Masterpiece

Before GRAVITY: Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men

By Jonathan Babin

Most people who are film lovers have a firm recollection of the first film that genuinely changed their understanding of what the medium can achieve when it reaches its zenith. For me, that fond memory takes me back to high school. A friend of mine asked if I wanted to go see some movie called Children of Men. I had really no idea what the film was about, but I happily went along. This particular friend also had a fondness for good films, so I figured he knew what he was doing in this scenario.

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For years since that fateful night in early 2007, the film has stuck with me in ways most other films have not. Sitting in that theater on that given evening, I was witness to something extraordinary unfolding on screen. For those not familiar, Children of Men follows Theo (played brilliantly by Clive Owen) as he is thrust into the perilous role of caregiver for a young girl who has become pregnant. Doesn’t sound like much on the surface, I know. But Children of Men takes place in a future in which women can no longer get pregnant. Thus, this pregnancy is a truly miraculous occasion that puts both Theo and the young girl, who goes by Kee, in immense danger. Challenged for control of the girl’s destiny by the Fishes, a radical group led by the always masterful Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke) and Theo’s ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), Theo must sacrifice everything to help get Kee to safety.

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There are many things that make Children of Men special in my mind. First, the performances are dazzling. Clive Owen has never been better as the unwitting citizen thrust into the mission of a lifetime. Supported superbly by Moore, Ejiofor, and newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey as Kee, Owen takes the character of Theo to a place of compassion, nuance, and gives him a survivalist mentality that entrenches you in the singular goal of getting Kee and her baby out of harm’s way. Oh, and there’s Michael Caine. Sure, the tried and true thespian has had so many notable roles that it is hard to name them all, but Children of Men marks one of his five best. Yes, I said five best. He plays Theo’s stoner pal Jasper, a lovable, hilarious, tender, and thoughtful renegade who looks out for Theo and helps him along the way with a singular screen presence that few other actors in history have been able to match.

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Second, the visual effects (you can see where Cuaron was able to sharpen his skills for Gravity) are something to behold. There is a harrowing and hyper-realistic chase sequence between a car and several motorcycles. Shot from inside the car on a rig that defied the conventions of modern film making, this sequence has been hailed as one of the best tracking shots ever done on celluloid. In the film’s final act, another long take of Theo running for his life to escape all-out destruction of a war torn village is another achievement of the highest order. Alfonso Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are a tandem that few other director/cinematographer combinations in Hollywood can match in terms of their technical skill and precision in crafting shots that leave audiences wondering how it is they saw what they just saw. It is a true shame and travesty that Children of Men did not win Best Cinematography or Achievement in Film Editing, two of the three awards it was nominated for at the 2007 Academy Awards. Further still, the fact that it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture keeps me up at night to this day. Okay, not really. But in the long line of Oscar injustices, this one will always be near the top for me

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All technical achievements and brilliant performances aside, Children of Men represents a film about hope. It epitomizes the idea that all people should strive for something more and that when given the opportunity to do something extraordinary for the common good of society, no one is immune from being chosen. Poignant, hilarious at times, thought-provoking, and revolutionary considering it is almost ten years old in a few years, Children of Men is a film that more people should see and deserves to be mentioned as one of the grandest achievements of the 2000s. Coming in the middle of a decade with so many memorable films, Children of Men somehow got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it was the lack of recognition during awards season. Perhaps it was the limited release. Perhaps it was the lack of star power or a big-name director (at the time.) Alfonso Cuaron is now a power player in Hollywood from the director’s chair with the overwhelming success of Gravity, but few knew him in 2007. Whatever it was, Children of Men slipped through the cracks. Many films revered as classics have held that same fate but have thrived when re-examined in later years. In time, I hope Children of Men can reach that lofty position that I think it deserves.

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Children of Men is my favorite film. I highly encourage anyone reading this blog to find a way to see it. Its ability to frustrate, dazzle, uplift, and inspire hope is not a combination many films offer.

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Tarantino’s Forgotten Masterpiece: The Maximum Cool of Jackie Brown

When Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene in the early 90’s he changed the landscape of moviemaking forever. A former employee of Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California, Tarantino had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of films that wowed fellow customers and film buffs alike. When his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, came out in 1992, he was hailed as a breathe of fresh air and one of the most exciting new talents in decades. A darling on the film festival circuit, QT crossed over into the mainstream with the release of his 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction. A huge success both critically and commercially, Pulp Fiction launched Tarantino into the stratosphere of the Hollywood A-List. Audiences were transfixed by his non-linear, hyper stylized storytelling. The wonderfully loquacious screenplays chock full of pop culture references and gallows humor. The unexpected moments of savage, graphic violence. The soundtracks filled with a variety of quality music ranging from 60’s surfer rock to the classic soul tunes of the 70’s. People had never been exposed to a talent quite like Quentin Tarantino. His movies were alive, wild and unpredictable. Now, the question was how would QT follow up back-to-back home run films? Would he finally hit a creative wall and stumble with his first flop? Was he a lightning in a bottle talent that would flame out just as quickly and spectacularly? Well, dear readers, march on and find out for yourself.

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Many people who know me can tell you that Pulp Fiction is my all-time favorite film. It reinvigorated my passion and love for all that movies aspire to be. I doubt very seriously that its position on my greatest movies list will ever change or even be challenged. Let me pause though to tell you that I’m not going to launch into some tangent going on and on about how and why Pulp is my favorite film. Honestly, what more can be said that hasn’t been said already? Thousands of some of the brightest most highly regarded minds in journalism and film criticism have dissected this movie ad-nauseum over the past two decades. So, instead of continuing to beat the proverbial dead horse, I’d like to focus on what is, in my mind at least, another far more intriguing question. What is Tarantino’s second greatest film? I often pose this question to friends and fellow film buffs and have never received a consensus answer. Some say its his revisionist WWII action/dramedy Inglorious Bastards. Others, prefer his Ante-Bellum spaghetti western/slavery revenge saga Django Unchained. A few even mention his 3 hour martial arts, Japanese cinema influenced opus, Kill Bill. My two cents? No question, its Jackie Brown.

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After breathless anticipation from the cinephile community, Quentin Tarantino announced that he would be adapting renowned crime author Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch as his follow up to Pulp Fiction. After tweaking the screenplay, he changed the title to Jackie Brown and cast legendary blaxploitation actress Pam Grier in the title role. In the film, Jackie is a stewardess for the lowly Cabo Airlines. One character describes it as “the shittiest little shuttle fucking piece of shit airline” in the business. Struggling to make ends meet, she also smuggles money into the US from Cabo San Lucas for Ordell Robbie played by Samuel L. Jackson. Robbie is a black market gun runner with eyes on an early retirement. Shacked up in a house on Hermosa Beach with his stoner girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and a dim bulb buddy (a grizzled Robert De Niro) newly released from prison, Jackson schemes to get over half a million dollars even while being under the close watch of the police. Problems escalate quickly after Jackie is picked up by ATF officer Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and LAPD officer Mark Dargus at the airport with some of Ordell’s money and a small bag of cocaine. Unwilling to cooperate and cut a deal with the cops to frame Ordell, she is sent to jail to serve hard time. Afraid that Jackie is going to rat him out and scuttle his plans, Ordell arranges for bail bondsmen Max Cherry, a terrific Robert Forster, to get her out of prison. Newly freed but terrified of Ordell and the prospects of unemployment at middle-age, Jackie concocts an elaborate scam to play the cops and Robbie off of each other all the while planning to make off with the half million dollars herself. Got all of that? Good.

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Jackie Brown is a terrific movie. I liked it the first time I saw it at the tender age of 8 and my love for it has only grown over time. I can’t for the life of me tell you why more people don’t talk about this film. It’s certainly not as flashy as Pulp Fiction or his later genre busting epics of the 2000s. Perhaps that’s one reason. Jackie Brown reveals a different side of the Tarantino persona, calmer and more reserved. Some might call it mature. With his other movies, you got the sense that QT was a kid in the candy store shot full of adrenaline. Drunk and high off of pure moviemaking bliss, he could barely contain his giddy enthusiasm as he directed these tales. Jackie, on the other hand, showcases a reigned in Tarantino. He lets the story play out at a more leisurely pace, the characters are allowed to breathe and grow. A story of this kind should really only take about an hour and 45 minutes or so to tell but he pushes the running time to over 2 and a half hours. Some folks thought the movie was bloated and ponderous, I wished it wouldn’t end. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, “You savor every moment of Jackie Brown.I wanted these characters to live, talk, deceive and scheme for hours and hours.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Maybe the popularity of the internet and social media, with constantly updated Twitter feeds and an endless onslaught of information hitting us daily, has plagued my generation with a serious case of ADD. We can’t savor character development and a slow burn story like our parents and grandparents. We want quick fixes and instant gratification. My advice? Slow the fuck down and let some things just carry you along. Haha, sorry I’m ranting a bit here, lets get back to business.

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One of my favorite aspects of Jackie Brown is the tender romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forster that lies at the heart of the film. Forster’s Max Cherry falls for Jackie almost at first sight, the night he picks her up from jail. Bloodstone’s classic song “Natural High” plays as she walks towards him, the words of the song providing a clue to his innermost feelings, “Why do I keep my mind, on you all the time? And I don’t even knoooooowww yoooouuuu,” it croons. Much of the romance is left unspoken, you sense the mutual attraction with body language, a look, a gesture, and certainly with the music. There is another great scene not long after where Max comes to Jackie’s apartment to retrieve his gun. Anticipating a visit from Ordell, she lifts the gun from the glove compartment of his car for protection. Anyways, they share a cup of coffee and discuss approaching middle-age and the terror of growing old. “Well, I’ve flown seven million miles. And I’ve been waiting on people almost 20 years. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I’m scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with,” Jackie tells him at one point. Tarantino uses some terrific music from Philly soul group The Delfonics, particularly “La la I Love You,” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?,” as background during this scene. A sort of unofficial soundtrack to their romance if you will. Max later goes to a music store and picks up a Delfonics cassette and leaves it playing endlessly in his car as the film progresses. Fantastic. I’ll leave it to you to watch the movie and find out what happens with these two, but I will say that it plays out in a very realistic fashion and doesn’t cop out with a Hollywood ending.

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The acting, as per usual with a Tarantino film, is top notch from the main characters all the way down to the bit players. QT has a preternatural gift for plucking fading actors out of obscurity and reigniting their careers with plum roles. First of all, Pam Grier absolutely hits it out of the park as Jackie. I mentioned earlier that she was a big star in the 70’s starring in blaxploitation films such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. She easily does her best work here maintaining the badassery of her earlier roles but also showcasing a vulnerability that is illuminating. Jackie has to stay 10 steps ahead of everyone to make off with the money and not wind up dead. She comes up all aces here. Robert Forster is her match. Also a longtime industry vet, he starred in thrillers from the 60’s such as The Stalking Moon and Medium Cool. He gives the best performance of his career as the tough but vulnerable bail bondsmen who has been in the game all too long. He garnered a well deserved Oscar nomination for his work here. Sam Jackson is his usual reliable self playing a variation of his philosophical hit man from Pulp Fiction, although much scarier. He’s a formidable opponent for Jackie, not just a dumb thug. A special shout out goes to Bridget Fonda as well. She is priceless as Melanie, the airy beach bunny who crashes with Ordell, her brain clouded with bong smoke. “You smoke too much of that shit, it’s going to rob you of your ambition,” Jackson tells her. “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV,” her classic reply. Performances like this should be cherished.

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I’ve already talked a little bit about the soundtrack already, but allow me to expand on it just a bit more. Again, overshadowed by his other films, Jackie Brown also has a fantastic soundtrack. I’d even go as far to say its the best compilation of songs in any Tarantino film. Hell, I have the CD playing in my car even now as I write this blog. Besides the Delfonics and Bloodstone who I’ve discussed already, there are also some terrific songs from Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, Johnny Cash, and even Pam Grier. Check it out, one of the great underrated works of movie music.

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Aging like a fine wine, Jackie Brown just keeps getting better and better the more I think about it. Following up the celebrated Pulp Fiction was no easy task, which I’m sure is why this film was met with mixed reactions upon its initial release. Now, I implore you to revisit this movie. Unbound from the expectations it was saddled with, audiences can appreciate Jackie Brown for what it is: a soulful, mature, maximum cool crime caper with rich characterizations, first caliber acting, great storytelling and a terrific soundtrack. This is Tarantino’s other masterpiece. Grade A

Showdown in the City of Angels: Revisiting Michael Mann’s Classic 1995 Crime Saga Heat

When I was a Junior in college, I studied abroad in Europe for the summer. I was in the French countryside, walking back from the grocery store with some buddies, when the conversation turned to movies. In particular, movies which featured prominent American cities almost as another main character. We had been discussing Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight quite a bit. We loved how the director used the city of Chicago as a fill in for Gotham City. My friends were asking me for suggestions on other movies like this, particularly ones that featured Los Angeles. I pondered this for about 30 seconds before stating, “Well, you’ve got to check out Michael Mann’s Heat, definitely.” The following day, we went back to the store, somehow managed to find a copy of the DVD, and watched it that night at the Bed and Breakfast where we were staying. I remember all of this vividly. I mean here we are in Bayeux, France sitting in the living room of our cabin watching Heat with about 7 or 8 people, many of whom are experiencing it for the first time. It’s fantastic sharing the joy of a great movie with others. Certainly an experience I won’t forget. Now, on to my first film review.

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In the 1960’s, real life Chicago PD detective Chuck Adamson matched wits with brilliant criminal mastermind Neal McCauley and his tight knit gang of thieves. Involved in a spate of daring high stakes robberies, Adamson doggedly pursued McCauley for months before finally taking him down. Decades later, director Michael Mann used Adamson’s story as the basis for his 1995 crime saga Heat. Transplanting the action from Chicago to modern day Los Angeles, Mann creates an epic crime drama featuring a diverse cast of A listers top lined by AL Pacino and Robert De Niro.

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Pacino plays Lt. Vincent Hanna, a supersmart, highly dedicated detective in the LAPD robbery homicide division. Opposing him, Robert De Niro plays Neil McCauley, the cool, composed, and highly methodical master thief. When McCauley’s crew takes down an armored car filled with 1.6 million dollars in bearer bonds, killing 3 of the guards in the process, Hanna is called in to investigate. Immediately impressed with the professional handiwork, Hanna quickly realizes this isn’t a typical crew of gang bangers he’s pursuing. Tapping into a complex network of fences and professional snitches, the cops begin to slowly identify the members of McCauley’s gang. Surveillance and wire taps are set up and the plan to trap the crew of thieves begins to take shape. It doesn’t take long for McCauley to take notice, “Where the fuck is all of this heat coming from?” “Assume they have our phones, assume they have our houses, assume they’ve got us, right here, right now as we speak.” The heat nipping at their heals is unwelcome as the crew is on the verge of taking down a huge score. A bank in downtown LA, with an estimated payout of a cool 12.1 million dollars. The crew insists that the bank is worth the risk and with the successful execution of the heist, they intend to split town and go their separate ways.

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Now I know what you’re thinking. The synopsis I’ve just provided you sounds like a very generic crime thriller. “Whats so special about this film?,” you’re asking yourself. However, let me reassure you, this summary is just a skeleton of what Michael Mann uses to flesh out a much more complex narrative. For example, Pacino’s character has an absolute clusterfuck of a personal life. Remarried for the 3rd time, he has a step daughter who is a chronic depressive and may even be suicidal. His wife, played by Diane Venora, is giving him a river of shit for never being home and becoming increasingly withdrawn when he is present. “You don’t live with me. You live with the remains of dead people,” she tells him. “You scour the terrain for the scent of your prey and you hunt them down, the rest is the mess you leave behind as you pass through.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, De Niro’s McCauley has just met a lovely young woman named Eady, played by Amy Brenneman. They meet at a diner early in the film and immediately hit it off. Smitten with her, De Niro makes plans to skip the country and live out the rest of his days with her in Fiji. She provides him the opportunity for hope of living a normal life and experiencing real love after decades of loneliness. On top of this, there are a myriad of subplots involving an ex con attempting to go straight after a recent release from prison, another member of Neil’s crew, Val Kilmer, struggling with a young son and wife who is fed up with his gambling addiction, and we’re still just scratching the surface.

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Michael Mann also uses this film as a canvas to discuss his fascination with the duality of the cop/criminal relationship. The film seems to suggest that there is a razor thin line between the hunters and the hunted. The now classic scene where Hanna and McCauley meet face to face, taking a “time out” from the case, further drives home this point. Sidenote: it’s incredible to me that it took this long to get Pacino and De Niro to share the screen together, but boy the wait sure was worth it. Anyways, the two characters share a quiet scene over coffee. They talk about dreams, the complications in their respective lives, and their code of ethics. Pacino asks if De Niro ever wished for a normal life to which he responds, “What the fuck is a normal life, barbecues and ball games? I don’t know how to do anything else.” The scene is fascinating because you sense the deep mutual respect and even admiration they have for one another. There is an understanding between the two that although they stand on opposing sides of the law, they are cut from similar cloth and are two sides of the same coin. Though they know they may come into contact again and only one of them may survive, both admit they won’t like it. Neat stuff.

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Ok, lets switch gears here a little bit. I don’t want this to turn into an English essay, all themes and juxtapositions and blah blah blah. This movie is also an action film after all. There is an absolute doozy of an action sequence about halfway through involving the aforementioned bank heist. The cops are tipped off to McCauley’s plan and they catch his crew coming out with 12 million dollars worth of loot. Val Kilmer spots the cops approaching and proceeds to open fire on them leading to an epic gun battle in the streets of downtown LA. A virtuoso sequence, lasting about 15 minutes, proceeds with hails of gun fire, dozens of destroyed cop cars, and casualties on both sides. My suggestion to you, if you are breaking in a new home theater system and you want to impress your friends, put this scene on and proceed to have your ear drums blown back into your skull. I was watching the Making of Heat Blu Ray yesterday where they detailed the amount of preparation the actors had to go through to instill the scene with a sense of total authenticity. All the actors had extensive tactical weapons training including firing actual ammunition and learning how to load/unload clips as well as the movements they use. Apparently, the Marine Corps actually uses the scene from the film to showcase proper handling and discharge of automatic weapons when training new recruits. How badass is that? Anyways, the bank heist and subsequent shootout is, in my mind, one of the greatest action set pieces of the 90’s and maybe of all time. Feel free to disagree if you must.

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Wow, i’ve gone this far into the review and I haven’t even discussed the acting, what the hell is wrong with me? Jesus. A film of this size and scale has to have a vast ensemble to fill out the cinematic landscape. I could devote another 10 pages dedicated to the acting in this film but ill try to condense it down a bit. It all starts with Pacino and De Niro, who both give what is probably the last truly great performance of their respective careers. Al is a snapping live wire, relishing a showboat performance he can sink his teeth into. Sometimes a tad hammy and overly theatrical, he is still absolutely riveting. De Niro gives a quieter, more reserved performance but still no less transfixing them Pacino. The fact that the audience hopes that De Niro gets away in the end demonstrates the power of his craft. You sympathize with a master criminal, no easy feat. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, just look at some of these names: Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Ashley Judd, Natalie Portman, Ted Levine, Tom Noonan, Dennis Haysbert, whew! All of the characterizations are rich and well rounded. The fact that there was not a single Oscar nomination to come out of this cast is tragic.

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Technical credits are equally impressive. Director of Photography, Dante Spinotti fills the film with images highlighting the beauty of Los Angeles. There is a shot early in the film, when De Niro takes Amy Brenneman’s character up to his house in the hills and they look out from his balcony over the city. Thousands of tiny lights fill what looks like a vast ocean that stretches on to infinity. The film is littered with shots like this throughout. Spinotti also frames his shots with cool bluish hues as well as blacks and gun-metal grays. Everything looks sleek and modern. The photography speaks a language of its own. Similar praise should be given to Elliot Goldenthal’s beautiful score. Hauntingly melancholic as well as strikingly sensual, it fits the mood of the film like a glove. However, it all stops and starts with Michael Mann. A consummate professional, he has created a carefully controlled universe to spin this epic tale.

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The City of Angels is the perfect backdrop for this meditation on cops, criminals and the shattered messes they leave in their wake. Both a celebration and a deconstruction of the classic cops and robbers tale, Heat transcends the genre and reaches the rarified heights of a complex Greek Tragedy. Grade A (Masterpiece)