Dawn Treader forebodings

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a pretty good stab at the original novel, with added action which was still part of the original plot (mostly). Prince Caspianwas likewise, but with a lot more additional plot, there being a lot less original plot to work with. But the extra plot slotted in well and I liked it. It even drove home the point Lewis was trying to make: trust Aslan.

But I wondered even then what they would do with Voyage of the Dawn Treader. It’s a picaresque novel, a series of only loosely connected adventures. It’s also the one where the kids from our world really are surplus to requirements. They are along for the ride. Caspian could easily have done this all on his own and told his friends about it when they met up again in The Last Battle. How, I wondered (with some trepidation) would they turn that into a Hollywood movie?

The answer, apparently, according to Rober Ebert, is they’ve turned it into a bloody quest.

I suppose it was inevitable – it may even have been the only thing they could do. And I hope it works, because it’s my favourite of the novels, and if this tanks then there might be no Silver Chair, which would be a shame and which really is a proper quest adventure. (I would love them to get Alan Rickman as Puddleglum … but they probably won’t.)

But even so. To quote Mr Ebert: “Narnia is threatened by evil forces from the mysterious Dark Island, which no one has seen but everyone has heard about. There is a matter of seven missing magical swords representing the Lords of Telmar, which were given to Narnia by Aslan the Lion (voice of Liam Neeson) and must be brought together again to break a spell that imprisons the lords.” Gak, gak, gak, and eek.

It may yet work. I may even watch it, but probably not in the cinema unless there’s a 2D version. Yup, to rub it all in, it’s 3D. Meh. But! Even if it doesn’t stink completely, if it doesn’t have the Dufflepuds, and doesn’t have Eustace the dragon, and most especially if it doesn’t have Reep finally getting his heart’s desire at the end of the world … well, I tell you now, I will be very stern and disapproving.

The Bens 2010

I freely admit to nicking this idea from my friend Bob, who has to have regular dialysis and so gets through a lot of films and awards his own annual Bobs to them. So, here are the 2010 Ben Awards, for movies seen during 2009.

The guiding criterion of the Bens is the principle oft-stated by Roger Ebert and repeated by me so often that Bonusbarn now likes to get in there first: it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. Also (like the Bobs), as any movie seen is eligible the winner in any category doesn’t have to be new.

Best movie shortlist

Bubbling under: Layer CakeValkyrie

The winner: Inglourious Basterds

The judges note: for its sheer panache, exuberance, total in-your-face disregard of history and recycling of Ennio Morricone, it can only be this one.

Best performance shortlist

Bubbling under: Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno, Brüno), John Malkovitch (Buck Howard, The Great Buck Howard); Meryl Streep (Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada). All very good, all cursed by the fact that they are in fact so good they could do it in their sleep.

The winner: Christoph Waltz

The judges note: rare as it is for Tom Cruise to get any kind of acting award, he is certainly worthy of consideration for so completely burying his film star persona in his portrayal of the noble but ultimately doomed von Stauffenberg. Quentin Tarantino is good at getting actors you wouldn’t normally associate with the part to turn in a master performance (cf. Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill pt 2) and in 2009 he triumphed with Christoph Waltz, whose name may be on everyone’s lips in his native Germany but is barely heard of outside it; the creator of the charming, slimy, ruthless, highly intelligent, mesmerising Col. Hans Landa – one of the few baddies you actually want to win and then kick yourself for realising that he’s sucked you in too.

Best SF or Fantasy shortlist

The winner: Let the Right One In

The judges note: the only vampire movie it has been worth watching the past decade.

Best animated movie shortlist

The winner: WALL·E.

The judges note: while the other movies on this list successfully used animation to portray real people, WALL·E used animation to ascribe emotions and feelings to a mechanical device that are more realistic than many actors can manage.

Best comedy shortlist

The winner: Brüno

The judges note: awarded even though, or perhaps because, the judges spent half the movie with their eyes shut; and even though he’s done it all before.

Best quirky / indy movie shortlist

The winner: Telstar

The judges note: comedy, tragedy, good acting, excellent music and a faithful recreation of period. The same could almost be said of The Boat that Rocked andStone of Destiny but in the former (fictitious recreation of the Radio Caroline heyday) the tragedy is just a bit too fluffy and nice and in the latter (slightly fictioned-up account of how some genuine Scottish students stole the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland) you only really care about the outcome if you’re Scottish.

Best crime movie shortlist

The winner: Layer Cake

The judges note: this is probably the role that got Daniel Craig the Bond gig, but here he shows he is so much better than that. This is the movie Guy Ritchie would make if Guy Ritchie could actually make movies.

Best movie featuring Bill Nighy shortlist

The winner: Valkyrie

The judges note: not only does Nighy actually resemble the historical character he plays, but apart from the only occasional trademark Nighy grimace he actually acts the part.

Best previously seen and worth rewatching shortlist

Bubbling under: The Whole Nine Yards

The winner: Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The judges note: one of the very few cases where Hollywood takes rights to a book and improves on the original. They also note that while Paul Bettany is far too young to be Dr Stephen Maturin, this is made up for by the flawless casting of Jack Aubrey, Killick, HMS Surprise and other roles.

Best overcoming of the plot’s sheer predictability shortlist

The winner: The Commitments

The judges note: you have to be brain dead and/or historically illiterate not to work out how any of these are going to pan out, but The Commitments does it with Irish humour and great music.

Best phoned-in performance shortlist

The winner: Clint Eastwood

The judges note: for most of the movie he is, while still very good, undeniably Clint Eastwood doing a post-retirement pensionable Dirty Harry. Then suddenly we get taken by surprise.

Finally, for the record, here is the full list of all contenders for 2009.


Very little of what follows is a spoiler because you’ll work most of it out for yourself in the first five minutes, leaving you with 2h35m of brain candy to absorb.

Avatar doesn’t have a fresh idea in its pretty little head but its head is very pretty. If you’ve seen Tarzan (fantastic tree-hugging jungle escapades), Dances With Wolves(out-of-town boy goes native), Aliens (bone-headed military with technofetish hardware) and the work of Roger Dean then you’ve pretty well got it – but it joins these well-established dots very nicely, with not a single bad performance and nary an unconvincing special effect. Sigourney Weaver – well, naturally, excellent. The aforesaid hardware will appeal to anyone who grew up on Gerry Anderson. Even the bad guys are a little better rounded than in Aliens – the chief civilian would really rather not massacre innocents if he can possibly help it, and the chief jarhead has a job to do which, okay, he relishes a little too much.

The story really is engagingly naive and would have us forget every example from history of what happens when more and less technologically advanced peoples collide. Even in Dances with Wolves, Dunbar knows he’s only checked the advance temporarily: he and his friends must head west. Anyone who thinks, at the end of this one, that the humans won’t be back in far greater force is a fool. “Nuke the entire site from orbit; it’s the only way to be sure,” Sigourney once sagely uttered in an earlier Cameron movie. Nukes wouldn’t be needed in this case, just masses and masses of weed killer.

Then there’s the whole questionable morality of turning so totally upon your own people. I can understand disagreeing with them to the extent that you go and live somewhere else but a massacre of these proportions just isn’t on. We’ve been told that one check on the power of the colonists is public opinion back home, but when word of this gets back to Earth, surely politicians will be elected on the sole mandate of shipping the weed killer to Pandora. And, fatally, it actually gives a bit of sympathy to the chief jarhead. “How does it feel to betray your own people?” are his not unreasonable dying words.

So, zero advance in science fictional story telling but astonishing advances in the visual medium of telling stories. Even without the 3D, the alien world would inspire awe and the 3D itself isn’t intrusive. I could comfortably wear the 3D specs over my own glasses and everything on screen looks completely natural. There is no gratuitous waving-things-at-camera to remind the audience they’re watching in 3D and you half – but only half – forget it’s there.

Whether a story needs that kind of visual telling is another matter. This one doesn’t. I would love to see Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss, which is a factual 3D documentary filmed around the wreck of the Titanic. That would be worth the extra effort. As it is, the 3D is a tool but that’s all. Technologically, anything that makes the user jump through one more hoop to achieve an effect is doomed to failure, even if that hoop is as simple as putting on a pair of special glasses. (The behind-the-scenes people may of course be jumping through no end of hoops – that doesn’t matter.) 3D will have arrived when viewers can comfortably snuggle down in front of the TV equivalent and watch it with exactly as little effort as they can switch the TV on now.

The CGI effects blend seamlessly with the real actors, so you can see 12-foot blue skinned humanoids and human beings travelling in a futuristic helicopter without once spotting the joins. And yet, when I think back on it everything including the humans appears in my mind’s eye as a Playstation-quality generated image. Strange.

And finally, a prayer. The marines are so obviously of the same ilk as the ones in Aliens that I could well believe this to be the same universe … and therefore, please God let no idiot studio exec decide that what the world really wants is Aliens and/or/versus Predator and/or/versus Avatars.