Tag Archives: Children of Men

“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Last

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

“It is Finished,” he said –

MATCH CUTS: In looking back at the past decade, I think it’s both ironic and somewhat amazing my favorite film came out in the very first year, and was the only film by its director to be released in this time span. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi just represents everything I love about the movies. It’s subtle, complex, astute to human interactions and shifts in personality, and complete adept at capturing moments of transition, something Western films don’t always pay attention to.
THE FILMIST: I first saw Yi Yi a couple of weeks ago, after hearing quite a lot about it. It’s certainly something to consider, I think – a three hour familial epic that does something that very films have done before on such a scale, and that is: it makes an effort to represent to the full the true nature of family in a modern context, with a great emphasis on sound. It’s very much the type of film that Sam Mendes has always tried to make, but could never quite grasp.
M: For sure. It all begins in the opening moments at the wedding when the ambient sounds of laughter, birds in the park, children at play, and also the ex-girlfriend screaming at the bride’s family. I think you point about the sound design really speaks to the multiple layers that Yang is working with, the way he overlaps dialogue with the sounds of the street traffic, also how he shoots scenes from afar. This is what I respect most about Yang as a filmmaker, the space he gives his characters to interact. Sometimes all we are left with is the soft sound of their dialogue, and their bodies in the distance.
F: That opening sequence is great – the kids sneaking out the wedding with their father to go to McDonalds. It’s a subtle, humorous sequence that really hints at some of the universality of the story – even in China, kids who prefer McDonalds to formally prepared food aren’t unique. Which is one of the great things about the film – Yang gives these characters room to move, something you hinted at up above, with his lingering long shots, that really allow the other parts of the film to come to light, in the moments where they’re not acting in lieu of the forward motion of the plot.
M: Yes, this is a film about patience, both something the characters learn a great deal about and something inherent to Yang’s filmmaking style. It’s very rewarding watching Yi Yi develop as a film, slowly, gracefully moving forward, not because of plot points but because of character action. It’s a film that doesn’t rely on overt style or flash, but the deep seeded impression that you are watching the brilliant drama of everyday life.
F: It’s a film that has a very sociological air about it, filtered through the eye of a filmmaker. One of the things I noticed as I was watching it was that the long shots of the characters constantly have some form of interference between us and them – either they’re inside a coffee shop or somewhere similar, and we’re looking in on them, or their reflection is obscured in the glass of a window by the city outside. Close-ups are rare in the film, but when they occur, they have a real impact.
M: Or that scene between the daughter and her potential boyfriend that takes place under the freeway overpass in complete shadow, and the camera is across the street. Yes, The close-up is only used when necessary to the character’s realization that something will never be the same, like when NJ (the father) truly understands that his high school flame will never be his again. The close-up really becomes the final emphasis that life is full of moments of disappointment, but we must continue on.
F: Yes – and you know, I have to wonder if Yang Yang was supposed to be representative of the director, in some form or another. I mean, outside of the obviously shared surname. The young boy, fascinated by photography. He’s not really doing it for any artistic reasons, at first – but, he seems interested in the fact that people don’t know what the back of their heads look like. And, the close-up on NJ really seems to cap off the train of thought that’s been nagging at us about him, throughout the course of the film, that he’s not really living a life of his own measure. The wedding is the first time he’s questioned what it is he really wants in life, and it’s a bit too late for that.
M: Going back to Yang Yang, he really is the heart of the film. It’s his conflict that begins and ends the film, and his curiosity provides the brilliant improvisation involved in filmmaking and artistic endeavor. The ending of the film proves your point that he’s a fill in for the director, because for the first time a character is addressing the elephant in the room, that life inevitably leads to death and sometimes we can’t address it until we are ready. And when Yang Yang does finally talk to his grandma, he tells her why he waited, so he could figure out the importance of her death in his life. It’s one of my favorite endings in film history.
F: It’s a great ending, to be sure – it’s a shame Yang passed away before he had the chance to try and one up himself.
M: Even worse, most of his films are still unavailable in the West. Someone needs to fix this for sure.
F: Well, at the moment. But, I have an inkling that the Criterion Collection is going to be releasing most of them pretty soon, in a big box set. Don’t ask me how I know these things, because even I can’t explain it.
M: It’s a gigantic omission in the DVD world. Luckily I was able to see Yang’s four hour director’s cut of A Brighter Summer Day, and I can tell you it’s just as amazing a film, if not more ambitious.
F: I keep meaning to see that, but I’ve never been able to find a copy, outside of imports and those are a big hassle.
M: I had to travel up to Los Angeles at the LACMA. Pretty much the only way you’re going to see it. But this also adds to Yang’s mystique as a unique master. Yi Yi in particular proves the man is up there with Ozu, Hou, and Mizoguchi in terms of Asian filmmakers dealing with the everyday moments of life.
F: I agree – Yi Yi is very much his masterpiece, I think. It’s just such an honest film, both formally and thematically, that it really takes one up by the roots, after having seen it for the first time.
M: The main gripe against realist films is that who needs to watch real life when you can get that for free, but this film is about as exciting as films get, but in different ways that your typical action film. it’s brilliant at creating the emotional roller coaster of living through tragedy, happiness, and everything in between.
F: That’s always been a little silly, to me – film is such a wide medium, for both verisimilitude and the fantastical. In a lot of films, it’s by contrasting the two of those that some realization is struck upon, but they’re both important to the form. And, I have to wonder – would you place Yang in with Bahrani and Reichardt, as part of the new Neo-Realist aesthetic, or what?
M: I think he rests somewhere closer to Hou Hsiao-hsien. He’s dealing with universal themes as well as distinctly Asian themes, but that’s another discussion altogether.
F: For sure. So – and this is going to be a sloppy transition BUT – if Yi Yi is about family on an intimate, modern scale, then Children of Men is about the concept of family projected forward twenty years, into a post-apocalyptic context, where it has become an almost alien sort of thing. I first saw it the year of its release, down at the Angelika – and, it really is one of those films that leaves you dazed upon exit of the theater.
M: Yes, I remember leaving the theater stunned, not just by the virtuoso filmmaking, but the scope of the message. Cuaron seemed to have tapped into a revelatory way of approaching the apocalypse, by subverting the conventional tropes of Sci Fi and reassessing the themes of the genre, the distrust of authority, but also the distrust of the rebels on the flip side of the coin, equally responsible for the collective terror.
F: The treatment of the rebels is something that really got to me – in a way, it draws on a comparison I’ve always made when talking about the film, that of Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta.” That is, the graphic novel, not the film. I’ve always said that this should’ve been the model they used for that film. There’s a strong ambiguity to both sides, because on the one hand you have the authoritarian government trying to enforce some kind of order, however harsh, on a microcosmic world slowly dying, and on the other, there’s the rebels – who’ve lost their claim to the moral high ground, and become constantly distrustful. It’s from out of this chaos that the new world emerges in Kee and The Human Project – breaking that chain of self-destruction.  It may not seem like it ostensibly, but Children of Men is one of the most purely hopeful films that’s come around in a long time. And, in really sums up the theme of my ‘best of’ list, save for one or two films – of social revolution, something that is here represented on a personal and sacrificial level.
M: I think it speaks to Cuaron’s desire to paint the individual motivation for survival trumping the collective will for power and control. When you look at Kee’s situation, and Theo’s arc, it’s really all about the concise movement forward, the necessity of momentum. The plot is always driving forward because of the importance of action, the push to reach a point where the world has a hope of surviving. The character development, the incredible cinematography, it all feeds into reaching a certain locale, an emotional place as well as a physical one.
F: Exactly – it’s very much a road movie, like Cuaron’s other films, although it’s a bit less cynical than Y Tu Mama Tambien.
M: BUt unlike Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men is a genre film, multi genre at that, with a distinct outlook on the global perspective. The detail Cuaron creates in this world is nothing short of amazing, as his camera slyly picks up on signs, cars, advertisements, and soldiers resting on the fringes. It creates the world in a very dynamic way. It combines our current climate with a nightmare scenario of the future, but there is still a sense of everyday life marching on toward the end. A very interesting dichotomy at work here.
F: This is very true – one of the amazing things about the film is the world it creates, every bit as immersive as the one found in James Cameron’s newest cash-cow, and it didn’t cost three hundred and fifty million. There is literally something happening everywhere, in every corner of the eye – new forms of advertisement, a new model of car here and there. But, it’s so subtly applied throughout the whole of the film that it really does feel like something strange and real, which is disconcerting when the more obvious signs of its future world begin to pop up. The politics, the science, those kinds of things – all contrasted slightly with a street-level world that hasn’t really made any sort of progression. If anything, it’s gone backward.
M: If not backward, it’s gone underground. I also wanted to mention the way Cuaron handles violence, how he also keeps death on the fringes or through quick movement. You get rapid glances at bullet wounds, limbs blown off, and it really feels like a war zone. The tension these sequences create is more palpable than any other film of the past decade. Like a bullet or rocket could penetrate any character at any time. Cuaron isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, making this cinematic world a very dangerous place.
F: Yes – and, it’s through Cuaron’s use of the Extreme Long Shot that gives it this sudden and visceral quality, I think. Following the characters through smoke and haze, chaos and fire – shots and shouts, seemingly without blinking. When something does penetrate the sides of the frame, the reactions it provokes come usually out of nowhere, even when we can see the shooter, as in the case of Julianne Moore’s death sequence.
M: That sequence in the car really is something, I know it’s been talked about endlessly, but to this day, it’s one of my favorite moments in a film. Just the way it goes from so playful to complete terror in a second. Really sums up Cuaron’s world in one moment.
F: Yes – it’s one of those film sequences that’s going to be talked about and studied for years when talking about the action genre and shooting techniques in general, right along with the first use of Steadicams in chase sequences and so on. It’s in the way that the camera just won’t cut away, won’t break the tension once its been raised up as high as it can go – and then, it ends quietly, on that shot of the two dead police officers lying in the road.
M: Yes, it’s the first sequence that sets the rules of the movie, what these people are capable of. The Cuaron holds on those dead officers, their brains spewed out on the ground, it’s letting the audience know what to expect going further. I always tell my students that you have to introduce the rules of the cinematic world, and this is the moment Cuaron does just that.
F: It’s also one of the first moments that hints at the coming ambiguity of Luke’s character, I think. That hold on two dead men –
M: It definitely shows Luke’s dark side, what he is capable of when pressed into violent action.  I also wanted to talk about Clive Owens’ performance, it often gets ignored in favor of the film’s brilliant aesthetics, but it reminds me of what the classic Hollywood actors were able to create with a stunning script and under calculated direction. His torment resides in the way his face retreats into uncertainty. This evolves throughout the film, until finally in the boat at the end, he seems completely at peace. Just a brilliant turn by Owen.
F: I concur (sips wine glass) – it ‘s a performance that seems steeped in remaining stony-faced, and unphased to all that might occur. But, everything starts to wear on him, as the film goes on, and he starts responding, finding himself startled out of his dead surroundings.
M: Absolutely, I think this film is indisputably one of the best in the past decade (on my HM’s list), and like Happy Feet, and 25th Hour, will only get more pertinent as the years pass.

***

This discussion appears a far bit shorter than our previous back and forths, to be sure – but, there’s a huge chunk that I’ve cut out that comes right after Glenn’s last word, where we  played lots of Tom Waits and talked about all kinds of things, from tap-dancing to the invention of the flying car – it’s all really very interesting stuff. You’d all like it, I’m certain. I’m Henry, he’s Glenn. And, these have been our favorite films of the past decade.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #1: Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

It’s been a relatively uneventful train ride – quiet, save for the droning on of the TVs up on the ceiling. And, then – a rock cracks against the windowpane, and another and another. He bolts upright, looks outside. Shanty-towners, coming out of their hovels culled from the old boxcars, strewn with graffiti. There’s one that catches his eye, particularly – all in red: “The Last One To Die – Please Turn Out The Light.”

So, we’ve done it – the two of us. After two and a half months, we’ve finally hit number one. This is it. The big one – the final, full entry in this most prestigious series of essays between Glenn Heath and myself. It’s astounding to think that it’s been two and a half months, already. I just can’t get over that, mang – it’s a real trip. While there’s still two more discussions and a ‘respectable rest of the very best’ post to go until all is put to pat and proper, I think this may also be the time to admit that this is the last you readers will see of me. After this, I depart for far seas in January, first for China and then onward to the Himalayas, to live as a mountain man for two years. Well, no – not really. But, I had you going there for a second. This being the last of these posts may also explain it’s lateness, by a day or two – that I just can’t bare to part with it, and all that.

Alfonso Cuaron is a director whose work has always intrigued me – one of those three Spanish directors who rose to prominence in the nineties, in tandem with Guillermo Del Toro and that other fellow whose name escapes me at the moment. With stuff like 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, he’s shown himself someone distinctly focused on the relationships of traveling journeymen three in number, something that, among other things, was carried over into his adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter novel, Prisoner of Azkaban – which is, coincidently, the only entry in that series that I can really stomach watching. In his most recent, Children of Men, there are again three travelers, for most of the film, making their way through a dense and cluttered world entirely within its own context – but, this is the film that provides the best example of the director’s raw talent, something that seems to remain understated in his previous films. This is a film that, hell – to use an old fashioned tried-and-true cliche, is a real ‘tour-de-force.’

Children of Men is actually adapted from one of P.D. James’ shorter novels, one of few that she’s done that hasn’t been a detective story, and it may be one of the best examples of what a director can do to really make an adaptation their own work, using its relatively sparse-in-length source material as a jumping off point in the same way that Spielberg and Kubrick did with Aldiss’ “Super Toys Last All Summer Long,” placing us in the context of some future date and enveloping us so convincingly within it that we’re oftentimes left dumbstruck, and cringing at the state of things. Cuaron does Spielberg one better, though – he astounds, with his truly immersive vision of 2027, and while the phrase ‘a world in turmoil’ is one often used, it can find no more succinct a home than here.

The title of the film comes from a passage in Psalms, that runs something like “thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men,” which is a quote that does very much seem to sum up the social context of the film that we’ve arrived at. And truly, this is very much a spiritual film, with many not shying away from calling it a modern-day Nativity Story for our times. which is a very accurate definition, I think – the story emerges as one of societal rebirth, and with the presence of the baby always marked by the crossing of the chest. Near the end of the film, its cry is enough to lull the gunfire, if only for a minute. Hands outstretch for it as she’s carried by. And, in the background, musical accompaniment by John Tavener, subtly reinforcing this spiritual subtext through repetition of Latin verse and chants, and great choral sounds.

Our induction into this projected world of twenty years later is slow and gradual, so slow that, in the first ten minutes, when we hear or see something that makes the context of the story explicitly obvious to us, it’s very much like a cold slap of water on the cheek – for the first few minutes of the film, we follow Theo as he learns that the youngest person on the planet – at eighteen years, four months, twenty days, sixteen hours and eight minutes old – at  has recently been killed in a riot of his own cause. There’s nothing too conspicuous about our first initial site of London in 2028 – the streets are grayer, and the display screens on the side of the buildings are bigger. Out of nowhere, the shop Theo’s just left explodes outward, and there is no sense, for a minute. Smoke, screams. Noise. The giant display screens shatter into darkness. And, the camera tracks forward onto a dim, bloody silhouette emerging from the clouds –

The future world that Cuaron sets up is, like that found in McCarthy’s (or Hillcoat’s, since we’re in the land of filmdom) The Road or Miller’s Mad Max films, something rapidly degenerative, somewhere nearing the brink of the pit. In contrast to something like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, there’s very little revolutionary technology or any of that apparent, only things left behind – things used up and discarded. The extent we see of our twenty year’s progress is a newer model of a car, here and there, and perhaps some new mode of advertising projected onto the side of a building, somewhere. But, it’s obvious that science and medicine have, on the whole, failed to resuscitate us, and everywhere Cauron’s subtle camera turns, there’s some vestige of steadily-boiling unrest – from the quieter signatures of The Human Project on the walls to the various politico-terrorist groups and factions, hiding out in the woods – that seems to finally come to a head at the end of the film, as everything coalescences seemingly over night, and bursts out into the street; humanity seems very much to have resigned itself to its eventual end, something very much akin to the thought process behind James’ novel, which ran something akin to the notion that with no future, no better society to hope for, there is no real massive regard for compassion, or mercy.

Instead of any sort of progress, there’s just more of everything as it was, to such an extent that it’s begun to crowd the people inside of the city off from their own air supply – in one shot, near the beginning of the film, as Theo is being driven to The Ministry of Arts, he spots the residents of some gray, concrete-slab apartment building flinging their possessions out of their respective windows – and, down below, on the street, there’s barely room to move among the litter of human debris.  This weird, enveloping sense of initial hopelessness is embodied by Clive Owen’s Theo Faron, one of many bureaucrats that, despite what seems like the inevitable, impending doom of the world coming along at an accelerated pace, continues to put pen to paper, if only to have something to do until it’s all over. We’re told later in the film by his ex-wife that he used to have some real spirit in him – along with the rest of society, given the mention of protests with meat on their bones – even going so far as to invite several officers in for coffee, and spiking their drinks with LSD. Now, however – he’s a desk jockey. There is an occasional sense of something still lurking under the surface of his dogged eyes, in the form of his visits with Michael Caine’s character Jasper, but it never really passes his lips save for a wry smile in the back of a car. We’re informed even later on that he’d had a kid with Julian, who’d died in one of the various flu pandemics that had occurred in the film’s alternate history of 2009 – “he’d have been about your age,” Jasper tells Kee, at the end of the film’s first hour. “Beautiful child.”

Near the beginning of the film, Theo is picked right up off the street by a subset of the Fishes – a politico-revolutionary band of freedom fighters, or terrorists, raising their fists up for the rights of the waves upon waves of illegal immigrants pouring into the country, due to the constant state of civil war the rest of the world seems to be in, and the reactionary measures that have been taken to keep everything in some form of order. Leading the group is Julian Taylor, portrayed by – well, Julianne Moore. Quickly, we learn that the two of them were married, once before – as mentioned above, they even had a child together, whose death drove a gradual wedge between the two of them. She comes to him now with an offer, to be a courier to a young girl from one side of the country to the other – and, in this, one could very well make a comparison to John Ford’s Stagecoach, I suppose, although I won’t, at the moment – why, she doesn’t say; only that she’s a “fugee,” or a refugee. Theo’s aim is to get her to the boat christened appropriately the Tomorrow, sent by the Human Project, the “greatest minds in the world working for a new society.” But, why? As we come to know her at first, she’s a nervous girl covered in blankets, distrustful of Theo. It’s only later on in the film, when they’ve all reached their ranch in the fields with the loss of but one, that Theo realizes just ‘what’s at stake,’ and it’s here that the film’s almost neo-Biblical subtext starts to emerge, with, among other things, the reveal taking place inside a manger, among the animals: her belly pokes out from her body in a way that hasn’t been seen for eighteen years or more. She’s pregnant. “I’m scared,” she says.

Since Julian’s death in a scene just before, Luke – played by Chiwetel Ejiofar, whose name I will never try to type again – has made the bold decision to use the baby as a bolster for their political cause, something Theo overhears, skulking around. Waking the girl and the midwife up in the middle of the night, he absconds with them – and, from then on, the film follows the three of them from one end of the UK to the other, and finally out to sea, where jets shoot past overhead and toward the city in the distance, giving it its own final eulogy. The Human Project starts to become an almost mythical name at this point, something apart from the soiled and crowded surroundings presented to the characters, of evolution in the place of the eternal stagnancy that society seems locked into – and, its something indicative of the general cautious sense of optimism that pervades the film, from Kee’s reveal onward. She, or her baby, literally comes to represent the entire future of the human race, no bones about it. Even as characters are shot, dragged away and black bagged, Theo and Kee continue onward toward the sea, and everyone whose eyes meet the baby seems strangely affected by it. They smile, through dust-stained teeth – wide, and hard.

One of the things, but just one, that this film has become renowned for in the four years since its release is Cuaron’s inarguably innovative use of the camera as an almost interactive viewer in the story, nearly a participant. It’s not handheld, or documentary-esque in a literal sense, as would be the dictate – instead, it remains unblinking, and always, there is an emphasis on the constant long shot, especially in moments of great trauma or chaotic development. It is documentarian instead in its ‘you-are-there’ sense of reportage, and where other films would cut, sometimes as a necessity, this film follows its characters through the heat of the moment, and the crowds. And, most emblematic of Cuaron’s approach, and most often mentioned, are two scenes in particular, one inside a car and the other without, in a broken city at dawn. Such a thing pervades the film in a subtler fashion, as well – in scenes of prolonged discussions and even the birth of the savior-baby – but, these two seem to show it at it’s most powerful.

In the former, Cuaron incorporates this single shot technique from what seems like an impossible vantage point inside the car, following the group as they try to make their way to the insurrectionists camp/ranch in the country – the camera seeming to weave from the backseat to the front, from the passenger side to the driver’s seat, from looking forward to looking backward – as Julian regales the group with stories about Theo’s wild youth as a squatter, and a fiend to the police. Noise from up ahead on the road, suddenly – and, the camera’s moved up next to the dashboard now. There’s something moving down toward the road, something burning – it’s the hulk of a car’s remains, blocking off the road. All is frenzy. Great masses of people descend from the trees at both sides of the way, hurling rocks and bottles at the windows – chasing after car, as it pulls away in reverse. Two of them are on a motorcycle – Julian screams something about Kee, and there’s two quick shots, spidering the windshield. Her head rocks back in the seat – blood everywhere. Ringing in our ears, constantly – police vans shoot by. Miriam’s urging Luke to “just – go – faster!” And, then they pull over to the side of the road. Luke hops out of the car, and shoots the two roadside officers – urges Theo to “get back in the fucking car!” And, then the camera lingers for a moment on the bodies of the two patrolmen, lying in the road. Still.

It’s an absolutely breath-taking sequence, and all the more astonishing when you’ve learned just how it was accomplished, with the moving seats, and the dodging of the camera, and what not. And, the moment of reflection provided by the shot of the two policemen is just one of many in the film, something which can again be seen during Theo’s visit to his cousin Nigel’s Ark of the Arts exhibit, after the two of them argue quite genially about the preservation of art even after the pretty certain fate of all humanity ensues, and what worth would it all have, in the final calculation of things – we leave the scene lingering on the seemingly  knowing, smiling face of a sixteenth century man.

The other shot of mention moves us through the breaking point. The revolution that takes place near the end of the film seems to bare less resemblance to the iconic and primal, as depicted in something like Soderbergh’s Che, and more the dirty, the chaotic, and the bloody – what comes bares a lot of similarity to the Czechoslovakian and Ukrainian insurrections, as seen in the photos by National Geographic, and other similar magazines: all dirt, and dust, and people cradling the bodies of their loved ones on the side of the road, and the insurrectionists have lost any claim to the moral high ground. Buildings are pitted by bombshells, and there’s a facile effort made by some to hide in shanty dug-out train cabins. Through this, Theo and Kee run with baby in tow, hither and yon without any real place of safety –  constant noise, and confusion. The effect is something disorienting, as the two lose track of each other, and Kee is dragged off by Luke into the building off at the far end of the road. As he goes to retrieve her, he finds Luke, resting in the crevice beside an open window – “you forget how beautiful they are,” Luke tells him, before blasting his gun down at the soldiers below.

As the two of them come down the stairs, silence overtakes London – soldiers, homeless squatters, all seem absolutely blindsided. In awe of the young girl in her mother’s arms. Chests are crossed – and, for the first time in a while, those grim faces are smiling. Only for a moment, however – before the fighting suddenly resumes. The two make their way to a dinghy, and out onto the sea, where the Human Project’s boat should be arriving any second now – and, it does, just as Theo slumps over. His last word is “Jesus!”

The boat approaches up out of the mist, and Kee tells her baby, “it’s going to be okay.”

And, it is.

***

There are, astonishingly, very few essays or what-have-you’s available on the film around the web, from a general and cursory glance. It’s – just shocking, really.

Glenn’s final entry, Edward Yang’s 2001 masterpiece Yi Yi,  can – sniff, sob – be found here.

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Shots – Only Britain Soldiers On

Soldiering OnSkyline

from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men.”

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