Tag Archives: B

GRAVITY

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B

Simply as a technical exercise, Alfonso Cuaron’s outer-space survival story is as amazing an accomplishment as “2001: A Space Odyssey” was forty-five years ago. But though it’s filled with breathless action (presumably not only to generate excitement but also to obscure the implausibility that builds to unbearable proportions by the end), “Gravity” offers no larger a sense of humanity, and far less one of mystery and awe, than Kubrick’s masterpiece did.

The narrative is an extremely simple one. Three American astronauts are working on the exterior of their craft in orbit over earth. The veteran commander, Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney), makes wisecracks as he shoots about using his suit’s jet pack. A second, Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), is but a speck in the distance while he fiddles with what look to be a solar panel. The third, scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is installing some sort of innovative gizmo of her own devising among the external instruments, though there seems to be a problem that will require adjustment.

Suddenly Houston, in the voice of Ed Harris, orders the crew to immediately abort their mission. A collision of a Russian rocket with a satellite has left debris in its wake, causing a chain reaction that’s sending masses of metal hurtling through space, and perhaps toward the Americans. Before they can scramble back into the ship, the debris field hits, killing Shariff and severing the tether that connects Stone to the ship. Adrift in space, she’s eventually saved by Kowalski, but with their vessel inoperable, they’re forced to make their way to a nearby Russian space station. In the process Kowalski sacrifices himself with nonchalant courage, leaving Stone to try to maneuver a damaged escape pod to another possible refuge, a Chinese station, and then find some means of getting back to earth.

The physical depiction of all this is simply stunning; Cuaron seems to take special delight in challenging Kubrick on his own turf (or off it, since it’s all in space) and doing him not one but several steps better. So the opening sequence outside the shuttle, with the camera waltzing around the action, is leagues beyond the “Blue Danube” ballet between the space shuttle and the revolving circular station of “2001,” and that in which Kowalski retrieves the spinning, tumbling Stone is a much more complicated reworking of the one in which Keir Dullea’s Bowman tracks down Poole’s inert corpse. He certainly shows the enormous advances made in special-effects technology over the decades, and seizes on the possibilities with a master’s touch, both in those two sequences and the ones in which Bullock swims in zero gravity, stripped down to her skivvies in what might be a homage to “Alien,” through the corridors of the space stations as bits of debris float around her and puffs of flame shoot out from a short that will lead to an explosion.

But while one must marvel at what the film achieves visually, it becomes increasingly evident that it offers nothing more than a simple-minded survival story in which characterization doesn’t get beyond the sketch pad. Though Clooney can deliver even the banalities Cuaron and his son Jonas have devised for Kowalski with engaging flippancy, in the end the commander is merely a stock figure whose main function is to encourage Stone to keep struggling. More effort is made to invest Ryan with depth, but the means employed—the revelation of a domestic tragedy in her past that threatens her will to live—is trite, and in the end Bullock doesn’t give the character much more than a generalized teeth-gritting determination. (The final scene, which is meant to symbolize her rebirth—and perhaps that of humanity itself—falls flat in more ways than one. Given the escalating implausibility at each stage along Stone’s journey—especially in a sequence when she miraculously escapes harm from yet another debris assault—one wonders whether it might not have been better for the script to go the way of William Golding’s “Pincher Martin,” a survival story with a far darker concluding twist.) In fact, the most intense human feeling in the entire film comes when Cuaron focuses on a photo of Shariff’s family on his lifeless body, which captures for an instant the real cost of his loss.

Of course, one can observe that the characters in “2001” were even less developed that those here. That’s fair enough, but also beside the point. Kubrick’s Bowman and Poole weren’t intended to be “human” in the conventional dramatic sense; they were symbols of a mankind from which passion had been drained in favor of cool calculation and pure techno-pragmatism. That’s not the case with Cuaron’s characters, with whom we’re meant to identify on an emotional level, but can’t because they’re so casually drawn.

The result is a film that is perhaps more representative than any other similarly extravagant piece of technical wizardry—“Avatar,” say, of “The Life of Pi”—of the reality that in cinema today technique is, if not everything, the main thing. “Gravity” is an astonishing technical tour de force and an exciting thrill ride, but as a human drama it barely registers, and it carries none of the metaphysical weight of a film like “2001,” however one might assess Kubrick’s ambitions to profundity. Recognition is certainly due Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, production designer Andy Nicholson, art direction Mark Scruton, the special effects team led by Neil Corbould and Manex Efrem, and the visual effects crew supervised by Tim Webber and Charles Howell, who all worked together to fashion a world incredible in its detail and complexity—as well as for using the 3D format with such vividness and subtlety, especially on an Imax screen. But one winds up admiring their film for its technical virtuosity while regretting that ultimately it’s devoid of any ideas of consequence.

DON JON

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B

Sex addiction is certainly the topic of the day among filmmakers, but they’ve taken notably different approaches to it. Steve McQueen gave it arty, explicit treatment in “Shame.” More recently, Stuart Blumberg chose the earnest, didactic route in “Thanks for Sharing.” And now Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his first stint as writer and director as well as star, gives it a Judd Apatow-ish spin. As it turns out, though, that’s not a bad way to go; “Don Jon” is undoubtedly raunchy, but it’s also pretty funny.

Gordon-Levitt, so pumped up from his early days as scrawny Tommy on “Third Rock from the Sun” that you have to admit he’d make a perfectly credible Dick Grayson, casts himself as Jon Martello, a studly fellow constantly on the make who spends his nights in clubs debating with his pals Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke) which is the best girl in the room, and then taking home the one he’s set his eye on for a ride in the sack. But even after a satisfying encounter—he grades his conquests as they go—he admits that he prefers online porn and self-satisfaction to the real thing. He is, in fact, an addict, though he’ll protest that he’s only doing what every guy does. His only other interests, he admits, are his physique, his muscle car, and keeping his apartment clean and tidy. Jon, it appears, is hardly the brightest bulb on the block.

Jon’s failure to find a girl to settle down with irks his mother Angela (Glenne Headley) to no end, but doesn’t particularly surprise his father Jon Sr. (Tony Danza), a macho boor who has little room in his brain except for football games. The sessions Jon spends with them over Sunday dinner, while his bored sister Monica (Brie Larson) doodles incessantly on her smart phone, are examples of familial hell writ comically large.

Things change for Jon, though, when he goes head over heels for Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who demands something more serious. The two may not have much in common—he has difficulty tolerating it when she drags him to a chick flick (a cheeky send-up of the genre called “Special Someone,” from which we see clips with Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway)—but they finally wind up at his place. Unfortunately, she catches him at his laptop after they spend the night together and explodes. But he defuses the situation by lying that the porn video he was watching was a joke e-mailed by one of his boys. That placates her.

Of course, Jon hasn’t actually given up his pastime, which he confesses each week to his parish priest after Sunday Mass and receives hilariously nonchalant absolution. He does make other concessions to Barbara, however, like attending a night class to improve him as husband material, and he even takes her to meet his folks—Angela falls in love with her as a prospective daughter-in-law, and Jon Sr. is amazed that his son has landed such a luscious-looking catch. But at school he meets a peculiar older classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore), a highly emotional woman he gradually develops an oddball bond with. It turns out that there’s a reason behind her obvious emotional fragility, and Jon begins to learn from her about genuine human relationships just as Barbara discovers that his porn-centered practices have continued unabated.

“Don Jon” doesn’t wind up anywhere you wouldn’t expect: Jon matures, at least a bit, and moves past both his womanizing and his dependence on self-gratification. But it has considerable fun getting there, and offers some quirky twists, especially in the material with Moore. As a writer Gordon-Levitt plays it pretty safe by situating the story in “Jersey Shore” territory where the characters are mostly stereotypes we can laugh at even before they do anything remarkable. But he compensates with amusing sidelines to the plot—Catholics will find Jon’s periodic sessions in the confessional only slightly over-the-top, with a capper that’s hilarious—and by directing with a confidence and brashness that mirror the swaggering character he’s playing. There’s nothing cinematically timid about the movie—it rushes ahead with excited montages, explicit sex scenes, raucous dialogue and a general air of abandon. That doesn’t mean it’s not all carefully calculated, of course, for which not only Gordon-Levitt but also cinematographer Thomas Kloss and editor Lauren Zuckerman must be given credit. And the high-energy feel is abetted by Nathan Johnson’s background score.

The writer-director also anchors the movie with a charismatic star turn as Jon. But he also draws broad but effective turns from Johansson and Danza, who get their share of laughs, and a touchingly fragile one from Moore. The rest of the cast add some nice grace touches to their characters, with Larson in particular copping an especially important, if brief, moment of wisdom toward the close.

“Don Jon” may offend some viewers with its in-your-face comic attitude toward a pretty explosive subject, but in the end it’s far more mature and insightful than the frat-boy gross-out farces that come down the pike every week or so nowadays. With this movie Gordon-Levitt has shown himself a triple threat, and it makes one look forward to more multi-hyphenate efforts from him.