DVD Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (3-Disc Collector's Edition)

Arriving on Disney
DVD & Blu-ray 12/2/08


Perhaps in an attempt to soothe our optimistic anxiety of the promises which were to greet us just outside the school doors before any given Fall, Winter, Spring, or Summer break, it became a tradition in my K-12 public school system for teachers to entertain us with movies. Renting those awkward and clunky TV/VCR combination carts from the Audio Visual Department that took our poor instructors twenty-five minutes to get working as their foreheads crinkled with each audible sigh and exasperated remark from the technologically savvy observations of my classmates who suggested plugging in the cord or changing the channel to "Video Three," we never knew just what would be screened for our viewing pleasure.

Of course-- anything being preferable to fractions and fill-in-the-bubble with a number two pencil tests-- we didn't much care if it was the inspiring sports films favored by gym teachers like Hoosiers, those from the child-friendly oeuvre of John Hughes or Steven Spielberg or the newest videotape from Walt Disney Home Studios Entertainment. However, there was one exception to the rule-- at least in the eye of this viewer, a budding critic who already received her name on the board (the one and only time) for expressing dismay at a particular classic in the second grade. Specifically, this was when without fail, every year we were force fed the old school version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Memories of the creepy White Witch, that smug little kid so easily manipulated and willing to gorge himself on a nasty diet of British delicacies like Turkish Delight (which still sounds like something you'd reject as a meal in the Coach section of any major airline) and the continual frustration of only being able to watch the beginning over and over and over again made me dread Narnia like the dentist. Never one for fantasy and someone who had trouble staying awake through the first Lord of the Rings-- it was only after a graduate level course focusing on Harry Potter that I began to appreciate the nuances of the genre and how much J.K. Rowling "borrowed from authors" of the past whether it was Tolkien, Lewis, Dahl and many, many others.

And likewise, once Disney and Walden Media got involved with the Lewis's Narnia-- trying to carve out a slice of the veritable science fiction/fantasy movie box office ATM that dished out so much money with LOTR and Potter, I became fascinated to try and get reacquainted with the storyline despite mixed reviews. And finally when I began hearing the raves about the thematically different and more action packed sequel Prince Caspian, I knew I needed to check it out.

While admittedly, the first film caused numerous yawns throughout despite a wickedly brilliant turn by Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as the White Witch, Prince Caspian simply astounds as one of those rare sequels that far surpasses the original. Yes, still annoyingly it's overly long in places as we're dished out a Disney-light take of Lewis's penchant for Christian dogma. However, the benefit of this particular version is that it ramped up the action and made the look of the film so much more international that instead of getting that claustrophobic, limited, and lily-white view of Aslan the lion and the White Witch, we're able to take the subtext of having faith as staying true to yourself or your imagination-- a very Disney principle of wishing on that famous star.

Although my interest was piqued by Caspian (which was definitely helped by posters of its frankly dishy twenty-something swashbuckling lead sporting Johnny Depp styled hair and model ready cheekbones), the one-two punch leveled by Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones knocked it off the block completely. Crashing and burning not quite as badly as Speed Racer which revved onto DVD and Blu-ray a mere four months after its initial release, the incredible DVD and Blu-ray marketers at Team Disney pulled out all the stops with a stunning variety of releases for Caspian.

While of course those who've already experienced their Blu-ray line know about the Disney BD-Live feature, DVD owners are in for quite a treat as well with this 3-Disc Collector's Edition, which includes the feature film transferred in its original widescreen aspect ratio on the first disc which also includes filmmaker commentary as well as a second overflowing special features disc but a third one which boasts viewers the option to download the film as a Disney File Digital Copy which allows you to travel along with Narnia on your iPod and other portable devices.

Serving up a much darker, action packed, and adventurous Arthurian Knights of the Round Table styled adventure, we're introduced to our hero the Prince Caspian (Stardust's Ben Barnes) who is set-up for assassination by his evil uncle (brilliant Italian actor Sergio Castellitto). When he makes his way to the wooded forest and sounds the call for help, the Pevensie foursome from the original are transported from London to Narnia once again, only to discover a world where the magic and its eccentric inhabitants have been subjugated by the Telmarines.

Offering Susan (Anna Popplewell) the chance to play a warrior like princess-- er, Queen-- the group initially explores the remarkably picturesque landscape only to answer the call from Royal Duty to kick-butt duty a bit too readily, stepping in to help the people of their land without blinking an eye. The first beneficiary of their assistance is the always welcome Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Find Me Guilty, Elf) as a Ben Folds-like "one angry dwarf" or as Queen Lucy (Georgie Henley) refers to him-- their new "dear little friend."

While unfortunately, Caspian seems to foreshadow that my two favorite Pevensie children-- Susan and High King Peter (William Moseley)-- both far less irksome than the whiny Edmond or pious Lucy will probably be relegated to the sidelines if the next sequel (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) is made, at least we're able to relish in their great turns in this film. Although, it does take nearly a full hour for the Pevensie quartet and Prince Caspian to cross paths.

Making up for the building plot with some tremendously astounding action sequences-- the storming of the castle at night is a particular highlight-- and are breathtaking landscapes-- the DVD's sound is phenomenal whether it's played via a receiver or on a stereo television as each and every hoofbeat and flap of a wing is heard. However, while the picture quality-- especially the mind-boggling CGI we learn more about in the Previsualization portion of a Disc 2 featurette-- is incredible, the film is best viewed on the largest screen you have access to and in the darkest room as it's predominantly dark gray, black, brown and night filled landscape and color scheme makes for some tricky viewing that would perhaps benefit from HD, Blu-ray, or from playing with your sharpness option on the remote.

Again offering a superlative number of extras on the second disc that displays the extraordinary amount of talent involved (the film's final credits-- featuring the beautiful closing song "The Call" by Regina Spektor and many other tracks-- runs over ten minutes), Disney delivers more than just run-of-the-mill promotional material.

Although its menu uses a font and text color that's incredibly faint and hard to read (light gray on a foggy, cloudy background), viewers are invited "Behind the Magic" for first-person accounts from cast-mates, the co-writer and director Andrew Adamson, the many members of the effects team, wardrobe, location scouts and more. Leading off the disc with a roughly thirty-five minute "Return to Adventure..." mini-documentary, the charismatic director and producers discuss the many, many obstacles of making the first movie along with essentially getting the same incredible band back together of those who'd stayed available to work on the sequel, as we witness the tremendously complicated shoot which involved eight to twelve hundred people on any given day with numerous departments working in tandem on different aspects. From nightly "tick checks" in risky locations and chronicling the globe, touring the sets with a relative of C.S. Lewis, and checking out the video game like Previsualtion and pre-editing of those amazing fight sequences, we're led into numerous creative enterprises as the movie began to take shape but one of the best featurettes by far, was "Big Movie Comes to a Small Town."

Clocking in at around twenty-three minutes-- yet filled with historical facts, poetic beauty and subtlety--Andrew Adamson introduces us to the residents of Bovec, Slovenia along with the emerald green river Soca, which he found to be the most spectacular river in the world. Filled with interviews with residents in subtitles, the filmmakers discuss the obstacles facing them in working in such a small historically significant town with the exceedingly well-protected water before going further back into history tying in some heartbreaking events from World War I and also managing to work in Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. A featurette of remarkable beauty and a highly welcome one that goes against the grain of required bloopers and interviews, it's these little touches that crop up surprisingly throughout the well-packed second disc that make it well worth exploring.

Although it was the winner of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, I must admit that despite its bloodless battles, the incredibly audacious action sequences and emphasis on flying arrows and dueling swords make it a film richly deserving and even pushing its PG rating to the limit. Yet Prince Caspian is a remarkable fantasy picture, in lieu of its trying 149 running time, that would've benefited from more than twenty minutes of trimming. However, this being said, it works effectively even for those who-- like me were a bit Narnia shy given the yawn-inducing Lion, Witch and Wardrobe-- or for those unacquainted with the work of C.S. Lewis. Releasing just in time for the holidays and no doubt in time for teachers to begin trying to bring it in before winter break-- hopefully they've come a long way since the days of the squeaky cart and blinking clock so kids will get a chance to fully delve into the wonder of Narnia adventure and away from those pesky fractions.

Get Caught Up
(Watch Part 1: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe)


Sangre de Mi Sangre (2007)

Arriving on DVD on 12/2/08

Alternate Titles:
Padre Nuestro
; Blood of My Blood


Whether it's journeying to a new land or returning from battle-- ultimately, you are who you say you are. Although it's a frequent topic on the evening news-- the term "identity theft," is fairly new and seems to call up images of online tricksters, mailbox raiders, and those seeking to impersonate you to score loots of prized booty like evil, amoral, technological pirates. Yet stemming back to books like The Count of Monte Cristo, to films like Sommersby and even modern day television series like Mad Men which are both set in the past, the irresistible idea that one can-- like hitting reset on a video game-- start over and become someone new has always existed.

Of course, it's much better in fiction and when one nobody is hurt in the process but in the case of writer/director Christopher Zalla's directorial debut Sangre de Mi Sangre, he raises the stakes doubly when the fake and real characters confront each other and also when he blends identity theft with the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. Obviously, on the surface, the two seem to be strange bedfellows but Zalla's plot set-up is ingenious and heartrendingly dramatic. It gives off a literary vibe by taking a rudimentary and gritty approach to the blending of the two instead of relying on cyber crime and a band of thieves with master's degrees in Internet Technology and Computer Information Systems who are unable to find work in this economy (hmm... perhaps that will be his follow up project).

Despite an overly clunky screenplay that often requires so much suspension of disbelief that we're forced to check any sense of logic at the door right from the opening few minutes, the film-- which earned the top Grand Jury Prize at Robert Redford's 2007 Sundance Film Festival-- works well at an essentially human level.

Centering on two young men who meet when both make the more than 2,000 mile journey from Mexico to New York City with the aid of a crooked border patrol employee and trucker, we're quickly introduced to Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espinodola) and Juan (Armando Hernandez) as instantly recognizable cinematic types.

The poor penniless, illiterate peasant Pedro, who recently buried his mother is traveling with the improbable yet optimistically grandiose hope of meeting the man who fathered him, who-- incidentally-- is unaware of his existence. Bearing only a letter of introduction written by his mother before her death, which he's obediently kept sealed and is unwilling or able to read, he bonds with the scheming Juan, whom we first see fleeing an angry group (of possibly those he's wronged) in his homeland before he hitches a ride on the Border Patrol Express.

While we're forced to overlook a few inconsistencies right off the bat involving the truck's proximity to the border, the decision to accept riders who don't have the correct fee, etcetera-- mainly Zalla pushes us past the more cerebral level of thinking by taking us straight into John Steinbeck meets Woody Guthrie territory. Instead of riding the rails, these young men are riding the truck into a country where they stay in the shadows, alluding authorities, and scrape to get by any way they can from sewing pieces of fabric together to make cloth flowers, to working in a kitchen, or trying to hustle on the streets.

Shortly after the two share their story-- or more precisely, the lonely and trusting Pedro hopes for a friend he'll know in New York-- we cut to a brutal reality as Pedro wakes up and is forced out of the truck, briefly beaten by the driver when he initially refuses to leave as he discovers that not only have all the other riders vanished including Juan but his letter has as well.

It seems that the ruthless and cunning, street-smart Juan has decided to look up Pedro's father, Deigo (Jesus Ochoa) himself, managing to locate him with very little trouble due to an address on the letter which-- just to sell the story and gain the confidence of the father as a budding "con" man-- he's read cover to cover.

Although the gruff restaurant kitchen worker Diego is extremely hesitant and unwilling to accept Juan (a.k.a. the "fake Pedro") at first, soon he takes the boy in as Juan does his damndest to scour the man's apartment looking for a rumored hidden stash of money that he's allegedly hording.

Meanwhile, Pedro doesn't fare nearly as well-- with no English, without his backpack, and with pockets full of lint instead of change-- the only thing he has of value is a gold locket bearing family photos which he's promptly swindled out of by a street smart, drug addicted, hooker named Magda (Paola Mendoza).

In a series of increasingly hard to believe scenarios, soon Magda joins the guileless Pedro on his impossible Don Quixote like quest to find his father whom he believes to be wealthy and prominent. Of course, on one level, you realize that Magda is simply-- much like Juan-- in it for the possible money, but the sudden change from Oliver Twist to Nancy Drew to the cliched "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" is much less fascinating than the dynamic between Juan and Diego.

While of course, you can't have the identity theft story without showing both sides of the crime-- namely, both the thief and the victim-- in Sangre, while our hearts are with Pedro throughout, his plot-line seems far less compelling or truthful and there are a few instances involving the prostitution angle (including a rape) that simply feel as though they were worked in to shock us into accepting their dynamic.

Yet, intriguingly-- although it isn't revealed until a bravura confrontation between Juan and Diego near the end of the film as the contents of the letter and circumstances of Pedro's past life in Mexico are finally revealed-- that the Magda and Pedro line finally makes sense. Of course, then again, Diego's comment early on in disgust to his "fake" son that when he'd first come to America, he'd had nothing mirrors Pedro's situation completely.

Thus in Sangre, the back and forth shots between both storylines endlessly remind us of the film's title in translation "Blood of My Blood," but I wonder if it would've been a bit more effective structurally if more of the familial history was hinted at earlier. And likewise, while I'm sure it plays infinitely better on a second viewing (which I'd recommend), to the typical filmgoer, two screenings shouldn't be required for a movie that doesn't fall into the "whodunnit" genre or M. Night Shyamalan territory.

And while the Greek tragedy elements exist as soon as Ochoa (most recently cast in Bond's Quantum of Solace) is first seen onscreen, they aren't fully served up until its riveting third act. In the end, it's the characterizations that draw us in-- despite a far too brief, rushed, and unsatisfactory confrontation and conclusion. For eventually this time in the end, it's the audience-- instead of simply Pedro-- who feels like we've been victimized not just by the scheming Juan but also by a slightly manipulative script from Zalla.

Despite this, otherwise Sangre is a riveting and affecting work that takes a decidedly different look at illegal immigration through the initial and disturbingly problematic thesis of-- in a new land and without documentation-- you are who you say you are whether it's Don Draper, Jack Somersby, The Count of Monte Cristo or a boy named Pedro.


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