The Uses of Atrocity

Children of Men

Explosive but not incendiary: 'Children of Men'In an admiring but fundamentally dismissive review, Matt Zoller Seitz argues that Children of Men’s subject matter necessitates a treatment more rigorous and pointed:

“The problem with Children of Men is that it’s too much of a performance and not enough of a movie. It’s filled with emphatic yet fleeting references to a century’s worth of miseries and atrocities [...] . Unfortunately, although these touches and Cuarón’s meticulous direction indicate otherwise, the film lacks a coherent vision.”

The implication is that movies that recall real-world horrors have some responsibility to them, and I don’t necessarily buy that. A film shouldn’t trivialize suffering, but serious politics (and shameful history) shouldn’t be off-limits for entertainments.

Alfonso Cuarón’s film weaves serious themes into what’s fundamentally a lightweight work. The movie doesn’t lack a coherent vision; it simply has nothing insightful to say. Based, by all accounts loosely, on a novel by P.D. James, Children of Men has lots of little ideas in its portrayal of a near future in which infertility has seemingly doomed the human race — its science-fiction touches are incremental and natural — but the dystopian landscape is familiar: terrorism, fascism, xenophobia.

None of this is meant as a criticism, because Children of Men is an expertly made thriller. It has a good hook: A former radical turned bureaucratic hack (Clive Owen) gets sucked back into the world of activism and tries to shepherd the world’s only known pregnant woman to safety. The movie has two beautifully made suspense sequences: Director (and co-writer) Cuarón stages and films two critical episodes without obvious edits, and he does it for the effect of immersion rather than showing off. (A blood spatter on the lens of the latter scene appears to be the unplanned consequence of shooting long takes, but it undermines the purpose, reminding viewers that this is a movie.)

Immersion is also accomplished through the movie’s plausibility. Children of Men is not incisive, but it’s mildly provocative and frightening in the sense that its future is a place we can see from here, with our climate change and Vanishing Bee Syndrome. It is not disrespectful of the horrors it references; it’s employing them to give the audience something concrete to which they can relate.

Most importantly, though, Children of Men is urgent and viscerally exciting. Does it really need to have more than that going for it?

Casino Royale

For all the re-imagining of James Bond that was done in last year’s Casino Royale — thanks mostly to a sleek, sober script and the tough-as-nails magnetism of star Daniel Craig — couldn’t somebody have axed the horrific opening-credits sequence, rivaled in awfulness only by the dreadful song by Chris Cornell? (Were Stone Temple Pilots not available?)

But ... you can’t have a James Bond movie without that!

Exactly. Aside from a few franchise requirements — that credit sequence, the final line of dialogue, the martini gag — Casino Royale is mostly notable for being a strong spy thriller. It barely resembles a James Bond movie. And that’s a good thing.

It’s not without its problems, though. After the main story tension appears resolved, the movie dodders on — a narrative miscalculation that alerts the audience that there’s more plot ahead. But that’s a relatively minor complaint, and this flaw damages the movie less than the credits bit. Casino Royale is often excellent, and with a few cuts, it might have been good enough to be part of the Bourne franchise.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat and the way he reacts to the situations he creates are doubtlessly funny, but they seem ill-suited to the cinema. The feature-length Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan gets tiresome after about 40 minutes.

Even more problematic, the movie dies quietly in the moments when Cohen is separated from his unsuspecting victims. It’s not that Borat isn’t humorous, but the jokes are predicated on interaction, surprise, and genuine discomfort.

And while Cohen’s performance is pitch-perfect, we don’t quite believe in Borat during those connective scenes of supposed introspection and sensitivity.

I understand the crass aim of turning a cult TV character into a movie star, but shouldn’t there be some attempt to reconcile the material with the format?

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