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The twain shall meet: (l-r) Macfadyen and Knightley in Pride & Prejudice.

The Undefeated
By Ann Morrow

Pride & Prejudice

Directed by Joe Wright

More than an ampersand distinguishes the latest version of Pride & Prejudice from the much-loved 1995 BBC miniseries, which starred a famously heartthrobbing Colin Firth as the penultimate Mr. Darcy. In this big-screen adaptation, Darcy is played by Matthew Macfadyen as a saturnine hangdog whose blue eyes resolutely do not smolder. Nor do his rejoinders sting, nor his supplications soar. Macfadyen’s utter lack of romantic élan is a nearly fatal omission in director Joe Wright’s sturdily faithful version. Nearly, but not quite. With Keira Knightley playing a firecracker Elizabeth Bennett, Darcy’s stubborn amour, along with a strong supporting cast and a lavish production that makes previous versions appear a trifle shabby, Pride & Prejudice proves yet again that Jane Austen’s cinematic appeal is inexhaustible.

Adapted by Deborah Moggach in the style of Emma Thompson, the film centers on the Bennett household, where Mrs. Bennett (a delightful Brenda Blethyn) is desperately trying to marry off her five daughters. Opening with long and bustling tracking shots accompanied by obnoxious amounts of giggling, the film soon settles down to the business at hand. And business it is: If the girls don’t marry, they risk destitution once their comfortable manor passes from their father (Donald Sutherland) to a male cousin. The screenplay adroitly keeps this monetary imperative in mind without dwelling on it, as well is should: More so than in other Austen novels, romance will trump social realism.

Or will it? Only if Elizabeth can overcome her pride and bold tongue, and Mr. Darcy his prejudices, particularly toward social inferiors such as the unpretentious Bennetts (Mrs. Bennett enjoys herself heartily without regard to propriety; the younger sisters are giddy ninnies). Meanwhile, Jane (Rosamund Pike), Elizabeth’s lovelier older sister, is in danger of losing her heart’s desire, the amiable and conveniently wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), because her shy reserve is perceived as lack of affection. Complications ensue with the meddling of Bingley’s snobby sister (Kelly Reilly) and the arrival of Mr. Wickham (Rupert Friend), a handsome military officer with an eye for Lizzie. Both Woods and Friend are attractive and dashing enough to have been a better choice as Darcy, while Elizabeth’s most engaging repartee occurs in her verbal duels with Reilly’s superbly viperish Miss Bingley. Since Darcy comes off as being too timid and weary to affect any social graces, rather than too arrogant, there isn’t any pomposity for Elizabeth to puncture.

In many scenes, Knightley is overly contemporary; during Elizabeth’s first intimate run-in with Darcy, she snarls to a teeth- baring degree. And she lacks the soulful depths of other Austen heroines such as Frances O’Connor and Kate Winslet. But perhaps more importantly, Knightley is faultless in her delivery of the whip-crack dialogue, even in the face of Macfadyen’s inadequacies.

Sensibly enough (and apparently under the influence of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility), Wright allows the story’s social and domestic rhythms to develop (captured with stellar camera work), giving time to Elizabeth’s relationships with her older sister, her mother, and more affectingly, her reticent father. And in the end, her romance with Darcy is saved by the gorgeous art direction. Along with stunning long shots of Elizabeth alone on the heath and an estimable quantity of startled geese, Wright deftly applies an early-morning mist and stirring piano music to generate a sense of romance just when it’s most needed.

Found in Space

Zathura

Directed by Jon Favreau

One of the things that my family and I liked best about Zathura was not digitalized monsters or special effects, but the way it perfectly nails the often stormy relationships among siblings. Ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) is a naturally gifted athlete, whose prized time playing catch with Dad (Tim Robbins) is often interrupted by the needs of the less coordinated, but much more imaginative Danny (Jonah Bobo), who is 6. When forced to interact, or at least inhabit the same living space, the two nitpick, argue, whine or, in Walter’s particular case, simply ignore the existence of that which annoys him—namely, the little brother. Early in Zathura, a business emergency forces dad to the office, leaving a bored Walter watching endless recaps on ESPN. Meanwhile, Danny discovers a 1950s-era board game called Zathura under the dumbwaiter. “Play with me, please?” implores the younger brother, and before you can say, well, Zathura, the instructions on the game’s cards, such as “Meteor shower: Take evasive action,” actually happen, within the house. To put it mildly, all hell breaks loose.

Unlike Jumanji, also based on a Chris Van Allsburg story about a board game come to life, Zathura revels in the joys and sorrows of real childhood. Zathura relies heavily on real emotions and human interactions. Even the demonic robot and dastardly alien creatures appear more the inspiration of a child’s imagination than of overgrown techno-geeks working in Hollywood. Such touches prove important in making the film both an enjoyable family movie and one that trades on wonder and amazement as opposed to shock and awe.

Without big stars and expensive special effects, director Jon Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps are forced to rely on the acting talents of Hutcherson, Bobo and, to a smaller extent, Kristen Stewart as their teenage sister Lisa. Luckily, this gamble pays off, as these youngsters deliver fiercely individualized performances that make them seem, well, like real kids, and not like cute actors delivering lines. Halfway through the movie, a wayward astronaut (Dax Shepard) appears to save the day, at least momentarily, and infuse some deeper meaning into the game. Much like a very young Harrison Ford, Shepard commands attention with his folksy, grounded coolness; and like Ford, the actor has the ability to stay off of preachy ground. When he quietly instructs Walter that “some games cannot be played alone,” we get the deeper meaning.

Throughout Zathura, as the pressures and dangers mount, and the house—beautifully mounted and depicted by, respectively, production designer J. Michael Riva and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro—gradually buckles and implodes, the childlike enthusiasm is palpable. From beginning to end, the suspense builds, so that each ensuing card that gets spat out by the board game has you on the edge of your seat, wondering what new challenge the brothers will have to face. Just as remarkably, we wait, with bated breath, to witness whether that new challenge will result in a sense of teamwork between the brothers, or if their inability to bridge differences will result in a devastating conclusion. When’s the last time a board game did that for you?

—Laura Leon

It’s Falling, So What?

Chicken Little

Directed by Mark Dindal

The title character in Disney’s first foray into digital animation does not, repeat, does not, don a disco suit and boogie up a storm—although promos for the movie have depicted him doing just that. Sadly, this blatant attempt to get people to the theaters is missing; too bad, because it might have perked things up a bit. As it is, Chicken Little is a pastiche of things that worked in other movies, notably those by Pixar and Dreamworks.

While it’s visually appealing and imaginative, and features top-notch vocal talent (particularly Zach Braff as our diminutive hero), Chicken Little feels forced from the get-go. The story, in an acorn shell, is that Chicken Little’s claim that the sky is falling is quickly discounted by none other than his own daddy, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall); dad is a former jock unsure of how to deal with his imaginative tyke in the wake of Mrs. Cluck’s death. Buck just can’t relate to him, and no amount of well-meaning advice from best friends Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack) or Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) helps.

Suddenly, there’s a whole side plot about Chicken Little’s desire to play Little League; and then, just as suddenly, an invasion by creatures from outer space, heralded by Chicken’s second claim in a year that the sky is falling. What’s a guy to do? Risk ridicule and do the Paul Revere thing, or sit by quietly while, well, the sky falls?

So much stuff is plugged into a relatively short running time that our ability to relate to anything is drastically affected. There’s also something patently alarming in the movie’s depiction of Buck’s callous treatment of his son. Granted, fairy tales throughout history, like Snow White or Cinderella, have had similar undertones. But with those stories, the reader or viewer knows intrinsically that such behavior is wrong, and that our protagonist will be vindicated; in Chicken Little, there seems to be a complicity between filmmakers and audience that such mistreatment is only to be expected.

The sudden prominence of the alien raid diverts focus from the real family issues that exist in the Cluck household, but then the filmmakers still try to use it as background for some Oprah-like bonding. The result is a very strange muddle. The gift of fame, the inevitably Hollywood happy ending even for child characters—and not sheer altruism or charity—is sufficient for Chicken Little to do the right thing by his traitorous fellow animals. Chicken Little may have all the requisite bells and whistles, but it’s curiously devoid of anything resembling a soul.

—Laura Leon


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