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Movies: Alfonso Cuáron's 'Gravity' and Other October Pleasures

  Gravity-huddle
Outer Space Movie Star Huddle: Sandy & Clooney 

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

There's a brief scene in Nicole Holofcener's engaging indie hit ENOUGH SAID that repeats enough times that it could be the chorus if the movie were a song. A massage therapist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) arrives at the home of a fit male client who lives on the top floor of his building. Every time she arrives he pops out with a killer smile looking down to greet her. He never thinks to help her as she arduously lugs her massage table up the entire steep flight of stairs.  

Excuse the stretch but this is sometimes how it feels to write about movies. Especially the ones that are true lookers that you're still just not that into.

By any definition GRAVITY is the movie of the moment and by some measures it will come to be regarded as The Movie of the Year. (You can lock it up for a Best Picture nomination).  If you've ever wondered "What's all the fuss?" about something that everyone else loved I hope you'll choose empathy when you learn that I did not love it. In the binary-thinking of the 21st century the internet this makes me a hater but this is not the case.  At every zero gravity step of its way I was trying to love it.  And I did mostly like it... at least through its astounding 20 minute (?) opening act, which appears to have been miraculously filmed in one continuous shot.  

MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

Gravity-sandra-bullock

In the beginning we literally circle three astronauts at work on repairs on a satellite. Two of the Astronauts are played by massive A listers George Clooney and Sandra Bullock so you know that the third (who never gets a closeup) is your "red shirt", poor thing. As the camera circles the repairs, Astronaut Clooney, supervising, also circles the satellite in a jetpack like he's kicking back in a movie theater seat himself. So we've got helixes within helixes visually. Predictably things go horribly awry and then Sandy is spinning in circles while the camera continues to whiz around everything and everyone in the vast emptiness of space. It's absolutely dizzying and I forgot to breathe. And visually ... wow wow wow.

But then what?

Ambition is, unfortunately, a spiritual cousin of self sabotage and though the film is unfailingly ambitious in scope and technique (the effects are mindblowing) there isn't much else to grab on. Which is strange for an Alfonso Cuarón film. The talented writer/director has never made a bad film and his best, Y Tu Mama Tambien, proves his skill at multi-tasking. That movie managed to juggle a sophisticated and frank sexual coming of age story with a great road trip comedy and while it was doing both thing, it casually slipped in a socioeconomic travelogue portrait of an entire country. But Gravity skimps on everything that isn't visual effects based so we proceed from one scene to the next, each following the same pattern: Momentary Serenity, Something Goes Wrong. Astronaut Fights To Survive; and that scene repeats for literally the rest of the film.

Gravity-directionElsewhere you can sense the compromises made to justify its behemoth budget.  Gravity makes a repeated point of telling you that there is no sound in space. So what's with that full loud orchestra guiding your emotions at every point? The casting, too, feels like production insurance.

Clooney, as an actor, rarely lets you see him sweat which works wonders for his charm-based star turns like Oceans 11 or for roles wherein he lets tiny cracks show, exposing a less self-possessed interior. Think of his increasingly unmoored corporate sharks in Up in the Air or Michael Clayton. Here that effortless megacharm proves an incongruous match for the material wherein everyone's lives are at immediate and obvious risk including his. He never once seems afraid which I'll admit took me out of the movie. Christ, he seemed more disarmed by having to run in flipflops in The Descendants than by possible loss of oxygen in outer space. 

Bullocks fares much better as the focal star of the movie, gamely meeting the physical demands of her role -- including her very own Barbarella striptease (if Barbarella was a sexless family-friendly epic that is). Unfortunately the screenplay hands her only the most basic stock character to play (Grieving Woman). Gravity only asks Sandra for three things: fear, sadness, and survival adrenaline. She's a dependable star so she delivers.

Still, at the very least, Gravity is a directorial feat, eye-popping from frame one to end credits. It's the best visual effects reel Hollywood has produced since Avatar, and could well become the rare gold standard that holds up a even two decades later like those once-breakthroughs Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park which still look awesome despite being ripped off hundreds of times since.

Donjon-dime

In Joseph Gordon-Levitt's DON JON, Scarlett Johansson is introduced visually in a tight red dress as her male admirers, led by the title characters (newly muscled JGL...speaking of eye candy) describe her as a "dime". In that comedy's strongest move in its final act, it suddenly asks you to look at her more deeply. Gravity is that kind of a dime. The exterior is so intoxicating that it's easy to forget to even consider anything else beneath the glossy perfect 10 surface. And what's inside counts a lot in the long run. Gravity is being compared to the Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey in several reviews which, and I'm not the first to note this, is a strange comparison. 2001 is notoriously enigmatic and even if you've seen it many times its mysteries remain intact. The awe has long outlasted its now dated visual effects. With Gravity the only question that haunts afterwards is "How did they film that?

My point though I fear I've lost it is that Gravity is a dime and I'm sure I'll give it a second chance but loving it is a steep climb from where I'm standing, looking up at it. 

Whether or not you love Gravity, and my guess is you will (I'm jealous that I'm missing the love-in), it's a good time to be hitting the theaters. Enough Said and Don Jon, also in release, are far from perfect movies and nowhere near as ambitious as Gravity, but as star vehicles they're exceptional. The late James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus make a totally believable tentative couple in the former, and Scarlett Johansson has NEVER been sexier (which is saying a lot) or funnier than she is in the latter. People like to claim that the Romantic Comedy genre is a landfill but this is merely a byproduct of the strange resistance to labelling good comedies that are about Romance as RomComs. It seems that that label only successfully attaches itself to bad "chick-flicks". The good ones get dragged and dropped into the more desirable Dramedy or Comedy folders. October gets even better in the next two weeks when CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and 12 YEARS A SLAVE hit. Expect those two to battle it out with Gravity for 'Best of the Year' honors in the oncoming awards season and all over top ten lists.

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Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. It was refreshing to hear a reviewer that was not in some way, a part of the industry..I grew up with real movie reviewers,..they could make/break a movie..but my tastes sometimes were not there's , so I read/listened but I would go to see the movie for my own opinion., today it's so rare to hear a bad review ...I love JGLevitt /he's so creative & brave with the roles he's chosen from the male hustler to the Mormon cleric in Latter Days, also seen his stage work downtownin NYC..he's great & I know he wrote this part with Scarlett in mind..can you imagine being his inspiration?..just that 20 second commercial is hysterical....as for space 2013. I may/not because someone interviewed an astronaut & said that the pictures of Earth were the best he'd ever seen..depends on the length, even 2001 , I have to take in doses..thanks again

    Posted by: Tony C | Oct 6, 2013 1:57:50 AM


  2. I wanted to love Gravity because I loved Y Tu Mama Tambien and I love that Alfonso and son wrote it together, but it was really a short film. It could have been 30 minutes, for all we got out of it.

    Posted by: rustytrawler | Oct 6, 2013 4:06:46 AM


  3. To be clear, what I meant was that it should have been a short film. There was no content. It was some tense action sequences strung together, without much attempt to have us invest in the main character.

    As my friend pointed out, if Bullock's daughter is already dead, who cares if she makes it back to earth? What is she coming back for? The daughter "plot point" seemed very half-assed anyway. Studio note? Probably.

    Posted by: rustytrawler | Oct 6, 2013 4:15:50 AM


  4. I wonder if it would be better without the music and only breathing and heartbeat for sound.

    Also, have used some Clooney full frontal weightless. Just saying

    Posted by: stevetalbert | Oct 6, 2013 8:54:10 AM


  5. Saw Gravity last night and thought it was excellent. It's worth seeing for the cinematography and visual effects alone. Pay the extra few bucks for the IMAX 3D, it's well worth it.

    Posted by: Brian in Texas | Oct 6, 2013 8:58:39 AM


  6. I utterly adored "Gravity" because like "Hugo" it used 3-D not as a gimmick but essential to the audio-visual experience.

    This film MUST be seen in IMAX 3-D because it doesn't really exist otherwise.

    I've read other critics who've complained about the plot and characters, but to me it's just nit-picking. Keeping the situation simple is essential for allowing the viewer to take in the audio-visual experience being presented with as few distractions as possible. What's most exciting about "Gravity" can't really be put into words.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Oct 6, 2013 9:33:17 AM


  7. Not much of a film-goer these days and to get me into a theatre one relies on a review or two to perhaps provide and context or pique an interest. I've read four rave reviews (two of which surprised me because of who reviewed the film) and this one, which truth be told, is dismissive. But, it backs up that dismissiveness with clarity and reason. However, I do dispute the comment about Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it on cable last week and its special effects are still dazzling and they do hold up after 45 years. The fashions might be dated but the space visuals are still incredible.

    Posted by: jamal49 | Oct 6, 2013 12:36:37 PM


  8. "2001 is notoriously enigmatic and even if you've seen it many times its mysteries remain intact. The awe has long outlasted its now dated visual effects. With Gravity the only question that haunts afterwards is How did they film that?"

    Last time I saw 2001 (a couple of years ago) I didn't think it was dated at all. The effect don't age, because they're realistic.

    I haven't seen Gravity yet, but these days nobody cares they filmed anything, because nothing is "filmed". It's created in a computer. So boring.

    Posted by: Randy | Oct 6, 2013 5:32:07 PM


  9. Personally, I loved it! Looking forward to seeing it again. I think that once the mesmerizing special effects have dealt their blow, come up for a second (or third wind) and take a deeper look. The Directors poetic metaphors, and Sandy B's nuanced performance of a woman reborn will earn her the OSCAR, this time for a performance she is worthy of. To describe her as "dependable" undercuts her performance. If you appreciate the craft of film, the minor plot deficiencies are transcended by the artistic genius of Cuaron. To think this was done in front of a green screen makes it all the more impressive.

    Posted by: Mstone67 | Oct 6, 2013 5:42:16 PM


  10. I agree with RANDY, 2001 is not dated, and still the Standard. Although I have not seen Gravity the trailer looks heaving with CGI.

    Posted by: Rob | Oct 6, 2013 11:15:53 PM


  11. Thank you for the substantive Gravity review in counterpoint to the avalanche of critical raves. I was somewhat suspect of what I assumed the best parts with the film trailers, but nothing else that gives us further glimpses of the storyline. Your review confirms it. Although I'm a sucker for CGI space visuals, 2001 in scope sets the standard. For all the hype, Gravity falls short.

    Posted by: Sam | Oct 7, 2013 12:52:27 PM


  12. Aside from the movie itself -- I've never in my live sat in a sold out theater among a more well-behaved crowd. The movie had long moments of quiet silence and the audience remained fully engaged. I think that's a testament to the film. I'll be shocked if Sandra isn't at least nominated for Best Actress. I won't be shocked if she wins it though.

    Posted by: jake | Oct 7, 2013 3:42:04 PM


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