Friday, December 29, 2006

A 'Tween The Holidays & The New Year Gift: A Review of CHILDREN OF MEN

With your overflowing belly still digesting holiday yum-yums, your credit card still bruised and sore from its seasonal pounding and just before you bury your self-improvement lies in a boozy New Year’s resolution, let this writer sneak one final cinematic gift into your now achingly empty stocking: skip the seasonal trappings of lavish yet stale, redundant Oscar-baiting musicals, free yourself from laborious, re-heated boxing sequels and other “inspirational” sports ephemera, destroy any and all loud 3-D animated 90-minute money-suckling kid-opiates and lap-up the intense cinematic thrill-ride that is Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN.

Enjoy the film because of its timely ethos. Set in 2027 Britain, the epicenter of a ravaged and diseased world where women have been infertile for twenty years. Is this due to an epic moral fall-out? Possibly; though the film subtly hints at a lack of social responsibility within the general populace more being a cause. Britain has become the world’s focus because many developed nations and cities have already fallen; thus treating other country’s refugees with a xenophobic blood-lust akin to Germany’s during World War II. Delving out this justice by fire is a pseudo-“Homeland Security” department run amok; debilitating personal freedom for security and thereby creating an totalitarian state.

Enjoy the film for its boozing, reluctant anti-hero, Theodore Faron (Clive Owen). In the tradition of the hard-boiled detectives of classic ‘40s-50s film-noir traced through BLADE RUNNER’s Rick Deckard and TOTAL RECALL’s Douglas Quaid, Faron trusts nobody but himself in his task of providing safe flight for the world’s only bona-fide pregnant women, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey); not the government, the underground rebels meant to “protect” them, nor any potential commoditizing poacher. Owen handles the role with a skillful level of cool, confidence and unpretentiousness that makes good on the promise of the same traits displayed in his earlier roles, notably in CROUPIER.

Enjoy the film for its wicked and unpredictable little sense of humor, off-setting it’s often heart-pounding pace; thus gently and enjoyably toying with its audience. Laugh along with Michael Caine’s Jasper Palmer, a dog-eared new-age hippie-guru and protector. Chuckle (internally) at the sight of Julianne Moore’s face next to “World’s Most Wanted Terrorist” on a breaking-news placard. The benefit of such deft touch is the sheer force of the tragic moments that often appear in their more humorous brethren’s wake. These are the meat of the film and are as pulsating, piercing and powerful as a war documentary or embedded newscast. Stylistically, they are treated as much, with handheld cameras and without any edits; therefore never allowing you a break to catch your breath. This strength can also be a tiny hindrance; sometimes certain moments are better left to the individual evil devices of one’s own imagination than displayed.
Be the first on your block to enjoy this film and spread the gospel if you are like-minded. Due to its odd release date (considering its more seasonally traditional competition), its seeming lack of a major marketing push and likely resulting lackluster box office performance, CHILDREN OF MEN may go quickly; banished to “cult” status and left gain to gain likely behind-closed-doors popularity in succeeding years away from the big-screen medium it deserves to be seen on now.

**** out of *****

Friday, December 22, 2006

Behind Closed Doors: A review of THE GOOD SHEPHERD

Is it a coincidence that the main character of Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon), and the current president of the United States both come from privileged White-Anglo Protestant backgrounds; both attended Yale where they were members of the secretive Skull & Bones fraternity; and had successful careers in service of this country due in part to the cronyism of his fellow crumbs in the upper-crust? With those similarities hard to discount, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is about the powerful men who birthed the CIA and operated as the clandestine puppet-masters behind the so-called “little wars” of the greater Cold one against Communism.

The film opens with the CIA’s botched 1961 attempt by the United States to invade Castro’s Communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs with Wilson one of the key wizards behind the curtain. It is Wilson’s first big mistake in a lifetime of successes - running spy missions in Germany during World War II, joining the nascent CIA after it - documented via flashback throughout the film. It soon becomes clear that men of Wilson’s caliber and upbringing are judged by the level of loyalty they have for the Stars & Stripes, a self-assigned right to determine the military and financial course of this country. Indeed, the rest of us are, as Wilson states later, “just renting.” The flip-side to this deity-complex is the isolation it causes; isolation from your own family and from outside opinion, inevitably sending you down dangerous paths like the Bay of Pigs or perhaps the current situation in Iraq. In THE GOOD SHEPHERD, the irony is that the security Wilson strives to keep for his family (and his country) keeps him away from them, ultimately with tragic results.

As an actor, Robert DeNiro has most notably and memorable collaborated with Director Martin Scorsese. However, here as a director he seems to take his filmmaking cues from a less-frequent collaborator, Francis Ford Coppola. While Scorsese is known to capture thuggish protagonists and stories at the bloodier street levels (a la DeNiro’s last credited directorial effort, A BRONX TALE), Coppola’s best films are large operatic tragedies that feature authoritarian men who keep their cards close if not inside their vest. Indeed, one can make an obvious comparison for THE GOOD SHEPHERD to the first two GODFATHER films. From a style standpoint, take the amazing camera work of Robert Richardson, truly one of the best cinematographers working today; his dark frames provide similar emotional content to Gordon Willis’s work. For his part, Damon handles his Michael Corleone-ish cold-hearted poker-face killer-exterior with aplomb; you can very much see fiery, yet subtle emotion bubbling beneath his eyes. Above all, plot-point and cinematic device comparisons can be made so much so, that by the time Joe Pesci makes his perfunctory retired-don cameo, you half expect Hyman Roth to pop out of the closet and ask for a “smaller piece” of cake. Perhaps this speaks to the cultural permeation of THE GODFATHER, which in turn owes its own debt to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies; but you also feel a clone’s cold teeth ever nipping at your heals.

At over two and half hours, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is quite long but if you get sucked in – and you should – it’s an overall captivating ride similar to the films it stylistically strives to be. The film’s true power, however, is its open window view into the successes, failures and fallacies of the men who, behind closed doors, really run this country.

***1/2 out of *****