Children Of Men

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A perfectly realized sci-fi meditation.

Review:  Science fiction gives us an excuse to stretch reality just thin enough to give us a window into our souls.  It seems we’re quite scared of what we’ve found, which explains the common use of science fiction as pure fantasy, to escape, rather than explore.  ‘Children of Men’ shows us what we have to fear, and why we have to hope.  It is an apocalypse — literally, an unveiling.

In the not-too-distant future, every woman on Earth is infertile, and every child is either matured or dead.  Without children, it seems, humankind has gone insane, with every ounce of hatred boiling beneath the surface, once sublimated, now unleashed without regard.  Only a few last havens exist, at least in the minds of the surviving members of what can loosely be called “society”.  A British cubical denizen named Theo, the protagonist, finds an occasional refuge at the home of an aging liberal activist, where he listens to the old man philosophize and dream as Theo himself no longer can.  Before the world fell apart around his ears, he was an idealist, along with his former lover, who now operates a rebellion against the fascist government in Britain.  She contacts him, seeking his help in smuggling a young refugee girl out of the country, and Theo learns that the girl is pregnant, a beacon of hope for the world.  Soon, it’s up to him, alone, to protect the mother and child from selfish interests on all sides, and take them to a rendezvous with the perhaps mythical Human Project.

Common wisdom says that you don’t know something’s value until it is gone.   It’s difficult to overestimate procreation’s importance in the human scheme.  When the system breaks down and fails to produce a new generation, the proverbial human castle comes crashing down, first in the mind and then in the matter, despite everything our hands have wrought.  All of this is obvious.  Maybe it’s the deepest, darkest ancestral fear in our species.  ‘Children of Men’ is important because it unveils our most basic humanity, the fragility beneath the façade of culture, religion, politics, technology, what have you.  It is in part a retelling of the Christian Nativity story.  For the divine person, there is no greater humility or sympathetic expression than incarnation.  In the Gospels, God’s embrace of our condition is literal.  In ‘Children of Men’, it is subtext, but nonetheless plain.  The refugee’s child isn’t God, but she is evidence of the divine hand at work, a living apocalypse that could stop all wars, if only we’d listen to her cries.

Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team chose to realize this story as concretely as possible.  Steadicam tracking shots and extended takes composed of multiple overlapping elements grant the film real presence.  It becomes difficult to look away.  The production design is superb, highly complex, and completely believable.  The filmmakers obviously strove to remove as many stylistic obstacles between the movie and the viewer as they could.  The film’s action sequences outclass most others in the genre.  The choreography is breathtaking, and it’ll certainly have you asking “How in God’s name did they do that?”, especially during the climatic battle which comes to us in nearly a single take.

‘Children of Men’ is awesome.  What a simple, beautiful story, realized so well, without hiccups or compromise.  It induced in me, on each viewing, a sense of oddly worshipful melancholy I have seldom experienced.  I intend to make this movie a personal Christmas tradition.

Classic Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Tim Burton’s magnum opus, with all of his shocks, laughs, and, most importantly, heart.

Review: Tim Burton may be the most stylistic filmmaker of our time. His films are dark, twisted, strangely humorous, and, when done well, carry tremendous dramatic and emotional weight. Burton peaked twice in the early 90’s with two films that captured his style’s essence. The first was the live-action ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in 1990. The second was the stop-motion animated ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993. And while they both contend for his best work, I think Nightmare just manages to edge out.

Ironically, though this may be his best film, Burton didn’t actually direct on it. That honor went to Henry Selick, a director who specializes in these kind stop-motion films. His other credits include ‘James and the Giant Peace’ and the recent ‘Coraline’. Burton did serve as a co-writer and co-producer, however, as well as providing the original idea; and this film certainly screams of Burton aesthetic and influence.

This is a holiday film and, as Burton described it, is something of the reverse of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Instead of someone trying to ‘steal’ Christmas, this movie tells the story of someone who finds it. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the leader of Halloween Town, and, of all the ghouls who live there, he is the most frightening. Recently though, he has begun to tire of Halloween; it no longer feels exciting or fresh to him, and he’s secretly depressed. That is until one day when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers its titular celebration. He is overtaken by the wonder and joy of this new holiday and quickly embraces it as the perfect beautiful replacement for his old one. The only problem is that he gets carried away: he not only wants to celebrate it; he wants to run it. He wants to be in charge of it, as opposed to Santa Clause. Unfortunately for him, he finds Halloween-past and Christmas don’t mix easy.

It’s a story that has a lot of heart to it, and it’s told incredibly well. Jack’s tale is an introspective and meaningful account of someone’s quest to find happiness and meaning; and it also serves as a larger commentary on the Holiday culture in general. In the Western world, there’s a lot of build-up to holidays, but it’s common that the day itself and the time immediately afterword can be something of a let down. The theme of this movie seems to be that even though Holidays are important, it’s foolish to wait till the actual days or “Holiday Seasons” themselves to start celebrating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions they’re about, and it’s equally foolish to stop celebrating once the holiday is over. We need to always be mindful of what we’re thankful for, at some level always celebrating the things we have that give us joy. If we do that, then holidays will never be a let down. As my mother used to say, “It’s Christmas everyday in our hearts.”

As I said earlier, this film is entirely stop-motion animated, and it’s incredibly well done. All of the models and sets are very elaborate and have the trademark Burton/gothic feel to them. The choreography and movement that they pull off, especially during the musical numbers, is wonderfully graceful, no doubt thanks to Selick’s skilled direction. As a musical, it features very memorable work by Danny Elfman, with such impressive songs as “What’s This?” and “This is Halloween” buffering an outstanding score.

Burton’s made good and bad movies over his career, but when he hits something profound, he’s always dead on. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a beautifully crafted, excellently executed work and his true masterpiece. It’s both visually stunning and provocative, and it makes for wonderful story telling. There are few animated films, or holiday films for that matter, better than this. For Halloween or Christmas or anytime really, it’s more than worth a watch.

Not-So-Classic Review: Batman Returns

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★1/2☆☆

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Ironically, Batman is literally on top here, but in the film itself...

Let’s be fair here, Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least an entertaining one.  You felt good when you finished watching it—or at least I did.  Coming off of that movie, I decided to check out Tim Burton’s ‘Batman Returns’, believing that it would be like the first movie: Not great but at least entertaining.  I was wrong on that second part.

The movie again sets us in the gothic metropolis of Gotham City.  However, it looks and feels vastly different from the first movie.  Evidently, all of the previous sets and even the matinee paintings had been scrapped, and we are introduced to a redesigned Gotham that looks nothing like the old one.  This is a rather disappointing aspect, as it takes away all sense of familiarity.  Also, the entire film takes place during the Christmas season, so everything is drizzled in wet, cold snow. Why do I say all of this now?  Because this sense of unfamiliarity and, frankly, depression that we get from the Gotham landscape sets the tone remarkably well for the rest of the movie.

We are again introduced to Batman, played again by Michael Keaton.  Evidently, his relationship with Vicky Vale didn’t last and he is again the lone (and single) guardian of the city.  On the villain’s side, we have three, well two and a half at least: The Penguin, The Catwoman, and a greedy industrialist named Max Schreck.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), we learn is in fact a deformed and oddly carnivorous child (one of his first actions out of birth is to eat the family cat) who was dumped into the sewer by his seemingly un-loving parents.  Don’t worry though; he was raised by a group of lost penguins that live in the sewer, before joining the circus and returning as the leader of a gang of homicidal clowns.  Wow.  That really sounds as ridiculous as I thought it did.  Yes, Tim Burton took a substantial amount of liberty here on the character of the Penguin.  Originally in the comics, he was just a rather stout yet intelligent businessman, named more for his suit than anything else.  Unfortunately, Burton seems to live in a world inhabited by problem children, so he had to “re-invent” the character (although corrupt might be more fitting).  Max Schreck played by Christopher Walken is a self-centered businessman with many skeletons in his closet.  He eventually comes into contact with the Penguin and works as a sort of partner with him, often influencing the Penguin’s actions for the worst.  Lastly there is Catwoman (Michelle Pfeifer).  Again, Tim Burton was weird here.  Catwoman is created when Schreck pushes his secretary, Selina Kyle, suspicious of his activities, out a multi-story, falling to what we believe is her death.  But is she dead?  It doesn’t matter, because a group of rogue cats come by, repeatedly biting her, and our secretary is resurrected as a Catwoman, but not before she destroys everything in her apartment to purge herself of—something (?).  Out for revenge and thrills, Catwoman trades sides to her liking in the conflict between Batman and the Penguin.

If you don’t like the way the characters are introduced, you’re not going to like the story.  The Penguin manifests himself to the people of Gotham as a rejected misfit and gains enough popular sentiment to run for mayor.  The movie portrays him as incredibly conflicted as he struggles between the desire for power and crime (with support from Shreck), and the idea of being a legitimately good person.  To his credit, though not up to par with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s performance is a good one and shows a lot of enthusiasm for the character, especially under heavy make-up.  Meanwhile, Batman struggles to combat this potential threat along with romancing Selina Kyle, not knowing that she is the Catwoman.  This sounds like a decent enough plot, but it’s all very muddled and confusing.  The acting is good, but its simply not compelling enough.  Michael Keaton’s performance is up to par, but he doesn’t have enough lines.  Michelle Pfiefer is interesting as Catwoman, but she tends to overact.  Even Christopher Walken has too bland a character to really shine.  What further compromises the story is the level of bizarreness in this movie, and it’s not just limited to the nature of the characters themselves.  For example, there is a scene where the Penguin gives a Patton-Style speech to an army of penguins with rocket launchers on their back, and the filmmakers treat it seriously.  I’m sorry, but no—that is unacceptable.  At times, it doesn’t even really feel like this movie is about Batman.  It feels more about the Penguin.  Unfortunately this undermines his role as a villain to an unnecessary degree, and it ultimately doesn’t feel natural.  The ending though is the killing blow for this plot.  A general rule about superhero movies is that somehow, even if the hero loses, they manages to do something or cause something that allows them to win at least in spirit.  ‘Batman Returns’ manages to do just the opposite.  Even though he has managed to beat all of the villains in this movie and save Gotham, our hero finds himself depressed and challenged at then end, and the audience feels that he has truly lost.  Batman, by essence, is a symbol of hope, and this movie denies us the ability to experience that.

The other aspects of the movie go the way of the plot.  The sets and setup are interesting to look at but end up coming across as too melancholy.  I don’t like movies that take place during Christmas that aren’t about Christmas (Okay, just ‘Die Hard’).  But somehow, when Christmas serves as a backdrop, it is often distracting or, worse, depressing.  Danny Elfman’s score, which was so lively and powerful in Batman, has been reduced to depression and sadness in this movie, and despite a few interesting “diddies” here and there, is overall weak and unfulfilling.

In short, ‘Batman Returns’ represents the problem with giving someone like Tim Burton too much creative freedom.  Burton must have been dissatisfied with ‘Batman’, and in the sequel he just tried to do too many things too differently.  To his credit, the story is interesting, but it simply isn’t handled well in the context of this movie.  Perhaps it would have worked better if this movie were not a Batman film.  Had he made a cult-gothic thriller about the plight of a deformed-man in a city of crime, this movie may have turned out better.  But as a Batman movie, it’s just a disappointment.