Cube and Matt Craven as the team's stricken coach, and most especially the terrific young Keke Palmer (of The Wool Cap, Barbershop and Akeelah and the Bee) as Jasmine. She's fresh and full of feeling, she convinces you she can play -- and she holds the screen like few younger actresses can.
Fly Me to the Moon (C)
U.S.; Ben Stassen, 2008, Summit Entertainment
Spectacular 3D effects can't redeem this feature cartoon film from a loony and slightly repellent premise: It's about the adventures of several intrepid flies, who accompany Neil Armstrong and company on their historic moon shot and moon walk. These filmmakers unhappily go all the way: There are miniature fly space suits and evil Russian spy-flies trying to foil them. The voice actors include Tim Curry, Ed Begley Jr., Trevir Gagnon and Nicolette Sheridan and Buzz Aldrin (as himself), all buzzing away to little avail. And they don't even give us Sinatra's cover of the title song under the credits!
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
Austin Powers Collection: Shagadelic Edition Loaded with Extra Mojo (C+)
U.S.; Jay Roach, 1997-2002, New Line
Yes! People I trust tell me it's true. Austin Powers, International Man of Fab Groovy Shagadelic Tomfoolery, the swinger/spy with a license to swill, the guy who can out-Herman both Herman and the Hermits, was supposedly inspired by one of my best college friends, ex-editor and fellow UW alum, Larry "Ratso" Sloman (Baby!). Ratso is the Dylan-worshipper and Raoul Duke follower who also appears in Kinky Friedman's continuing series of mystery novels, as the Kinkster's sidekick. If the rumor is true, take it from me: Austin is funny, but Ratso is funnier. If not hornier. Baby!
Included: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, 1997, B); Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Roach, 1999, C+); Austin Powers in Goldmember (Roach, 2002, C+).