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Monday, December 9

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The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

There's a simple formula to decide whether of not you'll like this second Chronicles of Narnia installment. If you liked The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you'll love Prince Caspian. If you didn't like the last film, you'll probably dig Caspian a whole lot more; you might even like it. And if you're predisposed to disliking a story for its religious undertones (and make no mistake, the God overtones of the first story are far more buried in this one) or because its young stars seem a bit too foppish for your tastes, stop reading now and go find something constructive to do with your time.

Right at the top here, I have to give director Andrew Adamson (who also did the first film) his due: he's found his stride with Prince Caspian. The action is staged far better; he's directing his actors (especially the four playing the Pevensie siblings) with more sure handedness; and he's not afraid to bring out the darker, more rage-filled qualities in the characters and the source material from C.S. Lewis. The overall production feels like a work with more confidence in its far more aggressive and expansive story. Adamson and his co-writers have made significant adjustments to the action (including an entire battle that is not in the book), while leaving in some of the seemingly less-significant character development and plot turns. But it's these minor inclusions that I think fans of the books will appreciate and cling to.

Also significantly different between first and second films is the body count. I'm genuinely surprised that this movie managed to get a PG rating. While the blood doesn't flow and/or spurt, there is a tremendous amount of human and creature death. And I'm not complaining; it adds a great deal of much-needed weight and menace to the proceedings. I was particularly impressed with emotional heft given to the film by William Moseley's performance as King Peter and Ben Barnes (some of you may remember him from Stardust) as Caspian. Adamson has created an early-film rivalry between the two that wasn't really there in the book, and it's an improvement and an important motivational tool for much of what happens in the story.

The film is set one year later in the real world (in which Britain is in the final throws of WWII). The children are quickly sucked out of a London train station and back into Narnia, which has progressed 1,300 years. Caspian has used a magic horn once belonging to Queen Susan to call for help shortly after he has escaped his uncle, King Miraz (played by my favorite Italian actor working today, Sergio Castellitto). Miraz wants to take over the throne of his land, which rightfully belongs to Caspian, son of the previous king. But when Miraz's wife gives birth to a boy child, Miraz sets out to kill Caspian and establish his new son as the rightful heir. After being secretly trained in the "old ways" by his faithful tutor, Doctor Cornelius (Vincent Grass), Caspian flees into the woods leading to Narnia where he is befriended by some dwarves (Willow's Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage of The Station Agent) and a talking badger. The former kings and queens of Narnia arrive from London at their old dilapidated castle, but soon run into Dinklage's Trumpkin and, eventually, Caspian and the early stages of his Narnian army set to defend the land against Miraz's advancing armies.

The battle scenes aren't just choreographed better than the first film; they are genuinely awesome. I found my eyes darting around all parts of the screen to spot dozens of different Narnian beings bearing weapons. But as with the book, my favorite new character is rapier-wielding mouse Reepicheep, voiced to gallant perfection by Eddie Izzard. It should come as no surprise that Reepicheep seems modeled after Puss in Boots, since Adamson directed the first two Shrek movies. But Reepicheep is not meant strictly as comic relief; he's a genuine hero who can kill a full-size man with a single stroke of his tiny sword.

If Aslan the Lion (again voiced by Liam Neeson) was playing Jesus in the first story; he's doing more of the God thing in Prince Caspian, since he is a largely unseen being that does not seem interested in helping those who don't believe in him with no proof that he exists. The film is big on faith, with young Lucy being the biggest keeper of said faith.

I mentioned earlier that this movie explores the darker aspects of its story, and I meant that literally. It seems like half the film is set during the evening or in dimly lit underground locales. This bugged me at first because keeping things dark made it tough to see some of the great special effects, but eventually things move into the daylight and all is good. Let there be light, and all that. This also is a story that isn't afraid to get a little scary sometimes. The scene with Caspian being tempted by the Wer-Wolf and the Hag is left almost intact from the book, but where it strays, it does so beautifully, giving us a tease at villainy that may still come before the series runs out.

And what about the rest of the series? Caspian is the most important character in this story since he leads us through the next installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Barnes is a solid performer playing a young man ordained to unify and lead a land, and uncertain he's got what it takes to do so. They've cast Caspian perhaps a little older than the books lead you to believe he is, but Barnes is more than just a pretty face. He'll be even more fun to watch as Caspian gets more secure in his role as king.

Prince Caspian is a work that manages to be both lovely and a little bit dangerous. It's so well done, in fact, that there were times when I stopped seeing the talking animals and other creatures as beautifully rendered effects and saw them as simply warriors fighting for their lives. I lost myself in this movie more often than not because Adamson didn't overwhelm me with splashy visuals. This is clearly material he loves and respects, and that comes through in every shot. The film also shows that you can make a family film that doesn't feel the need to pander or dumb itself down, and I admire it for that above all else. This is youthful fantasy done right.

Body of War

As I did the two summers before, last August I went to Lollapalooza and stood among the tens of thousands of others on the final night watching Pearl Jam rip shit up with the Field Museum behind them. Late in the show, singer Eddie Vedder brought out man in a wheelchair named Tomas Young, who had been paralyzed from the mid-chest down from a bullet that pierced his collarbone and ripped though his spine. When this happened, Young was on his first mission in Sadr City, Iraq in an unarmored Humvee that didn't even have a canvas covered the bed. As Young puts it, "It was like shooting fish in a barrel." Tomas had been in Iraq five days when he was wounded; he was 22. Vedder heard about Young after watching a rough cut of a film called Body of War, and he ended up contributing two songs to the soundtrack, including one, "No More," that he played that August night with the young vet at his side. The song is Tomas' story set to a simple acoustic guitar backdrop, and you hear pieces of it throughout Body of War, one of the bravest examinations of the day-to-day struggle it is to be in disabled veteran in America, especially one who realizes that the reasons he enlisted were a lie and decides to make it his mission to end the war in Iraq from the confines of a wheelchair.

Tomas enlisted two days after September 11, 2001, after he saw President Bush standing atop the rubble of the Twin Towers. He wanted to go to Afghanistan to find the evildoers. But by the time he made it through training, Bush & Co. had their sights set on Iraq. Body of War cuts back and forth between Tomas' life and the speeches and votes that led to the conflict. Most fascinating is listening to portions of speeches by the 23 U.S. Senators who opposed the war back in 2002. But the heart and soul of this film is Young's life story. He was luckier than most in his condition. He had a fiancé (they were married soon after he got out of the hospital), and he had a support system with his mother and brother, who was himself preparing to ship off to Iraq. But the filmmakers Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue (yes, that Phil Donahue) give us an unflinching look at Tomas' life, frustration and failures that lead him to become a leading anti-war advocate. If you've ever wanted to see a mother put in her son's catheter, look no further. Tomas is disturbingly forthcoming about his limits and pains. He can't cough because he has no access to the stomach muscles necessary to do so. He talks a great deal about his nonstop battle with erectile dysfunction (apparently injecting some wonder drug into your penis is one potential solution).

For a man who has trouble sitting up straight without feeling dizzy, Tomas gives a remarkable number of speeches in a given year. Not surprisingly, his condition takes its toll on his relationships with his wife and family. Tomas is afraid that his wife's role as housekeeper and nursemaid to him will make them hate each other, a price he's not necessarily willing to pay. He gets mad when she goes to work or out with friends, but they fight constantly when she's around. It's painful to watch and hear about; I can only imagine what it must be like to live through. I haven't seen a film with this much raw honesty about post-war recovery since Born on the Fourth of July, and even that effort didn't capture the inner torment quite as convincingly. It's wonderful to see Tomas' first meeting with the Iraq Veterans Against the War and his journey to join Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas. Regardless of your views on the Iraq War, this is going to a tough film for anyone to watch. But it's a thoroughly moving and fulfilling work, and one of the most powerful documentaries I've seen in a year that has already given us so many strong docs. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Before the Rains

There have been many films made over the years about the waning years of British rule in India. The latest is the admirable but minor effort Before the Rains, the English-language debut from Indian director/cinematographer Santosh Sivan (The Terrorist), which tells the story of an Englishman whose affair with a married Indian woman sets off a chain reaction of events that symbolize (none too subtly) the damage done to Indian culture by outsiders.

Linus Roache (the gifted character actor who played Bruce Wayne's father in Batman Begins and is now a regular on "Law and Order") plays Henry Moores, who has decided to build a more fortified road to expand his growing spice harvesting business. The road must be completed before the monsoon season starts and it must be able to withstand the torrential rains that accompany the season. Finding labor is not an issue, even as resentment toward British presence in India is growing. Moores relies greatly on his assistant T.K. (Rahul Bose, who some may have seen in White Teeth), a Western-educated Indian man who sees the advantages in having the British around (sturdier roads, for example). Moores also has a beautiful housekeeper named Sajani (Nandita Das from the film Fire), and the two have been having an affair for some time. Sajani's husband is a brute who beats her regularly, especially when rumors circulate that she was spotted with another unknown man in the jungle between Moores' home and her village. When Moores' wife (Jennifer Ehle) and son arrive, the affair must be put on hold to Sajani's regret.

A great, unexpected tragedy and the events to cover it up lead to broken hearts, fractured loyalties, false accusations and the end of an era in this part of the world. As you can probably surmise, Before the Rains is loaded with juicy melodrama, which I usually loathe, but here it's handled beautifully. Perhaps this is part of the reason the film has been released under the Merchant-Ivory banner (although the team had nothing to do with the film's production). I love seeing Roache play a leading role for once, even if his character is a bit of a coward as he dismisses his loving words to his mistress the second his wife arrives on the scene. But the real discoveries here are Bose and Das, both of whom are major stars in India, and I'd love to see more of in Western productions. The film has passion, rebellion and a terrific sense of time and place. For those of you looking for a little escapism without giving up your need for human drama, Before the Rains is the one for you. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer

When I heard that I was going to see a film about three generations of Mexican-American women, I kind of thought I not only knew what I was in for, but that I'd seen it before. What writer-director Georgina Garcia Riedel's feature debut is really about is different kinds of passion: young love, desperate lust and the kind of passion that ignores age. Each of the Garcia women (played by America Ferrera, the still-stunning Elizabeth Peña as her mother and Lucy Gallardo as Peña's mother) are lovely beings who want and deserve passion in their lives, but tradition, religion and elders have taught them that to desire such things is wrong. And the film's version of desire is not some clean-cut, glossy lens version of it. The sensuality and sexuality in this film is palpable, messy, uncomfortable and usually totally worth it. There isn't much of a pretty score to make things seem more romantic or idealized. Garcia Riedel is going for realism here, and she scores.

Ferrera is, of course, the reckless high school virgin who falls hard for the rebel boy, rumored to have gotten another girl pregnant in a nearby town. Peña has divorced her cheating husband and is contemplating an affair with a married man (Steven Bauer). The most remarkable Garcia girl is Gallardo, an Argentine actress, whose character impetuously buys a used car and begins a sweet courtship with her gardener as he teaches her to drive. Her thinking with the car purchase was to be a bit more independent, but it's the courtship that really brings her out of her shell after decades of being a lonely widow. The women argue amongst each other about their respective relationships, and its this entirely female perspective that is so invigorating about Garcia Girls. I can honestly say I've never seen a film like this. Even Garcia Riedel's visual style is unique, often holding the shot on someone long after they're done talking or focusing on their hands while they converse.

The performances are across-the-board fantastic, but Peña continues to take my breath away. Why she isn't more famous, I'll never quite understand. She's also a fantastic actress who probably has the toughest role in this movie as a mother who is torn between her beliefs that she shouldn't have lustful feelings, especially for a married man. She sees her daughter following in her footsteps, and when her own mother starts seeing the gardener, she begins to question everything she believes. It's always harder on me watching beautiful women suffer; I can't help it. Trailers for this film might lead you to believe there's a bit of whimsy afoot, but if anything the film could have used a little more lightheartedness. This is a film about three women who are the victims of their own inner torment and how each of them seeks to pull themselves out of their suffering with or without a man by their side. Garcia Girls has an easygoing pace that almost makes you forget you're watching a movie, and I genuinely enjoyed the experience. So will you.

The Witnesses

Opening today at the Music Box Theatre is the curious but entertaining French offering The Witnesses, which is set during the early years of world's AIDS crisis. Director and co-writer Andre Techine (Wild Reeds; Strayed) sort of backs into his story about a groups of friends who invite a young gay stranger into their world. An older doctor (Michel Blanc) meets the young man (Johan Libereau) while cruising a Paris park. Instead of having sex, the pair become great friends, and soon the doctor is inviting him to spend weekends with him at the lakeside cabin of a couple (played by Emmanuelle Beart of 8 Women and Sami Bouajila from Days of Glory). Soon the husband (who is a police officer) and the young boy are having an affair, and while it doesn't stay secret for long, it does take a couple of scary and unexpected turns. The HIV virus enters the picture at a time when no one knew exactly what it was, how it was transmitted, or how to stop it from spreading.

Some of the least sensitive films I've ever seen about the AIDS epidemic were French films released in the 1990s, so The Witnesses seems like a welcome step in the right direction. The movie also typifies what I love about films that come out of France. The film doesn't have a natural beginning or end; it simply starts and finishes where it wants without sacrificing its dramatic arc or the devastating story it tells. The plot is not about a crusade, and it offers no life lessons. It simply tells its beautiful story and moves on. Even with Michel Blanc's character as a doctor who focuses all of his research efforts on AIDS, the movie is not attempting to deliver a message about safe sex or better behavior. Techine is a great storyteller who needs no excuses to tell his tale however he would like, and the result is a period piece set in 1984 that resonates as much today as it would have if it had come out 15 years ago.

Irina Palm

This film completely floored me. I missed this work from German director Sam Barbarski when it played at last year's Chicago Film Festival. I'd read good things about it, especially Marianne Faithfull's brave and jaw-droppingly fine performance as a 50-year-old woman intent on somehow raising the money to pay for an experimental treatment to keep her ailing grandson alive. Her character, Maggie, has no skills to get a normal job, and her age makes it unlikely that a younger person wouldn't get any job she was qualified to get even with skills. She sees a sign in the window for a strip club advertising a "hostess" job, which apparently in this neighborhood means something other than finding the clientele a table close to the stage. The club owner (the fantastic Yugoslavian-born actor Miki Manojlovic) explains to Maggie that her job will be wanking off customers through a glory hole in one of the club's back rooms. It soon becomes clear that Maggie, who is still very much intent on staying faithful to her long-dead husband, has a talent for her work (soft hands are apparently key), and soon a line forms outside the booth where she plies her trade.

Faithfull's performance here is unreal, and knowing what we know about her past and the rock stars and other pop culture icons she's bedded in her younger days, she still manages to appear beyond uncomfortable when she first learns her job. But it's more than that. She's downright dowdy in the way she dresses, walks and otherwise carries herself. As shocking as the film's subject matter is, it's never gratuitous or crude, quite the opposite. This is a sensitive character study about a woman who wants to do right by her grandson, her son and her boss. But much like this week's other offering, The Garcia Girls, it's about a mature woman discovering her gifts. And while I wouldn't say Maggie ever grows to love her job, she does enjoy her potential as an earner. The film isn't played for laughs, but it does have its humorous moments, especially when Maggie develops a severe case of "penis elbow" and is forced to become ambidextrous. Irina Palm (the title comes from the name the club boss gives her) is also a deeply dark film, especially when Maggie's secret is (not surprisingly) revealed. But the bottom line is, this a fantastic movie with exceptional performances and a great deal of knowing heart. It opens today for a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Dark Matter

So what is a film co-starring Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn doing in a relatively small film festival? It's doing very nicely, thank you. More specifically, the lead performer, Liu Ye, is doing quite well as a Chinese student who comes to America to study under one of his heroes in the field of astrophysics, a professor and researcher played by Quinn. The naive and shy Liu also falls under the spell of an extremely sweet and slightly rich woman (Streep), who seems mad about Chinese culture, art, clothes, music, etc. When the vastly intelligent, freethinking Liu makes a breakthrough in his research that directly contradicts his boss's largely accepted theory, the entire team (made up largely of other Chinese imports) turns against him. He defiantly presents his work to the board that may or may not grant him permission to continue his research for his thesis (thus allowing him to stay at the university), and the professor's blanket dismissal of his theories causes Liu to doubt himself and eventually crack.

Said to be based on a true story, director Chen Shi-Zheng does a stellar job of building up the film's level of suspense and making Liu's behavior wholly unpredictable and sometimes scary. By burying himself in his work and not making friends, Liu doesn't have the support system to deal with any level of failure or rejection. Dark Matter turns from hopeful and positive to sinister and disturbing so skillfully, you almost miss the transition. The recent acts of violence on college campuses add an extra layer of menace and timeliness to the film, making it all the more relevant and disturbing.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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