Review- The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Will Poulter, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes and Georgie Henley in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (20th Century Fox)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is in a word, though there could be many, many more; glorious. Absolutely glorious in every single, solitary respect. Not only does it work brilliantly as a standalone tale but it also closes a chapter in a series with great effect. How it functions within the series will be detailed later.

The first thing that should be commented upon is the virtuosity of the players involved. Now this tale does have a rather big obstacle to overcome as in this tale the Pevensie quartet becomes a duo, as Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) are scarcely seen but worry not Georgie Henley and Skandar Keynes are very strong and prodigious leads in the film. They each face their own trials and tribulations in their journey and support the film equally. Will Poulter, who broke out with his earth-shatterlingly good performance in Son of Rambow, is flawless in the part of Eustace Scrubb. He applies the affectations of an uptight, snobbish brat with great aplomb from a pitchy voice to flared nostrils and as his character mellows those layers peel back. Truly, Son of Rambow was most fortunate to have both he and the incomparable Bill Milner in the fold and The Dawn Treader would be so much less than it is without Poulter.

Lastly, and here is where we discuss this film in the context of the series, there is Ben Barnes. Ben Barnes, as Caspian, who is now a King; reprises his role but not identically to the last installment. In Prince Caspian a decision was made that the Talmarines, to differentiate themselves as men of a different nation, should be Spanish or speaking in a brogue thereof. Barnes did what he could to work with this impediment but that decision along with some in structuring made that installment a little less than it could’ve been. Therefore kudos are in store for the production team, principally the late great director Michael Apted, for deciding to rescind said decision. Ben Barnes speaking in his true voice is another actor entirely and he is a credit to this film.

This film, unlike many fantastic voyages, actually allows you to get into the character’s head a bit. In fact, that’s really what the enemy is all about: exploiting fears that each of the characters have. The characters are seen alone, the characters dream and they do battle with an enemy that knows how to defeat them. Mist or fog can be a very effective cinematic motif, as evidenced by eponymous films but you add a sentient nature to said mist and a whole other level is reached. Especially with the way it is framed and how the characters very infrequently sense its presence. I wrote recently of the jolting scares to be found in the most recent Harry Potter, well that is trumped by the ominous looming and chasing of the mist in this tale which gave me goosebumps on more than one occasion, as did some other events, CG or not.

Speaking of CG this may be an aspect of this film, which is almost taken for granted. To go through a laundry list of awe-inspiring visual achievements that the effects artists conjure up in this film would be tedious. However, it does need to be said that the work in this film is so accurate and precise that it likely goes overlooked by many. It has been short-listed for an Academy Award nomination and if it does not receive said nomination it will be one of the greatest injustices they’ve ever perpetuated [It didn’t get it, surprise, surprise].

This film is expertly edited and flows like a dream and treats time like a tinker toy. It makes the film move very briskly throughout but grinds the action nearly to a halt when things need observing in the minutest detail. If you had no notion of the time you’d swear the film is at least 20 minutes shorter than it really is, which is a testament to the pace of the tale.

You can’t have a sweeping epic story line without a sweeping epic score and this film most certainly has that as well, as there’s not much it doesn’t have. The score always matches but doesn’t overpower or over-accentuate the film and is dazzling.

The superlatives could continue to flow but I saw this film twice on the weekend so that should say something. I may see it anew to gauge the 3D quality, for the time being bear in mind that it is post-converted so buyer beware [I did end up seeing it in 3D later on and the conversion was pretty good] .

You have in this tale characters who are human therefore flawed and must struggle mightily against the darker parts of their nature to achieve their goal. You also have here in a series an ending as should the films continue different characters coming to the fore, even if this wasn’t the case the ending is quite the effective tear-jerker. This is without a doubt one of the most complete cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while, one of the best films of the year and a no questions asked must see.

10/10

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is available on DVD and Blu-Ray today.

Review- Insidious

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne in Insidious (FilmDistrict)

I am one who is wary to make premature proclamations about where a film stands when relative to the rest of the year and I believe I will be able to stick to that when discussing Insidious, however, with much difficulty. The reason that is so is that after seeing Insidious the kinds of comparisons I started to make were within the horror genre and comparing it to my favorite film in the genre from last year, or the year before or even further back.

And when I say in the genre I mean purely so, for if there’s one thing you cannot mistake in this film is that the makers most definitely intended to make an ode to old school horror tales but what is most impressive is that while keeping in mind classical elements, motifs and tactics there is still a concerted and successful effort to put a new spin on things.

Anyone who is very familiar with the genre will at some point start to be reminded of several different films such as Poltergeist, Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Haunting, The Amityville Horror and others but it’s always a passing notion that comes from a place that’s much more “Oh, isn’t that neat?” as opposed to “Man, what a rip off this is.”

While all these allusions and homages do exist there are some very refreshing elements to the tale as well. First of all, many horror films, especially those which have an element of the supernatural within them, struggle with the notion of belief. There needs to be a certain level of disbelief amongst the characters, when dealing with the supernatural, so that we can then suspend disbelief. This, however, is a very delicate balancing act for the audience of a horror movie is very aware that they are there to see a horror film and are very ready to believe. There are no such concerns here. Insidious has one of the quickest, deftest and most naturalistic dismissals of disbelief I can recall seeing and it is crucial to the functioning of the film.

Perhaps what’s even more impressive is that it is a twist and a take off on the haunted house tale, and you know that, the tag line for the film is “It’s not the house that’s haunted.” Having said that, however, the film perfectly follows a haunted house structure.

The cinematography is great throughout and is particularly effective during the first seance scene which is perfectly choreographed chaos but perhaps the most effective section is when Josh (Patrick Wilson) travels to an alternate dimension referred to in the film as The Further. This alternate plane is created entirely through cinematography and the use of negative fill. It’s been quite a while since a film in the horror genre has so aptly exploited the most primal of human fears, which is that of the dark.

Furthermore the sound design of this film is absolutely fantastic. There are disembodied sounds throughout the soundtrack that are later identified and everything sounds like what is should and it becomes a very fun guessing game and also hauntingly effective. What’s paramount in importance is that the sound effects enhance the visuals and aid scares as opposed to becoming the scares. There are several jolts within this film, one of which sent a tidal wave of goosebumps down my body and the sound effect accompanying the visual was an afterthought. “Oh yeah, that sound effect was good too,” I thought but the visual already struck home in all these jolts.

How scary one ultimately finds it is always a very personal thing. I found it to actually to be quite scary. The testament to that was later that night after having seen it unexplained noises within my house caused a lot more distress than they normally do. What cannot be argued is that screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan have crafted one of the finest examples of the horror genre to have come along in a long, long time.

10/10

Review- Little Fockers

Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller in Little Fockers (Paramount)

What is the saving grace of Little Fockers? It is that eventually the story ends up being more about Jack’s (Robert De Niro) psychotic persecution of Greg (Ben Stiller) than it does about the misunderstandings and unnecessary comeuppance that he got in the first installment of this series and set the tone for the characters.

The worse thing that a comedy can do is make you feel sorry for a character who has gotten himself in a difficult situation. That’s what the first film did in my estimation and what this installment narrowly avoids. How it manages to do that is by giving Greg just enough culpability such that we can comfortably chuckle at the mess he’s gotten himself into and not really sweat the outcome too much.

While it is rarely, if ever, highbrow humor Little Fockers does manage to be quite funny through most of it. However, it is never really about the aforementioned Fockers. There are two subplots about them: One is that Samantha (Daisy Tahan) isn’t speaking to Greg, which is resolved easily enough and another is that Greg and Pam want to enroll her and Henry (Colin Baiocchi) in a high-priced private school, however, that one never really resolves itself. Kevin (Owen Wilson) says he’ll talk to the head of the school and get them another interview after a little fiasco and that’s the end of that.

When Jack and Greg’s argument finally comes to a head and in the midst of the physical confrontation Greg is trying to explain himself, as he has put himself in the situation of making Jack think he is sleeping with Andi (Jessica Alba), a work associate, the apology/explanation is quickly accepted which is both somewhat of a relief and also a bit facile.

It does manage to be a funny film because of its cast but it is getting a little crowded even though everyone is talented they are starting to run up against All-Star Cast Syndrome, which is when there are too many recognizable actors that you want to see involved in the same project. For example, Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman are both very funny but their time is fleeting; Laura Dern is also hysterical but she likely gets more time than they do. Jessica Alba is quite good, albeit this isn’t a very involved character and she gets more time than those just mentioned.

The laughs stay pretty consistent throughout with one glaring exception and that is the ending. Now most of this is due to the Set-Up Factor where it’s a very cloying and obvious set-up for yet another film. They might either take it or leave it I personally hope they leave it because it’s too obvious a set-up (hint: Everybody Loves Raymond meets Meet the Fockers).

Despite all these peccadilloes sticking in my craw it was consistently funny throughout even if unoriginal and for whatever it may be worth I had very low expectations coming in and they were exceeded.

It’s a funny little film if you just don’t think about it too much as clearly I have.

6/10

Review- Tron: Legacy

Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy (Disney)

It would be best to lead with what works with this film, which is easier to enumerate than what does not. What does work, at least a majority of the time is the visual effects, the score is kind of cool too. This film is a visual effects artists’ playground but simultaneously the enemy of narrative. You should have seen it coming as few and far between are the positive reviews that lead with “The effects were so great.” However, as impressively striking as some of the visual sequences are some are bothersome also.

Those that are bothersome are mainly the computer-generated Jeff Bridges. Granted that in the first sequence they do a good job of camouflaging the CG-ness of the younger version of Bridges but having to look at a CG Bridges under the guise of Clu is very annoying after an extended period of time.

The issues for the story, which faintly flits about behind a computer generated masquerade, begin almost from the minute that answers start being provided. The mystery of “how did Sam (Garrett Hedlund) get here, why is his father still here and why can’t he leave?” is intriguing enough until you start to get answers.

The problem with the answers is how they are written. It’s as if the screenwriters mistook being confusing for sounding smart. As a matter of fact there’s a ten minute stretch of the film wherein none of Jeff Bridges’ lines are entirely coherent.  

There’s nothing wrong with a veil of confusion being thrown over a subject matter and the film either doesn’t try to answer the questions or does it best to answer them. This film does neither. It’s neither the kind of film that relishes ambiguity of meaning like some of Bergman’s work or tells an involved narrative but explains everything painstakingly like Inception. It just sort of sits there and you stare at it because it’s there and you don’t know why you stare at it but you just do. Which is saying something, that is that it’s not boring but it is most definitely insipid.

Moving on you glean whatever you glean from half-truths and gorilla dust, to quote the late great Phil Hartman, the basic plot is that Bridges’ character created an alter-ego when he was less wise than he is now and his megalomaniacal tendencies lead Clu to rule The Grid, this video game world, with an iron fist. And then? The stakes never seem that high because Kevin (Bridges) is reticent to leave at first even though it’s quite clear how it can be done. Furthermore, there’s little incentive for us to get emotionally involved because the laser light show has to start as soon as possible and therefore the bond and the heartbreak of the separation of father and son are never really firmly entrenched except in a very superficial way.

This is the epitome of a “Hit Me Movie” in the worst kind of way. You end up bathing in slick imagery and when it’s done you don’t feel cleansed or refreshed on the contrary you feel dirty.

2/10