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Ocean’s Eight (2018)

The Ocean’s movies, with the exception of the too-cool-for-school 12, have glided by on their charm, style, and a knack for having fun with cool characters and satisfying twists and turns. After 2007’s rebounding Ocean’s 13, it looked like the franchise was going back to dormancy, and then writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) resuscitated it with an all-female team, following the exploits of recently paroled Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Like her (recently deceased?!) older brother, Debbie has a big score in mind, the New York Met Gala, but more specifically a $150 million diamond necklace to be worn by self-involved acting starlet, Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Debbie gathers a team of specialists and, with the help of he best friend Lou (Cate Blanchett), the assembled eight schemes to get rich off the neck of Ms. Kluger. Like its predecessors, this movie glides on by thanks to fun characters to root for and a fun heist that packs enough setups, payoffs, and reversals. The heist formula demands a protracted setup but this gives way to a bevy of payoffs, when done correctly, and even more payoffs when complications must be dealt with in a rapid time. Each of the ladies get a significant part of the heist, though not all of them have the same level of memorable involvement in the movie itself. Ocean’s Eight is a slick crime fantasy given a feminine twist, dipping into gaga fashions, killer jewelry, and celebrity worship. Bullock is a strong lead but it’s Blanchett that won my heart, so confidant in her wardrobe of striking men’s wear. Hathaway is a cut-up as a flaky actress needing constant validation. Part of the allure of the movie, and the heist itself, are the high-end clothes and accessories. Its prime escapism for the target audience to “ooo” and “ahhh,” as my theater did.  Ross follows the house style of Steven Soderbergh closely with lots of tracking shots, zooms, and a consistent sense of movement. The pacing is swift and thankfully there’s a significant resolution after the heist that still finds time for even more payoffs. It’s not quite on par with the original, but I’d declare Ocean’s Eight the best of the sequels. It’s fizzy fun, but what happens if there are three more of them?

Nate’s Grade: B

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Gravity (2013)

gravity-posterDirector 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-comic-con-2013Gravity 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.

gravity-sandra-bullock-700x370If 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

The Heat (2013)

the-heat-poster2Essentially a buddy cop movie with the typically macho roles swapped out to women, The Heat is an intermittently enjoyable action comedy thanks to the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The joke ratio of hits to misses has a lot of whiffs but I laughed solidly every ten minutes or so, some of the comedic set pieces were well developed, and McCarthy’s strong ability to improv saved many flailing scenes. I enjoyed that these two women were seen as professionals and didn’t need to be bogged down with the kind of plot elements you’d find in your standard Katherine Heigl vehicle. There isn’t a romantic interest nor a love story; in fact, various guys come up to McCarthy throughout asking why she hadn’t called them back after a one-night stand. It’s a little thing but it establishes that a woman like McCarthy’s can have a fruitful love life and have it be no big deal. The overall plot about a dangerous drug baron with a mole inside the government is given more complexity than necessary, and I’m not sure the action bits feel well integrated into the movie as a whole. Part of this may just be because director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) seems much more interested in grounded, human comedy, but I think it’s mostly because we’d rather be spending more time with our leads arguing. Bullock and McCarthy are an engaging team, their comedic styles nicely ping-ponging off one another, and there are enough ribald gags to justify watching it. The Heat isn’t revolutionary by any sort but maybe, in the end, that’s the point. Also it’s got Dan Bakkeddahl (TV’s Veep) as an albino DEA agent. So there’s that too.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Blind Side (2009)

Based on a true story, The Blind Side tells the true-ish story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) who was a lost, homeless black youth in Tennessee. He was adopted s a teenager by the Tuohy clan, a rich White family led by no-nonsense matriarch Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock). Her husband (Tim McGraw) is a restaurant franchise owner, so they don’t have to worry about money or food budgets for Michael’s large appetite. The gentle giant is grateful but wary. He’s admitted into a private school because of his football potential, but at first they envision the hulking teenager on defense. Leigh Anne is the one who sees his protective instincts and assists in the switch to offensive tackle, whose job is to protect the quarterback’s blind side. With Leigh Anne’s steady influence and a stable home environment, Michael begins to feel like he has a loving family. Eventually Michael Oher becomes an All-American player in college and was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

The Blind Side might just sneak up and, forgive me, blindside you. Well, that?s not accurate, because this movie will not sneak up on anyone. There is not a single moment of surprise to be had. Michael Oher is portrayed as a gentle giant who is very tight-lipped. Much of his performance is in body movement and those dark, sad eyes of his, which means that the audience has to intuit a lot from the character. That might be why the most affecting moments come from Oher’s stunned, grateful reactions. It’s hard not to be affected by such an outpouring of earnestness. Stay during the end credits, watching the photos of the real family at the 2009 NFL Draft and try not to feel a smidge of their happiness.

Bullock seems like a natural fit for this character and this material, and she does give the Southern spitfire life. She’s the heart of the movie and pretty much the driving force for the film, so it helps that Bullock taps her natural charms to make the character feel less like a cartoon and more like some approximation of a person. She’s formidable and brassy and pretty much gets her way on everything. The movie has the faulty belief that Leigh Anne saying anything folksy is funny, which is not the case. However, Bullock makes the character likeable and embraceable, and plus, she doesn’t fall down once. It must be a first for a Sandra Bullock movie.

Every scene is played into a moment of uplift and eventual triumph, which can be tiring but also has a respectable batting average for success. Structurally, the movie doesn’t have any overarching sense of conflict, which seems bizarre given the circumstances of an insanely wealthy white family adopting a troubled black youth in Tennessee. You might think Michael would take some adjusting, or that the students of privilege might not fully accept someone so different, or that the Tuohy children might need more convincing to suddenly add a new member. There are a few raised eyebrows and some slight hesitation, but the characters just barrel forward like what they are doing is common. The family is just resoundingly good-hearted and full of such moral clarity, though the husband seems to be content to be a powerless pawn to his vociferous wife. There is no real internal conflict within this family despite the burdens they tackle, and even worse the movie doesn’t really show any change occurring. At a lunch with her rich girlfriends, Leigh Anne remarks that Michael is changing her life. How? She seems like the same kindly woman from the beginning. Instead, the movie is packed with tiny little conflicts that get easily resolved and then move along. Will Michael feel at home? He does. Will he get his grades up? He does. Will he figure out the game of football? He does. Will he play well in a game? He does. Will he graduate? He does. Will he get a scholarship? He does. Will he reject the lifestyle of crime? He does.

Big Mike is sidelined in his own story by the firecracker of a character that is Leigh Anne. The saintly Tuohy family is yet another example of Hollywood feeling the need to tell a compelling African-American story framed as the story of helpful, White characters. Why can’t he film’s emphasis be on Michael instead of Leigh Anne, especially since she remains the same good Christian woman from the start? It’s probably because Oher, as portrayed on film, doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s a nice if soft-spoken kid but he mostly just shuffles his feet. Off the football field, he is written merely to take up space. He serves as the ongoing results to Leigh Anne?s teaching experiments.

If you peel away the movie’s sentiment, it does have some niggling, potentially troubling aspects to the story. It sings the praises of insanely rich Southern Christians and makes us say, “How nice and rich of them.” Leigh Anne is the kind of woman with enough mettle to venture into the ghetto and even stand up to taunting gang members. She even threatens to shoot one of them. Every one of these “ghetto” sequences feels transparently written by somebody whose only understanding of an urban environment is from movies and TV. I wasn’t expecting The Blind Side to be as accurate as The Wire, nor would I normally care about the inaccuracy, but when it’s in the service of comparison (the comfy world of rich White people vs. the hopeless existence of poor blacks) the portrayal becomes ham-handed and morally questionable. Just to rub it in how good Michael’s got it, the movie resorts to ending with a montage of newspaper reports detailing gang slayings in Oher’s old neighborhood, highlighting every character we saw onscreen. The movie says they had no choice to end up as criminals because they could not escape the nightmares of the ghetto. If only those unfortunate black youths could have found rich families to adopt them.

Perhaps the funniest moment for me, as an ardent college football fan (go Bucks!), was a montage of South Eastern Conference coaches trying to recruit Oher in 2005. He’s visited by the head coaches for South Carolina (since retired), Tennessee (since fired), Auburn (since fired), Arkansas (since fired, now coach of Ole Miss), Louisiana State (left for NFL, now coach of Alabama), Auburn (since fired), and Ole Miss (since fired). The turnaround in just a four-year period is astounding for a major college conference. The coaches look like they’re having fun in the movie, probably because they get to pretend to be coaches again.

The Blind Side is a straight-down-the-middle genre picture that plays every expected note, it?s manipulative and formulaic for a sports drama, but I’d be lying if it didn’t get to me from time to time. If you go into The Blind Side under the right frame of mind, which means essentially ignoring the flagrant manipulations, then this movie will work on its sentimental sports genre sensibilities.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Proposal (2009)

Romantic comedies can be elevated by the chemistry and comic abilities of their leads. I think the most painful modern pairing was Maid in Manhattan, which featured polar opposites Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes (could you find a more unlikely couple outside of Harold and Maude?). With The Proposal, Sandra Bullock takes a break from her usual pratfalls and finds a worthy sparring partner in the charming, self-effacing Ryan Reynolds. Bullock is a mean book editor who must get married ASAP or be deported back to Canada, and Reynolds plays her beleaguered assistant and surprise sham fiancé. The two actors have a terrific rapport and generous give-and-take, propping the other to higher achievement; they feed off each other. Their spirited, snappy, collaborative, and most significant, fun relationship is what won me over. Otherwise, The Proposal would likely have succumbed to its wealth of genre clichés, like kooky relatives (an irascible Betty White), contrived conflicts (see: premise), last-minute misunderstandings, and the collapsed window of time. These people go from hating each other to loving each other over the course of one weekend in Alaska. Yet through it all, Reynolds and Bullock kept me smiling and alert, saving me from cuteness overdoses. Hopefully Bullock and studio execs will learn from this that bickering couples work best when the actors can play nice together.

Nate’s Grade: B

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