Monthly Archives: October 2013
Richard Curtis is something equivalent to royalty in romantic comedy circles. The man wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the screenplay for Bridget Jones’ Diary, and he wrote and directed Love, Actually. If you are a fan of those movies, then About Time is already at the top of your to-do list. Reportedly Curtis’ last movie he will direct (he’s only done three), this time-travel romance looks to be a break from a genre burdened by convention. If you like your British rom-coms to be mildly cheeky, hopelessly dewy-eyed romantic, filled with beautiful people, and loaded with hugs, then About Time with suffice. If you were expecting something grander from the premise you’ll walk away shaking your head at all the squandered potential.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) is a normal upper class British student when his father (Bill Nighy) sits him down to have… The Talk. This one isn’t about birds and bees so much as it is the space-time continuum. It seems that the men in their family have the unique ability to travel through time, though only during their lifetimes. All Tim need do is find a somewhat secluded, dark corner, clench his fists, and think his way back to a particular memory. Tim is able to blink out embarrassing incidents and use his foreknowledge. He meets Mary (Rachel McAdams) and sets his sights on making her fall in love with him. He corrects their courtship until he gets everything “right.”
While eminently pleasant and suitably funny and emotional, About Time is a tale of wasted potential. I’m unsure why Curtis even brought in such an unconventional element like time travel if he was just going to play it safe. The standard, feel-good rom-com route feels the safe way through, and while it’s well done in that regard, I almost wish the film had pushed further with its concept. To begin with, the time travel restrictions are arbitrarily applied and will later be broken altogether as the film continues. When time travel is used it’s played out like Groundhog Day, with Tim immediately going back to fine-tune his actions, particularly his courting of Mary. That works, as we get used to the inertia of the edits, but that seems to be the lone focus. Once he gets the girl, Tim rarely uses his amazing gift. He’s content and so time travel is an afterthought when, as I suspect for any of us, it would be all we could think about. Tim lacks suitable ambition. I think the film would have been weightier had its lead been less idealistic. He’s a nice guy but imagine a Lothario having the power to travel back in time. He could physically cheat on his wife, go back and make sure it never happened, and live his life, having his cake and eating it too, except for the guilt. Is it cheating if it happened in an alternate timeline? Or what if he was a stockbroker committing insider trading with his past self. In fact, what if he just interacted with his older, more morally wanton self? There’s also the fact that Mary never finds out about any of this. At no point does Tim reveal his family’s incredible ability and have to atone for his actions. I’m fairly certain Mary would feel like her marital bliss could be the end product to manipulation. Alas, we’re stuck with our cute, acceptable, but mostly square rom-com.
While likeable, I didn’t think the characters themselves were sketched out well; I like McAdams and Gleeson, but I couldn’t really say much about them as people. He’s a lawyer. She works as a reader for a publisher. His family is kind of rich. And that’s about it. Even through their interactions we don’t learn much about Tim or Mary. They fall in love, and it’s nice, but the lack of characterization, besides the fact that they are cute together, kept me from fully investing in their love story. I doubt the target audience will have this same issue. I found them cute and their scenes are cute together but I need more about my main characters than a collection of cute scenes. Another nagging aspect of their courtship is that it seems too easy. Tim has the amazing power of time travel so he can fix any problem presented, but that shouldn’t stop the appearance of problems. Tim and Mary are nice people that seem to have no discernible differences, besides Tim’s leftover feelings for a first love. An audience may say they want a couple to be sweet together always. They don’t. It’s boring. We need conflict. With About Time, there just isn’t enough of it and Tim and Mary are too underdeveloped for me to pine for them.
There are loads of dangling storylines that feel like they are leftovers from past drafts. You would think wrapping up a peachy marriage early would lead to some sort of personal crossroads and sacrifice. Everything was coming far too easily for Tim, so I kept waiting for another shoe to drop late in the film, to give him the chance to undo his own personal happiness and marriage to, say, save a beloved family member. I kept waiting for some kind of greater personal stakes, but it never came. Then the movie has all sorts of dangling storylines that do not seem conceptualized. The doddy uncle who seems to be experiencing the ravaged effects of too much time travel? Not much there. They never explain him and so he is just the standard Brit com-com kooky family member to say weird things offhand. Seems like a waste of greater pathos. Tim’s troubled sister? She’s fixed in a pinch and of course it all has to do with the men she’s dating.
Then there are the rules, which in time travel need to be adhered to closely or else the butterfly effect ripples cascade. We’re told at first that Tim can only go backwards in time. This gives the impression that he has to live out all that extra time. So, say, if Tim traveled back two years, he’d have to live out all two years to get back to the presumed moment he began his journey backwards (writing about time travel does wonderful things with sentence tenses). So every jump back requires reliving your life. But then all of a sudden Tim can jump forward in time as well. No one comments about this. If the men in the family are reliving days and possibly years of time, then shouldn’t they be preternaturally aging, looking 70 at 50 and so on? Then there’s the fact that Tim introduces the ability to travel back in time WITH another person. This is never dealt with again, sadly, and it’s a big deal. You can bring other people with you through time. This is an amazing opportunity but it’s wasted like so many others.
However, with all that said, the movie won me over more as it transitioned into a greater emphasis on the father/son relationship, enough so that it feels like Curtis trying to get the sense of closure we so rarely get in life. I though a late trip backwards, as a young son skipping stones with his dad before he may never see him again, was quite beautiful. It got me wishing the film had given more time to explore the dynamics of father/son time travelers, a rich dramatic possibility that only reminds you how much more interesting About Time could have been.
About Time will be catnip to its target audience, namely female rom-com fans. I found it a fairly pleasant movie and its stars wholly likeable. I laughed at spots and even got teary-eyed a bit toward the end as the film’s emphasis shifted from a guy-gets-girl narrative to more of a father-son examination. The funny Brit characters do their thing, the lovely scenery remains lovely, and the declarations of love get a spit-shine. It is an effective romantic comedy that will charm and please and get its audience to swoon, but I was left feeling that its potential went untapped as it settled on a safer, more conventional story despite all the unconventional possibility. Why introduce time travel if you’re just going to take the safest route possible with your storytelling, never pitting Tim in a difficult decision he has to make, or jeopardizing his carefully manipulated happiness? There are so many possibilities Curtis had with a premise that opens up alternative histories, but it seems like he settled for another dash of more-of-the-same.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The magnitude of author Cormac McCarthy’s involvement should not go understated in discussions over The Counselor. The acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written modern classics often exploring the darker side of humanity. McCarthy’s first screenplay must have seemed like a hot commodity for all of Hollywood. It attracted director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and a score of A-list actors. The anticipation was that McCarthy could match the brilliance of his prose. The Counselor, a dreary and lackluster thriller in every conceivable way, proves that McCarthy still has an uphill learning curve when it comes to serviceable screenwriting.
The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He’s just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.
To be blunt, if McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author’s first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I’m not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy’s script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren’t even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he’s well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms “ruthless,” “pragmatic,” and “naïve,” I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don’t even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you’re already sabotaging your entertainment chances.
The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn’t feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.
Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film’s essential story structure, criminals getting in over their heads and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Hell, even McCarthy’s own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it’s like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.
McCarthy’s brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It’s a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I’m treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I’m no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hit men of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.
There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play naïve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we’ve seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She’s supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner’s sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don’t know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina’s trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a “Laura” and Cameron Diaz a “Malkina”?
I know it’s a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender’s character as “Counselor.” The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say “ole sport” after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender’s lone job title. “What do you think, Counselor? I don’t know, Counselor. I’d think things over, Counselor.” Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn’t seem to be a competent lawyer at all.
The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on “Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay.” If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don’t know if we’ll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven’t been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page but not on the screen. Scott doesn’t help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we’re left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: “Have you been bad?” It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you’ve been very bad.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Actress Lake Bell’s writing/directing debut, In a World, is a comical look inside the world of voice acting, particular in the field of movie trailers. It’s an interesting world and told with enough comic acumen by Bell (TV’s Children’s Hospital), a serious student of vocal artists. She plays Carol, a woman who breaks into the trailer voice over biz, causing ripples in a field dominated by baritone-voiced men, like her legendary father (a perfectly unctuous Fred Melamed) who holds to sexist dictum. There’s a cute romance involved with Demetri Martin, an effective subplot about Carol’s sister having an affair, and an ongoing commentary about the uncomfortable infantilized voice many young women utilize. The story is threatened by a percolating mistaken identity rom-com convention, but thankfully regroups for a third act pitting father against daughter in vocal performance, as it should be. As a director, Bell has a steady feel for her scenes, following a subdued comic rhythm that also feels eccentric without going overboard. As a writer, she gives her characters space to grow, to make mistakes, and to triumph but not without complications. As an actress, Bell is charming and a terrific lead anchor for a film filled with likeable, quirky characters. In a World is a little movie but it’s effortlessly cute, winning and pleasant in the right places, and filled with a great cast of comic actors. Beware: upon exiting the film, it is unavoidable that you will do your own fake trailer “In a world…” impressions.
Nate’s Grade: B
Escape From Tomorrow built a wave of buzz coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, namely because it was a bizarre, psycho-sexual little indie film shot secretly on the premises of Disney World and Disney Land. Writer/director Randy Moore shot his movie in secret, unbeknownst to Disney and the park employees. He was so paranoid about word getting out what they had done that Moore edited the film in another country. There is palpable fear at the reach and power of Disney’s coffers, enough so that a character mentioning the very D-word is silenced, and so I recall early on that people predicted Disney and its armada of lawyers would never allow Escape From Tomorrow to be released. Rather than get litigious, the Mouse House has decided to simply clam up, refusing comment. It’s a smart move, because besides a passing novelty, no one is going to remember the oh so monotonous Escape From Tomorrow in a matter of months.
The wisp of a plot involves a family vacationing at a Disney park. On the final day, the father (Roy Abramsohn) has been told he has lost his job. The rest of the day follows suit as the father loses his grip with reality, interpreting sinister signs throughout the park. He also keeps running into a pair of French teen girls who enjoy holding hands, being flirty, and singing. After the third or fourth time, the father starts to trail the girls, eerily entranced. They warn him that dire things will befall him if he doesn’t go with them.
Take away the ballsy, surreptitiously recorded angle, the “how did they do that?” factor, and ultimately is there a movie here worth watching? I would definitively say… no. Admittedly it’s interesting to dissect how this guerrilla-style stunt was accomplished, watching scene after scene and figuring out what was shot in the parks unbeknownst to tourists and employees, what was likely shot on a set, where the cuts marry the two, and what techniques the director and his crew utilized to film a movie without blowing their cover. I think many of the scenes had to be improvised, at least the dialogue within the park, because starting and stopping and repeating lines in public, out in the open, would seem suspicious (the cursing would also seem to be courting danger). The Disney theme parks have millions of visitors, so people recording every action would not seem out of the ordinary. Escape From Tomorrow works as a stunt, with the audience picking apart the magic trick simultaneously as it’s performed.
However, a stunt is all that Escape From Tomorrow is because from a thematic, subtext standpoint, this movie is a mess. There just isn’t enough weirdness going on here and whatever small doses of it we get is given precious little connection to any larger theme. It feels like the filmmakers settled on the most facilely subversive idea – Disney Land, the happiest place on Earth, is not. Undercutting all of Disney’s famous family-friendly iconography with the occasional weird thing is not enough. A kid has black eyes. Ten minutes later a stranger makes an offensive comment. Ten minutes later something in a ride that is supposed to be happy looks mean instead. The majority of the movie plays out like you’re watching someone’s boring vacation. You don’t care about the characters. There is no plot to speak of, and that can be acceptable in an atmospheric film that serves as a visual descent into madness. There just isn’t enough madness here. Escape From Tomorrow is far too tedious to be effective. Long stretches are just watching the family traverse the theme park, notably with the father always running into the French teens. There is far too much padding, little connection from scene to scene, and the end is just a confusing muddle groping for a deeper meaning. Midway through, when the father is captured and held underground at Epcot, it looks like the movie is going to take that next step, ramping up the weirdness. Well that conflict is readily solved and then we’re back to the occasional boring out-of-place item. I want to say that Escape From Tomorrow is like David Lynch’s vacation video, but that is giving too much undeserved praise. This is like the deleted scenes of David Lynch’s vacation video.
My colleague Ben Bailey countered my negative option with the idea that Escape From Tomorrow is meant to be a dark comedy and to view it through that lens; all right then, because as a “comedy” it still is half-baked, meandering, and poorly executed. The incongruous imagery, often sexual or demonic, is rather cheap in the sense that it’s just flipping the staid Disney script on wholesomeness with no more subversive substance than a moody teenager scribbling on his notebook. The Disney princesses double as high-priced courtesans? Okay, now go further rather than just taking a standard Disney character and making it adult in a shallow manner. There’s a scene where the father escapes by squeezing a tube of Neosporin to lubricate his hands out of confines, and oh boy, the white liquid shoots onto hanging pictures of female body parts. What a riot. Taking a cockeyed, perverted look at Disney is not the same as developing comedy, and even that cockeyed view is lame. I think that the father’s lustful pursuit of the French girls is meant to be comedic, but it was only creepy. When he sneaks up to spy on them in their bathing suits, how else should I interpret that? If this is supposed to be a comedy then Escape From Tomorrow is an even larger misfire.
Escape From Tomorrow is a nonsensical, plodding, superficial film, and it adds up to a whole lot of nothing. There isn’t a grander statement or sense of commentary. There is just scene-to-scene weirdness that grows old rapidly. I commend the ingenuity of the filmmakers for being able to secretly record a movie at one of the most heavily trafficked locations in the world. I don’t think the filmmakers had any clear vision of what they wanted to say with their movie, settling on “weird crap at Disney Land,” and then putting all their time and energy into planning how to pull off this coup, never mind the fact that the finished product was not nearly worth the effort. If you’ve ever wanted to be trapped on a bad vacation, then enjoy, movie masochists.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I finally caught one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, and while fitfully entertaining, mostly in its second half, I have to wonder what made this film the hit it was, despite lack of clear comedy competition. The setup involves four people (Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter) posing as a model nuclear family to smuggle drugs into the United States. You’d think the difficulty would be getting back into this country, but no, it’s all about keeping their cover, especially when a vacationing DEA agent (Nick Offerman) pals around. The flimsy setup gets much better in the second half as the false family dynamics and roles are skewered, particularly an educational kissing session between siblings and mother. I can also see the markings of why audiences gravitated to this otherwise so-so comedy. It offers each member to contribute meaningfully, it gives each a lesson and a triumph, and they form a likable bond. So while the joke payoffs may whiff, there’s a character payoff to pick up the slack. Plus there’s an Aniston stripping sequence to showcase the fitness of the forty-something actress. The jokes settle for easy vulgarity a bit too often but every now and then the film surprises. Sudeikis is slyly enjoyable channeling a young smarmy smartass Chevy Chase, and Offerman is hilarious, enough to make you wish the movie followed his family. We’re the Millers reminds me of the 90s works of the Farrelly Brothers, a mixture of gross-out gags, slapstick, uninspired villains, and a dash of sentiment. We’re the Millers is an acceptable comedy, not a great one, but after its quarter billion dollar box-office riches, get ready to meet the Millers all over again.
Nate’s Grade: C+
A surprise hit last spring, The Call is a simple but rather effective thriller that wavers a bit in the end but not enough to derail your entertainment. Halle Berry stars as a 911 operator talking through a teen girl (Abigail Breslin, spending far too much time in a bra for my comfort) kidnapped in the trunk of a car. It has the hallmarks of the typical action thriller genre, namely our heroine working through her past trauma of inadvertently getting another young girl abducted by the SAME killer. The Call plays best as we think alongside our two embattled heroines, going step-by-step how to determine where she may be, what car she may be inside, and how to draw attention to her predicament. The writing is economical and fast-paced and mostly smart, having the police act like actual professionals. Director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) employs plenty of extreme close-ups that effectively draw upon the claustrophobia and urgency. For a solid two acts, the movie seamlessly transitions form one obstacle to another. Then the third act arrives where Berry decides to leave her post and take matters into her own hands. The film becomes far more predictable, conventional, and veers into the absurdity it had avoided for so long. The creepy killer has a half-hearted creepy back-story/fetish, Berry behaves far too cavalierly when she should be notifying the cops, and the ending defies all sensible logic. It’s meant to be a poetic punishment but, upon minor reflection, it’s entirely possible that this loose end will come back to haunt everyone yet again. In total, The Call is a breezy, suspenseful thriller that is well-acted and directed with style (the pounding electronica score doesn’t fit, though). The downturn at the end is disappointing but The Call is still worth taking.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Alfonso Cuaron spent over four and a half years developing his latest film, Gravity. The tale of two stranded astronauts had to invent technology to fully realize Cuaron’s zero gravity vision, carefully programming precise camera movements into a room full of LED flat screens to orient the harnessed actors and light them properly. It could have gone stupendously wrong in so many ways. Instead it’s the biggest leap forward in movie technology since 2009’s Avatar and surely one of the best science fiction films since 2006’s Children of Men, Cuaron’s last movie. It is a thrilling, awe-inspiring, astonishing, illuminating, and altogether brilliant film. Films like Gravity are the reason we go to the movies.
High above planet Earth, astronauts Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are repairing the Hubble telescope when a field of satellite debris crashes into their shuttle. Both of the astronauts are adrift in space and have to maneuver to the safety of a space station. The debris storm circling the Earth is gathering size and force, and these two are running out of oxygen and safe places to hide.
Gravity is one of those movies that you feel like ordinary English adjectives do it a disservice. I can refer to it and visually resplendent, awe-inspiring, and borderline transcendent, but my words will ultimately prove fruitless, because the experience of Gravity is beyond description. This is the reason we go to the movies, to be amazed, to feel something new, and Cuaron has taken the next great leap forward in technical moviemaking while also retaining the artistic soul of an engaging thriller. You could simply view Gravity as a visual feast and be content, or you could view it as a harrowing survival thriller and be content, or you could view it as Cuaron’s spiritual exploration on the perseverance of life against all odds (more on this later). Any way you shake it, it’s hard to come away from Gravity being disappointed, though I know with every lofty word of praise I inject that the bar is set even higher in audience expectations.
From a visual standpoint, Cuaron has crafted a truly immersive film going experience that puts you in the center of the action. The signature long takes amaze just as much as the visuals, both of which give you the sensation of what it’s like to be in space, weightless, free-floating, and oh so vulnerable at a moment’s notice. It’s been almost 45 years since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 showed the visual poetry of zero-gravity acrobatics, and the sheer visual still has plenty of potency left. But coupled with Cuaron’s blinkless long takes, the illusion is rarely broken, especially in the first twenty minutes, which establishes the stakes and the reality of survival in space. Ignoring all aspects of the plot and acting, you could sit through the entirety of Gravity and find it a sumptuous, invigorating experience purely from the cutting edge special effects. There is a real sense of majesty to the views from space, overlooking our blue orb, the vastness of it all. It would be overwhelmingly beautiful if it weren’t also simultaneously terrifying. Space, much like nature itself, has an indifferent cruelty to it, and Cuaron does an exceptional job of presenting both the grandeur and the inherent dangers of space.
My nerves were racked throughout those tense 90 minutes of intense orbital activity. As a thriller, Gravity is a very well constructed setup with pristine execution. Each problem is dealt with in the immediacy, the unique particular of space allowing us a new perspective on the survival/disaster thriller model. First she has to stop floating. Then she has to get more oxygen. Then she has to get to a more safe location. Then she has to get back home. It may sound like not enough little plot pit stops but each one is pivotal and a remote respite from jeopardy. The wholeness of space is so complete that it feels like the odds are forever stacked against Stone. I was breathless through many of the suspense sequences, nervously tapping my feet, urging the onscreen characters onward. Cuaron and his son, co-writer Jonas, make it clear early the steps of her journey, and each feel like a natural result of the dire changing circumstances. The accumulative debris is given a 90-minute countdown for return, so we’re always wary that Stone will be caught back in the orbiting mass of projectiles. The sense of peril is kept on high and doesn’t relent, leaving you feeling like every nerve is spent by the conclusion. It’s a top-notch thriller that doesn’t involve the use of a single gun or car chase.
If there is one complaint, I suppose it could be over the somewhat thin back-story and characterization of Stone. I don’t know what a medical officer is exactly doing in space fixing the Hubble telescope but oh well. Cuaron keeps the audience firmly stuck in Stone’s predicament; we do not cut away to any flashbacks of life on Earth, and so it makes fleshing out a central character notable difficult. People don’t usually open up into revealing monologues while they’re trying to fight for immediate survival. She’s got the standard tragic back-story, losing a daughter, but for me this was enough to work with. I don’t necessarily need Stone to be a thriving, complex, emotionally nuanced character because my empathy was already there as soon as the peril began. I wanted her to survive because she was a person; I didn’t have to relate to her on a deeper fundamental level to root for her survival. There are some nice late scenes where Stone reflects on the existential crisis, on knowing her imminent death, on the fog she’s been trapped within since her daughter’s accidental death. Bullock (The Heat), in her best performance to date, is able to pull you in. If faced with your imminent end, how would you attempt to make peace of things, let alone stranded away from all human contact? It’s a strong awards-caliber performance and while her character isn’t given much development, she still has an arc, and I think there’s a greater thematic link with her crossing.
I’m no fan of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder) but I understand people’s assertion that the man is a film theologian, making the theater a borderline religious experience for his faithful fans. In my eyes, Gravity has an unmistakable spiritual subtext that it can be viewed in different directions. Firstly, it’s hard not to feel an overpowering sense of awe when taking in the sheer magnitude and beauty of the incalculable universe. But then there’s Cuaron’s opening text that prefaces how outrageously impossible life in space is, contemplating all the harsh realities. And yet, here we are. Whether you chalk that up to something religious like God or just the fortune of the cosmos, it’s still a remarkable journey. The evolution of Stone is also reminiscent of that of life on Earth. When she finds refuge in the space station, she removes her suit, curling up in a fetal ball, while the camera centers her and she slowly rotates. The womb imagery is obvious but still effective. There’s also a third act assist that seems like direct divine intervention by most accounts. Then, spoilers, as she lands on a hospitable planet, she emerges from the sea, triumphant, taking her first steps onto land. Triumphant against all odds, against the cruel vacuum of space, life proves to be the winner. Again, whether you ascribe this to a creator God or a wonder of lucky evolutionary forces, it’s hard to escape Cuaron’s spiritual subtext tugging away at you, making the personal survival of Stone a greater analogue for the genesis of mankind and the emergence of humanity.
This is one of the few films I would recommend seeing in 3D. Cuaron has spent four and a half years translating his vision to the big screen and you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t see Gravity on the biggest screen possible. It is a film experience to be savored that will not measure up when you are forced to watch such outsized splendor on your puny home TV. This is an expertly made thriller, a visually transcendent, cutting-edge trip to space, and a revitalizing time at the movies. It’s as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. It’s bursting with stimulation for the senses as well as a reawakened sense of spirituality, of something greater to be thankful for. I am in awe of Curaron as a filmmaker and I am in awe of his finished product. It was worth the wait. Now I hope I never have to wait another seven long years again before I see the words “directed by Alfonso Cuaron” again.
Nate’s Grade: A