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Essential 3D, but an Inessential Story: A Review of Gravity

Grade: B-

As a viewer who hasn’t quite jumped aboard the 3D bandwagon, there are times when 3D works and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one example. All too often, 3D it’s just an excuse to create some buzz and hike up the ticket prices. It needs to have a function. Did the three-dimensional iceberg in Titanic in 3D create more suspense? Not really. Did Andy giving his toys away in Toy Story 3 hit you harder when the box he’s packing them away in protrudes from the screen? No. It’s unnecessary. It does nothing to support the story. 3D, if it’s used to tell a story, needs to have a function. 3D has a function in Scorsese’s Hugo (read my Hugo review here). It coincides with the enchanting, snow globe of a world that Scorsese wanted to create—a world you need to feel like you are inside to understand. More importantly, this 3D world needs to be felt and seen in order for Scorsese to use it to preach to the power of cinema. In a movie that so lovingly tells the tale of film in its very silent, black and white beginning, 3D was a way to show exactly how far cinematic-storytelling had come.

Until Gravity, Hugo was the film I pointed to when I needed to show 3D done correctly. The difference between the two films is that Hugo could’ve survived as a film without the 3D element, Gravity absolutely could not.

3D has never been more necessary in a movie than it is in Gravity, but it’s necessary in a different way than in Scorsese’s Hugo. It isn’t for theme. It isn’t to mirror lessons taught in the story, but it’s used to enhance the entire experience and plant you firmly in the chilling mise-en-scène. In order to feel for Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she’s left entirely alone in outer space, you have to sense what it must feel like to be that alone. To feel it, we have to see it. Being lost in space is not a situation that the average human is privy to. Despite being separated from your parents as a child in an amusement park, or lost alone on a dark highway, or on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, we’ve never been as lost as Ryan is in this film. We can’t begin to imagine how she feels. To experience her fear and desperation, we have to get as close to her eyes as we can, we have to see what she sees.

Black. Bleak. Hollow. Nothingness.

3D helps achieve that sensation better than 2D ever could. We feel like we’re in outer space.

That being said, where the film strays is in its story. The film’s characters are lacking, and the filmmakers know it. They know it and they know they don’t need it. It’s not necessary to make George Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, well developed. We know so little about him. We know he’s a natural leader, we know he’s calm in crisis, we know he likes to tell his tequila-tales of debaucherous nights past, but apart from that we know nothing. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone is no different. We know she lost a child, we know she likes to drive at night to escape the pain from that ordeal, but is this enough to make us like her? Are a few jokes cracked by Matt back to Houston enough to make us root for him? Is this enough to make us care whether he lives or dies? It isn’t. But it’s George Clooney. That voice we’ve known since ER, that face, that grin, that silver hair. We see him, we hear him, and it doesn’t matter what he’s saying—we’re rooting for him. The only problem is we’re rooting for George Clooney, not Matt Kowalski, but we trick ourselves into thinking they’re one in the same. Can you blame us? We’re protective. We don’t want anything happening to our George. Why worry about a multi-dimensional character when your audience will like him no matter what as long as he’s played by the right actor?

What would we have if the character wasn’t played by George Clooney? What about Matt Kowalski would make us remain as invested if he was played by some nameless actor? Nothing. The story is too sparse. And mirroring the setting’s bleakness to the plot, I’d argue, was not the filmmakers’ intention. There just isn’t enough there. Especially not with the characters, and not with the plot either.

The whole time I was watching Gravity, I was thinking how the story would function so much better as a short story. I know that contradicts my “necessary 3D” claim, but plot-wise, the short story medium would make the plot more acceptable. There are conventions we accept for film and there are conventions we accept with literary fiction. When we’re watching a movie with two blockbuster stars, we expect certain things. We expect a “happy” ending. We expect a resolution. We expect a grand, action packed, race to the finish. I’d never dream of knocking cinema, but there are certain things that a written story can get away with that a film cannot. Call me a cynic, but I didn’t want a “happy ending.” I didn’t want a resolution. I wanted a true, brutal lesson about the bleakness of space, about the different levels of loneliness, about desperation. I wanted them to make bad luck appear somehow poetic with subtle back story, inner monologue, and a strong sense of what’s going on in the character’s heads. But I didn’t get that. A short story could’ve provided that without the audience feeling gypped by the ending. Do I appreciate that they allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, that they didn’t bombard us with backstory? I do. But then they had to go and get conventional. They had to make us chant “Girl power!” at Sandra’s success and leave the theater feeling like we, too, just battled for survival and won. They had to take us on a ride. They had to give us that Hollywood ending. And I was left shaking my head, awed by the 3D spectacle, sure, but wondering if a smaller, bleaker story, with richer characters (and without Clooney and Bullock) might have given the film more of that lasting punch it so desperately needed.

More than anything, I was left with an unanswered question—Who is Ryan Stone? It’s a question I should never have to ask. It’s a question the filmmakers surely didn’t want the audience to have to ask. We just need a little bit more.

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Unexpectedly Different, but Still “Woody Allen” at its Core: A Review of Blue Jasmine

Grade: A-

Judging by the sold out showings and the throngs of people lining up around the block to see Woody Allen’s new drama Blue Jasmine, I think it’s safe to say that the 77-year-old (and one of the few remaining true auteurs) still has it.

A crowd-pleaser that’s already generating early Oscar-buzz, Allen’s Blue Jasmine will likely join the ranks with his other critically-acclaimed classics. Still, this one has a unique flair all its own.

It’s no secret that Woody Allen is my favorite director, favorite screenwriter, favorite filmic-mind. I adore his unique style and storytelling perspective, and I’m continually spoiled by his one-film-a-year ritual that repeats like clockwork. I’m familiar with his style—his quirks, his film motifs—and what struck me the most while watching Blue Jasmine was how this film blatantly strays from Allen’s norm.

The film follows Jasmine (played expertly by Cate Blanchett) who must leave her NYC life of luxury and move in with her little sister (Sally Hawkins) after her husband (Alec Baldwin) swindles away their fortune and hangs himself in prison. In her new home in San Francisco, she aims to recreate herself in a much-less-lavish setting, all the while popping Xanax between panic attacks as frequently as she passes judgment on her sister’s less-than-optimal dating history.

Allen is known for making the settings in his films characters of their own. What would Midnight in Paris be without Paris’ cobblestone streets? What would Annie Hall be without Annie’s New York driving or Manhattan without shots of the Queensboro Bridge? The setting for each of Allen’s films has always been so pivotal that the same storyline couldn’t be set anywhere other than where it is. This is not the case for Blue Jasmine. San Francisco just happens to be where the characters eat and breathe (or pop pills as the case may be) and other than the passing comment, “If you can’t fall in love in San Francisco, you can’t fall in love anywhere,” we hardly even realize San Francisco is where the film takes place. This is strange for an Allen film.

Similarly, Blue Jasmine strays from the Allen canon with its lack of art and cultural references that usually ooze from the characters’ mouths. In Blue Jasmine, the only references to art are the high-fashion brands that Jasmine clings to from her past—her Louis Vuitton luggage and all her leftover designer duds from her previous life. A Woody Allen film without a scene in a movie theater or an art museum? A Woody Allen movie where you don’t have to laugh along with the crowd as you fake understanding of the reference he makes to some author or philosopher you’ve never heard of, or pat yourself on the back when you actually do understand? His characters always want to outdo each other with their knowledge of extraneous information, but in this film, Jasmine’s only real quest is to outdo everyone around her with her ability to choose an advantageous partner and to appear as if her high-status has never wavered.

Despite these major differences from Allen’s usual films, Blue Jasmine still has the complex characters that we’ve come to expect from him. Blue Jasmine may lack the humor and the multiple storylines of Allen’s other classics, but he is able to create characters, as always, who straddle the grey line between right and wrong in the same moment they teeter between likability and abhorrence. It’s this expert balancing-act that makes Allen’s characters complex while insuring the films themselves are a joy to watch.

As is the case with Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Match Point who tries to get away with the murder of his mistress, Allen is able to surprise the audience by making them root for a person they’d normally despise. The pleasure of watching his films comes from our almost subconscious realization that he’s turned a switch in us, that despite a character with irredeemable qualities and chastisable actions, we find ourselves rooting for them. Suddenly, the audience discovers they’re crossing their fingers for an unfaithful murderer as is the case in Match Point, or supporting a creepy relationship between an older man and child (Manhattan and Whatever Works) despite never expecting we would before.

Allen’s themes and characters are never black and white and this couldn’t be truer than it is of Blanchett’s downward-spiraling portrayal of Jasmine. The characters may be unlikable, but we care for them. We may hate what they do, but we always understand why they do it. Often, as is the case with Jasmine, their actions are entirely based on their extreme level of desperation. For whatever reason, desperation is a quality we can identify with. It’s a quality we understand. Watching Blantchett in a mesmerizing performance as Jasmine splashes and flails in the metaphoric hole she’s dug and is drowning in, we can’t help but sympathize with her struggle. She knows of the mistakes she makes. She’s made the bed she lies in, but her mistakes are human ones.

Woody Allen achieves with Blue Jasmine what he does in all his films, he has the audience going in expecting to feel one way about a character or an action, builds that up like a sand castle, and then amazes us when he shifts everything and the castle still stands. He opens a new perspective, and as outlandish as the events may be, they’re still real, relatable and always keep us thinking.

Our intellect stays turned on. As always, Allen makes sure of it.

Sacrificing Pace for Heavy-Hitting Themes: A Review of Star Trek Into Darkness

Grade: A-

Pace is what made 2009’s Star Trek a block buster movie wonder. Few movies have kept me that engaged and that enthralled from opening credits to close—the plot expertly-woven, the characters dynamically-charged, the action meticulously-timed and the drama perfectly-dosed. Not once, did I find my thoughts drifting elsewhere. Not once, did I wonder how close to the end we were. As a Trek newbie at the time, The Enterprise had me hooked. I said it then: “Star Trek is the best movie of 2009.”ap_Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_nt_130516_wblog

Its long-awaited follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness, doesn’t pull back the reins. What J.J. Abrams and company aimed for in Kirk and Spock’s sequel is in many ways bigger, deeper and heavier than what came before. In a word, it’s ambitious. Unfortunately, in achieving that level of ambition, the film lacks the cleanliness of the first movie, losing some of the narrative-ease, impeccable-timing, and cohesion of our initial introduction to Abram’s re-envisioned Trek world.

Despite this, what Star Trek Into Darkness is able to achieve is worth applauding. Perhaps the plot isn’t quite as pristine or the pace as rapid-fire as it was in the first, but it aims for so much more with its complex, historically-relevant topics. Whereas the first film was about friendship, loyalty, and respect, the second takes it up a notch, swimming in a shark tank of heavy-hitting themes.

In the sequel, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads his crew on a perilous journey in seek of a super-human terrorist, Khan (played by the very-crafty Benedict Cumberbatch), who not only threatens their way of life, but whose capture has the potential to ignite a full-on Klingon war. Khan must be stopped, but like a bomb ready to detonate at any second or with any wrong pull of a wire, every move they make is littered with high-tension and the potential for a detrimental ripple effect. A premise like this allows the film to take its narrative deeper, moving beyond the surface themes of friendship, loyalty, and logic versus passion, and delving into richer questions, more historically and politically-charged themes (like the original TV series was known for), and all around deeper, richer, and more chilling prose.

Star TrekFear. Terrorism. Honor. Morality. Revenge. Pride. All while mirroring the historical truth of American wars, American leaders, and American tension. How one man set on destruction and glory can start a war. How another man’s emotions can lead to illogical, immoral action. How often does emotion get in the way of these high-tension issues? What is right and wrong? Can a villain be a foe and a friend? And the most important: Who do we trust? What do we live for? How do we choose who should lead?

The wrong person in charge, the wrong answer to the question, the wrong emotion taking the forefront and an uncontrollable war can be unleashed. We’re all walking in a room filled with gas and one wrong flip of a switch can change everything we’ve ever known.

But, regardless, a switch must be flipped. Who do we trust with the task?

I don’t know about you, but Abrams has me convinced. I’d go with Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

Spock can help.

Flight: Is Denzel really great in Flight, or does his performance rely on past roles to win us over?

Grade: B-

In storytelling, I’m a fan of the grey line. I love when films flip my morality, flop my perspective and make me question the circumstances that lead to a cut and dry right and wrong. Storytelling can be powerful, and nothing displays its power quite like a story’s ability to open your mind to a perspective you never imagined seeing before. flight-denzel-washington-paramountThere are at least two things that are fantastic about Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, one is a plane-crash scene that’s jarring enough to make me question ever scanning that boarding pass again, and the other is the way it straddles that grey line of morality and keeps the audience constantly questioning what side of that line they fall on.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an expert airline pilot full of all the charm, confidence, and zeal that Washington’s characters regularly embody.  Whip Whitaker is the king of his craft, and when his mechanically-ill plane goes down, it’s Whip’s calm, confidence, and natural instinct that proficiently land the plane. The twist: Whip is a raging alcoholic who has let his personal life fall to ruin. Not only did he drink the night before and the morning of the tragic flight, but he was drunk during takeoff.

There are casualties. There are lawsuits. There are lies, but the undeniable fact remains—no one could have landed that plane like he did, sober or not.  Do we blame him? Do we point the finger? Is his behavior excusable because he flew better than anyone could, or do we cling to the fact that sober he could’ve been that much better, that much sharper, and lowered the causality count by that much more?

What hooked me in the moments of the plane’s nose dive, when you know a crash is inevitable, was the way that as a viewer I put my total trust into Whip Whitaker. I’d seen the opening scene where he awakes after a night of debauchery to more coke and more booze. I’d watched him charm the passengers onboard the flight, while also popping the top off a vodka bottle to make a screwdriver with one hand.  The film had no intention to hold back on revealing any of Whip’s dubious life-choices, and yet, as Whip was barking orders, arguing his case, and insisting upon his leadership abilities as the plane headed down, I trusted him. I’d want him flying my flight.

But why?

As I was watching, I credited Denzel Washington’s performance and unwavering acting abilities as the primary reason I put my trust in Whip, which is exactly what the filmmakers wanted and exactly what they were relying on to carry the film, but after the credits rolled and I had time to think everything over, I wasn’t so sure. I’m not certain that Denzel Washington was great in this role. Instead, I think it was the culmination of all his roles, all the characters’ skins he dawned, all the accents he mastered and settings he inhabited, that made this role work. It wasn’t Whip Whitaker I was watching on the screen and it wasn’t Whip Whitaker I put my trust in, it was Coach Boone, John Q, Joe Miller, Private Trip, Malcolm X and Ben Marcho that I put my trust in. It was every other character Denzel has played, every other stellar performance that convinced me that Whip Whitaker could fly my plane. It was the trust I reserved for those characters that allowed me to trust this one.

Too often, I’d argue, movies rely on the big name to carry their movie. Too often we are presented with actors playing characters close to those they’ve played before. In Flight’s case, Denzel’s accolades and memorable characters allowed him to coast through the role. He didn’t have to add much, we trusted his character because we trust all his characters, but what if Whip Whitaker had been played by an unknown? Would a lesser name, even with the same acting ability, have been able to toe the grey line that Denzel did? Or was the character convincing because we’d already been programmed to trust Denzel when he’s on the screen? Are the truly great films and the truly great actors ones that make us forget all that came before, or is it alright if some rely on the canon as long as they achieve that same depth of  immersion as we’re watching?