The Future is a Tasteful Monochrome: Anon

Andrea Niccol’s Netflix exclusive Anon is a rather quaint throwback to the techno-paranoia cyberpunk genre, once common in the late nineties — remember Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, and Paycheck? The ultimate modern incarnation of is of course the BBC series Black Mirror, which out-Philip-K.-Dicked Philip K. Dick., and set a newly high bar for cynical, pessimistic takes on the future. But reality has outpaced all of these cautionary tales, as we’ve since come to understand that of course governments surveil our movements and communications, while unchecked corporations build detailed consumer profiles on all of us. Logging off is little protection.

If Anon’s future America without the Constitutional right to privacy were to come true, society’d have bigger problems than a sexy serial killer (Amanda Seyfried), exploiting the system to murder those who exploit the system. Ultra-grim detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) must fight the ambiguities of his digital record to entrap her. After, of course, bedding the much younger woman under false pretenses (for there are sleazy erotic thriller tropes and a female nudity quota to fulfill). Privacy is the foundation for many civil rights we enjoy today, a topic Anon only glancingly acknowledges.

And if we ever start installing apps into our eyeballs, I somehow doubt the GUI will be a tastefully-designed monochrome. Everyone who’s ever touched a computer or smartphone knows we’ll be blinded by punch-the-monkey banner ads, free-to-play gem-matching games, and tweets from President Kid Rock.

two out of five stars

Circumnavigating The Guggenheim in Tom Twyker’s The International

The International is a disappointment coming from Tom Tykwer, director of the kinetic classic Run Lola Run, the mystical The Princess & The Warrior, and the lunatic, perverse Perfume. The International is by far his most conventional in subject matter, and lacking his energy and spirit. It especially suffers in comparison to its closest contemporary rivals in the globe-trotting action/suspense field, Jason Bourne and James Bond.

Eric Singer’s original screenplay unravels the sort of paranoid conspiracy theory that only exists in fiction, but in fact is based on an actual scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which collapsed in 1991. But the fictionalized story makes use of ridiculous contrivances that reduce a massive international investigation down to a two-handed operation involving disgraced Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan District Attorney (and MILF) Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in The International
For the love of God, will somebody please tell me where Tykwer hid the camera?!

Speaking of, The International is a true waste of Watts’ talent (watch Mulholland Drive and Funny Games for a primer). A potentially shocking moment comes when her character is hit by a car. Not to sound bloodthirsty, but it might have been very interesting for her character to make an untimely exit from the movie, a la Julianne Moore in Children of Men) and Janet Leigh in Psycho. But she escapes with just an arm brace, with as little impact on the plot as on her body.

Clive Owen in The International
Circumnavigating The Guggenheim

The International’s best purpose is perhaps as porn for those with an architectural fetish. Much has been made of the production’s recreation of New York’s Guggenheim Museum interior on a European soundstage. But the extended firefight sequence is disappointing and clumsy. Michael Mann is often credited for being the master of such sequences, and for good reason. He utilizes his total command of space in Heat’s street shootout and Collateral’s nightclub battle. You never forget where all the characters are in relation to each other and the surrounding architecture. Likewise Paul Greengrass’ work in The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. But The International’s grand shootout is a senseless jumble, and even the total number of assailants seems to wildly fluctuate. First there are two… no, four… no, eight! And the last two are right above you… no, wait, they’re loitering on the ground floor. A mess.

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)

Cate is great in Elizabeth: The Golden Age

I’ll have to gang up with the general critical consensus around Elizabeth: The Golden Age, best summed up as: Cate Blanchett is astounding, as usual (yawn – the Academy Award nomination was virtually assured before the cameras rolled), but the movie is a disappointing sequel to a powerful original.

Oh, and did I mention that Cate is great? Oh yeah, you don’t need me to say that.

The cinematography is lovely but the editing a little choppy for a timeline that spans so much time. The staging is somewhat less than epic; even large CG set pieces like the Pirates of the Caribbean-style sea battle between the English and Spanish armadas seem under-staffed by background actors. A typical line of dialog, quoting from memory, is the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) killing two cliches with one stone with a humdinger like “We’re only human; we do what we can.”

Erm, that’s about it. I’ll try to think of something smarter to say about the next one.