Saturday, May 17, 2008

Four Flicks

In the last month or two I have celebrated each new paycheck (and its accompanying brief flush of solvency) with a movie. I haven't blogged about them because I was too busy with umpty-ump other things, but here's my chance!

My last movie was The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Only months have passed since the Pevensie children stumbled back into England through the wardrobe that had magicked them into Narnia. They are still struggling to adjust to being kids again (having grown up in Narnia while no time passed in our world) when a toot on the horn Susan left behind instantly summons them back, right off the train platform where they are preparing to go to school. They are astonished to find that 1,300 years have passed in their absence, and their magical kingdom has fallen to ruin under the rule of a barbarian race of humans called the Telmarines. Their biggest surprise, however, is that the blower of Susan's horn was a Telmarine prince named - whoops, wouldn't want me to spoil it, would you?

On the run from an evil uncle who wants to kill the prince and usurp his throne, Prince Caspian joins the Pevensies and loads of dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, fauns, and talking animals - particularly a badger named Badger and a mouse named Reepicheep - to fight off King Miraz and his huge army. Even after Miraz is slain following a duel with King Peter, the fight is touch-and-go until the kids finally look up the great lion (and Christ figure) Aslan and ask for his help.

The story is exciting, romantic, with vague undertones of religious allegory and a truly intense "temptation" scene in which the White Witch from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe returns. The duel scene is gruelling, the battles thrilling, the creature effects convincing, and the film as a whole is a visual and musical treat.

Going backwards in time, my next movie was Speed Racer, a title which really sounds dumb until you realize that it is also the name of the main character. All right, it's dumb. Based on a Japanese TV show, written and directed for the big screen by the Wachowski Brothers of Matrix trilogy fame/infamy, this is an attempt to use their cutting-edge visual style in a family-friendly context. And it is truly a fun movie to watch, with only a couple slips into PG-rated language. I enjoyed the film's texture, with multiple layers moving across the screen at different speeds, a vast number of blue-screen shots, snappy special effects, and a sophisticated but clear way of inducting the viewer into the background of the story. I can, however, imagine how some viewers might be upset or confused by all this, though I think it is justified by the subject matter.

The plot is pretty basic, first-year-at-film-school stuff, but the dialogue is snappy and the cast does a good job. Emile Hirsch plays the young race-car driver of the future whose parents are John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, and whose older brother's death in a racing accident left scars on the whole family. Together with a Japanese driver and a mysterious "Racer X" played by Matthew Fox, Speedy enters the cross-country derby that killed his brother, against his father's wishes. This is all connected with busting the chops of a big-business CEO who makes a career of fixing races and the careers of drivers who refuse to play along. Blah, blah, blah, just enjoy the racing action, the attractive characters, and the hilarious scene where John Goodman beats up a ninja.

Prior to that, I saw Iron Man, the late Marvel Comics movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as a playboy arms manufacturer who gets wounded in such a way that he needs an electromagnet in his chest to keep himself alive. Using a futuristic power source of his own design, Downey plugs himself into a massive armored robot and escapes, then perfects his design back in the states in the hope of selling it as an unmanned weapon (in some idealistic attempt to take human casualties out of warfare). But he is betrayed by the bad guys and ends up having to fight them in his own machine, to prevent the ultimate weapon from falling into the wrong hands. Really, really typical comic book stuff, but with the added entertainment value of Downey's bad-boy charm, Jeff Bridges' bad-guy menace, Gwyneth Paltrow's good-girl sweetness, and Terence Howard's sidekickliness. It's no worse than any of the better Marvel Comics pictures, but it has the added attraction of Downey's wry sense of humor.

And finally (or rather, firstly), I saw - whoa, this was way back before Expelled, which I have already briefly mentioned on this blog - Nim's Island, with Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and Gerard Butler. It was a nice enough movie, but it did not live up to my expectations. The drama was mostly based on uncertainty about the fate of Butler's character - or rather, the character of Nim's father, since Butler also played the fictional alter ego of author Alex Rover (Foster), whose adventure novels Nim and her father have followed with glee. When Nim's dad is lost at sea, Nim contacts Alex by email and gets her to come all the way to their uncharted, south Pacific island to save her. Which proves entirely unnecessary, but results in lots of laughter as Foster plays her character's agoraphobia to maximum comic effect.

This is perhaps less than sensitive for people who really suffer from agoraphobia (a form of panic disorder that keeps its victims homebound). And it turns out to be less than helpful for Nim, who manages pretty well by herself and finds the reality of Alex Rover rather disappointing. At least she does until the last bit of magic happens - romantic, movie magic. Oh, well. It beats sitting at home watching the neighbors walk up and down in front of your building.

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