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March 27, 2008
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A Heart of Stone Breaks: Oliver Stone’s 'World Trade Center', by John Murphy
The most shocking thing about 'World Trade Center' is how little it resembles a typical Oliver Stone movie. With this film, Stone has discovered his inner idealist. Unfortunately, in the process, he managed to misplace his inner artist.

Apocalypto: Mel’s Mayan Book of Revelation, by John Murphy
With his ferocious new ultraviolent action movie set during the waning days of the Mayan empire, Mel Gibson delivers the uncompromising vision of an art-house indie filmmaker.

How Dull the Con of Ron: A Review of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, by John Murphy
Ron Howard, known for his cloyingly self-important Oscar-bait films, was the wrong man to direct the movie adaptation of The DaVinci Code.

How It Happend: United 93, by John Murphy
Director Paul Greengrass’s powerful new film, United 93, respects what the terrorists did not: the dignity of every human aboard that plane, including, ironically, the terrorists themselves.

Love Against Fear: A Review of 'A Mighty Heart'
In ‘A Mighty Heart,’ there’s no missing Angelina Jolie’s pillowy lips and striking bone structure. Yet distraction soon yields to admiration for her focused performance in this compelling new film about the kidnapping of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Paradise Lost: The Films of Terrence Malick, by John Murphy
Terrence Malick has made just four movies in three decades, but each one is marked by a singular religious vision—man fallen from grace, disconnected from nature, divided against himself.

Return of the Kong: A Review of King Kong, by John Murphy
Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' is a marvel—a massive, special-effects extravaganza that dares to ask: Is it better to die for Love and Beauty, or live alone and unloved as King of the Jungle?       

Suicide Boy: John Updike's 'Terrorist'
John Updike’s stories have been about spiritual longing in the face of a faith-impoverished society. So what does it mean that the most faithful character in his new novel ends up a terrorist?

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In Alfonso Cuarón’s brooding and brilliant new film, the promise of new life sparks a light in a lifeless world.

Theo and Kee

Fifteen years ago, British mystery writer P.D. James came up with one of those coveted high-concepts that become the envy of other writers and a dream-come-true to publishing houses eager to sell books on the strength of a one-sentence summary. James’s idea was a never-done yet blindingly obvious “what if”: What if women could no longer conceive children? That loud “thwack” you may have heard in 1992 was the sound of writers the world round collectively slapping themselves on the forehead.

What if God took away that choice, not by eliminating birth control but by eliminating birth?
In Children of Men, a loose cinematic adaptation of James’s novel of the same name, birth control is taken to its logical extreme: women have become infertile and the tie between sex and pregnancy has been irrevocably severed. While pro-abortion advocates insist on the primacy of an individual’s right to choose the most convenient time for a child to be born, the “hook” of the movie mirrors that of the book: what if God took away that choice, not by eliminating birth control but by eliminating birth?

God is not mentioned in Children of Men, except as a profanity that often comes across as more desperate prayer than curse, but the filmmakers wisely avoid pinpointing a scientific source for humanity’s sudden and inexplicable infertility. “Act of God” seems as reasonable an explanation as genetic experiments or pollution. Alfonso Cuarón, the guiding hand behind this brooding and brilliant film, is less interested in the “why” of the story than the “what next.”

One character, a former midwife, observes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices.” Very odd, indeed, and very grim: gray and crumbling buildings loom like lowering clouds over gray and crumbling people in a world bereft of hope. The year is 2027 and the youngest person in the world has just been murdered at age 18. Life, love and color have been drained from the monochromatic universe Cuarón & Co. have envisioned, where London resembles the ravaged war-zones of Baghdad, and random café bombings are commonplace.

Most sci-fi films offer panoramic shots of meticulously designed cityscapes and “ooh-ahh” visions of flying cars, life-like robots and sleek, silver skyscrapers reaching to the stratosphere. In 2001: a space odyssey, Stanley Kubrick imagined a hyper-mechanized future in which humans had become indistinguishable from the computers they’d created. In Children of Men, humanity is moving in the opposite direction, towards a pack-animal mentality—suspicious, ghettoized and violent. With the human species on the out, the brakes of society have come off. News broadcasts give glimpses of once-great cities toppled by fear, panic and rioting.

Somehow, I think Cuaron got things more right than the venerable Kubrick. Critics have called his vision of the future “dystopian,” but the most chilling element is its utter plausibility, even its familiarity. As mankind’s expiration date draws near, what would prevent civilization from falling prey to the second law of thermodynamics?

God is not mentioned in Children of Men, except as a profanity that often comes across as more desperate prayer than curse.
Entropy has a human face in the protagonist, Theo Faron. (“Theos” is Greek for God, so perhaps I spoke too soon when I said His name isn’t mentioned in the movie.) A one-time political activist turned listless alcoholic and cog-in-the-bureaucratic machine, the loss of Theo’s young son, Dylan, and humanity’s ticking time clock have sucked the joy from his life. The detail that he works as a paper-pushing grunt for the Ministry of Energy is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of gallows-humor.

Like Graham Greene’s indelible Whiskey Priest, Theo is resistant to grace, disillusioned by life and reliant on belts of Bell’s snuck from his pocket to get him through the day. Played with masterful restraint and anti-movie-star grit by Clive Owen, Theo looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week or showered in a month. His disheveled hair, bleary, bloodshot eyes, crumpled trench coat, and hidden bottle of bourbon are the outward manifestations of a man, soul-sick and world-weary, drifting rudderless through a fog, his ideals swallowed by despair. Owen projects the wounded vulnerability beneath the cynical shell he’s adopted as a defense-mechanism; sixty years ago, Humphrey Bogart would have been cast in this part.

Big Brother encourages its Terminally Depressed to unburden society by means of an attractively packaged suicide-kit labeled “Quietus”. Members of the living dead not quite ready for Quietus, let alone a bare bodkin, find artificial means to escape bleak reality: catatonia, marijuana, virtual reality, art collecting, alcoholism. Theo seems like Quietus’s target audience until his ex-wife, Julian (Julianne Moore), re-enters his life. Unlike Theo, Julian has held fast to the activist ideals of their shared past. She’s the leader of the Fishes, an underground political movement dedicated to defending the rights of Britain’s illegal immigrant population (“fugees”). As bad as things are in Britain, they’re a lot worse elsewhere, and England is in permanent lock-down, closing its borders to immigrants and deporting foreigners who’ve managed to slip in.

One of those fugees is a young African woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). When Julian calls on Theo to get his hands on transit papers for the girl—no easy task—he begrudgingly agrees in exchange for a sum of money. It’s not long, however, before Theo comes to realize that what’s at stake is beyond price: Kee is pregnant.

Like the whiskey priest of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Theo’s journey is a spiritual one, which takes him to the heart of life-giving love.
Into this lifeless world, the promise of new life sparks a light in Theo. Like a re-animated corpse, his tired cynicism turns into active participation. Through a series of unfortunately fortuitous events, it falls to Theo to deliver Kee and her baby to the Human Project, a perhaps mythical group of international scientists who’ve taken refuge on an island. Getting them there tests Theo’s courage, resolve, ingenuity, and willingness to risk his life, just as he’s re-discovered a reason to live. Like Joseph, Theo becomes protector to a young woman miraculously pregnant, and surrogate father to her unborn child.

A restless handheld camera haunts Theo’s steps like a shadow, giving the story a visceral, gripping immediacy. Theo is in every scene and virtually every shot of the movie, and Children of Men is as much about his individual journey as it is about global immigration politics or drawing timely parallels to America’s ongoing woes in Iraq. Much has been made of Cuarón’s “leftist” political agenda because he sets his miraculous conception amid sights of men, women and children packed like animals in open-air cages. The imagery is disturbing, to be sure—a Boschian vision of mankind at its most desperate and depraved—but it’s hardly “leftist” to suppose that Cuarón has included it, not because of a political agenda, but because such a policy of detainment, oppression and deportation would be the likeliest eventuality in a society gripped by end-of-the-world fear, paranoia and hopelessness.

Moreover, Curaón’s political vision cuts both ways. The rebels are as trigger-happy, blindly ideological and prone to hooding-and-kidnapping innocent people as the government. Each side wants Kee’s baby for political leverage, not because her baby is a human life and hope-giving miracle. Cuarón may be taking a few swipes at the current US Administration’s policies (the hooded heads and naked bodies at the immigrant detainee camp call to mind the disturbing images from Abu Ghraib), but his criticisms are woven seamlessly into the fundamentally pro-life fabric of the film: human dignity should never be compromised, and human life, foreign and domestic, young and old, is a gift that should be protected.

The main theme of this film is the miracle of human life and the dignity of the human person, but as Flannery O’Connor said, “A story has to have muscle as well as meaning, and the meaning has to be in the muscle.” Lesser artists deliver their messages with a megaphone, like a preacher bellowing from an on-high pulpit. Cuarón is too canny an artist to let the message drive the movie. Rather, the story and the characters (the “muscle”) drive the film, and the message emerges organically out of how the characters react.

If I told you that the sound of a baby crying could silence the scream of bullets and the shriek of bombs, would you believe me?
We are looking over Theo’s shoulder throughout the movie, reacting to events as he reacts. Like the Whiskey Priest of The Power and the Glory, Theo’s journey is a spiritual one—a relentless baptism of fire as he suffers the loss of loved ones, physical pain and personal sacrifice to protect Kee and her child. His journey is purification through physical and emotional mortification. It’s no accident that Theo ends up pretty much barefoot in the middle of an urban battle as he tries to usher Kee and her child to safety. His bleeding, bare feet signal the pilgrimage-like quality of Theo’s quest.

Theo’s quest, his pilgrimage, takes him to the heart of life-giving love, the love between a parent and a child that is an earthly echo of God’s love for each human person. One of the nice touches in the film is the way animals are constantly drawn to Theo. “They like you,” one of the Fishes comments when his guard dogs refrain from barking, “they don’t like anybody.” In another scene, a cat climbs up Theo’s trouser leg. In another, a gypsy woman’s dog seems reluctant to leave Theo and Kee. In a moment of calm before the storm, Theo walks his friend’s dog through a quiet wood while the wind whispers in the trees like the comforting presence of his namesake. Life is drawn to Theo’s reassuring presence, and these small moments foreshadow the greater moment when Theo will take in his hands the first child born in eighteen years.

Alfonso Cuarón, whose previous credits include A Little Princess, Great Expectations, and the third Harry Potter film, Prisoner of Azkaban, has demonstrated a talent in the past for poetic cinema in the context of slick Hollywood productions. On the heels of the Harry Potter film’s financial success, Cuarón was given carte-blanche to make the movie he wanted. With Children of Men, he’s used his newfound artistic freedom to create a film that engages the heart and mind, marrying technical marvels to a coherent artistic vision.

Cuarón accomplishes the near-impossible: his virtuosity is invisible. He orchestrates scenes with a breathtaking mastery that is all the more impressive because he does not call attention to it. There’s a sequence near the end of the film where the camera follows Theo through the corpse-strewn streets of a refugee camp during a violent uprising. British tanks and soldiers trade bullets and bombs with members of the Fishes while Theo, caught in the crossfire, desperately attempts to reach Kee and her child trapped in a building under siege. For students of film, Cuarón’s conducting of this complicated, orchestral sequence is as jaw-dropping as the celebrated opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. For any viewer, it is unrelentingly intense in its unblinking realism.

Cuarón’s camera sequence is as jaw-dropping as the celebrated opening tracking shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
Like a great opera singer, he saves his moments of bracing beauty and most moving lyricism for the climactic aria. In Children of Men, that moment arrives when Theo escorts Kee and her child down a flight of stairs in the middle of a bombed-out building as a battle rages all around them. If I told you that the sound of a baby crying could silence the scream of bullets and the shriek of bombs, would you believe me? Or would you laugh? The effect of this scene will be devastating to anyone who’s felt eroded by the Culture of Death’s incessant attacks on the beauty and dignity of the human person.

That is perhaps Cuaron’s greatest achievement: He uses the format of an old (and essentially Christian) parable to remind us of the sanctity of life. Though it would be presumptuous to embrace Cuaron’s vision as thoroughly Catholic—he and his collaborators are operating more at the level of Natural Law—life is clearly sacred to them, and children are miracles.

The movie is pro-life, if not “Pro-Life.” When first confronted with Kee’s child, characters in this film generally rear back and exclaim “Jesus Christ!”—a motif so recurrent that it has to be intentional; then, once they’ve settled down a bit, add reflectively, “it’s a miracle.” In a day and age in which the sanctity of human life is compromised on the personal and societal level by contraception, abortion, euthanasia, population control, terrorism, and war, Children of Men is a film that reminds the viewer with subtle artistry of the miracle that is human life.

February 6, 2007

JOHN MURPHY writes from Oregon on film, literature, and art.

©2007, GodSpy. All rights reserved.

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03.29.07   cityofgod says:
I just saw 'Children' last night- I agree wholeheartedly with the Godspy reviewer. I disagree that Jasper's euthanasia scene was made to look heroic. Consider the fact that Jasper had plenty of opportunities to choose this peaceful mode of dying for his wife all along. He only made the choice under the most stressful of predicaments- he wasn't shown making a big show of how merciful he was being- he was trying to save many lives, including a childs, and in his thinking he was perhaps preventing a scenario where his beloved was to be tortured in front of him in order to pull out information about the whereabouts of the innocents. Jasper wasn't portrayed as a righteous Christian, he already has been shown to be drug user, and escapist. His acts at the end showed both his strength and his weakness- he allowed himself to be killed quite willingly, which in that context was very heroic. He staid by his wife until circumstances drove him to an extreme decision. One can well imagine even as a Christian, doing the same, operating as a principle of double-effect- you are not killing the wife, you would be keeping her from being tortured and killed by evil men, who might use their evil actions to compel you to give them the information they are seeking. One can imagine doing this, rationalizing it, but as a Christian feeling very conflicted and sinful in every decision about to be made. If Jasper had been Catholic it would have been appropriate to see him on his knees seeking God's counsel and His forgiveness. How unlike our modern discussion on appropriateness of euthanasia is this dire situation of jasper's. I think no one would be coming away from this film thinking- hey euthanasia makes sense to me now- we should enact legislation in favor it! Maybe if we were in Jasper's world and immediate situation would it even become a thinkable option- God help us if either of those scenarios played out for real.

02.13.07   RyanusRex says:
Kanon's comments are astute. The observation that the film comments on the "Old Europe" (I'll extend that, if I may, to include all the West) of today touches on the apocalyptic element of the film. Apocalyptic/revelation literature isn't meant to disclose the future to us, except perhaps in passing. It is meant to reveal us to ourselves. When we read the damning indictments of 6 of the 7 churchs in the early chapters of Revelation, we are meant to gulp and ask ourselves, "Wow - does that apply to me, too?" When Christ says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega," we are meant to notice, "Sheesh... and I am just me!" asking ourselves, "Where do I fit in between the A and Z of God's plan?" So it is with a movie like this. It takes place in the future mostly because the future is more plausible than the past. We are meant to see ourselves in it, or see it in ourselves, and ask, "How does this bear on me?" Precisely because it starts conversations like this, we can see that it does prompts such analysis effectively.

02.09.07   kanon says:
Aside from the preponderance of profanity and violence, Children of Men is a good flick. Though it is not just a commentary about the future but an observation of the "Old Europe" of today. In large swaths of Europe -- Italy, France, Germany -- there is an anti-children mentality, a diminishment of faith and in turn, a loss in meaning. Ufortuanetly, the reality portrayed in the movie is already present in it's nascent form. The only remedy and source of hope is still Christ.

02.08.07   dannyboy says:
Please. Don't preach to me about literary complexity. I'm no fan of the thin gruel that often attempts to pass as religious 'art'. I'm not looking for films that attempt to bombard us with some kind of sentimental, saccharine vision of humanity. You seem not be reading what I actually wrote. Yes, the movie is brilliant and good in many ways. But just because you are able to take good out of it because you are properly disposed and have a well-formed moral sensibility does not mean that the movie itself is structured to make the case you want it to. To many people with whom I have spoken, it has offered emotional fuel to their own justifications of euthanasia. We are in no way encouraged by the movie to criticize the euthanasia, in fact, the music at the moment of his decision and the heroics (both in taking care of his catatonic wife and in resisting the fishes) of Jasper encourage us to applaud his 'compassionate' murder of his wife. Yes, the fact that the movie raises an eyebrow over the government-issued suicide pills is good. Yes, it adds a sense of tragedy to the choice made by Theo's buddy. No, it does not seem to point us in any direction other than that, in order to achieve a good end, one ought sometimes to commit evil (though it might sometimes make us sad to do so).I know that many people do not think consistently. Is that a reason not to criticize inconsistent thinking? I have defended this movie again and again to my colleagues, but that doesn't mean I'm going to ignore its weaknesses just because the movie got a few important things right and was masterfully-crafted. The things the reviewer says are good, but we also need to remember how problematic Cuaron's moral confusions are.Yes, the movie is able to give occasion to good debates about crucial and oft-overlooked moral questions. The answers that it seems to want us to give to some of those questions (not just about euthanasia either) are often morally confused. By centering itself so effectively in the right place, however, I do think the movie exceeds itself. And I think this is a crucial question that we need to be asking ourselves about the Cuaron, del Toro, and other directors who create out of a Catholic background even when they are themselves apostate. We can see the light of truth shining through them beautifully in spite of their political or theological hobbyhorses, though that truth often does get distorted a bit in the process.Let me be clear. I think this and Pan's Labyrinth were two of the best movies of the last year, and perhaps of the last several years. But they are getting heaps of praise from all over the place. I want to pursue a discussion not only of what makes them good, but of the complexities and problems that attend that goodness.And by the way, we are never encouraged by Capra to approve of George Baily's mistreatment of his family. It is ugly when he does it because it is morally ugly. There is a difference between encouraging us to sympathize with a complex character and encouraging us to approve of the choices he makes. It is the latter that I am criticizing about CoM, not the former.

02.07.07   DLMurphy says:
I could not agree more than with the last two posters, RyanusRex and cscaperl. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is, as an editor trying to find really good Catholic fiction to publish, to see manuscript after manuscript in which even competent writers appear to believe that the only way to uphold Catholic truth in fiction is to make the "good" characters---those with whom we are to identify and root for--infallible in all their choices and beliefs, and the "bad" characters self-consciously Luciferian. Not even the saints' lives display that kind of predictability or homogeneity! Yes, Jasper's choice was wrong, but he was not a Christian, and he was doing the best he could with a limited amount of grace. He was still a wonderful character--I've known and loved people very much like him. He should be counted among the "good guys." And to assume that his actions amount to the director's perfect prescription for how one should act in similar situations is absurd. I'm reminded of the wonderful Godspy piece that appeared before Christmas on "The Gospel According to Frank Capra." I, too, adore "It's a Wonderful Life," and think George Bailey one of the finest creations---and bits of cinematic acting, on the part of Jimmy Stewart---ever to grace the screen. Yet here was a character who, at one low point in the course of the story, bullied his wife and children and made up his mind to act out his determination that he should have never been born. And yet what kind of heaven would Heaven be if George Bailey were not welcome there? One, I dare say, in which most of us would not find ourselves welcome.

02.07.07   cscaperl says:
I just wanted to take a moment and respond to Danny Boy. As someone who was thoroughly impressed with Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth (and Babel to complete the Mexican director trifecta) both for their pure artistry and for their gentle weaving of Truth into their messages, I have to admit to being bothered by his comment - not because the euthanasia of the man's wife was good, but because I don't believe it was valorized. In a larger context, one thing that can become frustrating talking to people of faith about films is the belief that anything shown on-screen, done by someone not evil, is something we're supposed to take as a good thing. Michael Caine's character Jasper was a complex one, one who you got the feeling knew he hadn't got life all the way figured out but had settled into being okay with that. In the film, he made the choice to euthanize his wife before the terrorists came. That choice is presented as exactly that - a choice made by a complex character. And its value comes from the fact that audiences, after watching the film, have the opportunity to talk about choices made by various characters and discuss how their choices fit within a larger pro-life context. (One of the less talked about points in this film is that Theo never once wields a weapon). Please, though, stick to criticizing the choice made by the character - rarely has a film made all of the intimate connections between so many pro-life issues - birth, immigration, violence. And at the same time, it even takes the time to talk about how people on all sides of the debate fail to truly uphold the dignity of people. What we need is more films like this one - to speak to the culture and to provide us with talking points.

02.07.07   RyanusRex says:
To say that the movie is pro-life, not "Pro-Life," describes the film's ethos very well. The film's primary goal is not evangelization, much less political action. Those goals are inappropriate as primary goals for art, anyway. The Christian world is awash in enough bad art as it is. One can think of many popular Christian novels. The first purpose of art is to be good art. And if the art is going to evangelize, it must be good art, or it will not be taken seriously by critics, nor impact viewers in the desired way. This art, "Children of Men," is exceptional art, and because it is exceptional art, it also has the opportunity to move the hearts and minds of its viewers in a real way. The question that inspired the novel, "What if women could could have no more children?" is now a question in the minds of tens of millions of viewers, who had never previously asked the question. That in turn will lead to reflection on the role of children, as children, in human society. That in turn, coupled with all the graphic and disapproving portrayal of human degradation, will lead to reflection on the value of human life. And that reflection is exactly the sort of reflection the Church wants to see happening in this day in age.That the movie portrays, even sympathetically, acts inconsistent with a coherent pro-life ethic is to be expected if the movie has our real world as the real model for its presentation. Most people do not have a consistent ethic at all; even many pro-lifers do not have a consistently pro-life ethic. In fact, I would venture that the fully converted Christian who not only believes, but consistently does, the right thing in the face of difficulties is a truely rare creature. How much moreso among men entirely unevangelized by the Gospel, as in Cauron's world? Theo's friend, who euthanizes his wife, ought to be sympathetic to pro-life people not because he was correct in euthanizing his wife. He was wrong to do so. He ought to be sympathetic to us because he loved her, and because he loved Theo. The problem is not that he did not love enough (He laid down his life for his friend, a love which Christ called the greatest.) but that he did not know how to love rightly.Theo's hippy friend euthanized his wife because he did not know what else to do. The real probability was that he would be brutally murdered, and then his catatonic wife would be raped and murdered, or just left to starve. What else could the man do? A Christian knows to cling to faith (that is, trust in God's plan), make use of hope (that is, look to heaven for help), and love (that is, to submit to God's will, even if it seems horrible to us). Theo and his friends are no Christians and literally know of no such options. It bears noting that while others, presumably tens of thousands of others, were using their Quietus rations simply because they were bored, Theo's friend did not euthanize his wife just because she was in a catatonic trance and he was tired of caring for her. He seems to have cared for her for years, showing great human virtue. Only when things became, humanly speaking, unsalvageable, did he give in to despair. We must not be too quick to judge the crew for their ignorance and lack of infused virtues. Theo's friend is not a bad man, but a good man lacking Christ.That is what the movie does a great job of depicting: a world that is eerily familiar, but whose illusions and pretensions are stipped bare (at least to the viewer, by way of contrast with our own world), a world without Christ. And because the picture of a world without Christ is so horrifying, it will naturally make people wonder how to fix it. In the midst of that wondering, a baby is born among homeless refugees, and as the critic wrote, nearly everyone greets it with our Lord's beautiful name, half cursing in shock, and half praying in awe.

02.07.07   dannyboy says:
OK, yes, a brilliant movie in many ways. But a deeply confused movie in many other ways. Can a movie that valorizes a hippie-hero's euthanizing of his wife be called pro-life? I think in many ways this movie, like Pan's Labyrinth, exceeds its maker by resonating with us in ways that don't quite seem to fit the comments we hear from him in interviews. And yet, it seems incapable of holding together its ethic of life in a morally consistent way. But such failures in Cuaron lead to a deeper success in the movie as a properly-disposed viewer may be able to penetrate through even the movie's often lazy (or just pc) sense of heroism and goodness to a more complete and beautiful vision at the heart of the movie that stands in tension with many things that the movie seems to want to celebrate.

02.06.07   Godspy says:
In Alfonso Cuar&oacute;n’s brooding and brilliant new film, the promise of new life sparks a light in a lifeless world.

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