Tuesday, October 22, 2013

DENY: a review of "Admission"

Based upon the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Screenplay Written by Karen Croner
Directed by Paul Weitz
* (one star)

If Tina Fey is going to continue to act in feature films, then she seriously needs to just step up to the plate and just develop her own projects and write her own films to ensure that she will at long last be in a movie that is worthy of her immense talents.

In my previous review of Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's lovely "Enough Said," I remarked how that film' star, the great comedic actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus has seemed to habitually exuded a fierce sense of quality control with the projects she chose to associate herself with. I truly an unable to think of a time when the character she played felt to be beneath the actual human being that I am perceiving Louis-Dreyfus to be. With Tina Fey, on the other hand, her choices have fallen far shorter by comparison and in my mind, I cannot see why this is happening at all.

Tina Fey has proven over and over again that she is easily one of the sharpest comedic and satirical minds working today. Her years as Head Writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," which even includes her subsequent guest appearances where her brilliant evisceration of a certain half term Alaskian Governor who shall remain nameless have become legendary, would be proof enough of her unquestionable skills. But let's also throw in her Emmy Award winning television series "30 Rock," her best selling autobiographical book Bossypants, and her 2010 award of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to boot and Fey's talents and smarts are blindingly evident!

Yet, when it comes to Fey's movie choices, from "Baby Mama" (2008) to "Date Night" (2010) and now "Admission," Director Paul Weitz's anemic and plastic romantic comedy-drama, Fey once again is subjected to portraying a character that is obviously not written towards her strengths or is operating anywhere near her level. Everything again feels so bubble headed and dumbed down that these films all feel like the very things that Fey would satirize rather than star in straight faced as I just cannot believe that the characters she portrays and the movies in which they appear are anywhere near as smart as I am perceiving her to be in real life. Let's face it, the only film in Tina Fey's short filmography that even represents her fierce talents is Director Mark Waters' "Mean Girls" (2004), the one film that she wrote and brilliantly adapted from Author Rosalind Wiseman's non-fiction social critique Queen Bees And Wannabees. Dear readers, I love Tina Fey! I adore Tina Fey! I just wish for her to be in a film that is her equal. Unfortunately, "Admission" is barely worth the viewing I gave and even less worthy of the time I am taking to write this review.   

Tina Fey stars in "Admission" as Princeton Admissions Officer Portia Nathan who, along with her colleagues, is deep in the throes of the annual college application onslaught, complete with campus tours, campus visits and recruiting speeches, and the seemingly bottomless reading of essays, transcripts and standardized testing scores. Portia is soon contacted by the affable John Pressman (Paul Rudd), a former college classmate and now, a teacher and one of the heads of Quest, a rural, alternative high school in New Hampshire, who requests that Portia visit his school as this year will mark the school very first graduating class. John also asks of Portia to please take special attention with 18 year old Jeremiah Balakian (Nat Wolff), an auto-didactic who may or may not also be the child Portia gave up for adoption during her college days. This revelation forces Portia to fully re-examine her life choices from her college days, to her long term relationship with the stuffy poetry scholar Mark (Michael Sheen), to her strained relationship with her unrepentantly militant feminist Mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), to her budding feelings towards John and the responsibilities she feels she must carry towards Jeremiah all the way to re-thinking her overall career.

From that plot description, it would seem that "Admission" would not only be a compelling film that could handsomely encapsulate the college admissions process with romance, comedy and probing drama, the film could also be the one to play entirely towards Tina Fey's strengths, possibly even elevating her game and broadening her acting chops. In fact, the film does indeed start off fairly well by establishing the rigorous detail of Portia's life and juxtaposing the unfair and arbitrary competition teenagers are forced into just to go to school against the competition the admissions officers experience as they are faced against each other. An early sequence set at Quest, where Portia is challenged by the students as to the validity of a college experience and education at Princeton, and even the futility of obtaining a college education at all, is easily the film's strongest scene as it exhibits the very sharp, smart, and even savage humor and dialogue that matches Fey's creative aesthetics. At this early stage, everything seems to point "Admission" squarely in the right direction. But not so fast, as sharpness quickly transforms to dullness, smartness becomes empty headed-ness and "Admission" quickly nose-dives into a film that becomes completely toothless.

Now, just so you know, my reaction towards this film has nothing to do with my reaction towards the novel, which I have read. Truth be told, I was rather lukewarm to the book as I found it to be strongly written with a enjoyable literary palate yet it was also a book that I felt was badly plotted, where revelations are discovered looooooong before Portia and we just have to wait and wait and wait and wait for her to catch up, a quality which made for torpid reading. That said, there was never a moment within the book that felt false, where characters were betrayed by the plot and forced to engage in behavior and dialogue that was beneath what Author Jean Hanff Korelitz had set up.

With film adaptations, like I have always expressed, books are books and movies are movies and Admission the novel, while not without humor or even a sense of satire, is indeed pitched at a more serious, dramatic and therefore more realistic level whereas this film version is decidedly more comedic. This tonal change would be just fine if Paul Weitz had just allowed the events to unfold as organically as possible. Returning to "Enough Said" for a moment, I just cannot stress greater just how important and invigorating it was to regard a film that just allowed its characters and situations to unfold as naturally as possible, affording the comedy, the drama, the heartache and the beautiful chemistry between Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini to coalesce so richly. Conversely with "Admission," Weitz sacrificed the story's inherent intelligence, integrity, comedy, romance and more difficult and painful dramatic sections for prefabricated likability designed solely to ensure mass appeal and potential box office results and rendering everything about "Admission" down to being bland and bloodless.

This was a terrible technique Weitz utilized with his adaptation of Nick Hornby's About A Boy, a film that was critically acclaimed and well loved by audiences, yet for my sense and sensibilities completely derailed the story by entirely stripping its rawness, resulting in a film that was unbearably soulless. "Admission"' suffers the exact same fate as Weitz elevates the comedic and romantic comedy elements so awkwardly and forcefully that any emotion between characters feels sadly manufactured and the humor feels desperate, thus completely betraying who these characters really are. A scene with a cow giving birth provides the requisite bathroom humor which then leads to the shamelessly forced "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" pseudo sexual tension between Fey and Rudd's characters, for instance. Additionally, an invented sequence where Portia, desiring to check in on the Princeton visiting Jeremiah, sneaks into a college party, uncomfortably wearing a hoodie and woodenly speaking that "teen lingo" felt desperate, just like another invented scene where Portai's Mother brandishes a shotgun. Portia relationship with Mark, explored with appropriate heartbreak in the novel is just treated for uneventful throwaway laughs in the film. And if my memory about the novel is serving me correctly, I am almost 100% positive that with this film, even the truth of whether Jeremiah is Portia's long abandoned child has been altered. If so, it would only have been for no apparent reason other than, I guess, to ensure that the potential film audience will not judge Portia too harshly and still find her completely "likable."
Did Weitz just not have any trust in his source material or even Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, two of our most likable actors, who are each also very attractive leads to regard, with just having the story unfold naturally and to also have Fey and Rudd naturally embody these characters? Nearly every moment within "Admission" feels so false and none of what Weitz is trying to achieve is ever earned. "Admission" is a film that falls face first into the same tired old Hollywood traps of canned situations and emotions that have long grown tiresome and regrettable. With regards to Tina Fey, you just do not buy her in these situations as they are displayed throughout the film and it just made me realize once again that possibly speaking to Tina Fey in person or over-hearing her in public at a restaurant perhaps would be much funnier, more sophisticated and profoundly more insightful than almost everything in this movie, which has shown to be another waste of her considerable talents. If I were able, I would take Tina Fey by the shoulders and shake her from side to side for continuing to squander herself on roles and projects that are far beneath her when she truly does not have to and she knows better!

"He likes me because I'm boring," explains Tina Fey as Portia to Paul Rudd's character regarding his son. Maybe so. But "boring" is not how any of us would even begin to describe Tina Fey, and that description is not why we all love her. Where is that wit, that spark, that fearless bite in Fey's film roles that she so desperately needs? Wherever it is, I sincerely hopes that she finds it and utilizes it soon. But for now, "Admission" is yet another underachieving effort that is not worth your time and energy whatsoever.

Ms. Fey, with all due respect, you really need to begin applying yourself!!

If you would rather see a much better film that details the anxieties of the college application process, for both teenagers and the admissions officers, and is handled with much more warmth, humor, satire, and romance then please allow me to point you towards Director Savage Steve Holland's barely seen "How I Got Into College" (1989). While it won't shift the planet's axis or anything and aspects about it may have become somewhat dated, it remains a light, charming, entertaining film that for me, has held up very gently after all of these years.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A LOVELY DOSE OF ROMANTIC REALITY: a review of "Enough Said"

Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

My distaste for the current status of movie love stories and romantic comedies due to convoluted plots and downright unrealistic characters and even moreso, un-romantic behavior, has been no secret to any of you dear readers who have ever followed my postings. That said, 2012 displayed several features that seemed to suggest that the tide of cinematic love stories just may be turning for the better as convoluted plotting was eschewed for the shocking novelty of creating characters that not only felt to exist in the same universe as the audience but ones who experienced the same emotions. This year, this trend has continued with one of the year's very best films, Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" and it continues with the high quality of "Enough Said," the latest film from the terrific Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener, a filmmaker of unquestionable honesty, razor sharp humor, probing insightfulness and fearlessness with having her characters confront their own, at times, worst impulses, faults and fears. Do not let the blandly generic and pitifully uninformative title steer you away as "Enough Said" is an adult romantic comedy made by adults for adults that places the realities of romance front and center with class, grace, truth and loveliness.

The great Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Eva, a middle aged, divorced, masseuse who is also Mother to her 18 year old daughter Ellen (played by Tracey Fairaway) who is just about to leave home for college, much to Eva's dread. While accompanying her married friends Sarah and Will (played by Toni Colette and Ben Falcone) to a social gathering, Eva finds herself making two fateful connections. The first is with Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet and divorcee who will soon become Eva's new masseuse client and close confidant and the second is Albert (the late James Gandolfini), a lonely, divorced Father, also harboring his own trepidation with sending his daughter off to college, and who may soon become the new great romance in Eva's life.

In addition to existing as yet another most welcome breath of fresh air into the romantic comedy film genre, Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" extends itself from its main plot line by also featuring a subtle yet perceptive take on class consciousness (a regular Holofcener theme) and mostly, the presentation of a small constellation of characters who are all involved in the turbulent push/pull of relationships which are all on the verge of natural change. In addition to the love story between Eva and Albert, we are witness to the occasional prickliness between the married Sarah and Will, the tentative friendship between Eva and Marianne and most poignantly, the relationships between Albert, Eva and their respective daughters, as well as the budding relationship between Eva and her daughter's best friend Chloe (played by Tavi Gevinson), which causes jealousy on Ellen's part even though she is trying to find her own feet away from her Mother for the first time. Within all of those relationships, Holofcener never overplays her hand, wisely and humorously finds one kernel of truth after another and just allows the characters and material to flow along in an unforced, matter-of-fact fashion.

In regards to Holofcener's writing, "Enough Said" like "Your Sister's Sister" (2012) from Writer/Director Lynn Shelton, the film contains a plot development (which I will not reveal) that would not feel remotely out of place on a sitcom or better yet, a typical wacky romantic comedy. But, what Holofcener does so smartly is to treat this plot development as realistically as possible and with all of the emotional warts firmly and unapologetically in place, making what could have been ridiculous contrivances uncomfortably believable. And it is indeed that certain awkwardness and even squeamishness that is indeed a uniquely powerful staple of Holofcener's films.

With all of her past films, which include "Walking And Talking" (1996), "Lovely And Amazing" (2001), "Friends With Money" (2006) and "Please Give" (2010),  I have always loved how she allows her characters to talk and talk themselves into precarious emotional situations and in the moments of silence, allow us to see the exquisite pain that arrives. With "Enough Said," Holofcener's moments of silence are filled with the exquisite pain that arrives with middle age, as the letting go of children combined with the difficult acceptance and/or rejection of past and current foibles and failures are all stepping stones for the characters to again perform some serious soul searching-the type of which can easily translate to the members in the movie theater audience. Are we in the station of life that we had once hoped for ourselves? Are we with the person we are meant to be with? Is true love forever elusive or even obtainable and should we even try especially if we have already experiences disappointment or failure? Does romance ever get easier as we age and are supposedly wiser than we were when younger? Nicole Holofcener is provocatively in tune with all of those questions as she is sympathetic, understanding and wisely critical of her characters as their sense of self-preservation and emotional protectiveness sometimes serves towards another character's undoing. While the character of Eva is presented as an "every-woman" for us to root for, she indeed makes some serious errors in nearly all of her relationships and I appreciated how Holofcener was unafraid in allowing us to see Eva's imperfections.

Furthermore, and on a more cosmetic level, I have also always appreciated how Nicole Holofcener tries to circumvent audience's perceived standards of women's physical beauty within her films and "Enough Said" is no exception. I loved how Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Catherine Keener and Toni Colette (to a lesser degree) all appeared with little to no makeup in the film, and Holofcener places the camera closely to their faces, allowing us to regard the lines and creases on their faces, as well as and other visual signs of advancing age, yet also showing us that these women, especially Louis-Dreyfus have only grown more and more luminous.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been an actress who has habitually shown audiences the high quality of her career choices, and frankly, it has always been a wonder to me why she has not appeared in more feature films over the years. Perhaps, it is because the quality of women's roles on television are exponentially higher than those in film but whatever the reason, she is a gift to any creative visual storyteller, whether in film or television, wise enough to snap up her immense talents. In "Enough Said" Julia Louis-Dreyfus, once again, shows that she is completely the real deal. While there has never been any question as to her ability to be funny as her long television history from "Saturday Night Live" to "Seinfeld" to "The New Adventures Of Old Christine" to HBO's ferociously profane "Veep" and her myriad of guest appearances can attest. What she really proved to me with this film is that aside from being a comedic actress of the highest order, she is a strong, perceptive actress period. With the character of Eva, she truly creates a full three dimensional figure that is instantly and knowingly familiar, occasionally maddening, quick with a quip, certainly flirtatious and sexy, smothering, frustrating, short-sighted, and capable of making devastating errors in judgement, not through some ridiculous plot convention but because she is so recognizably human. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicole Holofcener make for a perfect creative pairing which I hope collaborate again in the future.

And then, there is the unlikely yet surprisingly beautiful chemistry between Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.

"Enough Said" is a bittersweet testament to the titanic talent we have all lost with the passing of James Gandolfini, and I feel it to be a blessing that we are able to see yet another side of this voluminously talented actor one more time. Once "The Sopranos" concluded, I truly felt that he would have been forever tied to the character of the psychologically tormented mobster Tony Soprano as his miraculous performance was so complete and executed from the inside out. Man, did he prove me wrong again and again (especially with his work in Director Spike Jonze's gloriously melancholy "Where The Wild Things Are" from 2009) and in "Enough Said," the massive persona of Tony Soprano is completely erased. The character of Albert, reportedly much closer to the real world individual Gandolfini actually was, is a gentle, sensitive, frisky, soulful gentleman nursing past wounds and current fears while attempting to forge ahead in his advancing middle age and hopefully with Eva. While I am gently pushing all of you to seek out this film for its high quality, I also urge you to head out and see this film in tribute to an actor who, after already accomplishing so much, was really only beginning to stretch his acting wings and soar even higher. It is a lovely, lovely performance and James Gandolfini will be tremendously missed!

Now that we have all seen "Gravity" (perhaps even more than once) and before more major releases barrel their way into our theaters, please, please,please make some time to go and see "Enough Said." While this is not an earth shaking film or even one of the year's very best offerings, it is a film that is just nipping at the heels of 2013's best. It is a heartfelt film that further cements Nicole Holofcener's talents as a terrifically idiosyncratic filmmaker and storyteller as well as proves without question that quality films with adult sensibilities and love stories that bloom and ache are still being made and released.

We just have to be there to give them a little help!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Based upon the novel by Max Brooks
Screen Story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski
Screenplay Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Damon Lindelof & Drew Goddard
Directed by Marc Forster
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

About two years ago during while I was teaching one of my summer school classes, one of the children asked me if I believed in ghosts. Half facetiously and half seriously, I quipped, "I don't like to rule anything out!" My lovely young Co-Teacher at the time then said to me, "I don't believe in ghosts so I'm not afraid of ghosts. But do you know what I am afraid of?"
     "What?" I asked, very interested.
     "Zombies!" she replied, and noticeably shuddering at the mere thought.
     "Zombies?!" I asked, softly questioning her seriousness.
     "Yes!" she said. "Zombies." But then she rapidly added, "Not the slow ones but the really fast ones!"

After finally viewing "World War Z," Director Marc Forster's epic scaled, adrenaline rushed adaptation of the best selling Max Brooks novel, I would think is precisely the film that my aforementioned lovely young Co-Teacher would absolutely, positively not see as the zombies on display and prepared to end the world as we know it are a relentless, rapacious and endlessly ravenous bunch and the film itself barely takes a moment to breathe. That said, what surprised me is how after all of the carnage, the peril and the anxiety, how it didn't really add up to much, so little that the experience almost felt to be a bit disingenuous and even more consumer driven than artistically so.

"World War Z" begins without a moment to spare as the world is already careening towards a certain annihilation from an unknown virus. Early one morning as Former U.N. Investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two young daughters (played by Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jerins), are stuck in Philadelphia rush hour, the streets erupt into chaos and violence as zombies rush the city. Gerry and his family narrowly escape certain death and subsequent infection and "zombification" throughout the day and night until they are all rescued by Gerry's former colleague Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena), a U.N. Deputy Secretary-General, and transported to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean.

Gerry is soon (and reluctantly) convinced to return to the field to assist a young virologist with discovering the origin of the virus but when the virologist is accidentally killed during a zombie attack, Gerry is forced to restlessly travel around the globe to complete the work that has begun, potentially saving the remainder of humankind.

From the first few images, Marc Forster paces "World War Z" as if trapped inside of a fever dream that reuses to end. It is a masterfully conceived series of cliffhangers and narrow escapes set within a visual cinematic landscape of cataclysm and terror that never slows down terribly much for you to gather your bearings, much like the characters who are fighting for survival. What I also appreciated greatly is how effectively Forster staged his large scope action set pieces (of which there are many), where they are all visually coherent, instantly involving and perilous enough where you are tricked into thinking that even Brad Pitt, the star of the film, could perish at any moment. The action sequences never felt to be bludgeoning to me as they were emotionally resonant, especially when the zombies are on the scene and on the unending attack.

Now, truth be told, I have essentially avoided all things (although I did love Director Danny Boyle excellent 2002 thriller "28 Days Later") zombie in the media, regardless of quality and entirely due to its over-saturation (like vampires and as I have also said, even superheroes are making me weary). I have to admit to having somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction in that regard, and beyond that, I have never found zombies to be terribly interesting creatures or even creatures to fear (perhaps due to their slowness in those old monster movies). What Forster has achieved so strongly with his zombies is not by only increasing their speed ferociously but how he places the zombies into the action. He rarely lingers upon these figures, preferring them to be experienced with quick shots and imagery--like their herky-jerky bodies and gnashing, chomping teeth--leaving their grotesqueness intact and the mounting fear of being eaten and dismembered by such creatures very primal. Several times during "World War Z," I could almost begin to understand why that lovely, young Co-Teacher of mined housed such a fear of zombies as Forster makes them a formidable enemy.    

Brad Pitt, on the other hand, made for a most convincing and engaging hero to follow around the world from Philadelphia to South Korea, to Jerusalem, to Wales and finally, Nova Scotia. He is intrepid, steadfast, and courageous of course, but the intense bond he forges with his family in the film gave him the sensitivity and overall humanity the character, and the film as a whole, truly needed to be worth watching at all, as far as I am concerned, especially as I have also grown terribly weary of emotionless CGI death and destruction. Pitt is so effective in the role that even though he escapes from the jaws of oblivion more times than Indiana Jones, James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, you buy the fantasy due to the gravity he gives to the role and to everything that surrounds him.

What bothered me about "World War Z" was when the film reached its final stretches and ultimate conclusion, such as it is. For a film that runs just a hair under two hours, and as effective as it is, it also felt to be so inconsequential and even incomplete. Once the film ended, it just struck me that Forster--or even the Hollywood-powers-that-be, better yet, were smelling "franchise" and ended up creating a motion picture that never really amounts to anything at all as it has no resolution, has no ending at all and apparently has no other purpose than to make another one whether it necessary or not. Really?! For everything the film places our hero and audience through (and that the source material itself is only one book), I would think that it would have behooved the filmmakers to create something that, at least, felt...complete and not like a film that essentially has an invisible "To Be Continued..." upon the screen for no other reason than to dip into our pockets for one more go-around. It just didn't feel pure and because of that feeling of blatant commerce over art and even entertainment, it left a sour taste in my mouth once everything was said and done.

Which is a shame as there is a lot to admire about "World War Z," a grim popcorn movie that is creative, inventive, involving and thrillingly entertaining. I guess the real relentless, rapacious and endlessly ravenous bunch of zombies to truly be feared are the Hollywood executives who are just itching to keep taking chomps out of our wallets!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

LOST IN SPACE: a review of "Gravity"

Screenplay Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
**** (four stars)

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is a gargantuan piece of filmmaking, the kind of which that is typically boasted about through hurling the bludgeoning of special effects and a punishing sound system at audiences but otherwise has nothing to do with craftsmanship, storytelling skill and cinematic vision. Most blessedly, Cuaron and "Gravity" have no interest in pummeling an audience into submission with soulless, heartless flash but enveloping, enrapturing and terrifying us all solely and precisely with that aforementioned craftsmanship, storytelling skill and cinematic vision that is in increasingly short supply in 21st century cinema. Cuaron has made a groundbreaking piece of work that serves as a Master Class to new filmmakers, as well as long established directors, with not only how to wring intensity and raw emotion by rendering a story to its most essential visual elements, but also exactly how to utilize special effects and make them something to behold. Without question, "Gravity" is another high bar set by Alfonso Cuaron, a filmmaker whose career is filled with nothing less, and quite possibly the equal to his extraordinary "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001). It is also, without question, one of 2013's highest achievements as it transcends the act of watching a movie into one where the movie becomes a full experience.

To allow you to take in the experience of "Gravity" to the fullest, I will keep my plot description to what you have all essentially seen in the film's gripping trailers. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone an astronaut, nervously on her first space mission while George Clooney stars as Matt Kowalski, a cocky, veteran astronaut on his final voyage into space. As Ryan and Matt, plus a third astronaut, undergo a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, unexpected chaos ensues, erupting into a horrific chain reaction of destruction, dislodging Ryan from her crew and spiraling end over end into the furthest reaches of space as she tries to survive in an environment where life is impossible.

For a film that is tailor made to be a visual extravaganza that is emotionally resonant, "Gravity" delivers the goods in one astonishing feat after another. From the very first image, Cuaron firmly establishes the viewer into a "You Are There" event that is as awesome as it is unnerving. Working in splendid collaboration with Composer Steven Price, Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the special effects team, Cuaron's dazzling visual palate surprises, petrifies and leaves us breathless and gasping for air as often as Ryan Stone does as she struggles for her life. With "Gravity," Cuaron has also returned us to a certain realism in regards to films set in outer space. For the life of me, I am hard pressed to think of a film like this since Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) that did adhere closely to the real science of what space is actually like, especially in regards to there being no atmosphere, therefore no sound whatsoever. Having grown up with George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) and all manner of space adventures, thrillers and space operas with starships zooming through hyperspace with accompanying otherworldly sound effects, Cuaron's "Gravity" is supremely jarring by the absence of sound, an element that increases the tension and terror tremendously.

Most effectively, and leaping off from the stellar work he achieved in his exhausting and criminally underseen "Children Of Men" (2006), "Gravity" is presented in what is essentially a series of long takes, sequences that are continuous as they feature no edits. It is a dynamic form of filmmaking that somehow Cuaron never presents as self-congratulatory. His skill with the technique is so fluid that it is almost invisible, leaving the occasionally unbearable intensity at the forefront, which is indeed where it should be. Therefore, Cuaron has made a film that demands to be seen repeatedly; the first time to take in the experience as a whole and all subsequent viewings to delve further inside the storytelling and filmmaking brilliance on display.

If you are able, just regard the film's opening ten to fifteen minutes, which I think are all told in in one unbroken long take. Just watch how the characters are introduced, how Cuaron's camera glides through the stars into wide shots revealing the vastness of space plus the majesty of Earth below and then floating into close-up to read the actors faces in perfect clarity. Another sequence where Ryan is spinning uncontrollably, Cuaron takes us all the way into her helmet to her point of view vantage point and then back out again to gauge her reactions to the sights and the nightmarish implausibility of her survival. The stunning camera work works so very well because Cuaron ensures that not one moment refuses to be story driven, a point I keep returning to because too many films of this scale have long forgotten that special effects are nothing more than tools and if it ain't on the page, all of the effects in the world cannot give a movie its soul. "Gravity," by contrast to much of what is released today, has soul to burn.  

From a storytelling standpoint, Alfonso Cuaron's screenplay, written with his son Jonas, has seamlessly blended the "popcorn movie" with existential drama, making "Gravity" function simultaneously as a thriller as well as a poetic mediation upon life and death with juxtapositions peppered throughout. Just the idea of the unspeakable sights of soaring above the Earth's atmosphere in zero gravity, surrounded by stars and observing the sunrise is majestic. It is also profoundly imposing as the environment of space has no interest in regarding you and your humanity as it is that unforgiving. Cuaron illustrates so stupendously how life can change to death in less than the blink of an eye and there is no manner with which to stop it should it arrive--much like the nature of life and death while firmly planted upon the ground.

For such a hefty conceptual canvas, Sandra Bullock was a marvel. Every time I am just this ready to give up on her completely, she turns around and surprises me. With "Gravity," Bullock is at her most wrenching as well as her most fearless, reminding us of why we fell in love with her in Director Jan De Bont's action classic "Speed" (1994) in the first place. Her charm remains as effervescent as always but now she has grounded it in a level of pathos that I truly have not seen from her before. As Dr. Ryan Stone, Bullock has to channel a universe of emotions from anxiety and panic, to strength and steadfastness, to mournfulness and suicidal, to defeat and victory and back again and with even her trademark sharp, wry humor arriving in just the right moments. Sandra Bullock creates a character that you not only want to see survive this mammoth predicament but one you truly would want to follow to the ends of the universe. It is a performance as seamless and as seemingly effortless as Cuaron's filmmaking as whatever acclaim she is bound to receive for her work in this film, it is richly deserved.

George Clooney offers perfect supporting work as Matt Kowalski, appearing as if he is the real life version of Buzz Lightyear, with his cocksure attitude, loquacious storytelling, can-do spirit, even while barely tethered to his own survival. His calmness serves as the perfect counterpoint to Bullock's uncertainty providing very distinctive contrast between his moments of inevitability with her own.

If I had to give "Gravity" even the smallest of dings, it would have to be within the film's final sections of which I will, of course, not describe but will say leans a bit more towards the, shall we say, conventional. But, as I ruminate over the film now, I also wonder if perhaps Curaron has given us the greatest juxtaposition of all by contrasting the survival of the body with that of the spirit. Now, this may not make sense until you see the film for yourselves but I do think that Cuaron's poetic vision has indeed made for a film that can be completely taken at face value from start to finish or it could be taken at face value up to a point where then, it becomes an even greater metaphor for what the experience of life and death can possibly be and mean.

And how great it is that a film can transport us so supremely and that a filmmaker is working at the absolute peak of his powers to do so. In interviews, Alfonso Cuaron has explained that due to the story's simplicity, he truly felt that he would have been able to complete the film within one year. But, "Gravity" ended up taking five long, grueling years to make and believe me, dear readers, when I tell you how worth it is was to take that time to make a piece of film that is indeed unforgettable, one for the ages, serves the soul while also turning your knuckles white from gripping the theater seats that tightly.

As always, I experienced "Gravity" not in IMAX or 3D but in standard 2D, due to my distaste for the gimmick of 3D and just for the overwhelming nature of the IMAX format, which I find unpleasant. That said, Alfonso Cuaron has created a work that fully and artistically lends itself to both formats and I could easily envision how immersive an experience "Gravity" would be under those circumstances.

But, not so for me as I have no need to be flying through space and losing oxygen right there with Sandra Bullock. I was just fine right where I was!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


I already have my ticket and I am going this coming weekend! And yet...I am very unsure if I will be able to handle just what may be arriving for me.

Dear readers, the cinematic month of October for me is all about the new film "Gravity" from Writer/Director Alfonso Cuaron and I have been riveted to seeing this film ever since I saw the first trailers on-line during the summer. I have to express to you that the experience of watching footage that lasted perhaps less than, or at least no more than two minutes, riveted and left me breathless in a way that trailers have essentially ceased to conjure anymore. It was one of those extremely rare trailers where I said to myself, "I want to see that...NOW!!!!!" Even so, the trailer also left me absolutely terrified and even a bit fearful that I might not be able to withstand what is looking to be an emotionally exhausting, visually voluminous experience. Time will tell and with that upcoming review, I am flabbergasted to discover that that particular posting with mark Savage Cinema's 400th official posting!!!! Here's hoping the film experience matches my personal milestone with this site.

After "Gravity," everything is second place so to speak. But throughout this month,, I am hoping to play a bit of catch up as well as stay current.

1. Both Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" and Writer/Director/Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "Don Jon" arrived in my city last weekend and I am hoping both of them hang on long enough for me to get to see them!

2. "All Is Lost," a survival drama set at sea starring Robert Redford, and reportedly a film that contains almost no dialogue has intrigued me tremendously, especially as it seems to be a more Earthbound companion piece to "Gravity."

3. On the film festival circuit, Writer/Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" has already begun to capture incredible attention and I am very curious if that film will arrive this month or closer to awards season.

4. Additionally, Director Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" starring Tom Hanks has also begun to gather up its own intense buzz, which also makes me very curious but Greengrass loves that dreaded "shaky-cam" a little too much so we'll see...

5. Perhaps if I have the time, I can possibly cobble together some pieces for some films that have recently arrived on DVD as well as maybe one Halloween themed edition but that's extremely wishful thinking!

As always, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down...