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“Gravity” (2013) Review

gravity-poster

Looking back, the last time I had been anticipating a movie as much as “Gravity” was probably almost a year and a half ago with “The Dark Knight Rises”. Between being a big sci-fi fan, having read reviews about the great visual presentation, and knowing Alfonso Cuaron (director of one of my favorite films, “Children of Men”) was directing, I don’t know how much higher my expectations could have been going into the theater. Despite these massive expectations, I was not ready for what I got with “Gravity” – a film that is a ground-breaking cinema experience and one of the best films I have seen in a long time.

While it’s easy to start by talking about the visual feast in “Gravity”, it is better to start by saying that “Gravity” is about more than just good looks… It is a film about survival. Space is a lonely and dangerous environment, one where Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) find themselves trying to survive in after debris destroys their space shuttle. Outside of a few opening scenes, this is the main overarching plot of the film – two astronauts trying to find a way back to Earth. This may sound like a shallow plot, but Alfonso Cuaron has developed a lot of depth within such a seemingly narrow framework. Conversations between Kowalsky and Stone are well-written, and reveal a nice depth of character that connects the viewer to the film’s main characters. This, in turn, makes each twist the film takes more impactful, leaving you wondering what will happen next.

Story aside, the most awe-inspiring part of the film is easily the overall presentation. Sure, I heard the visuals were amazing and broke new ground for the cinema world. However, “Gravity” doesn’t seem to be content with raising the bar for visuals in a film – it wants to create a new idea of what you can expect from a film. From the zero gravity physics, to beautiful shots of space and Earth, to the incredible detail in the debris, “Gravity” is a sight to behold. I can easily say that it is the best looking film I have ever seen, hands down. Even with the major effects and visuals, what really pushes it to another level entirely is the little things. There is a striking attention to detail present in every single scene that makes every piece of the film feel as realistic as possible. In the words of George Clooney’s Matt Kowlasky, you really “can’t beat the view”.

Above all else, "Gravity" is the most visually stunning film I've ever scene. As George Clooney's character rightfully remarks, you really "can't beat the view".

Above all else, “Gravity” is the most visually stunning film I’ve ever scene. As George Clooney’s character rightfully remarks, you really “can’t beat the view”.

Speaking of visuals, it is necessary for me to touch on the 3D effects in the film. As you know, I have felt that 3D film-making was more a gimmick than anything, never adding anything to a film – at best you get a few interesting touches, at worst it takes away from the experience with poor use of background blurring and effects that make each quick camera movement jarring. In “Gravity”, however, the 3D is spot on, and enhances the visual experience enough that I would highly recommend seeing the film in 3D over 2D. Between these 3D effects and the overall visual presentation, “Gravity” is an incredible film that must be seen in theaters at least once.

Further adding to my praise for the film is its sound design. The soundtrack itself is perfectly ambient and unsettling at times, fitting right in with the challenges faced in and emptiness of space. Also, the clever use of volume and suppressed noises and music to mimic the vacuum of sound in space is a nice touch that draws the viewer into the setting. In particular, I have to give credit to the opening credits and scene, where the aforementioned items start the film nicely.

Lastly, it is necessary to give mention to both Clooney and Bullock for their roles in the film. Both play their parts wonderfully, with Bullock in particular turning in a tremendous performance as Dr. Ryan Stone. When you are tasked with being the only two characters on-screen for basically the entire film, you need to be able to turn in a special performance. This is exactly what Clooney and Bullock have done, and through Cuaron’s direction, the character interactions become entirely natural and the audience quickly connects with the two on-screen.

“Gravity” is not just good looks. It is a complete package. It has been a long time since I can remember leaving a film in awe, but “Gravity” did just that for me. It is a complete package – from visuals and sound, to plot and acting, “Gravity” is about as perfectly executed as they come. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy one of the most incredible experiences you can see in a theater, or even wait for it to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. Do yourself a favor and experience “Gravity” in theaters, the way it is meant to be seen. You will not be sorry.

Final Score: 10/10

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“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) Review and Second Opinion

Silver Linings Playbook poster

Silver Linings Playbook was off my radar for a while. Then, I heard some good things about the film, saw it got nominated for a list of Oscars and other awards, and saw my fiance had an interest in seeing it. This caused Silver Linings to quickly jump up to the top of my Netflix queue. I have to say that I was legitimately looking forward to seeing it. However, once I popped in the film and sat through its two-hour run time, I was sorely disappointed. I honestly can’t even say I liked Silver Linings Playbook – it just really wasn’t good. The only thing I was left thinking about the film about mental illness, romance, and the Philadelphia Eagles was where all the praise came from.

I might as well start with the main redeeming quality of the film – the acting. Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro both give great performances as expected – the surprise is Bradley Cooper who delivers an excellent performance. Cooper and Lawrence play well off each other and some of their back and forth banter is genuinely well acted. The supporting cast also does a great job of enhancing the central characters’ performances. Despite my negative opinion of the film as a whole, one thing I have to give Silver Linings credit for is its high quality acting. Still, while I say the acting is high quality, I want to clarify that I didn’t think it was award-winning – as such I don’t think Lawrence deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress (while I may be biased toward the incredible performance given by the young Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I still think other actresses were better than Lawrence last year).

So, sure, Silver Linings has a positive in its acting. Unfortunately, this positive is quickly wasted on poorly designed characters and asinine dialogue. Don’t get me wrong – I know Silver Linings is a film with a heavy theme of mental illness. But, throughout the whole film, it felt like every single character had some kind of mental issues, bouncing unbelievably back and forth between emotions, changing moods multiple times within a scene, and carrying out some very unnatural interactions. This causes the characters, as a collective group, to bring down the film despite the cast doing the best they can with what they are given.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence work quite well together and both give great performances in the film. It's a shame that that's about all the film has going for it.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence work quite well together and both give great performances in the film. It’s a shame that that’s about all the film has going for it.

To make matters worse, the dialogue is quite poor. Personally, I’d classify the dialogue into three categories – writing that is genuinely smart, writing that tries to act smart, and writing that almost seems schizophrenic (no pun intended) to the point where all the characters’ lines become a jumbled mess of words that are totally incompatible with each other. The majority of dialogue falls into the latter two categories, while the few scenes that fall into the first are pretty enjoyable.

Outside of the above, the rest of film is generally underwhelming. The central plot feels like nothing more than a clichéd romance drama with a heavy dose of insanity and some obsessive Eagles fanaticism thrown in. The cinematography is not bad, but not great. Even the soundtrack is virtually non-existent for most of the film, and when it does appear, is mainly just licensed songs layered in.

I really expected more out of Silver Linings Playbook. As a multiple award nominee and having received much critical acclaim, I was looking forward to seeing this drama/black comedy. Having seen it now, I can say that I don’t understand the reason for the praise. The film feels shaky and inconsistent in its execution with some poor dialogue and characterization. In the end, Silver Linings has so many flaws that the wonderful acting by the cast cannot save it.

Final Score: 4.6/10

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Second Opinion:

Silver Linings Playbook was a big hit last year among critics and fans alike, but after finally seeing the film for myself, I cannot jump on the bandwagon. The movie’s main plot, focused around mental illness, seems so forced that almost every single character ends up acting like they have some sort of illness. The love story between Cooper and Lawrence gets lost in a flat story line, forced acting, terrible dialogue and just a lack of many qualities that make you connect with a film.  

The film lost my attention multiple times, which is a rare thing when I am the one who was genuinely interested in seeing the film. I was truly disappointed in the result. As mentioned in the main review, the cast does their best in trying to make the film the best it can be, but the great acting jobs of the cast could not redeem the clichéd, forced plot line of this film. As a romance, it lacked the emotional connection that many films can easily create to intrigue at least the female audience and as a drama, the story line was so two-dimensional that you become easily uninterested. I just could not get myself to enjoy this film one bit, which I really thought I would, given the widespread praise and award nominations. Better luck on the next film I choose. 
Second Opinion Score: 4/10

“Upstream Color” (2013) Review

Upstream Color cover

 

I have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Simple as that. Shane Carruth’s recent release is a film that can be described in many different ways – “experimental”, “art film”, “abstract” – however, no classification could really do it justice. Even in broad terms such as sci-fi or drama, Upstream Color cannot find a home. Be assured, you have never seen anything like Upstream Color – and I mean that in a good way.

If you’re familiar with Carruth through his first film, Primer, you know he has talent. Upstream Color has a similar, yet completely different style than that first release. While both films are highly complex, revealing most secrets upon repeated viewings, they differ in their approach. Primer was a rational, sci-fi story with a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push the story forward and make sense of the film’s logic. Upstream Color relies mostly on its audiovisual presentation to portray its story – there is much less of a focus on dialogue (with the last half-hour being nearly free of any spoken words) and more attention on ambient sounds, thematic imagery, and striking visuals. This focus allowed Carruth to create on of the most original films I’ve seen in a long while.

As far as plot goes, the less you know going into Upstream Color, the better. While I will avoid any major spoilers, I still recommend not reading ahead if you are definitely going to see this film in order to get the most out of the experience…..

Still there? Okay. The easiest way to give an idea of the plot of Upstream Color is to say that the film is about the life cycle of an organism, the players who continue the cycle, and those who are affected by it. This basis becomes much more elaborate as the film weaves many themes into its story and presents the viewer with a multi-layered puzzle that at times can be both simple and incredibly complex at the same time. As it stands, the film places the viewer as an inanimate object observing these natural cycles and people and forces you to put all the pieces together actively and pass your own judgement at times. The story may seem to be abstract nonsense to some (and those that don’t enjoy experimental film-making will surely dislike the film), but I assure you there is a coherent narrative here that allows for some personal interpretation.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in "Upstream Color", but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in “Upstream Color”, but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

With this narrative in place, both sound design and cinematography take over and breathe life into the story. While it is often easy to look at the visuals and sound areas of a film separately, here it is not possible – the two are intertwined and integral to the experience. That being said, the overall presentation is absolutely stunning. From Carruth’s ambient soundtrack, to his adept editing, to the striking cinematography, the film amazes its audience in each and every scene. The only real negative for this piece of the film is the dialogue volume. For some reason (possibly due to the focus on ambient sounds and nature throughout the film), the volume of the dialogue in the film is too low. In one sense, this serves to put more of an emphasis on the aforementioned ambience – in another, it is maddening as the viewer has to struggle at times to make out some of the dialogue. Still, this is a small price to pay in the scope of the overall presentation.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that both Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (yes, he wrote, directed, did the soundtrack for, produced, and starred in his film) both did a great job with their roles. With little dialogue in parts of the film, the cast must speak through expressions and actions – something that the entire cast does a wonderful job of doing. The nuances in each performance really help bring the viewer further into each character’s mindset and perspective.

In conclusion, as I said before, you have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Still, you will be glad you saw Upstream Color (unless, of course, you are not a fan of experimental film-making). The presentation and plot of the film are stunning and highly original, and Carruth is surely someone of talent to keep an eye on in the film industry. While there may be some issues with the dialogue audio levels, this hardly detracts from what will be the most original film you’ll see all year. Even if you don’t understand exactly what you saw, I think you will  have a hard time saying you didn’t enjoy it.

Final Score: 9.0/10

“The Ides of March” (2011) Review

Ides of March

“The Ides of March” is a smart movie, with a clever plot line. It is a film complete with a great cast, full of actors known to give great performances. It is also a movie that did receive some award nominations (mostly for adapted screenplay). What “The Ides of March” isn’t, however, is a film that has a clear vision of what it wants to be and contains authentic situations and characters.

In “The Ides of March”, the viewer is put in the middle of a close race for the Democratic party’s presidential candidacy. The film focuses on one of the two candidates and his campaign crew. The race twists and turns as media, consultants, and other politicians get involved and all look to blackmail and bribe their way ahead. For the first two-thirds of the movie, this story of one man’s race and another’s belief in him is compelling. However, at that point in the film, the story takes a sharp turn and begins to derail. From then on out, everything felt too implausible, and the characters flat. What this plot lacks most of all is emotion.

The majority of the film I spent just letting twist after twist unfold, without any of them really having any weight to them. I don’t know if this is due to the writing (which is mostly solid, but at times a little too contrived) or the acting (more on that next), but I just didn’t feel anything for most of the film.

Speaking of the acting, George Clooney has assembled a great cast – Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling (who always seems to play the same character in all of his films, except “Drive“), and Clooney, himself. As these talented actors entered the film, I was expecting some high-quality scenes. Yet, as above, most of the sequences just felt flat. There are two scenes during which I felt any kind of true emotion from the actors, while many more should have been more impactful. This combo of iffy writing at times and flat acting keeps the movie from really reaching any kind of major tension.

Why does Ryan Gosling always seem to play the same (or a close variation of the same) character in every movie (outside of "Drive")? As such, this face is always somewhere in each film.

Why does Ryan Gosling always seem to play the same (or a close variation of the same) character in every movie (outside of “Drive”)? As such, this face is always somewhere in each film.

All of the acting and writing aside, another piece of the film that fails to enhance the drama is the soundtrack. I only remember two particular scenes where the soundtrack was really noticeable, and even in those instances, it is underwhelming. I wish the music could have at least accentuated the key scenes when the writing and acting didn’t.

With the overall lack of feeling in the film, and my comments above, you would assume this is a poor film. I have to say, though, that it isn’t all that bad. The smart, political chess match that takes place during the first two-thirds of the film is still interesting despite the story not quite seeming to know what it wants to be or where it wants to go. All in all, “The Ides of March” is an entertaining film, as long as you don’t try to dig too deep into it all.

Final Score: 5.5/10

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2012) Mini-Review

“Planet of the Apes” is a classic movie for many reasons. Having finally had a chance to see last year’s prequel, I hoped that the film would provide a decent background to the original plot. What I actually experienced was an entertaining, yet quite flawed film.

The Good:

  • Motion Capture – Andy Serkis is the best motion capture artist/actor in the business, hands down (for those unfamiliar, Serkis played Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” series, along with major parts in the video games “Heavenly Sword” and “Enslaved”). His work in this movie is just another perfect example of his abilities, with the movement of the apes being natural and fluid.

The OK:

  • Plot – It’s hard to fault the plot for not having a surprising ending (after all, we know where the original movie picks up – speaking of which, there is a nice tie-in to the original which helps to make the plot more genuine). Overall, the story moves along nicely, and does keep your interest, providing some intense and also emotional moments. However, the first 15-20 minutes is extremely rushed, providing bare minimal backstory, which makes you feel somewhat disconnected from the characters.
  • Soundtrack – I don’t know where to put this section, but the soundtrack was unremarkable. It certainly didn’t detract from the movie, but I cannot remember a single moment of the soundtrack or where it played. Thus, I can’t really say whether it was good or bad (at least it didn’t distract me).

The Bad:

  • Plot (Part 2) – For all its good moments, the film has many inconsistencies and questionable parts in the plot. Why at some moments does Caesar seem like a genius ape, and then others seems to not understand the concept of glass or a wall? How does a random “circus orangutan” have a sign language vocabulary of a genetically-enhanced ape taught to sign for his whole life? This is also not to mention the disregard to how James Franco has a plethora of lab work and high-tech medical scans of an ape who has not been outside the house? This and many more questions arise and really take you out of the world at times. Further, the ending was questionable in how it really built into the original film. I don’t want to spoil anything, bu it seems that some major leaps need to be made to connect to the original film.

Short Summary: The film provides a servicable story that has many glaring flaws, but is redeemed by the exceptional motion capture work and well-done action sequences. Recommended for “Planet of the Apes” and sci-fi fans (with an ability to overlook flaws in story-telling).

Final Score: 6/10

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