Reel Critics: 'Narnia' sequel succeeds in special effects

The third installment of the "Narnia" films seeks to revive the series as a continuing movie franchise. The producers made a real effort to restore the magical qualities of this fantasy adventure tale. They definitely succeed on a technical level.

The special effects are spectacular. Maxfields Parrish and Claude Monet could be listed as art directors. The many vistas on the screen are gorgeous to behold. But the rest of the story fails to capture the deeper meaning of the C.S. Lewis "Narnia" novels, on which the films are based.

The English children at the heart of the story are transported again into another dimension. As their mystical exploits unfold, the dangers they face don't seem real enough to create the tension that would truly involve the audience. The flying dragons and snappy dialogue of other talking animals may entertain the kids. But they reduce the serious aspects of the story. It ends up as a great visual production that falls short of the grand story it could have been.

Ballet becomes blood sport

Natalie Portman gives a bravura performance as a ballerina obsessed with perfection in "Black Swan."

Director Darren Aronofsky's fevered, gothic drama turns ballet into a blood sport. Instead of dainty tutus, we see bloody feet in toe shoes that hammer the stage like nails in a coffin.

Portman is Nina, a fragile, repressed beauty for whom the phrase "performance anxiety" was created. She gets that from her mother (Barbara Hershey), the creepiest mom this side of "Carrie."

Nina is obsessed with sexy new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), and sees her as a rival for the personal and professional attentions of artistic director Thomas (a feral Vincent Cassel).

Like poor Nina's grip on reality, "Black Swan" becomes more and more hysterical, absurd, shocking, and tragic — and ever so watchable.

Old-fashioned tale earns applause at end

Colin Firth deserves an Oscar for his vulnerable yet steely portrayal of King George VI in "The King's Speech."

"Bertie," as he is known privately, endures years of private and public humiliations because of a serious stutter. Thanks to his wife Elizabeth (the formidable Helena Bonham Carter), he meets unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and is soon shown that a "cure" is possible.

Firth and Rush make a rousing odd couple calculated to make us laugh and touch our hearts. But this is also a true story of a country in serious flux, thanks to the abdication of King Edward VIII (fabulous Guy Pearce), which thrusts a reluctant Bertie upon the British throne on the eve of World War II.

Firth has always been an actor of nuance, charm and strength. In his opening and closing radio broadcasts to the nation, these qualities are admirably, painfully showcased.

"The King's Speech" is an old-fashioned tale done with intelligence and compassion; a rare movie where the audience applauds at the end.

JOHN DEPKO is a retired senior investigator for the Orange County public defender's office. He lives in Costa Mesa and works as a licensed private investigator.

SUSANNE PEREZ lives in Costa Mesa and is an executive assistant for a financial services company.

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