Hard Candy a gem of filmmaking
By Lady Liberty
Children of Men
** out of ****
I'm a science fiction nut with a bit of a thing for actor Clive Owen. When I saw the initial trailers for Children of Men some months ago, there was little question I'd see the movie although I worried that not many other people would. In recent days, however, the reviews for Children of Men have been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, they were so stellar that my determination to see the film was set. This weekend, in the company of a friend's two sons, I sat down to see what I now hoped would be science fiction with Clive Owen that was also a really good movie to boot. Unfortunately, it only managed to be two of the three.
Children of Men takes place in London, England in the near future. It's the year 2027, and civilization is rapidly falling thanks primarily to the fact that female infertility rates stand at 100%. No children have been born in more than 18 years, and the knowledge that humanity is doomed to extinction has resulted in extreme violence up to and including acts of war. Although Britain has avoided the worst of the societal upheaval, it's still a bleak place where Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) makes his home.
Theo works for the government's Ministry of Energy, and he drinks. He drinks a lot. But one morning as he makes his way to work on an armored train through slums and unrest, he narrowly misses being killed in the terrorist bombing of a coffee shop. He's so shaken up that even booze offers no respite. He takes the day off work to visit his good friend, Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine).
Jasper lives in the country, but even there the dangers are real. His house is carefully hidden, and he has little interaction with those he can't trust completely. Fortunately for Theo, he's one of Jasper's inner circle and an evening together helps Theo make it through one more day. Not long after that Theo's return to the city, he's roughly grabbed off the street by kidnappers who toss him into a van, put a hood over his head, and take him to parts unknown.
When the hood is finally removed, Theo finds himself face to face with alleged terror leader, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) who also happens to be Theo's former paramour. Julian, recalling Theo's connections with a government official, asks him to help secure transport papers for a girl who must reach the seashore at all costs. Theo is disinclined to help, but the offer to pay him and pay him well seals the deal.
Theo has no idea how important the girl and her delivery to people waiting at the shore is until she discovers that she's pregnant. The young Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) represents hope for humanity for Theo; but she also represents almost unfettered political power to others. The fact that travel is difficult at best and that Kee is a targeted illegal immigrant makes Theo's job nearly impossible. But knowing what's at stake, he vows to see her safely into the hands of those who might protect and nurture Kee and her baby and save the human race. He doesn't realize until he's deeply involved that he's up against far more than even his worst imaginings.
Clive Owen fills the rumpled trench coat of Theodore Faron almost perfectly. In one dramatic scene, the pained way in which he held his body alone spoke volumes. Julianne Moore strikes me as too mild-mannered and frankly pretty to be the ruthless activist that she portrays, but she does an adequate job. Better is Pam Ferris (as Kee's mid-wife companion), Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Luke, a member of Julian's cell), and Claire-Hope Ashitey herself.
The special effects are very good, but even better are the sets. So much is presented as matter-of-fact that it seems perfectly believable to see bits and pieces of futuristic technology lying amidst the dinner dishes or outside a coffee shop. And the mixture of low tech with high tech conveys the setting brilliantly. The dark and dangerous vision of the future is flawlessly filmed, and brilliantly edited. Director Alfonso Cuarón has a reputation for dark stories, and Children of Men is his masterpiece.
Children of Men is based on the book of the same name by P.D. James. I've not read the book so I can't say how good or faithful the film adaptation may be. But there are some apparent remnants of the novel in the movie that appear jarring or confusing to those of us not in the know. For example, there are repeated glimpses of animal corpses smoldering in large heaps of burning flesh and hooves. Why? Illegal immigrants are rudely captured and caged, and then deported to rough internment camps, but again, why? I can think of several reasons, but none were ever given on screen. Though these things and others offered up real impact, it was impossible to assimilate the impact into the storyline since we had no idea what they really meant within the context we were watching.
There are those critics who have called Children of Men an unrelenting chase scene. I found myself disagreeing with that assessment rather wholeheartedly when, for long stretches of time, people would chat, hide, smoke marijuana, or wander about. I thought perhaps I was expecting too much, but that was the main comment offered up by my two companions as well, one of whom said immediately upon the movie's end, "Well, that was slow wasn't it?" Yes, it was. (For the record, their considered assessment in the end was, "It was okay...")
Children of Men is an extraordinarily well-crafted film in a visual sense. But what should have been a compelling story is rendered lackluster by some confusing elements, too many breaks in the suspense for the suspense ever to build, and characters who seem utterly despondent (granted, with good reason) rather than determined to do something — anything! — while they still lived to do anything at all. My movie experience wasn't a waste of time, but neither was it an afternoon I'd consider well spent. Too bad.
POLITICAL NOTES: One of the more striking topics touched on by Children of Men was Britain's handling of illegal immigrants. Signs are everywhere noting that hiding or aiding illegal immigrants is a crime. Sturdy wire cages abound at train stations and outside internment camps where pathetic immigrants of all ages are locked prior to dispersion. Though I didn't know it at the time I saw the film, some additional research taught me that (according to the storyline), Britain cracked down on illegals after it was overrun with those from countries in far worse shape. What order remained in that part of the world was apparently to be found in Britain, and the British government determined to hold onto that order whatever the cost rather than to descend into the primitive violence and utter collapse of so many other places.
It was obvious in the film that the point was that we were supposed to have sympathy for these illegals who were being rounded up and pushed away by government goons. One look inside an internment camp is enough to convince anybody that no one should be treated in such an uncivilized fashion! And yet I personally saw the other side of the point made just as strongly: If there's no border control, or insufficient border control, any hope of sovereignty or security will be overrun by those who will destroy those things merely by seeking it en masse.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Children of Men is rated R for "strong violence, language, some drug use, and brief nudity." Additionally, the storyline itself is too dark and complex for youngsters to grasp or enjoy. I'd say that Children of Men is fine for those relatively mature kids of about 14 or 15 and up. I can't recommend the film wholesale, though. Instead, if you're interested in seeing some truly wonderful film making, or if you've read the book and want to see some startling scenes on screen, Children of Men won't disappoint. The rest of you, though, may find yourself wondering just what it is that some critics are seeing that the rest of us so patently obviously are not.
**** out of ****
I'd heard a little about Hard Candy (all of it good) when it was originally released, but then...nothing. But a friend of mine who's a real movie fan remembered, too, so when she saw it at a local video rental store, she grabbed a copy. We had the chance to sit down and take a look at Hard Candy this weekend, and what a sweet movie it proved to be!
Hard Candy is (as I learned from a little online research) Internet slang for an underaged girl. We've all heard the stories about those men who prey on those underaged girls via online chatrooms and instant messages, too. Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) is one of them. At 14, she's got a provocative screen name and flirtatious manner that's just begging for unsavory contact. 32 year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson) is happy to oblige.
After several weeks of online chat, Hayley tells Jeff she'd like to meet him. Jeff eagerly agrees, and the two set up a time and place that very day. The two get together in a local coffee shop, but it isn't long before Hayley finds herself agreeing to visit Jeff's house where he's got an MP3 file of a concert that she really, really wants to hear. In short order, the teenager is drinking vodka screwdrivers and wandering around Jeff's house looking at framed photos of young models and chirpily asking questions. But just as Jeff moves in for the obvious next step, he finds the tables turned and Hayley well in charge of everything that happens next.
That's it. That's the entire storyline. In fact, that's almost the entire cast. Almost all of Hard Candy takes place in Jeff's house with only Jeff and Hayley present. And yet Hard Candy is one of the most gripping and suspenseful films I've ever seen. That's due to several crucial elements.
Ellen Page gives a singularly brilliant performance (she's older than 14 in real life, but still quite young and I suspect we can expect formidable performances from her for a long time to come). Despite — or perhaps because of — her sweet pixie good looks, you find yourself fearing for her and then just fearing her by turns. Patrick Wilson is a good looking man who manages to convey the visceral creepiness of a pedophile perfectly, but also somehow comes across as an otherwise perfectly regular guy. Without his finely nuanced performance, there's no way we could go from hating this guy and everything he does to actually having some sympathy for the poor bastard.
Brief appearances by the wonderful Sandra Oh (as Jeff's neighbor) and Jennifer Holmes (who plays Jeff's grown-up girlfriend) are truly brief. Hard Candy rests entirely on the performances of its two leads. As good as both are, the movie would have been much less if not for truly fantastic direction from David Slade and Brian Wilson's unparalleled script. The script is truly amazing, and Slade took it and brought it to life with all its stupendous possibilities realized.
The sets are few but perfectly rendered; the edits (again, the director gets some credit here, but so does the obviously world class editor) are terrific; and the cinematography and some delightfully skewed camera angles all mesh together with that superlative script and those stellar performances to offer up a movie watching experience that's everything an avid fan might expect and then some.
Hard Candy includes some very controversial subject matter and some extremely uncomfortable scenes. Yet nothing is superfluous, and it all contributes to the overall effect. That effect, I have to say, is considerable. The movie ended with my friend, me, and her daughter sitting in her living room with our mouths open. I'm not entirely sure what the first comment was or who voiced it as the credits started to roll — it's hard to remember anything when you're stunned! — but I'm pretty sure it was, "Wow." Yes. That sums Hard Candy up nicely.
Hard Candy didn't enjoy broad publicity or release likely in some part due to the subject matter. But it also suffered from a very low budget (about $1 million) which means there was little to spare for publicity. Despite severe budgetary constraints, you'll find the movie itself lacks nothing where quality is concerned. In fact, I think the only thing Hard Candy lacks is the larger audiences it should have had and the avid fans it so deserves. Consider this review some small effort to rectify that egregious oversight.
If you're a fan of cinema, and you appreciate brilliant performances, direction, or scripts, rent a copy of Hard Candy and do it sooner rather than later. I realize it's early in the year, but Hard Candy is so good I'm already wondering if it might be the best film I see in 2007. I'm certainly betting it's one of them.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Hard Candy is rated R for "disturbing violent and aberrant sexual content involving a teen, and for language." Hard Candy may be about a teenager, but it is in no way suitable for children or even young teens. Hard Candy is, indeed, quite disturbing and in a singularly adult way. I'd recommend the movie only for those age 16 or so and up, and mature older teens at that. But that being said, I'd recommend Hard Candy to those with the stomach for it, and I'd recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.