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 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: Rashomon

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: An intelligent, philosophically influential, and emotionally resonant film.

Review:  “Long as I remember, rain’s been comin’ down…” The opening of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1950 film, ‘Rashomon’, immediately brought a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival to my mind.  Two men take refuge from a pounding storm beneath the ruined gatehouse called Rashomon.  One is a common woodcutter, the other a priest.  No words are spoken between them for the longest time, as the rain keeps comin’ down.  A third man joins them.  He manages to pry into the source of their despair; they have witnessed the story of a baffling murder and rape.  The priest’s faith in humanity has been severely shaken by the cloak of lies surrounding the events.  Slowly, all the versions of the story are shared and the conclusion is left ambiguous.  If there is one honest witness, we are left to decide for ourselves.

‘Rashomon’ is exactly the kind of film the world needs, and yet, of course, it is one of the most difficult to get made.  It is a film created from honest doubts, fears, questions, and a little faith.  The murder mystery angle makes it marketable, but the deliberately inconclusive, introspective ending will frustrate those looking for a quick fix.  ‘Rashomon’ is an artful entry into the discussion, not a hamhanded attempt at providing answers.

The film hews close to the minimalism and visual poetry of the silent era, yet has a very large number of shots, 407, which gives the action a similar flavor to postmodern hyperactivity.  It reinforces the fractured, frenetic, and confusing nature of the main event.  Kurosawa bucks common camera conventions, shoots directly towards the sun (something which wasn’t done at the time), and breaks the 180-degree-rule, a guideline for camera placement that prevents the audience from losing track of objects and location.  The murder and rape take place in the forest, which blocks out the sunlight, symbolizing the fragmentation of the truth, and the trees blur together with the camera motion, reinforcing the sense of frustration and spiritual wilderness.

‘Rashomon’ is an unforgettable, very emotional experience.  It’s a thinking person’s film.  It gave its name to the “Rashomon Effect”, which refers to the subjectivity of recollection.  It’s a must-see for cinephiles and philosophers.  “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Buy It From Amazon: Rashomon – Criterion Collection

Classic Review: Bullitt

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  A film so laid-back and slice-of-life it borders on surreal, while also boasting great action and suspense.

Review: Ah, the ’60s. The golden age of James Bond and the incubation chamber of the modern cop/spy/vigilante thriller movie. In 1968, we got ‘Bullitt’, in which Steve McQueen plays the titular character, an overly dedicated cop suspiciously similar, in some respects, to the future ‘Dirty Harry’. He plays his scenes with minimal to zero dialog but still exudes cool and draws sympathy from the audience. We never get to find out where Lt. Frank Bullitt came from, what he hopes for, what is the extent of his relationship with his girlfriend, what’s he really feeling about the whole mystery he’s pulled into. He’s an everyman.

Right from the opening titles, I was hooked.  The editing was especially strong and just watching names I won’t remember assume their positions on screen for a few moments was entertaining. The action moves at a steady and patient pace.  The cinematography keeps us interested even if there is nothing overtly important going on.  Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy, unforgettable score lets us feel the pulse of the film’s setting in San Francisco, lets us know the world we see on screen is alive and well.

Lt. Bullitt as the proto-Dirty Harry naturally comes into conflict with his superiors and with the politicians.  He stretches the rules and defies the tendency of the PD to kiss ass for support.  He doesn’t care about politics.  He cares about justice.  He never gives us a speech spelling himself out.  His best defense of his position, his grand apology, is when a politician played by Robert Vaughn insists that everyone must eventually compromise, and he simply says, “Bullshit.”  It’s the single best use of the word I’ve seen in a film.  His great weakness, however, is in the performance of his duty.  He’s surrounded by so much death, working in homocide, that he’s become distant and callous.  His ridiculously gorgeous and intelligent girlfriend calls him out on this.  He insists that he must keep going.  What Bullitt teaches us is that justice and truth are worth fighting for, but even the most noble can be scarred by the horrors of crime and deceit.

The chase sequences are incredible.  This was back in the day, man, when people actually drove cars in stunt scenes and let the audience see what the hell was going on.  The big car chase is sublime.  The various foot chases are similarly engaging.

This is a must see for fans of the ‘Bourne’ movies, ‘Dirty Harry’ movies, frak it, any action film fan needs to see this film.  This is a piece of art, ladies and gentlemen, this is a piece of perfect.

Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.

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.