October 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

NOTE: I am reviewing this film after seeing it on IMAX 3-D. I recommend this be the way the film is seen, to get the ultimate experience of it.

I’ve always enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s films. From “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Children of Men”, I like that he seems to do things his way and doesn’t back down from studio pressure or anything. His films are fresh and honest, and aren’t afraid to be tragic and dark. He carries this tradition on in the big budget “Gravity”, a film that is not only an incredible visual experience, but also a pretty incredible emotional one as well.

We are introduced immediately to a space mission already in progress between veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a bio-medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). They are operating at two opposite places of a career: Ryan at the beginning, Matt at the end. He waxes poetic about old stories to Houston Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), and teases Dr. Stone while listening to lazy, irritatingly twangy country music. Then, the mission is abruptly aborted when Houston informs them that during a Russian missile strike to destroy an out of service satellite, space debris is headed their way and they’re ordered back to the Hubble. But Dr. Stone moves a little too slowly and they can’t all get back in when the debris hits, knocking the Hubble out of commission and killing everyone on the shuttle. Dr. Stone and Kowalski are the only survivors, and their communication with Houston gets cut off, leaving them stranded.

But they’re not completely out of options. There is an ISS (International Space Station) around them with an escape pod, and they can make it there before the debris comes at them again. The ISS is Russian as well, but according to NASA, all escape pods run basically the same. While on their way to the ISS, Dr. Stone is running out of oxygen, but Kowalski assures her she can still live in the suit if she takes smaller breaths (“Sip, don’t gulp. It’s wine, not beer.”). He tries to get personal information out of her; but she is very closed about herself, even though she does reveal that she had a daughter who died in an accident at school one day very suddenly during recess.

Once they find the ISS, however, things don’t turn for the better for them. They find that the ISS has been damaged, and the crew has already vacated, leaving only one pod behind that has already deployed its parachute. This leaves the pod useless to return to Earth. Again, Kowalski has a plan. There’s another space station a little ways away (“It’s a Sunday drive”) owned by the Chinese. Again, their pods work the same way so they should be able to get back home using that. En route, however, Stone’s leg gets caught on one of the parachute cords, and she can only let Kowalski drift off into space to untangle herself. He tells her to let him go, and she’s alone to try and find the Chinese space station.

The remainder of the film is Stone’s personal sojourn, an allegory of sorts of re-birth and resurrection. There are many symbols, some overt and some subtle, and the film can certainly be seen as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Kowalski resonates with Stone, and there’s even a glimpse of him again, giving her hope that she’s not really all alone out there.

The film thrives on pulse pounding suspense, especially during the chaotic space debris sequences and when she’s facing a crisis in the Russian Soyuz. But where the film is strongest is in the quiet moments when Stone is left to face herself. There’s a wonderfully painful and emotional sequence in which Stone wants to give up and let go. She reaches communication with a random person (possibly Chinese) who has picked up her frequency from his house. He can’t understand her, and calls her “Mayday” (since that’s what she keeps repeating), and she listens to hear a dog in the background, and the sound of a baby. She finds comfort in this, because even though it’s remote, it’s a connection to life–something she has lost a connection with both literally and figuratively.

Obviously, she does not give up. And all of this builds to an incredibly intense climactic ending that really keeps you clinging to your seat. I won’t reveal how it ends, of course. But at 91 minutes, you won’t be waiting that long for it. And you’ll be so engrossed in all the goings-on you won’t even feel the time.

The performance by Sandra  Bullock is one for the ages, and will certainly come with an Oscar nomination. And well deserved. All in all, is film will make you feel like you just went through all of it with Dr. Stone and Kowalski right next to you, and that’s a great achievement by Cuaron. It’s one of the few films, like “Avatar”, where 3-D actually makes you feel “a part” of the whole experience.

My rating: :D

Super 8

June 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

J.J. Abrams has recently become a mini-Spielberg, a guy he unabashedly worships as a hero and influence for his own films. But there’s something that Spielberg has had for a long time that Abrams lacks, and that’s vision. Nothing is more apparent in that criticism of Abrams than his new film in which he wrote and directed, called “Super 8′. He can basically thank screenwriters like Chris Columbus for a lot of the film’s first act, as he took most of it from movies like “The Goonies” or “Explorers” or any kids movie from the 80’s. The film centers around a group of kids led by Joe Lamb (played very well by newcomer Joel Courtney) who are trying to make a movie for an amateur film festival. There are some nice set ups for this premise as the director, Charles (Riley Griffiths) barks orders to everyone and takes immense joy in reading about film and storytelling, and wants to flesh out his characters and scenes, and loves saying the word “mint” and “production value”. Joe is the make-up artist and he’s overjoyed to know that they’ve cast a girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), that he likes. She starts to like him as well, and the two form a bond. All of this sounds like it’s going to be a fun little summer movie about kids wanting to make a movie. But there’s a caveat.

While they’re shooting a scene in front of a train, a pick up truck suddenly runs right into the train, and causes a massive wreck. The kids are okay, but the train and the pick up truck are dismantled. Surprisingly (and I use the word derisively) the driver of the truck is still alive, and is one of their teachers, who warns them about things to come. They find some strange little objects from the train, and then the military comes in and takes over. Then, the whole town begins to experience strange happenings as their power goes out, the sherrif goes missing, and other wild things occur while the ubiquitous military starts to impose their presence more and more. Meanwhile, the kids are still trying to make their movie, but they’re scared about what they know and what the military knows they know. Not to mention, they’re scared about whatever the military is supposed to be protecting them from.

There’s a subplot that’s supposed to bring a human element to the film in which Joe has lost his mother. We have no idea what kind of relationship he had with her or why that’s important to the “reveal” about what they have discovered as a result of the train wreck, and it seems very clunky and slows down the pace of the film in scenes where he’s watching old home movies of him as a baby and her taking care of him. While I know this is supposed to be poignant–and the performances during these scenes, especially by Elle Fanning are very nicely handled–the drama seems out of place in that it really doesn’t enhance anything about the direction of the plot nor does it really flesh out the characters. We never really understand the family element of the film because they don’t give the story enough life or time to develop anything. Joe’s father is an estranged man, but we’re not really sure why, nor do we understand why he can’t relate to his son. There’s a scene where he wants to send Joe to a baseball camp but that’s never mentioned again. Alice’s father is an alcoholic who is the bane of Joe’s dad’s existence because he was the guy who was supposed to be on the shift that his wife took that ultimately got her killed (she died in an accident at a warehouse). We’re not even sure how she died. All of these hinted-at elements just aren’t enough for the arc to stand on its own legs, and we’re bogged down so much toward the end with special effects and a climax that is so routine and predictable, you could easily get up and leave and know exactly how it ends, so it just seems disjointed.

The kids are very charismatic but their story arc of making their movie doesn’t really go anywhere either, and their characterizations don’t have any uniqueness in the way that “The Goonies” did. There’s a kid who likes to light firecrackers, but that’s never really explored. It’s offered as comic relief and then a cheap payoff in the film’s third act. The director, Charles, admits he wanted to cast Alice because he liked her and he was jealous of Joe liking her, but there’s no payoff in that storyline either. Even them capturing something they’re not supposed to doesn’t really have a huge impact on them because the military never really seeks them out. They really don’t have much at stake at all, except knowing something that’s eventually going to be revealed to everyone in town anyway.

The biggest problem I have with this film, though, is that it’s so by-the-book and standard, it just feels like you’re being taken through a re-run of older, better movies. It’s part “Close Encounters”, part “Jaws”, part “Goonies”, part “Stand By Me”, part “E.T.” and because it’s this Frankenstein monster cut up of all of them, it comes off as just shoddy. Whereas movies like “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” actually explore the characters and have them relate to each other, this movie just uses the kids ultimately as props and throw in some standard talking scenes–but nothing is really revealed about them as people.

There’s nothing special about this movie and I guess that’s what’s let me down the most. Much like “Cloverfield”, this movie had promise and it seemed to want to be a little different. But in the end it’s nothing but an average summer action flick that has nice moments, but not enough to make it a good movie. Instead of a work of art, it’s pre-packaged leftovers.

My rating: :(