Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Big Review: "Gravity"

When the beat goes on, and you can't go on...
Forget about the IMAX and 3D nonsense, it would be a classic in any era. (Just like 2001.) This review previously appeared in ICON and appears with permission.

With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón has made a masterpiece via a simple, frequently forgotten fact: the best movies in any genre are built on emotions. Stars come and go. Budgets increase. The technology gets better and faster. But the need for audiences to feel something is an unquenchable desire, and Gravity satisfies it better than any movie I’ve seen in years.

Far above the earth, a five-person crew repairs a satellite, which slowly drifts into view from right to left. We pick up snippets of conversation between the crew and mission control. That’s the extent of the set-up. It’s a humdrum stretch during another workday where the routine lulls everyone into a complacent efficiency.

The announcement of oncoming debris doesn’t come with much urgency. What’s supposed to be nothing turns into a catastrophe; the satellite and ship are destroyed, leaving astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tumbling through the vast blackness, their chances of survival evaporating with each second. No one can hear them. Help is not coming. They are truly alone. 

Doom creeps in, slowly and assuredly. I saw the 3-D version of Gravity in the newly renovated Prince Music Theater, which is now equipped with all the digital trimmings that will make movies better and cure cancer or whatever. Cuarón uses the technology afforded him for what is: a complement. Gravity grabs you through traditional mastery: the reflection of the earth spinning in Stone’s helmet as she goes topsy-turvy; the shot of a family photo next to the poor bastard whose head looks like a hollowed out pumpkin. A Marvin the Martian figurine floats into the frame, and then—oh my God! Wait, was that a piece of debris? Move your ass, Stone!

You can count the number of cuts on two hands in the film’s first 45 minutes. Frequently, all we hear is the whirring of machines or a heartbeat as the soundtrack. Cuarón establishes an intolerable and never-ending loneliness. Stone keeps talking to mission control, almost out of habit.

Kowalski, essentially Clooney’s Danny Ocean in a spacesuit, is smooth-talking calm. He guides her. Through their clipped conversation, we learn a bit about Stone. She’s a workaholic. Her child died unexpectedly. She listens to anything on the radio when she drives home from the hospital. Bullock, to her credit, holsters the charisma and sports a borderline mom haircut that dampens the glamour. That she and Clooney don’t always take roles equipped with halos helps immeasurably. If Julia Roberts or Will Smith were the stars, their agents would have demanded that they ride back to Earth on a comet. With Clooney and Bullock on board, not trying to triumph over the material, we honestly don’t know if Stone and Kowalsky are going to make it.

Especially Stone. Space is where she can stay comfortably numb. Now that her paradise is lost, how badly does she want to live? How many obstacles can she summon the strength to overcome? Cuarón uses Stone as his social commentary. We’ve grown so reliant on things—technology, religion, outside forces—to guide our lives that we’ve stopped believing in the abilities of the human race. Stone represents a different kind of change, which is why we believe in her even when she’s stopped doing that herself. We need her to survive.

Gravity folds its allegory into the horror of Stone and Kowalski’s predicament. The excitement never dims the message and vice versa. One of the great thrills is watching Cuarón keep this balance throughout—catching us off-guard with the special effects, letting Stone battle to find her resolve, knowing when to whisper and when to shout. Everything about Gravity is seamless and assured yet brimming with the soul of an optimist. Cuarón has captured and amplified the human experience without isolating us from it. We lose and find ourselves all at once. [PG-13]

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Film Round-Up for October 2013: Don Jon, Inequality for All, Blue Caprice, Salinger

Joseph Gordon-Levitt overexerts himself in his directorial debut.

Kind of a mixed bag this month. A review of Gravity will be up Thursday night, so that should be fun, no? But the review is in the print version of ICON, which you can pick up right now.

These reviews previously appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.  

Don Jon (Dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headley, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luc. What matters to twentysomething Jersey bartender Jon (Gordon-Levitt) can fit on a postage stamp. Topping the list is online porn, a pursuit he prefers to the sex he regularly gets. Jon’s priorities shift when his desire to hook up with a “dime” (Johansson) turns into an actual relationship. Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut starts with lots of energy and smarts—Jon doesn’t realize that his dream girl is playing him like a fiddle—before running out of ideas. A working-class cartoon, complete with dem-dese-dose accents and greasy leering, then emerges. The worst part of this quest for “authenticity” is whenever Jon and his father (Danza) meet for Sunday dinner. Donning wife-beaters, they compete in a Stanley Kowalski-off while the TV blares football and Jon’s mom (Headley) wails about not having grandkids. By the time Moore’s pointless character arrives, Gordon-Levitt is so consumed with establishing his blue-collar bona fides—and spoon-feeding us emotions a la David O. Russell—that he obscures his main character’s soul. We can’t root for a caricature. Don Jon is not only hopelessly disconnected to anything resembling real life, writer-director Gordon-Levitt embraces the Hollywood nonsense his main character openly disdains. ** [R] 

Inequality for All (Dir: Jacob Kornbluth). With this and last year’s pandering Bully, The Weinstein Company must stop being part of releasing documentaries that urge us to change at gunpoint (or at least via Website) and support movies where the content alone inspires viewers to act. Fortunately, Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor under Clinton, is eloquent and intelligent in explaining why we have constant class warfare. Very simply put, America’s wealth is hoarded by a small number of people who don’t pay enough in taxes. That burden falls to the members of the vast middle class, a faulty plan considering those people spend the most money. Spending, of course, helps revive a sagging economy. Investing in the middle class—for example, higher education—is one way to straighten things out. The movie veers from Reich’s graphics-assisted rhetoric to his life story to profiles of real people. The last part is when the movie breaks the bonds of ideology and marketing slickness to become something audiences can appreciate. **1/2 [PG]

Blue Caprice (Dir: Alexandre Moors). Starring: Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond, Tim Blake Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams, Cassandra Freeman. Quiet, unsettling debut feature from Moors examines the relationship between John Allen Muhammad (Washington) and Lee Boyd Malvo (Richmond), the man and teenager behind the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002. They first meet in Antigua, where an abandoned Malvo, flocks to the charismatic Muhammad, who gives him work and food. Later, the pair heads to Muhammad’s old home in Tacoma, Washington. In America, Muhammad is just another disaffected, unemployable loser. Desperate for any adult influence, Malvo latches onto Muhammad and his anger at the world. Muhammad, finally, has someone who takes him seriously who is also in his debt. Moors and screenwriter Ronnie Porto show how easy it was for this tragedy to come together without offering much insight into how the killers’ minds operated. “You’re not going to figure it out, even if I tell you,” Malvo says to an investigator after he’s caught. The willingness to embrace vagueness gives Blue Caprice a coiled, cold menace--even if you wish it would boil over instead of simmer. *** [R]

Salinger (Dir: Shane Salerno). From our friends at TWC comes A Current Affair meets American Masters. Highly anticipated documentary of author J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) contains a stunning announcement that fans of The Catcher in the Rye scribe’s catalogue will relish. Other than that, things bottom out after Salinger reaches the crest of his literary success and morphs into a shut-in with a fondness for young women. Information gives way to distractions—whether it’s pundits offering theories or journalists recalling brusque encounters with Salinger. And, Lord help us, there are breathless, almost laughable reenactments such as Salinger feverishly typing on a stage bathed in atmospheric lighting, like he’s opening for Jethro Tull. The first half is solid because we actually learn something about Salinger the person and the writer. (The insights of his former paramour, Jean Miller, are particularly revealing.)  Salinger was so good at being inscrutable—tightening his inner circle, isolating his family and friends—that his mysteriousness is practically impregnable. For all of Salerno’s urgency and energy, not unexpected from someone who helped write Armageddon, we leave not understanding Salinger. I almost expect the late author would be pleased with this film. He’d be in a slim minority. Note: This does not refer to the newer version with exclusive footage. ** [PG-13]