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March 13, 2013

London Calling: Children of Men

Children of Men – Captivating

Lately in film, especially futuristic sci-fi fare, the preferred city of devastation is London.  It used to be that Godzilla would stomp Japan into oblivion, but of course we all know that giant lizards bred out of nuclear irresponsibility is completely far-fetched, right?  But putting fantasy away, London has been a hub the past decade or so for apocalyptic visions of the future.  From Rage viruses to an infertility pandemic, I’m not sure “Keep Calm and Carry On” would be enough for even London’s strongest citizens to get behind.  This brings me to 2006’s “Children of Men” one of the most captivating sci-fi films to be released in recent memory.
Here’s the scoop; we visit London in the not too distant future where there hasn’t been a reported new birth in nearly 18 years.  Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the youngest person in the world, lovingly named Baby Diego, has just been murdered.  With the world in mourning, we follow happy-go-lucky Theo, played by Clive Owen.  Theo is the type of guy that loves to get high with his hippy friend Jaspar and get kidnapped by a terrorist group called “The Fishes” led by his former activist wife, Julian, played by Julianne Moore.  The plot thickens when it’s discovered that Theo is carrying some precious cargo, namely a baby in the belly of a young refugee girl named Kee.  With the government, crooked cops, and members of the terrorist group hot on his heels, Theo has no choice but to protect Kee and try and deliver her to The Human Project, a mysterious group researching why humanity become infertile so many years ago.

“Children” went largely unnoticed during its theatrical run, which is odd for how good this film really is.  The acting is spot on, the setting couldn’t feel more real, and the message is relatively universal.  Sure, there are some preachy moments, and even some of the imagery and names are obvious, case in point, the young girl Kee, (even though it’s technically pronounced “chi”) who just might be the “key” to civilization’s survival.  But those are minor quibbles.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who some might know for “Y Tu Mama Tambien” or to an even wider audience as the director the best Harry Potter film installment “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”  Some might disagree with that assessment of the “Harry Potter” franchise, but it was the moment that the series went from light-hearted and childish to dark, brooding, and serious.
Cuaron lends that trademark style to “Children” and creates a dystopian London where all hope seems to be lost, refugees are treated like Jews during World War II, and ethnic tensions are slowly coming to a head.  With all of that being said, Cuaron is still able to capture small glimmers of hope in a hopeless world, and some humanity in some of the more monstrous characters.  But the highlights of the film revolve around the long take action sequences which last upwards of 6 minutes.  Even though it has been debunked that these scenes are not one long take, the fact remains that these scenes highlight the film and create the most memorable moments in “Children.”

Despite the fact “Children” was critically praised, the fact it didn’t bank more at the box office was a crime in and of itself.  It’s also a movie I’m always shocked people have never seen; at that moment I slap them in the face, hand them the DVD, and bid them Godspeed.

Fun Fact:  In the Bexhill block scene, Theo can be seen wearing a London 2012 Olympics fleece jacket.

February 9, 2013

London Calling: V For Vendetta

FORGOTTEN

With the Oscar season here and the summer movie season fast approaching, I wanted to talk about a film I think fits into both.  Now comic book films are usually shrugged off as just popcorn fluff.  Most times, they are.  To this day, however, there hasn’t been a comic book film that has challenged me intellectually more than V For Vendetta.  It is one of the most intelligently made, beautifully shot, well performed films of the genre.  But sadly for some reason, it is FORGOTTEN.
V For Vendetta plot revolves around a knife wielding masked terrorist/freedom fighter trying to take down an oppressive British government in the not too distant future.  I put terrorist/freedom fighter because the film blurs the line between the two.  It makes you question the difference and presents the perspective of people on either side of the chaos.  Some would argue that the character of V is clearly the hero and the government is bad.  However, when you really get into the specifics of V’s acts, it is hard to paint him as a true blue hero.  Even an antihero for that matter.  Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.  V is out for vengeance, admittedly so.  He kills in cold blood.  He kills innocents.  He kidnaps.  He tortures.  He does whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.  You might say the ends justify his means, but his acts seen through a different spectrum can easily be construed as terror.  That is why I love this film.  It can be dissected and analyzed even to this day.  The Avengers is my favorite comic book movie of all time, however, V For Vendetta is much meatier when it comes to substance.
Comic book legend Alan Moore is famous for angrily dismissing and disavowing any adaptations of his work.  This is thanks primarily to the abysmal League Of Extraordinary Gentleman.  I wish he’d take a slightly lighter stance on this though.  It might be easy for me to say but, films aren’t bad solely because the filmmakers take liberties with the source material.  I detest Michael Bay’s Transformer films and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man not just because they changed things.  I detest them because they are poorly written, horribly performed, lowest common denominator catering tripe.  Their changes weren’t done to add anything new or stimulating to the material.  They were made for convenience sake.  The same cannot be said for V For Vendetta.  Yes, V is a warmer character in the film than he was in the comic book.  However, I think that makes him even more complicated when compared to the coldness of his methods.  Yes, the fascist vs. anarchist theme was more liberal vs. neo-conservatism.  However, that is a lot timelier for today’s political atmosphere and still has the nod to the fascist’s ideas of purity from the comic book.  My point being that the alterations made in V For Vendetta do not weaken it as a story.  It merely updates it. 
The Wachowskis, the source material meddlers in this case, exist in a weird place for me as a film fan.  I was highly disappointed with their conclusion of The Matrix trilogy, but still respect the fact they always take crazy chances.  They entrusted the directing duties to long time collaborator James McTeigue, while staying on to write and produce.  However, their fingerprints are still all over this picture.  Finding and concentrating on the heart of their cinematic worlds is a common Wachowski m.o..  Where a film like V For Vendetta could have just fallen into the basic action vehicle cliché, the Wachowskis don’t let it.  There are genuinely moving moments in the film that still stun me.  The action scenes are terrific, but always serve as a tool to tell the story.  Not the other way around.
Before The Dark Knight came along, V For Vendetta was my choice for best ensemble cast performance in a comic book film.  Strange category, I know.  However, it is always a relief and a thrill for me when I see great talent trying to do great work in a genre film such as a comic book movie.  It thrilled me in History Of Violence, it thrilled me in The Dark Knight, and it thrilled me in V For Vendetta.  It is still a common misconception that the genre should be treated the way Schumacher treated Batman.  But there can be some amazing work turned in with the cape and cowl subset.  For example, this is by far my favorite performance by Hugo Weaving.  Yes, even more than his iconic Agent Smith.  Odd, seeing as we never see his face and that he was a last second replacement for James Purefoy.  Despite his Oscar, I’d put Weaving’s V right up there with Ledger’s Joker.  To accomplish the subtleties of V’s rage, anguish, humor and theatricality through an emotionless mask with only a voice is no small feat.  Portman, who I’ve loved since Leon: The Professional, seems to be playing a stereotypical damsel at first.  Much like she did in Thor.  However, Evey has the strongest arc in the film.  Her performance highpoint happens during the film’s big twist.  Her emotional journey during the four minute long scene hints at the Oscar caliber performance she had in her in the years to come.  Other than the leads, you have stellar supporting performances from John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Roger Allam, and the unsung anchor of the film, Stephen Rea.  There is absolutely no phoning it in here.
V For Vendetta doesn’t get nearly as much love as it should.  Even from it’s creator.  It seems to get misplaced amongst it’s lesser comic book movie brethren   For me, however, it is a film that shall never be FORGOT.  Remember, remember…to watch it….then tell me I’m wrong.  

February 8, 2013

London Calling: The Great Muppet Caper

The Great Muppet Caper – Whimsical

My first exposure to The Muppets wasn’t any of their movies, it was actually “Muppet Babies” which for me, still goes down as one of my favorite cartoons of all time, and the best cartoon of the 1980s.  There was nothing wrong with it; it had “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, and pretty much any pop culture reference that you could think of at the time.  It was smarter than the kids that were watching it, and for my money, still holds up pretty well.  The Muppet movies didn’t really come around for me the first time around, in fact I remember watching most of them on VHS when my dad recorded them for me.  Think about it, “The Muppet Movie” was released in 1979, and to say the least I was the last thing my parents had on their mind at the time.  However, when I was old enough to know how to operate the VCR and go through the stacks of VHS recordings that we had in our house, it was that fateful day I popped in 1981’s “The Great Muppet Caper” starring all of your favorite Muppets; from Kermit the Frog to *John Cleese, yes, John Motherf*ckin’ Cleese is in this movie.

Like most Muppet fare the plot is going to include plenty of hijinks, celebrity cameos, and humor that goes well over the intended audiences heads, including one in “Caper” that refers to a guy cheating on his wife.  Jim Henson had some balls on him.  Any who, we open “Caper” with our three heroes, Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo in a hot air balloon talking about the opening credits.  Next thing they know their balloon is going down right in the middle of a crowded street which breaks out into our first musical number.  Further hijinks ensue that involve a case of mistaken identity, stolen diamonds, and a love triangle between a frog, pig, and Charles Grodin.  Good clean family fun.

What stands out, like most Muppets movies, are the songs.  The highlight is “Happiness Hotel” that has the sound of a blues, zydeco, and a big band mash-up that works perfectly and will be stuck in your head for days.  Some of the other songs get a little sappy, but there’s still a whimsical element to the music that can appeal to the young and old alike.

While the setting of the movie takes place in London, it could really take place anywhere.  This isn’t “The Muppets Take Manhattan” where the city is almost as big a star as The Muppets, but you still get a chuckle from some of the dry British humor we all know and love.

If you’ve only seen 2011’s “The Muppets” with Jason Segel and Amy Adams, which is fine in it’s own way, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to “The Great Muppet Caper” that has plenty of mad-cap antics and no cheap Disney tie-in’s.

*Disclaimer:  Of course I know John Cleese isn’t a Muppet, but he might be the king of silly walks.

Fun Fact:  Score one for the U.K.  “The Muppet Show” premiered first across the pond, September 5th, 1976.  It premiered 22 days later on the 27th in the U.S.

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