Children of Men (2005) (R)

IMDb / French / Cossar
Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Timothy J. Sexton & David Arata
Based on the novel by P.D. James
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

There’s kind of a rule when it comes to screenwriting: the more writers collaborate on a screenplay, the lower the quality of the finished product. Point of trivia: the use of an ampersand (&) in screenwriting credits indicates collaboration, while the use of the complete word ‘and’ indicates a separate re-write. I’m not even sure if what I’ve used above is correct here – I’m just going by what Yahoo! tells me – but if I’ve got it right, that’s a minimum of three separate writes and re-writes for this script. So, it must be rubbish, right?

Yes and no. Yes, the screenplay for Children of Men is loaded down with plot holes, contrivances, out-and-out stupidity and a large degree of overwrought (usually religious) symbolism. No, because if a poor screenplay can attract a good director, gold can still be spun. It was the case with Miami Vice – Mann’s script was crap even before Jamie Foxx forced him to change half of it – and it is the case here. Cuaron’s direction is better than good – it’s great, and most surprisingly, it offers something almost completely new in cinema.

It’s not unusual for directors to indulge in long takes: extended, carefully choreographed and skilfully created shots that make what is happening seem all the more real. But in scenes of high action? Almost unheard of, especially these days when you’ve got films like Batman Begins preventing you from seeing anything in the fight scenes because of their 0.1sec average shot length. Here, Cuaron has his most thrilling sequences play out in shots of up to four or five minutes in length, and the plight of his characters takes on such an immediacy that when the camera moves into an unprotected place, we fear for it as we fear for the characters. He cheated by patching shots together to make them look like one – this is obvious in at least two places – but it’s still remarkable, and never loses its novelty or impact.

So, as we check off more boxes on the hokum list – animals love hero, Mary-figure draped in old cloth, a boat to salvation called ‘Tomorrow’ – we are forced to put the clipboard away and marvel at what’s being shown up there on the screen. Likewise, as advantages materialise in front of our hero, we don’t really mind because it all feels so real. (Occasional comment poster Helen Back would disagree, but ignore her if she pipes up, even though she’s partly right.) Kudos must be extended at this point to the excellent work done by the cinematographer and production design team, because they create a vision of the future which is at once believable and nightmarish. Wisely, they add little to what already exists today, instead concentrating most of their efforts on what would be missing.

Praise also be to Clive Owen, who gives his most complex, wide-ranging film performance yet. I’ve never been quite sure what to think of him because he always seems kind of flat, like he’s just playing himself, but he uses everything he has here without making it look obvious. It would have been so easy to drift into caricature, being as his Theo is the classic put-upon hero, but with his stumbles and swearing he crafts a unique screen character. (I really love it when film actors can swear well repeatedly; I think it’s a great sign of quality.) The supports are good too, especially Michael Caine as a Steve Bell-type with a great taste in music.

Children of Men is a strange beast, then. Like so many films, the greatness of some aspects (direction, cinematography, design) fights tooth and nail against the crapness of others (screenplay, screenplay, screenplay). However, unlike most of these films, the greatness wins out over the crapness for a change! Seeing as Cuaron was heavily involved in the writing, he doesn’t deserve all-consuming praise, but as a director he’s produced some of the best work on offer this year. Forget all the bullshit flying around the story, and watch it for the darkness (and dark humour) that drips off the screen.

Out of the Blue (2006) (R)

IMDb / Wong
Written by Robert Sarkies and Graeme Tetley
Directed by Robert Sarkies

I couldn’t find a still of the image I wanted to run with this review, so I’ll describe it. Helen Dickson, 73, sits quietly in her kitchen under a duvet as David Gray, 33, stands outside her window holding a rifle. She’s cradling an injured dog, and she grips her hand around its mouth to stifle its whimpers. David can be seen through a chink in the curtains, and for a second or two, he thinks he hears something and peers around into the house. His gaze is pointed directly down the camera at the audience. That moment is a metaphor (and I’m speaking for New Zealand residents here): we’re in that kitchen with Helen, hoping that this evil outside won’t notice us and come in to destroy us. It’s done all sorts of evil deeds elsewhere, but surely it’s not going to get us – is it?

I might be stretching things, but it’s a great moment – one of several in a quality film. Our national psyche might be a bit more wary now, but in 1990, we knew we were cut off from much of the world and the bad things that can happen. Then Gray lost his mind, and we wondered about that strange guy down the street in our town or suburb. I’m not old enough to remember exactly the strength of the impact this massacre had on our society, but Out of the Blue, despite a few loose treatments of the truth, suggests that it opened many of our eyes to nastiness.

The film is at its best when it follows Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) and his fellow frightened cops as they vainly attempt to neutralise the threat posed by Gray. The nervous behaviour of men on both sides rings completely true. Gray doesn’t really have a plan, he just wants to stay alive as long as possible; the policemen fear for their lives, and lack the grit (and training) to do him in. It’s appropriately shocking at times, too: the first killing is hand-over-the-mouth brutal, and a half-second shot where Gray appears in the distance behind someone is genuinely scary.

However, points are lost during the early scenes with Gray. He is filmed mostly in pointed close-up to emphasise how alone he is, which is okay up to a point, but starts to become forced; then we see how out of step he is with the rest of the world, as schoolkids on the bus laugh at him, and starts yelling in a bank (a scene so out-of-synch with reality I couldn’t help but smile). Matt Sunderland is impressive all the way through, though – it must have been an extremely difficult role to play, and I think he got it absolutely right.

Urban is good, too. He’s doing all right for himself over in the States, and that’s because he can play any part with strength and sensitivity. He has to carry large portions of this film almost single-handedly, and he manages that easily. The real diamond here, though, is Lois Lawn as Dickson. A non-professional, there isn’t a single second of her performance that doesn’t feel like documentary. The way she speaks on the phone, the fearful but pragmatic look in her eyes, her final glance at the bedsheets fluttering in the wind – it’s all perfect, and she ought to win awards.

Sarkies has taken a few cues from Paul Greengrass (United 93), but with a few cinematic additions, such as a complex sound design (sometimes overly so) and occasional shots of calm amidst the insanity. If there are missteps, they are over-balanced by even more impressive points in the film’s favour. And as the obligatory roll of names and ‘what happened next’ info came up before the final credits, I suddenly became choked up. They’re all real people, you know? Dickson really did crawl home twice; Chiquita Holden really did get shot and see her father die. Out of the Blue doesn’t function as entertainment; it’s a warning, a reminder of what could be just around the corner, and of what happens if we neglect the marginals of society.

(What most disappoints me is that the title of this film makes me think of that horrific Delta Goodrem song about Mark Philippoussis, which has been running through my head since I left the cinema. But I’m sure I’ll be all right.)

L’Enfant (2005) (R)

English title: ‘The Child’
IMDb / Ebert
Written and Directed Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

During the screening of L’Enfant that I attended, a group of ladies in the row behind me tutted and sighed their way through as young Bruno made one foolish decision after another. Normally I might be annoyed by such loud and obvious reactions, but I found myself shaking my head along with them, the same way you would at a kid randomly pressing buttons in museum exhibits, or running up and down escalators. Whenever Bruno (pictured above) sees an opportunity, he leaps on it without hardly a first thought. They are almost always decisions that will make his already poor life even worse, and between our noises of condemnation, we wonder how he got to be like this.

The film begins with Bruno’s girlfriend Sonia cradling their newborn son, Jimmy, as she looks for Bruno and a place to sleep. She eventually finds him wandering around a busy intersection asking drivers for spare change, and when shown his son for the first time, he acts selfishly and irresponsibly. He lives out of an abandoned shack and commits petty crime to make a living; his existence is completely unenviable. Well, not quite. He appears to have a loving relationship with Sonia. But he destroys that when he realises that Jimmy could be worth a bit, and calls up some people who will give him 5000 euros for his nine day-old son.

It quickly becomes clear that the child of the title is not little Jimmy but Bruno. His actions are entirely motivated either by his own advancement or protection. Gradually he gets into more and more strife – first with passers-by in the street, then with more powerful criminals, and finally with the police – he continues to repeatedly make the wrong decision. He endangers not only himself, but his partner and child, and kids he’s roped into his various pathetic criminal enterprises. Many times, we see him tentatively crossing a busy road, as if to suggest that he is adrift in an adult world he thrust upon himself too early.

At no point does he take responsibility, but neither does he dismiss his actions as inconsequential. He knows he should own up, but he can’t bring himself to do so, and the accompanying guilt spurs him to keep behaving foolishly. The catharsis of the final scene, for Bruno and for us, is immensely powerful given what’s gone before. He knows he fucked up again and again, and at last he is opening himself to the forgiveness of others. Had the film ended any other way – say, for example, he ran away from his troubles – it would be infinitely less powerful and truthful. He is laid bare, exposed as the simple, stupid young kid that we’ve recognised all along, and from there we hope he can begin to grow up.

L’Enfant reminded me a lot of Sweet Sixteen, in that it details with the gritty reality of kids getting involved in things they’re too immature to really understand. It’s difficult to say which of the two is the better film. Sweet Sixteen has more complex characters, so I’d probably give it the nod, but there is much to be admired about the directness and clarity of vision in L’Enfant. The Dardennes seek to present a very basic truth in an unusually straightforward (for these times) cinematic manner, and the result is an accurate, perceptive and quite moving tale. It isn’t pretty, but it’s certainly effective.

Little Miss Sunshine (2005) (W)

IMDb / Cale
Written by Michael Arndt
Directed Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Little Miss Sunshine is proudly and unabashedly a feel-good film, daring you to remain cynical through its outrageous, transparently sentimental conclusion. Usually I would gag and spit as things turned sappy, but in this case I smiled and clapped along, content to be caught up in one family’s great reconciliation. The difference is that in most of these films, the characters never really behave like real people, and there comes a point where you realise you’ve been hoodwinked into watching stereotypes for an hour and a half. Here, the family dynamic resembles something like reality: the ‘fuck’ count is through the roof, Mom and Dad bicker and row then laugh about it, and they’re always having to rush to get places on time.

The title refers to a beauty pageant for 6 and 7 year-olds. The youngest of the Hoover clan, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has reached the finals. To me, this is a uniquely American concept: dress little girls up in cute costumes, slather them with makeup and fake tan, push them to cultivate a ‘talent’ that has virtually no use in later life, and most importantly, have them smile all the time. These parents create a somewhat lifelike robot then parade it in a horrible freakshow to see which one will be declared most frightening.

Olive isn’t all white teeth and peroxide hair, though; she’s an original, and not just because of her oversized spectacles and straggly hair. She’s a living, breathing entity, unlike all those other girls because she has cultivated original thought processes. She’s there because she enjoys it, not because her parents (Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette) have pushed her into it. Kinnear’s Richard is a pathetic creation, an aspiring self-help guru who will never know true positivity; Collette’s Sheryl is, well, it’s Toni Collette, so you know she’s somehow different from all the other characters she plays, despite being identical on paper. This actress needs to be rewarded with more great roles like what she was given in Japanese Story – she’s always compelling, always believable, always consistent.

Rounding out the family are Paul Dano, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin as the moody teenager, suicidal brother and crazy grandfather respectively. Again, in two words I can only describe them as though they are pure stereotypes, but each one is unique and well-acted. Especially Dano, whose sense of comedic timing is perfect. He’s taken a vow of silence, and when he eventually breaks it, it’s a great mixture of comedy and pathos. Carell is known as a talented comedian, and he’s funny here, but there’s a depth to his work that suggests a fine capacity for drama. Arkin’s completely carefree performance is good, too.

I spend so much time describing the actors’ work because it is so important in a film such as this. So many family comedies fail due to the lack of chemistry between the players; if even one character doesn’t work, a true family dynamic cannot be felt. I applaud these guys for getting it right. If there is a weak link here, it’s Kinnear, but only because he is just okay where everyone else is very good or excellent.

A point I would like to make is that by presenting such an awful, grotesque spectacle as the Little Miss Sunshine pageant we are shown, Dayton and Faris are contributing to the whole horrific concept. The girls that play these brief singing, dancing and smiling roles were probably cast by requesting cute little girls from talent agencies – some of whom, I’m sure, have been press-ganged into such an early career by their parents. I guess you have to undermine such things from within – there’s no other way they could have done it, really. Still, it’s the sort of thing I notice.

We’re all fucked up, and that’s okay. Not a particularly profound or new message, but while Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t break any new ground, it manages to be entertaining and absorbing for its duration. It has flaws and missteps – scenes that we would’ve been better off without, obvious plot devices – but I’m willing to forgive those of a film that practically has me up out of my seat cheering at a group of people performing cathartic dance steps. Many critics have called it ‘quirky‘, but I say it is those other ridiculous, unbelievable family comedies that are quirky; this one has a beating heart, an awareness of how we actually treat each other.

’25th Hour’ (2002) (C)

IMDb / Ebert / Bisley
Written by David Benioff, based on his novel
Directed by Spike Lee

Again and again and again, directors insist that the American Dream doesn’t really exist. It is just that, a dream, unattainable for 99% of the population, yet still they strive, hoping for success they will never achieve. With 25th Hour, Spike Lee gives us his typically proselytizing insight into this idea – a mixture of racial intolerance, a drug dealer’s downfall, racial intolerance, the World Trade Center, and racial intolerance. There are flashes of excellence, moments of superb realism, but they are always quickly flushed away by Lee’s desire to preach, or his reliance on filming things in an unnecessarily over the top way.

Virtually all the characters in the film are, in some way or another, pathetic. Edward Norton’s Monty is a dealer, about to go inside for seven years, giddy with remorse for wasting such a large portion of his life. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s schoolteacher lusts after one of his students (played by Anna Paquin as a slutty motormouth – where will she end up?), and looks horribly out of place in a club with his baseball cap and nerdy glasses. Barry Pepper’s investment banker is a success in his professional life, and presumably also a success with women, but one gets the feeling that some kind of moral satisfaction is missing from his life, and he knows it. Of the three friends, he is closest to the so-called dream because he has worked to get to a certain place professionally and has made it, but he realises that his position is such that he will never be truly happy with his lot.

Then there’s Monty’s dad (played by Brian Cox), an Irish immigrant who owns a bar and misses his wife (and will soon miss his son). He is happy, and has done all he can to give himself a good quality of life, but the fact remains that his son chose a life of crime and is now going to be punished for it. So now we have a good, honest man who, through no fault of his own, has hardship thrust upon him. You can do most things right, and then have the rug pulled out from underneath you. At the film’s end, in a particularly frustrating sequence, he tries to persuade Monty to run from the law and start a new life – a pathetic, hopeful dream that has absolutely no chance of coming true.

The one who bucks the trend is the improbably named Naturelle, played by Rosario Dawson with strength and grace. Throughout the course of the film, she is bombarded with accusations, yet she remains composed and true to her character, clearly feeling strong emotions but refusing to let them override the situation. Still, she’s losing her partner. One feels that she will wait for him, despite her youth and his shady past. But if that does happen, will their new life be a happy one? Monty appears to have changed, but what will he be like after seven years in the can?

All this is fine, but what bugs me is Lee’s approach. The actors fight so hard to offer subtle, detailed characterisations, especially Hoffman and Norton, but his direction frequently takes the focus away from them onto his flashy camerawork, or his political agenda. Can’t we have a Spike Lee film without big bad racial stereotypes being painted onto panes of glass then SMASHED with the Hammer of Equality? I’m sick of it. Yes, it’s awful that a lot of people still think this way, but the way he presents these stereotypes does more to promote them than it does to tear them down. I’d much rather he just ignored them and filled his films with people of different, mingling ethnicities. There’s a taste of that with Naturelle being Puerto Rican, but you quickly forget that after his slick montages of blacks, Sikhs, Arabs, Mexicans, Koreans… etc.

The American Dream angle only became apparent to me during Cox’s final speech. Up until then, it had been an interesting, if somewhat misguided look at redemption, friendship and companionship. The film was suddenly twisted into something much grander in scope, and consequently it became a much deeper failure. I loved some moments – listen closely to the banter between friends, it’s just like real people – but the moments I really, really hated were double that. I’ll check out some earlier Lee someday, but for now, I’m sick of his greedy directorial style and heavy-handed treatment of potentially interesting themes.