Gravity, the new outer space movie written by Jonas and Alfonso Cuaron and directed by the latter, is a movie that is driven by plot and not characterizations (the film may be 3D, but the personas on screen are a mite less) and gets away with it (sort of like Star Wars, though I can understand if that might seem a stretch of a comparison).   Three people are floating around in the void repairing a space station when some debris zooms by and kills one, strands two (don’t you just hate when that happens).   They’re not particularly interesting people, per se, but they are still people, so it would be heartless not to care, no matter how slight in personality they may seem.
And when a plot is this focused and tight and when the circumstances are so dire and the solution to their problem so clearly stated (it requires the use of both a Russian and Chinese space station, possibly symbolic of the death of the Cold War, though the Chinese station ultimately saves the situation, possibly demonstrating where movie money is coming from these days—after all, this is a 3D IMAX movie and those are just about the only kinds of theaters they are building over there; or it could be mere coincidence), it would also be a bit cavalier, not to mention just plain impolite, to not sit on the edge of your seat, pulse raising, heart pounding, dying to know how it all turns out.
Gravity, if nothing else, is a thrill ride enriched by some of the most amazing CGI effects you’ll see in some time.  Though there are many who have now leaped upon the bandwagon and pointed out all the unrealistic aspects of the film (and I also did wonder why the heroine’s hair didn’t float around in zero G, but assumed that poetic license was employed so it wouldn’t distract by looking like Cameron Diaz’s coiffure in There’s Something About Mary), at the same time, whether it is or not, Gravity feels like one of the most realistic fictional movies about space I’ve ever seen. 
In fact, the real question might be: it’s riveting, but is it sci-fi?  It’s not a commentary on modern times through the smoke screen of a fake future or anything like that.  It’s a pretty straight forward thriller that seems incredibly factual.  But then again, does it matter?  Well, probably only to the producers who might be able to use the it’s-a-non-sci-fi/sci-fi movie in order to get it the Oscar for Best Pic this year.
But as was pointed out, it’s by no means a perfect movie.  While one gladly sits through all the beautiful SFX while biting ones nails through all the near death climaxes, there is that dialog.  Uninteresting, cutesy, forced, it doesn’t really add much to the situation, and it does at time fall on cringed ears (there’s also an odd reaction at one point when they are told that a missile destroyed a satellite and everyone treated it as if it were an everyday occurrence—I was freaking, a bit, myself). 
At the same time, it’s no Harrison Ford, “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it” screenplay either.  It gets the job done.  And the stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, both excellent and just the sort of people you would want to get stuck with in outer space if you were facing imminent death (Clooney can charm the panic out of a herd of rogue elephants), play against the banal talky talk by giving somewhat flat, down to earth (oh, the irony) line readings to it all.
Gravity isn’t about much.  It tries to drum up some sort of character arc silliness of Bullock being symbolically reborn after having lost her child (yeah, I didn’t buy it either and it all sounded a bit too cheesy Save the Cat to take seriously), but in the end, it’s probably best to look at Gravity as one of those movies that doesn’t really do anything, but does it very, very well.  And with Clooney’s blue eyes and Bullock in her short shorts to cap it off.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, in the film The Dirties, Matt and Owen (played by Matthew Wilson and Owen Williams—get it, get it, they’re using their real names) are having their own life and death struggles.   They are high school students who are being bullied, often ruthlessly so (the strongest scenes in the movie are the viciousness of the various attacks).  The basic idea is that, for a class project, they make a film about getting revenge on the group that is harassing them (the title characters), but then one of them starts taking the idea a bit too seriously.
I wanted to like this film more than I did.  I actually just wanted to like it, but it wasn’t until the second half that I felt something was going on that was intriguing and new.  But since the first half is filled with Matt and Owen, two of the most obnoxious and annoying people one could hope to avoid, but can’t, since they are the stars of the movie, it was more than a bit of hard going.  And the scenes about bullying are pretty much the same scenes you’ve seen about bullying since bullying began being dramatized.   The movie offers little new and takes so long not to offer it, that it’s a real chore to get through these early sections.
The second half then takes a turn that brings new life to this sub-genre.  Owen discovers that he might actually be able to get accepted into the popular group, mainly because he was once friends with one of the alpha-females who hangs out with the Dirties and who may still have some lingering feelings for him.  At this point, Matt begins to freak out as he sees his delicate relationship with Owen being threatened (it even leads to an odd scene that basically blames Matt for all the bullying—Owen tells him that he’s such a freak, he invites what happens to him).  And so Matt’s joking-but-not-really desire to take revenge on the bullies becomes a really-no-I-mean-really actuality.  If this complication had happened thirty minutes early, then the movie might have been more interesting and involving.
The film was written by Johnson and Evan Morgan and directed by Johnson; it’s a first feature for both, I believe.  Everybody tries hard and there’s a ton of energy here.  And for a low budget film, it has a lot of solid production values.  
But it also has more than it’s share of clichés.  It’s filmed with that ultimate of recent movie and TV conceits—we see it all unfold through the eyes of a third party who films everything with a hand held camera.  Like the first half of the film, this doesn’t bring anything new to the story and feels, well, just so unimaginative, somewhat of a letdown. 

And it also raises more questions than it answers: not only is this person never identified (we only know whoever he or she is, they aren’t a student because Matt has to sneak him into the building at the climax), this person doesn’t try to stop Matt from his horrifying crime.  And since this camera operator has so carefully filmed so many of the acts of bullying, has recorded events that any ambulance chaser would salivate over, it waters down the effectiveness of Matt’s actions—makes them seem less like something his character would do, rather than a neat way for the writer/director to end the story. 

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of Animal Kingdom, The American and Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy No. 1

Not long after seeing Animal Kingdom I was watching White Heat, the classic James Cagney film of 1949, the one where he is quoted as saying ‘[t]op of the word, ma” when he really says, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world”. Margaret Wycherly plays Ma, one of the great gangster villainesses in American cinema (for my friends who have no idea what I’m talking about, White Heat and Wycherly were both satirized in the third Naked Gun movie). But it’s doubtful that Wycherly holds a candle to Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody, the loving mother and grandmother who would regretfully, but very calmly and with all determination, have her grandson murdered if it meant preventing one of her sons from going to jail. The only scenes more chilling than that are the ones where she kisses her sons full on the lips a bit too deliberately, and then wipes them off, as if that would actually make the incestuous implication go away. It’s a fascinating study of pure evil, or actually the banality of evil, and Weaver plays it for all it’s worth.

The movie has a darkly comic opening in which Jacki’s grandson Joshua Cody, played by newcomer James Frecheville, watches a game show while he sits beside a woman who has passed out, or so it seems. It’s not long before some EMT’s arrive and it turns out that the woman is his mother and has actually OD’d, with Joshua able to answer all the EMT’s questions with the sort of detailed answers about a mother a teenager shouldn’t have to know. And to top it all off, as the EMT’s take his mother away, Joshua finds it almost impossible to stop watching the game show on TV. The rest of the movie is equally funny and depressing in the same doses. Joshua is picked up by his grandmother Janine and taken to live with his uncles, a group of bank thieves that are high on the list of a special police section who have taken to just killing their perps when they get frustrated at not being able to convict them the old fashion way. The family members themselves are the sort Ma Barker would have loved: a drug addict; a sociopath who has the hots for underaged girls; a third who starts falling apart the minute he ends up in jail; you know—Mama’s boys all. Joshua has no choice but to get in over his head until he has to take control in a final scene that is as devastating as it is surprising and makes a perfect bookend to the opening.

Animal Kingdom is one of the best movies of the year. The ensemble cast is first rate (though Guy Pearce seems to be around for no other reason than that he’s Guy Pearce and he’s from Australia). It’s one of those where no one is likeable, but everybody is fascinating. The script, by the director David Michod, is sharp and mesmerizing and the story coagulates with tension. One could question a late scene in which Joshua decides not to turn in a corrupt cop, but take matters into his own hands (he doesn’t really seem to have the brains, but maybe the family genes are finally kicking in). But that’s the sort of objection that makes my friends annoyed with me, so I’m not sure I’d worry too much about it.

I found The American both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring at the same time; an odd response, perhaps, but apparently when I tell my friends that, many of them are in full agreement. The fascination comes from the strong, but intensely quiet, so quiet it sounds like a foghorn, mood created by the director Anton Corbijn, who also made the wonderful movie Control about singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The American proves that Corbijn can work equally well in color and black and white. The fascination is also helped by the setting, a smallish Italian town built on a hill that is full of twisting and turning streets, odd thoroughfares and more than enough dark corners to please any director of film noir. Much of the film does little more than follow lead George Clooney as Jack/Edward, a paid assassin, as he wanders the streets waiting for his fate to meet him at any moment around the next corner. There’s one incredible shot of the city from above showing a town that looks like one of those mazes that mice are put into when they are experimented upon. Not long ago, I got into Italian giallo films and one thing that struck me is that they all had these incredible settings that were characters in and of themselves, as if the location was found first and then a story was spun around it spiderlike. I’m not so sure that the same thing didn’t happen here.

The reason I found it incredibly boring is that I knew exactly what was going to happen ages before it happened. The screenplay by Rowan Jaffe has almost no plot turn that isn’t a cliché and no twist that hasn’t been telegraphed by Western Union, with only one jolting moment at the end that took me by surprise. The plot follows Clooney as he is ambushed while taking some time off from killing people. He flees to Rome while his boss tries to find out who is responsible for what happened. He is given an assignment (one of those last assignments that one only sees in movies), to help a beautiful young assassin by making a weapon for her that she is to use on her next gig. Now, if you can’t tell what happens from those three sentences, you have no one to blame but yourself. The whole spy versus spy conflict is straight out of the John Le Carre and Graham Greene school of burnt out secret agent men. In fact, one conversation Clooney has with a prostitute in which he tells her she doesn’t need to fake an orgasm is quite close to a conversation that Richard Gere gives a prostitute in the movie The Honorary Counsel, based on a Greene novel, down to the prostitute claiming she isn’t faking an orgasm, she really feels it (which in the world of Greene means that a woman is in love; Greene always had a touch of chauvinism about him).

One could also have doubts about the world view inherent in this story. It’s a world in which a mysterious organization that is never identified gets away with murder on a regular basis. No one knows who they are and none of them are ever caught. The police are no more than a siren heard in the background. In other words, it’s one of those paranoid government fantasies that one only sees in movies like Enemy of the State and Shooter, in which some black ops organization has omnipotent power, but still can’t keep the liberals out of office. It may work dramatically, but it’s a little hard to take it seriously, especially in a country that couldn’t kill Castro when it wanted.

But Jaffe is trying to do more than make a thriller. He also wants to explore the nature of redemption of the existence of God in a world that seems cold and heartless, and I’m all for that. Clooney is rather good at these moody blues introspective roles and his worn out good looks help carry things along. It ends with Clooney’s death, but with his soul, symbolized by a butterfly, wafting up to heaven. I have to be honest and say though I like the idea, I’m not convinced that Clooney’s character earned his salvation or his place above. He promises the prostitute to take her away with him, but surely that’s not quite equal to all the dead bodies he’s left in his path.

Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy #1 is even better than Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct. To recap, Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, the John Dillinger of France whose career of crime lasted into the 1960’s and like Dillinger, he managed to get a reputation of being a Robin Hood without ever giving to the poor. Again, Mesrine is all Cassel, a sociopath with delusions of romance, and who was famous for being charming. And Cassel is even more charming in this installment, in spite of the fact that he is forty pounds heavier, sometimes shaves part of his head to disguise himself and has a ridiculous sideburn/mustache/beard combo (though in his defense, so did everybody in those days). It also has some of the first part’s faults, like a plot that doesn’t seem to think it needs to set up characters or situations as it jumps and weaves from episode to episode with a certain anarchic structure. It does falter a bit toward the end as the chase scenes get a tad redundant and Mesrine tries to justify his sociopathology by claiming to be a revolutionary who only targets banks in order to bring the government down (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket); there are actually times when you think the film’s creators (director Jean-Francois Richet, writers Abdel Raouf Dafri and Richet, and Cassel himself whose baby this is) might actually be buying it. The supporting case is fine, though none can equal Cassel’s bulldozing performance like Gerard Depardieu did in the first part. Even Mathieu Amalric, one of my favorite French actors, gets left behind in Cassel’s wake.

DOING THE RELATIONSHIP RAG: Reviews of Up in the Air, Nine and A Single Man

What, to me, is most amazing about Up in the Air is how well it works when, to be perfectly honest (and hopefully Jason Reitman isn’t reading this blog—who am I kidding, of course, he isn’t), the movie really doesn’t work. Even the people I know who saw it all say they enjoyed it, but that it doesn’t quite rise to an Oscar worthy movie, even though the buzz now is that it will win best picture. I think the problem is that the focus of the plot and theme are unclear and in the end, the authors (screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Mr. Reitman) contradict themselves as to what they are trying to say. It’s about a man who flies around the U.S. firing people for other companies. It’s also about a man who has created what he considers to be the perfect life for himself, one in which he has no commitments and no serious relationships (especially with his family, for some reason never really explained). These two aspects of the script really have nothing to do with each other; he could be flying for any number of reasons (selling aluminum siding among others) and he would be the same person. The firing people plot is written as if it was central to everything that is going on, but because it isn’t, the plot isn’t quite as emotionally involving as it might be. George Clooney plays the airport hopping everyman, Ryan Bingham. To other people, he’s suppose to come across as very happy and together; he’s even suppose to come across that way to himself. But to the audience, or at least to me, he comes across as one of the most unhappy and depressed people I’ve ever met, though very high functioning. He claims that airports and traveling is his home, but it’s unclear what he gets out of it that makes him feel that way (the only time he seems really happy is when he and his cohorts crash a convention; it’s only at this moment that I really see what he sees in traveling); he’s also a motivational speaker, but it’s unclear why since his stock speech should only motivate people to cut their wrists.. His own motivations are also unfocused. When he is informed that he will no longer be traveling, it’s unclear whether he’s unhappy for the reason he states, that there is a dignity to firing people in person (which could very well be true because Bingham is wonderful at his job, often destroying people’s lives only to help them rise from the ashes like a phoenix), or whether he’s unhappy because he may not make his goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. The authors seem to want to have it both ways. They seem to want to have everything both ways. When Bingham starts an affair with fellow traveler Alex Goran (a wonderful Vera Farmiga, who may finally get her Oscar nomination her fellow thespians have been wanting to give her for some time), it’s obvious from the formulaic structure of the piece that she is married. It’s so obvious that even the fact that it’s not remotely believable that she wouldn’t tell him or would go home with him to his sister’s wedding for the weekend or that Bingham should have noticed a wedding ring tan line shouldn’t fool anyone watching. Though there is a formulaic air to the piece, it doesn’t quite go there. The implication of the story is that Bingham is going to be fired and get a taste of his own medicine, but the script never comes close to this. Instead, it contradicts its own message by having Bingham come to realize that he needs to be involved with others, but then have his hopes dashed when he finds out Goran is married. In other words, the authors are basically saying, sorry, we were wrong, Bingham was right all the time, it’s best not to have commitments. But as I said, it’s amazing just how enjoyable the movie is. The acting is first rate, including Jason Bateman as the oily villain, Bingham’s boss who foams at the mouth because the economy is continuing a downswing meaning more and more people are going to be fired; and Anna Kendrick, as Bingham’s student, who sees Bingham’s business for what it is and gets out while she still can. The dialog is incredibly witty and lovely to listen to. It’s solidly directed and sticks with one. It may be one of the best movies that doesn’t work that I’ve seen in some time.

It’s doubtful that a film like Nine (directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall) could have an American director as the main character, mainly because Nine is about a director in anguish because he is not sure he has anything new to say and when it comes to American directors no one really expects them to say anything in the first place. Nine is very European in its philosophy, which is appropriate since it is based on Frederic Fellini’s film 8 ½ and the central character is based on the celebrated Italian director. I guess I’m going to be in the doghouse on Nine, because the buzz and most critical feedback on the movie has been rather negative, but I loved it and I don’t really know why people seem to dislike it so much. It’s about a director, Guido Contini, who is having a creative block. We should hate him. He’s nothing but a drama queen about it and most of his problems are his own causing. He keeps asking for pity when he doesn’t deserve it (he’s like the Orson Welles character in Me and Orson Welles). Yet I felt his pain and I so wanted him to come out of his funk. The director is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and many critics have also said he is the problem with the whole enterprise. But for my money, I think he got Fellini as filtered through the persona of Marcello Mastroianni picture perfect. The slouch, the chain smoking, the desire to do what’s right even while he’s in the middle of doing what’s wrong, the belief in God. It’s all there and for me, he just about holds it all together on his own. But he gets great support from Marion Cotillard as his long suffering wife; Judi Dench as his costume designer and surrogate mother; Sophia Loren, as his long suffering, now deceased real mother; Penelope Cruz as his mistress; Fergie, as a prostitute from the director’s childhood; and in the most exciting musical number, Kate Hudson as a member of the paparazzi who would like to bed Guido. The musical numbers often fail or succeed depending on the quality of the numbers (Kander and Ebb, who wrote the original music, tended to write tunes that sounded sort of all alike, no matter whether they were in Zorba, Nine, The Rink or Chicago). A Call from the Vatican and Follies Bergeres fall short, but Be Italian and My Husband Directs Movies get their job done quite well. However, the highlight of the musical numbers has to be Cinema Italiano, written directly for the film. It’s an early MTV type number in which Hudson suggests that Contini is often known more for style over substance. The screenplay, adapted by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, has more depth than the original book of the play, which is more pure farce from my memory. I think the audience liked the film as well. Once the movie was over and the credits were rolling, no one wanted to leave.

A Single Man, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood, is a lovely, lyrical tone poem about a man trying to come to terms with the loss of his lover. One of the most powerful and moving scenes comes early on. Colin Firth, as English college professor George, receives a phone call from the brother of his lover Jim informing him that Jim has died and the caller has to pretend that he doesn’t know that George was his brother’s lover when in reality he does and George has to pretend that he and Jim were only friends when they had actually been together for sixteen years. Firth is incredible here showing deep pain in his face, but careful composure in his voice. But the scene is key in a way that perhaps the director Tom Ford and writers David Scearce and the aforesaid Ford didn’t realize (or perhaps they did; every scene in the movie is very studied in a fashion photographer way, so perhaps this was intentional as well). The uncredited actor making the call is Jon Hamm, the star of the amazing TV series Mad Men. Mad Men also takes place during the same time period (A Single Man happens on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis as did one episode of Mad Men) and is every bit as carefully designed and photographed as is A Single Man. The two are full of both substance and style and have the ability to take one’s breath away with scenes that sneak up on you without warning. What is it about this period that is beginning to intrigue us? It was the prelude to one of the most profound changes in American history, but it seems that it is what is happening before the deluge than after it that is most fascinating to us today (see also Pirate Radio and An Education; though not American, it seems to be the same idea). George is considering killing himself (a subplot I don’t remember from the book), but first has to spend a drunken, emotional evening with his best gal pal Charley, a luscious, wonderful boozing Julianne Moore, as well as trying to figure out what to do with one of his students, Kenny (played by About a Boy and Skins’ Nicholas Hoult, but with a flat, unconvincing American accent that gets in the way of his acting) who keeps showing up for some reason. In the book (at least from what I remember), Kenny is very straight and has no idea George is gay (in the novel Kenny isn’t sleeping with his girlfriend because they don’t have a place to have sex, so George sets it up so that Kenny can use his place once a week); in the movie, Kenny seems out to get his professor in bed. I’m not sure the ending works for me; George dies, but not from suicide. It seems unnecessarily downbeat and I’m not sure what the author is trying to say with the irony. But still, it’s an emotionally involving movie that grabs you and won’t let go. Though Ford has been criticized for emphasizing style over substance in his approach to telling the story, the look over the ideas, I don’t agree. I found his studied direction to be one of the things that pulled me into George’s emotionally wrenching story.

CALL OF THE WILDS: Reviews of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Where the Wild Things Are had to grow on me. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally figured out what it was about: a character study of a young boy with a classic case of serotonin deprived depression. Max Records plays Max (well, wasn’t that convenient), a young boy with wild mood swings of grandiose highs and debilitating lows, all out of proportion to the circumstances surrounding him, though those circumstances (he’s new to a neighborhood; no friend; child of divorce; a sister too much older than him to find him nothing but an annoyance; his mother has a new boyfriend) do add to his problematic situation. His mother, played excellently as usual by Catherine Keener, doesn’t really understand what’s going on nor has the time to figure it out. After a particularly egregious tantrum, Max runs away, finds a boat and sails to an island of gigantic and somewhat weird puppet/animal like creatures, strongly voiced by such actors as James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara and Forest Whitaker. The film began working for me when I realized that these creatures all had similar, though even deeper and more irrational, emotional problems than Max. For the first time, Max gets to see himself as other people see him. He returns home, but it’s unclear whether this adventure has really helped him. The creatures are wonderfully animated, especially the mouths, and the music and songs are heaps of fun. The main drawback may be Spike Jonze (who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers) who directs the piece as if he were Paul Greenglass doing a Bourne film. I found myself at times trying to fill in the blanks because Jonze had a yen for using jump cuts. But by the time it was all over, I was moved.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is well…fabulous (bet you thought I was going to say “fantastic”, didn’t you; please, it would be so obvious to include that word in this review). It’s as clever and fun and quirky as Babe, which is saying quite a bit. There is one rather odd aspect to it. Fox and his friends are animals who can walk, talk, reason, etc., basically humans in animal bodies. But they feed on other animals, like chickens, geese, turkeys, etc. This is rather creepy and almost comes across as cannibalism; it’s actually borderline disturbing. Of course, if one realizes that the original story is by Roald Dahl, whose stories always did have a unique and somewhat creepy aspect to them, I suppose it shouldn’t be very surprising that this isn’t your typical everyday children’s film. The suave and debonair Fox is played by the suave and debonair George Clooney. He’s actually a character I would have little to do with in real life since he’s so incredibly vain and egocentric, running roughshod over everybody else, doing whatever he wants to do when he wants to do it and if anybody else has a problem with that, too bad (he’s also pretty rotten to his son). However, that is one of the great things about art—one can spend quality time with someone one would never have anything to do with in real life from the safety of a movie seat. His longer suffering wife is played by Meryl Streep (that makes three films in one year for both of them–aren’t they the busy little bees) with an appropriately long suffering voice. The screenplay (by director Wes Anderson and the tres droll Noah—Squid and the Whale—Baumbach) is witty, energetic and never runs out of cleverness. The direction by Wes Anderson is ever so much the same; no scene is complete with some extra bit of visual manipulation that just gives it that something…well, extra, to make it memorable. The animation is remarkable, down to the moving hairs on the characters’ face. It’s what is called sophisticated and adult; the question then is whether it will sell in the multiplex. One can only hope.