REVIEW: “Child 44”

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“There are no murders in Paradise”. This is a phrase repeated several times in the period thriller “Child 44”. The line is a reference to the former Soviet practice of denying the existence of murders and serial killings within their Communist model. In the film we see the propaganda machine clash with a series of brutal child murders in Moscow and surrounding areas. The film is produced by Ridley Scott who was originally in line to direct. Instead the directing duties were handed to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa.

“Child 44” is adapted from British writer Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel which was based on the serial killings of Andrei Chikatilo. The film begins by establishing the system and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a decorated agent from the Ministry of State Security. His main job is enforcing the rigid laws and capturing anyone the government deems to be traitors. And we see their methods of law enforcement as manipulative, suppressive, and sometimes violent.

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Then there is Leo’s relationship with his disillusioned wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). When out with friends they look like the perfect couple, but she clearly shows a disconnect at home stirring up a number of suspicions within Leo. But in the background of the political and personal storylines, a growing number of murdered young boys’ bodies are turning up. The government wants to cover it up. Families are suffering. And eventually Leo finds himself caught in the middle.

I went into “Child 44” expected a murder mystery thriller. It is definitely that, but Richard Price’s screenplay ventures off into a number of different directions. The marital tensions between Leo and Raisa evolves into a deeper sidestory. A layered political drama builds throughout the film. Then there is the hunt for the serial killer. These and a few smaller subplots are interwoven within the fabric of the film resulting in the vision sometimes feeling clouded.

But the film leads us through this haze and unfolds each story angle, bringing them together in a deliberate, slow-burning method that clearly didn’t work for many. I love the tense political drama and its ominous, ever-present threat which bleeds into ever other facet of the film. There is a tension boiling behind every conversation large or small. There is a proactive paranoia within the bureaucracy which leads to some of the film’s more disturbing moments. And the oppressive nature of the politics hangs over the people like a shroud. It is very well done.

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The same could be said of the strained and uncomfortable marriage between Leo and Raisa. The edge to their story angle gets sharper as the movie progresses and the film does a fine job of giving them moments to flesh out their relationship. A number of outliers and influences play into their angle taking it into some very interesting directions.

That leads to the central storyline – the murder mystery and the hunt for a savage serial killer. At least it appeared to be the central storyline based on the film’s promotion. Actually this story angle gets less screen time than the others which was disappointing. The urgency grows with each grim and unnerving discovery yet it languishes in the shadow of the other stories. It is intensely intriguing yet strangely handled. I mean even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t feel like the film gives the murder mystery enough time or attention.

Plenty of criticisms were hurled towards some of the performances and particular casting choices. Gripes about the heavy accents and the decision to use predominately non-Russian actors. Honestly I think the film pulls it off nicely. A strong supporting cast features Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman, and a host of others.

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But it is Tom Hardy’s fiercely committed performance that carries the picture. His blanched complexion and weary eyes gel well with his consistently serious and solemn demeanor. In fact I think he may smile once in the entire film and even then the sincerity is in question. Hardy harnesses all of his character’s inner conflicts and various states of mind and presents them all with a robust confidence. Its a great performance.

“Child 44” is considered a bomb. It bombed with critics. It bombed at the box office. But I just can’t go along with the majority of criticisms. Yes, the film is a slow-moving experience. Yes, the film often lacks a clear and specific focus. But never once was I bored by the pacing or lost due to its narrative structure. Clearly the screenplay and direction could have tightened things up a bit, but there is still so much the movie does right. It ends up being a unique and compelling procedural that I found satisfying even in its messiness. I’m happy to go against the grain with this one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

“PROMETHEUS” – 4 1/2 STARS

Science fiction is often times a hard sell to movie critics. It can be an even harder sell to moviegoers who aren’t big fans of the genre. I can boldly state that I am a sci-fi guy. I can get lost in well written and well crafted science fiction. For science fiction to work you have to sell the audience on what they’re seeing on screen. The audience has to believe it, not so much from a realism standpoint, but from the perspective of the characters. They have to believe that what they’re seeing is completely consistent with the world the characters are living in. Often times this works due to strong characters worth investing in and an imaginative world laced with thin strands of believability. Director Ridley Scott accomplished this in 1979 with his sci-fi classic “Alien”. Now he’s back with “Prometheus” and he just might have another classic on his hands.

The movie follows the crew of the space ship “Prometheus” and it’s mission to make contact with those believed to have created human life. Two years prior to the mission, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovered the same star map on several different dig sites of ancient civilizations. Believing the star maps are invitations, they join the “Prometheus” crew on a mission funded by a mysterious elderly corporate man named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). After a long stasis, the crew awaken to find they have arrived at the remote moon LV-233, the site believed to be inhabited by those who created human life. Of course we know that things aren’t as simple as they appear. The story then takes off and we soon discover that its not only the moon that holds secrets, but also the crew members.

The Prometheus has an interesting crew besides Shaw and Holloway. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is an employee of Weyland Industries who is sent to monitor the mission. She has an ominous presence and her true motivations are hard to decipher. The one thing that’s clear is that she has her own agenda. David (Michael Fassbender) is the ship’s android created by Weyland Industries. He monitors and maintains the ship but there is something unnerving and mysterious about him. Idris Elba plays Janek, the ship’s captain. He’s a straight-shooter who takes his responsibilities seriously. Some of these and the other crewmen believe in the mission while others are in it for other reasons. But all get more than they bargain for.

There is also the underlying question of faith versus science that pops up throughout the film. Shaw’s faith, that she shared with her father, is constantly brought into question by those with a more scientific slant. But I like how Scott never discounts or discredits her belief. In fact, it becomes clear that all the scientific knowledge they thought they had didn’t give them the answers they sought. I also liked how the movie plays with he contrast between human curiosity and things better left alone. The human desire to know can at times be a wonderful thing. But Scott shows us it can also bring severe consequences.

“Prometheus” takes place within the same world as the “Alien” films but it also sets out to create a new branch of mythology. Scott has been toying with the idea for the film for a long time and after several changes of direction, the results are most satisfying. “Prometheus” feels like an “Alien” picture and at times you see some of the same filmmaking style as was used in the original “Alien” movie. Ridley Scott starts the film out with a deliberate but measured pace, slowly asking questions and building up tension. I found myself completely immersed and constantly wondering “Is this the scene where everything blows up in their face?” John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s story gives us a lot of information early, some that’s intended to build the mythology, but some that leave us guessing right along with the characters. I found it to be a phenomenal buildup to the cataclysm that we know could come at any second.

When things do come to a head, the movie’s pace most certainly picks up and the audience is taken on one heck of a ride. Questions are answered as we are exposed to the truth behind the Engineers and their plans. One of my favorite things about the movie was it’s great assortment of characters and we begin to see the motivations and secrets behind the most mysterious of them. They also begin to drop like flies as the ‘survival movie’ element of “Prometheus” kicks in. This is where the movie does run a little off course. There were a couple of things that happen that seem to be out of the clear blue and with no real explanation. It also seems that in the frantic attempt to bring everything together, some useful details were left out. On the flip side, it’s clear Scott intentionally left many questions unanswered, questions that could conveniently (and hopefully) be answered in a sequel. 

The cast of “Prometheus” really shines and some of the performances really stand out. There’s no way to talk about the acting without first mentioning Michael Fassbender. His ability to capture the mystery and complexity of an emotionless, human imitating android is stunning. He never gives away his motivations prematurely and his looks, speech, and mannerisms are simply perfect. He creepily moves about the ship taking care of things while clearly having a more secret agenda. Fassbender sells all of this to us brilliantly. I also really liked Theron who always seems to be in the background observing but who also desperately wants more control than she has. Elba is also good as the Captain, a character that at times came dangerously close to being a stereotype yet he adds a freshness that I really liked. Then of course there is Noomi Rapace. She beat out big names like Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway for the role and it’s clear Scott made a good choice. It’s a demanding role and Rapace is definitely up to the task.

I also have to briefly talk about the spectacular look of “Prometheus”. Scott certainly uses the modern-day special effects technology to his advantage creating some amazing visuals. The CGI is top-notch and never feels underdone. What’s even more impressive is that Scott insisted on building several sets from the ground up passing over the green screens in many instances. While there is a ton of CGI, I loved the fact that this old school filmmaker still uses old school techniques and uses them well. The futuristic technology in the movie is a blast and I loved watching each cool creation from their vehicles to the suits to “Prometheus” itself. Scott’s visual style is noticeable even here. He enjoys wide but structured shots and he doesn’t try to stage shots with fancy gimmicks like herky-jerky hand-held cameras to add a “chaotic” effect. He frames his shots and then trusts his vision. I like that. The movie also is one of the rare instances where I enjoyed the 3D. It was shot in 3D and Scott had it in mind throughout the picture. But he doesn’t overdo it. It simply feels like part of the movie. But it also doesn’t make or break the movie. I would have liked the film just as much in 2D.

Like I said, I’m a sci-fi guy and when it’s done well I’m all onboard. “Prometheus” is science fiction done well by a director that has already given us one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies of all time. It’s a visual delight with a story that delivers genuine intensity, some great characters, and an ending that had me howling for more. It almost pays homage to the first two “Alien” films with some striking parallels in story structure and even in dialogue. I loved that. “Prometheus” is certainly a movie that someone could sit down with a pen and paper and find flaws. For me it was an amazing experience. A reminder of how cool science fiction can be and once again I was drawn into a director’s world and stayed there for the whole ride. In other words, I really, really liked “Prometheus”.