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Her is one of those movies that I thought I would and could like, given
its unorthodox plot, but I found it to be sad and dull and not so much
invigorating as depressing and numbing. It does feature fine
performances, but the promising premise quickly winds its way through
predictable scenarios and foreseeable outcomes.
Joaquin Phoenix, doing his best Jude Law impression, plays Theodore Twombley, a man who writes "handwritten" letters for clients in what's probably the future. He gets the basic idea from the client and then goes to town, dictating his letter to his computer, which renders the letter in nice neat cursive for the recipient. The letters are sincere and heartfelt, and Theodore is very good at his job.
When we first meet Theodore, he's a lonely, mopey guy, still recovering from a separation from his wife (Rooney Mara) a year prior, even though the divorce papers haven't yet been signed. His friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles worry about him; Theodore never really goes out. Then he sees an ad for a new operating system for the home, a system with not only a personality but also the ability to grow and learn.
Since he's looking for some companionship anyway, he purchases the new system and installs it. The system has the voice of Scarlett Johansson and names herself Samantha. Soon, Samantha is best-friends-for-life with Theodore; she helps him to stay organized and focused, plays the role of supportive friend, offers advice and conversation, all things that Theo really needs. But, since she is an operating system designed to evolve, she begins to want more out of existence. She, like Data from Star Trek and countless other not-human characters, wants to know what it's like to be human, to have both a body and feelings.
This may seem like an odd relationship (and it is), but it's more normal in this pseudo-future than it is in real life. People left and right have personalized operating systems. You think it's still strange to see someone talking to themselves? You check yourself and realize they're using Bluetooth for something, right? Now imagine most people doing that, only instead of an obvious Bluetooth headset there's only a tiny earpiece. It's a little counterintuitive, in a way: a movie that's all about getting a man to get out and enjoy life more does so by isolating him from the world, just him and his operating system (in portable, iPhone form). Come to think of it, I can't remember seeing Theodore talking on the phone with anyone other than Samantha.
It isn't long before Theodore and Samantha realize they have very strong feelings for one another. Again, not really as weird as it would be today, as so many people apparently do date their operating systems in Theo's world. He's soon taking Samantha places, at her behest, and they live and love and play and laugh and so on, just as if it were a humans- only relationship. That they do hit some rough patches points again to Samantha's ability to grow - to become more human, really. But how human can she be? More human than human?
This is the first movie that Spike Jonze has both written and directed. That fact may have no bearing on the pacing on the film, but I include it just in case. I thought that the movie moved excruciatingly slow, as it were filmed in a dreamy fog, or a foggy dream, or a nightclub. This is a character study, and a sci-fi one at that, so one would expect deliberate pacing. But in Her, I felt that the story moved even more slowly than that. The camera sometimes lingered for several seconds on a close-up shot of a character, usually Theodore. The setup for scenes (for example, Theo's blind date with Olivia Wilde) takes longer than the scenes themselves, which means a lot of exposition and a lot of talking.
That's not a bad thing if your movie has some profound wisdom to share or if the methodical pacing is offset by actual movement and plot development, but neither one of those criteria apply here. We do get strong performances by Phoenix, Adams, and Johannson, but in the end it feels like nothing really happened. Sure, Theo has changed a little, but we're left in the dark as to how much and if his life has truly improved.
12 years a Slave, an unflinching account of a free black man in the
antebellum North who is abducted and sold into slavery in the Deep
South, is a brilliant adaptation, a real work of art by auteur Steve
McQueen. It's brutally forthcoming and neither panders to its audience
nor glosses over the evil that men (and women) do. It features an
transcendent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead, nearly
matched by Michael Fassbender, as an exceptionally cruel slaveowner.
The story opens in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) has just seen his wife and two children off on a trip. While walking across the town square, Solomon meets a couple of men who wish for Solomon to play violin for their circus. He travels with them down to Washington, DC and wines and dines with the gentlemen in celebration of Solomon's contribution to the entertainment. But Solomon becomes ill and is put to bed by the men; in the morning, he finds himself in a slave pen, unable to produce papers that would prove him to be a free man.
Solomon is acquired by a slave trader named, ironically, Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who in turns sells Solomon and others to a landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) down in Georgia. Solomon's name is now Platt, and his odyssey proceeds through several owners, some meaner than others, but none quite capable for seeing him as the human being he is. Solomon witnesses many evils, including torture, rape, and murder for even the smallest slights against white people and finds that even to survive he cannot count on any help, inside or out.
This is not an easy movie to watch. It's not just about shining a light on of the most morally deplorable times in our nation's brief history; it's about getting inside the head of a trapped man, a man desperate to return to his loving family but beset on all sides by incoherent rage and inhumanity. As Solomon himself puts it, "I don't want to survive. I want to live."
Ejiofor is terrific. When Solomon feels pain, physical or emotional, we feel his pain as well, through Ejiofor's heart-breaking, commanding performance. Solomon's attitude transforms him from a this-must-be-a- mistake nonbeliever trying to convince people he is indeed a legally free man to a defiant, determined, and desperate sojourner. It's a remarkable piece of work by Ejiofor, who had his first break into movies with Steven Spielberg's Amistad - also with slavery as its main theme.
McQueen has assembled a profoundly talented cast to back him up. As the worst villain in the lot, Fassbender (as slaveowner Epps) is more than just convincing - you half expect to learn that Fassbender is a true Southern boy rather than being German born - he is also spellbinding as the horrid Epps, a man even nastier than Leonardo DiCaprio's vaunted Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. Candie was a smirking frat boy compared with Edwin Epps, a man who delights in using his slaves for whatever he wishes, punishing them when they don't pick enough in his cotton fields, favoring one as a plaything even over his own wife (Sarah Paulson).
One aspect I really liked about this movie was that it never paints any white person as the savior of the black protagonist. Never. How many movies have we seen about slavery and civil rights in which some white person deigns to help the black people and is thus their hero? It's not so here. The closest is Cumberbatch's Ford, but even then the landowner would rather save his skin than form a connection with Solomon (or hear that Solomon is actually a free man). There is no help to be found from kindly white folks here. (Aside - okay, there is, right near the end, but it's apparently true to Solomon's experiences and does not make up for the years of agony that Solomon experienced before running into said white person by chance.) A lesser movie may have tried to shoehorn in a ray of hope for Solomon Northrup in a half-baked attempt to reach a wider audience, but thankfully that didn't happen here.
This isn't a popcorn movie, and it's probably not a date movie. It's intellectual and brutish, realistic, believable, painful, and astonishing. It's clearly one of the best of the year and of the careers of McQueen, Ejiofor, and Fassbender.
The second Hobbit movie is sort of the Back to the Future II of its
series: at times thrilling, at times confusing, and ultimately a little
unsatisfying. It boasts terrific effects and choreography but perhaps a
little too much plot, too many new characters, and a lengthy running
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up more or less where the first film left off; the dwarfs, Bilbo Baggins, and Gandalf have left the Misty Mountains and continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain, former dominion of the Dwarf race, aiming to recapture it and the treasure below it from the demonic dragon Smaug. (Interestingly, Smaug himself doesn't even make an appearance on screen until the final half hour of the film.) The outfit is led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), descendant of the last King beneath the Mountain, before Smaug took over; the other dwarfs are more-or-less interchangeable, much like those who accompanied Snow White in her adventures. Their names are, I think, Palin, Marty Balin, Gerald McBoingBoing, Doink, Coin, and Gilligan. I'm not sure.
Now, the movie's title implies that Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is desolate - he sort of is, living beneath the Lonely Mountain and all - but since this is more about the journey than the destination, we are treated to concurrent plots and unexpected encounters. The troupe loses Gandalf when the latter rushes off to deliver one of his legendary Important Messages, so he's absent for much of the film, and within some time the gang finds itself within the forests of Mirkwood, which is inhabited by Elves who aren't really like the stern-but-nice ones at Rivendell. (You know, from the last film.)
And these Elves are a heck of a lot more suspicious of, well, everything. They're led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who wishes to keep his realm closed off from the problems of the outside world, much like Elrond would for Rivendell in the later LOTR films. Thranduil's son is Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whom we're well acquainted with; he's smitten with the chief of the wood-elf guards, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) - but, like Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers, Papa would never let the sylvan elf be with his offspring. You know how it is.
But lest you think this is all about the Elves and Dwarfs and how they dislike/despise each other, there's another fun thread to follow: it looks like a certain Evil is gathering strength, both in body and in numbers, although remaining hidden from view. Thus the Orcs are both tracking Thorin and his merry men and helping their Master - you know who I mean - to become more corporeal. And then, to riff on an old 1970s TV show, there's Smaug. So there's truly no shortage of Bad Guys, and nor is there a shortage of ominous foreshadowing.
The movie never drags, and it makes good (judicious) use of 3D, but it suffers from a real lack of personality. Bilbo and Gandalf, who have the most charisma and charm of the bunch, are given less to do here than in the first film; the Dwarvish leader Thorin, by contrast, isn't a sufficiently interesting character to hold extended attention. In addition, you have all of these Dwarfs whose names aren't entirely memorable, so when one is left behind all one can do is shrug and wonder who else is left.
Which brings us to the the truly positive aspects of the movie. The fight and action scenes are supremely entertaining to watch, with Elf versus Orc, Elf versus Dwarf, Dwarf versus Orc, Dwarf versus Human, Wizard versus Orc, Wizard versus Something Evil, and Dragon versus Hobbit and Dwarfs. The intensity of each of these scenes is almost poetic, with Lilly and Bloom miles beyond everyone else in their seemingly effortless Orc-slaying abilities. Lilly in particular is remarkable, both beautiful, humanistic, and cunning beyond her years; her Tauriel (oddly enough, not really a Tolkien character) is savvy, level headed, and soft hearted.
The final scene, more than two and a half hours into the film, is a bit of a letdown, a mere gateway to the final part of the trilogy. It's true that the first Hobbit film took the same tack, but this time out the denouement feels abrupt; we left not just wanting more but simply hanging.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate, well-executed, and honest slice of
life. It features a humanistic, heartfelt performance by Oscar Isaac as
the titular folk singer, arresting cinematography, and a sharp,
tight-fisted script by the Coen brothers, who also directed.
It's Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when folk music was either coming into its own or ready to be usurped by a more mainstream genre. Llewyn has no home, drifting from gig to gig and crashing on couch after couch as a matter of design; is vagrancy is his life's plan. Llewyn is at turns a noble soul who exists for the sake of making the music he wants to make and a resentful twerp who mooches off friends just to sustain his unsustainable lifestyle.
The movie is only somewhat linear, with closing scenes mirroring opening scenes, and it is told entirely from Llewyn's point of view. The Coen brothers masterfully show us not only Llewyn's perspective but also an outside perspective; this allows us to feel both empathy and loathing toward him.
Llewyn is nothing if not complex. The movie does a terrific job of avoiding the usual clichés, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break, or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. It's not that Llewyn is constantly sneering at everyone, holding his poverty up as both a shield and a trophy, it's that he is so multilayered that when he does a kind act or offers some praise or thanks, we don't feel that his doing so is in any way out of character. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his center a realist, albeit a prideful one.
During his travels and travails, Llewyn encounters people ranging from the genuine (his singing friends Jim and Jean, played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to the absurd (a rotund, blustery John Goodman). Oh, and a cat that travels with Llewyn - at least until he can get him or her back to the owner. The encounters with the genuine folks feel just as normal as if you or I encountered them; those with the more absurd of the lot feel perfectly surreal, and when they do end one almost wonders if we've all imagined the encounters through Llewyn himself.
The music is beautiful and moving. Isaac himself performs Llewyn's songs, with a sweet, vulnerable voice that offers a touch of soul to Llewyn's otherwise-bleak surroundings. When Llewyn is really on, you can feel his pain leap right off the screen into your brain; when he appears to be going through the motions and not singing from his heart, you can feel the lack of depth that his intended audience also feels. Isaac is just flat-out terrific.
Ultimately, it is Isaac and the music that push this film into the territory of great cinema. The story itself is stark, moody, unyielding - just like a New York City winter, really. And the movie, like Llewyn's own life, appears to have no point - except to illustrate just how pointless Llewyn is making his life, through his stubborn marriage to his craft and a desire to stay uprooted
Out of the Furnace is, as advertised, a grim, gripping tale of two
lower-class brothers trying to raise their heads above water. It's
exceptionally well cast, but it trods over some well-worn ground and is
an almost-relentless portrait of desolation, isolation, and depression.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, an ironworker in the local steel mill. When Russell is sent to prison following a supremely tragic event, his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is left to his own devices - such as bare-knuckle fighting and betting on ponies - while helping to take care of their invalid, dying dad.
The problem is that Rodney finds himself very easily in hock to the local crime lord, John Petty (an epic performance by the underrated Willem Dafoe); Rodney doesn't want to work in the mill, doesn't want to do actual work, does want to fight. But he's not terribly good at throwing the fights, thus placing him even further in debt to Petty.
Shortly after Russell gets out of prison, Rodney disappears. The Pennsylvania cops have an inkling where he might be - he's across the state line, in New Jersey, where the mountain folk don't take kindly to strangers in their midst; they're always a few steps ahead of the law, and folks being close knit and all in the community, the police can never seem to find anyone to cooperate against the white-trash bad boys of the mountain, led by one Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
Like The Fighter before it, Out of the Furnace features two down-on- their-luck brothers, one smart and one sort of shifty, although here Bale switches it up and plays the smart one. It's a movie you've probably seen before. When the police appear to be impotent in finding out what happened to Rodney, Russell takes matters into his own hands to exact his revenge.
The performances are worthy of acclaim. Bale and Affleck show excellent chemistry with each other, although Affleck's half-whiny/half-nasally voice grates after a while. Dafoe is nearly flawless, and Zoe Saldana (as Russell's girl), Forest Whitaker (as the local sheriff), and Sam Shepard (as Uncle Red) offer plenty of grit (in Saldana's case, charm) and charisma.
But it's sort of an obvious movie. It has an obvious villain, an obvious (anti)hero, and an obvious denouement. The script, by director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and Brad Ingelsby, tosses no curveballs and offers no mystery. In short order, the plot points align, and the only thing for the viewer to do is wait the movie out. Still, Bale's so effective that even the pedestrian story becomes compelling to a certain degree. But it's telling that for a movie called Out of the Furnace, it takes a good hour before we even see anyone in a furnace.
The second entry in The Hunger Games series is perhaps even better than
the first, with strong, layered characters, intrigue, creativity, and a
great buildup to a stunning cliffhanger. For me, it was endless
Let me preface this by saying that I'm not sure that The Hunger Games is really for the younger kids out there. It's grim and violent. After all, it's about kids killing each other for the entertainment of a despot. So, PG-13 rating notwithstanding, you might want to reconsider bringing the kids to this. There are some scenes that could give them nightmares (even more so than Harry Potter).
The 75th Hunger Games are upon us, but President Snow (an oily Donald Sutherland) is not pleased that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) were joint winners the previous year when they appeared to choose death over murder. In particular, Snow reviles Katniss, whom he views as a beacon of hope to the mostly impoverished denizens of Pandem's twelve districts.
Katniss and Peeta are to embark upon a victory tour, stopping in each district and reading a quick eulogy to the fallen tributes of the previous games. But they must also put on a front that they are both deeply in love with one another, thus distracting people from their wretched lives, as is the intent of the Games. You might guess that this pretension doesn't go over well with Katniss.
The victory tour, however, is only the beginning. More games are afoot, and the lives of Katniss and Peeta are no longer the only ones at stake. There's a hint of unease in the air, particularly among the poorer regions of the land. Is Katniss Everdeen a symbol for rebellion? Some characters return, such as Caesar Flickerman, the Games' host (Stanley Tucci), the flamboyant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the cranky drunk Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and the misnamed Snow. Along with new tributes, we meet a new gamesmaster, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who takes over for Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) as the Machiavelli/Wizard of Oz.
The action is frantic, even more so than in in the first movie, and the obstacles facing Katniss - both emotional and physical - are still more debilitating and oppressive. Even though we - and the players - know that the arena is very much under human control, nothing is predictable.
Lawrence, if you can believe it, is better than ever. This time around, we get a little bit more of a look into her psyche, her reserved nature, and her longings. Katniss is as radiant and determined as ever, a fierce and intelligent young woman who is as vulnerable as the rest of us. And that alone makes her an ideal role model for kids, not just girls.
A word to the wise - okay, a second word to the wise - in one way this movie reminds me of Back to the Future II. That movie was filmed at the same time as its successor, and although it is a fun movie in itself, it transparently served as a lead-in to Back to the Future III; similarly, this movie will not end as decisively as the first but rather on a dramatic, but satisfying precipice. It is a rare film that can tell a tale fluidly and not just leave the audience wanting more of the same but wanting to know precisely what happens in the seconds after the screen goes black. Catching Fire acts as both a wild ride of joy, despair, love, anger, and revenge and as a catalyst for the third and final installment.
Director J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost is a thoughtful, existential-themed
masterpiece, a multi-act play with only one character and no dialogue.
It's expertly photographed, and it's supremely acted by the ageless
vessel that is Robert Redford, as an Everyman lost at sea with little
more than his wits to help him survive.
Redford's Man - actually credited as "Our Man" - is sailing his 39-foot yacht in the Indian Ocean, some 1200 miles from Sumatra. As the film opens, he's awakened to water in his cabin; the boat has run up against a floating container of sneakers. He's in the middle of nowhere. He is able to patch the gaping hole in his boat's hull and sails on. But with his communications a shambles and his navigational tools on the fritz, he manages to sail directly into a terrifying storm.
Thus begins a riveting odyssey, a tale not just of man's struggle versus nature but of man's struggle versus himself; will Our Man reach his breaking point and succumb to the whims of the sea? When all does seem, indeed, lost, and hope has withered away, why does Our Man press on? It could be the strength of his character alone, because we know almost nothing about the man himself - not about loved ones waiting for him in a warm, dry home, not about friends, not about anything outside the confines of his boat.
Redford is appropriately aces as Our Man, his perpetually weathered skin essaying experience and resourcefulness rather than tiredness and bitterness. It's not an easy role, because so much depends on the audience being able to get inside the sailor's mind without his needing to vocalize his thoughts. Redford, then, needs to use his facial expressions and other means to keep us in the loop. Aside from a few spoken narrative sentences, Our Man says nothing, and we see his attitude oscillate between helplessness and determination.
There is plenty of action, lest one think this is merely a cerebral exercise. There are two storms. Denizens of the sea make appearances. There are other obstacles as well, as Our Man's supplies run out and his body and mind grow weaker. It's a strongly compelling film.
This is no Cast Away on a boat. Our Man never goes full-out crazy, with hyperkinetic and overemotional histrionics to indicate a slipping mind. Rather, he's more or less focused on his task at hand, ultimate survival. Because Redford's characterization is so fully realized, it's very difficult not to empathize with him and to try to figure things out alongside him. When he runs low on water, you run low on water; when he figures out how to get more water, you're as relieved as he is. The cinematography by Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini keeps us directly involved, glued to Our Man's plight from all angles - for example, almost every shot is fairly close, yielding an almost claustrophobic perspective.
All Is Lost is a brilliant film with a gritty performance by Robert Redford and assisted by tight direction and startling photography. It should be well remembered come award time.
Last Vegas, despite the clunky title and a tried-and-true plot, has
plenty of funny moments, due mostly to the charm and enthusiasm of its
aging cast and the script itself, by Dan Fogelman. Is it inspiring? A
laugh-out-loud comedy? Well, no and no - but it still mostly works, at
least as well as any movie that combines transvestites, torch singers,
gambling, and Viagra can.
It's The Hangover crossed with Space Cowboys. Four lifelong friends reunite for the bachelor party/wedding of one of their number - marrying a woman almost forty years his junior - in the titular town. Of course, there's some bitterness and resentment between two of them, and all four suffer from what one might call old-man-in-movies disease (see Red, for example). Each of the men has some sort of hangup or hangups that will be sorted out during this weekend of debauchery.
Billy (Michael Douglas) is the groom-to-be. Billy is successful, possibly a real-estate magnate of some kind. I wasn't sure, but he did have a house that appeared to be floating in the water and did have a very young girlfriend (Bre Blair), so I assumed he was rich. It was a safe assumption. At any rate, Billy pops the question to young Lisa while delivering a eulogy, and before you know it the stage is set for a quickie Vegas wedding, just like all classy couples have.
Billy calls two of his old pals, Sam and Archie, who immediately volunteer to throw the bachelor party. Sam (Kevin Kline) lives in Florida, where he's all too aware of his age, since he's constantly surrounded by old, old people (and has an artificial knee and hip, to boot). Archie lives with his son, daughter-in-law, and grandbaby and has suffered a mild stroke, so he's now babied to the point of silliness. Both men are prime candidates to get wild and crazy, but there's one slot left in their old gang, the Flatbush Four - that would be Paddy (Robert De Niro), who has lived in utter solitude since the passing of his beloved Sophie and who harbors plenty of ill will toward Billy.
A few weighty issues are tackled here. Should Sam cheat on his wife, with her permission? (And is that cheating?) Should Archie feel guilty about telling his son he's gone on a church retreat? Should Billy actually marry a woman he may not love? Should Billy and Paddy talk out their differences like grownups, or should they passively/aggressively deal with it? The answers given by the characters probably won't surprise you much.
But for a movie that does pretty much stick to a standard formula, Last Vegas receives a big boost from its decorated cast. Counting Mary Steenburger, who plays Diana the singer, there are seven Oscars among five actors. Pretty impressive resumes, is what I'm saying here. It looks as if each of them really buys into the Writing 101 plot and therefore sells the heck out of it without resorting to scene chewing. Steenburgen, in particular, is both hilarious and graceful in a crucial supporting role. This is also a movie that reminds us how old Douglas is - he looks ancient here - and that Kline is still around. In fact, at first it seems weird that Kevin Kline, of all people, is considered an old guy, but he's only three years younger than Douglas. Huh.
In all, this is not a movie that's going to win any awards. The game cast does try hard and succeeds at the comic moments more than anything else. So, sure, it's a geriatric version of Tom Hanks' old Bachelor Party, but it does have some sweet elements to it as well as a few endearing performances. Lost Vegas is perhaps a movie best appreciated on a smaller screen
Based on true events, Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips is the rarest
of thrillers, the kind that relies on neither distracting special
effects nor circumspect character development. Driven by a powerful,
soul-baring performance by the inimitable Tom Hanks, the movie never
lags, never oversells the plight of its characters, never reduces
anyone or anything to mere caricature.
Hanks is the titular captain of the United States container ship MV Maersk Alabama, cruising along the coast of Somalia with a full load and heading toward the horn of Africa. Two skiffloads of armed Somalis close in, ready to board the vessel. They're pirates, working for a warlord in their impoverished country, and they smell opportunity.
If this were a standard action flick, we might see the heroism of Phillips and his motley crew as they fight the evil pirates and save the world. It's not so here. There are nuances afoot; for once, we get the perspective of the lead pirate (Barkhad Abdi) without falling into the easy trap of feeling empathy toward him.
The pirates board the giant ship, clearly pleased with their find. Muse (Abdi) quickly proves himself to be a strong, humanistic leader; he's single minded (where's the crew? where's the goods?) but not sinister. His gang includes a strong man with a quick temper and Muse's own relative, who'd begged to come along on the mission - a mission that, when successful, would go a long way to improving their lives.
The movie is told in two distinct halves: the time spent by the pirates on the Maersk as they search in vain for treasure and crew, and the time spent in the ship's lifeboat as they make their way to Somalia. The villains are conflicted and desperate. And armed. But they're quickly immersed in an impossible situation.
This is one of the toughest, most naked performances of Hanks' stellar career. It's sometimes painful and heart wrenching to watch. He's an Everyman, per usual, but he's not also a savior or a hero. He doesn't suddenly develop super strength and overpower the bad guys. He's just a guy in charge of a boat and its passengers.
Matching him wit for wit while frantically trying to keep his own wits about him is Abdi as the skinny, intelligent Muse, seemingly a veteran of high piracy (though not against huge container ships). Abdi is a wonder to watch; unpredictable and cunning but a little greedy and rapidly running out of viable options. Truly a talent to look out for, Abdi nails this role.
The ending is predictable only in the most general sense. Bill Ray's screenplay does not duck some plausible consequences to the actions of each main player and leaves us with a scene that is as emotionally overpowering as anything in Hanks' previous Philadelphia.
It seems that every time Tom Hanks makes a good movie, people begin to label it as "Oscar bait," as if the movie were created just as a vehicle to earn an award. Captain Phillips delivers a tight, action-packed story fraught with none of the usual missteps of the genre, and if it is indeed rewarded with the highest of honors, it will be well deserved.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron's explosive, white-knuckle sci-fi instant
classic is a wonder to behold, with devastatingly realistic effects as
a backdrop to a terrifying, compelling story and terrific work by
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It is both a concrete what-if story
and a mesmerizing existential mindbender.
The U.S Space Shuttle Explorer is docked at the International Space Station. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), on her first space mission, is installing an external device on the station that will enable astronomers to peer even deeper into space. Meanwhile, the mission commander Kowalski (Clooney), on his final mission, merrily spacewalks in a jet pack; other crew members perform maintenance or communicate with Earth.
Then trouble strikes. Houston reports that the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, hurling debris throughout Earth's orbit. Before the crew can return to the shuttle and head back to Earth, the craft and the ISS are pounded with lots and lots of pieces of metal traveling at extreme speeds. The damage is extensive, setting off an odyssey for Dr. Stone that is both literal and figurative, as she must find a way to keep going and return back home.
There is hardly a moment of inaction. Stone and Kowalski veer from problem to problem, everything accentuate by the simple fact that they are alone up there, not even able to contact NASA. It's a terrifying situation. Most of us might have a slight panic attack if we're stranded on the side of the road without a cell phone. Imagine being up in the heavens with no way to get down.
Emmanuel Lubezki's dizzying camera-work serves two purposes: it provides us with Stone's visual perspective, that of a novice, and it provides context for the disaster she and Kowalski find themselves in. If you think that the pictures from the Hubble telescope were beautiful, wait until you see these breathtaking visuals; they're as stirring and evocative as the acting and story itself.
Stone journey, as I mentioned, becomes more than just a path back to safety. She is grieving in her own way, becoming a quiet, almost listless passenger in life. Her decisions and her proactive attitude not only bring her closer to survival but also to a healing of her mind. This is definitely among Bullock's finest work, perhaps her greatest achievement to date.
I've noted before that 3D movies in darkened environments, such as outer space, are utterly needless, since 3D actually removes light from scenes. But somehow, the 3D effects in Gravity sidestep that downside. The technology is used so expertly here that whether we are approaching an object at high velocity or it is approaching us, we feel immersed in the scene, not distracted from it. Tough to do.
I simply cannot delve into the plot any more than I already have. The astute viewer will still have trouble guessing the outcome and the twists within the movie, particularly because the action is so hard- driven while still utterly coherent and plausible.
There are plenty of heart-stopping moments in Gravity, even for the most jaded of viewers. It is fantastic storytelling supported by arresting cinematography. It may be too early for movies to get serious award- season consideration, but I'll come out and say this right now: Gravity is one of the very best movies of the year.
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