Slate's Summary Judgment: 'Syriana,' 'Memoirs of a Geisha,' 'The Chronicles of Narnia'

Zhang Ziyi in a scene from 'Memoirs of a Geisha'

hide captionZhang Ziyi in a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha.

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Slate contributor Mark Jordan Legan reviews what movie critics are saying about this weekend's new film releases: Syriana, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

Now our regular Friday digest of what the critics are saying about the week's new movie releases. It's compiled by the online magazine Slate, and here is Mark Jordan Legan.

MARK JORDAN LEGAN reporting:

First up in selected cities we have "Memoirs of a Geisha," which is all about, well, the memoirs of a geisha. Come on, the book was everywhere. So Rob Marshall, the director of "Chicago," brings his visual flair to this epic story, which stars Michelle Yeoh, Ken Watanabe and the beautiful Zhang Ziyi as the title character.

(Soundbite of "Memoirs of a Geisha")

Unidentified Woman: We don't become geisha to pursue our own destinies. We become geisha because we have no choice.

LEGAN: The nation's critics all agree it is visually stunning, but many complain of the bland soap-opera adaptation. Even though Variety likes it, saying, `Arthur Golden's international best-seller has been moved to the big screen with beauty and tact,' many others agree with Newsday which gripes, `The book has been transfigured into an overripe romance that manages the not-so-cute trick of being both glitzy and ponderous while straining for delicacy and grandeur.' And Entertainment Weekly thinks "Memoirs of a Geisha" `loses its taste for risk and settles for the familiar blandishments of good looks and technical control.'

Next we have the political thriller "Syriana." Written and directed by Steve Gaghan, the Academy Award-winning writer of "Traffic," it stars George Clooney as a CIA agent battling terrorists and oil companies in the Middle East.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) I was almost killed. Now they're asking me questions about the Amiri brothers(ph), asking me questions about Tehran.

Unidentified Man: You gotta understand this Rex Cooper(ph)--shouldn't be talking.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) I punched in Prince Nasir Al-Subaai and my computer gets seized.

Unidentified Man: I'm advising you to drop it.

LEGAN: The critics have high praise for "Syriana," despite or perhaps because of its extremely complicated plot. The LA Times cheers `a fearless and ambitious piece of work, a film that takes numerous risks and thrives on them all.' The New York Times calls it `a complex, intriguing narrative about oil, terrorism, money and power.' And USA today finds it `emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating.'

And opening in wide release, we have the fantasy adventure "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Based on the children's classic by C.S. Lewis, the family film is set in World War II England and focuses on the exploits of four siblings, who enter a strange, exciting world through a magical wardrobe closet. Tilda Swinton and Jim Broadbent star.

(Soundbite of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe")

Ms. TILDA SWINTON: (As Jadis) It's a beaver.

Mr. JIM BROADBENT: (As Digory Kirke) Here, boy. Here, boy. Well, I ain't going to smell it if that's what you want.

Ms. SWINTON: (As Jadis) It's a talking beaver.

LEGAN: Overall the critics love it, saying, `This is the film to take the family to over the holidays.' `Well-told, handsome, stirring and loads of fun,' cheers The Washington Post. The New York Times reassures C.S. Lewis fans saying, `This honorable adaptation has much of the power and charm of the source.' And The Dallas Morning News raves, `Visual splendor, unsullied earnestness and a strong sense of holiday showmanship.' So it looks like the filmmakers pulled it off. Many people have tried to adapt this story; even I did back in college, but with no budget, we had to cut way back. That's why instead of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe," all we could afford to make was `The House Cat, the Biology Major and the Sock Drawer.'

CHADWICK: Mark Jordan Legan is a writer living in Los Angeles.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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