Friday, October 4, 2013

This Entire GRAVITY Review Was Written In One Take

GRAVITY (directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Years from now, movie lovers will ask each other, "Where were you when you saw 'Gravity?'" just like people ask each other about the JFK assassination, if the JFK assassination were, you know, a good thing.

That's not necessarily saying "Gravity" is a classic film. Not necessarily saying that it's a great film (although I personally think it's the latter). But it is a landmark film. What is it we so often demand of movies - show us something we've never seen before. "Gravity" does more than show us. It takes us there, plugs us in to the surroundings, and tears down the barriers between audience and movie, between seat and screen. Few movies I can think of create such an intensely physical experience, transferring the experience of characters to our very bones.

This is what the monoliths in "2001: A Space Odyssey" pointed to. 

Linear as an arrow, the script from director Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonas tells a story of sheer survival that allows us to wonder, "Could I do this?" Two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) are in space conducting a space walk for space repairs on their space shuttle when space debris strikes (doesn't everything seem cooler with the word space?). They're robbed of all contact with Earth. Their options don't extend far beyond floating around, which they do, a lot. Alfonso and Jonas cleanly construct the ensuing 75 minutes as one thing needing to happen for the next thing to happen, otherwise no more things will happen.

There are no cuts to mission control. No flashbacks to Bullock's life back on our planet that spends the movie so cruelly in view. What little dose of spiritualism Cuarón offers could just as easily be written off as a dream. But purged of all distractions, "Gravity" finds the infinite. Lets not undersell what Cuarón accomplished here - by shooting his actors floating almost entirely outside their crafts (how often do you see that in outer space movies?), by allowing his camera to roam free through the 3D axis, by shooting his trademarked long takes with views that wobble between full background shots of Earth and the vast nothingness of stars within the same moment, and by using nonstop special effects to create a thoroughly meditative experience instead of a barrage of itself, he has done nothing less than change the very language of film.

Taken alone, that is impressive enough. But what makes "Gravity" monumental, borderline miraculous even, is Cuarón and his team do it so seamlessly. Think about your favorite special effects landmarks. The Death Star Trench Run in "Star Wars." The first T-Rex attack in "Jurassic Park." Maybe the White House explosion in "Independence Day," I dunno. Those moments are accompanied with the requisite awe. "Movie magic," as us industry insiders call it. But they also beg the immediate question, "How'd they do that?" It's part of the fun, wondering how a filmmaker pulled something off.

"Gravity" wants none of that nonsense. Once we're there, we're there, and we are absorbed. Cuarón's effects don't call attention to themselves. Instead they dazzlingly blend to create a world that feels legitimate and encompassing. It existed before Clooney and Bullock showed up, and it'll exist after they leave. As far as we're concerned, they shot this movie in space. Don't ruin the fantasy. Don't even try. 

This is where 3D becomes absolutely necessary. Trust me on this one - dig up whatever spare change you can find and splurge on the glasses. You owe yourself the spectacle. Seeing "Gravity" in 3D is the true immersive experience this tool has been waiting for, what James Cameron promised it could be. Set free from the confines of a flat plane, Cuarón's camera pivots, flips, darts, and is sometimes content to simply float and let the vastness wash over us.

It's terrifying. It's sweat-inducing. But it's also humbling and strangely inspiring, a deeply resonant experience that a week later, I'm still struggling to describe cogently. "Gravity" steadfastly never bends to emotional manipulation. When space stations are shattered by passing debris, it's with an eerie and poetic lack of sound simply because there's no sound in space. When Bullock and Clooney find themselves separated early on, it's with the cold tacitness that they might remain lost and float until they die because it's space and there's no gravity and that's just how it is.

Earth looms large throughout the movie's running time, sometimes filling the entire background. It plays like a joke that all these two people need to do is set foot back on what is so clearly in front of them. Really, outer space begins only 80 or so miles above our heads. A short road trip to visit your grandparents or see some band you like but don't even love. But once "Gravity" slips that bond, the rules change and a feeling of total, awesome insignificance seeps in. 

All begging the question of, "Why?" Why make this movie? Is it simply a special effects exercise? If so, well, bravo. It goes beyond that, though. Our actions on Earth can't help but feel important. It's all we know. But the universe is so vast and old and mystifying, and our time as a member of it is so brief. Against this barren, endless, merciless, gorgeous void, we border on nonexistence. The infinite stretches on, and we don't.

Within that framework, Cuarón chooses survival for his narrative thrust, and accompanied by an emotionally grounded, powerhouse performance from Bullock, he plunges us to a visceral situation in that very void where we have to shed the essence of who we thought we were for something stronger. We remain insignificant. Yet amongst the stars, what we do matters, if only because it matters to us. I don't know what you'll get from "Gravity." Maybe only thrills. It's a personal experience. But that's what it meant to me.

As a special effects spectacle seen on the biggest possible screen, "Gravity" is a stunner. As a cinematic experience, it brushes on transcendence.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

With RUSH, Ron Howard Proves He Could Shoot An Awesome Beer Commercial Someday

RUSH (directed by Ron Howard, 2013)

Has any director in history turned a distinct lack of style into a bigger advantage than Ron Howard?

That's not a dig at the man. Far from it, actually. His success harkens to directors of the studio system heyday, churning out product not through a burning something to say, but because filmmaking is a job, and that job requires you to say something. Clean, no-frills storytelling still requires precision and artistry, if you consider "artistry" the willingness to stand back and know when to not try too hard. The movies might be his. They're just not his.

Howard, more often than not, is a competent pizza delivery man who takes great pride in his job. You get exactly what you ordered, on time and at the agreed-upon price, and he doesn't even stick around like a jerk waiting for a tip. That's why when he makes something unexpectedly fun like "Rush," it hits with an added jolt. This isn't a for-hire director shooting the script. This is Richie Cuningham waking up one day and deciding to be the Fonz!

You know what? It actually works. Maybe this is just what happens to a director when he realizes his last movie was a Kevin James/Vince Vaughn comedy, but Ron Howard strove for something kinetic and layered and adult, and damn if he doesn't (mostly) pull it off.

Set in the rarely-visited world of Formula One racing, "Rush" concerns the true story of two drivers whose star is on the rise - James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, relishing the opportunity to show some personality) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). As portrayed in Peter Morgan's screenplay, Hunt cares more about celebrity than the intricacies of racing itself, while Lauda approaches winning with level-headed rationality, believing it can be taught like any science. Morgan argues their clashing personalities drove each other to succeed more than spouses or coaches or prizes, to the point that they need the half of a person that the other provides. Why, an observant viewer might even say they're two sides of the same coin.

Lets start with what "Rush" isn't. It isn't deep. Once Morgan and Howard establish the yin and yang relationship of the characters, there aren't many ways to go but sideways. Hunt pulls Lauda one way. Lauda pulls him in the other. Morgan's screenplay doesn't follow a theme as much as it establishes a theme and replays it. All this is interesting on a conceptual level, but dramatically it falls short, as the lives of these men never sizzle as much as when they're behind the wheel.

"Rush" also isn't sexy, at least not as much as it thinks it is. Set free by the limitless R rating, Howard reminds us that he's also the guy who made the bawdy 80s comedy "Night Shift," but he's also the guy who made the PG...most everything else. "Rush" so clearly wants to delight in the decadence of celebrity, tossing bare breasts and champagne around with a devil-may-care casualness. Something about it feels oddly off, though. If it's sexy, it's sexy like a trembling, nerdy virgin traveling to Amsterdam hoping to meet a high class prostitute. Her moves might feel erotic, but that don't mean they're real.

But enough wet blanket talk. Where "Rush" shines, and I mean really shines, is the kinetic gamesmenship on display. On the track, it feels more alive and visceral than almost any racing movie I can remember. Howard often finds himself lashed for his trademarked "solid" craftsmanship, but here it's set to full, clear-eyed advantage. His wide establishing shots allow understanding of geography. Crisp editing creates consistent placement in the action - we know where everyone is and where they're trying to be. And virtuoso special effects push the races to "You are there" extremes, with the tires almost flinging mud in our faces. Here is a movie where 3D would be superfluous.

This same earnestness carries over to the dynamic between our two leads. "Rush" doesn't have a lot to say about the nature of human nature or competition, but lets also consider how it's saying it. Grab any sports movie about a personal rivalry at random and you're almost sure to find a clear-cut pro- and antagonist. Maybe they reach the inevitable begrudging respect. Maybe they even become friends in a sequel. But the dividing lines are clear - this is who you root for, and this is who stands in his way. 

"Rush" travels the far more interesting route of shifting protagonists. As the movie progresses, sometimes even within a single scene, our loyalties move like a sliding scale. Our desire to see Hunt win is never greater than Lauda, and vice versa. By the destined "big race" in the end, one character makes a crucial decision that all but guarantees victory for the other, and yet when that victory comes, our fists aren't driven to pump. Victory and defeat aren't on "Rush's" mind. Instead it crafts two well-defined characters and asks us to consider what they mean for each other. A worthy, even noble, goal for a sports movie. You half-expect them to pull a "Rocky III" and challenge each other to a private race in the end, freeze framing just as they hit the gas.

More than anything, "Rush" represents Howard's glee of playing in the sandbox. All too willing to stand as a punching bag for those who believe themselves above the middlebrow, Howard still seems to like making movies. I mean, really just likes making them. "Rush" takes a while to find its feet (the first half feels noticeably muddier as we get used to the ping-pong structure between Hemsworth and Brühl), and once it does, it's content to hit the beats.

Howard's earnestness shines above all, though. As long as he believes in the story this much, I'm willing to go along for the ride. "Rush" doesn't add up to as much as it could, but it has a blast doing so.