Monday, October 28, 2013

ALL IS LOST Is Harrowing Tale of Survival at Sea


- Coming only weeks after the game-changing outer space survival story Gravity, the oceanic adventure of indie release ALL IS LOST might, at first, seem underwhelming by comparison. All Is Lost does bear some similarities to Gravity - it's a solitary journey - mixing realism with spiritual subtext - and it's a harrowing tale of survival that puts the viewer through the ringer, immersing you there, in the moment, with its lone protagonist. What's interesting about All Is Lost, however, is its starkness and simplicity. This is a movie all about minimalism. Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) doesn't give us anything in the way of backstory. All we know about our main character, a nameless sailor played with gritty determination by Robert Redford, is his moment-to-moment reality. And so, as the film progresses, we become utterly swept up in this character's dogged struggle to stay alive, with no real additional context to muddle the action.

Chandor shoots the film in a very straightforward, un-flashy, almost documentary-esque manner. It's jarring, at first, because it takes a while to acclimate, and to figure out what exactly is happening. That said, the film opens with a somber bit of narration from Redford, which quickly but effectively sets the stakes for the rest of the largely dialogue-free film. Redford's narration - a reading of a last will and testament (to whom - his wife? - we can't quite be sure), makes it clear that the events we are about to see will lead to very, very dire circumstances. But what's fascinating is seeing how those events come to pass.

Because the film is so detail-oriented, so grounded ... Redford's plight is worsened less by melodramatic, cinematic occurrences and more by small but crucial twists of fate, and increasingly volatile conditions to his boat. The slow build works well, and it's easy to place ourselves in the shoes of Redford. What's interesting is that Redford doesn't suddenly find himself stranded in the ocean clinging to a floating board, or suddenly without any food or drinkable water. He has supplies, he has a life raft he can utilize if need be ... so it's a slow, steady descent towards the end of the line. Each decision Redford makes becomes more critical as time goes on. You can see from Redford's acting that internal struggle to accept what's actually happening. There is that desire to hole up in his boat's cabin and act like it's not that bad. But that false sense of security ends when water repeatedly begins flowing into all areas of the vessel. Quickly, each scene of the film forms a practical question to us and to our protagonist. How long does Redford stay on the sinking boat? What food can he salvage, and how? What equipment and materials does he have at his disposal that he can use to survive, to find help, to carry on?

Redford is excellent here. A younger Redford may not have worked in the role, because he wouldn't have seemed like an average-enough guy to relate to. But here, the 77 year old actor's steely determination and experience-derived pragmatism is tempered by the limitations of age. Redford is no superhero in this film. He's remarkably - incredibly - spry and agile for a man his age. We never doubt that he's tough as hell. But the film also doesn't cover up the toll that the physicality of the action takes on the actor or the character he plays. We hear his heavy breathing, we see the pain on his face, we see the effort it takes to do the things that might have come easier to a younger man. That dynamic is key to All Is Lost. Redford still has movie-star charisma at 77, but this film doesn't play it up. Instead, it's a very honest portrayal of a man whose movements have become more deliberate, more labored. Even at 77, this is a guy still tougher than most half his age. And yet ... the actor's age gives the film an added significance - this is to be his last battle, his final test. If nothing else, he's determined to go down fighting.

Again, give Redford credit for a unique performance that tells us a lot without words. The actor's presence infuses this character with a lot of unspoken baggage, but it's baggage that works in the film's favor. This is a man who is clearly proud, likely highly confident in himself, potentially even a touch aristocratic. That makes it all the more humbling for him when he's completely at the mercy of an unrelenting ocean, increasingly helpless against the harsh mistress that is Mother Nature.

Moment to moment, shot to shot, the movie feels grounded - scenes are often composed like logic puzzles, with Redford trying but failing at something, and then revising his strategy and figuring out a Plan B. At the same time, there is that spiritual, existential element to the film. The tight, close-in camera work will occasionally be interrupted by wide overhead shots, or long underwater shots looking up at the boat, or the life-raft, showing us the ocean life beneath. It's a reminder of man's smallness in the context of nature - underscored by the film's spare but ominous score. And it's a theme that becomes more apparent as the film goes on, as Redford becomes more desperate and helpless. That other theme - of one man's final battle - is also there as the movie reaches its climax. The ending is left fairly open for interpretation, and is accompanied by some memorable, haunting imagery.

My complaints are few, but I think there are moments where the film could have used a little more sense of context around the main character's actions. There are times when it's a bit unclear why Redford is or isn't pursuing a specific course of action - with little dialogue, it's understandable that much is left open and not fully explained. At the same time, the movie's grounded, matter-of-fact style occasionally gives way to sudden edits that leave you with a feeling of "but wait, how did ...?". Otherwise, I suppose that the movie's other most obvious failing - that it takes a while to really get going - also plays into its strength as a narrative: all of that build-up creates a real feeling of immersion and realism. When things really get crazy later on, you're all in. The slow build definitely yields a worthy payoff.

ALL IS LOST is ultimately a hell of a tale of survival. Individual scenes have a rugged, you-are-there, no-frills quality that fully sells you on the on-screen action. The parts, however, add up to a whole that is not just about the practical means of surviving while stranded at sea, but a striking meditation on life, death, and the will to survive.

My Grade: A-

Saturday, October 19, 2013

MACHETE KILLS Is Fun But Overstuffed B-Movie Insanity


- I love that we're still living in a world where postmodern grindhouse films like Machete can be made. There's something to be said for the anything-goes aesthetic of these movies, and the sheer sense of fun to be had with them. In an age when too many action movies seem overly grim, it's refreshing to sit back and watch a movie that at its core is solely about having fun - realism, political correctness, and good taste be damned. That said, MACHETE KILLS worries me just a bit. Because in spite of what I just said, if you look at the original Tarantino/Rodrguez Grindhouse collaboration, there was also a strong sense of creativity and ingenuity at play. Yes, those films were fun, and reveled in exploitation-genre excess. But there was also a real sense that we were getting a chance to see great filmmakers stretch and test their own limits. It felt like Tarantino and Rodriguez were using Grindhouse as an opportunity to really flex their creative muscles, and tell stories that wouldn't necessarily fly in their slightly-more-mainstream films. The first Machete film was an extension of that, with Rodrguez presenting a fully-realized vision of the over-the-top character he first debuted as part of a fan-favorite fake (at the time) Grindhouse trailer. With MACHETE KILLS though, you have to wonder if this is less about Rodriguez really innovating, and more about him just sort of screwing around. I don't mean that in a purely negative way ... but Machete Kills feels like, perhaps, Rodriguez went for the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the detriment of actually making a great movie.

MACHETE KILLS very quickly becomes completely insane, and only gets crazier as it goes. I'll say this: the movie begins in rather mind-blowing fashion, kicking off with a "Coming Attractions" trailer for a *third* Machete movie - "Machete Kills Again ... In Space." Yes, you heard me. And yes, this trailer is awesome and just completely whacked out.

But here's the weird thing ... while that trailer plays out like an extended gag, Rodriguez soon shows that he's actually pretty damn serious about it. Without spoiling too much, Rodriguez legitimately builds towards a Machete-in-space movie with MACHETE KILLS. And he strains and bends over backwards to get there. And maybe that's part of the problem ... Rodriguez seems to think there's nothing funnier or more entertaining than the idea that, yep, this is all actually leading up to a Machete-in-space movie. But he sort of undermines the so-random-its-hilariousness of that scenario by creating a very, very convoluted plot to get there.

The movie is packed to the brim with characters and plot points, some more memorable than others. First off though, Danny Trejo is once again quite simply badass and awesome as the title character. In fact, I still get a kick out of the fact that the sixty-something, craggy-faced Trejo actually gets to star in an action film and kick ass like he does as Machete. All other factors aside, Rodriguez inherently understands why Danny Trejo is a badass, and understands how best to have him do and say awesome things. Trejo just keeps getting older and more craggy, and it's increasingly obvious when a stuntman is filling in for him in fight scenes. But somehow, the older he gets, the more awesome it is to imagine the man kicking ass and just becoming increasingly badass and invincible with age. The movie's best running gag plays off this very concept - that Machete is impervious to pain and death in a quasi-supernatural manner. When one adversary tries to hang him, the noose simply has no effect on Machete's tree stump-like neck. It's the non-Trejo characters that are more of a mixed bag ...

My favorite new addition to the cast is probably Amber Heard as the fantastically-named, beauty queen-slash-secret agent Ms. San Antonio. Between this and Drive Angry 3D, I'm convinced that Heard needs to just be in every grindhouse-style action movie made from here on out. She just has a perfect understanding of how to do these kinds of roles - with just the right level of self-aware tongue-in-cheekness. The best is when Heard gets to spar with another B-action queen in Michelle Rodriguez. M-Rod is in the movie for far too short a time, but she definitely spices things up when she becomes more prominently featured in the thirds act - and her back-and-forth banter with Heard is a highlight.

Meanwhile, Charlie Sheen (or "Emilio Estevez" - his real name that he's billed as here), is entertaining as the by-god President of the United States - a foul-mouthed, womanizing POTUS who is pretty much, well, Charlie Sheen. And it's great to see a small but crucial role from the great Tom Savini.

On the other hand, MACHETE KILLS is filled with fun and capable actors playing somewhat pointless parts. Demian Bichir feels way too overqualified to play Mendez, a criminal mastermind suffering from multiple personality disorder. I'm a big Bichir fan, and he elevates the character ... but Mendez is a prime example of the movie's tendency to overindulge and try to do too much without enough real payoff. Bichir is entertaining, but by his fifth or sixth personality change, I was over it. Same for the identity-shifting assassin character played in turn by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas. I would have rather seen an actor like Goggins really get to sink his teeth into a substantial part than be part of this somewhat wearisome gimmick character. Same for Banderas. And hey, Lady Gaga shows some nice potential. She fits right in as a grindhouse femme fatale. Less natural is Sofia Vergara as masochistic madame Desdemona. Her character feels shoehorned into the film, and Vergara just seems a bit awkward - even if her chest-mounted machine guns are sort of hilarious. And finally, there's Mel Gibson as uber-villain Voz. Gibson gives it the ol' college try, and he's more palatable than usual when playing a villain we're *supposed* to hate. But his villainous monologues get very old very quick, and the scenes in which Gibson gets the spotlight are just plain draggy - a cardinal sin in a movie called Machete Kills.

Don't get me wrong, MACHETE KILLS has plenty of great, over-the-top moments, and it's mostly a lot of fun. Trejo doesn't say much, but he kills the one-liners as only he can, and he brings the badassery in heaping helpings. Heard and Michelle Rodriguez are worthy supporting players, and along with Sheen are the standouts in an eclectic and overloaded cast. And the Machete-in-space stuff is pretty priceless. Even if Machete Kills dampened my enthusiasm for the franchise just a bit, the idea of one more, balls-to-the-wall intergalactic outing is enough to re-ignite my excitement. The teasers we get in this one are just bat$#%& insane. Still, Machete Kills is proof that it ain't exactly easy to translate five minutes of kickass trailer into an hour-and-a-half of kickass feature film. With a trailer, the more awesome and crazy that's packed in, the better - sensory overload is the goal. But a full-length feature demands a little something more, and in some ways, a little less. Restraint *can* be a good thing, even in an over-the-top grindhouse flick. Machete Kills, while still fun, funny, and highly entertaining, could have benefited from a little more focus. It needed more of a reason to exist beyond just being a bridge towards Machete going sci-fi. Rest assured though, when Machete does rocket up to the stars to lay waste to some cosmic suckas, I'm all in, baby.

My Grade: B

Thursday, October 17, 2013

ZERO CHARISMA Is Great Geek Cinema


- Zero Charisma is a great little indie comedy that is pretty much a must-watch if you are, were, or have ever been, at all, a nerd, geek, or dork. It's one of the best and truest movies about geekiness ever made. Why do I say that? Because we live in a world where geeks are cool, where everyone claims to be a geek, and where the most-watched comedy on TV is a show about geeks - albeit a super-cartoonish and sort of obnoxious regression to the days of Steve Urkel. Between the adorkable nerds of The Big Bang Theory and the hipster-cool nerdiness of The Nerdist lies a more complicated reality: nowadays, being a geek can be cool, sure ... but there's also, often, painful reasons why people develop geeky obsessions. That, I think, is why there's sometimes a rift between true-blue geeks and new-school hipster-geeks. Traditionally, nerds suffered for their status. They liked things that no one else liked. They were outcasts and punks. They were derided for their strange and decidedly non-mainstream passions. And ZERO CHARISMA pulls no punches in telling the story of an uber-nerd who clings desperately to the worst kind of geeky tendencies.

As played somewhat brilliantly by Sam Eidson, Scott is like a relic of an older era of geekdom. A big, hulking dude with a mismatched, squeeky voice, Scott dresses in 90's-style geek/goth metal gear, matching cargo shorts and black death metal screen T's with fingerless gloves and the kind of black duster trenchcoat that was frowned upon post-Columbine. It's easy to imagine that the 30-something Scott has dressed the same since high school. And it's easy to see that he hasn't changed much, in general, since those days. He lives with his snappish grandmother, and seems happy to let her do most of the household heavy lifting (and he pays no rent). His room is plastered with posters and figurines. He works at a dead-end job at a donut shop (he got fired from his previous job at a hobby store). And he lives for, above all else, his weekly game nights, in which he gathers his nerdy friends, and leads a Dungeons & Dragons-esque game of his own creation.

The game is Scott's baby. He spends his days working on scenarios for it, and refuses to ever miss it or let a weekly session get cancelled. To that end, Scott treats his fellow players less like friends and more like minions. When one of the players has to drop out of the game, in an effort to patch things up with his wife, Scott takes it as a personal affront - showing minimal sympathy. But a player dropping out sets the stage for the central conflict of the film: in search of a new player, Scott runs into Miles - a glasses-wearing geek who seems like a perfect fit for the game. But Miles, as it turns out, is a different breed of geek from Scott. Miles has a cute girlfriend, a swanky apartment, and Hollywood connections (through his work as a writer for the "Geek Chic" pop culture website). Miles is, in short, the picture of the modern hipster-geek, and in many ways the antithesis of Scott. While the two start out as friends, it isn't long before Scott declares Miles to be his nemesis.

ZERO CHARISMA walks a fine line in its depiction of Scott. On one hand, he's sort of a jerk. On the other hand, there's a purity to him that you have to sort of respect. There's no drive in Scott to be cool, and he isn't into what he's into because of anyone else. His passion comes from within, and hey, that's something to be admired. On the other hand ... Miles has drive, he has ambition, he knows what he wants out of life. And yet, there's something not quite genuine about him. He seems a little too pleased with himself, a little too smug. Miles' presence, in a way, makes Scott a bit easier to root for. Scott is the guy that got left behind in the great geek revolution. Through Miles, he begins to realize exactly how left behind he really is.

There's some great, understated humor in the film, but also a lot of heart. The feeling of authenticity in these characters goes a long way to making the awkward moments all the more wonderfully awkward, and the emotional moments all the more gutting. There's tons of great geek-humor: discussions about the relative speeds of various sci-fi spaceships, Scott's stubborn assertion that he came up with the idea for The Matrix, and the strange but hilarious relationship between Scott and his even nerdier best-friend, Wayne (who sports the geekiest mustache since Kip from Napoleon Dynamite). At the same time, the movie doesn't present the glossy, Big Bang version of geekdom. There's a real, undercurrent of hurt and pain that colors the movie. I'd compare it to TV's seminal Freaks & Geeks. Basically, Zero Charisma doesn't feel like a bunch of slick writers doing their version of what geekiness might be like. This one clearly comes from a real place in the heart of filmmaker Andrew Matthews.

The movie was crowd-funded and made on a low budget, but it actually looks really good. Matthews does a great job of capturing the smaller moments, but he also escalates things and gives the action a semi-epic feel as the story builds to a crescendo.

My guess is a lot of geeky-types who watch this one will see something of themselves in both Scott and Miles (I know I did, to an extent). And the way that Zero Charisma perfectly captures that dichotomy of nerdiness is pretty much pitch-perfect. For that reason, anyone who's ever felt even just a little bit geeky owes it to themselves to check out this gem.

My Grade: A-

Monday, October 14, 2013

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS Is Uber-Intense Stunner


- The success of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a tribute to two things. One is the directorial prowess of Paul Greengrass. This is a guy whose reputation has perhaps taken a hit due to the rash of less-skilled imitators that he's spawned. But Greengrass is the real deal, and he proves it again here. Second is the amazing, continued ability of Tom Hanks to push himself and take his acting to new dramatic heights. While Hanks is the consummate everyman, he also doesn't merely coast on that rep, and his knockout performance in this film is proof. It's one of the best-ever performances from Hanks - a stunning, nuanced, emotionally raw performance that seriously wowed me. The combination of Greengrass and Hanks is a potent one indeed. I honestly didn't expect it from the trailers, but CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is a total stunner - one of the best dramas of 2013.

The movie is based on the recent, real-life story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose commercial cargo ship was the victim of an attempted hijacking and robbery by Somali pirates, back in 2009. Phillips wrote a book about the ordeal, and now, Greengrass and writer Billy Ray have adapted it into one hell of a film.

Greengrass expertly builds up the tension in the film - and once things fully escalate, the movie becomes a total nail-biter. But before the conflict ensues, we get some telling looks at Phillips, his crew, and also of the Somalis who carry out the desperate heist attempt. Phillips is immediately a fascinating character, perhaps in part because of his blue-collar ordinariness. When we meet him, he's with his wife (Catherine Keener) in their quiet New Hampshire home. As they drive in the rain, the middle-aged couple worries about all things you'd expect them to: their college-age kids facing a tough economy, and the long absences that Phillips' duties require of him. Hanks plays Phillips as a meat-and-potatoes guy, but also a very smart guy - a guy who's very aware of the world around him. That awareness is there in the movie's DNA - as we also see set-up scenes in Somalia, where the dreary, existential dread of mid-life in New Hampshire seems like paradise, as compared to the ramshackle living conditions and violent, chaotic lifestyle that is a fact of life there. The film by no means paints the Somali pirates as heroes or antiheroes or anything like that. But it does give context to their actions, and gives depth to their characters. Finally, there's the crew of Phillips' ship. Overall, they're a competent, salt-of-the-earth bunch - but the film, again, takes pains to give the crew guys unique personalities. The characters all feel real and lived-in. It helps that the crew isn't populated with GQ types, but with guys who are 100% believable as world-weary union workers. It all ties into Greengrass' realer-is-better aesthetic. His movies contain big action and spectacle, but it all comes from a place of authenticity. The starting point is the real-world, and the quieter moments have a documentary-like aesthetic that makes the crazier moments feel all the more plausible.

And as things get crazy, Greengrass expertly escalates the tension to almost unbearable levels. There are a number of factors that play into this. There's a very interesting dynamic, for example, between Phillip's crew and the pirates. The pirates are obviously the aggressors - boarding Phillip's ship with machine guns and ill-intent. But there's also an unsettling inevitability at play - these pirates are essentially #$%&'ed from moment one. Even though we're worried for Phillips and his crew, the feeling that the pirates are in over their heads keeps building as the movie goes on. Even if they pull off the heist ... then what? Best case scenario: they go back home to an unforgiving, war-torn country that is all but devoid of hope and opportunity. Worst case - and most likely scenario - is that they end up captured or killed by the U.S. military, which has every intent of stopping the situation before it becomes an international incident. So the intensity in the film has many, many layers. As the on-screen drama keeps getting bigger in scale - as Navy battleships and military helicopters and snipers get involved - there's so much at stake for every principal character that you can't help but be on the edge of your seat to see how this gets resolved.

An unlikely star of the film is Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, as the pirates' leader, Muse. Skeleton-skinny, Abdi infuses Muse with a blend of misguided ambition and desperation. He repeats an upbeat-sounding mantra of "everything will be alright," but behind it there's a sadness, hurt, and anger. Muse is perhaps the most rational of his associates - others are violent and aggressive, one is a young teen who got more than he bargained for in this mission. What he and the other pirates likely didn't bargain for was being pitted against a tough, sea-hardened crew and their resourceful captain.

There's great drama to be had in the chicken-and-egg game that Hank's Phillips plays with the pirates once they've boarded his ship. He uses every trick in the book to try to outwit them and get them to think of him as their friend. But there's something more in the way Hanks deals with them. Yes, he's putting on an act, to some extent, in an attempt to save his crew. But he's also acting in a kind, decent manner towards the Somalis (well, as kind and decent as one can be with people trying to hijack your boat), and they seem genuinely taken aback by it. There's a fascinating clash of worlds here - Phillips is a "put your head down and work hard" New Englander. The pirates have an entirely different ethos - take what you can, because tomorrow you may be dead. It's hard to imagine a more pronounced culture clash. Later, as the military gets involved and the situation spirals out of control, we see those same ethos pushed to their extremes, until they bend and snap. Phillips gives in to the instinct for self-preservation, and the pirates trick themselves into thinking there's a way out of their impossible situation, as they find themselves backed into a corner by the full might of Western Civilization.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS isn't an overtly political movie, but there's a ton to chew on in its subtext. So rarely do all characters in a film feel so fleshed-out and three-dimensional. Ultimately, the pirates are the film's de facto villains. But the film also forces you to think of its plotline as more than just your typical USA: good, Others: bad narrative. There's a nuance and complexity here that's admirable.

But let me get back to Hanks for a second. It's funny, because going into the film, I found his heavily-accented New England dialect to be sort of comical, judging from the previews. "We ah being boarded" became a bit of a running joke. But the reality is: in context, there's nothing cartoonish about Hanks here. In fact, there's so much subtlety and so much humanity to his performance that I was increasingly impressed as the movie went on. But what sealed the deal for me that this was an all-time great piece of acting was the film's final ten minutes or so, in which Phillips finally just breaks down after the traumatic events he's been through. This stretch of the film's final act is just jaw-droppingly powerful stuff, and it's all Hanks. The way he depicts a level-headed, almost stoic man lose his $#%^ is flat-out chill-inducing, to the point where I wanted to reach out and hand the man an Oscar right then and there. It might just be the best work of Hanks' career.

And Greengrass ... like I said, he's often imitated, but what the wannabes lack is his seeming complete command and control over even the most subtle shaky-cam movements. With Greengrass, it never feels like shaky-cam for the sake of it. Instead, you feel like you're in the hands of a guy with a very precise handle on what he's trying to accomplish. The guy is just really, really good, and he moves from small-scale slice-of-life stuff to huge-scale action in a way that's so seamless, it's amazing.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is right up there as one of the best of the year to date. Coming only a week after the epic Gravity, it makes for one hell of an October one-two punch.

My Grade: A

Monday, October 07, 2013

GRAVITY: Cosmic Survival Story and Mind-Melting Cinematic Achievement


- Yes, GRAVITY is a roller-coaster ride. But man, what a ride it is. This is a movie that demands to be seen on a huge IMAX screen, and in 3D. This is a film that is about evoking awe, wonder, and terror. Ultimately, this is a movie that will succeed with each individual based on their ability to immerse themselves in its cosmic universe. Personally, I was 100% gripped for the duration of the film. I marveled at what director Alfonso Cuaron was able to pull off here, even as the power of his images and storytelling blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Rare is the movie that leaves you feeling like you've just emerged from experiencing what the characters experienced - not just emotionally, but physically. Rare is the cinematic adventure of this caliber.

Cuaron doesn't waste any time here. It positively flies by, and I was sort of amazed at just how economical the storytelling was. Movies and TV trained me to expect Gravity to, at any moment, hit me with melodramatic flashbacks to its characters' lives on earth, lengthy prologues and epilogues, or extended scenes of expositary dialogue. But Gravity is spare and on-point. It's entirely about what is happening in-the-moment, and about putting its audience in-the-moment. And so, some may wonder why there isn't more backstory for the characters. But to me, the bare-bones back-story was refreshing. The movie is about a very specific adventure, and it is laser-focused on conveying the immediacy and urgency of what we're seeing on screen. Very quickly, the film becomes about life-and-death-struggle, and it never lets up, all the way through into the final moments of its astonishing finale.

It's rare that after seeing a film I want to go and watch behind-the-scenes making-of docs immediately afterwords. But here, that was one of my first reactions upon the film's conclusion: "how did they do that?" Yes, these days CGI makes nearly anything possible, but CGI alone doesn't account for the seamless nature of Gravity's images, the almost complete lack of disconnect or disparity between the human actors and their environments. If someone were to say that Cuaron actually filmed the movie in deep space, it wouldn't seem altogether crazy. On a technical level, the movie is a marvel. But Cuaron is one of those guys who mixes technical wizardry with artistic genius in a way that few if any of his peers can. With his trademark long takes, Cuaron rarely deviates from the movie's you-are-there aesthetic. At the same time, the movie is "realistic" in its attention to detail and use of logic and science, but also mind-blowlingly artistic. Cuaron roots the events of his film in science, but he never fails to imbue every scene with retina-searing artistry - magnified even more so by the added immersive quality of IMAX and 3D. Channelling the spirit of Kubrick and Ridley Scott, Cuaron pays aesthetic homage to films like 2001 and Alien, but speeds past them in terms of sheer sensory assault. As an example, large segments of GRAVITY undoubtedly show the visual influence of videogames. Cuaron expands on the way that first-person games build virtual worlds around a player's field of vision, and uses that aesthetic to thrilling effect. Gravity has first-person scenes that feel truly next-level. Just as Cuaron borrows from the world of gaming, I wouldn't be surprised to see many games in the next few years borrow heavily, in turn, from him. Overall, the way that Cuaron frames his shots - the way he plays with perspective, field-of-vision, and movement - it's all clearly the work of a mad-genius mind that is operating on another wavelength from most humans. How is he visualizing all of this, and how is he translating that vision so completely to the screen?

The film is also more than just a literal adventure. There's a not-so-subtle subtext at work here that gives the movie an added dimension of being a spiritual journey and not just a physical one. And how could it not be? If anything is fodder for considering one's own mortality, place in the universe, and spiritual purpose in the cosmos, it's a story about being stranded in the void of space. Cuaron is pretty on-the-nose with his death/rebirth imagery throughout the film, but personally, I think the lack of subtextual subtlety fits with the rocket-powered tone and pacing of the film. Again, it seems to be in the interest of being economical. And it's a testament to the film's breakneck pace and edge-of-your-seat thrills that when Cuaron does stop for those quieter moments of symbolic respite ... those moments are powerful, memorable, and just as visually dynamic (if not more so) than when the action is going full-steam-ahead. I found the movie's spiritual themes to be just present enough to even further propel the main action, providing an added element of urgency and almost primitive, primal drive in our lead character's quest to get safely back to earth.

Speaking of which, that main character is Ryan Stone - played by Sandra Bullock. Stone is a rookie astronaut brought out to space for her technical and medical knowledge. She is paired with Kowalski - played by George Clooney - a veteran astronaut whose preternaturally calm demeanor helps to offset Stone's understandable nerves. Let me say this: I've never really been a Sandra Bullock fan. It's partly that I haven't loved the types of movies she's starred in, for the most part. It's partly that I can't recall ever being particularly wowed by one of her performances. But I went into Gravity with an open mind, willing to see if the actress could up her game to match the ambition of Cuaron's filmmaking. I came away hugely impressed with Bullock's performance, and as far as I'm concerned, this is her career-best performance to date, by far - blowing anything else she's ever done out of the water. The key thing here is that Bullock brings a realness and rawness that meshes perfectly with the immediacy of the film. I mentioned Alien before, and the first performance that Bullock's brings to mind is Sigourney Weaver's in that sci-fi classic. Not because Ryan Stone is anything like Ellen Ripley (far from it), but because both characters are (figuratively and literally) stripped bare while faced with terrifying danger and existential dread. Both must confront death head-on and choose to fight, to live. And Bullock does so with a rawness that I didn't know she had in her. I (and others I'm sure) have to reevaluate her as an actress post-Gravity. Clooney's character is there almost in service of Bullock. It's a simple role - Kowalski is the seasoned pro, the adventurer, the explorer - the guy who can laugh at death and danger and wax nostalgic about old girlfriends while working on precise projects far beyond the confines of planet earth. So yeah, it's basically Clooney as Clooney, but it's exactly what's needed in this film.

I'll also mention the film's score by Steven Price. It's a fantastic score - at times haunting, at times pulse-pounding - but always evocative of the awe and wonder of outer space. The fantastic music that accompanies the action adds immeasurably to the full-sensory-overload experience that is Gravity.

I do wonder, just a bit, about the longevity of a film like this. Stripped of IMAX and 3D and wall-to-wall speakers, does it still hold up as a film on the most basic level? GRAVITY isn't a film that has quite as much on its mind as, say, 2001. And it doesn't have the personality or badassery of an Alien. But Gravity is a different beast - it's easy to want it to be sci-fi-esque, to take on the elements of that genre that we associate with the aforementioned classics. But Gravity, while it does have that cosmic/spiritual element, is not sci-fi, and is not even a truly narrative or thematically-driven film. No - this is an experiential film - a breakneck rollercoaster ride that is about one thing: survival. Yes, it's about survival both on a micro, moment-to-moment level, and on a macro, big-picture, cosmic level. But just as the film's title suggests a primal force, so too does the movie as a whole feel primal, instinctual, fight-or-flight. The fact that Cuaron and co. were able to make such a lean movie that is, ironically, bursting at the seams with technical wizardry and astounding imagery - that, I think, is an award-worthy achievement.

My Grade: A