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Sunday, December 8

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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Consider this film (hopefully the first of many based on the book series) a Lord of the Rings for the younger set. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an utterly faithful and visually lovely big-screen adaptation of the C.S. Lewis story about four children who wander through an ornate piece of furniture and into a land where animals can talk, an evil queen rules over her subjects with much brutality, and a sort of religious energy dictates the seasons and mood of everything. I recently reread this book to re-familiarize myself with the story and put my mind back in the state I was in when I was much younger and found this story completely enthralling.

Adding only the slightest backstory for the four Pevensie children (the film puts the story in its World War II context, explaining how their mother rushed them out of a frequently bombed London to reside safely outside the city), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe doesn't take long to dazzle us. When the youngest child, Lucy (Georgie Henley), wanders into the wardrobe during a game of hide-and-seek, she stumbles upon a snow-covered Narnia complete with a faun (a half man-half deer) named Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy). When you see Tumnus' legs, you get your first hint that the special effects of this film are going to be something special. And by the end of the film, we are witness to all manner of half-breed creatures engaged in battle scenes of the likes not seen since Lord of the Rings. Because all of the participants of these battles are either animals or creatures that are half animal-half man, it seems the effects might have been even more complicated. In any event, you could freeze-frame any scene in this movie and marvel at the technical accomplishments.

Director Andrew Adamson (who co-directed both Shrek films) does a splendid job of revealing each new marvel about Narnia to the children (William Moseley as the eldest, Peter; Anna Popplewell as older sister Susan; and Skandar Keynes as the troublemaking Edmund). One of Narnia's many attractions is the White Witch, played almost too scarily for young children by Tilda Swinton. Her performance is what takes this film from "good" to "extraordinary." She's both beautiful and hideous at once. In her early scenes of seducing information from Edmund with other-worldly candy, she displays an almost indecent charm, and it's marvelous.

We also get our first glimpse of how different Narnia is when we first meet a family of talking beavers (voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French). We soon realize that there isn't an animal in Narnia that doesn't speak, and our imagination never stops growing from there. I particularly liked the cooler-than-thou take Rupert Everett gives to the voice of a fox. But the crowning achievement of the film is the realization of the lion king, Aslan (with appropriately God-like vocals from Liam Neeson). There has never been a more noble and stunning lion on screen than Aslan.

When the children become more aware of their place in Narnia as the fulfillers of an ancient prophecy, they actually seem to grow older and more mature to fit their situation. It isn't long before the forces of good and evil are clashing on a grand scale in a sort of holy war among God's creatures. It's no secret that the religious aspects of this story and Lewis' series are not exactly veiled, but that shouldn't stop anyone from adoring this movie. The film leaves nothing out from the book and embellishes very little. Obviously the battle scenes are drawn out longer than they are in the book. Once you've replaced your dropped jaw at the film's conclusion, I doubt you'll find too many problems with the way the climactic war is handled; I couldn't. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is stellar storytelling, worthy of repeat viewings and much praise from all age groups. I almost wish I'd seen this film with children in the audience. I imagine their reactions would have been priceless.


Syriana
As often as I go to the movies to escape, to turn off the ol' brain, and just let Hollywood take me away to some far-off place and time, I find that it's the films that force me to think that I end up liking the best. In 2000, the film that made me think the hardest was Traffic, which earned its screenwriter Stephen Gaghan an Oscar. Gaghan has taken the same means of storytelling he employed in Traffic (multiple, loosely connected plot lines) and turned his attention to the oil industry with Syriana, which he also masterfully directs. And much as he revealed to us in Traffic that the drug dealers are the least important part of the illegal drug trade, he pulls back the curtain on big oil and its connections to terrorism, international turmoil and the U.S. government and intelligence agencies.

To tell these harrowing and sometimes overwhelming stories, Gaghan has assembled the finest ensemble cast of the year. George Clooney plays dumpy CIA agent Bob Barnes, whose specialty is the Middle East, a fact that turns into more of a liability than an asset for him. He's also an assassin who doesn't ask questions until it appears his country is deserting him when he botches a job involving the killing of an Iranian prince. Also striking gold here is Matt Damon as energy consultant Bryan Woodman, who turns a personal tragedy into a career opportunity, becoming Iran's primary architect for modernization. There are clearly many who wish to see Iran stay disorganized and underdeveloped.

My personal favorite character is Bennett Holiday (the extraordinary Jeffrey Wright), an oil lawyer assigned the task of due diligence prior to the government's approval of a mega-merger of two oil companies. He seems utterly mild-mannered, but in one of the film's early scenes his boss (Christopher Plummer) wonders whether he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He is. A bevy of fine supporting performance from the likes of Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson only improve upon an already flawless work.

As Gaghan peels back the layers of his dense and complicated world view, your heart will sink at the slow realization it is not the oil companies that control the government (as is the popular liberal belief) but the government that manipulates the oil companies to make deals that further U.S. interests in the Middle East. One of the most harrowing plotlines involves a laid-off (after the oil companies' merger is announced) Iranian oil worker who rediscovers his religious roots, only to be manipulated into committing a terrorist act. Syriana lays out a devastating map of assassinations that put leaders into power who the Americans can more easily manipulate and who won't allow their country to develop to the point where they can negotiate their own oil deals rather than work through middlemen. If all of this complex thought and conspiratorial plotting sounds like hard work, it is. Syriana is not an easy film to understand, but it's an even harder film to stomach if even half of what is laid out here is accurate. Syriana may make you feel powerless and small, but it will open your eyes and make you smarter and wiser to the ways of the world. This is not only a powerful movie—clearly one of the year's best—but an important and meaningful work that should be seen even by those who doubt its accuracy; maybe even more so by those people.


Protocols of Zion
I saw this film at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, and my mind still travels back to it with much bewilderment regarding its subject matter. Apparently there's a fairly widespread myth that no Jews died on September 11 because Jewish leaders found out about the attacks in advance and only warned fellow Jews. Ignoring the logic of this theory (if you don't want to call attention to your part in a conspiracy, why would you stand out by having none of your kind killed in such an attack?), this is just a bold-faced lie (director Marc Levin ends his film with a list of all Jews who died in the Twin Towers).

When Levin investigated the origins of this myth and other Jewish conspiracy theories, he discovered their common link: a bizarre and apparently popular book (in certain circles) entitled Protocols of the Elders Of Zion, which many anti-Semitic groups have taken as 100 percent fact. Protocols apparently maps out a plan forged decades ago by Jewish leaders to silently control the world through the media, the economy and the government. Levin has even unearthed footage from an Arab television station that dramatized some of the teachings of the Protocols. The very existence of this footage is disturbing, let alone what it illustrates.

Levin does not accept simply that the book is pure fiction, and he sets out on an exhaustive search for its origins and determine its place in the growing resurgence of anti-Jewish hatred all over the world today. (If you believe the conspiracy theorists, even anti-Semitic sentiments are a product of the Jews, a means to generate sympathy from nations like the United States.) Levin is not afraid to put himself, a Jew, in the middle of some pretty hard-core hostile situations. His revelations about what people think of Jewish people is a real eye-opener and unfortunately goes a long way to showing how much growing we need to do as a nation. Levin spends a great deal of time looking at the way blacks have adopted the anti-Semitic rhetoric propagated by white supremacists and certain Islamic groups, and in doing so, gives a credible history of anti-Semitism in the world. Protocols of Zion is a sad and poignant statement and a classic example of how people are perfectly willing to buy into anything, no matter how outrageous, as long as it fits into their belief system. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


39 Pounds of Love
As much as this documentary about animator Ami Ankilewitz wants to be a heart-warming tale of a man diagnosed at the age of 1 with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that effectively stopped his body from gaining any mass, the film succeeds much more as a sanctioned freak show. Not that the American-born Israeli resident Ankilewitz isn't a fascinating guy, but the fact that he weighs only 39 pounds and is completely immobile with the exception of his mouth and one of his fingers (which he uses to do computer animation, some of which is used effectively in the film) makes it easy to forget the messages the film is attempting to deliver.

When Ami was diagnosed in the United States, the doctor told his mother that he wouldn't live to see 6 years old. Now in his 30s, with a girlfriend and a tight network of friends, Ami decides to return to the States, drive across the country with one of his friends, and seek out the Texas doctor who signed his early death warrant. Just before he leaves Israel, the relationship with his girlfriend falls apart for reasons we're never entirely sure of (one of the film's many unanswered but obvious questions about Ami's life). The shots of her carrying him from the bathtub to bed or to his wheelchair are fairly startling, and the relationship Ami shares with his mother is moving, but there's something off about this film.

Unlike recent works like Murderball, which deals quite explicitly with the lifestyle of quadriplegics, 39 Pounds of Love leaves these details out. Still, Ami's American travels are quite wonderful, and the camera never shies away from capturing not only Ami's emotions but also the nervous looks of strangers. With a running time that barely grazes 70 minutes, the filmmakers could have spent a little more time discussing Ami's daily routine, which I'm sure is quite interesting and certainly would have added a much-needed depth to his story. There are plenty of people in this film who tell us how great the man is, and I have no doubt that's true. But in order to make us truly care about someone like Ami, you need to show his flaws and frustrations. This movie offers only a hint of Ami's darker side, while heaping on the sugar. 39 Pounds of Love is a flawed but still watchable work that opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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 .

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