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5 Stars Movies

It’s a hard world for little things, in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is a perennial source of fascination for cinéastes, both as a singular oddity in Hollywood history but also as a masterpiece in the truest sense: not only is it the best of what it is, it’s the only.

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”

The Gospel of Matthew

It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this one… impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?

Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.

Charles Laughton The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter

The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).

The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.

Shelly Winters in The Night of the Hunter
Like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, even The Night of the Hunter’s crime scenes are beautiful

This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.

The Night of the Hunter
The visual design of The Night of the Hunter drew from German Expressionism

In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.

In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.

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5 Stars Movies

Foolproof and Incapable of Error: Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Unrestoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey

If any excuse were necessary to rewatch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a new print projected in a proper theater would certainly be it.

To mark the film’s 50th anniversary, Warner Bros. commissioned filmmaker and Kubrick aficionado Christopher Nolan to create a set of new 70mm prints. Nolan’s team located an intact 70mm preservation print, and strove to reproduce its inherent color and picture quality without digital effects. In theory, this new version of the film would be closer to what original audiences saw in 1968, intrinsically more authentic than any subsequent prints, broadcasts, or home entertainment releases — all of which were multiple generations removed (more details in this interesting Ars Technica piece).

Perhaps wary of historical revisionism, Nolan has described the result as “unrestored”. Why coin a marketing buzzword, for surely, if a new print struck from the best available elements is not a restoration, then what is? A colleague of mine suggested a better way of describing it: “not remastered”.

If Nolan’s goal was to recreate the authentic analog celluloid experience, warts and all, then I suppose it would have to be judged a success. The particular print I saw (at New York City’s Village East Cinema in May 2018) had likely already been screened numerous times. It was rife with dust and scratches throughout, with a distracting jitter during most of the Dawn of Man sequence, and inexcusable vertical scratches throughout the entire Beyond the Infinite chapter. This print certainly had greater contrast and depth of color than any version I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t complain if digital technology were employed to ameliorate some of this distracting damage.

Film Comment states the Nolan version was “struck from the original camera negative of the earliest screening version of a film that later underwent panicky last-minute edits”. It’s true enough that the film was not initially well-received upon its 1968 premiere, and Kubrick made judicious cuts of up to 19 minutes of footage. But Film Comment seems to imply that the Nolan version includes cut material. I’ve seen this movie at least 10 times (including the 2011 blu-ray), and there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t know well.

Thanks to articles like Film Comment’s, and the “unrestoration” marketing, I experienced a double disappointment. I even briefly wondered if the Village East Cinema had screened an existing print of the film. But I should have known not to expect a mythical longer cut, or blu-ray-like visual perfection. But the brilliant film itself transcends all this.

Foolproof and incapable of error. A masterpiece.

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5 Stars Movies

Just Passing Through: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is, on its own terms, perfect. As such, it exposes the silly practice of rating films in numbers of stars, even if this particular blog is merely one movie lover’s journal of personal reactions, and not pretending to be objective criticism. So please interpret these five stars as meaning that I was utterly moved by Wendy and Lucy.

Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young drifter from Indiana heading nowhere in particular. Her home is a battered car, shared only with her beloved dog Lucy. She’s worryingly skinny, with an unexplained bandaged ankle. She keeps a running ledger in her journal, tracking the rapid decline of the life savings strapped to her waist. We don’t know why Wendy is on her own – whether she’s running from something or someone, or if she’s simply searching for a job. She calls her sister and brother-in-law in Indiana, but they evidently have problems of their own and quickly dismiss her. The poor, miserable girl never smiles, but often quietly hums a tune to herself.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

One night, Wendy meets a group of young drifters by a bonfire. Icky (musician Will Oldham – a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) mentions an Alaskan fishery that pays well and provides housing. This is good enough for Wendy, and provides her with a destination. But she experiences a disastrous day while passing through Portland (or in terms of her ledger, as least, the most cripplingly expensive). In short order, her car breaks down, she’s caught shoplifting, loses Lucy, and is very nearly assaulted.

Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

The security guard of the neighborhood Walgreens (Walter Dalton) becomes a genuine friend, whose greatest aid may simply be just talking with her. They briefly bond over the shared miseries of those that fall between the tracks: you can’t get a job without an address or a phone number, and you can’t get an address or a phone number without a job. People like her are always “just passing through.” He gives her $7, a gift he hides from his family, clearly a sacrifice for him.

Wendy and Lucy is spare and economical at only 75 minutes long, but it is heartbreaking and devastating. In some ways, Wendy is better off than the group of drifters she meets at the beginning of the film; she has a car, meager savings, and some discipline. But the number of steps it would take for her to become like them is few, and may happen in only a single day. One can only hope that Icky is right, and that Wendy will find some livelihood in Alaska.

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5 Stars Movies

Brad Bird Steals His Own Movie in Pixar’s The Incredibles

Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, The Incredibles is a virtually perfect movie. Bird’s astonishing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the animation studio’s reputation for deep emotional resonance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo and later reconfirmed by Wall-E. But Bird’s films add a welcome maturity that proves the medium of animation can be, at its best, truly for all ages.

Although packed with action, spectacle, and chase sequences, it’s difficult to imagine how little kids would react to such a relatively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anxiety, marital strife, and surprisingly high body count (granted, most deaths happen offscreen, but only just!). I can easily imagine most kids tuning out during the many long dramatic sequences obviously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for youngsters to grasp: Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait asked her two little boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the character Dash, and probably selectively ignore the bits they can’t yet understand. So perhaps I’m underestimating how well the movie works on multiple levels.

Even the voice casting is so perfect, it’s impossible to imagine any others in their place. Craig T. Nelson is as perfectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anxieties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s innocent bluster in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every single other voice actor, but special mention must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spitfire Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell’s perfect expression of teen anxieties as (shrinking) Violet, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilarious impression of Hollywood fashion legend Edith Head as the superhero costume designer Edna Mode.

If forced to find one thing to critique, I would point to the relatively minor details of the characters’ hair. On the DVD bonus features, the Pixar animators and software engineers brag about the technologies they invented to simulate realistic hair, but none of the virtual coifs sit well upon the deliberately stylized cartoony faces. The characters have cute little dimples instead of hairy nostrils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such photorealistic hair?

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5 Stars Movies

All life’s a play in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York

Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s personal life, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man!) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and one of our favorites, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York
Here’s a theory to explain Hazel’s enigmatic burning house: could it be an allusion to the Talking Heads song “Love -> Building on Fire”? I’m being serious here…

But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film. I’m giving it the full five-star Dork Report rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Björk’s Bachelorette (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, Bachelorette recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:

Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New York
Hope Davis, as the shrinkest with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.

Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bachelorette, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York
A scene from Synecdoche, New York, starring Samantha Morton as Hazel, Emily Watson as Tammy as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, and Tom Noonan as Sammy as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgängers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself. Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.

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5 Stars Movies

Seven Samurai protect others to save themselves in Akira Kurosawa’s Shichinin no samurai

Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is awesome and perfect, and this most recent viewing has affirmed its place among this blogger’s all-time favorites. It’s a big movie, by which I mean it makes the best use of its generous running time with just the right amount of everything: romance, comedy, drama, suspense, and action. Nearly half the film is taken up by a massive, expertly choreographed battle rivaling anything put to film by famous Western directors of violent spectacle like Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg. Long as it is, it’s about 15 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind but twice as epic, twice as substantial, twice as… well, twice as good.

It is, in some ways, a simple tale broadly told. A rice farming village in 16th century Japan is under constant siege by a band of parasitic bandits that abduct its young women and regularly steal most of its annual yield. With no government or military to protect them, the villagers pool their meager resources to hire seven ronin (masterless samurai reduced to surviving hand-to-mouth as mercenaries) to fight on their behalf. The archetypal characters seem simplistic on the surface: villains to boo and heroes to cheer. In case the viewer have any doubt as to who the bad guy is, the chief bandit wears a black eyepatch, for crying out loud! Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the supremely capable and wise leader of the samurai, essentially lays down a universal definition of “hero” with his recruitment call: “There’s a tough battle ahead, leading to neither money nor rank. Will you join us?”

Seven Samurai
You messed with the wrong ronin

And yet, many subtleties gradually unfold. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the great pleasures of the movie, but also one of its greatest mysteries. He’s clownish and childishly impulsive, yet passionately moral. He’s a commoner masquerading as a samurai, his only certification being his ridiculously long sword (presumably the liberated former possession of a very tall samurai). Kambei, whom in another life could have been a good shrink, correctly deduces Kikuchiyo’s motivations for having attached himself to the venture; he himself is a peasant farmer with pretensions for more. He directly identifies with the farmers’ plight, yet his deep-seated class insecurities fuel his a love-hate relationship with them. As an essay by Kenneth Turan in the Criterion Collection edition booklet points out, medieval Japan was a fiercely delineated caste society, and the fact that a former farmer might presume to call himself a samurai is a huge transgression. For a very different, more subdued dramatic performance by Mifune, see Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

As we learn more about Kikuchiyo, we likewise slowly get a more and more complex portrait of the villagers. They are no doubt the victims of a serious crime. Yet they whine all the way and mythologize themselves as helpless, saintly, victimized salt of the earth that must resort to hiring disgraced samurai to protect them. But they harbor a dark secret; they have robbed many fallen samurai of their armor and weapons over the years Their veritable armory of pilfered gear of war is useless to them, and yet they shamefully hide it from the samurai protecting them (even though it would bolster their coming war). The seven samurai are deeply offended, and yet nevertheless do the right thing and defend the village. But the gulf between the two classes, samurai and farmer, is reaffirmed.

Seven Samurai
He’s a wild and crazy samurai

Seven Samurai is in the company of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, and Vertigo, a special class of film so famously influential that even first-time viewers may very well feel they’ve seen it before. Just to name a few of Seven Samurai’s first-generation offspring: The Magnificent Seven is an unapologetic transposition of the original from feudal Japan to the American West. The Dirty Dozen and Ocean’s Eleven both borrow the trope of recruiting a gang of misfits one-by-one, whom in concert become capable of strengths impossible as individuals. Another American-produced remake is scheduled for release in 2009, this time set in modern-day Thailand.

The 2006 Criterion Collection edition is a required library item, not one to merely rent. A magnificent restoration of the film itself is accompanied by a beautifully designed sleeve and booklet. A surprising amount of damage remains in the long battle sequence in the second half of the film, but Criterion’s reputation for quality ensures that these are almost certainly the best available materials. Perhaps these reels were more frequently subjected to torture over the years by scholars?

Why you need to read the booklet:

  • Kenneth Turan on the full year of production it took to make the film, mirroring the time that passes in the movie. On a practical level, the extended production allows for greater realism like Kambei’s hair realistically growing back after shaving his head in the beginning (the topknot is a prized symbol of the samurai; not just a fashion but a requirement of their caste). But also on a thematic level, one year = the farming cycle of life: planting through harvest.
  • Peter Cowie on the mutual admiration society between Kurosawa (a fan of the Hollywood Western) and John Ford.
  • Philip Kemp on 16th Century Japan. The feudal society had little distinction between ronin and bandits.
  • Peggy Chiao on Kurosawa’s influences. Kurosawa was a Marxist in his 20s, but later mellowed. His older brother turned him on to Dostoyevsky, but committed suicide.
  • Alain Silver on Kurosawa’s staging and composition.
  • Stuart Galbraith IV on the historical context of the contemporary Japanese cinema, which was flourishing at the time.
  • Appreciations by directors Sidney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
  • Toshiro Mifune’s quite funny and entertaining reminiscences. Mifune claims he devised his character, as nothing had been written yet when he was cast.

Supplemental features on the bonus discs:

  • “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” – an almost excessively hagiographic biography, but with several amusing anecdotes. Shooting all year meant continuing through February’s freezing mud, while Mifune was almost naked. Kurosawa dutifully stood in the mud with his cast and crew, and was literally frostbitten.
  • “Seven Samurai: Origins & Influences” – “The Story of the 47 Ronin” was a popular puppet theater tale for hundreds of years, and was adapted into films several times a year in early Japanese cinema. One of those observations that sounds obvious in retrospect, but needs to be pointed out by somebody: Ronin (pronounced by some as “roh-ee-nin”) stories are more popular than samurai stories because they are inherently more dramatically interesting.
  • “My Life in Cinema: Akira Kurosawa” – a long interview by fellow director Nagisa Oshima.

Must read: the Criterion Contraption review by Matthew Dessem

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5 Stars Movies

At the Worst of Times, the Worst of Us: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is, simply, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Repeat viewings never fail to overwhelm me with some of the strongest gut-level emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. I can only talk about it in superlatives: it’s a near-religious experience. One of the movies that makes me love movies.

Children of Men is set in a near-future dystopia, two decades after the last human birth. The sci-fi premise of mass infertility has only become more terrifyingly plausible in recent years, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of globally contagious diseases like SARS and Zika. A few lines of dialogue allude to a flu pandemic, but the screenplay wisely doesn’t get lost in the weeds over the origins of the crisis.

Clive Owens and P.D. James in Children of Men
Clive Owens and author P.D. James in Children of Men

Even the best science fiction sometimes can’t avoid fanciful pseudo-science that tends not to date well (q.v. the notorious “enhance” scene in Blade Runner). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and while other reproductive technologies like cloning and artificial insemination aren’t mentioned, we can assume all avenues have failed. It’s evidence of great restraint and respect for the audience’s intelligence that the origin remains unexplained. It’s beside the point.

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. Great Britain remains nominally functional, but only under the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda glimpsed throughout, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is mere survival worth the price?

Children of Men
European refugees seeking asylum in the fascistic United Kingdom

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 City alarmingly 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 ghettos and concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. I doubt it’s incidental that 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 living human memory. 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; at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

It’s not usually a good sign for a movie to have five credited screenwriters, but these do 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.

Danny Huston in Children of Men
Danny Huston as the guardian of the Ark of the Arts in Children of Men. Among the artistic achievements of humanity selected for eternal preservation: Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig

Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, without the life of wealthy ease his novel counterpart enjoys. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his initial motivation to collaborate with The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England as in the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. 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. 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 Cuarón’s short documentary “The Possibility of Hope”, apprehensive of the very near and very real future of countries closing themselves off to refugees.

Julianne Moore in Children of Men
Julianne Moore as Julian in Children of Men: “What do the police know about justice?”

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 Cuarón declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Technology has barely progressed in the decades since humanity began dying out. 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 agriculture system has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer healthy young people every day.

Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in Children of Men
Clare-Hope Ashitey and Clive Owen in the ruins of a school

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


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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5 Stars Music

Joseph Arthur live at Bowery Ballroom, New York, 2006

I hope to post my reactions soon (the five stars should give a hint as to the general tone), but in the meantime, here’s some coverage of the show on the web: The Tripwire’s review features excellent photographs by Erin Chandler. Billboard also reviews the show and posts a video of Joseph’s duet with Michael Stipe on "In the Sun."

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5 Stars Movies

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain

AmélieOne of my favorite films of all time. It’s just such a movie, you know? The same is true of virtually all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films; I have such fond memories of seeing Delicatessen on a crappy 16mm print at college, City of Lost Children at the Cambridge Film Festival, and Amélie and A Very Long Engagement at the Paris Theater in New York City. We won’t mention Alien Resurrection, OK?

Although a big hit in France, my understanding is that there was something of a backlash against it, due in part to its literally candy-colored portrayal of a storybook Montemartre far removed from reality. Also, a reviewer in Sight & Sound (a film journal whose opinion I nearly always respect, if not always agree with) utterly slammed the film, apparently personally offended by the sexual politics. But I find Amélie so delightful, inventive, and so full of feeling that I can confidently state anybody that hates this movie just hates movies, period.

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5 Stars Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at New York’s Ziegfeld theater

One of the best movies ever made, on one of the biggest screens in New York. What could be better?

It’s taken me many years and many viewings to realize that the movie is actually very, very funny. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, coming right on the heels Dr. Strangelove, but the sombre serious air about the film disguised some of the comedy to my young mind watching the movie every year uncut on a Philadelphia VHF channel. Just a few of the many huge “jokes” packed into the film: the entire human condition condensed as chimp pantomime, fantastic visions of the future punctured by hilariously closed-minded humans more interested in sandwiches, and the most naked human emotions shown on screen coming from apes and computers as opposed to supposedly evolved humans.

2001 On the web: Kubrick 2001 presents an elaborate, though sometimes silly, animated explication. Then there’s The Underview, in valiant opposition to the scheming dedamned’s autoguard, helpfully including the complete Zero Gravity Toilet instructions.