Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reviews: Chronicles of Narnia; Match Point; Nothing but a Man

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeI've been watching far fewer movies of late than I tend to in Chicago, and the ones I've caught haven't made me want to see more. I finally saw The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005, dir. Andrew Adamson) the adaptation of C. S. Lewis's eponymous 1950 novel which I'd read and loved when I was a child. One of the reasons I rented the movie was because of all the media hype surrounding the underlying Christian themes, which run throughout all of Lewis's works, and because the film in part was bankrolled by billionaire right-winger Philip Anschutz. Before I saw it, I wondered how the film would realize the Christian elements and if the director would go too far, thereby overwhelming the central narrative of the children's exploration of the magical realm of Narnia. What I found was that you could watch portions of the film and enjoy the sheer adventure of it, especially if you were a child (though there were several scenes that I don't think were appropriate for very small children); the acting, the cinematography, and the overall translation of the novel into a film succeeded. But I found the talky good vs. evil and sections, which brought the Christian subtext to the fore, so boring that I fell asleep--three times! (I also fell asleep during the first Lord of the Rings movie, and never saw any of the subsequent ones.) I also think I've seen enough battle scenes to have become jejune at this point. Whether neo-DeMille or CGI, I usually start yawning and looking for something to read as the forces gather, etc. Tilda Swinton has received wide acclaim for her performance, and she was very good as a literal Ice Queen Witch, but I've seen far more malevolent representations of evil on screen. What I found particularly annoying were the Hollywood touches--the endless, heart-tugging music; the cutesiness of the some of the dialogue and direction; and those moments when the literalization of the religious subtext grew clumsy. I haven't read the novel in years, but I almost decided to reread it to see how Lewis handled the symbolic and allegorical elements, which can be harder to achieve--or require a different form of realization--in cinema. But I probably won't reread it, and would say that it will probably charm lots of people, especially youngsters, but I doubt I'd watch it again. And one final question: how did the devout Christians Anschutz and Disney were courting deal with the presence onscreen of human-animal hybrids, talking animals, literal witchcraft, and scenes of torture? Just wondering.

Match PointI also recently watched Woody Allen's Match Point (2005), starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Scarlett Johansson. I'd read and heard wildly divergent critiques of this movie, but I have been a fan of Allen's work particularly since childhood, and when I saw it compared to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), one of Allen's masterpieces, I vowed to watch. I'm sorry to say it's nowhere near the excellence of that earlier work, though it has its moments. Allen essentially transposed a slightly improbable, East Coast urban-and-suburban rich-people narrative onto London. Although I've only visited that city a few times and never lived there, I could perceive that things were somewhat off. (Perhaps having read British writer Alan Hollinghurst's Booker Prize-winning novel of upper-class London during the Thatcher period, The Line of Beauty, earlier this year tuned my antennae more than usual.) But once you get past this aspect, there's the secondary problem of the narrative itself, which feels imbalanced. The film races through the story of social climber Chris Wilton's (Rhys-Meyers) ascent into the upper classes, which for some reason I wasn't fully buying, and then hunkers down when he begins his affair with Nola Rice (Johannson), the ex-girlfriend of his brother in law, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). It starts to drag as things spin out of control, and I kept thinking, yes, the rich may overlook certain things and Wilton's wife Chloe (Emily Mortimer) may be a bit clueless, but...? Wilton's resolution of his personal problem doesn't really seem in character, comes too quickly and sort of struck me as over the top. All of which is to say that in terms of the script's time apportionment of narrative time, which I felt as the lived, diegetic time of the film, things just felt off. And then, instead of craftily tying things up or leaving them open, Allen throws in a concluding twist that felt mostly like a cop-out, as if he weren't sure how to wrap it up, had gotten too deep into things, and then said, Oh, I know, here's what we'll do. Another issue was that I have been spoiled by prior Woody Allen films, or at least the ones up to Husbands and Wives (1992). I mean, it is asking quite a bit for a director to elicit from his or her actors the level of performances that Allen was able to get from Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Martin Landau, Jerry Orbach, Louise Lasser, Angelica Houston, Michael Murphy, etc. But then they had brilliant characters to work with. The acting in this film wasn't bad, per se, but I just wasn't persuaded so much by Rhys-Meyers or Mortimer, and Johannson started to get hysterical (in the problematic sense) at a certain point, which sent up flags. I usually enjoy her performances, though she essentially plays the same role, the radiant ingenue. And at 20 years old, with her looks, why not? Everyone is competent and at times, good to very good, and Allen excels at the nuts and bolts; you can learn something even from his worst movies, a category into which this one doesn't fall, thankfully, though I wouldn't rank it among his best.

Nothing but a ManCable broadcast, and I'd queued up Michael Roemer's still stunning 1964 film Nothing But a Man. 42 years later it's lost none of its power, and is one of those films that I couldn't watch every day, but feel I need and want to see periodically just to recalibrate my ideas about what constitutes the elements of a very good movie. For any readers who haven't seen it, Roemer and Michael Young wrote a script about a young Black Alabaman railworker, Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon at the height of his talent), whose personal views embody the growing assertiveness and militancy of the mid and late 1960s Civil Rights movement. For Dixon, it's all about freedom and dignity--he is "nothing but a man," and wants and expects to be treated like one. He falls in love with Josie (played with striking, nuanced assurance by Abbey Lincoln), the middle-class daughter of a local preacher who's reached the sort of accommodation with the White world around him that permitted a certain level of personal and social success in that era (as now). Things proceed from there, and eventually Duff and Josie marry, to her parents' consternation; the couple's growing frustration with how things turn out because of Duff's refusal to get along is the meat of the narrative. Initially Duff, who has experienced a tremendous amount of freedom working on the railroad, can't deal, and flies the coop, but he comes to realize that rather than turning out like his own father, he should try to be the man he hopes and must be, as difficult as that will prove. Dixon and Lincoln so fully inhabit their roles that the film feels like a documentary; Roemer even pushes the matter with a few scenes that verge on ethnography. Their restraint in fact produces the kind of affective surplus that I tend to associate with other forms and genres, like poetry. But everyone's acting is fine, and some are exceptional; Gloria Foster, playing Lee, the fierce companion of Duff's dissolute and dying father (Julius Harris), basically puts on an acting clinic. What also sets the film apart is its rich depiction of working-class Black life, and of the truth of race relations, at a time when it was rarely shown on screen. In addition, Roemer's subtle direction, the crisp and yet lyrical cinematography, the consistently pitched tone, and the avoidance of sentimentality, even in some scenes that where it would seem most likely to arise, elevate the film to the status of a masterwork. I highly recommend it.

I also rewatched Michael Haneke's award-winner from last year, Caché, and my verdict remains the same: one of the best movies of 2005.


  1. Not much to add except that Nothing But a Man is indeed a great little flick, and easily one of my all-time faves .. i'll have to watch it again now!

  2. I got to see some of the behind the scenes work on Narnia and admittedly was impressed with the CGI animation of the Aslan (when I got older I wondered about the connection between Aslan and the Aztlán in the Chicano cosmology--but I don't imagine C.S. Lewis had any imaginings on that subject). Nothing But A Man, oh how I love that film, you said it about Gloria Foster, dang! You have to get the 40th Anniversary DVD (the one you've pictured) the next time you see it and check out the documentary with Michael Roemer and Michael Young talking about the process of research, casting, and working with the actors (including how gracious Lincoln was about wearing a wig which was a big deal politically, and battles with Dixon over the moustache--they wanted the Sidney Poitier clean shaven look). Plus there are interviews with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, and an excerpt from a beautiful documentary on Abbey Lincoln.

  3. Reel Fanatic, thanks for dropping by.

    Audiologo, I did see the extras on the DVD, and especially enjoyed hearing what Dixon and Abbey Lincoln had to say. Did you see how she broke into song--it nearly brought me to tears. The CGI in Narnia is impressive; I also thought the rendering of the faun, the beavers, and some of the other creatures showed real talent. But the movie overall left much to be desired.