Film review – Gravity (2013)

2 October 2013
Gravity: Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)

In his 1986 article ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’ Tom Gunning looks at the power of early cinema to ‘show something’. That is, to break the illusion of reality that would come to dominate narrative cinema to instead offer something visual for the audience to marvel at. Gravity fits within Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions.’ It encompass both the traditions of the films by the Lumière brothers, where the marvels of the modern age were displayed on-screen, and that of Georges Méliès who provided the kind of magical illusions that were only possible through cinema.

Gravity delivers a display of modern technology that leaves the viewer breathless from the experience and marvelling at the craftsmanship behind it. The beauty and emotional engagement that comes from watching Gravity is not just due to being invested with the drama on screen, but by also being aware of how skilfully the filmmakers have constructed the spectacle.

The basic story that is present in Gravity functions as a subservient element that facilitates the visual magic of the film. As Gunning says in relation to Méliès’s 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, ‘The story simply provides a frame upon which to string a demonstration of the magical possibilities of the cinema.’ And in keeping with the idea that the cinema of attractions breaks the illusion of reality, the narrative used in Gravity relies on recognisable tropes and archetypes.

Gravity is a survival-against-the-odds story where a disaster occurs and then one thing after the other threatens the survival of the characters. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is an engineer on her first mission into space and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an astronaut on his final mission. The rookie and the veteran are ‘shipwrecked’ in space where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. It sounds simplistic, but this rudimentary narrative and stock characters are designed to never overwhelm the focus of the film, which are its groundbreaking visuals.

Director Alfonso Cuarón has demonstrated a flair for visual style on his previous films, but in 2006’s narrative driven dystopian science fiction Children of Men he displays a remarkable command of special effect heavy long takes. As with Children of Men, the extended long takes in Gravity cannot conceivably have been filmed in a single take and are likely to have been created through composite elements. However, the end results are seamless and powerful, enthralling the viewer by holding tension and energy on-screen, and somehow also captivating them with the technical wizardry.

Furthermore, Cuarón creates the outer space setting with remarkable aptitude. Whether computer generated, models, sets or a combination of several visual effect techniques, all the space hardware looks tangible and moves in a way that adheres to the physics of outer space or at least maintains a plausible suspension of disbelief.

While many filmmakers in the past have applied sound effects to scenes set in space, Cuarón works brilliantly within the limitations of space not actually having any sound. Instead, the audience only hears the sounds from within the characters’ spacesuits, which creates an eerie urgency. As chaos occurs in the soundless vacuum of space, all that can be heard is the increasingly heavy breathing and panicked voices of the characters inside their suits.

Perhaps the greatest technical accomplishment is how Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use the weightless environment to its full potential. The extent to which cinema has been able to convey visual depth has always been limited, although innovators throughout cinematic history have continually found ways to convey cinema space beyond the surface of the screen by using deep focus, zooms, tracking shots and more recently 3D. However, Gravity achieves shots that truly liberate cinema from its flat surface in a way that even goes beyond some of the more recent and successful attempts at immersive 3D.

As there is no up, down, left or right in space the camera has complete freedom to travel anywhere. Elements on screen are shot from all 360 degrees and Cuarón’s artistry (or trickery) even allows the camera to go inside the helmets of the characters. In some moments it is even as if the camera has gone inside the characters’ minds to deliver astonishing point-of-view shots. Such shots give the film an emotional and thematic depth. The characters may be based on recognisable types and the narrative is straight-forward, but the combination of Bullock’s and Clooney’s acting along with the masterful visuals means that Gravity is more than just a series of thrills. The links established between the lonely and hostile space environment and the few bits of background information provided concerning the characters means that Gravity is not just about physical survival, but it is also about psychological survival.

Gravity takes the viewer into Dr Ryan Stone’s mind to deliver to the audience the same roller-coaster of emotions that she experiences, which oscillates between despair and euphoria. The music score by Steven Price also contributes to conveying the emotional journey that Stone undergoes, as well as the inclusion of one scene where the film threatens to lurch into incredulity before cleverly snapping back into place to reassure the audience that the film is not taking any narrative shortcuts.

Perhaps most impressive are comparative shots of Stone throughout the film that in one instance have her floating like an unborn child and in another scene shoots her from a low angle to show her standing tall. As well as the balletic quality that Cuarón gives to some of the objects in space, these moments of evolutionary and developmental symbolism are what best visually recall Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, an obvious comparative film to Gravity.

While 2001: A Space Odyssey contains an ambiguous, but nevertheless cynical, message about humanity’s role in the universe and lack of free will, there is something much more triumphant about Gravity. Not only is Gravity a celebration of what cinema in the current era can achieve, but it is a celebration of what humans are capable of; not as all-conquering heroes who have come to tame the final frontier of outer space, but as resourceful and resilient individuals who are wise and humble enough to fear and respect the indifference of the most hostile environment humanity has ever experienced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The American (2010)

10 November 2010
The American: Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

In popular cinema the hit man, or assassin, is often a noble character when he is the protagonist (and it is usually a he) who may consort with shady organisations and murder people for a living, but he is mainly killing bad guys that nobody will miss. Such characters often end up putting their life and career on the line when they chooses to protect their target due to a crisis of conscience, recognising that the target is not a bad guy, falling in love with the target or all of the above. The American asserts very early on in a key moment that it is not going to be another romanticised version of the hit man narrative. In this film the elite assassin, who goes by the names Jack and Edward (George Clooney), is not a loveable killer but a chillingly deadly and detached professional with a machine-like precision in everything he does.

The American is the second film directed by Dutch-born music photographer Anton Corbijn, who originally made his name defining the look of seminal bands Joy Division, U2 and Depeche Mode through his photographs. Corbijn’s first film Control, a biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, displayed a distinctive European influence with the film feeling like something Swedish director Ingmar Bergman would have made if he were to have made an English kitchen-sink drama. In The American, which is primarily set in a small Italian village, the softly filtered light, slow burn pacing and meticulous staging of each scene evokes 1960s and 1970s European hit man/assassin classics such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

The American: Jack/Edward (George Clooney)

The American is also comparable to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, another recent hit man film with strong European sensibilities. The American is a far more narrative driven film but to an extent it shares with The Limits of Control a focus on the process, waiting and build-up rather than being a guns blazing action film. Both films also have a cool detached sensibility and in The American the frequent use of long shots and medium-long shots makes the characters feel somewhat lost in the environment they are occupying. However, The American contrasts this detachment with its subjective use of sound and editing where the film will cut to what Jack notices or emphasise a dramatic noise to give the audience a sense of the tense, suspicious and always on-guard view of the world that Jack experiences.

While films usually use subjective style to help the audience emphasis with the character by seeing the world through their eyes, in The American it is used to make the audience extremely concerned with how Jack will react to a situation involving a secondary character that we’ve come to care about. We know what Jack is capable of and how little humanity he possesses (although his obsession with butterflies suggests a repressed longing for some sort of emotional rebirth) so key moments in the film, such as when he is contemplating if murdering an innocent person is a good strategic move, are tense and unpredictable.

The American: Clara (Violante Placido)

Clara (Violante Placido)

George Clooney is not a stranger to dramatic acting but he is more commonly known for his charming, cheeky and sometimes goofy leading-man persona. Like Henry Fonda playing the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a pivotal scene of which we see being shown on television in The American, the against-type casting makes the character that little more chilling and untrustworthy since they are so far removed from how we normally regard them. And yet, Clooney still gradually endears Jack to us and makes us care about him despite what it is that he does. This also has a lot to do with Corbijn direction and the script (adapted from Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman), which allow enough hints of humanity to come through the surface of Jack’s icy exterior without the film ever feeling trite. In particular, Jack’s relationship with a priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), and a prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), are beautifully developed and sincere.

The American is intelligent and well-crafted cinema that transcends its generic limitations through Corbijn’s command of film style. Corbijn’s background as a photographer has given him a mastery of how to frame and light every moment to tell a story visually in the most compelling way possible. With Control and now The American Corbijn has not only proven his success in making the transition into feature films but asserted himself as one of the most talented directors working today.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Up in the Air (2009)

10 January 2010

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney)

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) adores the world of airports, chain hotels and loyalty cards. His life as a motivational speaker and downsizing man-for-hire keeps him travelling around America enjoying his status as a privileged business flier. Charming, slick and truly happy with his unencumbered lifestyle, which is free of physical and emotional baggage, Bingham revels in his life “on the road”. Preferring to work on his frequent flier miles collection rather than engaging with people Bingham is less than impressed when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) lumps him with young up-and-comer efficiency expert Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick from the Twilight films). If Tyler Durden in Fight Club represented a primal force that at the end of the 1990s wanted to break free of the commodity culture, Bingham represents the tamed desire, which ten years later, wants to embrace the superficial security and comforts of that culture.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga)

Up in the Air is the third feature by writer/director Jason Reitman and it has a lot more in common with his 2005 corporate comedy Thank You for Smoking, which Reitman also wrote, than it does with his 2007 teen pregnancy comedy Juno. As with Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air features a charismatic anti-hero lead character who in any other film would be the bad guy. Reitman and Clooney do an extremely good job at endearing Bingham to the audience and making us understand why he loves his life so much. We should feel either pity or contempt at his shallow existence but in fact we instead start to become seduced by it especially when he hooks up with Alex Goran (played marvellously by Vera Farmiga from Orphan and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) who is his female counterpart. For the most part Up in the Air is a breezy comedy that will appeal to anybody who has ever had to do extensive travel for work or attend corporate conferences.

Unfortunately Up in the Air does lose its bite in the third act and ends up lacking the wicked edge of Thank You for Smoking. Reitman drives the film towards a disappointingly conventional epiphany and then comeuppance sequence of events that detracts from the film as a whole. Up in the Air still resolves smartly and genuinely with a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion but goes for a safe middle ground. Reitman’s film is far from being a masterpiece but he has succeeded in making Up in the Air very much a film of its time.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Solaris (2002)

18 March 2003

With Solaris the diverse and talented director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Out of Sight) has commendably tackled the philosophical potential of the science fiction genre. George Clooney plays a psychiatrist who must question his understanding of reality after being sent to a space station to discover what has happened to the crew, only to find that his dead wife has inexplicably materialised from his memories of her.

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