THE COUNSELOR

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By R. David

“The Counselor” is a wordy and clumsy thriller that is almost defiantly short on thrills.  Every once in a while – thanks to Ridley Scott’s typically taut, icy direction – the movie shows a glimmer of what could have been had writer Cormack McCarthy (the famed novelist submitting his first original screenplay here) not been so apparently steadfast in sabotaging his own film by having his characters spew an endless barrage of bloated and pretentious homilies that are so heavy-handed, ill-conceived and numbing, they verge on the hysterical rather than the profound.  Scott has assembled a talented and beautiful cast – which includes Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt – and captures some picturesque scenery and stylish action sequences; but these elements are all in service of this dopey and ponderous screenplay; and a story that goes nowhere – or at least nowhere satisfying for the audience.

Fassbender plays the titular protagonist, an Armani suit-wearing, Bentley-driving litigator who is never referred to by name, only his professional moniker.  It seems his greed has led him into bed with some unsavory types – Bardem’s crooked night club owner and assorted members of a ruthless drug trafficking cartel among them – just as he has found the love of his life (Cruz).  Near as I can figure it from McCarthy’s frustratingly opaque plotting, which isn’t so much complex as convoluted and lacking in detail, Mr. Counselor somehow gets involved in aiding a drug deal which goes bad when one cartel rips off the other because of course it does.  But his only apparent connection to all of this seems to be that he sprung a kid from jail who is some sort of cartel errand boy.  A rival cartel kills the kid and steals what is, I guess, a much-coveted electric car starter.  No, you didn’t misread that.  The kid carries this device in his motorcycle helmet as if it were coke he was trying to smuggle into prison up his ass.  Rather than simply grabbing the kid, removing the helmet and taking this thing, the rival cartel goes to the trouble of staking him out, taking precise measurements of his motorcycle and setting up a clothesline-like decapitation trap along the road he zips back and forth across on his cycle each day (good thing he is apparently the only person who travels this otherwise conveniently deserted stretch of road or a car would have snapped this thing within about two minutes and then the drug dealers would have to go to Plan B which was presumably to fly above the kid’s speeding motorcycle in a helicopter and try to catch him by dropping a big net).  After several hours of waiting – again, this all feels like an illogical waste of time – the kid comes zooming up the road, loses his head, and his killers claim the bounty that they went to such tireless lengths to secure; which they promptly take to a garage and plug into a little tanker truck that they most certainly couldn’t have started any other way.  Then those guys are mowed down by a rival gang (The one the kid worked for?  Good question.  Who knows?) in a roadside shoot-out over this amazing, hard-to-start truck.  And somehow, The Counselor is to blame for all of this… or something… I don’t effing know, man!

Obviously, none of this makes any sense.  Despite the fact that whatever role he had in these dirty dealings is apparently so insignificant it’s not even worth mentioning in any kind of detail, and his lack of involvement in any double-crossing going on seems so obvious, Counselor Guy is told repeatedly that he and his now-fiancé will be targeted and most likely end up dead.  Except he’s never told this simple bit of information flat out; and he’s not just informed of this once – or even twice.  Oh no, no, no.  McCarthy would rather have several different characters – in long-winded, lengthy monologues – all beat around the bush with him, speaking in scripture-like musings, and engaging in some sort of competition to see who can come up with the most obscure and cryptic way of saying “you’re fucked”.  Why nobody wants to answer The Counselor’s questions or give him any sort of straight answer but is perfectly content to spend upwards of five minutes on random anecdotes and speechifying is one of “The Counselor’s” most odd, frustrating and hilarious quirks.  Around the fourth or fifth of these out-of-the-blue, jabber-jawing tirades I started to wonder if this was all for real; like maybe the film was setting us up for some big twist where all these crazy, alternate-universe actions would be explained. Maybe the guy is already dead and he just doesn’t know it or some shit like that?  Unfortunately, this movie isn’t that clever.

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Clearly McCarthy isn’t interested in story and logic so much as character motivations, the ramifications of their decisions, and ruminations on death, relationships, business, and sex.  This would be fine if he had anything interesting, exciting or original to say about any of these things.  Instead of coming up with the deep, twisty noir he obviously fancies “The Counselor” to be, McCarthy piles on cumbersome high-mindedness to either distract from his shaky narrative or in an effort to subvert the trappings of the genre.  Either way, it doesn’t work.  In fact, it’s often howlingly ludicrous. A movie doesn’t have to be narratively structured or even coherent to be gripping and profound; but all of this highfalutin existentialism slathered on top of the impenetrable plotting, goofball characters and hackneyed nihilism may succeed in rescuing “The Counselor” from the typical, but only to push it into the laughably overwrought.

This movie is completely baffling – not just from a storytelling standpoint, or in pondering how the marriage of two talents of the highest order in their respective fields resulted in such an insane turkey as this weirdo misfire – but in terms of exactly how seriously the audience is supposed to be taking all this.  There’s a scene in this movie where Cameron Diaz (playing Javier Bardem’s girlfriend-ish thing) fucks the windshield of a Ferrari.  You heard me.  Bardem likens this viewing experience to seeing a “bottom-feeding catfish” suctioned to the side of its glass aquarium.  That’s right; Mr. “No Country For Old Men” actually had this idea.  And wrote it down.  And then Ridley Scott put it in a movie and convinced Cameron Diaz to act it out (sort of) and Javier Bardem to react to it (Bug Eyes, is essentially his chosen method for all you thespians out there) and describe it.  And then I paid money to see it.  That shit all happened!  But I digress.  Bardem recounts this event to Fassbender as if it is to be some deep, philosophical metaphor or warning.  For what, I don’t know.  And neither does Bardem’s character who freely admits he’s not sure what it all means or why he just shared any of it.  He informs us that the experience was “too gynecological to be sexy”, but insists that seeing something like that “changes a man”.  Major Warning, Bros: Do NOT, under any circumstances, let your girlfriend fuck your car windshield.  It will seriously mess with your head.  You’re welcome. – Cormac.

Still from The Counsellor, the new film from director Ridley Scott

This sequence is par for the course of “The Counselor”.  I can draw a through line to what McCarthy is getting at with this scene based on what plays out between Bardem and Diaz in the end, but that doesn’t mean the sequence isn’t batshit insane and loaded with self-satisfied pretention on the writer’s part.  How is the audience supposed to react to this moment?  Clearly we’re supposed to find Bardem’s retelling of the outrageous events – his dialog, reactions and expressions – amusing.  But McCarthy frames the whole scene as if there is a lesson being taught or a theme being revealed. Is it supposed to funny or is it supposed to be serious? Ditto the movie as a whole.  Is it some over the top joke, winking at its own supremely silly earnestness or does McCarthy really believe in all these Shakespearian soliloquies he keeps awkwardly trying to graft onto all of these would-be pivotal scenes?  Outrageousness and pretention are rarely a good mix and almost never result in great drama.  Now, unintentional comedy on the other hand, that’s a different story.

The movie opens with Fassbender and Cruz literally under the sheets.  He keeps asking her to tell him in explicit detail what she wants him to do to her. The best she can muster is, “Touch me… down there.”  Other amazing and totally not awkward lines of dialog in this scene include:  Cruz:  “I should clean it first.”  Fassbender:  “I don’t want you to.”  And Cruz declaring, “You’ve ruined me for all other men,” after a few seconds of cunnilingus.  Clearly this chick needs to get out more.  This scene would be icky and uncomfortable if it weren’t so damn hilarious.  I enjoy a laugh, but it’s probably not the way you want to start your violent, seedy underworld drama that has lofty intentions of waxing poetic about life and death and the moral implications of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Maybe that scene just didn’t come out right, or maybe I missed what was so mildly seductive about it.  Maybe McCarthy actually writes great sexual dialog and I’m missing the noirish homage of it all.  Nope.  As if to positively prove that these two people are the worst fucking lovers ever and the fact that McCarthy should never again write sexual dialog, in another scene Fassbender is on the phone with Cruz when he says something like, “Life is in bed with you, everything else is just waiting.”  Then he asks, “Is this phone sex,” because as we have been made fully aware at this point, these two beautiful grown adults have a handle on seduction techniques that is about on par with those of the average 12 year-old.  Cruz’s response is not audible, but apparently the answer was ‘no’ because Fassbender says ‘goodnight’ and promptly hangs up the phone.  End scene.  If it wasn’t for all the decapitations and drug dealer shit, “The Counselor” could be a sequel to “The Room”.

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Actually, the best way to describe these moments is to liken them to something out of “Showgirls”; another film concocted by a powerhouse writer (Joe Eszterhas) and director (Paul Verhoven, both coming off career highs after their collaboration on “Basic Instinct”) that, despite falling squarely in each man’s lurid wheelhouse, was so ill-conceived, self-serious and unaware of its own limitations, became a notoriously campy bomb and more or less destroyed the careers of everyone involved.  “The Counselor” won’t end any careers and isn’t quite at the “Showgirls” apex of awfulness, but it’s a catastrophe of a similar order.  Rarely is a theatrical release from an A-list writer, director and cast so unconvincing and hilarity-inducing in its faux heavy-breathing attempts at titillation and sexual intrigue.  “The Counselor” joins the likes of “Showgirls” in this elite company.  At least “Showgirls” had the courage of its convictions though.  “The Counselor” is one of those movies with stars too big to actually engage in sex scenes anywhere close to the sort they describe here.  In other words, guys:  Sorry, no boobs.

All of these flaws are all the more maddening because “The Counselor” does have potential, and teases us with several great moments, suggesting what might have been with a better script.  One where the actors might have had a better handle on how they were supposed to be playing these nuts-o characters and weren’t asked to recite dialog that sounds like random words strewn together by a cracked-out monkey someone left in front of a word processor. “The Counselor’s” few positive atributes are all courtesy of Ridley Scott’s direction.  He is the film’s saving grace.  The action sequences pack a visceral punch and the violence resonates, the camera angles are moody and atmospheric (in its best, most effective moments, “The Counselor” recalls the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men”), and he is generally able to find the right tone for a given scene.  The movie always looks terrific and has a keen sense of time and place (credit should also go to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski who effectively leads the audience through high society slickness, sprawling desert landscapes and dank, sweaty underworlds).  But Scott’s terrific filmmaking contributions here are repeatedly undermined by McCarthy’s senseless script.  That scene where the kid on the cycle gets killed is expertly shot and memorable, but its very existence makes no sense.  Similarly, the shoot-out over that tanker truck is staged with Scott’s usual grim savvy (almost all of the action sequences are free of dramatic music which creates unnerving tension), but is undone by the fact that we are never clear as to who’s who and what their motivations are.

These exciting moments are also too few and far between, which would be fine if the script had something going on in the interim, but instead we get just get all the aforementioned windy pontificating.  It doesn’t help either that the handsome and talented cast mostly underwhelms here.  Fassbender is adequate as the lead, but he whiffs all the romantic stuff.  Bardem (continuing his cinematic mission to only appear on screen in the hairstylings of an insane person) gives an all-over-the-map performance that makes its hard for viewers to get a handle on his character.  I guess he’s supposed to be a complicated cat, hiding his torment and fear under a transparent party-boy exterior.  I’m tempted to say he pulls it off, but again, I have no idea if indeed that’s what we’re to make of him.  Brad Pitt’s in this movie.  He has a ponytail and a cowboy hat, spouts some inane gibberish with the rest of these people who seemingly orbit around The Counselor just to be frustratingly vague and then just disappear for a while (he’s a dope too, because despite his supposed steely underworld savvy, he doesn’t recognize an obvious honey-pot even though the least noir-familiar audience members likely will – but hey, whatever the script calls for, logic be damned, right?).  And Cruz is wasted in a role that could have gone to literally any actress.

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Then there is Cameron Diaz.  Woefully inept and miscast here, she is on a whole other level of obnoxious and unconvincing in this thing.  Supposedly playing a heartless, sexual, powerful, manipulative, dangerous vixen (feel free to insert any other clichéd femme fatale superlatives here), she succeeds in making the audience hate her, though not for the reasons the script intends.  Besides her gold tooth, affinity for cheetahs (and watching them hunt – because she wears gaudy animal print dresses and mercilessly kills people – “Get it, you fucking morons?! – Love, Cormac.”), and car-fucking tendencies; her character is all spoiled-brat posturing, breathy dialog and icy stares. It’s a cartoon character that is not the least bit intimidating or effective, made all the worse by Diaz’s unnerving expressions, gestures and line deliveries.  The only way she’d be half as terrifying as the film keeps insisting she is is if you all of a sudden woke up one morning married to this duck-faced selfie come to life.

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But it’s Cormac McCarthy who is the main offender here.  He is undisputedly a terrific novelist, and there’s a chance that this script and its dialog would read better as a novel.  He should probably stick to letting other writers adapt his works for film, or at the very least never again try to infuse his bleak morality plays with Elmore Leonard-like spice so he might avoid another disaster like “The Counselor” all together.  Man, I hate this movie.

1½ stars out of 4

ESCAPE PLAN

THE TOMB

By R. David

Say this for “Escape Plan”, it’s certainly efficient.  The movie barrels through its plot points like a convict tunneling out of the joint. This isn’t a bad thing per se.  “Escape Plan’s” plot is hardly worth lengthy exposition, and you want an action flick to be fast-paced, but “Escape Plan” never gives its story room to breathe.  A character mentions something they have to do in order to escape, and instead of the film building suspense around how this will all play out, the character is simply off and putting the plan in motion.  It either works or it doesn’t and then we’re just as quickly on to the next story beat.  The film never takes the time to hold you in suspense or challenge expectations.  This type of movie is most fun when a character spends a lot of time on an ingenious but highly unstable plan only to see it revealed, fail, or discover traitors amongst him.  How these films navigate the character out of these roadblocks is often their most entertaining and exciting aspect.  But “Escape Plan” is too busy to waste time on clever ideas or ratcheting up suspense.

Of course, there are far worse offenses when it comes to movies of this sort.  The Action Heroes of Yesterday/’80s Throwback flick has become something of cottage industry in Hollywood as of late, and like the films they are paying homage too, many of them suffer from poor acting, dialog and lazy plotting – as if their winking nostalgia is enough to justify the film’s existence all by itself. “Escape Plan” is not nearly as lazily barebones as its co-stars’ solo entries in this genre from earlier this year – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Bullet to the Head”, movies that aren’t too bad from an action standpoint but really have nothing to offer beyond the joy of watching our aging heroes shoot people in the face – but it feels like a missed opportunity to concoct an idea that has the potential to be relatively high-concept in execution and then never bother to explore or take advantage of all suspense and twists that could have been mined from it.

“Escape Plan” stars Sylvester Stallone as Ray Breslin, the guy who – literally – wrote the book on breaking out of prison.  He is so good at it that he has made a fortune trading months of his life at time, going undercover for the Federal Bureau of Prisons infiltrating and breaking out of maximum security prisons.  He receives a lucrative but shady-sounding offer from the CIA to employ his skills testing the security of The Tomb (“Escape Plan’s” original – and better, IMO – title), a high-tech, top-secret facility that supposedly houses the worst of the worst international criminals who have been placed there without trial or anyone’s knowledge (you think the writers might mean to remind us of Guantanamo Bay at all?).  Breslin and his team – made up of Vincent D’’Onofrio as his business partner, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as his expert hacker, and Amy Ryan as, I guess, his consigliere and quasi romantic interest (she’s basically there to be the voice of reason, worry about the hero, and give him someone to bounce silly jokes off of) – are not allowed to know the prison’s whereabouts, tell anyone else about the job or keep tabs on Breslin the way they normally would with tracking devices and prison liaisons.  They smell a rat, but Breslin accepts the job anyway.  Because of course he does.

Breslin’s fears are realized immediately when he is kidnapped, drugged and beaten.  He awakens in The Tomb – which looks like something out Sly’s “Demolition Man” cryo-prison in design, except instead of frozen cubes, the inmates are stacked in vertical glass cells, while guards in black masks and assault weapons roam the many catwalks.  Breslin tries to call the whole deal off but the warden (Jim Caviezel, who somehow manages to chew scenery even though he’s playing one of these eerily calm and quietly menacing types) informs him there’s no safe word, no off switch, and he’s there to stay.  Thus, Breslin has to break out of prison for real, or be trapped in The Tomb forever.  Enter Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a life-long convict who is curious about Breslin’s perceptive eye and eager to befriend him.  Brerslin begrudgingly forms an alliance with Rottmayer, promising to free the both of them if Rottmayer helps him with his plan.

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Despite the silliness of this all, “Escape Plan’s” plot is not a bad idea for a movie.  Stallone has worked this material before (“Tango & Cash”, “Lock-Up”), but “Escape Plan” is at least blessedly free of the self-consciousness that has diluted his recent films.  “Escape Plan” plays things relatively straight; as such it actually feels like a movie that both of stars might have made in 1986 – or even 1996 – rather than one simply goofing on that era.  Generally I’m a bigger Stallone fan – and he acquits himself nicely here (he’s as taciturn and somber as ever, but it works for him and the film, as it generally does) – but its Schwarzenegger who seems to be having the most fun. In fact, he hasn’t been this laid-back and animated in decades, if ever.  Arnie seems to relish his role here, which has him pissing off the warden and other inmates, giving him a chance to wig-out for distracting effect (in his native language no less!), and to generally play something of a mischief maker. He looks good here too; salt and peppery with a goatee, but still carrying the frame of a man-truck.  Sly is no slouch either, aging gracefully by any measure and more physically fit than most men half his age.

Unlike in “The Expendables” films, neither star simply trades on their famous screen persona or the stunt-casting factor of having STALLONE AND SCHWARZENEGGER FINALLY TEAMING UP IN THE SAME MOVIE BRWAAAARRRR!!! 20 or 30 years ago this would have been a major coup, but they are unfortunately a generation too late for the novelty of their pairing to by itself anchor a movie.  Smartly, “Escape Plan” isn’t built around references, call-backs and in-jokes to their heyday, and it’s a much more effective throwback for its straightforwardness.

There is a trade-off there, however.  “The Expendables” films (and to a similar extent, Sly’s “Bullet to the Head”) might have been jumbled, messy and nothing more than an excuse to unite famous faces, but they benefited from a certain giddy, ridiculous energy.  Once you disarm the audience of any expectations in terms of plotting, it becomes real easy to simply sit back and enjoy the fireworks.  “Escape Plan” tries to be more plot driven (there’s even a twist of sorts at the end) but it’s all in service of a film that quite frankly, could use less ambition in terms of its plotting and more where its suspenseful elements and action sequences are concerned.  Director Mikael Håfström (“The Rite”) doesn’t have much of an eye for stylish action sequences; and while he keeps the film chugging along with workman-like efficiency, he either misses or ignores every opportunity to wring suspense from the classic prison break beats, never mind improve or up the ante on them (the best way to sum up “Escape Plan” is “like a feature-length remake of the prison scene in “Face/Off”).

There is also a good amount in the script that will cause a few arched eyebrows.  For instance:  Breslin says at the beginning of the film that one of the key ingredients for any successful prison escape is to make friends on the inside.  Why then is he such a dick to Schwarzenegger’s character, who practically has to beg Breslin to befriend him?  Also, the inmates here are supposed to be among the most dangerous human beings on the planet, yet the film does nothing to show us this is the case.  Either that’s some genius political commentary on the prison system or nobody bothered to write any scenes backing up what the script simply tells us.

“Escape Plan” is enjoyable enough, but it’s also good enough to make you wish it were better.  The teaming of Sly and Arnie is plenty fun, but the film doesn’t give them the material – neither dialog or action sequences – to make it the match-up fans have long dreamed of (again though, that time has probably passed).  There’s cheesy fun to be had here, but with a little more effort, “Escape Plan” could have been a legitimately good movie rather than a guilty pleasure.

2½ stars out of 4

(Images Courtesy Summit Entertainment)

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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By R. David

Director Paul Greengrass is a master of the you-are-there aesthetic.  He is apparently the only director alive who knows how to go big on the handheld cameras and not induce motion sickness upon his audience.  His films – most notably the gut-wrenching, brilliant “United 93” – constantly achieve a cinema verite-like synergy where, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were watching documentary footage.  But he doesn’t rely on or try to over-sell the act by constantly (and needlessly) bouncing the camera around to the point of disorientation, thereby distracting audiences from the film’s narrative or alienating them from it all together.  A lesser filmmaker might rely on this technique to mask the fact that their film or directing style is otherwise not very unique or interesting – trying to create drama and urgency where there isn’t any; attempting to fool the audience into thinking this must be exciting because look at all the movement!

Subtle might be the wrong word to use to describe Greengrass’ particular brand of hand-held aesthetic, but he certainly employs the technique much more economically and purposefully than a less skilled director might.  This hasn’t always been true – his “Bourne” films were often obnoxiously jumbled and verged on sensory overload – but he has largely honed his craft over the years.  “United 93” is a perfect example of what an immersive sensory experience this filmmaking technique can be when handled correctly, and his latest dramatization of real-life tragedy, “Captain Phillips”, continues this trend.  The true story of a 2009 incident in which four Somali pirates hijacked an American cargo ship – ultimately taking its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in a lifeboat in their attempt to escape back to Somalia – “Captain Phillips” is not as emotionally exhausting as “United 93” and its heart-pounding account of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – perhaps because this is a much smaller story in scope, or maybe because 9/11 was a far larger tragedy (the events in “Captain Phillips” have been well-told so it shouldn’t be a spoiler when I say; while a terrifying, traumatic, and no-doubt life-changing event for those involved; Phillips’ story is ultimately not a tragedy at all) – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of suspense and emotion for Greengrass to wring out of this harrowing tale.

Tom Hanks stars as Phillips in a typically strong performance.  The film is based on Phillips’ memoir, “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea – Captain Phillips”, so the its focus is largely from his perspective.  Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray attempt to color in the margins a bit to lend the film a thematic angle, but these attempts ring hollow, mainly because they seem to be employing this angle out of some sense of duty rather than any active interest in telling a story beyond that of the hijacking action.  The movie begins with a clumsy scene in which Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener in her lone scene) drive to the airport and discuss his anxiety over the bleak economic world their kinds are facing.  Not only does this conversation feel completely false, but it exists solely to establish a theme and point of view.  It is filled with wooden dialog that sounds nothing like the way people actually speak.  I’m not suggesting people don’t talk about the effect the changing world will have on their children, just that most of those conversations don’t flow as awkwardly as the one Billy Ray wrote here.  No matter. This sequence isn’t really about what is being said, it’s simply meant for the audience to juxtapose the lifestyle and ideals of the film’s protagonist against those of the antagonists.

Immediately following Phillips’ departure, the film cuts to a dilapidated, sea-side village in Somalia where impoverished fishermen become pirate hijackers because they have little other option besides stealing – even killing – to make money.  Then we cut back to Phillips morosely shaving, suggesting he’s still worrying about his kids’ futures, or is disenchanted with is job, or life, or something.  Then it’s back to the pirates and their hellish existence. Greengrass is hardly subtle about slinging these obvious first-world VS third-world parallels, but these scenes feel manufactured and half-hearted, tacked on to the story out of a sense of contextual necessity that smacks of lazy filmmaking and narrative condescension.

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Things improve dramatically and immediately though once “Captain Phillips” hits the sea.  Greengrass offers a master class in mounting tension; building suspense through eerily calm, quiet moments and expertly playing on the audience’s knowledge of the inevitable.  Phillips and his crew fending off the pirates’ first attempt to attack their ship, the Maersk Alabama, would normally provide a sense of victory and emotional release for the audience.  Instead, because we know the pirates will eventually board the ship, this sequence functions as a tightening noose, ratcheting up the already palpable sense of dreaded suspense in the inevitable.

When the pirates do finally claim the ship, “Captain Phillips” digs into a sort of real-life “Die Hard”  scenario that is fascinating in the ways real-life peril both parallels Hollywood clichés, and defers from them.  As the pirate captain, Muse, new-comer Barkhad Abdi has a skeletal, haunting presence; perfectly representative of a poor, weak man given his strength through nothing but sheer determination and desperation.  He does what he does because it is the only way he can make a life for himself.  He is also well aware of the cultural differences between himself and Phillips’ crew.  “There’s no al Qaida here,” he assures Phillips, and keeps reassuring the crew that “everything is going to be okay,” and this is “just business”.  Muse is by turns savvy and naïve.  He is smart enough to spot possible threats and conventional tricks, but his plan and expectations are completely unrealistic.  It’s a terrific character and an even better performance by Abdi, all the more impressive considering he is essentially an amateur yet has to face-off with no less than Tom Hanks in his first major film.

Hanks, in a rather genius move, is the only well-known face on screen, which not only reaffirms this is very much the story of Phillips, but also effectively makes him and his plight the focal point and emotional touchstone of the film.  They could have cast a big name as Muse or as the SEAL Team Six captain assigned to rescue Phillips after Muse and his gang take him hostage in lifeboat and attempt to escape back to Somali once off the Alabama, but such stunt casting would only distract from Phillips and the basic humanity of his tale.  For his part, Hanks musters just the right blend of vulnerability and industriousness to make him the sympathetic and reluctant hero the story calls for.  It’s not until “Captain Phillips’” final scenes though where he really brings it as an actor, making a case for Best Actor Oscar contention with just these few minutes of screen time alone.

Besides the awkward posturing of its early scenes, “Captain Phillips” also starts to run out of steam in its third act.  Where the film’s first half is tense and exciting, the second half grows sluggish and familiar.  The claustrophobic scenes aboard the confining, enclosed lifeboat should be where the film turns into a pressure-cooker, upping the stakes and the suspense.  But when the SEALs show up and the pirates begin bickering amongst themselves as their plan unravels, the film – true story or not – drifts into by-the-numbers hostage drama territory.  Greengrass was able to sustain tension through Phillips’ sense of duty to protect his crew and his attempts to manipulate the pirates and his own situation while aboard the Alabama; but the events on the lifeboat drag on and the film starts to go through the motions, bobbing around like a dingy out at sea.  Luckily, Hanks almost singlehandedly erases any ill-will toward “Captain Phillips’” relative missteps with his final moments on screen.

There has been some controversy suggesting that Captain Phillips’ account of these events and his heroism has been exaggerated.  Maybe so.  But such revelations don’t change the fact that Greengrass has made a deftly exciting thriller that, despite some issues around the edges, manages to hold you in its grasp of claustrophobic terror and features two powerhouse lead performances.

3 stars out of 4

(Images courtesy of Sony Pictures)

 

Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt (2013)

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By R. David

I am admittedly a casual Pearl Jam fan, so die-hards will take this review with a grain of salt.  I’ve warmed to the band lately, long after their grunge heyday.  Pearl Jam is at a point in their career – 20-plus years down the road now – where they stand alongside their musical heroes as carriers of the classic rock torch.  And why not?  Grunge is long-dead, and Eddie Vedder and Co. have been smart enough to look at their influences – Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty among them – and realize that what has given them such longevity is their ability to be bigger and better than any one musical style or trend.  They may have lost large swaths of fans (and by extension, record sales) along the way who grumble that the band no longer makes albums on par with their holy trinity of Ten, VS, Vitalogy – as monumental a run as any in all of grunge – but they no doubt would have lost just as many had they simply been content to keep returning to the same well, and likely would have flamed out long ago with the musical genre they helped conceive.

Instead, today they share the stage with the likes of Young, Petty and Springsteen; and like those icons, they have secured their legend as not just a hugely talented musical ensemble, but a reliably tireless live act who treat their fans with a huge amount of respect (sadly, a rare commodity in today’s musical climate).  They may no longer be churning out Top-10 singles, but to compete with the Miley Cyrus’ and Katy Perry’s of the day would be a fool’s errand anyway.  Musical trends are fickle.  Real artists are in it for the long haul.  Pearl Jam seemed to realize this distinction as far back as 1996’s No Code.  Considered a disappointing departure by fans at the time, looking back it becomes clear the band was sowing the seeds of their career longevity even then; and preparing to jump the sinking grunge ship lest it take them down with it like it did so many other bands.

(Disclaimer:  I would begin my review of Lightning Bolt here, but instead I’m going to continue on my personal-Pearl Jam-experience tangent for a moment.  Feel free to skip these next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read any more of my opinions on the band’s past.)  No Code’s surprising and refreshing diversity was actually the first Pearl Jam album that really piqued my interest.  I’m not saying it’s a better album than any of their first three (it’s not); but initially, I was resistant to Pearl Jam’s classic records; as I was towards most of the grunge output at the time.  For me it was all so over-saturating that it became impossible to cut through the filler.  What was real and what was fad?  Which bands were actual artists, capable of moving beyond trend conventions, and which were flash-in-the-pan bandwagon-jumpers?  As it always does, time has answered these questions for us; and by being savvy enough to move beyond grunge, Pearl Jam is quite literally grunge’s the last band standing.

These days the band reliably churns out albums that consist of a heady mixture of punk-pop, melodic hard rock, and swelling, downtempo ballads.  There have been some missteps along the way, particularly around the turn of the millennium where it was clear Pearl Jam either wasn’t sure where they fit into the musical landscape or simply didn’t care to.  Once one of the biggest bands in the world, they seemed content to simply be the biggest cult band in the world.  Album’s like 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act were musically and lyrically strong but lacked distinctive melodies and arrangements (they both feel like one long song).  In 2004, Eddie Vedder became more vocal politically (not that he wasn’t already fairly outspoken), taking part in the Vote For Change Tour before the 2004 presidential election. Here he shared the stage with the likes of Springsteen, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, R.E.M. and a host of other veteran musical legends.  When Pearl Jam resurfaced a few years later, their music took on a distinctive classic rock bent.  They lost none of their grunge-era musical vitality, but they had honed their songs into a sharp amalgam of the mosh pit-ready rock they helped create, and the more musically adventurous stylings they long had a penchant for.  Their 2006 self-titled disc and 2009’s Backspacer are two of their most accessible and enjoyable albums, despite admittedly lacking any tracks that rival the hits of their heyday output (though I can listen to “The Fixer” and “Got Some” all day long).

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(End tangent.)  Which brings us to today’s release of Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s 10th studio album.  They don’t try to fix what isn’t broken here, as Lightning Bolt largely follows in the direction of their last two discs.  It’s a highly listenable affair, on par with anything from Pearl Jam’s – aw hell, let’s just call it – classic rock era.  Lightning Bolt retains their ability to trade angry rock with lush romanticism.  Lyrically, it’s a dourer affair than Backspacer (often pegged as Pearl Jam’s “happy album”), but sonically, the two discs complement each other relatively well.  This is to say, if you liked Backspacer, or you’re a fan of this current incarnation of Pearl Jam, you’ll likely dig Lightning Bolt.

To be honest, after hearing first single “Mind Your Manners” when this album was announced months ago, I was a little skeptical.  “Mind Your Manners” is the sort of typical, throw-yourself-against-the-wall, mosh pit-ready song I thought Pearl Jam had outgrown.  No doubt its energy and the fact that it recalls much of their classic style and swagger gets a good many fan’s juices flowing, but it’s the very sort of song whose effect was so numbing to me in their grunge heyday – all noise and fury without anything to hang it all on (not unlike “Spin the Black Circle” – blasphemy!, I know).  But Pearl Jam always makes sure keep one foot in their thrash-rock roots, so a cut or two like “Mind Your Manners” is to be expected.

Lightning Bolt starts off smashingly with “Getaway”, a driving, drum-heavy thumper that recalls “Got Some”, in which Vedder spouts off about “Holy rollers”, “thinking with our different brains” and only putting faith in “our own faith”.  “Mind Your Manners” is up next and, despite my meh attitude toward that song, the two tracks make for an effective opening punch.  Elsewhere, as on second single “Sirens” and the haunting “Pendulum”, the music takes a turn for the tender, and Vedder, in his terrifically distinct baritone, sounds achingly hopeless.  Another ace up Pearl Jam’s sleeve has been their ability to avoid clichés in their writing.  Even on their most wistful ballads there are rarely easy answers, Hallmark-ready sentiments, or strung together platitudes in place of actual lyrics.  This is the sort of major distinction that separates, say, Springsteen as a writer from the likes of Bon Jovi.  And speaking of Springsteen, it’s hard to imagine a song like “My Father’s Son” was penned for this album without the Boss’ “My Father’s House” or “Adam Raised a Cain” on Vedder’s mind; or would have even been written had Vedder not spent so many of the last few years covering and trading verses with Bruce.  Even “Let the Records Play” is in the Springsteen model.  The bridge between the two may just be producer Brendan O’Brien; responsible for Pearl Jam’s landmark early albums, he has spent the last decade bringing the E Street Band’s raw live power to Springsteen studio discs like “The Rising” and “Magic”.

Similarly, O’Brien’s greatest contribution on Lightning Bolt (and Backspacer before it) is not that he returns Pearl Jam’s sound to that of their early collaborations (he doesn’t), but his ability to capture the live energy of one of rock’s best live bands.  The guitars and drums on Lightning Bolt are loud and meaty; a testament to Stone Gossard, Mike McCready and Matt Cameron, respectively, sure, but O’Brien infuses each track with just enough rough-around-the-edges intensity to keep the album from feeling like a blandly slick studio product.  And of Pearl Jam’s more popular early hits, I’ve largely gravitated towards the likes of “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town” or “Who Are You” over, say, “Jeremy” (Blasphmy, again! – I know).  Lightning Bolt smartly includes a few of these simply-phrased, supple-voiced, mid-tempo movers-and-shakers (“Swallowed Whole”, “Sleeping By Myself”, “Future Days”).  And in terms of Pearl Jam as loud, raging rock stars, I’ve long preferred the Pearl Jam of “Corduroy” and “Even Flow” over the proto-punk angst on tracks like the aforementioned “Spin the Black Circle” and “Mind Your Manners”. Unfortunately, some good rockers here aside (“Getaway”, “Infallible”), nothing on Lightning Bolt scales the heights of their more memorable hard rock classics.

Lightning Bolt is not as tight or overall satisfying as their last effort, and it certainly won’t make anyone forget their early output; but it is fitfully satisfying album that continues Pearl Jam’s assimilation into the world of classic rock survivors.  Still rocking, not for casual fans or in calculated hopes of dominating the charts, but because it’s clearly all they want to do at this point.  B

Key Tracks:  Sirens, Getaway, Infallible, Sleeping By Myslef.

(Image Credit:  Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

MACHETE KILLS

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By R. David

I am certainly the target audience for “Machete Kills”.  Not only did I thrill to the original “Machete” and “Grindhouse” – which introduced the Machete character in one of the riotous faux trailers that accompanied Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s splendidly trashy homage to ‘70s exploitation cinema – but I also thoroughly and un-ironically dig the type of lurid, low budget, splatter pulp these films are paying tribute to.

So it’s with some regret that I must report I found myself rather cool to “Machete Kills”.  There is no problem with the film, relatively speaking:  It’s just as insanely over-the-top as it predecessor(s), features a host of interesting performances, and lots of laugh-out-loud dialog and gonzo action sequences; everything one could hope for from a tacky, rampaging, exploitation flick.  But there is a sense of stagnancy hanging  over the proceedings this time, suggesting that perhaps no matter how well-crafted these throwbacks are, too many trips back to the same well is simply exhausting. 

After all, the truly great grindhouse-era flicks weren’t conceived out of winking irony, which makes their freak show insanity all the more fascinatingly compelling and entertaining.   Considering the bounty of films over the last decade or so from directors paying tribute to this bygone era of filmmaking that they grew up on and drew inspiration from, there is no shortage of movies like “Machete Kills”.

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That said though, Robert Rodriguez is a director more talented than most who have tackled this sort of garish silliness.  People generally refer to his fascination with exploitation cinema as a fairly recent career move, forgetting that even before “Grindhouse” and “Machete” he more or less built his career on films that were essentially riffs on the grindhouse/exploitation formula (“Desperado”, “From Dusk Till Dawn”, “The Faculty”, etc.).  He has not so much genuine affection for the genre as an obsession with it.  Good thing too, because he makes them better than anyone.  I don’t fault his technical prowess.

But unlike his longtime collaborator Quentin Tarantino – who revels in a similar sort of colorful, flamboyant genre filmmaking, but simply uses his inspirations as a canvas on which to mount his own insanely ambitious and original ideas – Rodriguez is content to hue as closely to his blueprints as possible.  He has no trouble recognizing and recreating the most entertaining aspects of his inspirations, but he refuses to go any further with the concept, resulting in a decent replica rather than a film that breaks the mold itself.

The more often Rodriguez mines this same territory, the more obvious this becomes. 

And so, “Machete Kills”, though perhaps at no fault of its own, has the feeling of a joke that’s been run into the ground.  The film still has plenty to recommend it, though; especially for fans of this particular genre/fad who aren’t yet finding themselves burned-out on all the kitschy nostalgia here.  Chief among “Machete Kills’” merits is its talented and game cast.  Danny Trejo does what he does best in the title role (not smile, kill people and growl the things “Machete don’t” do) and Rodriguez has surrounded him with a WTF supporting cast that largely lives up to the giddy expectations seeing their names on a project like this creates – especially Demian Bichir (TV’s ultra-serious, ultra-intense “The Bridge”) as a loopy drug cartel boss (talk about playing against type) and Charlie Sheen as the President of the United States (!) who recruits Machete to kill Bichir before he can drop a nuke on Washington, DC.  But it’s Mel Gibson as the film’s ultimate Big Bad who steals scene after scene; proof positive that whatever issues he may (or used to) suffer from in his personal life, Gibson is still a performer of effortless charisma.  Playing a Bond-style supervillain, he is nearly as creased and cagey as Machete, but he still delivers the same winning charm and infectious action-hero posturing (ironically, playing a villain for the first time) fans will remember from more Gibson-friendly times. 

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There is also no shortage of great gags again this time around.  The kills are as inventively gory as the first film (such as Machete’s propensity for using the bad guys’ intestines against them), there is a pointless but undeniably engaging bit with Walton Goggins (TV’s “The Shield” and “Justified”) as a hitman who, when in disguise, is portrayed by Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lady Gaga (!), and Charlie Sheen is billed under his birth name:  “Introducing Carlos Estevez”.

These moments and the cast make it hard to dislike “Machete Kills”.  If this were the first grindhouse homage you saw, you’d likely find it to be a kinetic and ballsy flick, bucking the conventions of standard moviemaking and good taste.  At their heart, that is precisely what the best exploitation flicks did.  But there is a reason that film genre was short lived.  Hundreds of them were churned out in such a short time, all looking and feeling so similar, the filmmakers simply exhausted the genre.  How ironic then that Robert Rodriguez, someone who obviously has such true love and appreciation for this genre, is now himself threatening to do the same thing to its resurgence by making the same mistake of over-indulgence.

“Machete Kills” is fitfully amusing and entertaining in all the ways it sets out to be. Fans of the genre will no doubt enjoy it for what it is.  But I can’t be the only member of that group who is starting to feel that Rodriguez is too good of a filmmaker to waste his time telling the same joke over and over again.

2½ stars out of 4

(Images courtesy of Open-Road Films)

RUSH

Film Title: Rush

By R. David

“Rush” is an intermittently exciting biopic that unfortunately seems to have no real desire to buck biopic conventions.

Ron Howard’s film recounts the dizzying rivalry between Austria’s Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) and Britain’s James Hunt (Chris Hemmsworth).  The two men came up together on the Formula Three circuit and both came from families that disapproved of their chosen profession, but other than an insatiable love for the sport, that is where their similarities end.  Lauda is a rational and methodical racer who always counted the odds both to win races and ensure his safety, never sacrificing his moral and professional code for daredevil thrills.  Hunt is his polar opposite.  Renowned as much for his good looks, cocksure swagger, and off-the-track exploits as he was for his racing ability, Hunt is an undisciplined thrill-seeker with a ‘live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse’ attitude.  He craves the fame and notoriety that comes with victory as much as he craves the victory itself.  In 1976, they were pitted against each other; Lauda defending his world championship title and Hunt gunning for his first.

“Rush is sleek and handsomely mounted.  The cars look great, the era-specific details are flawless, and the racing sequences are often heart-pounding.  Howard, who made his directorial debut with 1977’s Roger Corman-produced B-movie cult-classic, “Grand Theft Auto”, does a terrific job of putting audiences both in the racing stands as well as in the cockpit of what are portrayed as 170 miles-per-hour coffins on wheels.  The sense of risk and danger is palpable.  But we also feel the thrill and allure of the sport.  We are told that in Formula One racing there is a 20% chance the driver will die in any given race.  Hunt and Lauda accept these odds, but while Hunt operates on pure instinct and his insatiable thirst to win at all costs, Lauda is not willing to raise the risk a single percent more.  During the ’76 championship, he makes an exception and the results are harrowingly catastrophic.  Howard and his editors’ deft handling of each grand prix sequence are as immersive and thrilling as anyone could realistically hope for without the use of gimmicky 3-D.  “Rush” is pure craftsman moviemaking.

Hemmsworth gives his best performance to date as the fast-burning, undisciplined Hunt.  Free from the silly trappings of fighting intergalactic battles with a big hammer, he demonstrates a winning charisma, and makes a case that he has natural leading-man abilities.  Playing a cocky playboy type may come naturally to the handsome star, but he’s equally effective in the film’s dramatic moments, convincingly portraying Hunt’s emotional vulnerability.  But it’s “Inglorious Basterds’” Brühl who, hidden behind prosthetic bucked teeth and saddled with the less showy and –frankly – less likeable role, really gets to the heart of his character.  A man of measured intensity, Brühl conveys Lauda’s intelligence and conviction with sympathetic aplomb.

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Off the racetrack, “Rush” is a bit less thrilling.  It’s not that these men’s personal exploits weren’t interesting or dramatic – far from it – it’s that Peter Morgan’s script takes a blandly familiar, beat-by-beat approach in chronicling their private lives; rendering some the most important people and events in each of their lives nothing more than superficial elements of your average Hollywood drama.  That I don’t even feel compelled to mention Olivia Wilde as Hunt’s love interest – who’s character leaves Hunt for Richard Burton before she can even make an impression – or Alexandra Maria Lara as Lauda’s wife is a testament to just how perfunctory this film treats their characters.  Both actresses equate themselves nicely, and you get the sense of how important they were to these men – and vice-versa – but “Rush” moves along at a Cliff’s Notes pace, saving any sense of precision and gusto for the racetrack.

“Rush” is an undeniably effective racing flick, and it has obvious affection for its two heroes, who certainly make for compelling dramatic figures.  It’s too bad Morgan’s script doesn’t display the same desire to create something bold and provocative as Howard’s audacious direction does.

3 stars out of 4

(Images courtesy of Universal Pictures)

GRAVITY

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By R. David

Mind.  Blown.

Full disclosure:  I loathe this whole 3-D “revolution”.  I had yet to see one 3-D movie where I felt the technology was worth its surcharge, never mind delivered on claims to transport the moviegoer into the action on screen.  Not one.  (And yes, that includes “Avatar” and whatever other title you’re thinking to yourself, “even (fill in the blank)?!”  Yep, that one too.) “Gravity” is not only the first movie I’ve seen where I feel the 3-D is a necessary component and well worth the beefed-up ticket price, but it is the first film where the technology finally creates a truly immersive experience for the viewer.

As you watch George Clooney and Sandra Bullock float and spin through zero-gravity space, you will believe you are seeing real bodies floating out in real space.  And you will believe you are right there with them.  It is the most beautiful, existential, transcendent mind-fuck technophiles and traditional cinephiles alike could ever ask for.  “Gravity” doesn’t simply fulfill the promise of 3-D technology and IMAX and Ultra-screens, but it fulfills the promise of film magic at its most visceral level.  You will walk out of this film not just giddy from the stunning visuals, but with your equilibrium out of whack.  That’s not hyperbole; I literally felt odd walking out into daylight – walking period – after feeling as though I was floating weightlessly through a dark abyss with these characters for the last 90 minutes.  It’s a staggering feeling; comparable, no doubt, to how audiences felt seeing “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat”) in 1896, with its then-revolutionary uncut image of train barreling towards the audience who fled the theater because they thought the train would burst through the screen; or perhaps experiencing “The Wizard of Oz” and its Technicolor majesty for the first time.

Speaking of uncut images, “Gravity” begins with a spectacular, 13-minute single shot in which George Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski “space walks” seemingly out of another galaxy – slowly emerging as a spec in the corner of the screen, floating ever closer across the curve of the earth – and settles in next to Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, an all-business medical engineer on her first mission into space where she and Kowalski are to perform apparently rather routine maintenance on a space station.  Director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) makes terrific use of the 3-D in moments both big and small.  As Kowalski and Stone maneuver around the outside of the shuttle, they sit directly in front us; as they work on the shuttle control panels, their hands and elbows invade our personal space.  When debris from a destroyed neighboring satellite comes hurtling towards them with vicious, destructive force, ripping their shuttle to shreds, the effect is nerve-wracking, causing the viewer to flinch and duck in their seats.  Their shuttle destroyed and cut off of all communications with NASA, Stone and Kowalski now have to find a way back to Earth (and before their oxygen runs out or the gravitational pull of the Earth brings that devastating storm of debris back around).  Watching these two minuscule bodies stranded and set adrift in the vast vacuum and unforgiving darkness of outer space, one can’t think of a more desperate, terrifying and impossible challenge.

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For all of its technological grandeur, “Gravity” is also a marvel of simplicity.  The film is essentially a two-character play, with Clooney and Bullock both delivering convincing, pitch-perfect performances as decidedly different characters and personalities. In terms of acting, Bullock is asked to do the heavy lifting and she is – to my surprise- a revelation. I have never been her biggest fan, but she projects a soulful gravitas in emotionally exhausting scenes that most actors wouldn’t approach with the same measured restraint. For his part, Cuarón relies as much on quiet moments of intimate emotion and delicate, dreamlike visuals to wow viewers as he does those big, eye-popping set pieces.  It is that balance of the intimate and the epic that gives “Gravity” it’s emotional weight and ultimately proves to be the story’s strongest ally.  The script (co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas) unfortunately often lacks the same degree of subtlety and originality as the images and action on screen, which is the only thing that prevents “Gravity” from rivaling Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:  A Space Odyssey” as the best movie about space ever made.  Kubrick’s masterpiece is just as beautifully artistic – punctuated by a haunting visual aesthetic – but it’s also quiet, contemplative and profound.  “Gravity” strives for profundity, but is all too eager to spell all of its themes out for the audience, and falls short as a result.

No matter.  Though it has obvious ambitious beyond pure spectacle, “Gravity” is clearly a movie made to push the boundaries of movie-making.  It’s less about dialog, storytelling, and narrative heft than the ability of film to amaze and inspire.  You can’t help but ponder with giddy excitement how directors like Kubrick and Georges Méliès would employ the technological magic today’s directors are fortunate enough to have at their disposal.  Cuarón, however, is as worthy an heir to their legend as we have today, a reputation he cements with this spectacular achievement.  You won’t soon forget his exquisite imagery – the constant illumination of the ever-present Earth seemingly just out of reach of the desperate, stranded characters, as if to taunt them; the twisted silence that accompanies all the explosions and destruction because sound cannot exist in space, the balletic movements, the final harrowing shot – like “2001”, “Gravity” is haunting in the best sense of the term.

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We live in a time when technology is so omnipresent and so radically evolving that it has become nearly impossible to be truly moved or awed by advances in filmmaking.  If you see “Gravity” (and if I haven’t already make it clear, you should… now.. in 3-D and on the biggest screen possible – there would be absolutely no point in opting for the 2-D version of this film) take a moment to ponder the fact that what you are feeling is likely as close as you may ever come to a sense of true astonishment at the power of film – how technology, when used correctly and effectively, can create genuinely wondrous, immersive, mind-blowing cinema; which is precisely what movies started out striving to achieve.

For all of the technological advances proudly on display here, “Gravity” is cinema in its purest form.

4 Stars (Out of 4)