The best moments of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe come early. But even once they’ve passed, this adaptation of CS Lewis’s children’s classic has a surprisingly humble charm. When Lucy (Georgie Henley), the youngest of four children evacuated from home during a WWII air raid, discovers a land inside the wardrobe of her new residence, the magic is made palpable. Director Andrew Adamson reaches fantasy through childhood faith. Narnia itself is designed mainly as an Earthbound forest holding incredible creatures. It’s the real world reimagined through a kid’s eyes. It’s also here that The Chronicles of Narnia starts losing its grip through a string of random encounters and Lord of the Rings-lite set pieces. Still, by keeping the novel-page-to-movie-minute ratio fairly even, Narnia works its spell by not feeling too compressed. It’s big-scale fantasy without the bombast.
Important subject matter doesn’t always equal important movies. What matters is how themes are presented, not whether the material is ripped from headlines or history, or caters to political bias. It’s a ruse of sophistication that can be blamed for the accolades received by Syriana and Capote. As cinema, there’s more going on in Chicken Little.
Because neither Syriana or Capote have emotional impact (the ability to lift issues from lecture-hall dryness), their detachment is seen as complexity — requiring viewers to will themselves to pay attention to every scene. The former, an expose on US foreign policy within the global oil industry, is written and directed by Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan. It’s praised by Roger Ebert: “We’re not really supposed to follow it, we’re supposed to be surrounded by it.” But “surrounding” the viewer is what every involving movie does. Syriana’s muddled storytelling is a detriment.
Gaghan’s interconnected narratives demonstrate a wealth of research into this subject. They involve a CIA operative (George Clooney), an oil industry analyst (Matt Damon), an attorney (Jeffrey Wright) and a Pakistani labourer (Mazhar Munir). Some of this has opportunity to be exciting, but individual characters are never given time or space to develop. In Syriana, it’s all about the delivery of topical information, revealed in an endless checklist of facts spoken by talking heads. The shaky-cam visuals appropriate the look of nightly news reports, and that’s symptomatic of Gaghan’s failure to give his polemic a soul. His new-to-DVD Havoc treats teenage delinquency with an equal reliance on condescending verbal soundbites. The drama never emerges from the shadow of the message.
The static long shots that make up Capote’s visual scheme suggest a director without the confidence to take visual risks. But the still-photo quality of Bennett Miller’s film attains more than just a straight-out-of-film-school vibe, capturing rural Kansas with a deathly isolation. For New York intellectual Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it’s an appealing contrast. Hoffman embodies the famed writer in a series of weird ticks and gay mannerisms. At once unmistakable and over-calculated, the performance, like the movie, feels like an act. Capote raves that he’s going to revolutionize things with In Cold Blood, his pending non-fiction novel about rural murders. Why this is a good thing is never touched upon. The movie hangs upon Truman Capote’s downfall as a tragic hero. His tragedy is the result of his deceitfulness and manipulation. His heroism stems from the movie’s romanticized view of journalistic honour. But like many artist biopics, Capote barely grazes the art that makes its title character important. During the author’s research he becomes attracted to his murderous subject Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). But Miller tiptoes around Capote’s passion — as though implying it is an act of bravery. Despite their similar grand- standing, Capote has the opposite problem of Syriana: There’s not enough going on.