Tag: Alfonso Cuaron

Review: Children of Men (2006)

Children of men duo

In 2006, I saw a trailer for a movie that looked pretty cool. It sold two things: a nearly-apocalyptic world and that world’s potential salvation in the form of a pregnant woman, the first in a 10 year period. Looking back, it also lays out basically the entire film and yet it gets at very little of what makes the movie a very special example of the artform. But let’s just pause on that for a second.

If you ask 10 relatively knowledgeable people to name one thing about Children of Men, you’ll probably get some kind of comment about the long takes it features so heavily. This was not a new trick for Alfonso Cuaron nor was it the last time he’d go to this well, given the spectacular opening 20 minute section of Gravity. It is, you might say, his gimmick. I was impressed with this gimmick the first few times I watched Children of Men because, well, gimmicks are impressive, especially those that take a heck of a lot of timing and talent to pull off. Later on, though, I began to think of them in the more colloquial sense of the term “gimmick”, i.e. with a negative connotation. What does the movie have outside these trick shots? Does it even count if the shots have been digitally blended together? Do these long takes in fact detract from the film’s fairly powerful story and instead focus the audience’s attention on “look at me” filmmaking? So I thought, and so I have argued here. I turned on Children of Men, which at one point probably held the title for most rewatched movie in my adult life right at the beginning of my budding deeper appreciation for film.

children of Men

I think that might have something to do with why I turned on the film, actually. This was one of my first ever-so-slightly outside the mainstream films (it wasn’t shown at my local multiplex, I had to go instead to the arthouse theater in my closest city to see it) and I made sure all of my friends knew how great it was. But then I began to look further into the arthouse, I dug deeper into the past and went further afield into foreign cinema. Could I rightly go back to one of the films that I saw only at the beginning of those travels? Certainly not. I try not to be snobby about my taste in movies as much as possible, but I still have a slight tendency to overestimate the strange and underestimate the very normal but very good. With the gimmick tag attached to Children of Men, it never stood a chance of remaining on my top 100 lists and instead fell to the wayside of “movies I grew out of”.

And so now with all of that preamble out of the way, was I right about the gimmicky nature of Children of Men‘s aesthetics and did it rightfully fall out of favor? Well, no. The long takes in Children of Men are fancy, they are attention-grabbing, but most of all they’re integral to the way Cuaron crafts the deep sense of despair that permeates every frame. Take the film’s opening scene for example. It is effectively two shots long. The first is a wide shot of the interior of a cafe packed with shocked onlookers as they watch the news footage which reports that Baby Diego, the youngest person to be born, died earlier that day. You can hear quiet sobs but in the middle of it all Clive Owen’s dejected Theo pushes his way up to the counter and buys a coffee and then leaves. There’s a shot or two of the tv everybody else is looking at but mostly it places Theo as a man apart from the rest of the population. Later we learn that it’s because he’s already suffered his own great loss and has enveloped himself in a cocoon of unfeeling sadness. This is what they call depression.

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The second shot is an exterior one and unlike the first it is a handheld shot which doesn’t only follow Theo as he walks out of the store and adds his sugar a hundred or two feet away but also takes some time to pan around the area outside the shop. We see some signs of life that look relatively normal and some out of place futuristic things, but most importantly we can immediately sense that this is not the London we are used to. It is a depressed city, a little 1984-ish and a lot dirty. We already begin to feel just how far man has fallen before the bomb that was in the cafe explodes. It shakes Theo and the camera and it takes both of them a few seconds to get their feet back under them. And then the shot ends with a woman walking out of the smoke holding her dismembered arm in her other hand.

The rest of the film uses the many long takes (most are not quite as long as the car attack and the final battle which get so much of the press, but longer than normal for sure) it is made of for the same purposes as it uses those two: to build the world seemlessly and to ground the characters within it definitively. The camera isn’t always attached directly to Theo nor does it ever stray too far from him so we don’t run the risk of losing him in the gray and gritty world the film so adroitly creates and populates with the end of humanity. That’s what hit me the most this time around. It’s such an engaging and creatively crafted film that I couldn’t help but get pulled into its sad and fully realized universe.

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It is, then, a triumph when, at the end of the film, the fighting stops for a moment and everybody watches as Theo, Kee, and her baby escape the fighting in a refugee camp thanks to the crying coming from the baby. It is not to brag about my willingness to cry that I say I teared up at this scene but rather to poke a finger in my own chest. How could I have decried the film for being just a cheap gimmick when those long takes are what creates the emotional connection to the film, pulling me deeper and further in to its dark vision of the future only to show the light at the end of the tunnel, even if only for a moment? Have I ever been so wrong about a movie before?

Gravity

It’s time to stop driving. It’s time to go home.

Glengary Glen Ross is a movie without much action. There’s tons of plot and character, but in terms of incident, it’s a little light. The Long Day Closes is a movie in which nothing much happens, though there is a lot of thematic work, and of course the character study aspect is strong. So I really don’t understand the problems some people have with Gravity. Is it a fully rounded movie with a strong sense of character, theme, plot, and action? No. It’s strong in two of those areas and quite thin in the other two. But the action and plot are really really strong. It doesn’t feel like director Alfonso Cuarón set out to make Magnolia in space and messed up so badly that we got the movie we got. No, the point here is the truly remarkable technical work which enables a few nice character and thematic moments to happen amid all the spectacle. Even more than Pacific Rim, Gravity will lose a lot in the translation to the small screen.

Cuarón is known for his long takes. Most famously, he recorded two or three of the big action set-pieces in Children of Men in long takes. I felt that those shots were remarkable, sure, but they didn’t add much to the actual story being told. Here, in the what-could-possibly-go-wrong-next genre, they really work to sell the weightless feeling and the isolation of space. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are set adrift amid a billion points of light and they tumble and twirl as one might expect. We’ve seen this on film before, notably in that other space movie, 2001, but never with such a fluid camera to match the plane-less void of space. Cuarón understands that the vast emptiness is really just an excuse to show off, and does so with aplomb. It’s a moving experience to see something realized so fully on screen. It’s the Jurassic Park effect in the big cold nothing.

Sandra Bullock has caught some flak for her sometimes yell-y performance here. A few have criticized her lack of calm in the early goings. The problem here is not with the script but the viewer. The dialogue clearly states that she’s not an expert at space travel. She’s been up here for five days and is used to spending 18 hour days in a hospital basement. That she wasn’t going totally crazy is pretty remarkable. We’ve come to expect perfection in our astronaut movies, trained by the likes of Apollo 13 and For All Mankind. These were men and women dedicated to a life of flying and space travel. Bullock is decidedly not that, so cut her some damn slack. (The same goes for Prometheus, by the way, as several lines of dialogue explain that this isn’t a crack team assembled without care for the cost but rather a hastily pulled together group of people that said yes to a crazy proposition.) The difference between her and Clooney is obvious and necessary for giving the audience a foothold in the film, somebody with a day job who happened to get the chance to go into space. And yeah, neither character is super defined or deep or multidimensional. It’s not a movie about the characters, it’s a movie about how the characters react to an insane scenario. The little that we do get of their backstories go far enough to convince me that they are real people and get me on a rooting side. It’s utilitarian, but so’s the mystery plot in The Big Sleep. A movie so technically accomplished can coast on the achievement if it delivers on that one elusive desire, the need to see something we’ve never seen before, and see it in a new way. Gravity delivers one of the best big screen experiences of the past decade.

Top 100 Films: The _6’s

Today’s portion of the list is the _6’s. That means that by the end of this post you’ll know half of my top 100! Hooray! Today brings 3 sci-fi movies, 3 dystopias, 3 tragedies, 2 movies by one director, back to back, and only three from before I was born! New Things! Enjoy.

96. Minority Report (2005)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton

I’m sorry John, but you’re going to have to run again.

Spielberg has three periods of his career. This film is the best example of his latest period. He’s still got the goods when it comes to action and a slick visual style, but for some reason people don’t appreciate these films as much. Minority Report is a great action movie and a bit of a thinker, it can’t be all bad.

86. A Serious Man (2009)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Kind

The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

The Coens make smart movies about people doing dumb things. In A Serious Man their main character has a lot of bad things happen to him and he can’t figure out why. It’s a semi-modern retelling of the story of Job, except funny. The ending is ambiguous as they like to do, but it fits in with the rest of the story.

76. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Directed by David Yates. Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Imelda Staunton

Look at it this way: every great wizard in history has started out as nothing more than we are now – students. If they can do it, why not us?

Now that the Harry Potter series is complete, I can safely call this one the best of the bunch. The first in David Yates’ tenure at the helm, this movie has one of the best on screen villains in Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge. She’s the epitome of mundane evil, a person who doesn’t stomp around and kill people but is still clearly villainous. And then throw in the first big magic battle and you’ve got a great film.

66. Brazil (1984)

Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist

I assure you, Mrs. Buttle, the Ministry is very scrupulous about following up and eradicating any error. If you have any complaints which you’d like to make, I’d be more than happy to send you the appropriate forms.

It makes sense that a former member of Monty Python would make such a crazy movie. It also makes sense that a person whose job is making movies would be familiar with bureaucracy. What doesn’t make sense, at least on first sight, is that it would be such a funny and beautiful film. Brazil is satire of the highest order, a dystopian vision of a future run on paperwork. And plastic surgery to the extreme.

56. Children of Men (2006)

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey

A hundred years from now there won’t be one sad fuck to look at any of this. What keeps you going?

What happens when there’s no hope in the world. Children of Men subtly realizes this through overheard news reports and glimpses of graffiti. Everything is messed up. Impeccably directed and full of strong performances, the action scenes are among the best of the decade.

46. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Directed by Julian Schnabel. Starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner

Hold fast to the human inside of you and you’ll survive.

Movies are often kinetic, movie from one place to another as quickly as a cut can be. But this one stays mostly confined to one space and, at times, one point of view. Amalric’s character is paralyzed except for one eye, and the movie covers the way he deals with the situation and the beginnings of his book (which eventually turned into the movie). It’s a gorgeous film, heartbreaking and inspiring.

36. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth

I don’t wanna kill anybody. But if I gotta get out that door, and you’re standing in my way, one way or the other, you’re gettin’ outta my way.

Here’s another angry men locked in a room yelling at each other movie. This one has the benefit of a great script and great performances. But when I rewatched it recently what stood out most to me was the sure-handed direction. It must be one of the best debut films I’ve seen.

26. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Brad Pitt and Mélanie Laurent

We have all our rotten eggs in one basket. The objective of the operation: blow up the basket.

Some people complain that Tarantino is only able to rip off other movies and that he never does anything with his “homages”. Inglourious Basterds is proof that he’s got a lot more going on than just taking scenes from movies nobody else has seen. A treatise on the power of film to rile up the audience, IB deftly shows us Nazis cheering at the death of American soldiers only to have us cheer at the death of powerful Nazis. With clever dialogue scenes and bang up action scenes, this one has it all.

16. Three Comrades (1938)

Directed by Frank Borzage. Starring Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor

May I drink to that please? To nice weather for drifters!

A love story of the highest order. The only screenwriting credit for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Margaret Sullavan. Frank Borzage. A beautiful story beautifully told. Check this review.

6. The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall

No sir, you are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I’ve always been here.

The scariest movie of all time. The story of a family deteriorating with ghosts and elevators full of blood. It’s the little touches that make this movie tick, like the shot of the man in the dog/bear suit as Jack is chasing Wendy. It’s different from the book, but different in a good way.

The other parts of The List:

The _0’s section

The _9’s section

The _8’s section

The _7’s section

The _6’s section

The _5’s section

The _4’s section

The _3’s section

The _2’s section

The _1’s section