Review: Gravity (2013)
By: Greg Maier
With Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, 2006) has almost certainly secured a Best Cinematography Oscar for his masterful director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, 2011) as it is one of the most visually stunning pictures to be released in many years. The ninety-one minute space thriller has been generating a huge buzz among movie fans since its first heart stopping teaser trailer was released. The film makes use of the 3D medium better than any film precedent and the performances from veteran Oscar winning actors George Clooney (Syriana, 2005) and Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, 2009) are marvelous. Right from the film’s mesmerizing opening thirteen minute long take, the audience is immersed in a chillingly dangerous outer space environment that viewers are sure to never forget.
In Gravity, astronauts Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are sent into a desperate fight for their lives when an orbiting Russian satellite is inexplicably destroyed sending the debris on a dangerous and exponentially growing collision path with the two American Astronauts in a similar fashion to the theoretical Kessler Syndrome proposed by Donald J. Kessler for NASA in 1978. The story documents their attempts to get home after they are left drifting in space without any radio contact and the knowledge that more waves of debris will be reaching them every 90 minutes.
For me, the film is more of a visual spectacle than anything as the story is a simple one of survival and the instinctual will of the human spirit to live. I don’t believe the film is meant to have strong political or religious undertones, though that’s up for individual interpretation; I just couldn’t see any. That doesn’t discredit the film to me in any way because for what it is, an extremely realistic space thriller, Gravity couldn’t be much better. I will say that there are a couple of moments that I didn’t love, an exaggerated explosion sequence inside the International Space Station and the films overly dramatic ending, but I have to say that I left the theater very much a fan of this landmark film.
From a technical aspect, Gravity like Stanley Kubrick‘s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a film balancing on the cutting edge of new technology which furthers the limits of live action filmmaking. The camera work in this film is unparalleled thanks to the latest in programable mechanical arms that deliver some of the smoothest moving images any movie goer has ever seen. The very physical performance from Bullock has drawn comparisons to the intricate choreography of Cirque du Soleil which will likely go under appreciated come awards season. This three year labor of love which was co-written by Cuarón and his son is one of the best films about space ever made and brings universal fears and emotions to life like never before in the cinema. Normally I think of it as just a gimmick for selling more expensive movie tickets, but for this film I fully recommend seeing Gravity in 3D as the filmmaker has intended. like most kids growing up, I used to think going to outer space would be an amazing experience that I hoped to one day see. After watching Gravity I think I’ll stick to good old planet Earth. Touché Mr. Cuarón, touché.
By: Greg Maier
As the immediate Oscar front runner after its Telluride Film Festival premier, I had anticipated 12 Years a Slave more than most films this year. Early awards season predictions aside, I had very much admired director Steve McQueen‘s first two features Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), both of witch feature classic leading performances from Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, 2012). Reflecting on 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender and McQueen deliver the goods yet again in terms of their technical performances, but the film’s impression just doesn’t quite match the deeply personal and emotional truths of McQueen’s freshman and sophomore efforts.
In their third collaboration, Fassbender is phenomenal in McQueens new movie as the villainous slave owner Edwin Epps, but for the first time is not the film’s leading actor. Instead, the lead is helmed by the formally unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, 2006). The talented up and comer plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south for a twelve year period. His performance is more than noteworthy and is comprised of heavy and genuine emotional pain contrasted with deep physical abuse and suffering as his character is put through both ringers. Solomon not only loses his freedom, he is also forced to leave behind his wife and children, who are not able to track him down after his real name is disregarded as nonsense and is then referred to only by the name Platt. The majority of the film focuses on Solomon’s time living on a number of southern slave plantations where McQueen forces the audience to bear witness to horrible acts of insensitive violence filmed against a beautifully poetic and photogenic 1840s period setting.
I feel that 12 Years a Slave is certainly an above average film for 2013, but somewhere along the line falls short of its potential. Perhaps it is a little overly Hollywood despite being led by a relative unknown actor. The cast includes some Hollywood heavy hitters including Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 2004), Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, 2007), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into the Darkness, 2013), and Brad Pitt (Inglorious Bastards, 2009). Perhaps it’s because the brutality of the film based on its subject matter ended up being slightly less than what I was expecting. There are two exceptionally haunting scenes that are both done in one long cut, but otherwise I felt that the film was relatively tame compared to Hunger and Shame. I think most of all it was poor decisions in the editing room that ultimately keeps this very good film from being a great one. There are a number of unnecessary establishing shots that slow down the pace and the elliptical editing does a poor job of portraying the illusion of twelve years actually passing.
I enjoyed 12 Years a Slave, but can’t help but feel a little let down in the end. Though I think the film deserves many nominations and I admire the layers of detail put into this film, I still wouldn’t award a Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Director Oscar to the talented artists who made this picture because I know that they can do better. Undoubtedly the critical success of this film will perpetuate UK artist Steve McQueen’s filmmaking career to new heights and I look forward to going to a theater in the near future to see what he’s coming with next. With the growing number of half-hearted Hollywood franchises and terrible B movies being made every year, it’s comforting to know that there are still serious artists working in the film medium who are willing to take a risk with a story just to generate a reaction.
By: Greg Maier
Well it must be that time of the year again. Summer is just winding down and fall is fast approaching as the season rolls through the calendar like clockwork. Just as every year the heat turns to cold and the leaves fall off the trees, master American film auteur Woody Allen is also back again with another film he has both written and directed (the forty-eighth of his career). When I say Woody is doing this like clockwork, I am not pulling any punches. The once stand-up legend of one-liners set his sights on the motion picture business in the 1960’s and never gave it a second thought again. In fact, he has made one movie nearly every year since the early 70’s. His latest picture, Blue Jasmine, is a refreshing change of pace from last year’s To Rome With Love which, though it had it’s moments, fell far short of what we’ve seen Woody to be capable of making. On the other hand Blue Jasmine, Woody’s first film shot in the U.S. since 2009’s Whatever Works, brings the writer/director back to America with a movie that is a more dramatic and character focused form of storytelling compared to his recent work where the comedy and the setting takes center stage.
Blue Jasmine staring Cate Blanchett (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008), follows the decent into madness of an eccentric pill popping and vodka drinking upper class New York wife of a rich Bernie Madoff type played by Alec Baldwin (The Departed, 2006). After her husband lands in prison for his white collar crimes and eventually commits suicide, Jasmine has nowhere to turn except family as she packs up her two remaining Louis Vuitton suitcases and flies her dead broke delusional self first class to San Francisco where she moves in with her sister Ginger played by Sally Hawkis (Cassandra’s Dream, 2007). Jasmine is so delusional in fact, that the rich Hampton part of her story is told entirely in a series of flashbacks she has while living in San Francisco where innocent bystanders become witness to her confused and mentally unstable mutterings as she literally sits in a trance talking to herself.
Blanchett delivers a most memorable performance in the title role that is certain to bring her a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. Sitting in the theater, I could almost feel myself falling down the dark hole Jasmine plummets herself into and the films final scene, done in one continuous classic Woody Allen style long take, shows the true brilliance Cate brought to her performance. I could not imagine anyone else playing the role and hope that this won’t be the last time Woody and Cate collaborate as he has had several muses over his long career (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Scarlett Johansson). Rounding out what is surely one of this year’s most intriguing casts are sand up comedians Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay, as well as HBO series regulars Michael Stuhlbarg and Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire).
What struck me most about Blue Jasmine was the heavy and sadistic tone of realism present in the story. An average moviegoer usually wants to see a film that both feels truthful, but also delivers a happy resolve by its end. Blue Jasmine does not fall under this classification by any means as it is a much more honest reflection on today’s society then the stuff of cliché Hollywood movie magic. I am reminded of Woody’s more bittersweet films like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Manhattan and Annie Hall which I always have found to be among the most meaningful works in his greatly diverse filmography. The great thing about Woody Allen is that he never gives up, even if last year’s picture was a complete mess, he just brushes it off and moves on to the next one. Whether you like his films or hate them, whether you love Woody or you don’t, there is no denying the impact he has had on not only American cinema, but the world of movies at large. I personally cannot wait for whatever story he wants to tell us next; this must be the mark of a really great artist.