Wednesday, October 23, 2013

GRAVITY (2013)

Director Alfonso Cuaron begins his film orbiting over Earth with Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid camera moving languidly toward the Hubble Space Telescope where a tethered Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works on the satellite, fighting the queasiness of zero gravity. Meanwhile veteran Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) cracks jokes and darts around on a jet pack, hoping to break the spacewalk record. This first shot lasts over ten minutes and has a beauty and serenity that lulls us into forgetting the opening title card’s admonishment: “Life in space is impossible.” The voice of Houston (an unseen Ed Harris) breaks in with the news that a cloud of debris moving at great speed is on a collision course with the astronauts. Before the crew can escape, the shrapnel strikes, leaving their spacecraft devastated, communication with Houston disrupted, and Kowalski and Stone stranded. Armed with a depleted jet pack, dwindling oxygen tanks, and a tether holding them together, the castaways make their way toward the nearest potential refuge, the International Space Station. Cuaron’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with son Jonas, makes space the ultimate antagonist – dispassionate and merciless. Every action Kowalski and Stone take for survival is fraught with obstacles and mortal danger, which makes for riveting, breathless cinema. The writers stumble (most likely at the studio’s behest) when they add a maudlin human-interest back-story for Stone in which she lost her daughter in an accident years ago and must learn to let go. That quibble aside, you are unlikely to see a more economical, pulse-quickening adventure this year. Bullock is compelling, and Clooney is Clooney, which is just fine. The film’s technical achievement is as brilliant as it is subtle. With the help of ace cinematographer Lubezki and a battalion of special effects gurus, Cuaron drops us into the action and completely convinces us that we, like Stone and Kowalski, are adrift in space. When we emerge on shaky legs from the theater (where the movie should be seen, dare I say in 3-D) gravity never felt so good.

Friday, October 18, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Near the end of his remarkable film, director Steve McQueen holds a close up of the anxious face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The slave has convinced Bass (Brad Pitt), an abolitionist from Canada, to send a message to his former employer in the North to help him regain his stolen freedom. But hope has been stymied and trust betrayed before, so he waits. And for a brief moment Northup looks directly at the viewer, not accusing but with anguish. This startling shot reminds us that this is not merely a film about humanity’s capacity for both shocking cruelty and unfathomable resilience, but a jolting glimpse into our at times shameful collective national history. In recounting this history McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s book of the same name, refuse to indulge in cheap melodrama and allow a muted tone to provide apt counterpoint to the oppression on display. The filmmakers let shots linger past comfort and deny the viewer easy catharsis. We watch the horrific particulars of life in the antebellum South through the eyes of Northup, an educated free black man who lived comfortably as a musician in upstate New York with his wife and two young children before being lured to Washington, D.C., for a job, kidnapped, and sold into slavery under a false name to a plantation owner in Louisiana. He manages to hide his ability to read and write, but his organizational and carpentry skills earn him the favor of kindly master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and escalating hostility from construction supervisor Tibeats (Paul Dano). This conflict forces Ford to sell Northup to jealous master Epps (Michael Fassbender) whose green eye frequently wanders to hardworking slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) over his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) violent objections. Rounding out an exceptional cast are Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard in small but memorable roles. Ridley’s episodic script weaves a rich tapestry with matter-of-fact care, anchored by McQueen’s striking visuals. However, Ejiofor carries the film on his broad shoulders and in his eloquent eyes with a quiet dignity that speaks volumes.