The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: Not the best of fantasy, but a traditional, playful, even melancholy adventure still.

Review:  The third entry in Walden Media’s adaptation of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ may, unfortunately, be the last.  This is due to diminishing box office returns, Disney’s abandonment of the franchise, and the sad fact that the movies weren’t great.  That isn’t to say that they are not good.  I like all three films in varying degrees, mostly for the impressive cast, production design, music, and source story by the inimitable C.S. Lewis, but despite being entertaining adventures, they lack that blissful hypnotism associated with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’ that demand endless excursions into the fantasy world.

‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, despite tying the titular voyage together with a new, rather rote plot, stays mostly true to the book’s events.  The difficulty in adapting this episodic story into a movie is that, as Stanley Kubrick observed, “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction.”  Considering that several of Kubrick’s films were literary adaptations, it doesn’t mean that a story like ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ should not or cannot be filmed, but rather that the focus should be on the repeating themes and narrative melodies at play.  Thankfully, the filmmakers obviously understood this and plucked the proper notes, retaining the thoughtful, playful, even melancholy tone of the source material in a suitably cinematic way.  I always thought that ‘Dawn Treader’ was rather sad.  It is the last Narnian Chronicle with the Pevensie children in a lead role, as they grow wise from their adventures and the Christlike Aslan informs them that they won’t return.  It’s an end to childhood.  This makes for a rather fitting end for the Walden Media series, if technically premature, as there are two books left to go.  Still, it is satisfying to know that we got to see the Pevensies complete their Narnian tenure.

What ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ lacks, I already mentioned above: Blissful hypnotism.  While the characters express a longing to return in each installment, we don’t necessarily hear the call.  The trouble is, while the stories are good, the setting is simple like a fable or fairy tale and doesn’t have the richness and complexity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  Peter Jackson’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ perfectly captured Middle-Earth so to as convince us that such a world may exist.  Light revealed earthy wonders, and shadows concealed things unimaginable.  While Lewis’ ‘Chronicles’ are children’s books and don’t burden the reader with details, the filmmakers had the chance to enrich Narnia and generally muffed it.  When the Pevensies became royalty, it was believable in a sort of storybook way, but without a picture of what great things they wrought in their time, it felt awkward instead of wondrous.  When the Dawn Treader sails beyond Narnia, there should be a solidity to the realm that lends contrast to the proceedings and thusly greater adventure.

Complaints aside, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ is an entertaining, whimsical, accessible journey that plays like a ’40s serial, with debts owed to Michael Curtiz pirate pictures, Ray Harryhausen monster movies, and even a moment or two from ‘Ghostbusters’.  The best sequence is the climax, an excellent battle with a scary, demonic sea serpent summoned from Edmund’s nightmares.  It was fun to watch a sea serpent and an English boy-turned-dragon do battle above a ship populated by minotaurs, dwarfs, fauns, and the occasional child royal.

In total, ‘Dawn Treader’ isn’t at the head of the pack, but it isn’t a waste of time at all, especially if you’ve seen and enjoyed the previous two entries and the novels which inspired them.

NR: Meet Me On Holodeck 3

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Today, piggy-backing off Collider’s report, I’m talking about 3D‘s evolution.  Thanks chiefly to James Cameron, nearly every major Hollywood player has bet it all on 3D.  I’ve been down on the technology in the past, as I prefer classic cinematography, but it is quite seductive.  Its justifies its existence by excellence and its potential to evolve into a daughter medium. Now, due to such innovators as Apple and Nintendo, the technology is outgrowing the need for uncomfortable, dimming glasses. Heck, in twenty years, my kids might be asking me for a holodeck without safeties.

Okay, so that’s unlikely for several reasons, but it’s clear the virtual world is outgrowing its bounds and establishing a beachhead in reality. We won’t dodge Agent Smith in The Matrix, we’ll be dodging him in the suburbs.

Okay, so that’s highly unlikely, too, but tongue-in-cheek exaggeration aside, in a world economy fueled by ever-accelerating demand, 3D tech is sure to develop into a new brand of escapist virtuality easily distinguishable from cinema. Traditional films may find themselves in the place still photography is now to motion pictures; not disregarded by any means, but perhaps playing a semi-ancillary role to the “highest” medium, whatever we call 3D then. Obvious, this new virtuality effects video games as well. Just as older, simpler forms of gaming remain popular as increasingly complex systems grow, it’s likely that 2D gaming will survive, but in my mind’s eye, the effects on the gaming industry will be far more profound.

Whatever the case, it’s not necessary for film lovers to bemoan the inevitable rise of 3D, but it’s probably a good idea to catch up on William Gibson and Philip K. Dick novels, for when things get weird.

MMM: All Along The Watchtower, Village Piano, Human Target

James here with Movie Music Monday!

I hope you had a very Merry Christmas. This stuff ain’t holiday, but it is darn good, and I hope you agree.


More epicness from composer Bear McCreary’s ‘Battlestar Galactica’ scores. The centerpiece of the final episodes, this mind-blowing version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is, in my opinion, the best rendition yet. This mix lengthens the piece by combining it with powerful instrumentals.


As per tradition, another fantastic piano cover, this time of James Newton Howard’s ‘Gravel Road’ from Shyamalan’s misunderstood film ‘The Village’.


More genius from McCreary’s mind. The theme for the first season of ‘Human Target’ is strikingly cinematic, and deserved a better fate.

True Grit (2010)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A classic Western story told with refreshing perspective.

Review: I grew up with classic Westerns, mostly of the television variety. ‘Bonanza’, ‘Gunsmoke’, and ‘The Rifleman’, among others, helped shape my sense for storytelling, first through innocent admiration, and then through critical distance and deconstruction.  The Wild West is quintessential American mythology and so overused.  The Western genre long ago went stale to my taste, with only a few stories cleansing my palate and proving its enduring potency.  Among these have been films like ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, ‘Unforgiven’, the remake of ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and now the Coen Brothers’ rendition of ‘True Grit’.

‘True Grit’ looks and feels like a movie out of time.  It’s appropriately gritty and realistic, but lacks the revisionist cynicism often associated with Westerns of the past few decades, allowing it to keep the ethics and themes of the source novel without repentance.  If I had to boil it down to one word, it would be “classic”.  Like most of the Coen Brothers’ output, it seems destined for that appraisal in posterity.  In style and substance, the film far exceeds genre expectations, lending humanity and thus complexity to every character, realism to the violence, a nigh-surreal level of beauty and variety to the settings, spitfire dialog loaded with archaic phraseology, etc., etc., etc.  The Coens are masters of character development, and it shows, even within the simple archetypical roles at play.

Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by John Wayne in the original film and here inhabited by Jeff Bridges, is in this film closer to the real gunslingers of the old West than the kind of folks Wayne played in his career.  He’s simultaneously cowardly and heroic, an object of pity and admiration, a man with a bloody reputation that doesn’t exceed believability.  He’s sought out by a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by a two-bit villain named Tom Chaney, and she wants the Marshal to aid her in her quest for justice.  Hailee Steinfeld, the young actress who brings Mattie to life, is better than most established thespians.  Not only can she deliver the complex, straight-from-the-novel dialog with the best of them, she makes you believe that a young girl of her intelligence and spunk might just accomplish her goal.  Since the film’s related entirely from her perspective, we experience the familiar Western imagery and scenarios through fresh eyes.  I make special mention of these two, but the other characters and the actors that play them, down to the smallest role, crackle with the fires of life.

It’s often said that reality is unrealistic, and ‘True Grit’, by hewing close to real-world consequences, has a sense of unfamiliar unpredictability that is entirely refreshing.  We may scoff and declare that the violence on show is the stuff of Hollywood, but stranger things have happened, and ‘True Grit’ is a reminder of this fact.  Details that are often scuffed over in cinema, such as the particulars and limits of firearms, get embraced here.  My favorite moment of realism is when a man stands on top of a hill, viewed from afar, and when he fires his pistol in the air, there is delay to allow the sound to reach our ears.  I recall saying “Wow!”, since even something as simple as sound delay is a rarity in Hollywood films.

Of course, all these trappings are meaningless without a strong story with resonant themes.  The narrative thrust is the stuff of classic Westerns: A murder sparks a manhunt, based on nothing more than the bereaved’s wish for vengeance, and the law looks high and low for the villain, a journey culminating in a bloody firefight.  As I mentioned before, the refreshing factor is Mattie Ross’ naivety, which shatters her illusions of simple retribution and exposes her to the terrible results of such an adventure.  It’s a brutally truthful coming-of-age story.  Often revelations of the harsh, dangerous world mark childhood’s end.  The only way to overcome it is with other people, even people we despise, though as Mattie learns, our efforts may still yield bittersweet endings.  This reality requires true grit.

This film is a total pleasure to watch.  Exciting, funny, scary, and sad, it’s a classic Western adventure, and best of all it’s actually quite accessible, despite all the things I said about its requisite grit.  I look forward to seeing ‘True Grit’ again.

Children Of Men

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A perfectly realized sci-fi meditation.

Review:  Science fiction gives us an excuse to stretch reality just thin enough to give us a window into our souls.  It seems we’re quite scared of what we’ve found, which explains the common use of science fiction as pure fantasy, to escape, rather than explore.  ‘Children of Men’ shows us what we have to fear, and why we have to hope.  It is an apocalypse — literally, an unveiling.

In the not-too-distant future, every woman on Earth is infertile, and every child is either matured or dead.  Without children, it seems, humankind has gone insane, with every ounce of hatred boiling beneath the surface, once sublimated, now unleashed without regard.  Only a few last havens exist, at least in the minds of the surviving members of what can loosely be called “society”.  A British cubical denizen named Theo, the protagonist, finds an occasional refuge at the home of an aging liberal activist, where he listens to the old man philosophize and dream as Theo himself no longer can.  Before the world fell apart around his ears, he was an idealist, along with his former lover, who now operates a rebellion against the fascist government in Britain.  She contacts him, seeking his help in smuggling a young refugee girl out of the country, and Theo learns that the girl is pregnant, a beacon of hope for the world.  Soon, it’s up to him, alone, to protect the mother and child from selfish interests on all sides, and take them to a rendezvous with the perhaps mythical Human Project.

Common wisdom says that you don’t know something’s value until it is gone.   It’s difficult to overestimate procreation’s importance in the human scheme.  When the system breaks down and fails to produce a new generation, the proverbial human castle comes crashing down, first in the mind and then in the matter, despite everything our hands have wrought.  All of this is obvious.  Maybe it’s the deepest, darkest ancestral fear in our species.  ‘Children of Men’ is important because it unveils our most basic humanity, the fragility beneath the façade of culture, religion, politics, technology, what have you.  It is in part a retelling of the Christian Nativity story.  For the divine person, there is no greater humility or sympathetic expression than incarnation.  In the Gospels, God’s embrace of our condition is literal.  In ‘Children of Men’, it is subtext, but nonetheless plain.  The refugee’s child isn’t God, but she is evidence of the divine hand at work, a living apocalypse that could stop all wars, if only we’d listen to her cries.

Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team chose to realize this story as concretely as possible.  Steadicam tracking shots and extended takes composed of multiple overlapping elements grant the film real presence.  It becomes difficult to look away.  The production design is superb, highly complex, and completely believable.  The filmmakers obviously strove to remove as many stylistic obstacles between the movie and the viewer as they could.  The film’s action sequences outclass most others in the genre.  The choreography is breathtaking, and it’ll certainly have you asking “How in God’s name did they do that?”, especially during the climatic battle which comes to us in nearly a single take.

‘Children of Men’ is awesome.  What a simple, beautiful story, realized so well, without hiccups or compromise.  It induced in me, on each viewing, a sense of oddly worshipful melancholy I have seldom experienced.  I intend to make this movie a personal Christmas tradition.

NR: When A Voyage Becomes A Tour

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

It seems I’m stuck in a Disney rut.  The object of discussion today is the fourth ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sequel, ‘On Stranger Tides’, which, as Collider attests, has awesome theater displays.  It also has a mediocre trailer, which is embedded below.

So to rephrase the headline, when does an exciting voyage into the unknown (a new story) become a run-of-the-mill tour?  What made the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film good was its organic story and its fresh, witty, tongue-in-cheek take on classic adventure cinema, a spiritual cocktail of ‘Captain Blood’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, and countless serials.  The second and third sequels attempted to elevate the material into a saga, and while the spectacle was suitably spectacular, it lost some of the magic through overexposure.  I’ve said it before, familiarity kills wonder, and if a sequel shows us the franchise’s hand too early, it becomes tedious.  I’d say that this franchise’s premise has run its course.  A pleasant surprise is welcome, but despite getting back to basics and focusing on fan favorite Jack Sparrow, the new film appears to check off the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ list faithfully and doesn’t try for anything more.  An adventure film is first a spiritual journey, and the sum of the trappings, exotic locales, beautiful people, inventive action sequences, and what have you, is only whipped cream on the pie.  If the plot centers on the Fountain of Youth, this germ should grow through the characters, and should come to dominate the film’s iconography and advertising.  Watching the trailer, I never get the sense that anybody is defying old age or really has any motivation beyond fortune, and greed has already been explored satisfactorily in the previous entries.  I don’t see a story about the Fountain of Youth.  I see a movie full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  An adventure film’s substance is spirit, not spectacle, and I fear that ‘On Stranger Tides’ is heavy on the latter.

MMM: The Hand of Fate, Blade Runner, The Trio

James here with Movie Music Mondays.

A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”

Stanley Kubrick

So say we all.


James Newton Howard’s collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan yielded some of my favorite film music, not the least of which being the theme from ‘Signs’, best exemplified in ‘The Hand of Fate, Part 2’, a piece better heard than described.


Vangelis’ score for the cult classic ‘Blade Runner’ is one of the most sought-after soundtracks among sci-fi enthusiasts. ‘Blade Runner Blues’ is a great, meditative piece that, in my mind, would communicate Philip K. Dick’s vision even without the music’s symbiotic relationship to this great film.


Ennio Morricone was a prolific film composer, and that’s a bit of an understatement. His best score, by most accounts, is ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’, and my favorite track from it is ‘The Trio’.

Tron: Legacy

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A successful, slick, satisfying sequel, creatively and thematically progressive.

Review: What good does a cinematic sequel do, besides line filmmaker pockets? A good sequel moves the story forward, finds the meaning in the original’s premise and expounds on it, taking it that one step further that would’ve been too much for the first installment. It should find new extremes. It should dare to alter the status quo.

‘Tron: Legacy’ is a fun and fantastic sequel because it does all of those things.  ‘Tron’ let the CGI cat out of the bag, in terms of world design and action, while its sequel shows us how far that cat can run, and the tiger doesn’t show signs of wearying.  To simply call ‘Tron: Legacy’ a feast for the eyes would be saying too little, but it’s awfully hard to do justice to the extent of cinematographic innovation on show here.  There’s an exhilarating solidity to this world.  The action sequences are full of surprises, which hit hard and fast and demand repeat viewings.  The downside of this level of visual innovation is that it may occasionally be too dizzying for some audience members.  It’s almost too fresh.  ‘Tron: Legacy’ is designed as immersive as possible, and as a result, we share the character’s disorientation with gravity changes, high-speed lightcycle races, and digital dogfights.  It showcases the best of postmodern style while skillfully avoiding problematic techniques like “intensified continuity”, that is, cinematography and editing akin to the ‘Bourne’ pictures.  Like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the camera is free to fly through virtual space and take us anywhere.

The story is surprisingly good, even an improvement on the original ‘Tron’, taking it several natural steps forward.  While ‘Tron’ had the villainous MCP, whose motives were purely power-lust, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has CLU, the mirror image of his creator, who believes so strongly in his purpose — to make the virtual world perfect — that he rebels against his user to this end.  Kevin Flynn’s quest to create the perfect world was a mistake.    Continuing a train of thought from the original, Flynn accidentally creates a new life-form, an aberration in the Grid’s programming called ISOs, and this “perfect imperfection” provokes CLU’s revolt. Humans, Flynn comes to realize, have no idea what perfection really is, and by putting this yoke on his creation he caused his own downfall.  He’s trapped in the digital world and separated from his son.

Sam Flynn, in his father’s absence, grows up just as reckless as Kevin in the original ‘Tron’, and arguably does not share his father’s illusions.  His quest isn’t for perfection, but for the relationship he lost.  A key thematic component is Kevin’s insistence that his beloved son is perfect, despite all moral evidence to the contrary, and this ties into the ISOs; life is beyond logic, beyond control, and beyond measurement.

To CLU, the ISOs are a critical flaw, and so he commits genocide and kills them all, save one rescued by Kevin, a girl named Quorra.  She demonstrates an intense curiosity about the physical world, reading whatever books that Kevin transported into the Grid, hoping one day to see the real sun.  To her, our world is just as awe-inspiring and transformative as the virtual world is to us.  Her character is positively endearing.

Perhaps the only eyebrow-raising story component is the use of the Tron character, who was basically a plot device in the first film and here plays a minor role as CLU’s champion gladiator, having been converted against his will in the coup.  His arc is short, but satisfying still.  The ‘Tron’ series has, ironically, never been about Tron.  It’s Flynn’s movie.

I’d be loathe not to mention the marvelous score by Daft Punk.  Here, listen to this. End of line.

‘Tron: Legacy’ checked all the boxes on my list of things I’d like to see in a ‘Tron’ sequel.  As if I had such a thing.  It’s a satisfying trip that does far more than drill for nostalgia fuel.  It succeeds where most other long-awaited sequels fail, even entries in noted franchises like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Terminator’.  Despite its title, it’s not overly concerned with ‘Tron’s legacy, but rather telling a good story well.

Classic Review: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.

Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage.  The most complete version is distributed by Kino.  That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.

‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers.  Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage.  In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity.  Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.

‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology.  However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible.  Who benefits from the machinery?  As in, who buys things?  Hell, who sells them?  ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell.  “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world.  The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems.  These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act.  His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept.  To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art.  Still, his review is worth a read.

I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit.  In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy.  Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements.  The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology.  The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots.  In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction.  All its imagery has stayed with us.  It’s grown up and become fruitful.

I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better.  It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’.  I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes?  I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?

NR: Avengers… Assemble, I Guess?

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

More Jon Favreau related news, and this time it’s bad… maybe.  The ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ director has decided, with good reason, to leave the franchise.  I learned of this from this article.

Photo from Paramount Pictures

Favreau left because Marvel Studios is, apparently, unfocused and confused.  As he said,

“In theory, Iron Man 3 is going to be a sequel or continuation of Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Avengers… This whole world… I have no idea what it is. I don’t think they do either, from conversations I’ve had with those guys.”

I’m sure they can rustle up a good director of ‘Iron Man 3’, but that’s hardly the issue.  If Marvel’s suits don’t really know what they’re doing, if in fact they are unaware of what direction this boulder this roll, they’re in big trouble.  There’s no stopping the ‘Avengers’ behemoth now.  If it fails creatively, people will still go see it, if only to see what kind of damage the giant boulder can do.  I don’t think Favreau’s departure from the undeveloped sequel project is a death knell, per se, but I hope it convinces the execs to find greater focus.

But wait! Favreau has more to say, as found in this LA Times article.  He says, among other things,

“Marvel and I both came of age together. The years that we shared were a pivotal experience. Kevin has a firm grasp on the many franchises and how they all interweave and I am happy that I had the opportunity to establish the world that these characters can now play in…. ‘Iron Man’ has given me tremendous opportunities and Kevin and I are enjoying a lot of momentum in our careers thanks to the ‘Iron Man’ films. I look forward to seeing what others can do playing in the same world.”

He also says that basically he’s switching his focus to Disney’s ‘Magic Kingdom’ film, and that’s the real reason for his departure, not a creative dissatisfaction with Marvel.  That would seem to directly contradict his earlier statement.  It could be because he was angry about something and spoke too soon or perhaps too honestly, and his interview with the LA Times is a political move just to smooth things over and make it all look positive and professional.  Though I’m sure that if Favreau wanted to direct ‘Iron Man 3’, Marvel could accommodate his ‘Magic Kingdom’ schedule because he already gave them two big hits.

I don’t doubt that Favreau’s decision comes from creative passion for his Disney project, but such passion is a double-edged sword, and I have a feeling that he really did mean his earlier statement.  Of course, just because one director expresses disappointment with Marvel’s grand scheme does not mean it will fail, or be anywhere as bad as I said it could be.  The Favreau situation is really interesting because of the director/studio dynamic at play.  The truth of the situation is left to the future and our best guess.