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Issue Date:  December 16, 2005

Moral questions in love and war

'Narnia' captivates; 'Syriana' explores politics in the Middle East; a 'Shopgirl' chooses between two men


I saw the long-awaited opening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at a 42nd Street, New York, preview, where it passed with flying colors. A highly diverse audience -- racially and culturally -- of children and adults applauded spontaneously several times during the showing and again at the end. As for the much-discussed media controversy as to whether the religious underpinnings of C.S. Lewis’ allegorical fantasy would be so pervasive as to alienate general audiences, the answer was “No.” Moviegoers unfamiliar with Lewis’ work will probably have to be told that Aslan the lion is a symbol of Christ, but the story and setting, the characters and talking animals (particularly the endearing beavers) provide enchantment on their own. Those who have read the book may feel superior to others in the audience who may be both enthralled and puzzled. Director Andrew Adamson (codirector of “Shrek”) was wise enough to cut a bit of Lewis’ male chauvinism and not turn the movie into indoctrination.

“Narnia” expands the book’s opening, with Mrs. Pevensie sending her four children to the countryside early in World War II to avoid the Nazi bombings in London. What makes the story work is the credible way it brings out natural tensions between Peter (William Moseley) and his younger brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes), which helps explain the latter’s willingness to cooperate with the convincingly powerful White Witch (Tilda Swinton). Even better is that neither girl is made too attractive, neither Susan (Anna Popplewell) nor her younger sister Lucy (Georgie Henley). We easily identify with Lucy when she tries to reach the back of the wardrobe in a near-empty room in Professor Kirke’s country manor where the Pevensies have found a temporary home, and is surprised to see a streetlamp in the snow. We share her reactions of surprise, delight and shrewd reserve when she meets the confused faun Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who calls her “daughter of Eve” and invites her to tea.

When she comes back, of course, her brothers and sister don’t believe her story about the country she has discovered. But the next time they play hide-and-seek, she goes back to the wardrobe, and when Edmund follows her and stumbles out into Narnia, the White Witch easily captures him.

But there’s no point in my reviewing the plot’s twists. Better to assure you that the production team has made sure the movements of thousands of creatures is made to fit seamlessly with those of real actors in actual locations. Adam Gopnik has a point when he argues in The New Yorker (Nov. 21) that a lion is an inappropriate allegorical figure to represent Christ, but we respond with pleasure not to doctrine, but to Aslan’s majestic bearing and Liam Neeson’s voice.

For me, the music was often a distraction and there was too much fighting in the long climax. The movie ends with the kindly Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) asking Lucy if she would like to visit Narnia again. When she says yes, he teases her gently with his warning that she won’t be able to get back the same way next time.

Syriana is an excessively complicated thriller that asks you to follow every ambiguity in the complex relationships between American oil companies, governments and competing forces in the Persian Gulf. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar in 2000 for his script for Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” it was “suggested” by See No Evil, the memoirs of a disillusioned CIA veteran, Robert Baer. A geopolitical melodrama, “Syriana” suggests all kinds of sinister connections between the various groups competing for oil, money and power in the Middle East, but it is so overcrowded and slick it will not satisfy most audiences.

This is unfortunate because there’s a lot of intelligence in the way Mr. Gaghan cuts sharply between brief scenes, moving quickly from CIA headquarters to Geneva to some unidentified Middle Eastern country, forcing us to strain to catch whispered conversations. The outstanding cast is headed by overweight, cynical George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a CIA operative hoping for a desk job in Washington. He is given a last dirty assignment, to kill good (that is, “democratic”) Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), son of the fictional leader of an Arab state. Meanwhile Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst who becomes Nasir’s financial adviser. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a Washington lawyer trying to effect a merger between a major oil company and a smaller firm run by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), who has acquired drilling rights to Kazakhstan.

Apart from Prince Nasir, we’re never sure of the ethical intentions of its main characters. Everything is too fast; there are too many points of view; we suspect that Mr. Clooney’s character is being set up by the agency but he just might be a rogue operative. Under these conditions, it’s impossible to tell what the director wants us to think. Cynicism is an easy conclusion: Are all the major forces in the Middle East working in collusion to control the world oil supply?

We can’t help noticing that problems between fathers and sons deeply affect the main characters, but Mr. Gaghan never slows down enough for us to take in the complex relationship between private unhappiness and the drive for power and money. Fortunately, “Syriana” avoids simplistic moralizing, but there’s so much intrigue you’ll need to see it several times to figure everything out.

Shopgirl wants to be an up-to-date fairy tale; its basic tone is suggested by a sky full of obviously fake stars over a Los Angeles spread out before us like a buffet. Though a stylish, well-acted version of Steve Martin’s light novel, it has too many voiceovers and its narrative progress is erratic.

We first see Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) standing forlornly behind the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. Living with her cat and full of anomie, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a grubby font designer, in a laundromat and goes out with him on a disastrous date. The cat bites him, and Jeremy tells her he is going on the road with a rock band.

This allows wealthy Ray Porter (Mr. Martin) to enter her life, sending her a dinner invitation and an expensive pair of gloves. He’s a good deal older than Mirabelle, of course, but a smooth talker who’s fun to be with and seems ready to offer her everything. When Mirabelle visits his glass house on a hill, she responds warmly to the champagne and the offer of a trip to New York. But Ray is a veteran seducer, and after their first night together he tries to put limits on their relationship.

Consumerism is the background of “Shopgirl.” The many shots of all that is for sale at Saks offer a cynical framework for romance. The theme is further developed in terms of a contrast between Mirabelle and Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), an ambitious blonde coworker who would do anything to ensnare Ray.

Though director Anand Tucker allows much of the movie to be drowned by an oppressively demanding score, he is good at conveying its central concerns in visual terms. To reach her apartment, for example, Mirabelle has to go up and down outside stairs several times before reaching her door. The movements reflect her indecision regarding the film’s underlying question: Can we bring Cinderella to life in the complex ups and downs of the “everything for sale” culture of “Shopgirl”? When Mirabelle suddenly cries out to Ray, “Why can’t you love me?” it’s clear she is looking not just for sex, but genuine emotional commitment.

Meanwhile, eccentric Jeremy is working on growing up, a comical process in which he gets assistance from self-help tapes and his rock musician friend. Mr. Schwartzman shows a definite talent for farce, which helps us like him and allows the movie to avoid sentimentality. As for lovely Claire Danes in her flower-print dresses, she makes us want to ignore all the moral questions “Shopgirl” rushes past.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is:

National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 2005

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