“Bad Grandpa” Is Bad in the Best Way…Mostly

“Hi, I’m Johnny Knoxville! Welcome to Jackass!”

Immortal words by a seemingly-immortal man. Over the course of a little over a decade, Johnny Knoxville and his crew of troublemakers have hit, tripped, fallen, slammed, defecated, mutilated, puked, and otherwise shocked their way to international comedy stardom. Their utterly juvenile and entirely addictive brand of comedy has expanded from its MTV origins to encompass three feature films and DVDs of material cut from said films, as well as several spin-off television shows for some its more popular members, such as Viva la Bam, Wildboyz, and Dr. Steve-O.

Of course, as the years pass, the Jackasses get older, and their bodies less resilient (Knoxville is now 42), it’s become apparent that they ought to find a way to earn a living that’s a little easier on their bodies (and their audience’s gag reflex).

Which brings us to Jackass’ first feature film spin-off. Bad Grandpa is based on a long-running series of sketches from the Jackass brand in which Knoxville and a group of friends – including, of all people, Spike Jonze (yes, that Spike Jonze) – dress up in startlingly realistic old people make-up and wreak havoc on the general populace. Their pranks ranged from pretending the brakes on their electric wheelchair are broken on the hills of San Franciso to asking bystanders to take pictures of them with their ‘granddaughter’ and then proceeding to make out with her. For this film though, Knoxville is the lone Jackass (Interestingly, the film’s credits show footage of Jonze in his infamous old woman make-up, replete with drooping, lactating breasts.)

For Bad Grandpa, Knoxville reprises his role as 86-year-old Irving Zisman. At the film’s start, Zisman, sitting in a hospital waiting room, is informed of his wife’s passing. Irving immediately laughs with delight and proceeds to nearest strip club, a journey which somehow ends with him getting his penis stuck in a vending machine. We then conveniently transition to his wife’s funeral, where his long-estranged daughter unceremoniously informs him that she is going back to jail and that he will have to take his grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), to stay with his father. Irving, longing to sow some stale oats (to call them wild might be a stretch at this point), is frustrated at having to tow this ‘cockblock’ around, but relents. And of course, they don’t like each other, then like each other, then discover just how strong the bond of a family can be, and of course I won’t leave you with your abusive, neglectful father, Billy! I love you! In fairness, Knoxville commits to the few dramatic scenes as completely as he does to the comedy, and he’s not bad, at one point actually eliciting believable tears. But c’mon, is this really what you paid money to see?

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(I think not.)

When the story’s not busy being schmaltzy, it serves a function very similar to that of Borat: as a framework for Knoxville and Nicoll, in character, to create a series of awkward scenarios with real-life people. Are any of these scenarios actually funny? Yeah, for the most part. The ‘Cherry Pie’ sequence, which is the film’s climax and featured in all of its advertising (and this review!) is, unsurprisingly, the film’s crowning jewel. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid it: 1.) have you been living under a rock? and 2.) you’re in for a treat. If you have, it somehow still manages to be as funny as the first time you saw the trailer, building to its denouement with deliberate, excruciatingly delightful purpose. Other stand out sequences include Knoxville’s attempts to sell his wife’s faulty electric mattress, drunkenly attempting to seduce a drive-thru waitress from a shopping cart, and visiting a strip club on Ladies’ Night.

The real surprise of the movie, however, is Jackson Nicoll, the young actor who plays the grandson. What is on display here is a young man with an incredible comic gift. Instead of taking the purely foulmouthed route that many a young actor would be made to do in an ‘adult’ comedy, Nicoll uses his natural sweetness and innocence to enhance the jokes and make those he’s pranking that much more uncomfortable. The scenes where he’s best allowed to showcase his talents are those he’s allowed to carry, such as when he walks up to strangers and asks if he can be adopted on the spot. His timing never falters, he never breaks character, and he easily holds his own against Knoxville, making the veteran comedian break out into genuine laughter in several scenes. He has that rarest of gifts in a comic actor – or indeed any actor: the ability to never overwhelm a scene but always steal it. In fact, if the fame doesn’t go too much his head and he’s not hooked on drugs and he’s not abused and he doesn’t go completely off the rails like almost every child star does, he might have a real chance at being a comedy superstar.

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(I’d say his chances of making it unscathed are pretty slim, though.)

Is the film as funny as the rest of the Jackass canon? Not quite. While I hesitate to call the film’s framing device ‘bad’, it is familiar, and therefore kinda boring to watch. But it also means that the filmmakers are more limited in their options when it comes to comic scenarios. And though they execute them with gusto… I dunno. It just doesn’t quite match the manic energy of the other Jackass films. Even with a complete lack of structure and more than a few bits that don’t really work (and others that are just nauseating), there is true joy in their unrelenting speed; just one thing after another after another after another. Call it juvenile, but there is something primal, dare I say beautiful about grown men who are willing to shoot firecrackers out of their asses for a laugh.

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(It’s practically a thing of beauty.)

Recommended, but judging by numbers you probably already saw it.

‘Escape Plan’ Doesn’t Escape Shit! (How’s That for a Title?!)

As we press on through autumn and into winter, we enter what we in the ‘biz’ refer to as ‘Awards Season.’ From late September through mid-January, Hollywood slows its roll a little on the blockbusters and starts introducing more dramatic fair. Smaller movies with stranger premises helmed by acclaimed directors and platforms for the stars of Hollywood to flex their acting muscles. We’ve already had a few with the likes of The Butler, Rush, Gravity, and Captain Phillips (recognize the last two!), but we’ve got many, many more to come, with the likes of All Is Lost, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, August: Osage County, and Her.

It may surprise you to hear that Escape Plan is not one of those movies.

“But Grant,” I hear you cry, “You write a blog! You’re the movie critic type! Why wouldn’t you see something a little more respectable? Like The Fifth Estate, which also came out this past weekend?” The Fifth Estate certainly had some interesting talent behind it: actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl (who impressed as Nikki Lauda in Rush), Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie, as well as director Bill Condon, who gave us such films as Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls. (I’ve not seen any of them, but I’d like to.) He also gave us the last two Twilight movies (which I have seen), so that’s not necessarily a mark of quality. Also, I’m not sure a film made only two years after the events it dramatizes is going to have much meaningful to say about its subject. And considering the abysmal reviews and box office it pulled off this weekend, I think I might be right.

(Also, for real, the hair. It hurts my eyes.)

So what does Escape Plan director Mikael Håfström have under his belt, besides a really cool-ass name? Erm… Derailed. 1408. The Rite.

Alright, alright, what we’re really here for is Sly and Arnie, right? It’s been an interesting year for these action icons. After summarily running California into the ground and couple of Expendables cameos, Schwarzenegger decided to return to acting. His triumphant comeback, The Last Stand, was an ignominious bomb. It also, with the exception of one pretty cool car chase at the end, kinda sucked. Stallone, on the other hand, has basically spent the past few years riding off his legacy (not player hating, people), with sequels to Rocky, Rambo, and, of course, the Expendables films, which practically run on nostalgia. His only movie of the past seven years to not trade on one of those franchises, Bullet to the Head, was also a flop (though much more fun, in its own kuckleheaded way.) But here they are, together at last! Not just like a cameo or something, but for real together! Surely audiences will flock to see the two titanium-jawed titans take on anything! Again, not so much… (Though again, they take solace in neither flopping as hard as The Fifth Estate.)

“Goddammit, Grant,” you say, “is the frickin’ movie any good?”

No, not really. But yeah, sort of. More than I expected, anyway.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who makes a living testing the effectiveness of maximum security prisons by breaking out of them. Where others use the term ‘Wrote the Book on It’ as an expression, Breslin literally did write the book on his profession, a fact of which we are constantly reminded. He runs his business with Lester Clark, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a man who seems to have a career out of playing characters with the words ‘DON’T TRUST THAT GUY!!!’ written all over them. His crack team of assistants includes 50 Cent as his resident computer genius (yes, that 50 Cent), and Amy Ryan, who plays… somebody, I guess. Amy Ryan? I’m not sure…

Anyway, Breslin is soon approached by a mysterious woman who wants him to test a facility called ‘The Tomb’ (which was also this movie’s original, much cooler-sounding title), an off-the-record penal facility that’s designed to hold most dangerous of criminals… or the ones that governments simply don’t want to give a fair trial. It’s supposed to be escape-proof, and Breslin is being offered twice his normal fee – in advance – to ensure it is. Gee, I wonder if this is too good to be true? I wonder who could have possibly set him up? I wonder if Stallone will ever escape? Anyway, he’s put in Mega Jail, he meets Schwarzenegger, doesn’t like him, then likes him, the Warden is a dick, blah blah blah, you know the drill.

Part of the fun of Escape Plan is the cavalcade of familiar faces that roll through. Vinnie Jones, who you may remember as Bullet-Tooth Tony from Snatch, plays Drake, a.k.a. Head Asshole Guard, with the requisite snarl. Sam Neill, of all people, plays the prison doctor who claims to be cynical But Has A Heart Of Gold™. The aforementioned 50 Cent mumbles his way through computer jargon that we’re supposed to believe he understands. (Just to be clear: It’s not because he’s 50 Cent. It’s because he’s a bad actor.)

The standout performance here is Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, TV’s Person of Interest), who seems to be having a blast. As Warden Hobbes, Caviezel takes dialogue that seems to have been written with a larger-than-life performance in mind and finds a way to put his hushed, sarcastic, slightly effeminate spin on all of it. He also polishes dead butterflies, because y’know, evil people and their quirky hobbies! Schwarzenegger seems to be having fun as well, playing Rottmeyer, the prisoner who immediately cottons onto Breslin for his own purposes. Whether he’s starting prison riots or staging diversions by screaming religious curses in German, Schwarzenegger throws himself headlong into the, which is both fun to watch and a reminder of why we all paid attention to him the first place.

Look, when it comes right down to it, Escape Plan is not a particularly surprising movie. Nor a smart one. And for an homage to its two stars’ blood-soaked 80’s career, its violence is surprisingly tame and sparse. …But fuck it, man, I had fun. Watching Stallone come up with a plan, the warden fuck around him, and then Stallone hand out his comeuppance, while all stuff you’ve seen before, somehow kept me entertained throughout. I may not have been surprised, but hey, at least I was never bored.

So do I recommend it?

…Sure.

If it’s on Netflix and you’ve got two hours to kill and you’ve watched everything else and you’ve got extremely low expectations.

Come to think of it, I think that last part helped me quite a bit.

The Act of Killing

Ever since Roger Ebert’s death, his website has been maintained by a number of film critics whose opinions he respected. One of the advantages of the increase in writers has been reviews of more and smaller films. On a whim, I decided to read Steven Boone’s review for Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing. It is a review of such eloquence and power that I’m not sure I can write anything that will meet it, but suffice it to say, it compelled me to seek the film out.

The Act of Killing is preceded by a video message from Oppenheimer where he tries to provide an emotional context for his film. He says that though he doesn’t necessarily hope that you ‘enjoy’ the film, that you do find it a powerful, ‘even magical’ (his words) experience, and that it makes clear that lines between good and evil only exist, really, in movies. He also assures the audience that it’s okay to laugh, and that Indonesian audiences laugh more loudly and frequently than any other audience in the world. Indeed, there are a great many moments of humor to be found in The Act of Killing’s two hours, some light, others pitch black. Of course, having seen this movie in Olympia, the audience I was with was dead silent.

In 1965, the president of Indonesia was deposed in a bloody military coup. This group sought the extermination of communism, at that point the largest political party in Indonesia, and between the years of 1965 and 1966, approximately one million alleged Communists were killed, though they also targeted Chinese, farmers, and presumed intellectuals. To carry out these massacres, the military sought out street thugs and promoted them to executioners. This became the foundation of a power structure in Indonesia that still exists to this day. This genocide has never been tried in an international court and its participants never held accountable, many of them now integral players in Indonesian business and politics. The Act of Killing presents a challenge to the participants of these events: to create a feature film about their experiences, and to present them however they choose.

Anwar Congo is, for all intents and purposes, the main character. One of the most notorious executioners of his region, Congo is believed to have killed as many as a thousand people. Tall and gaunt, grey hair atop a laugh-lined face, Congo affects the air of the ‘cool grandpa’ with disturbing ease. His smile is contagious, and he exudes charisma. Taking us to the rooftop where he performed many of his killings, he cheerily tells us how his original method of beating his victims to death proved far too messy to clean up again and again. Bedecked in white pants and a button-down shirt, he shows us, with the aid of an assistant, the quicker, cleanlier methods of execution he devised. He then shows off us some of the moves he used to employ at the dance halls in his younger days. Watching this footage back later on, Congo assures us that he never would’ve worn white pants to kill someone; only jeans.

If there’s anybody approaching comic relief in this film, it’s Herman Koto. It feels strange to characterize a mass murderer as a ‘lovable schlub’, but goddammit I kind of felt that way about him. Portly, slack-jawed, and more than a little bumbling, Koto seems to be by turns Congo’s friend and his personal assistant. Herman sings when they go drinking, rewards Congo with massages for getting a strike at bowling, and throws himself headlong into the making of the movie. He plays a gangster here, directs some actors there, but repeatedly, repeatedly, dresses in drag, seemingly playing the role of every woman the film needs: witches, maidens, expectant mothers. In perhaps the film’s most surreally comic stretch, Herman decides to run for political office. Dressed in a Transformers t-shirt, Koto goes out among the people, asking for their vote. In response, he is openly chastised for not having the foresight to offer them bribes, or at least hand out free t-shirts.

The film within the film (which I don’t believe is ever named) encompasses a kaleidoscope of genres: some scenes look straight out of an (admittedly cool-looking) mafia film. Others seem to be inspired by Spaghetti Westerns. Many scenes seem to belong to a bizarre musical comedy, girls clothed in garish feathers, Koto wearing some sort of drag, seemingly dancing out of the mouth of a giant model fish. (Where this fish is and for what purposes it was built, I do not know.)

The Act of Killing is about many things: the banality of institutionalized evil, the ways in which we bend reality to fit our truths, but it also about how our relationship with cinema influences our lives. Congo reminisces about his days as a ticket scalper for American movies and running gang operations out of cinemas. He talks especially fondly of gangster films and how he was inspired to strangle people with wire because of its prevalence in that genre. He was even more surprised at how effective it proved.

Repeatedly, the interviewees remind us that the Indonesian word for gangster originates from the Dutch words for ‘Free Man’ (a relic from that period of colonialism). They see it as something to aspire to, that many of the politicians and military are gangsters because gangsters are the only ones who get things done. That the freedom to do whatever you want to do – even if it’s wrong – takes precedence above all else.

Congo admits to long having had nightmares about what he’s done and of his victims. He fears going to a psychiatrist, because that would mean he’s ‘crazy’. One of his friends, Adi Zulkadry, assures him of the opposite; that shrinks are ‘nerve doctors’ and his feelings are simply a physical dysfunction. Handsome for his age, with a wife and daughter of his own, Zulkadry is possibly the film’s most terrifying subject, remarking on his actions lucidly and with placid detachment. When Oppenheimer reminds him that his actions are considered war crimes by the Geneva Conventions, Zulkadry argues that the Geneva Conventions of today could easily become the Jakarta Conventions of tomorrow. “‘War crimes’ are written by the winners,” he says. “And I’m a winner.”

As The Act of Killing draws to its conclusion, it goes from being a great documentary to a film of immense power. The thoughts of his victims weighing more and more heavily on his mind, Congo begins to construct his film in a different way. He moves from dramatizing his nightmares to recreating a village massacre to eventually playing one of the men he tortured and killed. In the film’s final moments, Congo returns us to where the place we began, the rooftop where his killed so many of his victims. His reaction is so primal, so violent, so physical that I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. Over the course of two hours, you watch as a murderer lauded as a hero develop that most essential yet debilitating components of the human soul: a conscience.

Highly, highly recommended. See it whatever way you can.

You can read Steven Boone’s excellent review of it here.

You can find out more about the film here.

And you see an excellent interview with Oppenheimer here.

Oppenheimer is right: this is not likely to be a film you ‘enjoy.’ But I have no doubt you’ll be glad to have seen it.

“Captain Phillips”… Sure Is Captain-y… (Titles are hard, shut up.)

Chances are you know the story. On April 8th, 2009, a small group of Somali pirates boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama, attempting to hijack it. When their attempts proved unsuccessful, they took Capt. Richard Phillips hostage and absconded in a lifeboat, hoping to negotiate a ransom on Somalian soil. Three days later, they found themselves in the midst of a tense standoff with Navy SEAL snipers that ended with Phillips rescued and most of the pirates dead. Not to marginalize the very real danger of these events, but whenever a story like this – of actual people having to survive extraordinary danger – makes the headlines, the question is not will they make a movie, it’s how quickly?

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(The other question is who’s gonna write the book?)

The follow up question is who’s gonna make it. And if you’re gonna dramatize real-life events, you could certainly do a lot worse than Paul Greengrass. Probably most famous for his work on The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, he injected new life into the franchise with shaky, frenetic camerawork and lightning fast editing. That’s fairly par for the course as action movies go these days, but what makes Greengrass different is (and this is a little difficult for me to describe), whether he has an intuitively better sense of film language or just works with better editors, his use of the technique actually creates the feeling of chaos, rather than lazily suggest it.

Chances are his skill with this style is rooted to his beginnings in journalism. Before moving into features, Greengrass cut his teeth directing documentary segments for British news show World in Action and co-authored inflammatory books about the shady goings-on in MI5. One of his first features to gain international attention, the docudrama Bloody Sunday, recreated the events of the eponymous 1972 Irish massacre, combining his skills as an investigative journalist with a burning desire for social justice that can be detected, overtly or covertly, throughout his filmography. In United 93, which dramatized the opening hours of the 9/11 attacks, Greengrass sought to preserve the authenticity of the events by casting many of officials recognized the attacks and handled the resultant chaos as themselves.

(On a completely unrelated note, Greengrass once stated his preference for Jason Bourne to James Bond by describing Bond as “an Imperialist right-wing fuckface.” I thought that was interesting.)

Captain Phillips is an excellent platform for Greengrass’ sensibilities, and he executes them with as much skill and gusto as you’d expect. Working from Phillips’ own memoirs of the experience (A Captain’s Duty) and shot largely at sea, the film follows the captain, portrayed by Tom Hanks, from his home in New England to the shipping freighter in Oman to the attempted highjacking to his kidnapping and finally to his inevitable rescue. The film’s opening is an oddity. Part of that is the presence of Catherine Keener, who plays Phillips’ wife, Andrea. This is shocking not only because she is one of the few women in the movie but also the only other ‘name’ actor in the film. Who never appears again. (She isn’t even listed in the end crawl.) The other surprise is how badly written this scene is. As Phillips and his wife drive to the airport, they worry how their grown and growing children will do in the job market and lament how much things have changed. Not that I expected this scene to rewrite the rules of screenwriting, but they don’t exchange sentences so much as platitudes, and it feels like the kind of pandering scene that Greengrass’ style seems to shy away from.

But then we are introduced to our pirates. While the film briskly sets up the desperate circumstances in which people must turn to piracy for a living, it also takes the opportunity to introduce us to a kind of criminal version of the A-Team: there’s Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the brains, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), the brawn, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the young one, and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the driver. Though all four are excellent, Abdi and Ahmed get the lion’s share of things to do. Abdi brings a kind of repulsive charisma to the role of Muse, and Ahmed’s Najee, a character who clearly enjoys hurting people in the first place, spends so much of the movie on edge it looks like his eyeballs are going to explode out of his skull at any moment.

(“Motherfucker, did you just BLINK AT ME?!!??!”)

When we arrive at the Maersk Alabama, the movie steadily picks up steam. There’s nothing I can say about how Greengrass handles the action on the ship that hasn’t already been described, other than the assault, and the subsequent cat-and-mouse game between the crew and the captors, feels like it happens in excruciatingly real time. The same can be said about the time spent on the lifeboat, and this is also where Greengrass’ social realist tendencies begin to peek through. Of particular note are scenes where Muse explains that his lifelong dream is to go to America and buy a car. He later brags about having hijacked a ship the previous year and gotten six million dollars for it, only for Phillips to ask, “Then what’re you still doing this for?” In another exchange, Phillips says that surely there are other options than kidnapping people for a living. Muse solemnly replies, “Maybe in America.”

I still haven’t written about the actor who plays Captain Phillips himself, and that may be because, for most of the movie, there’s not that much to write. That’s not meant as a slight against Hanks’ performance, mind. But Hanks reigns in his everyman charm so much that his Phillips becomes a literal embodiment of the word ‘stoicism’. This is apparently right on the money for how the real captain conducts himself on the job. Phillips is such a hard-nose that his interactions with his coworkers often amount to, “You done with that coffee break yet?” Though it makes his character difficult to warm to, it quickly becomes apparent that this attitude is reason he’s able to corral his crew and hold his own against the pirates, that New England accent never wavering. (Admittedly, I thought Hanks was hamming it up a bit on the accent part, but that was before I heard the real Phillips, whose accent is, if anything, even thicker.)

It’s not often that I cry in movies these days. Sometimes I am moved, but not usually to tears. Maybe I watch too goddamn many of them. I didn’t expect Captain Phillips to be a movie that would make me cry. And for the better part of its two hours and 15 minutes, it isn’t. A tense, authentic document of a terrifying ordeal, sure. But the pace is so fast and Hanks so stoic that it’s not the most easily ‘relatable’ movie I’ve seen. But then Phillips is rescued. And then he’s taken to the sick bay. And in those moments you remember that there’s a reason Tom Hanks has won two Oscars.

Recommended.

Second Thoughts: “Gravity” in IMAX

Since my inaugural review of Gravity last week, everything I’ve read or heard about the movie has encouraged me to see it on the largest screen I could find. Even though I’d seen it at the local Cinemark in 3-D, I decided to drive over to the Regal Cinema in Lacey and catch it on the IMAX screen there.

Here are a number of things I noticed on my second viewing…

1.) I finally noticed that the tagline Warner Bros. has been selling Gravity with is ‘Don’t Let Go.’ Which is pretty ironic considering that the entire film is one big metaphor for doing the exact opposite of that.

2.) IMAX screens are awfully big. You probably knew that already. I guess I forgot that IMAX also means WAY TOO GODDAMN LOUD. Oh, and it spends the first five minutes in hyping you up by reminding you that you’re in an IMAX theater, only to show you five trailers – in a row – with the reminder: ‘The Following Trailer Has NOT Been Mastered for IMAX and Is NOT the IMAX Experience.’

3.) I tried to keep track of the number of shots and their length this time round. I lost track something like 22 shots in, but I was able to confirm this much. The first shot of the film is 12 minutes long. Its second is six.

For whatever it’s worth, I do think IMAX makes the 3-D more immersive, but I honestly think you’re fine seeing it in whatever mode you’d prefer. The achievements are still awe-inspiring. And I still got a lump in my throat.

‘Gravity’ Soars… or, something to that effect

Roger Ebert once said that the great films show their title twice – once at the beginning, and once more at the end, to remind you of what you just saw, and so you can go tell all your friends. Gravity is so confident in its greatness that it displays its title not twice but THRICE: once at the beginning and TWICE during its end credits. Of course, having James Cameron declare your movie as one of the best space films of all time will do a lot to bolster that confidence.

Gravity was certainly on my list of most anticipated films for 2013, not least because it is Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years. While his most popular film is probably his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a favorite for many and widely considered one of the most ‘cinematic’ of the Potter films, he also directed one of my favorite films of all time, Children of Men. Aside from creating a frighteningly palpable near-future dystopia that set the framework for a series of excellent performances, Children of Men is also renowned for its technical virtuosity. Namely, several scenes, many of them action sequences, that are shot seemingly in one take. Of course, digital manipulation and clever editing allowed enabled these shots to be so long, but the blending of different takes are so seamless and the actual shots so complex that the scenes are simply overwhelming to behold. For Gravity, it seems like Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki – arguably one of cinema’s greatest living eyes – decided to take this method of shooting and make practically an entire movie out of it.

Of course, Gravity has a doozy of a premise to begin with. Starting on the US Space Shuttle Explorer, Sandra Bullock is Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first space mission, while George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a NASA veteran on his last mission. They are also accompanied by Shariff (Paul Sharma), a character who is not featured in the advertising and is Indian. One guess what happens to him.

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Rhymes with ‘Shmed Fashed Fin.’

Anyway, in the film’s opening shot, Mission Control (the voice of Ed Harris, which is a nice little film buff in-joke) mentions that the Russians have remotely destroyed one of their old satellites, and that they should be on the lookout for the slight possibility of incoming debris. Of course, that possibility becomes a terrifying reality, and as per Donald J. Kessler’s nightmare scenario, the debris from the Russian satellite crashes into other debris, crashing into other satellites, creating more debris, crashing into more satellites, creating more debris. Debris moving at a high velocity and coming right towards our protagonists. Explorer is quickly destroyed, Bullock and Clooney its only survivors, floating untethered in space. Fortunately for them, Clooney comes with a NASA-approved space-jetpack, but that’ll only get them so far. With oxygen running low and communications to Earth severed, their only hope is to try and make it to the International Space Station and pray there’s still a rescue pod to take them home. Oh, and they’ve only got 90 minutes before the debris circles back around.

Needless to say, things are kind of intense.

This kind of material requires strong actors, and one could certainly do worse than Bullock and Clooney. For a number of reasons, Bullock is the one does most of the dramatic heavy-lifting, and she carries the film ably. This is sometimes a thankless task, especially when she’s saddled with some of the story’s more maudlin elements. It’s not that her tragic backstory isn’t interesting per se, but it’s not particularly original and, though its metaphorical implications are interesting, doesn’t really do a lot to further the story or make it more intense than it already is/ (Not to mention that it’s identical to the tragedy suffered by Children of Men’s protagonist.) It also doesn’t help that she’s saddled with a handful of sappy speeches; “It’s gonna be a hell of a ride” does not an effective denouement make. Not these days, anyway. 

But truthfully, these complaints feel almost like nitpicking when truly comprehending the task at hand. It’s easy to imagine being terrified by the film’s events. To be terrified, convincingly, for the course of an entire picture, is nothing short of an achievement. And Bullock carries it the whole way, never missing a beat, never looking like she’s acting, expressing the sheer terror and the instinct to survive in her body language, her voice, her breath. And though I take issue with some Gravity’s more schmaltzy scenes… well, I guess I really liked some of its other (arguably) schmaltzy scenes. Such as Bullock, in a brief respite from danger, curling slowly, gracefully, beautifully into the fetal position. In what may be the film’s best scene, Bullock accidentally intercepts a transmission from a Chinese man who cannot speak English. How the scene plays out – what Bullock hears, her reactions to it, Steven Price’s beautiful music (also a brief respite from an otherwise appropriately tense score), what the camera draws your eye to – was something I found deeply moving. 

George Clooney, on the other hand, is… George Clooney. Charming. Wise-cracking. Cool as a cucumber. In some ways, it’s disappointing that he isn’t really given the opportunity to stretch, considering the severity of the material and that he’s more than capable of meeting it. But then again… he’s George Clooney.

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I mean, hey, I’d fuck him.

But when it comes right down to it, what Gravity will truly be remembered for is the sheer enormity of its technical achievements. Shot over the course four years, spending two of them in post-production (a lifeline very similar to James Cameron’s Avatar), Gravity is simply dizzying in figurative and very, very literal ways. To know what went into film’s making is ambitious enough as to make you tired just from reading it. But then there’s the film’s opening shot, which feels like it goes on for a solid 10 minutes. It begins with a stationary shot of the Earth, before slowly allowing the sounds, followed by the sight, of the astronauts to float into frame. From then on it moves languidly across the space shuttle itself, swooping around poles and people and wires, zooming in on faces framed in helmets before pulling back to show something else and then zooming in again. And then the debris comes. All in one fell swoop. All in one shot. 

The second shot of the film, which probably goes on for less than 10 minutes but feels that long anyway, shows Bullock tumbling away into the darkness, untethered from her ship, spinning and spinning and spinning with no way of stopping. As her panicked breath – and the equally panicked music – grow louder and louder, the camera slowly pushes its way towards Bullock’s face, eventually actually pushing through her visor and into the helmets itself. (This particular trick of pushing into and through things has appeared in various Cuarón works. Two of his other favorite things to do, splashing things on the screen and stop-start music, also make plentiful appearances in Gravity and yet somehow manage to avoid feeling old.) The camera then pans from her face and out towards her view of the stars, spinning around her, the warning lights of her suit flashing against her visor, the alarms bouncing around her head, and yours. I’ve always thought that images of space were beautiful, but the actual thought of being out in space – no up, down, left, right, no gravity (hey!) – has always been terrifying to me. Of Gravity’s unsettling scenes, of which there are legion, this one in particular may be the closest you ever come to experiencing that particular brand of horror.

It feels unfair to compare Gravity to Children of Men as much as I have because they are such different stories. But in a lot of ways I can’t help it. Children of Men didn’t just create a completely believable near-apocalyptic world, but it also created characters that were written and acted with true vivacity while also being given the space to reveal themselves at a deliberate pace. By the very nature of Gravity’s plot, it’s kind of hard to get as invested in the characters themselves because the struggle for survival so all-encompassing. But then again, it’s so rare a movie, any movie – especially one that’s just 90 minutes long – can be such a physical experience. An exhausting one at that. And it’s also very rare for a movie to make you genuinely happy to see sunshine.

Recommended. See it in theaters if you can. (I’m planning to see it again in IMAX.)