Gravity

gravity-bullockposter-fullGravity is the thrilling adventure to beat this year, and by my forecast, I think the skies are clear for this thriller from Alfonso Cuaron.  Known for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, Cuaron has spent the last few years piecing Gravity together, a film that features only two actors and a whole lot of outer space.

Sandra Bullock, in what will likely turn out to be the performance of the year and possibly her career, tackles the challenge of portraying astronaut Ryan Stone who attempts to make adjustments to a satellite alongside fellow spaceman, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).   Soon enough a whirlwind storm of debris dices through their ship and sends Stone spinning wildly out of control into space.  Her only communication with NASA will soon dissipate once she floats too far out and her oxygen tank levels are already low.

This is about where the theatrical trailer for the movie leaves you hanging. The synopsis and trailer both left me wondering, what story could be left to tell?  Where can the movie possibly go after that point?

Cuaron is no dummy and he quickly turns Gravity into an eye-popping 3D adventure that not only fails to overstay its welcome at a quick 90 minutes, but gives us a taste of what space may actually be like.  How will Stone survive her impossible situation?  That is the question.  The movie takes us through her journey which essentially amounts to a one woman show that Bullock handles unflinchingly.

But let’s not forget Clooney who actually pours a great deal of humor into an extremely tense film and gives the weightlessness some grounding when it can really use it.  Make no mistake, this is Bullock’s ‘Cast Away’ and she nails it.  So does Cuaron who keeps the events, which had the potential to come off as repetitive, in check and moving at all times.  This is a theatrical experience if ever there was one, and the amount of time and effort that had to go into a visual movie like this is staggering.  It’s so technically precise from top to bottom.  The 3D is especially utilized well and enhances the film.

But at the core of this odyssey, and beyond all of the production values and whiz-bang “I’ve never quite seen this before” marveling, is a story of survival and a very strong actress that carries the entire movie.  Look for all this year’s award accolades to fall to Gravity, and watch Miss Bullock accept her second Oscar in a few months time.  Gravity is a movie to experience (in the theater, in 3D).

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Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. FoxWes Anderson has never been one for mainstream flicks.  His movies consistently focus on quirky characters with less-than-ideal family situations, and derive a sort of awkward comedy from odd situations and situations.  Rarely one to go for a simple punchline, the heart and humor of movies like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Royal Tenenbaums, and his other films is drawn straight from putting the audience in the middle of awkward, borderline cringe-worthy situations and eschewing our expectations of what we have been conditioned by a mainstream Hollywood movies to see.  That’s not to say his movies are especially enjoyable, mind you.  I can appreciate, to a certain extent, the raison d’être for these strange celluloid experiences, but they don’t exactly make for good entertainment.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, then, seems like the perfect opportunity for Anderson to break out of his comfort zone and craft a tale that would appeal to all ages, adapted from a beloved kid’s book, based around talking forest creatures working together to solve problems and tackle issues.  Unfortunately, what could be a lighthearted children’s movie with possibly some adult themes and life lessons (see also: Up, Ratatouille, Beauty and the Beast) ends up getting bogged down by Anderson’s quirky sensibilities and characters that are never really fleshed out to their true potential.  Broken up in a series of related vignettes, the story centers on Mr. Fox and his family who move into a tree near the properties of the local Town Grumps:  Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three farmers who don’t take kindly to foxes stealing their chickens and other belongings.  Mr. Fox, who has retired from his chicken-hunting ways and now has a sensible job as a newspaper columnist, decides to take a trip back to the glory days of his youth and embark on one last harrowing chicken-thieving adventure even though doing so could endanger his wife, son, and everyone else he cares about.

Fantastic Mr. Fox - Planning

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and Badger (Bill Murray) plot their revenge on the farmers.

It’s a selfish conceit, but one that Mr. Fox atones for in various ways throughout the course of the film.  Getting to that point involves such a wandering journey with a disconcerting lack of narrative focus that it’s a little unsettling and at times downright frustrating.  There are so many things happening in this movie that are only superficially dealt with that I was not sure why they were included in the first place.  Mr. Fox has a strained relationship with his son Ash, and instead is all too quick to sing the praises of their live-in nephew Kristofferson.  But this relationship conflict is never really brought to a satisfying conclusion, and instead just pops up from time to time.  Ash and Kristofferson are also somewhat at odds over a girl in their school whom they both fancy, but again this thread is left dangling with no resolution at the end.  The somewhat central plotline of Mr. Fox returning to his farm-raiding days of old is present throughout the film, and as his schemes escalate into a full-blown battle between the three farmers and the Fox family and a handful of moles things get refreshingly ridiculous and overblown but in a way that’s enjoyable instead of pretentious.  Watching the farmers call in a fleet of excavating equipment to dig the Fox family out of their hole is such a fun exaggeration it could have been pulled straight from the far-super Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film full of potential half-baked to watery mediocrity by a director who was too busy exercising his own eccentricities to focus on creating a truly enjoyable and entertaining film.  The stop-motion artistry is outstanding, and Ray Harryhausen himself would likely tip his hat in approval, but ultimately it’s the story that matters, and that’s where the film unfortunately falls short.

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Up in the Air

Jason Reitman is officially a brilliant filmmaker. After “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno,” he delivers another surefire awards contender. His third film couldn’t be more timely, thought-provoking, darkly funny, challenging and heartbreaking. George Clooney has one of his best roles to date, and quite possibly delivers his best performance to date.  He plays Ryan Bingham, a service-for-hire executive rented out by companies big and small to essentially terminate employees and save employers from growing a backbone.  Bingham spends most of his time alone, flying all over the country and sleeping in hotels.  His greatest ambition is to earn a record of ten million flier miles and earn himself a special name-tag.  Life switches gears on him when his company hires a new gal (Anna Kendrick) to turn employee termination into a 5-minute private chatroom via the internet, saving the company all the travel expenses.  Bingham objects to the idea and has to take the young graduate under his wing and demonstrate why he is so good at his work.  Along the way he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga–The Departed), another executive with a similar lifestyle of constant travel, and potential romance ensues.

I can’t stress enough how brilliant Clooney is in this film–able to evoke disdain and sympathy within a brisk 2 hours.  Jason Reitman has penned his screenplay adaptation so strategically and carefully, and it really pays off.  He has an ear for dialogue and an eye for his characters.  Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick also deliver strongly in a film praised for great reason.  “Up in the Air” is a brilliant, airy, intelligent, and tragic film well worth seeing.

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