It seems like there were more high profile message movies last winter than usual. Two of the best hit the shelves last week: Alfonso Cuaron's ecologically grim Children of Men, and Gabriele Muccino's rags-to-a-position-from-which-riches-are-possible flick, The Pursuit of Happyness…
Children of Men
Children of Men is a remarkable cautionary tale that has been fashioned into that rarest of all cinematic breeds, the thought-provoking action flick. Children of Men opens with Theo [Clive Owen] hearing about the death of "Baby Diego," the youngest person on Earth as he picks up his morning cuppa – at eighteen years, four month, sixteen days and however many hours and minutes of age. The detail given to reporting his age is the first and only clue required to tell us that mankind is dying. Seconds after Theo leaves the coffee shop it is destroyed by a bomb.
This world is a world without hope, and with the casual use of violence as a means of venting frustration. It is also a world of propaganda [the world is falling apart but "Britain soldiers on!"] and going about one's life [Theo works a nine-to-five job in an office that seems to be untouched by the chaos that runs rampant outside]. It is a world where immigration has not only been stopped – all recent immigrants are being returned to their original countries – by force, if necessary.
When Theo is kidnapped off the street, he is reunited with his ex-wife, Julian [Julianne Moore], who needs him to secure transit papers to get a young girl to the coast, where a "Human Project" vessel will spirit her away from the fascist British state. Why? Because she's pregnant! Kee [Claire-Hope Ashitey] would be separated from her child if she fell into the government's hands – but she would also become a symbol for a coordinated uprising if she remained with Julian's group, "The Fishes".
As Theo, Julian and Kee, along with Julian's second-in-command, Luke [Chiwetel Ejiofor] attempt to reach a safe house, they encounter a situation – and Julian is shot and killed. At the safe house, Theo overhears Luke and others talking about having had Julian killed. Their betrayal spurs him to action and he spirits Kee and her midwife, Miriam [Pam Ferris] away – but they are detected and so the chase begins.
Cuaron has [with co-writers Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby] taken what has been described as a cautionary tale and transformed it into a thought-provoking action flick. His direction is remarkably straightforward, and his use of handheld cameras, exclusively, gives the film an immediacy and realism that one usually finds in documentaries.
There are films where the use of a muted palette throughout can be off-putting – especially when contrast could heighten explosive moments – but it feels right here. This is a world that has been bleached of its hope. Despite the violence and rage, these people are not only going through the motions, they are aware that that is what they're doing. There is an ineffable sadness to Children of Men that persists alongside the grain of hope that is provided by Kee.
Cuaron somehow manages to connect all of this world's rage, despair, frustration and hope into well under two hours – and to create scenes that recall the momentary truces of World War II, when German and Allied soldiers might share chocolate over Christmas day – and the kind of awe that newborn life can inspire. This is a magnificent.
Features include: The Possibility of Hope – Cuaron's documentary on how the revolutionary themes of Children of Men relate to our current society; Under Attack – a featurette that details how the film's most dangerous scenes were constructed; Theo and Julian – Clive Owens and Julianne Moore discuss their characters; Futuristic Design – from concept to creation, we see how Cuaron's vision was brought to life, and Deleted Scenes.
Children of Men – Grade: A+
Features – Grade: B
Final Grade: A-
The Pursuit of Happyness
This is the story of how Charles Gardner's [Will Smith] life fell apart and how, mostly by force of will, he put it back together. It's a story of how a family broke up but the father overcame every obstacle in his path to climb out of the wreckage and become a successful broker and bring him and his son, Christopher [Jayden Smith], out of poverty. It's a film about the American Dream – directed by an Italian director [Gabriele Muccino] because he could more clearly see exactly what the American Dream was.
A semi-successful salesman, Gardner falls on hard times. His girlfriend [Thandie Newton] leaves and things get tough, financially. Even as his finances take a fall, Garner lands an unpaid internship in a stockbroker training program at Dean Witter – despite arriving for his interview in the clothes he was wearing to paint an apartment he soon loses.
As Gardner learns about the stocks biz, he leaves his son in a daycare center that is, to be charitable, barely adequate. When the two are together, they haunt homeless shelters and sleep on public transportation – or in a subway station's men's room. It is not an easy life – and yet, through Gardner's determination [and his boundless love for his son], we see how he struggles to magnify the ray of hope he sees with his internship into a full-blown blue sky.
Gardner's struggles and sacrifices do pay off, of course – this is inspired by a true story – but the journey from down to up is one of serious emotional payoffs. Will Smith got an Oscar.