Clive Owen and Julianne Moore in Children of MenCHILDREN OF MEN

The year is 2027, and the world is in chaos. Scratch that: The world is chaos. For nearly 20 years, women have been infertile, and the planet's youngest citizen has just been murdered at the age of 18. Random bombings and guerrilla warfare have become an element of daily life - a newscast shows "the siege of Seattle" entering its 1,000th day - and internment camps are as commonplace as coffee shops. In England, refugees are routinely rounded up for deportation and execution. And it is in this hopeless, unspeakably dangerous universe that director Alfonso Cuarón, in Children of Men, has fashioned one of the most supremely intelligent, forceful, and exhilarating movies of recent years.

In basic form, the bulk of the film is an escape picture; an apolitical office worker (Clive Owen, magnificent) finds himself shepherding a young woman's evacuation from England - a noble cause made paramount by the woman's pregnancy - and it's filled with sequences that are almost stunningly well-directed. An ambush on a country road, in which a dozen attackers appear to morph into hundreds, is deeply unsettling for being so claustrophobic (the scene is shot almost completely from the back seat of a car), and a horrific, late-film battle between two warring factions, with shrapnel flying and buildings crumbling, rivals anything in Saving Private Ryan for terrifying, war-torn verisimilitude; for a few jaw-dropping minutes, you might find it difficult to breathe. (The brilliance of this sequence is underlined by the blood that spatters on the camera lens and stays there, and you realize that Cuarón has choreographed the mêlée in what seems to be one take.)

But what lingers most are Children of Men's exquisite details. The TV commercials we see, almost out of the corner of our eyes, for home-suicide kits, death being marketed as a modern convenience. The throngs of animals - dogs, sheep, zebras - that wander the streets freely, their cages now being used to impound humans. The stoned grace of Michael Caine as a hippie who saw the apocalypse coming years ago and can only look at life with bemused pity. The comic perfection of Owen racing through dilapidated edifices in flip-flops, his character having found no other shoes that fit. And the sublime humanity of the narrative, which envisions a futuristic world that's (appallingly) not much different from our own, yet one that still manages to be hopeful. Cuarón and his co-screenwriters (Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby) see madness all around them, yet still believe in the possibilities of life. Children of Men is a devastating, wrenching experience, but it's also a spectacularly thrilling entertainment; you leave the theatre shaken, yes, but invigorated by a great director's imagination. The hush in the audience that greeted the movie's close, as if we all needed a moment to quietly reflect on what we'd just experienced, felt both deeply satisfying and surprisingly familiar; with no disrespect intended, Children of Men is like United 93 if United 93 were actually fun.


Hilary Swank and April L. Hernandez in Freedom WritersFREEDOM WRITERS

In 2001, Hilary Swank starred in the now-forgotten period film The Affair of the Necklace, and during its first 40 minutes or so, that seemed like a pretty good title for her new movie, the inspirational-teacher drama Freedom Writers. Based (naturally) on a true story, the film finds Swank playing high-school English instructor Erin Cruwell, whose first professional job has her in charge of a culturally and racially diverse group of freshman in Long Beach, California, two years after the Rodney King riots. The students, of course, are openly hateful toward their ingratiating white teacher, and not without reason; with Swank's ear-to-ear grin reflecting tireless spunk and not a shred of personal experience, Cruwell is practically a parody of well-meaning Caucasian liberalism.

And then there's the necklace. Cruwell is first seen at an orientation session with an older, resignedly embittered colleague (Imelda Staunton), and the woman can't take her eyes off Cruwell's smart-young-professional attire, specifically the pearls around her neck, which we learn were a gift from Cruwell's father. Our heroine is warned that she might want to re-think wearing them to class, yet wear them she does, and for the next few reels of Freedom Writers - with that necklace continually accentuated in Cruwell's ensembles and Swank instinctively fiddling with it whenever her character is nervous - we await the inevitable.

The Inspirational Teacher Flick clichés, after all, are being ticked off like clockwork: Cruwell's students are either disinterested or hostile; her fellow teachers are vocally aggrieved at the newbie's new methods; her husband (Patrick Dempsey) is supportive but concerned for his wife's safety. Just how many minutes of screen time will pass before something terrible happens to those pearls?

Well, forgive the spoiler, but nothing untoward winds up happening to the pearls, and this surprise proves emblematic of Freedom Writers as a whole; the movie never really deviates from its proven, by-now-achingly-predictable formula, but it's filled with so many touching and even inspired surprises that, by its finale, it completely won me over. The students may be types, but as played by this group of fresh, un-actorly performers, they're honest types, and a few dig so deeply into their characters' awkwardness and fear that they're intensely moving; a scene of a sophomore Latino explaining why high-school English is the only place where he feels at home is heartbreaking without being manipulative. Dempsey's character follows a traditional arc - he feels unappreciated because of the time his wife spends with her students and all that - but his scenes with Gruwell are written and acted so delicately that you actually don't dread them.

And the inevitable scenes of Gruwell inspiring her charges are legitimately inspiring, particularly when the group takes a trip to Los Angeles' Museum of Tolerance and labors to bring guest speaker Miep Gies (beautifully played by Pat Carroll) to discuss Anne Frank and the Holocaust - a risky move for a commercial entertainment aimed at youths, and one that pays off wonderfully well. Even Swank - a likable, occasionally terrific actress without much screen personality - is a surprise, as her gawky, gee-whiz earnestness here turns into a distinct comedy style; she's as disarming to the audience as Gruwell is to her students.

Freedom Writers isn't a great movie, but it's an unexpectedly involving and sincere one, and it wasn't until the closing credits that I discovered why: The film is written and directed by Richard LaGravenese, who previously turned sap into gold with his scripts for The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer, and whose résumé also includes The Fisher King and The Little Princess and The Ref. His latest work, concerning young people who find an emotional outlet on the page, makes you long for more teachers in the world like Erin Cruwell; with support and luck, some of these kids could turn into a Richard LaGravenese.

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