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: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A flawed masterpiece with an indelible legacy.

Review: It seems that trying to create a sci-fi film with a city as its subject has some sort of curse attached to it. Consider that Fritz Lang’s 1927 ‘Metropolis’, one of the most influential pieces of the genre, as well as its progeny ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Brazil’ and ‘Dark City’ all suffered from box office travails, multiple edits and an ensuing effort to restore them to proper form. All have gone on to gain considerable cult success and respect from critics, filmmakers, and genre enthusiasts. ‘Metropolis’ is considered the honored grandfather of all urban (in the literal sense) sci-fi films, but there’s still a necessary effort to restore all the lost footage.  The most complete version is distributed by Kino.  That’s the version I’ve seen, and will now review.

‘Metropolis’ is definitely a landmark film, as I’ve gone out of my way to stress, and it is essential viewing for cinephiles and filmmakers.  Still, it’s a lot more flawed than I expected, and this is not due to the lost footage.  In fact, the restored footage is a mixed blessing, restoring an entire (if unnecessary) subplot and making sense of confusing scenes but also padding it out with superfluity.  Fritz Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction with the film, in fact he called it “silly”, and I’m inclined to agree with him.  The silliness isn’t found in the film’s stylization and actions, though the actors overplay it considerably as was the case with most silent films, but rather its basic philosophy, which though not entirely without merit executes unconvincingly.

‘Metropolis’ portrays what amounts to a city-state where the spoiled ruling class separates from the downtrodden working class by the sheer weight of technology.  However this incredibly (in the real sense, as in not credibly) distinct division came about, we don’t know, and it’s arguably implausible.  Who benefits from the machinery?  As in, who buys things?  Hell, who sells them?  ‘Metropolis’ is, as Lang later suggested, a fairy tale, and worst of all its moral is shoddy, and for a fairy tale that’s a death knell.  “The mediator between the Head and the Hands must be the Heart!”, the moral goes, and it’s easy to understand but only truly works in the film’s incredible world.  The upper, middle, and lower classes of the real world’s societies need much more complex, subtle ethical solutions to their problems.  These issues and more were criticisms at the time of the film’s original release, as well, and even the noted sci-fi author H.G. Wells got in the act.  His own review had some interesting thoughts, but he seemed unreasonable and hostile, possibly due to a lack of the memetic evolution concept.  To say it clearer, he seemed to think he was original, but Lang wasn’t, even though they were both drawing from earlier art.  Still, his review is worth a read.

I’d like to reiterate that the film’s basic idea is not without merit.  In fact, there’s a great deal of rich, evocative imagery that the filmmakers drew from the concept, and this is, of course, its true legacy.  Its centerpiece, the robot clone of Maria, is ironically one of its least mined story elements.  The device, like all machines in ‘Metropolis’, is naturally wicked, and there’s no appreciation for all the interesting things it would imply, even in the film’s pretentious quasi-Biblical theology.  The false Maria is sadly neglected, but the image planted a kernel in cinema that would forever color how we portray robots.  In fact, you could view the film as a seed, a necessary step in changing the face of 20th century science fiction.  All its imagery has stayed with us.  It’s grown up and become fruitful.

I suppose that’s the truly beautiful thing about the world of ideas, that nothing is ever truly lost, it’s only finding new forms and getting demonstrably better.  It’s natural that there are millions of mistakes along the way, even blemishes on classics like ‘Metropolis’.  I wonder how, in a hundred years, our genetic and memetic descendants will interpret our artistic marvels and mistakes?  I wonder, in such a different world, which will be which?

Munich

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A haunting, harrowing exploration of heroes and homelands, expertly directed and perfectly executed.

Review:  Tackling a piece of complex cinema is like trying to eat an elephant.  You have to start somewhere, and it will be awkward.  For Spielberg’s 2005 film ‘Munich’, I’ve chosen to broach the subject by philosophizing my impatience.  There is an artistic relationship between a film’s length and its subject. Like a piece of music that requires time and space to build and create emotional resonance, a film in excess of two hours often is so because of reasons beyond plot intricacies.   ‘Munich’ is a paradox of pacing and running time.  It waxes long but plays with the requisite immediacy one expects from a film so firmly grounded in the documentary style.  The meaning of its length is found in the film’s philosophical heart, which, in his introduction on the DVD, he simply relates as (if I recall correctly) “the artist’s intent”. That is, empathy, extended in every direction.

I know a thing about politics, and the film knows a thing or two, so of course I could look at it from that angle.  However, that would, I feel, miss the grander scheme.  ‘Munich’ is to my mind a meditation on heroes.  The film opens with a brilliant montage crosscutting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre with the subjective reactions of the concerned parties, Arabs, Jews, etc. watching their televisions.  The handheld, highly dynamic camera and the overlapping actions and dialog set up a potent sense of realism and empathy for all sides.  As the film’s plot gathers steam, complicates and finally untangles, the filmmakers never stop being lavishly empathic.  The brutal nature of real-world espionage shatters our illusions of heroic, sexy, mentally balanced spies protecting our interests abroad.  It is not so much that heroes do not exist, but that villains share the same faces.  All anyone wants is home.  What they do to get it is another matter.

What I love about Spielberg is how his films come alive.  While, inescapably, the artifice came through, ‘Munich’ tempted me to believe what I was seeing was real.  This is obviously damn good filmmaking.  How he accomplishes this is surprisingly obvious as well.  It’s also enormously complex.  Cinematographically, ‘Munich’ is not a representation cut into pieces.  It is not a million little shots of plot-worthy or atmospheric details, ala the ‘Bourne’ films.  It is expertly staged, with a great deal of depth in most of the shots.  Layers of actions and sounds cross over each other, fighting for attention.  This is a common feature of all Spielberg’s films, but with Janusz Kaminiski’s docu-style cinematography, the effect amplifies.  The film’s texture, partly because of the production design, feels very much like a ’70s era movie.  I can compare it to ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Godfather’.

The production design is worth praising a little more.  I appreciate their effort to defy convention and strive for accuracy on weapons and their messy effects.   The bombs, for example, even have delayed sound.  Silenced weapons don’t have the laser-ish sound effect heard in so many thrillers.  Instead, they sound like suppressed gunshots, which makes so much sense it’s painful we still have to put up with everybody’s weird idea of what they should sound like.

There’s a lot to praise, and it’s too easy.  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.  In the end, ‘Munich’ is proof that Spielberg is still a formidable, flexible filmmaker, perfectly capable of handling the most harrowing issues with a steady hand and a philosopher’s soul.  This is cinema’s mirror directed at the souls of heroes and the homes they protect.  What they reflect back is not easy to see.  It is haunting.

Classic Review: Dr. No

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The fantastic, intelligent, archetypical spy movie.

Review: There’s something intriguing about persons who live deceptive, decadent and devilish lives yet find themselves on the side of truth, justice, and fair play. Just such a human contradiction is writer Ian Fleming’s iconic spy James Bond (also known by his code number 007), realized by actor Sean Connery in this, the first of many official big screen films starring the character.  It’s the archetypical spy movie, beautifully designed, perfectly cast, well-written, and exciting throughout.

Unlike future Bond adventures that would focus on his action capabilities and grand set pieces (inspiring Steven Spielberg’s interest in creating Indiana Jones), those elements, though fantastically present in this debut, take a backseat to letting the viewer get to know the mysterious spy and his skill as a detective.  James is not yet the violent “blunt instrument” as in 2006’s reboot of the series, ‘Casino Royale’, and its followup, ‘Quantum of Solace’, where Bond is basically described as a problematic weapon.  Though Daniel Craig’s portrayal is no less intelligent than Connery’s, by the nature of the story in ‘Dr. No’ it is clear that Bond is something approaching a Renaissance Man akin to pulp hero Doc Savage and/or a stimulant-seeking genius who can put himself in anyone’s shoes, ala Sherlock Holmes.  His ruthless manipulation of those who dare to manipulate him reveals an intimate understanding of sociopathy, a condition he obviously shares and is probably aware of.  Bond is the ultimate Cold War figure; an individual capable of literally sleeping with the enemy for the advantage of King & Country.  Dr. No, the titular villain played by Joseph Wiseman, recognizes this unnerving trait and praises it, inviting the secret agent to join SPECTRE, the shadowy supercriminal organization that works to pit East & West against each other.  This seems to imply that Bond is, really, not too different from Dr. No at all, only that Bond chose the right friends and loyalties.  Yet perhaps this isn’t true.  The villain’s plot is to frustrate the U.S. space program, to disturb the balance of power, and if Bond were really as wicked as No, he would have taken advantage of the situation to create World War III, which could then be promptly won with Dr. No’s technology.  Instead, he becomes determined to blow the operation to smithereens, a gesture that denotes respect for both sides of the frigid conflict.

Bond’s similarity to Holmes is evident in the pursuit of the constant challenge.  But while Sherlock avoided women, James both hunts them and entraps them like a skilled playactor running through a familiar routine, similar to Sherlock’s routine of obtaining information from witnesses.  Holmes did what he did because of an obsession with information; Bond acts so because of an appreciation of beauty, that has run out of control.  And yet, like Holmes’ appreciation for his cases and even for the brilliance of the perpetrators, Bond truly cares for the good-hearted women he encounters, and in ‘Dr. No’ he goes to great lengths to save his main love interest, Honey Ryder, from the villain’s clutches.  This points once again to the probability that 007 is a self-aware sociopath, who, though he uses his emotional callousness to do his job, understands the importance of basic humanity when it really matters.

‘Dr. No’ establishes a long list of James Bond film traditions, such as having dinner with the villain, over-the-top technology, exotic locales, multiple femme fatales, a reluctant woman won over by James’ nobility, the Walther PPK, Felix Leiter, villains with physical deformities that turn out to be advantages, car chases in the hills, etc. etc. etc.

This is a must-see for fans of the spy and action genres.  It’s in the top ten of my favorite Bond movies, and it’s there to stay.

Buy It From Amazon: Dr. No (James Bond) [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Superman

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A combination of heavy-hitters, unknowns, and very wise producers brought us the first truly excellent comic book movie.

Thats right.  You have no choice.  You WILL believe a man can fly.

That's right. You have no choice. You WILL believe a man can fly.

Review:  In 1938, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the very first superhero in DC’s Action Comics #1.  With a wide range of powers and a flashy costume, Superman was a hit with kids everywhere, forever changing the face of comic books.  Countless imitators would follow Superman, though few would equal him.

It took a long time to bring a definitive film to the screen.  Sure, there were the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 40s (which were excellent), and there were the live-action serials and the George Reeves TV show (which were somewhat less up to par), but a live-action film that was convincingly serious didn’t come until 1978.  ‘Superman’, after going through a shaky development that was dramatic enough, was a box office smash and, like the comics that inspired it, changed the face of the genre.  Along with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it breathed new life into science fiction and transformed it into a cinematic juggernaut.

There are some of the production problems that deserve mentioning in relevance to the film’s design.  Such as the fact that the effects of Superman’s flight had never been done before in a truly live-action sense, usually relying on animation or models instead of a stunt man.  Eventually, they turned to the technology of chroma-key, which uses a blue screen or green screen as a background, then removes it in post-production.  The result was realistic enough that they made the claim in the film’s tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  Whether this was claimed before the effect was achieved or not, I don’t know, but it is a bold claim regardless.  So critical was this sense of wonder to the film’s success that the tagline was necessitated.  You won’t see anything said in quite that way on a modern movie poster.  We think we’ve seen everything possible with special effects.

The composer John Williams continued to rise to glory with his third iconic score in five years, going from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Superman’.  Using the same orchestra he worked with on ‘Star Wars’, he delivered.  Period.  The music perfectly compliments the picture, indeed working with it to ingrain the images in the viewer’s mind.  This, to me, is the mark of a good composer: the ability to marry picture and music so perfectly that they become synonymous.

A big struggle of early development was avoiding the campy tone that pervaded earlier comic book adaptations.  Director Richard Donner ordered a rewrite before filming began, for which I am sure audiences are thankful.  The narrative covers a wide range of human emotions and manages to find a convincing balance.   Conceptually, it is an epic fantasy.  I describe it as an epic due to the multiple storylines and digressions.  It is much slower burning than recent superhero films, for which I am thankful.

I chose to review this film due to the recent release of the ‘Watchmen’ adaption.  ‘Superman’ is, essentially, the tonal and philosophical antithesis of ‘Watchmen’. ‘Watchmen’ is primarily concerned with the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”  The superheroes of the story, analogous to “watchmen” or guards, are shown to be morally incapable of handling the problem of power.  What makes their vigilante authority necessary, or legitimate?  ‘Watchmen’ suggests nothing directly in answer.  It is far too complex a work to pin down a conclusion.  ‘Superman’, on the flipside, is quite clear.  The hero is justified in his quest to help the people of Earth due to his nobility and integrity.  Superman is the good guy, the Big Blue Boy Scout, always trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. etc.  Going back to ‘Watchmen’, it is suggested that no vigilante, regardless of his intentions, is ultimately trustworthy.  Humans are simply not good enough as a whole, it is suggested.  Again, this is never put forth as a clear conclusion, but the implications are there.  Returning again to ‘Superman’, we see this is never a concern with this ideal individual.  But, since we don’t live in this world, and there is no (as far as we know) alien human from Krypton fighting crime with completely noble intentions, is it wrong to indulge in such fantasies?  I personally think that the pessimistic view of ‘Watchmen’- while arguably more realistic –is not any more correct than the view ‘Superman’ takes.  Humans tend towards corruption, yes, but I would argue that paradoxically they also tend towards integrity.  As a flipside to ‘Watchmen’, ‘Superman’ shows us what could be, not just in an ideal but also in a grounded world.  There is wisdom in the view of ‘Watchmen’ and there is equal wisdom in ‘Superman’.  So how do we solve the problem of this paradox?  One of the ways is not to entrust too much power to one person.  There should be, in a sense, watchmen watching the watchmen.  Hence the separation of powers in modern democracies, which themselves are watched by the people, who in turn are watched and judged by God.

Well, now that my necessary digression is over, I’d like to say something in conclusion.  I don’t think this is the best superhero film of all time.  Considering just how varied the genre has become, even the granddaddy of all superheroes doesn’t by proxy take the cake.  It is definitely one of the best ever made.

Classic Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Stars:  *** out of Four

Summary:  A splendidly photographed parable that would go on to set the standards for sci-fi films for decades.

This scene never happens, but that what 21st century fan fiction is for.

This scene never happens, but that's what 21st century fan fiction is for.

Review:  Military officials throughout the world track an unidentified object in Earth’s upper atmosphere, which is speeding in for a landing.  The United States deals with panicking citizens as the vessel from another world lands in Washington D.C.  The military creates a perimeter, and just in time; an alien emerges, claiming to have come in peace.

It all sounds so… cliche.

Robert Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ created this formula, which would be imitated and aped by inferior directors with inferiors stories ever since.  Though suspenseful, ‘Day’ is not a horror movie.  It is intelligent, thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction, its focus on character, not carnage.

The film opens in what I just described.  What happens next is simple, but interesting.  The alien- a very human-like being named Klaatu -is shot by a nervous soldier, bringing the wrath of his robot protector, the now famous Gort.  The machine unleashes a ray that vaporizes many of the soldiers’ weapons, until Klaatu orders him to stop.  He then allows the military to take him in for medical treatment and examination.  At the hospital, he meets with a government official, attempting to convince him to arrange a meeting of all the world’s leaders.  Due to the Cold War attitudes, the official laments, this will be impossible.  Klaatu insists.  When nothing is done, he escapes military custody.

The film chronicles his attempts to accomplish his mission on Earth, namely warning the world of some danger.  Eventually he works with Gort to cut off all the world’s power for a limited period of time, hence the title.

The cinematography and editing is very easy on the eyes.  There seems to be little about the photography that is special, but it is very pleasant to watch.  The special effects, though, are truly innovative.  The shots of Klaatu’s saucer landing and taking off are impressive, as are the various effects of Gort.  The ship design is elegant and utilitarian.

Bernard Herrmann, famous for his work on ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Vertigo’, and ‘Psycho’, among many others, composed the music.  Utilizing the eerie, ethereal sound of the theremin, he created a signature soundscape that is pulsating, emotive, iconic and unsettling.  The themes would go on to be parodied and imitated like every other aspect of the film.

The acting is not striking, but workable.  The lead, Michael Rennie as Klaatu, surpasses all the others.  He carries both the warmth and wrath of his character equally well.

The film is in direct response to the Cold War.  Klaatu’s mission, it is revealed, is to warn Earth’s nations that they must give up their violence, or at least severely limit it, or else the federation he represents will be forced to intervene.  The execution of the final scenes, though memorable, seems forced and contrived.  Nevertheless, the message he brings raises several questions.  Is it ethical for a third party, such as Klaatu’s federation, to enter into a strange conflict and dictate terms?  Isn’t Klaatu’s threat of annihilation just perpetuating the same ideas that were fueling the Cold War in the first place?  After all, isn’t he taking the position that the U.S. often takes, being the nation with the bigger guns?  What makes his message, from a more advanced civilization, so much more progressive than our own collective culture?

The film suffers from a dated feeling in some cases, yet it is still a breath of fresh air.  I gave it three stars for its ideas, but I removed one for a contrived ending and a dragging second act.  All things considered, if you are a fan of sci-fi, this film is required viewing, and if you are a film buff, this is a guilty pleasure.