Saturday, 17 May 2008

Prince Caspian - a movie review

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian movieIn a word: meh. Warning: spoilers follow.

This is a fairly mindless action flick, I'm afraid. A mediocre one, liberally sprinkled with charming moments. The real point of the book, which is the conflict between belief and disbelief, between faith and unbelief, is almost completely buried and allowed to surface only briefly here and there to keep the lovers of the original happy. Trumpkin's personal journey from cheerful skeptic to sturdy believer is so glossed over it loses all its resonance and power to move. (I also missed the cheerfulness of the book's Trumpkin. The movie version is too melancholy to smile, although thankfully still with enough spirit to deliver a zinger or two.) Having removed the psychological motor of the story, the screenwriters tried to replace it with cheap tricks: an improperly developed power struggle between Peter and Caspian (oh please, if you're going to introduce new elements, at least do it right), a spark of romantic interest between Caspian and Susan (which they both relinquish far too easily) and Peter's anguish at having to sacrifice soldiers in the unsuccessful attack on Miraz's castle (yes, you're right, that wasn't in the book). This last one illustrates everything that was wrong with the movie. In an attempt to reintroduce depth, cheap tricks are used half-heartedly. Peter's anguish comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. It's a throw-away moment and develops nothing. Both Caspian and Peter play with the idea of calling in the White Witch and are rescued from themselves by others. Again, it came from nowhere and led nowhere, is explained nowhere and explains nothing itself. Cheap, cheap, cheap. When Caspian proposes a duel with Miraz, it falls to Peter with no explanation whatsoever of why that should be. Again, cheap and poorly thought out.

The charming moments were almost entirely lifted from the original text of the book although Reepicheep and Trumpkin both get a couple of good original lines. The fate of the cat in Miraz's castle provided one of the good laughs. (I'm not going to spoil everything here.)

Visually, the movie is a treat and the special effects work very well.

One had to wonder at the decision to cast the Telmarines as Spaniards, both in their style of dress and armour, and in their accents. All the more amusing, since so many of them were played by Italians. It was an unexpected, but defensible decision.

Still, I can't help but mourn C.S. Lewis's spirited attack on modernity, perhaps best exemplified by the trashing of the schools as centres of indoctrination. Needless to say, this didn't make it into the movie. The central theme of the book was completely excised from the movie. What was left was moderately entertaining on a superficial level, but breaks down rather quickly on examination.

I'll probably watch the movie one more time when it comes out on DVD, just to catch the lines I missed (especially the one that everybody else laughed at). I doubt I will have any desire to see it again after that.

ETA: You can find a somewhat less snarky review here, which manages to find some good things to say (which I happen to agree with) even while pointing out even more problems.

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

City of God: A Novel - a review

City of God - E.L. DoctorowCity of God is a fragmented, dissonant, self-absorbed, and self-referential piece of post-modernist twaddle. Written by someone with real talent. It was only the fact that I had publicly committed to reading the book as part of the 1% Well-Read Challenge that kept me from abandoning it fairly early on in the game, despite the talent and the beautiful language.

The book is essentially a modern cry of despair, the logical conclusion of a worldview essentially wrapped up in self. Everett, the author whose words we are supposedly reading, has this to say about himself. (Or was it his fictitious alter-ego? I forget. It's very hard to keep track of who is speaking sometimes.)
So he is lean, fit, he takes very good care of himself in that way of someone profoundly faithless. He runs, works out almost religiously, for the self-maintenance that is his due.

The main object of his attention is Tom Pemberton, a maverick Episcopal priest who is supposedly seeking to find out who God really is, but who is equally self-absorbed. Witness his take on prayer:
You should try it. As an act of self-dramatization, it can't be beat. You get a hum, a reverberant hum of the possibility of your own consequential voice.

He calls his skull his cathedral, appropriate imagery for several reasons.

The plot, if you can call it that, is highly fragmented, told from various viewpoints, all presumably written by the fictitious author, and is really a series of different stories and metaphysical ramblings, interspersed with an adult version of teen angst poetry, riffing off of some of the classic songs of the early 20th century. A few little ornithological observations are thrown in for a reason which would probably become clear if I reread the book and spent a few hours meditating on its symbolism. (And please, Mr. Doctorow, it's not Canadian geese, it's Canada geese.)

The voice is well-done. Doctorow has a deft way with the language and occasionally throws out a flash of insight that delights. But there are a large number of viewpoint characters, most speaking in the first person, and almost all of them sound alike. This is sloppy characterization and makes it even harder to fit together the shards of story that make up City of God.

All in all, I found this a highly irritating book. From the pretentious arrogance of much of the metaphysical ramblings (I get very annoyed when affirmations of opinion are presented as logical necessities, when they are anything but), to the disjointed "story-telling", to the essentially unsympathetic characters, too much of this book was designed to grate on my nerves, so that its virtues just weren't enough to win me over.

Doctorow has won plenty of awards for his work, so obviously plenty of people disagree with me. I do note, however, that City of God appears to be one of his least popular books as rated by Amazon reviewers.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The General has a point

Roméo DallaireGeneral Roméo Dallaire (that's Senator Dallaire to you civvies) is upbraiding the Conservative government over the case of Omar Khadr. (In all fairness, the Liberals didn't do any better when they were in power, which may be why Stéphane Dion is threatening to discipline the senator, in yet another stunning example of Dion's lack of political and good sense.)

Dallaire's central point - and whatever you think of the General or Khadr or any of the political parties, it's a very good one - is that Khadr was only 15 at the time he was taken into custody and sent to Guantanamo. Someone that young is normally considered a victim of indoctrination and/or intimidation and is rehabilitated, not charged. He asks what makes this case different. And he's right. You cannot have two sets of standards, applied according to the political winds of the times. Either we stand for human rights and justice equally applied, or we don't.

Dallaire said Canadian soldiers have helped rehabilitate more than 7,000 child soldiers in Afghanistan. None of them have been prosecuted, he said.

"What is the political reason? What makes [Khadr] different from the others?" said Dallaire.

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