Saturday, January 27, 2007

Children of Men - Dipping a Finger Into Reality

I frankly don’t understand a lot of the negative reaction to Children of Men. I mean, it didn’t get all that much openly negative reaction - it has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes - but a significant number of the positive reviews are laced with vague caveats, and I can’t understand what criticisms they’re trying to level. I saw the film, and I found it almost flawless, provided it’s taken on its own terms. A lot of these reviews were looking for something extra that they’re used to finding in movies.

The most obvious, and (in my opinion) the silliest, of these is the case of blogger violet., who was clearly looking for an opportunity to watch the book. Her instrumental sentence is, "So many things wrong, so many things missed. It could have been a great film, having had such rich material to work with.”

So you missed the in-depth reflections that the book brought to the story, in a one-and-a-half hour film, produced with a no-bullshit aesthetic that made its point by refusing to lean on cinematic clichés like flashbacks and contrived dialogue? I’m happy that most bloggers aren’t filmmakers.

A little more confusing is an opinion like James Berardinelli’s, on Reelviews. To James’ credit, he gave the movie a pretty good score (three out of four) and he didn’t fall into the same trap that violet. fell into; he makes it clear that he can distance the cinematic version from the book version, and that he appreciates it for what it is: “The script underwent several revisions, and each one took it further from the source material. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.”

Berardinelli goes on to mention a number of the features that made Children of Men so impressive: the frank, unflinching portrayal of violence, the unbelievable camera work, and the themes of moral ambiguity. So why does he give the film three stars, instead of four? He never actually explains this decision. In his last paragraph, he suggests that he wanted less action and more reflection (“Stripped bare, this is essentially a chase movie”), but when, in the last sentence, he calls it “imperfect,” I don’t really understand what he's talking about.

As for me, I’m going to discuss this film on its strong points. I concur, it wasn’t exactly meditative, and the character backgrounds were just there to frame the central “escape from LA”-style storyline, but these weren’t accidental oversights — they were smart stylistic decisions. The film clearly focused its energies on the escape from London, which was the central action of the plot, and the accompanying atmosphere of repression, desperation, and social cynicism. In this regard, it was an absolute triumph.

The camera work might be the deciding factor that made Children of Men one of the best, most suspenseful films of the decade, even though it wasn’t classed specifically as an action film. Most on-screen editing these days is made up of quick cuts with no more than ten seconds between them. Emmanuel Lubezki, director Alphonso Cuarón’s cinematographer, kept his camera running for significant lengths of time, from thirty seconds to as long as five minutes, even through high-intensity action sequences. Most film students are discouraged from using lengthy shots, because they can get boring (thirty seconds of a medium shot during a conversation — who would ever want to watch that?) but Cuarón and Lubezki keep it interesting by creating long sequences of hand-held shots, approaching the subject, withdrawing, panning, following, and generally keeping up with the actors.

This isn’t just a minor stylistic detail — the camera work ends up creating the sensation that informs the whole movie. In effect, the unbroken shots mimic the perspective of a live observer, someone who can’t arbitrarily change position, and who’s so transfixed by the action that they can’t look away. Other films' quick cuts and sequences of shots are stimulating in themselves, but they distance us from the actual action going on on-screen. The camera work in Children of Men, by contrast, was so immersive that I felt uneasy during the high-intensity scenes. Most broad generalizations are complete exaggerations, but in this case, I’m being absolutely sincere when I say I’ve never seen a movie that made me feel so personally, physically in danger as I did during Children of Men.

This camera work was part of a whole package that emphasized the plausibility of such a bleak future. Flawless environments and stark, straightforward performances added to the realism of this dystopia — a place much more immediate and tangible than the futures of Mad Max or V for Vendetta. This cinéma vérité philosophy extends to the plot, as well, and that left some of the critics disappointed with the story: in some reviews, it’s been called simplistic, predictable, and flat.

However, again, the straightforward plot wasn’t due to neglect on the part of the filmmakers. The writing and plotting of Cuarón’s film is parallel to its cinematic style, unadorned and intuitive. We all might like to see our lives in terms of destiny and higher consciousness, but in the real world, things are either predictable, or they’re entirely random. The events in Children of Men reflected this reality, which isn’t governed by any preordained orderliness. Decisions of the characters had to be reactive and spontaneous; their escape had to be desperate and unplanned, and characters who influenced this destiny (like Jasper, Syd, and Marichka) had to do it at a moment’s notice, because they were faced with a situation that they had to figure out how to deal with.

If you were looking for a review, here it is: you should go see Children of Men. If you have any appetite for thoughtful, confrontational filmmaking, it will leave you shaken and thoroughly impressed. In terms of a broader critical perspective, I’d like to suggest that Children of Men is an ideal model for new filmmakers who are looking for a way to negotiate narrative and stylistic convention with brute-force realism. Cuarón continues to be a director to watch for in the world of cinema.


ChucMc said...

I just saw Children of Men and was curious that you got so excited about it. Leaving the theater I by no means thought it was a bad movie, but it really didn't stir me either way. I agree the long raw shots of military and mob violence were done well (It reminded me a lot of the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan) I just couldn't bring my self to care about most of the characters and I had serious reservations about wanting to hand over the only baby in the world to something called the Human Project. Perhaps that was better explained in the book, perhaps it wasn't but from your post it seems the readers weren't to thrilled with the final product either. Towards the end I was wondering if I had missed something but upon leaving the theater decided whatever it was it couldn't have been that important.
On a separate note I couldn't agree more about the action sequences in Casino Royale. Die Another Day was practically a video game by the end so I was glad to see the franchise come back to earth a bit. It was a wise decision to leave out Q for the time being, if not retire him completely.
The only thing that drove me crazy was the Hold'em ending. Everyone had a flush or better? The rest of the movie strains to be more realistic then the cards come out like they were dealt by Maverick.

Jesse M said...

It's hard to say exactly what "gets me excited" about a movie. Lots of people were excited for The Lake House, and I sure as hell wouldn't understand why, even if they wrote a full essay explaining it to me.

But I'll give it a shot. 1) The premise made me want to see it... an apocalyptic world being destroyed by the discontent of its last generation? Sweet. 2) It delivered on that premise. Going into a movie about a global holocaust, I want to see real pain and despair, both in larger political environment and in the lives of the individuals. This movie gave me all the darkness, cynicism, brutality, and discontent that I was looking for. 3) While keeping the dark atmosphere at the forefront, it was also exciting enough to keep me involved. The chase scenes and the war zones were sufficiently suspenseful, and like I said in the post, the lingering camera made me feel very present and engaged.

And I didn't care too much about The Human Project... I took the film's word for it that it was a noble enclave of some sort. My sentimental stake in the movie was really driven by Theo, who I really liked: I could definitely believe in him as a broken cynic whose ideals were awakened by the trust of the woman he loved.

In summary: 1) good premise. 2) good atmosphere. 3) kept me interested. That did it for me.

On Casino Royale: good call about the hands. That never occurred to me... if it's going to be that raw, why should the final hand be dealt in perfect miraculous distribution of unbelievable hands? Probably a little silly.

But I can forgive and forget.

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