Children of Men

Children of Men

 

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is absolutely one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Two viewings have overwhelmed me with some of the strongest emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. It is, at the very least, one of the best of 2007 (along with Pan’s Labyrinth and United 93), and everything the similarly-themed V for Vendetta could have been.

Children of MenThis coffee packs a wallop

The movie opens nearly two decades after the last human birth. Mass infertility is a terrifyingly plausible sci-fi trope in 2008, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of a globe-spanning contagious disease outbreak like SARS (a fictional flu pandemic is alluded to in the film). As the infertility remains uncured, so too is it unexplained for the audience. The best science fiction avoids pedestrian pseudo-science that tends not to date well (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and we can assume that cloning and artificial insemination of frozen eggs have failed. So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Only Britain has been able to survive, to a point, using only the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda commercials glimpsed throughout the movie, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is this kind of survival worth the price?

Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York creepily referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. Several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in human history. My German is non-existent, but If I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature, that at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

Children of MenAt gunpoint is one way to reconnect with an ex

The five credited screenwriters, usually a bad sign, have done an extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish. Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, and no longer living a life of wealthy ease. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his original motivation to help The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England of the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside (Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in the DVD bonus features). The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig.

Children of MenCrying babies don’t usually have this effect on people

Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuaron declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Two decades hence, technology has marched on only to a degree. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the farming economy has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer fit young people every day.

Children of MenThe Human Project is real

Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:

Shantih Shantih Shantih

Official movie site: www.childrenofmen.net

Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.

Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)

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Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

 

Tell No One enjoyed a surprisingly wide US theatrical release for a French film without huge English-speaking stars (except for Englishwoman Kristin Scott Thomas, perfectly fluent in French). Roger Ebert rightly compared the tightly crafted thriller with The Fugitive, placing it squarely in Hitchcockian wrong-man-accused territory.

Pediatrician Alex Beck (François Cluzet) finds himself the prime suspect of his wife’s murder, eight years prior. This being a French film, the fortysomething Beck was married to the utterly gorgeous younger Margot (Marie-Josee Croze, great in Julien Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – read The Dork Report review). One might accept this as a given premise of the story, for sometimes old coots really do bag hot young wives, had the film not ruined it by demonstrating via flashback that the characters are supposed to be the same age.

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Run Beck Run

I found Tell No One more focused and engaging before the conspiracy widens to an almost absurd degree, enveloping even a Senator in a vast cover-up. I will admit to being confused at times; to grasp the details and convoluted timeline, viewers will have to remember character names, not faces, as the chronology of some key plot points are conveyed via exposition (that is, told, not shown).

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Funny how bad things happen to people who skinny dip in movies…

Hints of the recent race/class tensions in France are built into the plot: Beck’s equanimity as a pediatrician earned the trust of some less privileged thugs on the wrong side of the law. That they will aid him when no one else will ironically demonstrates his essential goodness.


Official movie site: www.tellno-one.com

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Love Will Tear Us Apart: Anton Corbijn’s Control

Control movie poster

 

Control is one of the very few rare musical biopics to ever appeal to me, even though I am only barely familiar with the music of Joy Division, and even less so of the history of its tragically doomed lead singer Ian Curtis. To testify to the film’s power, I immediately purchased The Best of Joy Division right after watching the movie. Listening more deeply to them for the first time, I’m struck by how much influence they obviously had, most obviously Interpol but also no less than U2 (especially their first three albums, and in Adam Clayton’s bass playing particularly).

Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Anton Anton Corbijn's Control
Transmission

Control begins with Curtis (Sam Riley) as a young lad in 1970s Manchester, absorbing all the rock star lessons that are there to be heard in David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. He applies androgynous glam-rock makeup modeled after Bowie and Brian Eno, pops pills (ironic, considering the wide cocktail of drugs he’s later legitimately prescribed when his epilepsy manifests), writes anguished poetry, and sees the Sex Pistols live in their prime: “they were crap.” But his own band Joy Division creates a genuine new sound, a world apart from glam or punk. They seize the attention of Manchester music scene maven Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) with a hand-scrawled note reading “JOY DIVISION YOU CUNT,” hand-delivered immediately before a scorchingly intense live set. Wilson, himself immortalized by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant biopic 24 Hour Party People, becomes their greatest advocate, literally signing their contract to Factory Records in his own blood.

Sam Riley and Samantha Morton in Anton Anton Corbijn's Control
Love Will Tear Us Apart

Curtis’ fame came before the comforts of money. He found himself on the covers of magazines, offered a tour of America, and desired by exotic women while still reliant on a depressing desk job and tortured by his own ambivalence towards his young family. Samantha Morton plays his wife Deborah as a shy, overly trusting girl. The real Deborah was later to write her autobiography and co-produce this film with Tony Wilson.

Director Anton Corbijn is most famous for his music videos and portraits, including the iconic The Joshua Tree sleeve for U2. Even though this is his first feature film, he is intimately experienced with the art of capturing rock (and rock stars) on film.


Official movie site: www.control-movie.com

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Persepolis

Persepolis

 

Named after the ancient Persian city, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis is a memoir of her life in Europe and Iran after the Iranian revolution. This animated feature joins the growing ranks of comic book adaptations that prove that comics are not only about superheroes that dress up in animal-themed costumes to battle crime. Hopefully it, along with other good comics-to-film triumphs Ghost World and A History of Violence, will broaden moviegoers’ awareness of the many alternative genres already explored in comics.

PersepolisThe spirit of punk invades Iran

In a rare privilege perhaps only ever shared by Frank Miller in making Sin City with Robert Rodriguez, Satrapi served as co-director and writer of the film (with Vincent Paronnaud). She sings music to my ears in the DVD bonus features; to paraphrase, she states that it is a fool’s errand to make a literal, strict adaptation of any graphic novel to film. As comics writer Alan Moore once brilliantly and succinctly put it, comics are wholly unlike movies because, simply, “movies move.” The recent trend in Hollywood is to perform fan service (as it’s known) and make the most literally faithful adaptations possible. Sin City, 300, and the upcoming Watchmen all procede from the flawed presumption that the source materials’ fanbase (the nerdy, genre-convention-attending strawmen in studios’ equations that they expect to be buying the tickets and DVDs) want nothing less than perfect transitions from page to screen. But such a thing is never possible, let alone desirable.

Persepolispolitically conscious at a young age

That said, Persepolis the film does share the strikingly stark look of Satrapi’s characteristic pen and ink illustrations. A mostly black & white animated French memoir about a young Iranian woman could never be mistaken for blockbuster material, but it is funny, illuminating, and moving.


Official movie site: www.sonypictures.com/classics/persepolis

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My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights

 

Nobody films beautiful women, or should I say, nobody films women beautifully, like Wong Kar Wai. In Blueberry Nights, he has no less than four famous female faces to worship with his camera:

  • Norah Jones – Perhaps not the most natural of actors, but her speaking voice is as emotionally expressive as it is in her famously languid, evocative music.
  • Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) – Like Jones, Marshall is a musician and not an experienced actor, but her cameo is bittersweet and effective.
  • Rachel Weisz – The New York Times one described Weisz as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” but here she portrays a seemingly thick character with a cruel streak.
  • Natalie Portman – Like Weisz, Portman plays against type as a troubled young gambling addict with an Electra complex.

My Blueberry NightsDidn’t Jude Law’s mother ever teach him it’s rude to reach across the table?

Wong Kar Wai’s first English-language film My Blueberry Nights is mostly set in bars and diners across America. His characters all indulge in the four great American pastimes: eating, drinking, gambling, and driving. It’s impossible to miss the central metaphor: every morning, diner proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law) ritually bakes a blueberry pie. Never eaten, it is thrown out whole every night. It may be undesired for the time being, but every day there is a fresh chance for it to find someone who hungers for it.

My Blueberry NightsNatalie Portman offers Norah Jones an offer she can’t refuse

Official movie site: www.myblueberrynightsmovie.co.uk

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[UPDATED AUGUST 29, 2008 to correct typo in rating]

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

 

It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics. In the Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the reviews were highly positive. Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it gives its appreciate audiences massive satisfaction and uplift.

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank RedemptionI know what you think it means, sonny

Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t seem widely known to be an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural or the horrific, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have. Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank RedemptionGet busy living, or get busy dying

The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so. The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the slightest authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.

While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.


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Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay movie poster

 

On the way to a hoped-for idyll in their spiritual home Amsterdam, our two beloved stoners Harold and Kumar take unintended detours through Cuba (as collateral damage in the War on Terror), Florida (where they drop trou’ for a “bottomless” party), Alabama (rudely interrupting a Klu Klux Klan klatsch), and Texas (whereupon they pass the Mary Jane with the worst George W. Bush impersonator ever).

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo BayHarold and Kumar are the best of buds. Get it? “Buds”? Oh, never mind…

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the 21st Century’s answer to Cheech and Chong, and their first film was a rather enjoyable, freewheeling affair that reveled in its absurdist plot twists and even aided in making Neil Patrick Harris a star again, deservedly. But this sequel unfortunately wastes too much time pairing Harold and Kumar off with their difficult-to-distinguish brunette love interests. It’s as if, like Talladega Nights (read The Dork Report review), it wants to toy with heterosexual “gay panic” humor, but chickens out; the implication is that Harold and Kumar are actually more in love with each other than anybody else, or even pot.

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo BayDroppin’ LSD with the NPH

Official movie site: www.haroldandkumar.com

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Britannia Hospital

Britannia Hospital movie poster

 

Since we’ve last seen Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) in O Lucky Man! (read The Dork Report review), he’s moved to America and rediscovered his lust for power and profiteering. Now a member of the media (with no less than Luke Skywalker – Mark Hammill – on his crew), he has returned to his homeland on a mission to expose corruption at Britannia Hospital. On the eve of a visit from Her Royal Highness the Queen, known to the efficient staff as the time-saving acronym H.R.H., the Hospital board risks all to facilitate Dr. Millar’s (Graham Crowder) insane medical experiments. His atrocities are on a par with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but with special effects and camerawork straight out of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.

Britannia HospitalMalcolm McDowell spritzes the Britannia Hospital morgue with a little Febreeze

This vision of 1982 British society is crippled on all sides. The unions have pursued their noble aims of workers’ rights to an absurd degree to which virtually all work has come to a halt in favor of perpetual sandwich breaks. The hippies and activists are too enraged and violent to lend any credence to their causes of peace and fairness. Officious red-tape-obsessed suits are barely in control, making insincere compromises just to get through the day. The media fails at their job because they’re too wasted on drugs to even operate their equipment. And most frustrating to all, none of the phones work.

Britannia HospitalMark Hammill gets the munchies

So the final entry in director Lindsay Anderson’s “Mick Travis” trilogy is obviously yet another satire of British society, this time with a hospital serving as its metaphorical microcosm. It sails a bit too far over the top for my tastes, especially in comparison with the excellent If… (read The Dork Report review), which is so much more effective for spending most of its running time in strict realism before spiraling off into anarchic fantasy.


Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about Britannia Hospital, from MalcolmMcDowell.net

Official movie site: www.lindsayanderson.com/britannia_hospital.html

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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

 

What was I thinking when I rented this turd? Oh yeah, that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby might be a funny, entertaining diversion. One can’t always watch grim tales of abortion in Communist Romania or the death of a small town’s entire generation of children. I had long since tired of Will Ferrell, once a treasure on the Saturday Night Live cast, but long since devolved into a movie factory that produces mostly crassness for crassness’ sake. But I had heard Talladega Nights also featured good turns from Molly Shannon, Amy Adams, and Sasha Baron Cohen, and I had also recently enjoyed John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (read The Dork Report review). All fail to amuse here.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky BobbyI tried and failed to find a still from the movie including Amy Adams, so you’ll have to settle for line dancing

The ensemble obviously improvised whole chunks of the movie, but not really to its benefit. I counted only two bits that made me laugh: Bobby extemporizes the commercial endorsement “If you don’t chew Big Red, *BLEEP* you!” (a line so aggressively stupid I laughed on impulse), and later, his poncy French rival Jean Girard (Cohen) reveals his corporate sponsor, Perrier. These two gags should make it clear that although Talledega Nights is not the first comedy to parody extreme product placement, it does drive it to a heretofore unexplored new level of absurdity. Finally, it dispenses with its relative subtleties altogether and simply cuts to an actual Applebee’s commercial.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky BobbyBorat meets Bubba

Official movie site: www.sonypictures.com/movies/talladeganights

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Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo

 

Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo immediately preceded Pixar‘s slightly more sophisticated collaborations with director Brad Bird, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Despite being one of Pixar’s most kid-friendly films, Finding Nemo is paradoxically full of death and anxiety. But Stanton works in the proven tradition of its spiritual ancestor Bambi, which also famously features a mother’s arbitrary murder in its opening moments. Stanton keeps Finding Nemo childlike without being childish.

Finding Nemo

If I was stranded in a dentist’s office aquarium, and I could take only one of Stanton’s Pixar movies with me, I’m afraid I wouldn’t pick Finding Nemo. I found his follow-up WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) to be a more sophisticated film that relies less on dialog and celebrity personae.

Finding Nemo

Official movie site: www.pixar.com/featurefilms/nemo/

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