Gravity: Thrillingly adrift, but not rootless thanks to the sounds of silence

A film with two actors which is only an hour and half long. In some respects Gravity couldn’t be more counter-cultural for the big budget star-vehicles we’ve got so accustomed to seeing. Lest this put you off, then you can rest assured that the two actor s are two major stars (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock); it’s a film set in space with jaw-dropping visuals; and it positively flies by quicker than an episode of CSI.

It may be a film of big vision, but the focus is small. We’re focussed throughout the film on two astronauts on a space-walk to carry out some repairs; things go wrong and of them becomes separated from the ship. What we see is the attempt to save themselves, cut off as they are from help on the earth.

On one level Gravity is a simple disaster movie with a small cast; in true disaster movie fashion, everything that can go wrong does go wrong for the two drifters. Several things elevate this film, though. The performances from Clooney and Bullock are fine in their roles, but it’s behind the camera that this film makes things work for the viewer. Alfonso Cuarón is a director who knows his way around lean but effective entertainment; he was behind the best of the Harry Potter films (Prisoner of Askabanas well as the brilliant action film with ideas Children Of Men. He brings all that focussed intelligence to bear on a movie in Gravity that’s almost unbearably tense and having some to say at the same time. This is a film that tells a simple story very well as asking us to mull on a few things:  on what it means to be alone or in company, the nature of sacrifice and when to cling on to life or when to let go of it, the way the deep things of the past shape us in moments of extreme crisis.

All of these would be vague notions if it weren’t for the performances, a well-thought through script and some dazzling technical work. The visuals are dazzlingly brilliant, crystal sharp and vertigo inducing. The real achievement, though, is in the sound. The challenge presented is what you do make the film something more than a silent film, but still remain convincing when we well know that in space sound doesn’t carry. I don’t understand these things, but the sound – the music, the voices of fellow astronauts, ground control and so on – somehow manages to express a strange combination of being alone whilst in communication. I don’t know what’s been done to the sound to make this happen, but whatever it is, it works abundantly. Without it the film would be good but not excellent, tense but not nerve-shredding, memorable but not significant. The sound leads us to be more immersed and involved with the story of two people – and only two people  – than we would otherwise become. So immersed that we’re satisfied with the glimpses we get of the two characters’ lives one earth, enough to grasp how their actions in a crisis are shaped by the rest of their lives but no so much to ever take us out of the moment of the story. That’s a rare balance to strike, between story and theme, which Cuarón here manages with aplomb in similar ways to his other films. Story and theme serve each other without driving each other out.

Maybe I’m just at a moment in life where this was bound to resonate; living through a crisis the sort of which I never dreamed has made me think about why we act the way we do when the pressure is on in whole new ways; I’ve thought again about the nature of relationships and isolation; I’ve thought again about life and death and the relationship between the two. Gravity informed that conversation of mine more deeply than I expected. It’s a brilliant film, one you’ll enjoy and think about to an extent far beyond the 90 or so minutes running time. You should see it.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Up In The Air

It’s quite hard to dislike George Clooney. Especially his cool liberalism (unless, I guess, you’re on the political right) and that natural suave charm. Somehow he even manages to escape the potential charge of hypocrisy in the light of his outward concern for humanitarian issues as he takes a pay-cheque promoting coffee machines from a company whose track record in that area is less than spotless. Artistically he makes it all look so easy – whether it’s adverts, crowd-pleasing Oceans 11, 12, 13… or something more meditative or thoughtful.

Up In The Air appears then, at the outset,seems to be something of an open goal. And so it is, especially as behind the camera we have Jason Reitman, the director of superb, witty, subtle charming Juno. Clooney plays a man who flies around the states, making a living from sacking people on behalf of other companies who buy the services of his company. He’s prides himself on bringing the human touch; and he loves the forced politeness of the airline, hotel and car rental companies whom he chooses to use as homes on the road. He’s the ultimate man with no connections and no commitments. It’s no great surprise then, that film turns on challenges to his world – from his sister’s wedding, a woman he has a fling with on the road and a new employee seeking to bring a new way of working from the office, sacking by video-conference.

Clooney delivers the sort of performance you expect Clooney to deliver, and it’s no less enjoyable for that. The dark comedy just works in tone; the script has a similar (though adult, not adolescent) sharpness to Juno, and the rest of the cast are fine without being outstanding.

It’s good, though a long way from great. Why? Because, I think, it seems to get stuck at a half-way point between seeking to say something about work, culture and relationships at one extreme or a simple, darker-shade of comedy. It’s ends up being convincing at neither end of the spectrum, and what could have been a cleverly ambiguous ending becomes a cop-out. The film stares into an abyss, and gets so hypnotised by what it sees there that it’s frozen, head-hanging over the edge, unable to jump or back away.

The Men Who Stare At Goats: End as you mean to go on

It probably shouldn’t be the case, but a film’s ending is really it’s beginning. It’s the last thing in your mind when you leave the cinema; so a satisfying ending if likely to define an audience’s response to a film. Similarly  a poor one. One of the most famous examples of this is the original cinema release of Bladerunner. This film was always going to divide audiences, with its dark palette, moody atmosphere and serious themes for a sci-fi story with the star of Star Wars. Some responded well to what they saw, though – struck by the film’s seriousness, skill and depth…until a tacked on ending under studio pressure, that undermined much of went before with a happy and upbeat conclusion. It’s taken 25 years to fully fix that, with a Director’s Cut that wasn’t really, and a Final Cut that probably is. With a suitable ending in place, it stands clearly as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. A film of Bladerunner‘s quality shouldn’t have suffered so much over its last few seconds; but it did, hampered for years by a few misjudged seconds (as well as the needless narration).

The Men Who Stare At Goats is no Bladerunner, but it shares a similar problem with its ending. Its based on a non-fiction book, about the ‘secret’ psychic spy division of the US army. The unit’s story is told in flashback, as Ewan McGregor’s journalist accompanies George Clooney’s army man into modern-day Iraq – it’s a device that’s not in the book, understandably added in to give the film narrative momentum. The flashbacks tend to work better; the road movie plot is unconvincing and could have been done more simply and effectively. There is, though, a lovely light comic tone that carries the film along over the many flaws along the way. Some truly hilarious moments will live a long time in the memory – Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor are all engaging presences. This, though, is Clooney’s film, and his pitch perfect portrayal is funny, skeptical, satirical and kindly all at the same time. He is truly a master of his craft; there are few contemporary actors capable of this kind of role.

All of which makes the ending all the more disappointing. Until the last two minutes, the narrative flaws are largely ignorable thanks to the film’s good-nature, fine performances and well-paced laughs.  Up until the end, the viewer’s given just enough to make you understand why people can fall for the nonsense of psychic spies; to see that coincidences can sometimes look like more than that. The film’s conclusion, though, is a ludicrously miss-judged attempt at feel-good up-lift; it’s no less than an insult to audience intelligence and devalues so much good that’s gone before. It’s an attempt at joyful wonder, ignoring that true wonder is about undeserved grace and favour and beauty rather than achieving something patently impossible.

It could be argued that such an ending allows a more honest view of the film’s flaws; that’s understandable, but unfair. See it, but close your eyes and shut your ears for the last minute; that way you’ll walk out laughing at a flawed but entertaining comedy. If not, you’ll just feel let down.