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Men & Children
by Chris Dashiell

It’s become a truism of science fiction, or at least of the more literary varieties, that stories about the future are really critiques of the present. And one of the paradoxes of filmed SF is that the most resonant efforts are often the ones that don’t attempt a wildly futuristic look, but seem more like the present day with a few modifications. Children of Men, the latest film from Alfonso Cuarón, uses just this strategy, and with considerable power. In addition, the film doesn’t try to disguise its nature as critique, but comes at you straight ahead with it.

Children of Men takes place in the year 2027 in England. Violence and social collapse has spread across the globe. But the most devastating catastrophe for the world has been the end of human fertility. No one has given birth for the past eighteen years, and no one knows why. Without a future to look forward to, the human race falls into viciousness and despair. In the meantime, refugees stream into England to escape the horrors in their home countries, and the English government conducts a brutal anti-immigrant crusade that imprisons the country’s minorities in cages, while looters and terrorist groups run riot.

Clive Owen plays a disillusioned former activist named Theo, now scraping by with a desk job, who is enlisted by his ex-wife, an underground guerilla leader played by Julianne Moore, to smuggle a young black woman out of the country. As it turns out, this refugee is important because she’s pregnant. The guerilla group wants to exploit her and her child to inspire an armed uprising. But the woman, played by the engaging newcomer Claire Hope-Ashitey, has different ideas, and needs Theo to help her.

Owen is great playing the low-key central character, guarded but remarkably sensitive, and it’s refreshing that Theo is not some kind of action hero, but a person with ordinary fears and struggles. Michael Caine is on hand as an old hippie friend of Theo’s, living in a secret safe house in the woods, smoking ganja, and taking care of his wife, who has lapsed into a sort of mute, despairing trance. Caine is delightful, although his character is symptomatic of the more superficial, pulp novel aspects of the tale.

The dialogue is brisk and intelligent, with a witty, matter-of-fact quality that I found engaging. It’s well adapted from a P.D. James novel by a team of screenwriters that includes the director. As is often the case in this genre, the themes are not explored as deeply as they might have been in a full-scale literary novel, partly in this instance because they are fit into the mold of a chase thriller. Cuarón definitely delivers the goods here, creating a heart-pounding excitement that keeps building as the movie goes on. One spectacular sequence, involving a car being chased by a mob, is done in one complex shot. The even longer tracking shot that ends the film is a tour de force that also symbolizes the act of birth. Emmanuel Lubezki’s great photography, with lots of grays and intense, hazy blues, gives the picture a look that could scarcely be improved upon.

Not having children anymore is a metaphor for a world facing its end, and the movie expands this idea to embrace the wreckage of our time, including neo-fascist “homeland security” and anti-immigrant hysteria. Although the imagery is less extreme than the actual events we’ve seen in photos from Abu Ghraib, there seems to have been some fear on the part of Universal to promote a film with such a dark political message. Despite the absence of marketing, Children of Men seems to be doing fairly well through word of mouth and some critical acclaim. This dystopian thriller combines self-assured style with emotional gravity and excitement—definitely a film to be reckoned with.

A girl and a dog—that’s the simple story of the new film from Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa called The Cave of the Yellow Dog. Sometimes the simplest stories are the most beautiful.

Six-year-old Nansal is the oldest of three children in a nomadic sheepherding family. One day, while helping to gather sheep dung for fuel, she finds a dog hiding in a little cave. (Because of increasing modernization, more families have moved to the cities, sometimes leaving their pets behind them.) Nansal decides to keep the dog, even though her father tells her to get rid of it. He’s afraid that it may have been living with wolves, so that the dog’s scent could lead predators to the herd. When the father goes to town for supplies, the mother has Nansal lead the sheep out to graze, but when the girl loses track of her dog, she wanders off and ends up staying the night at the hut of an old woman who tells her a Buddhist folktale about a yellow dog which gives the film its title. 

A story like this could have been mawkish, but Davaa, whose previous film was the modest art house hit The Story of the Weeping Camel, pays careful and loving attention to the daily life of the family, and coaxes beautifully natural performances from the actual family members who play themselves in the story. Nansal Batchuluun plays the little girl, and she’s already a star, completely self-possessed, whether riding a horse or helping her parents take the yurt down when it’s time to move, one of the film’s best sequences. The patiently observed daily rituals of herding, cooking, and child care gain a special poignancy against the breathtaking landscape. Davaa allows a little bit of social commentary to creep in around the edges as well, in which we observe a government and society gradually encroaching on traditional ways. But the focus is mostly on portraying this ancient way of life. The story’s satisfying ending is also an object lesson in cinematic understatement, and the director lets her Buddhist values of peacefulness and compassion permeate the style of this lovely little film.

©2007 Chris Dashiell
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