Review: Gravity (2013)

Review: Gravity (2013)

By: Greg Maier

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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3.5 star rating

Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

By: Greg Maier

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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.

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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.

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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.

3.5 star rating

Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

By: Greg Maier

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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.

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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).

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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.

3 star rating

Review: The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

By: Greg Maier
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     “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder”  is easily the best movie line of the first half of 2013 which has developed to be an unimpressive lineup of films thus far.  To it’s credit, The Place Beyond the Pines does not belong in the same discussion as the rest of the first half of this year’s dismal films because not only did this film have great potential, but it far exceeded it.  I took interest in this film based mainly on the reputation of director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, 2010) and actor Ryan Gossling (Drive, 2011) and also from the trailer which suggested a heist/thriller type of movie with a Drive-esque feel to it.  Having previously not cared for Bradley Cooper‘s work in the slightest, I was very impressed with his performance in last year’s oscar heavyweight, Silver Lining’s Playbook (2012), and was eager to see what he would bring to the table next.  Walking into the theater, I was very much expecting to see ‘Drive‘ on a motorcycle, but what I came out with was something entirely different.
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     In The Place Beyond the Pines, we meet motorcycle stuntman and rolling stone Luke Glanton (Gossling) who rides his dirtbike inside the cage of death for a traveling carnival act.  When Luke learns that he has unknowingly fathered a child, he decides to stick around and be involved in his infant son’s life.  Wanting to provide for his new pseudo family, Luke soon turns to armed robbery of local banks; he uses his motorcycle skills to make his escape.  This all takes place in the first act of the story which, not to spoil anything, ends with a very profound climax.  So profound in fact, that it is at this point in the movie I realized how completely different this story really was from what I had been expecting.  The first act was mesmerizing and flashed before my eyes with the style and speed of Handsome Luke’s motorcycle.  The Place Beyond the Pines was proving to not be a heist movie at all and was instead, a film about fathers and sons.
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     Bradley Cooper then takes center stage from Gossling as the second act of the film develops a solid narrative that touches on questions of honor and moral principle set against a corrupt world of police officials who are the kind of cops that love making “unofficial” house calls.  Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, 1990) delivers a forceful performance as the spearheading police chief Deluca who forces Cooper’s character into compromising and downright disrespectful situations involving Luke Lanton and his family.  Cooper’s character, Avery Cross, is morally very sound and even has political aspirations (mostly driven by the enthusiasm of his own father).  He, like Handsome Luke, has a young son and a family to provide for in this corrupt world filled with corner cutting temptation.
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     The third act begins over a decade later in the story and is a modern set drama piece that stars the now teenage version’s of Luke Lanton and Avery Cross’s sons.  Though the weakest of the film’s three acts, the scenario was an ambitious undertaking which allows the two boys of the next generation to choose their course in life.  Will they follow in the footsteps of their fathers or won’t they?  Are future generations bound to repeat the mistakes of their fathers?  I won’t spoil you with director Derek Cianfrance’s answers, but I would like to mention how much I appreciated Cianfrance’s choice for the final shot of the film and if you see it too, I think you’ll agree.
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     The film’s title is referring to a clearing in the surrounding woods just beyond the fictional town the story unfolds in.  Each set of characters in each act of the film at some point, for various reasons, find themselves at the place beyond the pines for a meaningful moment.  Perhaps it can be thought of as a place of contentment or even bliss, though I’m not sure it matters.  All I can say, with extreme certainty, is how much I enjoyed going to that Place Beyond the Pines and how unforgettable an experience can be when you step into the right movie theater.
3.5 star rating

Review: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

By: Greg Maier
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     I had been looking forward to this bio/drama picture about Liberace and the relationship he had with his young gay lover Scott Thorson ever since I read an article on IMDb during its production about how Hollywood had deemed the script to be “too gay” to produce.  Naturally the always hyper-sexualized HBO network was quickly identified as the perfect homoerotic bubble bath for director Steven Soderbergh to soak his film in.  When it was announced to be shown in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival before its world wide HBO premiere, my anticipation grew to even greater heights knowing the wait would soon be over.  Behind the Candelabra does not disappoint and here is why:
     Obviously, with the world’s ever controversial gay and lesbian civil rights discussion in full force, a film like this has an added layer of emphasis to it’s content.  We, as an increasingly accepting society, are meant to identify with the film’s two leads, played fearlessly by Michael Douglass and Matt Damon.   Whether viewers are gay or straight shouldn’t matter because the feelings and emotions that love brings are universal no matter what your sexual orientation is and therefore as viewers we can understand this relationship.  Feelings of lust, infatuation, trust, jealousy and heartbreak are exemplified to extreme and often flamboyant levels of excess in the film as we watch a conventionally taboo relationship between two men develop from friendship to love and companionship.
     Yet, as a straight man with no homosexual tendencies, I did not think of this film as something to be considered taboo while I was watching it, I was instead captivated by the environment and character development that was masterfully crafted by it’s filmmakers.  This has to be a reflection on the society I was born into which I believe to be shifting very strongly towards freedom and acceptance of gay and lesbian couples.  That being said, Behind the Candelabra doesn’t focus primarily on rhetoric in favor of gay rights; the film’s intent is more subtle than that.  The film is meant to show audiences this universality of love across cultures, ages, and genders, and how powerful and meaningful those relationships are to our lives.  It fleshes out a relationship between two of the gayest characters I’ve ever seen on screen who are played, I might add, by two publicly straight, married Hollywood men.  To put it bluntly, it is less about gay sex and more about friendship and companionship.  It’s time for our society to push back previous notions about homosexuality and recognize it as something different yet perfectly normal, which it is.
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     All of that aside, Behind the Candelabra is a terrifically entertaining and comical biography piece about one of America’s original superstar celebrities, Liberace.  Along with unworldly skills as a piano player, Liberace was first and foremost, a master showman who thrived on the energy of an audience and wanted nothing more than to entertain.   I could never conceive of a better casting choice for the role than Michael Douglass who’s voice and mannerisms truly forge Liberace’s a larger than life persona while on stage and in the public eye.  While in private, Douglass’ Liberace (referred to as Lee) is as venerable and self conscious as any of us non-celebrities ever are, perhaps even more.  This duality of character is even more prominent when considering the fact that the man, though not at all ashamed to express most of his true self-identity to the world, had to remain completely in the closet about his sexuality during his lifetime.
     The film is rounded out with an exceptional supporting cast including surprising performances from Dan Aykroyd, Debbie Reynolds and most surprisingly from show stealer Rob Lowe as the Hollywood plastic surgeon for Liberace and Scott Thorson.  This, combined with flawlessly detailed set design, a wonderful original score composition by Marvin Hamlisch (his last work before his death), and master cinematography from Director/DP Steven Soderbergh, makes for an end product of a film that this reviewer will certainly look back on for future inspiration.  I can’t usually speak so highly of his work (especially these days), but nonetheless filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has proven himself as a modern master of cinema with this delightfully charming film about love and excess that Hollywood thought would be “too gay” for American audiences.  Please don’t let this be the last film you ever make Mr. Soderbergh!  I can see that you still have it in you, no pun intended.
3.5 star rating