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Thursday, January 11, 2007

My God, it's Full of Jubilees: Children of Men

Apparently, some people are amused by the fact that I have serially hung the albatross of King Arthur around the necks of Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. In my defense, I would like to say that I really only accused Cuarón of it, and it just so happened that M and I talked about Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth on the same night, leading me to think that I had accused del Toro.

And now that everyone knows that, apparently, I think all Mexican directors have the same sin on their souls or something, let's move on.

Spoilers for Children of Men follow.

I was supposed to start my Talking Heads ensemble at Old Town, but something complex happened and the start date is now not until next week. (Of course, I'd already driven up there and was hanging out, doing some editing, so I was a little cranky at having to fight my way back down south in rush hour traffic, but whatever.) Given an unexpectedly free Wednesday night, I suggested to my spouse that we go see Children of Men, aka the Feel-Good Movie of the Year.

I hadn't been particularly fired up to see Children of Men, even before King Arthur confusion entered the picture. It will no doubt amuse both M and N to know that this is, in part, due to the fact that the only time I saw a trailer for it was immediately after a trailer for The Fountain. I was knitting during the trailers and the two got conflated in my mind. Go ahead: Laugh at my senescence. However, when N mentioned that he'd seen CoM after Pan's Labyrinth and had loved both, my interest was piqued.

As it happens, I have never seen a Cuarón film, so I wasn't familiar with his style, either as a director or as a writer. I'll admit that early on I was fairly cranky about certain things. I remain cranky about several of them, but overall, I think that the fact that I was weeping, shaking, and exhausted by the end speaks to the fact that this was a very effective film.

My objections first: I get that Cuarón is an experienced and celebrated director. Nonetheless, that is at odds with some things that I found clunky and that I persist in thinking of as amateurish, despite the fact that this is clearly not applicable in this case. Going almost 100% hand held doesn't make me feel any more tense or on edge. It makes me feel nauseated and annoyed. (And when paired with the steady am POV from inside the car as Owen is on his way to see the over-privileged cousin . . . yawn.) Likewise, the intermittent, inexplicable zooms into tight close-ups are much more jarring than a cut between a wide-angle shot and a close-up, particularly if you're not actually moving from a two-shot to a close-up. The most glaring example of this was during the initial "strawberry cough" pot scene when we're, for some reason, watching Jasper from just to the right of Theo and we're suddenly hurtling toward Michael Caine's Jerry Garcia wig at .5c for no particular reason.

Other minor things in this vein: the blood spatter on the lens during the scene in the bus just broke my attention away from the action, because it didn't make a lick of sense. Likewise, as M pointed out, several of those hiding in the bus appear to be looking at the cameraman, as does Theo at a few points. I won't belabor it, but the point of view whiplash rears its head throughout the movie, although it's much more frequent earlier on than it is later.

Given that the technical choices seemed geared toward creating a feeling of frenzy, desperation, and disorientation, some scenes that made the final cut really undermined that. I like Julianne Moore so much that I don't even hold Hannibal against her. Given that I know she can and does bring her A-game to the table no matter what the material, I'm unsure what to make of the fact that most of her dialogue was really awkward and the pace of film ground to a dead stop almost every time she was on screen. Certainly I understand that Theo's strength is supposed to be that he remains focused on the individual. Given that, it is nearly impossible to believe that, without his relationship to Julian, he would have ever gotten involved in such a situation. But that still leaves her seeming rather disposable, and Luke's off-hand, belated mention that she wanted a purely peaceful Death Ray Baby to bring about the uprising doesn't really sell it.

Another pace-killing scene of note is the point at which Patric brings his dying cousin to the farm (on the loudest motorcycle in the county—I'll allow it as it does emphasize that Theo is Just a Guy, not some superbeing with preternatural senses and instincts, but how that didn't wake everyone on the British Isles, let alone in the farm house, I'll never know) revealing that OMG! Luke leads an EVIL FACTION OF THE FISH! I had my suspicions about Luke from the time of the attack (actually, I was gratified that his complete transformation into Driver!Jubilee was deliberate and part of the nefarious plan, because man, I was starting to get irritated with the comprehensive lack of competence), the hand-held camera work, for once, worked as Theo awakes from a deep sleep, sees them out the window, and starts acting on the connections he's making before he's even conscious of them. And then we're treated to a 10-minute scene in which we are ASSURED that Luke is REALLY SUPER DUPER EVIL and doesn't see PEOPLE he sees PAWNS. Yes, beware idealogues. I KNOW. Significant trimming of that scene would have been more elegant and demonstrated confidence in the audience's intelligence.

That said, I did like the Amish chase scene. Nothing is stupider than a postapocalyptic, old and busted world in which the hero still jumps on to some kind of hyperefficient transport, sparking a chase suitable for a video-game tie in. Well, ok, a climactic space battle on floor buffers is stupider, but not by much.

Leaving aside these bitchings, which really are about individual scenes or moments, in the big picture, Children of Men is a frightening success. The backdrop of decay and violence is grim and frightening, mostly because it seems so damned plausible. I remember the last time I reread The Handmaid's Tale I found, as I had on the first reading, that it all seemed so paranoid and overwrought at the beginning, but when the story starts to flash back to how women were so thoroughly disempowered and excised from any kind of political, economic, or human identity, the individual steps seemed all-too-believable.

Cuarón similarly manages to set the story against the total environmental wasteland that seems almost inevitable. The oppression and dehumanization of immigrants is constant, comprehensive, and chillingly casual. (For the record, M felt that the concentration camp imagery was hit a little too hard later on in the film, but I felt like Cuarón had narratively earned that with the relentless inclusion of the treatment of the "Fujis" as a backdrop to which Theo has become completely desensitized.) The utter chaos once "the uprising" comes is so pointless, inevitable, and inexorable that I was pretty much weeping full time by then. (Uh, with a long break when Jubilee subtext became text when Theo sprains his ankle. Then I was laughing.)

Perhaps my favorite technique that Cuarón uses in the film to make all this plausible is the subtle insertion of the work of real people. I recognized the Banksy painting of the two bobbies kissing as Theo passed it by on his way into his cousin's mansion in the sky. I also knew that Jasper's political cartoons looked familiar, but I had to look up the trivia in imdb to identify them as Steve Bell's work. And, of course, there's the soundtrack, with the Stones and John Lennon alongside Handel and Mahler. This is an interesting run through the whole soundtrack, of which I was a big fan. (Note, however, that I'm reasonably certain that Janice was the victim of government torture, not "terrorism" as the article states. The linguistic hijinks that can turn a freedom fighter into a guerilla matter a lot in that context, methinks.)

If I don't out myself, M will, so I will tell you that the tears started rolling when Jasper offs his dog. Not only do I have less than no ability to deal with harm coming to pets, the whole "you decide when" Quietus suicide packs were a major problem. I don't know why Alfonso Cuarón would know this, but when I was a kid (9 years old, IMDB suggests), I watched The Bunker, a made-for-TV movie about the last days of Hitler. In a stunning demonstration that children are the ultimate narcissists, the thing that freaked me out the most, and the thing that has stayed with me for 25 years, was the fact that they fed the kids cyanide-laced chocolate to help them sleep. So, yes, I was weeping for the cutest dog in the whole damned film, but it was also like someone had just pressed the Reptile-Brain Distress Deployment Button in my head and jammed it down.

M was looking up some things about the relationship between the book and the movie last night. I'm on the fence about reading the book. I will probably end up doing it, but I don't want to be annoyed with either of them, and I'm afraid that I might end up being so based on my crankiness regarding the things I know already, the main one being the shift of infertility from males (in the story) to females (in the movie). I know Cuarón has said that he is telling a different story, though he admires the book, but I am afraid that I might not quite want to receive his newsletter and could end up resenting both incarnations.

Bearing in mind that mine is an uninformed viewpoint as I have not read the book, it seems to me that one of the successful themes Cuarón lifts from the book and translates into film is the relationship between humans and animals. From what the ZK tells me, the book has woman, in particular, fetishizing pets as replacement for children. Cuarón has pets everywhere in the film, but treats that aspect of things with what sounds like a defter touch. In contrast, livestock, whether they're burning, dead in rank sewage ditches, or simply live caged in domestic contexts, are also frequent background inclusions, living in conditions that are not dissimilar from those endured in the present day and glaringly mirror those inflicted on the "Fujis."

In terms of the acting performances, I was more impressed with Clive Owen than I have been before. I am immune to his powers entirely. Not only do I not think he's attractive, he looks like a thug to me, and I have a strong and entirely irrational dislike of him based on that perception. I also grow tired of the weirdly flat and affectless delivery style he has. But all of that works in this role. He's a genuine antihero who is unprepared, impulsive, self-absorbed, and, lord knows, incredibly incompetent in many ways. (Seriously, the incompetence and uselessness of everyone bugged the hell out of me, even as I had to acknowledge that this is exactly how things go down when life goes to hell in a handbasket for Joe Average Consumer of "Yes, Dear" [please supply the British or equivalent].) But the pay offs are huge when he is moved to pull off impossible things in spite of himself, all the more so, because they are so quietly handled and immediately give way to the next horrible crisis.

I threw up a little in my mouth when I read that Emma Watson had been offered the role of Kee but couldn't take it. I'm just going to leave it at that, and simply say that Claire-Hope Ashitey deserved higher billing than she got. Initially, some of her halting approach to the dialogue seemed off (I know almost nothing about her, so I have no idea where she's from, whether the accent was affected, or what), but she quickly became one of the strongest members of the cast. I loved the way the character was written, playful and a little bewildered, but also aware of the gravity of her situation.

It was entirely believable that Julian, Miriam, and Theo could all be moved to think about her as an individual, not as an idea or a symbol, and to do extraordinary things to ensure her survival as well as that of the baby. She's so appealing that I could almost believe that that certain something she has, combined with the mere fact of the baby, caused the whole world to stop dead in awe as they made their way out of the middle of the firefight. Speaking for myself, when Theo follows the sounds of the baby's crying to the top of the apartment building, I was preparing to bust a cap in Cuarón's ass if I saw her slumped dead over the baby, her final act being to shield her.

I'm sad to say I was a little disappointed with Chiwetel Ejiofor in this. I'm more inclined to write that off to clunky characterization again, rather than to him not being up to the role. We never do really know what the Fish are about as a group, let alone whether we should consider him a calculating bastard, but a competent leader with a ruthless vision, or if he's just as big a fuck up as all the little people in the film. In particular, his monologue in the apartment building was jerky and not well handled, as he squeezes shots off even as he talks about being moved to tears by the baby.

In the words of blondeheroine, I just wanted to murder the faces of Patric (Charlie Hunnam) and Miriam (Pam Ferris) so much of the time. I think that's a testimony to how well they played their roles. Hunnam's is particularly thankless, as he's unthinking dredlocked spearcarrier #104. I'm less sure what to make of Ferris and Miriam. As with Luke's long "this is who I am, and this is why I do what I do" monologue, her Brief HIstory of How We Got to Be Infertile was somewhat cludgey. She was at her best when interacting with Kee, and probably my extreme rage at her complete and total uselessness just before she meets her grisly end is as much about my baggage as it is about what Cuarón intended to say with this character. In fairness to me and my baggage, though, religion was kind of omnipresent (hee!) in the film, and yet there didn't seem to be a lot of thought behind what that meant.

I didn't mean to come off sounding quite so lukewarm about the film. It's powerful and brutal and there's a lot more done right than done wrong, despite my quibbling. In fact, I think the fact that I kind of needed to detach and back up from it to write about it is indicative of how affecting it is. It's not a movie to enjoy. It's not a "good" movie. It's important and it's skillfully done overall, but it's not really about the catharsis of pity and fear, it's about making you live with it.

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