As we ease into the lazy summer pace of one blockbuster per week, we also settle into the provincial screening schedule of forever lagging a week behind. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, opening today, but not screened before the beginning of the week, will have to wait while I catch up with last Friday’s opening, not screened till the middle of the week, two days prior. (We wee weeklies require more lead time.) I might in any case have preferred this week to be writing about Claude Lelouch’s Roman de Gare, a bigger event for me than any Indiana Jones (or for that matter, Steven Spielberg) film, opening on Friday exclusively at the Hillcrest, but without benefit of any advance screening whatever. It’s hard to quell suspicions that the number of local press screenings has started to decrease since the Union-Tribune’s dismissal of David Elliott and its reliance on syndicated reviews in his stead. (On a broader front, the sweeping squeeze on print critics rouses suspicions over every rave for Iron Man or Speed Racer or the like. Where one once suspected an overenthusiastic reviewer of trying to justify his choice of job, one now suspects him of fighting to save it.) To turn, in the meantime, to last Friday’s news....
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, or as we could call it, The Lion, the Witch, No Wardrobe, maintains the medium-high standard of its 2005 forerunner, higher, in my estimation, than the standards of such close-by epic cycles as the Lord of the Rings series and the Harry Potter series. Perhaps I was predisposed to this one because, even though I’ve avoided his children’s books, I have read a fair amount of C.S. Lewis — that most rational of Christians — with pleasure and with admiration, whereas I have read but a little bit of J.R.R. Tolkien without either pleasure or admiration and have read J.K. Rowling (why do all these authors go by initials?) not at all. Even without such predisposition, the narrative elements of Narnia seem somehow to have more heft, more harmony, more resonance, and the individual installments (based now on two) demonstrably stand more solidly on their own.
The follow-up to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (again under the direction of Andrew Adamson, his second live-action film after making his name with Shrek and Shrek 2, whose smart-ass tone he has wisely stifled) makes a pretty clean break with the Story So Far and makes only minimal demands on your recollection of it. The four Pevensie siblings (William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley), otherwise known as “the Kings and Queens of Old,” herein return to the parallel universe of Narnia, not through the portal of a magic clothes closet but from an ordinary London subway platform (call it The Lion, the Witch, and the Tube, if you choose), but while it’s still WWII-time in England, a “few hundred” years have passed in Narnia. Ruins have replaced castles. Animals have regressed to dumbness. Trees stand rooted to the ground.
A paradigmatic deliverance myth is presently in progress, encompassing an exiled heir to the throne (the titular Prince, glamorously embodied by British stage actor Ben Barnes), an oppressive regime of swarthy Mediterranean types called Telmarines (Sergio Castellitto, Pierfrancesco Favino, Damián Alcázar), and a gathering rebel army numbering among its ranks a grumpy dwarf (amusingly acted by Peter Dinklage), a swashbuckling mouse and a Toryish old badger (both bigger than life), an air force of griffons, some centaurs, some minotaurs, one of whom merits a special medal of valor propping open a falling grate for an escape route as his body gets pierced by enemy arrows.
The resurrected lion, Aslan, out of circulation for centuries, remains something of a nonsectarian Christ figure around whom will swirl questions of faith and doubt. (Why can only the youngest Pevensie see him?) His long-delayed reappearance — his Second Coming? — does not disappoint, as he momentarily drops his cultured diction (voice of Liam Neeson) and lets loose a feral roar, entering the fray very late and rallying the dormant trees to the cause. The defeated White Witch (Tilda Swinton) also makes an exciting reappearance, but happily brief. If the film overall is a bit battle-heavy, and if a bit slowed by immoderate slow-motion, and if I myself still bridle at the martial prowess of these cherry-cheeked English schoolchildren (at least the resurrections are limited to just one), the climactic battle nevertheless features some galvanizing and agonizing changes in momentum, an imaginative stratagem of a subterranean cavalry charge, and the majestic intervention of a swelling water deity, bringing matters to a decisive resolution. (More sequels can be presumed to come, but where from and where to?) There are, and will be, plenty of summer movies with less to offer. Regardless of your age.
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Worth a mention, a look, a thought, a plan, is the week of plunder from the vaults of United Artists at the Ken Cinema (ostensibly the studio’s 90th Anniversary, though the films span fewer than twenty years): Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on Friday; John Sturges’s The Great Escape, Saturday; Robert Wise’s and Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story, Sunday; Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and Blake Edwards’s The Pink Panther, Monday; Terence Young’s Dr. No and Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, Tuesday; John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate and John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, Wednesday; Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Billy Wilder’s (again) The Apartment, Thursday. Your time machine to the Sixties — and to 1959 and 1977. Your time machine, too, to the era (not quite that far back) of repertory cinema at the Ken, a new show every day.