Sometimes second place might as well be last place in the film industry. Pity Andy Serkis and the years he spent making a live-action, mo-cap enhanced version of The Jungle Book only for Disney to scoop him years in advance and deliver a billion-dollar hit. It’s impossible not to compare the two and unfortunately Serkis’ passion project is found wanting in many areas. For starters, there’s far less Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), which is a shame. He’s really only in the film for very little. I think Cate Blanchett is miscast as the voice of the snake, Kaa, who acts like a grand keeper of the jungle’s history and future. I’m not sold on Serkis as Baloo, a grumpy paternal figure present from the beginning that trains the wolf pups so they can join the pack. The middle half-hour Mowgli spends in the company of man with a kindly poacher also feels like the movie is spinning its wheels. It keeps the rest of the jungle on hold. There are some rather dark asides that can be quite surprising, from wolf pups plummeting to their doom, bloody scars, cute severed heads to haunt your dreams, and three separate occasions where characters will watch the light vanish from a dying animal’s eye. It’s definitely a more brutish, cruel, and dangerous world, but at what greater expense? The characterization doesn’t add up to much. The character relationships are minimal. The CGI creatures and settings look unfinished. The whole enterprise feels rushed even though it’s been on the shelf for some time, which may be why the studio was eager to sell it to Netflix for a cool $90 million. You’ll watch Mowgli and nod, generally entertained, but questioning whether it’s 90-million worth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A slow-paced Western with A-list actors, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a ponderous Western that feels too lost in its own expansive landscapes. It’s about an Army captain (Christian Bale) reluctantly taking the lead to escort a Cheyenne chief to die on his native soil. As you could expect from that premise, Hostiles is reverent and meditative to the point of boredom. It deals with Major Themes about man’s place in the world, connection to nature and the land, and our treatment of Native Americans, but it feels like it believe it’s saying a lot more than it accomplishes. The final film is over two hours but I kept waiting for the movie to feel more substantial, for the real story to start. The premise is workable and there are some interesting side characters, notably Rosamund Pike as the sole survivor of her family’s Native American attack, but it all feels underdeveloped to serve the central figure. It’s a story of one man having to come to terms and forgive himself for the cruel things he’s done in the past in the name of glory, honor, and patriotism. There are too many moments where characters reach out to remind him that he is, in fact, a Good Man. It gets to be too much. The talented supporting cast is generally wasted. Bale (The Big Short) is very internal, almost far too insular as a man speaking with looks and eyebrow arches, as he feels the weight of his soul over the course of this journey. I just grew restless with the movie and kept waiting for it to change gears or get better. Hostiles is not a poorly made movie, nor without some artistic merit, but it’s too languid and lacking.
Nate’s Grade: C+
What happens if you make a Hercules movie but take out all the unique things that make the classic hero who he is? Would he still be Hercules? This question is at the heart of director Brett Ratner’s newest film, and it’s better than expected, which is a nicer way of also saying it’s not as bad as it looked like in its terrible cheesy advertising. It might be the most entertaining Brett Ratner film yet for what that statement is worth.
So, who is this Hercules? Besides looking like The Rock, he’s a mercenary who leads a band of warriors that are carefully left out of those widespread tales of his heroics and derring-do. Hercules’ nephew (Reece Ritchie) is the mouthpiece for the group, spinning the tales into epic poetry. There’s also a female archer, a sarcastic second-in-command good with throwing knives, an animalistic swordsman, and an older spearman (Ian McShane) who is given fleeting prophetic images, mostly about his own death. There’s a reason these people aren’t described much beyond their character-defining weaponry. This gang is hired by Lord Cotys (John Hurt) to protect his people from a Thracian warlord who rumor has it is a centaur. Could he be? Have you been paying attention?
Depending upon your tastes, you may either find this new approach refreshing or feel completely ripped off. It does seem that all of those cool glimpses of Hercules going through his grueling trials, fighting giant beasts, doing generally Herculean acts, well it was all comprised to the opening two minutes, which is why I feel no spoiler guilt over revealing the true nature of the movie. It’s not really a Hercules film. Yeah, The Rock is just about the closest living example of a modern Hercules (he shouldn’t have the hobo beard, though), but it’s in name only. Whether this is a stopping point is up to the viewer. It does seem like a disappointing bait-and-switch to tease out what promises to be an epic with giant mythological beasts, and I feel like the audience has every right to be irritable they have been denied this. But if you move beyond this legitimate gripe, the resulting movie is actually serviceably entertaining, which again sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you remember how truly lousy it looked from its initial goofy trailer.
The plot is predictable at every step of the way, except one character I swore was going to be a backstabber due to pigeonhole casting surprised me when they turned out to just be another underdeveloped yet loyal sidekick. Other than that, and I apologize for the vagueness of that sentence, this is a movie you can accurately predict without having to even watch it. The mercenaries are hired for a cause, perhaps they’ll start feeling differently about what they’ve been called in to do, get more involved, and then oh no, perhaps the heroes and villains were all mixed up after all. The plot structure is at its most simplistic (mild spoilers, but really, come on): Act 1 break – they take the mission. Act 2 break – oh no, the guy was bad all along and they’ve been working for the wrong side. Act 3 is then essentially battle and vengeance against the true villains. There’s almost an admirable efficiency to its formula plot mechanics, including the tortured hero back-story over his slain family and the forced reveal of who was behind said slain family being slain. If you don’t want to overwhelm your brain, then Hercules will do.
Free of the rigors of being original or complex, the movie is open to accomplish its minimal goals of entertainment, and to this end I would call the movie a mild success. The action is involved just enough to keep things interesting, especially when Hercules and his battalion are beset on all sides by green-skinned guys who, for whatever reason, hid in holes in the ground. There’s a primal joy watching The Rock carry around a giant Captain Caveman-style club and gleefully beat people with it, especially when the recipients fly like 30 feet in the air. There’s a pleasure to be had with a stripped down and somewhat dumb action flick where everyone is running around in leather or loincloths. The action is more Hercules by way of Conan the Barbarian but without the monsters and sorcery. There’s a fun running gag where McShane’s character keeps thinking he’s come to his final moment, the death that has been prophesied, only to be denied it time and again, causing some slight frustration on his part. The pacing is also swift enough that you won’t be bored for long periods of time.
But at its heart, this is still a rather block-headed action film with questionable choices. While scrubbing the supernatural elements from the story, this still exists in the unbelievable world of Movie Land where the good guys can do anything. The archer never runs out of arrows. The good guys never miss. At one point, Hercules topples a 100-foot tall marble statue like he’s Samson. So even though it wants to be a more grounded take on the legend, it’s still filled with all that silly impossible action movie stuff we see all the time. Then there are just small impractical things that exist only for the fact that someone thought it looked cool. There’s a secondary villain (Peter Mullan!) who prefers to use a whip made of a spinal cord. This can work in one-on-one confrontations but in the open field of battle, with men churning all around, it seems like a rather poorly ineffective weapon. Lastly, there’s a trite message about the power of believing yourself. See, Hercules needs to believe he’s a worthy hero and he’ll rise to the occasion. All you have to do is believe in yourself and anything can happen… if you happen to be The Rock or look approximately like him.
This new spin on one of the oldest heroes is generally entertaining, that is, if you can accept the bait and switch of its premise, robbing Hercules of his godlike abilities. It’s like doing an action movie about Greek mythology but taking out all the mythology and just having a bunch of dudes poking each other with spears and swords. Actually, it’s exactly like that. With Ratner at the helm, you know there’s going to be a ceiling, but the film is so unabashedly clear with its simple intentions that I found it hard to grumble, and so just soaked up an average action adventure with one of the genre’s best leading men. As far as summer action vehicles go, it’s got just enough going for it, but see all the other good films first. Make a list. Check it twice.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.
We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.
War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.
I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.
It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.
And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!
This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.
Nate’s Grade: B-
When author J. K. Rowling dropped off her last 700-page tome in the Harry Potter series, the world went into a state of mourning, right after ravishing every page of The Deathly Hallows. There would be no more literary adventures. You can expect that same sense of longing for the studio suits over at Warner Brothers considering the Harry Potter franchise has grossed over five billion worldwide. The bounty was about to be over, especially with one last book to adapt into an eventual overly long movie. Then the suits came across a genius strategy: split the last book into two separate movies. Filmed simultaneously over a year, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be released in two parts eight months apart. I understand that it’s hard to say goodbye to the boy wizard that charmed millions, and tow movies almost guarantee that nothing will be left out in the adaptation process. It also ensures that Warner Brothers will have two movies that make giant piles of money instead of one. Deathly Hallows: Part One plays its part setting up the finale, but judging from what we’re given, this series conclusion could have effortlessly been condensed to one overly long film instead of two.
Picking up shortly after the events of Half-Blood Prince, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best pals, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on the run. Lord Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) is determined to be the one to slay the boy wizard. Voldermort and his influence have taken over many facets of the magic world’s infrastructure, and they are all after Harry. Harry learned that his snake-faced nemesis has broken his soul into pieces and hidden them inside magical items known as horcruxes. Unless these horucruxes are destroyed, Voldermort will never be able to truly die. Harry and company has to hunt down those accursed horcruxes while being hounded by evil forces determined to kill them all.
For a solid hour I felt like I was watching the second best Harry Potter film; Alfonso Cuaran’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands as the artistic highpoint. Watching the characters on the run and constantly in peril spurs your protective feelings. We’ve seen them grow up, vanquish evil and hormones, and now they seem to be in serious danger and you feel real tension. I stopped to realize how much I actually cared for these characters and how concerned I was. There is a somber sense of finality, and I enjoyed characters and events colliding back together for one big finish. It truly feels like everything is coming to a titanic close, and the film manages to be the most emotionally satisfying of the series. That’s likely because it’s building off six films of character growth and goodwill. But it’s also due to the fact that Deathly Hallows spends the most time examining the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The series has followed a very lockstep plot formula and now it’s been stripped away. The kids are removed from the school setting so we get to spend plenty of time alone with the trio. In fact, it’s a bit too much time. We spend an interminable amount of time with these kids lost in the woods, waiting for something important to happen. While we wait we have the trio address fears, anxieties, and emotional hang-ups, which turns Part One into the most insular, reflective movie in the entire series. While this makes the movie rich with feeling before we come to the finish line, it also makes the film somewhat boring because these kids aren’t that deep.
Luckily, Deathly Hallows Part One presents some of the more exciting action sequences and tense mood yet for a franchise mostly built upon investigation and Hardy Boys stuff (with extra magic!). The Harry Potter world has always been more interesting to me the darker it got, and now the series has now firmly converted to the dark side (as far as PG-13 fantasies go). The opening shows each of the three kids being left alone, including Hermione protecting her Muggle parents by wiping away their memory of their daughter. Tough stuff. Then we transition to a floating Hogwarts teacher held prisoner by Voldermort and his legion of Death Eater followers. She’s struck dead and we see a tear roll down her bloodied face right before Voldy’s pet snake eats her. Parents be warned, this is no longer kid’s stuff. Death comes to several supporting characters and there’s plenty of spooky stuff that adds up to a gloomy atmosphere. The infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a thrilling sequence. Harry and pals disguise themselves as Ministry workers to locate a horcrux from Dolores Umbridge (I cheered at the sight of Imelda Staunton back in pink). The scene is tense and lays out the stakes and important characters to fear. It also produces some potent drama as Ron is disguised as a Ministry member whose innocent wife is being interrogated. The moment culminates in a genuinely exciting chase sequence that got me excited for what was ahead. What I failed to realize is that there was not much more ahead.
With all that extra attention spent on character, I can also say that Part One has some definite issues with its stagnating narrative. Having never read the books (get over it, Potter nation), I go in blind every time short for the mega-spoilers that I can’t help but learn thanks to all the Potter readers inhabiting my circle of friends and family. I can tell you if something doesn’t make sense because I don’t have the background knowledge of the books to fill me in. There was plenty in Deathly Hallows that made little sense. The adaptation introduces the titular deathly hallows, which ends up being another three super special magic items. There’s a nicely Gothic animated sequence to try and explain the three hallowed items, but it all adds up to a fairy tale that makes little traction. The narrative has already shaped up into a portentous scavenger hunt. Harry and friends are after the remaining horcruxes containing the soul of Mr. Snarly Face. The entire 145 minutes of Part One is spent destroying a single horcrux, leaving 3 or 4 remaining. Now they add three more magic items to find and it all compounds my feelings of fatigue. Did I mention they also have to find a magic sword? How many magical items are these kids going to be responsible to find and how many am I expected to care about?
I left the theater with many questions about what the hell the deathly hallows were, why they mattered, and all sorts of other storylines too. I could not follow all the new characters they threw so late into the game, especially some old wand maker and his connection to wand thievery. And when the hell did everyone gain the ability to teleport at will? Why don’t they teleport all the time then, especially out of danger or when they’re chased through the woods? My friend (an avid Potter reader) had to deal with a litany of stupid questions, likely treating me as a parent would a child asking about where the sun goes when it becomes night.
Also, the film is intended to be a prelude for an epic finale but it mishandles its own sense of climax at several turns. I’ll refrain from heavy spoilers, but one of the most interesting characters, played by an actor I adore, is killed off screen. Off freaking screen! Some other character comes back and says, “Oh yeah, he’s gone,” and then everyone looks glum and goes about their business. It happened so matter-of-factly and anticlimactically that I never made the connection. So later in the film when it’s confirmed that this character is in fact dead, I felt pretty thick. The last chapter of Harry Potter is destined to be a combined 5 hours, and you’re telling me they couldn’t fit in a fight scene that lets this character go out with style? I suppose somebody thought it was more dramatic to just mention a character death offhand. Following this logic, I can’t wait for the grandiose finale where Harry Potter just walks back into a room and says, “Oh, by the way, I just killed Voldermort. So who wants to get a bite to eat?” The emotional climax of the film involves the death of a supporting character I have yet to see onscreen for 8 years. How am I supposed to feel for a character that hasn’t been seen for so long? The ending is sad, sure, but it would have been more effective if: a) I knew what significance the character had in the narrative, and b) it didn’t look like Harry was clutching a rubber doll to his chest. We spend too much time with new characters that end up having minor worth or come across as one-offs. The movie would have benefited from some of the deathly exposition that clogged the first two film’s storylines. As the movie comes to a close it should be clearing things up instead of polluting the narrative with more names and faces.
Director David Yates has been captain of the Potter helm since 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, and he seems to have found a unifying visual balance for the series. The film’s tone has gotten heavier and having a singular director take the series to an end looks to be a godsend. Despite a lengthy slog in the middle, Yates keeps the pacing fairly tight and tense. The visuals and special effects are just as luminous as ever. The true treat for me is watching all these splendid British actors assembled: Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Jason Isaacs on Team Evil, and Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, Rhys Ifans, Julie Waters, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon on Team Good. Then there are new additions like glass-jawed David O’Hara (Wanted) and the great Peter Mullan (Young Adam) making strong yet short appearances. I don’t really care why all these talented thespians are together but I’ll enjoy them all the same.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One is the beginning of the end, literally a prelude for the finale coming to theaters in summer 2011. The film manages to be exciting and dramatic and equally boring and confusing, especially for someone who has willfully refused to read the books. Spending more time with the teen actors has its pluses and minuses, chief minus being that while they wait for stuff to happen so do we. The manufactured end point for the movie feels far from satisfying, but the film manages to effectively whet the appetite for the follow-up. As the Harry Potter series comes to a close it’s hard not to get nostalgic and apologetic, but I resist this urge. Looking back, many of the Potter films have been fine pieces of entertainment but also too long, misshapen, and too slavish to making a book on tape. Part One of Deathly Hallows still falls victim to some of these faults, but the accumulated goodwill of the series and actors makes a 145-minute prologue easily bearable.
Nate’s Grade: B
Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker and a gifted storyteller. He excels at telling entertaining stories whether they be about kids or adults. His Harry Potter film is still the most watchable and imaginative, and his earlier children’s movie, 1995’s A Little Princess, has enough power to still get me misty. Even when Cuaron sets his sights on a sex comedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien) he can’t help but turn it into an affecting art movie. This man just knows how to tell a good story. Children of Men, a bleak science fiction thriller, is just the latest example of how effortless Cuaron makes it all blissfully appear.
In the year 2027, and the world is on the brink of annihilation. It’s not plague or rampant warfare that are the obvious culprits. The reason for mankind’s end is something more natural and depressing — women have stopped being able to make babies. England seems to be the lone country with some fraction of stability. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and housed in refugee camps for deportation. Cages full of crying and pleading foreigners are on many street corners. In a world of danger and hopelessness, always count on the kindness of xenophobia.
Theo (Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat that combats the future with cynicism. He can barely escape getting blown up for his morning coffee. Theo used to be an activist and married to Julian (Julianne Moore), the current leader of the Fishies, deemed a terrorist group by those in power. She finds him and asks for one last favor. Her people need transit papers to get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee, and Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former mid-wife, to safety. Then Theo discovers the importance of his assistance. Kee is eight months pregnant. The government would never admit that that the first baby in 18 years belongs to a refugee, and political groups would like to use Kee and her baby as a rallying point for an uprising. But first Theo must get her out of harm’s way.
The idea of a world of infertile women is fascinating and full of big questions. This dystopian future must confront its own mortality in a very real way. Theo asks a friend hoarding classic art why he bothers. There will be no one alive in 100 years to even see them. Miriam says strange and heartbreaking things happen to a world that forgets the sound of children’s voices. Plenty of heady discussion is generated from a premise that affects every person on the planet. Why can’t women have babies? No explanation is given and none would seem credible. A religious faction believes this is the punishment of a vengeful God. People forget what babies even look like and what is commonly done for their care. The film also has a stark and timely portrait about the treatment of illegal immigrants. Children of Men is an intellectually stimulating movie that never rubs your nose in it. It trusts the intellect of the audience enough to leave many unanswered questions left to chew over and debate long after the movie ends.
The answers Children of Men finds seem reasonable and appropriate. Home suicide products exist for people that want to take back some control over their life, or at the least, are sick of waiting for the even more inevitable. It also seems entirely likely that this future world would turn the youngest living person (“Baby Diego” at 18-years-old) into a celebrity worthy of incredible mourning upon his untimely demise. These coping elements feel dead-on and only enhance the realistic tone of the film.
The film is a beguiling think piece but it also succeeds magnificently as a straightforward thriller. The majority of the second half is built around chase scenes and navigating to perilous outposts of safety that eventual crumble. Cuaron has a dizzying sense of believability as he puts together his world, and his roving camera feels like an embedded reporter on the front lines of chaos. The gorgeous cinematography and realistic set design contribute to the visceral sensation Cuaron sets alive with his visuals. There are long stretches where the camera continues rolling for nine minutes uninterrupted. I was left spellbound and felt trapped in this world just like the people onscreen. I was also wondering how much planning it took to coordinate and choreograph these long takes.
There are two very memorable scenes to quicken the pulse and both of them involve Cuaron’s mobile unblinking camera. The first involves a car chase perhaps unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Theo is leading an escape at dawn and robs the other cars of their keys. However, his own escape car refuses to start and the bad guys take notice. The sequence seems to last forever as Theo is forced to literally roll the car down a hill to outrun his pursuers who continually catch up with him. The second sequence follows Theo making his way through a refuge camp in the midst of a violent uprising being put down by heavily armored government troops. We watch every excruciating second of his survival as he navigates past gunfire, tanks outside a hotel, and then climbs through the different levels of the hotel being bombarded until we see, at a distance, where Theo’s trek all began. Exhilarating might just be the best word to describe Children of Men.
But nothing feels cheap or too sentimental in this world. This is a harsh and dark world where anything can happen, so the audience is left in constant peril worrying about the fates of every person onscreen. Like Casablanca, it strips away idealized notions of bravery and duty and just shows humanity for what it is and what it can be. That is gutsy but then that’s Cuaron as a filmmaker.
Speaking of Casablanca, Owen seems like a modern-day Bogart in this role. He’s ruggedly good looking but also a sly charmer. I’ve stated before my undying man-crush on Owen and Children of Men has only added to it. Owen has a remarkable way of playing detached but still noble and conflicted. He has the best slow burn in movies. The moments of wonder for him become our moments of wonder and worry. The rest of the actors appear in limited functions but provide good work. Michael Caine practically steals the movie as a crude yet philosophical hippie.
This is science fiction at its best. Children of Men is stark and realistic and truly immersive; you really feel like a member of this tumultuous future. It works simultaneously as a thought-provoking what-if scenario and as an exciting thriller. Simply put, this is a highly engrossing movie that separates itself from the pack. Cuaron has created a disquieting and entertaining sci-fi think piece that succeeds on its numerous merits. I knew half way into the movie that the newly minted wife, Mrs. Me, was only going to want a baby more from what we were watching. At least she now has a new argument: “It’s for the good of humanity.”
Nate’s Grade: A
There’s a certain genre of films as well-defined as say, the Western, Film Noir, or even Romantic Comedies. The genre Im speaking of is I-can’t-believe-that-happened cinema. This is a genre made up of little-known true stories where people with power abuse those below them. These include films like Rosewood, Rabbit Proof Fence, Matewan, Mississippi Burning, and just about every movie with a Holocaust setting. These films are intended to antagonize the audience and to get them to ask, How could something like this happen? The Magdalene Sisters is a film that an audience will walk away with very much wondering how something so cruel, amoral, and heartless could carry on in our modern world.
In 1960s Ireland, the Catholic Church was life. The Magdalene Sisters sheds light on the little known work asylums, which were institutions set up to help girls who had transgressed against God. The girls admitted to the asylum, a kind of extreme reform school, are there to work away their sins and reach forgiveness, thus saving their immortal souls. Rose (Dorothy Duffy) had a child out of wedlock. Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone) was caught by school officials for being too pretty and tempting teen boys. But perhaps the most startling admission is Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), admitted to the asylum by her own father for the grievous sin of being raped by a cousin. The Magdalene Sisterhood asylum is run by Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), an old nun who subscribes to the cruel to be kind theory in spades. The girls at the asylum toil tirelessly in sweatshop conditions, are physically abused by the nuns, sexually abused by the asylums priest and are left hopeless of escaping. Girls who run away are turned back in by their parents or cooperative police. Some of the women at Magdalene have been there for their entire lives. It seems the only ways out are death or joining the convent. Get thee to a nunnery indeed.
The Magdalene Sisters is full of sadistic moments that will shock an audience. One of the most disturbing scenes transpires late into the film. The girls of the asylum line up completely nude, shivering and crying. Two nuns, with a nauseating smugness, chortle and play a game seeing who has the largest breasts and the smallest nipples, among other things. When the winner of this sick experiment stands forward and clenches her teeth from crying so hard, one of the nuns asks, ”What are you crying for? It’s just a game.”
The young ladies at the films core deliver magnificent performances tinged with honest emotional devastation. Noone is the standout as Bernadette. She utilizes steely rebellious gazes that speak volumes about her characters resourcefulness. Noone can convey more poignant emotion in the raising of an eyebrow or the biting of her thumb than most starlets can ever hope to express.
McEwan is terrifying as the head nun and head source of torment. Her grandmotherly voice, tinted with an Irish brogue, is enough to send shivers down your spine. She is surely 2003’s greatest movie villain, next to Johnny Depp in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Writer/director Peter Mullan keeps the suffering at an almost unbearable level but allows the spark of human resistance to keep us going. His film is one brimming with anger and disbelief; ensuring the audience will experience that same burning anger before the credits roll. Mullan’s passionate story can be deemed one-sided, but then again, what exactly is the other side going to say about the abuse of innocent girls for life-long slave labor? Not much I suspect.
The Magdalene Sisters is a somber, unflinching look at the abuses of the church as well as the upward battle for equality women faced. This film is tough to sit through. It might be too much for some, especially if they don’t have a strong relationship with the Catholic church to begin with. The decades of abuse The Magdalene Sisters sheds light on is incredible, but it’s also a beginning for healing. Before we can overcome atrocities we must acknowledge them, and this is something I’m sure Mullan is arguing that the Church is failing to do. In fact, the Catholic church has denounced The Magdalene Sisters for its portrayal of church abuses. Something tells me Mullan is not surprised.
Not only is The Magdalene Sisters an eye-opener, it’s also great cinema. The characters, pacing, realistic sharp-eyed direction, and superb acting render it more than just a snuff film. This film is more than watching people mistreated and suffer; this is a film about perseverance and resolve. It’s about the enduring human spirit. I’ll gladly (well, not gladly) watch sequences of misery in order to see human triumph. This isn’t just a sad story, it’s exceptionally well told and acted and it bathes you in the pain of its characters. You feel their heartbreak and tragedy, but you also feel their victory.
The Magdalene Sisters is, without a doubt, the must-see feel-bad movie of this year. Now, there will be plenty out there saying, Why should I pay to see a movie that will make me feel bad? This is my defense: because the movie is so good at having its fears, tortures, and ultimate triumphs resonate that it makes you authentically feel something. And isn’t this the purpose of art, to feel something? The Magdalene Sisters is unflinching, passionately powerful and unforgettable. Just one more item to get your blood boiling: the last of these Sisterhood work asylum closed in 1996.
Nate’s Grade: A