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Gravity (2013)
'Gravity' Pulls You In, Leaves You Stranded
1 January 2014
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). While on a routine space mission, an unforeseen danger falls upon them. Their shuttle is destroyed; their crew is dead. Completely alone and with limited resources, Stone and Kowalsky must try and get back to Earth before it's too late.

Gravity is quite possibly the best looking film you'll see all year. It's possibly the best looking film you've seen in the last five years, too. The technical marvels on full display in this film are revolutionary. Gravity takes an environment we are all fairly familiar with and shows it to use in a way that has never been done so well before. It's at times terrifying, exhilarating, and then, just, flat.

The best elements in the film take place in the first 40 minutes. Stone works on the shuttle that will not transfer data back to Houston. Kowalsky floats around her and the shuttle telling old stories from his past. It's peaceful. Houston calls in an abort mission due to Russian satellite debris and that's when everything becomes a whirlwind. The shuttle is hit, Stone becomes loose in space, and it's absolutely horrifying. All of this, the first 20 minutes, is done in one shot. There are probably cuts, but it is done in a way to mask it from the audience and it is a sight to see. Director Alfonso Cuarón has the best cinematography on full display in this sequence, and with such a powerful hook, the film tries hard in re-creating that the rest of its runtime.

Like Stone's oxygen levels, the film begins to fall exceedingly fast as the narrative goes on. Gravity tries to express many themes, the key one being about isolation. As much as we are alone with her, the audience never gets to "know" Stone that well. After becoming the sole survivor of the shuttle, the film does not let up in throwing any possible hurdle at her to make her survive. Because of this, there is rarely time to reflect on what makes her a compelling character, and there is only so much you can take watching someone float around space if there isn't an emotional pull.

Even the scenes that play to tug on sentiment do not work because we barely have any idea who we are watching. Why should we care if she survives? There were many times that tried to break down the wall of her character ("Learn to let go," Kowalsky yells to her; a striking image of her in the fetal position of an escape pod is shown, etc.) but in the end, Gravity chose action over development, which hurt it quite a bit.

There is no denying that Cuarón's film is a stunning example of today's effects creating a masterful portrait. Every shot is flawless from beginning to end. Gravity creates a beautiful landscape that, much like space itself, ends up feeling empty.
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Prisoners (2013)
'Prisoners' Holds You Captive
1 January 2014
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a working class family man with a loving wife (Maria Bello), teenage son, and six-year-old daughter. On Thanksgiving, while at their friends' (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) house, Dover's daughter Anna, and her friend, Joy, go out to play. They never come back. After a police search, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests a disturbed man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), for the kidnapping. After Jones is released with no charges, Dover kidnaps him to get his own answers, using any means necessary before time runs out.

Dover isn't a man yielding some unknown fighting skills that he whips out on bad guys to get answers throughout the course of the movie. This isn't that type of film. He's simply a broken, desperate father in search of his daughter. He doesn't sleep, or even really blink, while the circles under his eyes become just as dark as the narrative. "Prisoners" is both parts a gritty detective story and vigilante thriller, and it works on both levels. The performances here, especially Jackman and a chilling Dano, elevate this to one of the better ensembles of the year. The cinematography by Roger Deakins and Director Denis Villeneuve shows a quiet, isolated small-town (constantly drenched in rain since the girls' disappearance) that makes all the unveiling of secrets that much more unnerving.

Perhaps "Prisoners" most valuable asset is the question it asks audiences: How far will you go for your family's protection? While Jackman's Dover will go to increasingly violent lengths to find his daughter, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) represents the other side of the moral coin. Birch pleas to him to leave it to the police to investigate the disappearance of their daughters. Are you a better parent if you sit back and wait or take the law into your own hands? While audience members may root for Dover as he carries out his vigilante investigation, they may soon see the kind of toll it can take on a person to commit such violence.

"Prisoners" is an engrossing mystery that will stay with you days after viewing it. The film isn't built around a "twist" ending; half way through you may know where it is heading, but it doesn't take away from the excitement or tension of watching it all unfold. The moral issues raised in the film about family, religion, and the law, make this more than just an entertainment experience. Once the credits roll, it will make you look at yourself—especially if you have children—in a different light.
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Don Jon (2013)
'Don Jon' Puts Jersey Spin on Romantic Comedies
1 January 2014
New Jersey guy Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) only cares about a few things in his life: his family, friends, church, and porn. After many one-night-stands, he finally decides to settle down with a "dime" named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson). But not even this relationship can compare to the happiness Jon has when alone with his pornography. When he realizes his porn may be too influential on him, he begins to change his lifestyle and beliefs with help from an older woman (Julianne Moore).

Stories of sex addiction aren't new, having been dealt with most recently in 2011's Shame, but Don Jon feels different. Jon loves porn; he says it many times in voice-over and is consistently shown getting up in the middle of the night to go watch porn after just having sex in real life. He doesn't see it as an addiction, saying "It's porn. It's not heroin," as his excuse. To show the media influence on sex, the film opens by crosscutting many sexualized commercials, film scenes, and television clips over the credits, while actual pornography clips are spliced throughout. But unlike Shame, which treats this topic in an intense, dramatic way, Jon keeps it light, funny, and tries to show how easy it is for someone to unknowingly fall into this addiction in today's sex- obsessed culture.

The film also tackles an exploration of today's relationships. Barbara's own "porn" is romantic Hollywood films that Jon hates. These films have influenced Barbara's ideas on dating (she yells at him to stop cleaning his apartment because it's not sexy) and enforced her beliefs that typical gender roles are the only means to a happy relationship. This film speaks truths about ideas young people may have about dating in today's culture, and while spinning these topics in a mostly comedic light, it is still interesting to consider how much media pertains to our understanding of the world.

Don Jon succeeds in most areas, and one large part is due to its cast. Tony Danza is really funny as Jon's father and Scarlett Johansson (and her hilarious Jersey accent) steals every scene she in. The film offers up a good amount of laughs, and the purposeful repetitive narrative works in showing Jon's changing lifestyle. Most of the film is so upbeat and fast that the last twenty minutes may feel like its dragging, but it can be considered necessary due to Jon's slowed-down new lifestyle.

The fact that this is the first film by writer-director Gordon-Levitt is extremely impressive. Don Jon flies at a mostly fast pace, has a fun cast, and gives a great commentary on sex, relationships, and addiction.
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'The Spectacular Now' Isn't that Spectacular
1 January 2014
Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who only has one goal: to live in the 'now'. He parties often, and when he is not drinking at parties, he is drinking alone. After being dumped by his girlfriend (Brie Larson), Sutter drinks so heavily that he wakes up on the front lawn of his classmate Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley). While Aimee may not seem like Sutter's type (this will be hit over the head many times by Sutter's best friend), the two connect immediately and change each other over the school year.

The chemistry between Sutter and Aimee is very strong throughout the whole film and a lot of it feels unscripted and off the cuff. Director James Ponsoldt has a knack for making his characters feel very 'real', as evidenced by his 2012 film Smashed. In particular, a long tracking scene of the two talking and walking through the woods at a party is one of the best in the film; you can really see the characters start to fall for each other.

But the strong chemistry isn't enough to make this coming-of-age story stand out as much as it should. One major issue with the film is that Sutter is really the only character fully developed. Aimee's sole purpose of existence is to assist Sutter from narrative story point A to B. She clearly has problems of her own, most notably with her mother. Aimee does her mother's paper route most mornings due to her late night partying and her mother detests her wanting to go to college, but their whole relationship is shown off screen.

Another issue in the film is the lack of consequences. This film does not need a moral Disney ribbon wrapped over it, but it starts to feel a little strange watching Sutter drink so often throughout the film with so little regrets plaguing his actions. A violent scene late in the film resulting from his drunk driving would call for a big change in his character, but the event is seemingly swept under the rug and forgotten about two scenes later. Even after almost failing high school and losing his job, his drinking continues but, in the end, is not the reason for his self-realization. Alcoholism is dealt with so strongly throughout the film while at the same time being completely ignored.

The film works on many levels, but the narrative issues keep it from being a defining coming-of- age story. The direction makes it a head better than many other films in its genre, and the two leads are very fun to watch, even if the screenplay leaves a little more to be desired.
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'12 Years a Slave' Is Hauntingly Beautiful
1 January 2014
In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Given a new name of 'Platt', Solomon is beaten by anyone whom he told he was free. For twelve years, Solomon faces immense cruelty, such as from slave-owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and struggles to keep hope, dignity, and his life.

Hollywood doesn't show many films on slavery often, yet we have managed to have two big ones in the last two years: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and now Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Django, last year's bloody southern-western, sets slavery as the backdrop with a fantastical narrative that features plenty of revenge and entertainment while still dealing with the dark time period. Slave, on the other hand, grabs your head and holds it toward the screen— forcing you to acknowledge the horrors of our past.

Slave is an emotionally exhausting experience due to the fact that McQueen never dares to let up behind the camera. He and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame each shot beautifully amidst the ugly actions in the scenes. McQueen's close-ups of Solomon—either singing, crying, or thinking —are immensely powerful visuals of a man who in his current situation has no power. In one heart rendering scene involving Epps forcing Solomon to whip a fellow slave, McQueen films it in one breathtaking continuous shot making the audience see every emotion on each actor's face uninterrupted.

The performances in Slave are all exemplary with standouts Ejiofor and Fassbender emitting such intensity in every scene. Fassbender makes Epps a man of true evil; he sees his slaves as "his property…no better than a dog." He erupts into anger and violence at the drop of his hat, and his wife (Sarah Paulson) is just as masochistic as he is. Ejiofor is devastating as Solomon; the scenes where he is silent and alone are some of most commanding ones in all the film. He is changed from a loving family man into a beaten soul, but his eyes never lose the hope to once again be free.

Slave may be a harrowing experience, but it is an absolute crucial must-see. Not since Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List twenty years ago has a film shown history in such a haunting and unforgettable way. This film, while very brutal, is an incredible story of human spirit when it, as Solomon says, doesn't want to survive, but live.
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Carrie (2013)
'Carrie' Remake Offers Up Nothing New
29 October 2013
Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) is not your average high school girl. A shy social outcast that is constantly bullied by her classmates and sheltered by her very religious mother (Julianne Moore), Carrie eventually learns that she has a gift others don't: telekinesis. After being humiliated at her senior prom, she uses her power to get violent revenge on the people who made her life miserable for too long.

'What happened to Carrie?' is one of the taglines for this movie, but in the case of the film's quality, it is a truly applicable question. What happened? Featuring a cast of great actors, an "updated" re-imagining of the Stephen King story, and technology for better effects than when Director Brian De Palma's version was made in 1976, this should've been the Carrie we all have been waiting for. Instead, we are left with a stale remake that doesn't bother adding anything new to a classic horror tale.

One of the biggest flaws of Carrie is the way in which none of the actions of the characters feel genuine. Other than the way Carrie walks hunched and has messy hair, there is nothing that feels strange about her. When she walks through the halls and sees spray painted obscenities about her on the lockers, you can't help but feel confused as why she is bullied. High school is no doubt an awkward time, but Carrie never comes across as truly tortured.

Even when nice guy Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) takes Carrie to the prom as ordered by his guilty-feeling girlfriend Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), you almost completely forget Carrie has even been picked on. Classmates talk to her, Tommy dances with her, and Carrie exuberates a type of confidence so quickly it feels out of character. Also, Carrie's cries to her mother don't come across as someone truly tormented by their guardian, but instead as a 'mom, you're embarrassing me' plea. There feels no sense of dread, even when Moore is at her terrifying best. It feels like Carrie is just going through the motions of the original; it understands where the story needs to go and does it without pumping any real meaning into it.

Another vital mistake is the heavy use of CGI. While scenes where Carrie uses her telekinesis to float objects works with CGI, many of the 'horror' scenes use it with awful results. The effects are so obvious that it pulls you out of any moment where they are applied and, like in the case of the prom scene, creates a hokey, laughable mess. The very last shot of the film is so ludicrous that it makes you really appreciate the practical effects of the original.

Carrie does feature some good performances from Moore and Elgort, but it is ultimately Mortez who feels miscast. Watching Carrie was like experiencing extreme déjà vu for most scenes, and while it isn't terrible, it fails to offer any reason to view it other than to see different faces.
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