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.

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Tron: Legacy

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A successful, slick, satisfying sequel, creatively and thematically progressive.

Review: What good does a cinematic sequel do, besides line filmmaker pockets? A good sequel moves the story forward, finds the meaning in the original’s premise and expounds on it, taking it that one step further that would’ve been too much for the first installment. It should find new extremes. It should dare to alter the status quo.

‘Tron: Legacy’ is a fun and fantastic sequel because it does all of those things.  ‘Tron’ let the CGI cat out of the bag, in terms of world design and action, while its sequel shows us how far that cat can run, and the tiger doesn’t show signs of wearying.  To simply call ‘Tron: Legacy’ a feast for the eyes would be saying too little, but it’s awfully hard to do justice to the extent of cinematographic innovation on show here.  There’s an exhilarating solidity to this world.  The action sequences are full of surprises, which hit hard and fast and demand repeat viewings.  The downside of this level of visual innovation is that it may occasionally be too dizzying for some audience members.  It’s almost too fresh.  ‘Tron: Legacy’ is designed as immersive as possible, and as a result, we share the character’s disorientation with gravity changes, high-speed lightcycle races, and digital dogfights.  It showcases the best of postmodern style while skillfully avoiding problematic techniques like “intensified continuity”, that is, cinematography and editing akin to the ‘Bourne’ pictures.  Like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’, the camera is free to fly through virtual space and take us anywhere.

The story is surprisingly good, even an improvement on the original ‘Tron’, taking it several natural steps forward.  While ‘Tron’ had the villainous MCP, whose motives were purely power-lust, ‘Tron: Legacy’ has CLU, the mirror image of his creator, who believes so strongly in his purpose — to make the virtual world perfect — that he rebels against his user to this end.  Kevin Flynn’s quest to create the perfect world was a mistake.    Continuing a train of thought from the original, Flynn accidentally creates a new life-form, an aberration in the Grid’s programming called ISOs, and this “perfect imperfection” provokes CLU’s revolt. Humans, Flynn comes to realize, have no idea what perfection really is, and by putting this yoke on his creation he caused his own downfall.  He’s trapped in the digital world and separated from his son.

Sam Flynn, in his father’s absence, grows up just as reckless as Kevin in the original ‘Tron’, and arguably does not share his father’s illusions.  His quest isn’t for perfection, but for the relationship he lost.  A key thematic component is Kevin’s insistence that his beloved son is perfect, despite all moral evidence to the contrary, and this ties into the ISOs; life is beyond logic, beyond control, and beyond measurement.

To CLU, the ISOs are a critical flaw, and so he commits genocide and kills them all, save one rescued by Kevin, a girl named Quorra.  She demonstrates an intense curiosity about the physical world, reading whatever books that Kevin transported into the Grid, hoping one day to see the real sun.  To her, our world is just as awe-inspiring and transformative as the virtual world is to us.  Her character is positively endearing.

Perhaps the only eyebrow-raising story component is the use of the Tron character, who was basically a plot device in the first film and here plays a minor role as CLU’s champion gladiator, having been converted against his will in the coup.  His arc is short, but satisfying still.  The ‘Tron’ series has, ironically, never been about Tron.  It’s Flynn’s movie.

I’d be loathe not to mention the marvelous score by Daft Punk.  Here, listen to this. End of line.

‘Tron: Legacy’ checked all the boxes on my list of things I’d like to see in a ‘Tron’ sequel.  As if I had such a thing.  It’s a satisfying trip that does far more than drill for nostalgia fuel.  It succeeds where most other long-awaited sequels fail, even entries in noted franchises like ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Terminator’.  Despite its title, it’s not overly concerned with ‘Tron’s legacy, but rather telling a good story well.

Cult Classic: Tron

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An innovative milestone and the father of many philosophical tangents, ‘Tron’ is valuable, aesthetically intriguing science fiction.

 

Review:  Science fiction is at its best when it permits us to review — literally, “see again” — the real world.  It’s not always about illuminating philosophy.  Sometimes it’s about challenging us to believe, just as long as we may, that there is an unseen world that coexists with our own.  It’s not necessarily that this supposed world is supernatural, but by contrast it seems incredible.  For Disney’s bomb-turned-classic ‘Tron’, the tagline sums up this conceit magnanimously: “A world inside the computer, where man has never been — never before now.”  Chalk that up as one of my favorite taglines in cinema history, just as provocative as “You will believe a man can fly”.  Does the movie measure up to it?

To my delight, yes.  It is a successful example of intelligent conceptualization and world-building.  The best word I can use to describe ‘Tron’ is iconic.  It revels in its imagery, visual and conceptual, to the plot’s degradation.  The story is good, but it meanders, if only to allow the audience the privilege of seeing all the CGI that 1982 could muster.  Yes, today, the film looks dated, but this isn’t a bad thing.  It adds a layer of nostalgia to the cake.  What’s great about the primitive CGI, in itself, is that it lets us see the naked architecture.  Lines are all-important in ‘Tron’s aesthetic.  This is, after all, “The Grid”, the combat zone of arcade games of yore.  There’s a distinctive spirit to vintage arcades, and ‘Tron’ may be its definitive cinematic incarnation.

I said the story is good, and not just because it complicates and untangles satisfactorily.  ‘Tron’ is philosophically complex, yet it doesn’t explore every question raised, sparking mental tangents which I’m sure have contributed to the film’s growing popularity.  The world of ‘Tron’ is populated by programs, each of whom has a relationship with its human user, which the programs perceive from afar as gods.  This has sobering implications in real life, with computer technology evolving at an incredible rate, and a growing number of scientists assuring us that true artificial intelligence, nay, artificial life is just around the proverbial corner.  How will we respond to a thinking being that recognizes us as its life-giver?  ‘Tron’ doesn’t answer this question.  Raising it may be enough.  But I digress.  In ‘Tron’, programs are created in the user’s image, literally.  They act as the user’s avatar, yet think of themselves as distinct persons, perhaps unaware of their resemblance to the humans they idolize.  The film’s plot centers on the Master Control Program, or MCP, who rebels against his user and seeks to extend his control beyond his system.  To this end, the MCP cuts off all contact between programs and users, calling the vital relationship an obsolete superstition.  He even goes so far as to pit rebel programs against each other in gladiatorial combat.  Jeff Bridges’ character, user Kevin Flynn, tries to confront the MCP and gets digitized into the computer world for his trouble.  He is now a user incarnated as a program, and indistinguishable from any other except in his power to manipulate data.  He fights to defeat the MCP and restore the programs to their users.  The film is, quite obviously, heedlessly unsubtle in its use of religious concepts.

‘Tron’ is an exciting, bizarre, surreal and innovate piece of celluloid.  It’s a milestone in CGI development and our popular conception of cyberspace.  It may have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, ahead of the game in its first release, but it’s plain to see that ‘Tron’ is not just another pleasant diversion.  It helps us review our world.  That’s why we go to the movies.

The Book of Eli

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  An example of a genre film elevated by powerful truths.

 

Review:  When I set out to review this film, I inclined to rate it three stars.  I liked it, but there wasn’t that glee that usually comes from watching a really great movie.  However, upon further reflection, ‘The Book of Eli’ clearly deserves the honor of a full four.  I set out to review it, and its tantalizingly subtle greatness got to me.  There are layers here, man.  Caves of treasure to plunder.

At first look, it’s your typical pretentious post-apocalyptic science fiction story, with visuals and production design similar to ‘Mad Max’ and sundry films, all manner of mangas, comic books, and what have you.  Lots of martial arts, guns, car chases, and explosions, all set in a desert wasteland made so by nuclear holocaust.  An old drillbit, if you will, worn down from spinning in the groove too long.  Thankfully, the cast’s more than up for the challenge.  The protagonist, Denzel Washington’s Eli, is a dangerous, solitary journeyman who’s got the world’s last Bible (old King James Version, naturally). Eli wants to take it somewhere safe.  He believes God told him to.  He enters a town in search of water, and crosses swords with Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, the educated de-facto leader who covets the sacred book.  Carnegie wants the book for reason of its influence, which of course he can exploit for his nefarious ends.  Along the way, Eli gradually lets a local girl, the beautiful Mila Kunis’ Solara, in on his secrets.

The action is superb, and while that gets butts in seats (as does Mila Kunis), the religious nature of the film is difficult to swallow.  So, as Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego in ‘Ratatouille’ may suggest, what we need is a little perspective.

Subgenres, such as post-apocalyptic science fiction, can quickly become stale.  Seeing as they’re built upon more specific rules than your typical genre film, it’s the nature of the beast.  How they are properly refreshed is not necessarily by breaking those rules, but by finding what made a subgenre’s core ideas interesting in the first place.   Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t about the end of the world, but its beginnings, the basics of human society.  The idea central to ‘The Book of Eli’ is one often overlooked in the past century’s popular fiction: discipleship.

Discipleship means imitation.  It is the process by which knowledge is properly transmitted, not as information, but as wisdom, and by which the meaning of one life carries on in another.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in our individualistic, depersonalized society to admit, the desire for discipleship is a natural, indeed crucial part of the human psyche.  If you are never someone’s disciple, it’s analogous to having never experienced childhood.  It leaves us out of balance, without a center.  Prior to the media proliferation that we take for granted in our era, it was the chief method of passing on history, the weight of the human experience.  In an unbroken chain of disciples, there is a depth of wisdom that is foreign to the frission-based postmodern world.  If and when our world comes tumbling down, the master-to-learner dynamic will prove essential.  ‘The Book of Eli’ is a bold affirmation of this basic human relationship.

There’s much more here that’s worthy of reflection, such as the dynamics of religion and power, knowledge and violence, education and class division, sex and survival.  The sad thing about films like ‘The Book of Eli’ is that, due to cultural saturation, they get lost somewhere and aren’t appreciated.  This is a gem worth digging for.

Classic Review: Poltergeist

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A distinctly Spielbergian piece of childlike terror and awe.

Review:  I’ve always been a paranormal enthusiast.  My instincts tell me that the world around us, especially popular media’s edited view of the world, is not all there is.  There are still unfathomable mysteries.  Not everything’s explained by bouncing particles together and making educated guesses.  It proves my geekhood, but when I consider how I approach the world, I immediately think of the Vulcans from ‘Star Trek’ and their philosophy IDIC, that is, Infinite Diversity (in) Infinite Combinations.  There are too many possible answers for every question.

Which brings me to a recent cinematic experience I had, Steven Spielberg’s story ‘Poltergeist’, a movie that’s equal parts wonder and horror.  The filmmakers wisely spent most of their time showing the unfolding supernatural events from a child’s point-of-view.  Children, of course, believe in IDIC.  They’re natural poets.  A rainstorm is more than part of a cycle, unfolding since the Earth’s beginning; it’s a harbinger of doom.  A tree isn’t a passive factory of useful materials; it’s a pensive, devious, patient monster.  A clown doll sitting at the foot of the bed isn’t a fun toy; at night, it transforms into a demon, waiting for you to fall asleep.  It’s the imagination’s dark side in full force.

What ‘Poltergeist’ does is it takes childhood fears — that your home is the devil’s playground — and brings them into the adult world.  Unlike most cinematic families, the family in ‘Poltergeist’ is unified, loving, and three-dimensional.  It’s the family every kid wants and deserves.  When the kids’ fears prove real — and ghosts kidnap the little girl — the parents don’t react with skepticism.  To combat a supernatural enemy, they need the same imagination and faith their children have.  This is what Jesus is talking about when He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Not an impossible demand or a threat; a plea for open minds.

‘Poltergeist’ is indeed scary, but because it originated in Spielberg’s mind, it has the same sense of adventure and awe as ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  If you’ve got a stomach for horror, ‘Poltergeist’ is incredibly fun, and even inspiring.  Watching the father, played by Craig T. Nelson, interact with the kids, well, it made me want to be a Dad.  It’s increasingly rare that we get to see a purely positive role model.

I’ve referred to this as a Spielberg film, and it’s not because I have any illusions about who directed it.  That was Tobe Hooper.  The auteur is not always the director; its how we ought to pinpoint the chief creative force behind any project, no matter their role.  Here, it was certainly the co-writer and producer, Steven Spielberg, as the narrative is certainly his and every shot screams out his influence.

‘Poltergeist’ is my favorite horror film of all time.  It’s an experience akin to ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ pictures.  I’ll be returning to that haunted house again.

Classic Review: The Silence Of The Lambs

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  The only horror film to win Best Picture, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is terrifying because it’s truthful.

Review:  There’s “theme park” scary movies and then there’s true horror. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’, the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, defines the latter class. It originates from the same real-life story as Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Instead of establishing distance from the psychopath, however, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ takes us up close and personal with not one, but two dangerous and terrifyingly realistic villains.

The most famous is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, a brilliant and seductive psychopathic psychologist played by Anthony Hopkins. He’s the most vile and convincing villain I have ever seen on film. FBI Agent Clarice Starling, excellently played by Jodie Foster, has to consult with the incarcerated monster to see if she can discover how to find a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Their interactions are not only the highlight of the movie, but some of the few perfect moments in cinematic history.

This is a brutal experience.  It is a descent into the darkest dungeons in the human spirit, into Tartarus.  It is a challenging picture that requires viewers of strong constitutions.  By not flinching, the filmmakers are putting us in absolute sympathy with Clarice; she’s vulnerable, naïve, and though she has an idea of where her journey will take her, it’s a horrifying ride that leaves her shaken.  Director Jonathan Demme takes the Hitchcockian ideal to its absolute limit, lets us chew through our nails and grind our teeth until the last logical moment, which results in a fantastic catharsis.  This isn’t a film for the faint of heart, and the weight of the thing goes beyond simple thrills.  Psychologically and philosophically, it sticks with you.  Every major religion has a theme of the descent into darkness and pain.  Consider the challenge of Christianity, as made by St. Paul, for believers to “crucify their flesh” — to endure the greatest suffering for the greatest reward.  ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a filmic exploration of that challenge, both as a narrative (Clarice’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill) and as an experience.  Provided that viewers know what they’re after, ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is a uniquely rewarding film.

The philosophical theme of ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ is that yes, indeed, monsters do exist, and to our horror, they’re people like us.  There’s something convenient about supernatural horror that separates the man from the monster, allows us the comfort given a victim, that when all’s said and done, history takes pity on the innocent.  Here, there’s no such comfort.  Instead, Clarice Starling discovers the bitter truth of how similar Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill really are to “normal” people.  Being human is a dangerous idea.  Within each of us, there’s a devilish potential that we only think we’ve successfully sublimated.  Inside our private hells, we keep monsters locked away, but what about the ones that seem so attractive that they can lure us in to their homes for some fava beans and a bottle of nice Chianti?

In an interesting contrast, let’s compare Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with Jonathan Demme’s ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’.  ‘2001’ is a film about, literally, heaven, space, evolution and the divine potential of humankind.  It’s a hopeful journey through time with a strangely (for Kubrick) optimistic point-of-view.   ‘Silence’, however, is about Earth and things underneath it, like basements and pits and darkened rooms.  It’s about devolution, complex, civilized man’s disintegration into a cannibalistic hunter, the diabolical potential of humankind.  Perhaps this Halloween, for a unique double feature, you ought to watch both.

Classic Review: Psycho (1960)

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: One of the best horror pictures ever made, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is a perfect use of story and suspense to remind us of our nightmares.

Review: ‘Psycho’ is perhaps the definitive example of the horror genre, and what else would we expect from Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense?  ‘Psycho’ succeeds in the areas that postmodern horror tends to fail.  It’s focused and very intelligent in its approach.  Hitchcock clearly understood that horror is only effective when it corresponds to plausible fears.  That’s not to say that supernatural horror is by nature ineffective; rather, it is only effective so long as it reminds us of the darkness in our dreams.  ‘Psycho’ is scary realistic and evokes our nightmares with the deft usage of cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s unmatched musical score.

A critical flaw in postmodern horror is the use of stock characters that audiences find difficult to believe in.  Every character in ‘Psycho’ is in some way sympathetic.  This is because ‘Psycho’ is not about the sadistic satisfaction of extravagant kills, but examining real evil.  Unlike future slasher films that emphasize the killer’s otherworldly qualities, the villain of this piece, Norman Bates’ Mother, is what we suspect is lurking in the cracks of our civilized society, and too often it’s a justified fear.  Another shortcoming of recent horror is a lack of patience and suspense, which belies a lack of faith in the story’s substance.  Horror is about story; as exploitation, it has no value.   Hitchcock understood that a thousand shocking moments numb audiences, but a single moment coupled with suspense endures forever.  So it goes with the famous shower scene.

The saying is that “Sound is half the picture”.  Bernard Herrmann’s musical score is a masterpiece.  What horror films often lack in their soundscapes is a unique personality.  The composers often deliver harsh sounds and weighty orchestra without weaving their music into the story’s pattern.  The theme from ‘Psycho’, however, is its heartbeat.

‘Psycho’ is one of Hitch’s best and is certainly in the top-tier of the genre.  Our stay at the Bates Motel will remain in the cinematic consciousness forever.