Movie Review: Gravity (2013) (2D)

October 4, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

gravity-poster

I’m probably biased because I am a massive fan of director Alfonso Cuaron (responsible for possibly my favourite movie from the last 10 years, 2006′s Children of Men, as well as the best Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban), but let me just put it out there: I reckon his latest, Gravity, could very well be a masterpiece.

I saw just one scene of the film in one of the trailers, so I went into it with relatively little knowledge of what it’s all about, potentially a key reason why I found it so engrossing. I won’t say much except that it takes place in space and is about a bunch of astronauts (headed by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) on a mission. It is unconventional and a bit of a “concept” film in that there is only a handful of actors, minimal dialogue and limited human interaction. But it is one heck of a ride, one that is packed with a wide range of emotions ranging from fear, horror, desperation and claustrophobia to serenity, solitariness and hope.

The script is written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron. I don’t think there is anything exceptional about it or the dialogue (there’s not a lot of it anyway), but I do think it is Cuaron’s masterful direction that makes Gravity work so well. He employs a lot of his trademark long takes which I absolutely adore, some of which feel like they last for 5 to 10 minutes each (the film’s first scene has no visible cuts for about 10 minutes). I’m sure a lot of it is just clever effects and editing, but the feel of a long, continuous, winding shot that moves from place to place and character to character really immerses you in the moment and the action.

Gravity is also one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen and makes you wonder how Cuaron went about shooting it and creating the special effects. I assume pretty much all of it is shot in studios with green screens, but the end product comes across as frighteningly realistic and genuine (I say “comes across” because very few of us know what it actually looks like in space). The same could be said for the space stations and shuttles in the film, which, I assume again, are close replicas of their real-life counterparts. The stunning and soothing views of Earth from space are incredible as well, and provide a beautiful contrast to all the man-made chaos happening right above it.

I was tempted to watch the film in 3D because apparently it’s “worth it,” but I’ve heard that so many times now and every time I’ve fallen for it I’ve come away disappointed. That said, there were parts of the film where I thought 3D might work well, and if I had the opportunity (sadly, I probably don’t) I’d love to watch it again in IMAX 3D. Either way, it’s a film that definitely should be seen on the big screen for maximum appreciation.

As with almost all films with only few characters, the quality of the acting is vital. In this regard Gravity also delivers, with Sandra Bullock — who I’ve never been very high on as an actress despite her Oscar win for The Blind Side — giving one of the best performances of her career. She spends a lot of the film on her own but somehow still manages to make us connect with her on an emotional level and forces us to sense her fear and dread. Apparently Bullock was one of the last choices for the challenging role after the talks with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively and Natalie Portman fell through, but it has turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.

The other major role is played by George Clooney, the experienced wisecracking team captain who is so cool and calm under extreme pressure that it makes you wonder whether he is either a robot or a psychopath. Damn this perfect man (again) because he delivers a perfect performance, one I can’t really find any faults with.

I see a LOT of films, so I always welcome something that is a little different to your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It doesn’t mean I prefer them or will necessarily like them more (for example, I liked the concept of the 2010 Ryan Reynolds film Buried, though I didn’t think they ultimately pulled it off), but I find it exciting to experience something I haven’t before. Gravity is definitely something different, so I can appreciate that it is not for everyone. As I was walking out of the cinema, most of the comments I heard from my fellow viewers were negative, such as, “It was too slow and depressing”, “There weren’t enough people in it”, and “There’s too much internal psychological drama”. Even my wife thought it was just “OK”, not boring but not great either.

But for me, Gravity ticks all the boxes for a great film. It’s engrossing, exciting and intelligent, visually captivating, masterfully directly and skillfully performed. And it’s daring and memorable. It will dash the desire of anyone who ever dreamed of being an astronaut, and viewers used to more conventional films might feel like something’s missing, but apart from that, it’s as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in years.

5 stars out of 5!

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 6)

November 15, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but it’s not because I haven’t had any lined up. Here goes. I suppose this is the “drama” portion of my catch-up review blitz.

War Horse (2011)

I wasn’t as high on this Steven Spielberg epic as I thought I would be. As the title suggests, it’s about the life of a horse, from its birth in the early 1900s to the end of the First World War, and the lives of all the people it touches along the way. There’s not much to dislike about the film — it features a stellar ensemble cast, looks absolutely amazing, and is designed to tug the heart strings. Ordinarily, that’s more than good enough for me.

But for some strange reason I wasn’t blown away by it. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the biggest horse fan, or perhaps its because the ensemble cast meant there wasn’t a particular human character I could really connect with. Or maybe it’s because it was so serious, lacking in that light touch I had been used to from Spielberg movies. But it is overly long at 146 minutes and my guess is that I found the subject matter a little on the bland side.

Ultimately though, it’s still a fine piece of filmmaking from one of the masters. I just wish I liked it more.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants is remarkable in that it takes an interesting but unspectacular concept and turns it into a poignant, funny and unexpected gem driven by excellent performances.

Based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it’s about a Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney) who happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that owns a lot of very expensive land. He’s filthy rich, but as usual, not content with life. Following a tragic accident to his wife, he is forced to confront his two daughters and the fact that his marriage wasn’t as perfect as he thought it was.

This is the kind of movie critics just love. Well-written and well-directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election), and with possibly the best performance of Clooney’s career, The Descendants treads a fine line between genuine emotion and melodrama, but manages to come out on the right side. If you’ve seen Payne’s earlier films you’ll have an idea of the kind of dark comedy and tone that he is accustomed to creating.

I wouldn’t say I absolutely loved this movie but I did think it was wonderfully made and produced laughs and stirred up emotions I had not expected. While it probably deserved its Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, I doubt this is a movie we will look back upon in a few years as a classic, or even a particularly memorable film.

4 stars out of 5

Puncture

Captain America as a drug addicted lawyer? And it’s a true story? Yep, that’s what Puncture is all about. Chris Evans is Mike Weiss, who looks like a bum off the street but is actually a very smart guy with a law degree. The problem is, he doesn’t care much about anyone except himself, and is usually either drunk or on drugs.

Weiss and his partner take on a case where the manufacturer of a safety syringe (which would be perfect in hospitals) claims it was shut out of the market by the big bad pharmaceutical companies (sounds like a true story already). As the case progresses and the odds become more and more against him, Weiss starts developing a conscience and begins to genuinely care about the cause — with your typical “flawed protagonist finds redemption” vibe written all over it.

Essentially, Puncture is a darker, grittier version of some of the other little lawyer against big bad corporations kind of film. Matt Damon’s The Rainmaker comes to mind. But unfortunately, Puncture takes far too long to get off the ground that by the time I found myself engaged it was almost over. And no, it’s got nothing to do with Evan’s acting, which was fine, by the way.

I think it had a great story to tell and the final third was executed rather well, but it’s a shame that the film could not have gotten interesting sooner.

3 stars out of 5

The Beaver (2011)

This film had things going for it and against it. On the one hand it is directed by Jodie Foster and is called The Beaver (which is awesome), but on the other it stars megadouche and anti-Semitic psycho Mel Gibson. In the end, I decided to put my biases aside and watch the film, and I still can’t decide in the end whether I made good use of my time.

The Beaver deals with Depression by creating a bizarre scenario. Water Black (Gibson) is a depressed toy company CEO who handles his issues by speaking through a beaver hand puppet (as though it were a different person). And to everyone’s surprise, the beaver makes Black a huge success and enables him to rekindle his relationship with his wife (Foster) and son (Anton Yelchin).

If you can stomach the premise and the actor, The Beaver is a solid drama that tells a serious story in a semi-lighthearted manner. There isn’t as much humour as you would expect, though I suppose it’s hard to be funny when you’re dealing with a mental illness that affects millions of people. I think Foster dealt with it respectfully and she injects the film with warmth and honesty, but I’m not certain that I was sold by it as a whole. In the end of the day, it’s still a family drama starring Mel Gibson, and neither is really my cup of tea.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Ides of March (2011)

December 4, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I really need to get a move on.  It’s almost the end of 2011 and there are too many potentially good movies to be watched before 2012.  And so I began my (hopeful) end-of-year movie blitz with a 2012 Oscar frontrunner, The Ides of March, directed by, co-written by and starring George Clooney.

I’m a sucker for political dramas (I thought the 1998 John Travolta film Primary Colors was fantastic), and so I had high hopes for this film, which also stars some of my favourite actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti and Marisa Tomei.  However, The Ides of March really belongs to Ryan Gosling, who continues to impress with a controlled, Oscar-worthy performance as Stephen Meyers, a junior campaign manager for Clooney’s (potential) Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Morris.

Without giving away too much, the film follows the young, bright and extremely capable Meyers as he tries to assist Pennsylvania Governor Morris in securing the state of Ohio in the Democrat’s presidential candidate race against an Arkansas Senator.  Securing Ohio effectively clinches the nomination (and essentially the White House), so it’s a big deal, but both Meyers and Morris are idealists who want to run the race with integrity and without compromising their values.  However, as they both find out throughout the course of the film, politics is a dirty game where the lines and boundaries and continually being pushed and blurred.  To what extremes will they go in order to get what they want?

I won’t divulge more than that except to say that The Ides of March is, at its core, a somewhat cynical political tale about the loss of innocence.  It begins slowly and is what some would call a slow burner, so it won’t be for everyone.  But I enjoyed every minute of it.  Apart from giving viewers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the shady deals, compromises and grey areas in these political processes — daily battles with competitors, internal power struggles, schmoozing journalists and smoothing out scandals — the stylish intensity that underlies the film from start to finish really elevates this otherwise unremarkable story (if you think about it)  to one of the best dramas of the year.

The perfect performances from the awesome cast must receive a significant chunk of the credit.  Gosling has already been nominated once (for Half Nelson in 2006), and this could be the year he takes out Best Actor at the Oscars.  Clooney (Syriana), Hoffman (Capote) and Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) are all Oscar winners and Giamatti is a multiple nominee, and each brings a touch of class to their character — all of whom possess a different side to what is originally presented.  And Evan Rachel Wood, who has a key role as a Morris campaign intern, is surprisingly good and steals a lot of scenes (no mean feat considering the company).

The Ides of March is a clever, well-executed drama with impeccable performances.  It’s probably not for the casual filmgoer looking for light, fast-paced thrills, but I think lovers of (American) politics and serious dramas will thoroughly enjoy it.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

March 12, 2010 in Movie Reviews

The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those light, quirky, darkly amusing comedies very loosely based on real events.  It features an all-star cast including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  It’s enjoyable, fascinating, and in no way meant to be taken seriously.  It’s not memorable, and is unlikely to win any awards, but it’ll give you a laugh and a good time for 94 minutes.

The film is told through the eyes of Ewan McGregor’s Bob Wilton, a journalist who ends up stumbling across the story of a lifetime – the US army’s attempts to develop psychic spies with super powers.  Yes, the US military actually tried to do this (and who knows, may still be trying to do this)!

You could be forgiven for thinking that The Men Who Stare at Goats is a Coen brothers movie in the vein of The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading.  It has that quirky feel from start to finish; you wonder what the heck is happening and what might happen next.  Every character Bob Wilton comes across is fascinating and hilarious, especially Lyn Cassady, perfectly played by the “so serious it’s funny” George Clooney.

But actually, The Men Who Stare at Goats is written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), loosely based on the book of the same name by Jon Ronson.  It’s directed by Grant Helsov, who hasn’t done much directing and is more of an actor.  Hopefully Helsov will have more opportunities to direct after this film.

Anyway, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the film.  It’s constantly amusing, but the big laughs are less frequent.  That said, it is clever, and somehow manages to stand on the fence when it comes to psychics.  The movie doesn’t endorse them as genuine, but it doesn’t exactly ridicule them as frauds either.  It does, however, suggest they may all be crazy!  My favourite thing about the whole film is that it makes constant references to Star Wars, especially because it stars young Obi-Wan Kenobi himself!

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: and yes, goats are stared at in this movie]

Thoughts on the crappy 2010 Oscars

March 8, 2010 in Entertainment

Ben Stiller's Navi impersonation was one of only a small handful of good moments at this year's Oscar ceremony

I watched the 2010 Academy Awards at a fellow unemployed friend’s place.  I’ve always loved the Oscars – not so much the ceremony itself, but the concept of crowning the best in cinema.

Anyway, this year’s Oscars ceremony was crap.  Too safe, too boring, too cheap, not entertaining enough.  Everyone seemed unnecessarily serious and uptight for some reason.

I was happy with most of the results.  Even though I predicted that Avatar would win Best Picture and Director (and failed on both accounts – see full list of predictions here), I was rooting for Bigelow by the end of the show.  I’m glad a female director won, and I’m glad that an independent film won.  And I’m very glad James Cameron didn’t win.

Here are some random thoughts.

(Click on ‘more…’ to continue!)

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