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Royal treatment 

Fantasy sequel bests its predecessor

Fantasy fans who felt the void created by the wrap-up of the Lord of the Rings flicks in 2003 could take comfort in the identical elements -- magical creatures, large-scale battles, simplistic delineation of good versus evil -- that were on display in 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. With that film proving to be almost as potent at the box office as the LOTR trilogy, we now get The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which turns out to be that rare sequel which improves upon the original.

Prince Caspian is decidedly a darker picture than its predecessor, which seems to be the path taken by many second installments in film franchises (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation). In this one, the four Pevensie kids -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- find themselves at a London subway station one minute and back in the magical land of Narnia the next. But this isn't the lovely, bright Narnia they left behind (familiarity with the first film is a prerequisite); now 1,300 years later (in Narnian time, of course), they've returned to find a gloomy environment in which humans (the Telmarine race) have taken over and all mystical creatures are believed to be extinct.

One of the Telmarines, the dashing Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), is the rightful heir to the throne, but after an assassination attempt by his uncle (Sergio Castellitto), he elects to hightail it to the woods, where he discovers that talking animals and other enchanted Narnia denizens still exist after all. Eventually, the prince, the woodland inhabitants and the Pevensie siblings band forces to restore Narnia to its previous glory.

A couple of familiar faces from the previous picture return in small roles, yet it's cast newcomer Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) who walks away with this film; he's excellent as Trumpkin, a surly dwarf who slowly warms up to the four children who invade his territory. As for the kids, this is clearly a case where girls rule, boys drool. Susan cuts a fierce figure as a warrior queen, while Lucy is allowed to establish the strongest bonds with the Narnians. On the other hand, the interesting Edmund is given too little to do, while Peter is only slightly less generic than fellow pretty-boy Caspian -- whenever Peter and the prince bicker, it's like watching the leaders of two feuding boy bands get in each other's faces. Oddly, all of the villains are played by Italians -- is this director Andrew Adamson's sly homage to those Italian sword 'n' sandal cheapies from the 1960s, or is he suggesting that the Mafia's grip extends even into other worlds?

The visual effects, shaky in the first film, are far more smoothly executed here. In fact, on the basis of Iron Man, Speed Racer and now The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, is it safe to say that CGI has turned the corner, finally living up to the undeserved hype that's been heaped on it over the years? We might have to sit through the rest of the season's blockbuster wannabes before definitively making that call.

MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS IS a movie of firsts. It's the first English-language picture helmed by acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love); it's the first acting role for music star Norah Jones (landing the leading role in her maiden on-screen voyage); and it's the first flick to manage the difficult feat of wasting the considerable talents of both Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman.

Jones stars as Elizabeth, a New Yorker distraught over the breakup with her cheating boyfriend and pouring her sorrows out to sympathetic cafe owner Jeremy (Jude Law). One night, she elects to bolt from the city to find herself; her travels take her first to Memphis, where she befriends an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) separated from -- but still in love with -- his flirtatious wife (Weisz), and then to a Nevada town, where she hooks up with a gambler (Portman) with daddy issues.

As we can expect from master visualist Wong (working with ace cinematographer Darius Khondji), the dreamy, color-coordinated look of the film is the real star; it certainly has more presence than Jones, who's merely adequate in her film debut. Her monotony stands in stark contrast to the broad turns by Weisz and especially Portman, both defeated by poorly defined caricatures. In fact, considering Wong's reputation for creating memorable and sensitive female characters, it's odd that the ones on view here aren't especially noteworthy. Odder still is the fact that Elizabeth's soul-searching is the direct result of -- of all things -- being dumped by a guy. Wong's Hong Kong efforts are steeped in romanticism, but here, something clearly got lost in translation.

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