If Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity doesn’t make you catch your breath or feel your heart drop into your stomach at least once, Major Tom, you may as well cut your tether and float off into the void. You simply don’t have a pulse.

Cuarón and a bulging flight crew of movie magicians have crafted a suspense tale at once simple and spectacular, a straightforward story of survival that’s both visually stunning and viscerally gripping – and it clocks in at a satisfying 90 minutes, in itself something of a miracle in the current age of overstuffed blockbusters.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as members of a NASA team making adjustments on the Hubble Space Telescope when a disaster in low orbit leaves them fighting for their lives. Following an awe-inspiring opening sequence in which the space-suited crew goes about its duties against the heady vertiginous backdrop of the earth spread out below, the moment in which hell soundlessly breaks loose is positively hair-raising.

With their shuttle destroyed and the rest of the crew dead, the two stranded astronauts find themselves free floating in a Newtonian nightmare in which coping with the laws of physics is almost overwhelmingly complex…and every effort only serves to further diminish an inexorably dwindling air supply.

It’s virtually impossible to separate this movie’s conventional camerawork from its CGI – Cuarón’s planning and the execution by his technical team are seamless and absolutely brilliant. Opening with a breathtaking 13-minute take that plants us convincingly in the middle of the action, the screen is filled with images that would have been impossible to achieve so credibly only a few years ago. In either the 3-D or standard versions, it’s a magnificent achievement.

The script, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, is a beautifully understated piece of work. An impressive amount of it dares to do away with dialogue completely, choosing to let the silence of space carry the moment. Otherwise, it’s mostly devoted to utilitarian chatter and a few understandably desperate exchanges, all aimed at keeping the issue of survival front and center. Only one scene, in which we learn something about the background of Bullock’s character, seems extraneous…but Bullock plays it with such conviction that it’s a minor distraction at most.

Clooney brings his trademark regular-guy star power to the role of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, a part originally intended for Robert Downey Jr. It’s still possible to hear vestiges of Downey’s quick-riffing bravado lingering in some of the lines, but Clooney makes the role his own, infusing it with warmth and low-key naturalistic heroism. It’s a fine performance and a generous one, Clooney choosing to quietly play his role to the hilt while allowing Bullock to remain at center stage throughout.

As first-time space traveler Ryan Stone, Bullock dominates the film. An engineer who’s uncomfortable in space to begin with, Stone spends much of the movie in a state of near-panic or worse. But far from being a typical movie heroine in distress, Ryan Stone is our POV character. Her panic is ours, starting from the moment the disaster sends her spinning off into space without warning, hands clutching reflexively and eyes searching frantically for anything to focus on. We struggle alongside her, hoping our own air will hold out, as she falls back on her training to find a way home. Bullock’s work here is wonderfully satisfying, an utterly relatable dramatic turn whose impressive physicality and sheer humanity prove to be as essential to Gravity’s success as Cuarón’s groundbreaking visuals. Hers is a magnificent achievement, too.

October 5, 2013 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Conquering multiple ballots and defying eyestrain, my fellow deep thinkers about cinema at the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle have released their list of the best films of the year, celebrating some of the most ambitious and accomplished work on the big screen in 2011. Among the highlights are these winning achievements:

THE ARTIST

(Best Film, from Best Director winner Michel Hazanavicius)

GEORGE CLOONEY

(Best Actor, The Descendants)

MICHELLE WILLIAMS

(Best Actress, My Week with Marilyn)

ALBERT BROOKS

(Best Supporting Actor, Drive)

OCTAVIA SPENCER

(Best Supporting Actress, The Help)

For the complete list of awards – including the Not-So-Obviously-Worst Film and Best Guilty Pleasure – go to the OFCC website.

December 24, 2011 · Posted in Legends  
    

Sporting an intelligent and accessible screenplay, clean unmannered direction and an absolutely first-rate performance by its star, The Descendants is the kind of film that shows just how good commercial American movie making can be – no robots, no barf jokes, just a straightforward look at what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

George Clooney stars as Matt King, a decent but self-absorbed guy who’s on the verge of losing everything that’s important to him. His wife lies in a coma, the victim of a boating accident. His two daughters are alienated and acting out. And he’s being forced to literally give up Paradise, thanks to a new government “rule against perpetuities” that’s compelling him to sell the beautiful Hawaiian acreage that his family has held in trust for generations.

Despite all the potential for heavy-handed soap opera, it’s a remarkably upbeat and entertaining film, full of well-written scenes peopled by believably human characters who retain our sympathy even when we wish they’d occasionally glance at the world beyond their own noses and simply behave themselves.

Director Alexander Payne, who co-wrote the screenplay, has imbued his location with as much importance as the cast and story. As much as anything else, The Descendants is a love letter to Hawaii, the gorgeously photographed landscapes in which the characters move against a lush and charming soundtrack of native songs not only adding beauty to virtually every scene but also contributing to our understanding of the characters and their actions. There’s quiet comedy in the way its laid-back atmosphere allows high-powered movers and shakers to go through their days unselfconsciously dressed in shorts and goofy shirts, looking (as noted in Clooney’s narration) “like bums and stunt men”; but for all the moments in which its characters deal with anger and loss while incongruously pattering around in flip-flops and sandals, there are also the breathtaking views that explain Matt King’s love for the land that he’s being pressured to relinquish.

Clooney has shown himself in the past to be a master at underplaying, and here he is effortlessly magnificent as his character labors to step up from a comfortable long-time role as the “back-up” parent and do the right thing for everybody, all the while struggling to contain his frustration as reality throws him one new curve after another. As he does, he learns some unpleasant truths about the marriage he’d ignored until it was too late…but in return, he just may have saved his foundering relationship with his own children…discovering that he is the vital link between the proud ancestors from which he is descended and the two emotionally needy descendants in his own home.

The supporting cast is filled with equally fine performances. Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as the King daughters carry nearly as much of the film’s weight as Clooney himself. Veterans Robert Forster and Beau Bridges are quiet standouts, Forster (as Clooney’s father-in-law) simmering with anger at the impending loss of his beloved daughter and Bridges (as one of the many King cousins slavering over the proceeds of the land sale) tempering his greed with a large and authentic dose of amiable beach-bum charm.

It’s a beautifully crafted piece of work, deceptively simple, frequently comic and occasionally heartbreaking, a movie that’s likely to stay with you in unexpected ways far longer than many of the sturm und drang-fests that too often pass for adult drama coming from Hollywood. If only all of them were this satisfying.

November 26, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing