Gravity: the tale of Houston in the blind

gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-shiopAlfonso Cuaron drives me nuts. There I’ve said it. His films are so immersive, so real, they frequently leave you gasping for air. That’s very much the case in Gravity when our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is dangerously low on oxygen. In fact, there isn’t a time when she’s not in serious peril. You can see why this film wouldn’t work beyond 90 minutes, it’s exhausting.

Never have I scrunched up my toes for the duration of a film before, dammit Cuaron! What, in essence, I’m trying to say, is that Gravity is a pure sensory experience and the first – and hopefully last – time we’ll see 3D used in the way in which it was probably intended (i.e. in space with things floating around and frequently exploding). I’ve heard this film be described as something of a novelty in that sense, and I suppose it is: other directors take note, don’t make Gravity 2, please.

gravity3To backtrack a moment, plot wise it’s thin on the ground and, from what I’ve read, it’s intentionally this way. We don’t need a vast amount of backstory to sympathise with these characters. We start out with veteran space man Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) helping Bullock’s rookie astronaut, Dr. Stone, fix something. They’re quickly informed some pesky Russians have blown up one of their space stations starting a chain reaction of debris orbiting the planet. Clever plot point, as we get almost regularly timed sequences of mayhem as Stone and Kowalsky spend the rest of the film trying to make it back to earth in one piece.

To keep the experience as immersive as possible Cauron, to his credit, doesn’t cut away to earth to see what Houston are up to, he doesn’t provide flashbacks to tell us why the characters are doiGRAVITYng what they are doing, it’s obvious what they’re doing, trying to survive.

There’s also the fact that, if you avoid these little screenwriting tropes, the tension stays high. Cuaron wants us on edge, he wants us there in space with them. The 3D really helps in that sense, with blobs of liquid and other space paraphernalia occasionally hitting the camera; a nice touch by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, a man known for staggering natural beauty in his shots.

He’s worked with Cuaron before, as well as Terence Malick, making him – along with Roger Deakins – Hollywood’s go-to guy for gorgeous scenery and sumptuous wide shots. A perfect fit for Cuaron’s vision of the vast and eerily beautiful vacuum that is space.

And if we’re talking tone, this is no Apollo 13 but perhaps closer to Duncan Jones’ Moon or J.C. Chandor’s latest All Is Lost; a film where Robert Redford makes up the entire cast and saysandra-bullocks-gravity-interviews barely a word for the duration. It also has elements of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Clearly this is a technical masterpiece and has pushed the boundaries of what 3D – and indeed cinema – is capable of achieving. Hopefully it’s a one-off, but chances are we’ll see various attempts in the next few years to replicate this sort of thing.

In short, this film is a tense and exhausting technical triumph. Praise for Cuaron is entirely justified, as it is for Bullock too. But let’s just preserve and enjoy their work and keep it as that, shall we?

Ben Affleck: a directorial phoenix emerges!

the town

I’ve had a disastrous morning. Not the most upbeat way to start a post, but hang in there. I dropped a full jar of honey on the floor which shattered. Honey and glass is impossible to clean up. Then banged my heel in the shower, spilt hot tea on my leg, lost half my breakfast in the toaster – the part I salvaged I managed to push off my plate onto the table with aggressive cutting!

And so, on to this post. As you might guess it’s about Affleck’s rise from the ashes of an acting career to become a directorial force to be reckoned with – much to the surprise of many. The reason for mentioning my morning mishaps is I hope this piece becomes my salvation – that I rise from the flames resplendent, with no more disasters for the rest of the day. I want to become the phoenix! Ahem, let’s move on.

So last night I watched Gone Baby Gone – another ‘been on my list for a while’ film. As expected, it’s really good. I’ve ended up watching the films Affleck has directed in reverse order, having seen The Town a while ago. Both are set in Boston and deal with crime and family. Both are brilliant – suspenseful, thrilling and wholly engrossing throughout.

gone baby goneGone Baby Gone (2007)
If you’ve not seen this, it’s a crime mystery drama based on a book by Dennis Lehane – author of two other titles that have been turned into impressive films, Mystic River and Shutter Island. The latter superbly directed by Scorsese and features a career-high performance by DiCaprio.

In terms of plot, it features Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as a private investigator hired to find a missing girl. Faced with the challenges of working with distrustful cops (Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman), drug dealers and other lowlifes – his relationship with his co-worker and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) becomes strained as the investigation progresses. There are twists, turns and revelations and, whilst the plot is complex, it’s worth paying attention to the end.

Affleck (senior) gives the Boston setting a grittiness and believability and gets a great performance out his younger brother. Who said siblings can’t work together? I’ve had my doubts about Casey Affleck, he’s always seemed quite a closed book in terms of being an expressive actor. Now I understand his appeal. He gives a truly impressive performance, particularly showing suppressed emotion – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray for an actor. He’s also highly believable as a normal Boston guy in a tense, dangerous situation. The action never feels fake or Hollywood, a lot of this is down to Casey’s talent as much as older brother Ben’s direction.

This film suffered a little on release due to the subject matter and art imitating life, particularly in the UK where the disappearance of a girl that looked almost identical to the one in the film meant release was pushed back. This should take nothing away from it, this is a well told, well acted, well directed film – particularly from a debut Director.

Incidentally, if we’re talking Lehane adaptations, it’s worth noting that it’s less depressing than Mystic River and not as thrilling or scary as Shutter Island – sitting perhaps inbetween the two as a good, solid crime mystery. Worth your time.

The Town (2010)
Is this a companion piece to Gone Baby Gone? Maybe it should be packaged up as a Boston crime trilogy boxset with The Departed? Anyway, Affleck’s directorial debut set him up nicely to direct this tale of bank-robbing in the heart of Boston’s Charlestown – a place that accounts for over 300 robberies a year.

As well as directing, Affleck starred as the leader of the gang who decides to keep watch on bank manager (Rebecca Hall), as she could potentially identify him following his gang’s last job. As he begins to fall for her romantically he has to deal with volatile partner (the excellent Jeremy Renner) and evade capture from FBI detective (John Hamm).

the townFor me, this film had a lot of similarities with Michael Mann’s Heat, or the opening robbery sequence in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At least in terms of epic, realistic gun battles in broad daylight and the cat-and-mouse game between cop (Hamm) and robber (Affleck). High praise you might say, but justified.

How Affleck found the time to act in this as well as get great performances out of a cast including Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, John Hamm and Jeremy Renner I’ll never know. Renner was astonishing – all coiled up, explosive rage and intensity.

If you compare Affleck’s two directorial outings so far, I prefer The Town. It’s a simpler story than Gone Baby Gone, but more exciting and thrilling. Both are very good films though. Which leads us on to Affleck’s latest…

Argo (2012)
Hard for me to say too much about this as it’s only just come out at the cinema. The plot tells the story of a real life CIA mission in 1980 to rescue six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran, by posing as a Canadian film crew and staging a fake film in the country.

It’s got an interesting cast. As well as Affleck, it includes Bryan Cranston (from TV show Breaking Bad), John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Quite a departure from Affleck’s first two films, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

I’ll finish with the trailer below so you can judge for yourself. First impressions suggest it’s positioning itself as a serious thriller with comic elements. Almost like a grown-up version of Ocean’s Eleven. What do you think?