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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SpeedAdd up all the elements that come together in this movie and it seems destined for failure: A first-time director helming an overblown summer action flick about a bus that can’t slow down or it will blow up, starring the guy who played Ted Logan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the guy who played Harry Dunne from Dumb and Dumber, and a completely unknown actress named Sandra Bullock.  And let’s not forget some of the movies that were competing with Speed for moviegoers’ pocketbooks during the summer of 1994: James Cameron’s True Lies, a little flick from Disney you might have heard of called The Lion King, and let’s not forget a movie about a box of chocolates that blew the doors off the box office.  Yes, it seems Speed was destined for obscurity in the Wal-Mart bargain bin even before it went into production.

And yet, in a feat that defied all expectations, Speed blew into multiplexes with the force of a runaway subway car and took cineplex patrons entirely by surprise.  Jan de Bont’s “Die Hard on a bus” concept is a mix of incredible action setpieces, tight direction, and solid dialog thanks to some script doctoring by Joss Wheedon.  It’s a classic action hero movie we just don’t see anymore, pitting one man against impossible odds and a hilariously insane villain mastermind.  Throw in all kinds of explosions and sassy female lead and you’ve got a recipe for a good old-fashioned summer blockbuster.  And perhaps that’s what makes Speed so darn good: you get exactly what you expect–nothing more, nothing less.

Speed: Sandra Bullock, Keanu Reeves

"Did you get the license plate number of that explosion?" "Whoa."

Things start off exactly as they should: with a tense elevator rescue scene that introduces us to the bad guy Howard Payne (played to the hilt by the late great Dennis Hopper) and the hero Jack Travern (Reeves), and perfectly explains Payne’s bad-guy motivation as clearly as if they were fingerpainted on a piece of posterboard.  Payne wants $3.7 million in cash, and wants it now.  If he doesn’t get it, people will die.  Since the movie poster shows an airborne bus escaping a massive explosion, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the elevator rescue will succeed and the bad guy will continue doing nefarious deeds until he gets his money.  Turns out the very next day, as Reeves is going about his regular-dude business like getting coffee and meeting average friendly LA citizens, Payne sets another plan in motion (har!) involving a busload of passengers that will explode if the bus goes below 50 miles per hour.  And the only one who can save the day?  If I have to tell you, you’re clearly not paying attention.

What follows is a series of increasingly implausible destruction scenes as the bus, driven by regular-chick Annie Porter (Bullock) after the real driver is shot, careens through all manner of urban obstacles like traffic jams, parked cars, road barricades, and even a 50-foot high ramp bridge. Just as crazy as the scenarios are, though, what’s even more amazing is that it all works thanks to Keanu Reeves–it’s like the man genuinely, honestly believes in the character he’s playing. And his utter commitment to this overblown ‘splode-fest actually engages the audience all the more, not to mention the chemistry between him and Bullock, who completely upended the tired stereotype of hapless action movie heroines with her role as the unwitting bus driver.  I don’t know if they got any sort of nomination for best onscreen couple, but they certainly deserved it.

Speed is not to be taken seriously, but it is without a doubt one of the most entertaining popcorn-style action flicks you’ll find.


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The Blind Side

What a wonder it is to find Sandra Bullock having the two biggest movies of her career (one sure to get her an Oscar nomination) and the most critically reviled film of her career all in the same year.  After the enormous financial success of this summer’s rom-com “The Proposal” and the stink that “All About Steve” left behind, Bullock bounces back with the most successful sports film of all time.  Does it deserve such a title?  Well I would look to “The Natural,” “The Wrestler,” “Rocky,” “Miracle,” “Raging Bull” and several others (classic and more recent) ahead of “Blind Side,” but I can’t deny its wide appeal.

This movie has all the makings of a major hit—taking a proven formula to tell the story of homeless African-American Michael Oher, taken in by the upscale white conservative Touhy family (Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw) while attending a Christian prep school.  The family gives Michael a room and a bed, eventually adopts him and helps him to earn solid enough grades to play high school football and earn a college scholarship–which ultimately sends him to NFL stardom later on.

When a flick is as likable and sugary as this, it’s hard to knock it.  Even though every frame feels done before, the film nevertheless engages with its Capra-esque tone and feel.  The inspirational, feel-good factor reaches to the sky here (especially that it’s based on a true story).  Sandra Bullock takes on a driven, strong-willed maternal figure that is likely to land her the big golden statue. Michael (newcomer Quinton Aaron), the underdog hero of the film, is a gentle giant of few words (is there any other kind?) with a giving spirit underneath a blanket of silence.  The Touhy family brings him out of his shell to confront the violence and unfortunate environment he grew up in.  Between Bullock and Aaron, these two actors create an unstoppable force of melodrama that captivates the audience whether or not you want to surrender to it. Bullock holds our attention—giving us the best kind of mom—the kind you don’t want to mess with, a performance that commands the screen. Quinton Aaron takes our hearts with puppy-dog eyes and restraint that instantly generates that lump in the throat,  the kind that carries us through this formal studio manufacturing of a movie.  We know exactly where “The Blind Side” is headed (whether you know the source material or not) and we gladly go along with it anyway.  Eventually it becomes apparent that the film has very little to do with football or sports in general.  It’s a film about motherhood, about family, and about hope.  It’s hard to resist.

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