Gravity

Sandra Bullock in a space suit, Gravity

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 April

 

Sputnik 2 falls from orbit, 1958

On this day in 1958, the second satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik 2, fell back to earth. It had been launched on 3 November 1957 and was carrying Laika, a samoyed terrier cross chosen for her good nature – the first animal launched into space. Sputnik 2 carried enough food, water and air to keep Laika alive for ten days, but because of a malfunction, the temperature inside Sputnik 2 got too high (104ºF/40ºC) and Laika died after a few hours into the mission, from heat and stress. If she had not died one version of events suggests she would have been euthanised before Sputnik began its re-entry into the atmosphere. Another is that she would simply have fried along with the capsule. Images of Laika in orbit are undoubtedly faked, or taken from later missions, since Sputnik 2 had no camera on board.

 

 

 

Gravity (2013, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

About a third of the way into Gravity – a film about an astronaut struggling for survival after a space walk goes awry – Sandra Bullock, our plucky spacewoman, picks up a fire extinguisher and gives it a parp to put out a fire. She is instantly blasted backwards. Newton’s third law of motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – has been demonstrated. Earlier we have seen thrilling, brilliant demonstrations of the first law (an object keeps moving unless something stops it), and his second (it’s harder to stop a heavy moving object than a light one). And we’ll go on seeing Newton’s laws demonstrated again and again, right up to the very last shot of the film (no spoilers), when the film’s title comes up in big letters – GRAVITY – to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
If that sounds boring – a film about physics – then you’re probably a dullard and you certainly haven’t seen Gravity, which must be the best sci-fi film of all time, or in the reckoning at least. The opening sequence – Bullock out in space nervous, George Clooney reassuring her with his Gorgeous George voice – is a piece of conceptual, special-effects genius, put together with total skill so that everything from the camera to the script to the intelligent, largely orchestra-free soundtrack combines first to lock us firmly into the time, the place and the situation, and then to keep us there, with the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot, because this is also a very plot driven film too, with almost every “crucial next move” being a life and death one, apart from the couple of breathers that director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón gives us. Basically, Gravity is like that bit in a film where someone is hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, extended to feature length.
As a piece of kinetic cinema Gravity is close to perfect in every way. The production design catches that inky black/blinding white space look that no one since Stanley Kubrick seems to have been too bothered with. Then there’s Bullock, in Tom Hanks mode as the everyperson thrust into extraordinary peril. And Mr Clooney, whose “coffeetime George” shtick seems to be a furball to some people’s enjoyment, is also bang on the money – he’s meant to be a highly experienced and slightly smug senior officer (not uncoincidentally male) and what Cuarón does with the expectations that this sort of persona generates is another masterstroke.
Talking of expectations, Cuarón again manages these brilliantly in the odd scene where Bullock goes into “hokey existential” mode – the “I wish I’d been a better person” stuff which so often features in films like this. Again, just as you’re setting the viewing controls to autopilot while this naffness plays itself out, Cuarón pulls the rug out from under the feet. And you can have that mixed metaphor for free.
OK, OK, so nothing can be that perfect. Objections? Let’s just say that you might be thinking, by about the third time that Bullock has avoided being blasted off into oblivion, that she’s been extraordinarily lucky. You might also start wondering just why there are so many American films about blameless individuals removed from any social and political context, embattled, fighting the entire hostile universe (Robert Redford is currently doing something similar on a boat in All Is Lost). You might balk at some of the Kubrick references – Bullock being shot as some sort of “star child”, a bright ring of light around her, almost translucent skin, innocent, only the thumb-sucking missing. None of it bothered me because none of it slowed down the film, which has decided that what the film is “about” must take second place to what it is, a riveting adventure told at breakneck speed whose intention is to put your heart in your mouth and keep it there. Job done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative breathtaking cinematography
  • Steven Price’s score – thrilling yet different
  • The winner of seven Oscars – the right seven too
  • The nods to SFX guru Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

3 March 2014-03-02

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Gravity (Warner, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

By now you will already know whether the Oscar-winning Gravity is the sort of film you want to watch, or watch again. It’s had so much publicity and so many reviews that there’s no point adding anything. So I’ll just tell you that I got stuck getting up out of my chair watching this film. I was going to pause it and grab a drink and as I was halfway up the debris from the space satellite struck space-walking rookie astronaut Sandra Bullock, blasting her off into almost certain annihilation. Something like 20 minutes later I was still in the same position, crouched in an extreme lean-forward, almost not breathing. That tense. Other things? The way the film constantly instructs us in Newtonian physics – Bullock grabs a fire extinguisher to douse a fire and the equal/opposite reaction blasts her backwards with rocketlike force. George Clooney’s seasoned cheesy senior astronaut plays the Hollywood hero stereotype like Heifetz on his Stradivarius. Talking of which, the soundtrack swerves what I usually refer to in my notes as the “bloody strings”. I love Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography – has anyone since Kubrick shot space this clean and white/black? And it’s surely no coincidence that Bullock is often shot in the same way that Kubrick shot the space child, with light spilling over the edges. Gravity is one of the rush of “single person in jeopardy” movies right now – Tom Hanks in Mr Phillips, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Martina Gedeck in The Wall. Why that? Maybe a realisation that corporate capitalism doesn’t seem to come running when you’re back’s to the wall – unless your wallet’s open? Best sci-fi film of the last 10, 20, 30, years. Easy.

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Patience Stone (Axiom, cert 15, DVD)

A beautiful Afghan woman looks after her husband, who is comatose thanks to a bullet lodged in his head. Most of her fellow villagers have fled what is close to being a war zone. But she can’t go, because he can’t be moved. So, isolated, fearful, she talks to him though he can’t hear her. At first it’s about the worries of the day, increasingly about her hopes and fears, eventually about her dissatisfaction with her marriage to him, a man on the cusp of old age. She talks about her background, how her sister was given away to a man by her father to pay his gambling debts, the woman’s lot in a male dominated society. The woman is visited by militia men, and to avoid being raped tells them she’s a whore. One of them, the stutterer, comes back later, and offers her money, desperate to sample the wares he believes she is hawking. And here’s where Atiq Rahimi’s already interesting and sparse film – for most of it just a couple of actors, one with his eyes closed – starts to edge into unexpected territory. Unlike the Saudi film Wadjda, which took an “isn’t it awful” approach to the situation of women in Islam, The Patience Stone is keen to explore both sides of the coin – what Islam denies but also what it supplies. Some people won’t feel entirely happy with this, with where this woman – her character is credited simply, totemically, as “the woman” – ends up. But this denial of an easy ending is really what the film is all about.

The Patience Stone – at Amazon

 

 

 

Dead of Night (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

This five-part 1945 horror film from the Ealing studio is credited with being the grand-daddy of the compendium films, a genre still very much alive, on the evidence of V/H/S and its like. Four of Ealing’s finest directors contribute – Alberto Cavalcanti (twice), Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. Of the four filmettes, the most famous is Cavalcanti’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy, a creepy tale in which a sweating Michael Redgrave is increasingly upstaged by his wooden dummy, who seems to want to run off with a rival ventriloquist. It’s good, but more effective is Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror, a remarkably simple story about a mirror whose reflection shows a scene of a different room, a different life from that of the room it’s currently hanging in. They’re all fine campfire tales in fact, and the atmosphere of over-egged storytelling is enhanced by the cast of slightly stagey actors. Add to that the scenes of relentless cigarette smoking, the huge amounts of tweed involved in the tailoring of all concerned and Dead of Night is as evocative of a bygone age as rickets. And the way that Basil Dearden fuses the stories together, with a linking narrative that finally pays off handsomely in a weird Powell and Pressburger finale, makes for an entirely satisfactory entertainment, even at this extreme distance.

Dead of Night – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

For Those In Peril (Soda, cert 18, DVD)

George MacKay has the big head and good looks of a star in waiting. He was a convincing romantic foil in How I Live Now, and is called on to do a less heroic sort of acting in this Scotland-set narrative about the lad who is branded a Jonah after he survives the loss of a boat at sea. The sole survivor. Everyone else dead, including his brother. Director Paul Wright’s film then delves into the psychological disintegration that this loss brings about, playing moody tricks with the camera, providing strong dislocatory imagery and painting a powerful picture of the nastiness of the small rural community when it turns against someone – shades of The Wicker Man. But mostly he just follows the lad around as his behaviour becomes more erratic. As well as the easier job of acting increasingly weirdly, McKay is also required to externalise internal emotion. And he does it admirably in a drama that could do with a touch more action to accompany the moody intensity.

For Those in Peril – at Amazon

 

 

 

The English Teacher (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

One of those films that just ends and you look around the room in a “wha?” attitude, The English teacher stars Julianne Moore as the teacher, Michael Angarano as the former pupil she is now helping to stage a play he’s written. He has maturity issues, confidence issues, daddy issues. Those, and her hang-ups – commitment seems uppermost – ensure that this comedy has plenty of fuel to keep it going. Or it would if writers Dan and Stacy Chariton were more certain of what exactly they’re trying to create. With performers like Moore, support from a peerless Nathan Lane as a camp drama teacher, Greg Kinnear as the uptight dad of the not-quite playwright, plus a deadpanning Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as a master/blaster head teacher and her deputy, and with everyone playing at megaphone level, director Craig Zisk seems to be leading us in the direction of farce, or at least a comedy of manners. Then… I don’t even know what. It’s as if the Charitons suddenly decided to head for a happy ending, and pronto. Which is all very nice – and I’m not knocking this film in terms of performances, the odd fun joke, it even has Lily Collins doing a superior entitled bitch turn. But something’s not right when a film sets off in one direction but ends up somewhere else, without any announcement. Was it re-edited or re-written on the hoof because someone got cold feet? To try and win the Collins demographic? No idea. Mystifying.

The English Teacher – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Devil in the Woods (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

Fans of Stephen Moyer’s True Blood appearances will not be disappointed if they come to Devil in the Woods expecting looney tunes. Mr Moyer delivers, as the dad who takes his family off to the woods, but is already rolling his eyes before he’s got the 4×4 started. By the time dad and family have reached The Barrens (the film’s alternative title) where the Jersey Devil is rumoured to disport him- or herself, Moyer is glowering like a crazed preacher, his body language suggests he needs restraining and the entire film is leaning towards the ridiculous. Then director Darren Lyn Bousman, famous for doing a few of the Saw sequels, gets busy, cranks up the camera, speeds up the storytelling, wheels out the odd monster, drafts in the forces of law and order, and subjects the family – quaintly they’re called the Vineyards – to demonic attack. It being a horror film there’s got to be a busty babe in a white T shirt somewhere in the mix. This being a film starring a middle aged man, the busty babe is his middle aged wife, played by Mia Kirshner. Is 37 middle aged? Well it’s not 17, is it? I liked this aspect, the milf-y final girl, an attempt to construct a different sort of horror universe, all part of some project hatched by the film’s co-producer (Stephen Moyer) to brand the film’s star as hot, perhaps. I also liked Moyer’s mad performance which aims for the sky and wildly overshoots. It’s really the funnest thing in this otherwise novelty-free, f-grade horror held together almost entirely by froth.

Devil in the Woods aka The Barrens – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2014 Steve Morrissey