Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Gravity"


Gravity is eye popping stuff. Alfonso Cuaron has made a movie that is unlike any we’ve ever seen before. It’s almost as groundbreaking as Avatar minus the flaws Cameron’s film had. Cuaron's magic here is perfect. This is a straightforward blockbuster from an auteur who knows how to please. Cuaron's films have legitimately made him one of the best directors around (Children Of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) hell he even made high art out of a Harry Potter film. Prisoner Of Azkaban was by far the best one of the series, with its exceptional visuals. So who's to expect anything else but a great movie from Cuaron. He's made one here with Gravity. There are no eye popping, gut squirming villains in this space world. The villain here is just gravity itself in all of its nightmarish, scientific and subtle madness.

It would be unfair to reveal the secrets behind the plot but suffice to say a master is at work here and Cuaron has surely directed Sandra Bullock to her second Oscar Nomination – if not, her second win. Bullock is dead-on as an astronaut with not much to live for but her job, especially as she is still mourning the death of her daughter back at home. Corny stuff right? but you believe it and are affected by it. George Clooney plays her co-pilot in the space mission and he acts, well, like George Clooney in an astronaut suit. I'm fine with that. Some of the visuals here are tremendous, in a how-the-hell-did-they-do-it kind of way. It was supposedly a torturous experience for Sandra Bullock as she told us at the film's premiere in Toronto. Bullock was in a cubicle the entire shoot of the film and had to rely on her imagination to act out the scenes. It seems to have worked.

 Gravity is a film that relies on its visuals to tell a story. The hypnotic madness of space itself is continuously a theme that was delved upon before, most notably in Stanley Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey. This is not as trippy an experience as Kubrick's journey into the human psyche but it relies on that film as a draft for its more entertaining aspirations. Some of Gravity's images have been firmly planted into my head since I last saw it in Toronto 3 weeks ago. It's a film that is meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the biggest speakers. The dialogue is minimal but the music -brilliantly composed by Stephen Price- drives the story along with its loud, penetrating beat.

The last 10 minutes of Gravity are as intense any film I've seen this year, in fact it'll make you appreciate the grounded feel of our beloved planet. There's something to be said about a film that takes place mostly in space with not much plot to speak for but the survival of its protagonists. What Cuaron and his brother Carlos -they wrote the screenplay together- have achieved is an immersive experience unlike any other we've ever seen before. Comparisons to Avatar will be made, but Gravity is a better, more artful experience. A 90 minute trip to space with the unrelenting feeling of wanting to get out alive.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Breaking Bad" Trying to explain it all



Breaking Bad. There, I said it. It seems like it's the only thing people have been talking about these last few weeks. With good reason. This was an exceptional show, from the likes we hadn't seen since The Sopranos. A show that took on such cinematic value that it made us aware of just how low the quality of  movies really is these days compared to cable TV. Walter White's fate became such a nationwide phenomenon that if you said words such as "Heisenberg" or "Ricin" chances are people would know what you were talking about.


The last three episodes of the series really just blew me away, starting with "Ozymiandas" which was an amazing achievement that proved that cable TV could be of the stuff deserving of Oscars, ditto the last two episodes which laid the ground for an epic finale. One that might have not been as risk-taking as say The Sopranos whatthefuckjusthappened ender or as brilliantly realized as Six Feet Under's ambitious time lapse but it kept its promise intact and used Walter White's ingenuity to tie up all the loose ends and serve up some cold blooded revenge.

What to make of this series overall? It started off with a bang and ended with a bang. Bryan cranston as Walter White is a masterful creation comparable to that of the late James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano. An anti-heroic monster that somehow had people rooting for him. I won't hide, I was one of those people rooting for White to come out on top but morally it was wrong. Here was a man that built an empire on making and dealing a drug that ruined lives. Cranston never let-up the intensity that came with his role. Walter White started off as a loser chemistry teacher, bullied by his wife, mocked by his son and ended up as a drug kingpin, feared by his wife, disowned by his son.  This was a scarface-like story that had consequences that were so deep and so psychologically deep that scholarly thesis' could be written about it.

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman was a masterful portrayal of a boy that grew up a man in such short amount of time. Paul was a no-name actor before this show -and judging by his turn in last year's small indie Smashed- this isn't the last we'll hear from him, the film world is knocking at his door. Ditto Anna Gunn who's Skyler was a -curiously- hated character in the series, even though she condemned what her crime-loving husband was doing and was the voice of reason until she got corrupted herself. Which says a lot about how far this series has come. Walter White started off as a schlub that you felt bad about but turned into this gargantuan monster that was meant to not be rooted for. The audience still did, which to me is a brilliant example of our violent-loving society. The show's creator Vince Gilligan made it clear White is not a guy to root for and the series behind him has fully condemned his behaviour yet we still cheered on.

In "Granite State", the penultimate episode, Walt is relegated to living a low-key subordinate life in a remote, snowy cabin deep in the woods of New Hampshire and of course -given that this is New Hampshire- he goes insane with boredom and hitches a ride to a local bar where he calls his son at school and, instead of having his son understand his excuses, gets an earful from Walt Jr. by being told that he's better off dead. This of course discourages Walt, a man whom from the start said he did it for his family and their own welfare. This might have also been a wakeup call to audiences who stood by Walt, maybe it was indeed time to pack it and call it a day. A phone call to the police ensues ,a defeated Walt about to give himself up, when "Gray Matters", his former partners and nemesis', appear on Television. This sparks a fire inside Walt and makes him realize that all this had to with himself more than his family. He wanted to prove to himself that he could feel "alive" as he put it. He did but with consequences.

That last episode, entitled "Felina", had Walt taking revenge on everyone in sight. The Nazis, Lydia and Gray Matters. It was a rewarding feast for the eyes that tidied up every possible tread. Skyler got one last goodbye, in a breathtaking scene that could have belonged straight out of film noir with its cigarette smoke and low lighting. In fact the whole episode was like a film noir, with not much dialogue but stark, haunting images of people that have turned into mere ghosts. Jesse, prisoner at a meth lab, dreaming of a past when making a perfect wooden box at woodworking class was the only time in his life where he had achieved a state of Nirvana. Skyler, a broken woman who's husband betrayed her trust and consequentially got her into deep trouble with her family and the law. Marie, a widow tormented by the unfound body of her dead husband.

Gilligan directs the whole episode like its his last one, it sort of is, and gives us a few nifty shots that are worth talking about for years to come. And who else but Jesse could have killed Todd, the character that ended up being most evil out of all the ones that came before him in the series. Alas, Breaking Bad and its final three episodes, 150 minutes of pure TV bliss, made high art out of a story that got more and more complicated as it went along. The 96% pure blue meth that Jesse and Walt infamously cooked up was almost a curse to anyone that dealt with it. Gilligan got criticized by some circles for giving his series "too tidy" of an ending. I understand that argument but at the same thing we've come so far and had so many surprises, shocks, twists and turns that the biggest shock of them all was that there was no shock at the end at all. The simpleness of "Felina" is what made it so brilliant and sometimes that all you need to satisfy.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Captain Phillips"


Khat Ban is a herb that has been part of Somalian tradition for hundreds of years. It is a chewed upon Amphetmaine-like substance that causes excitement and euphoria. In Peter Greengrass' riveting "Captain Phillips", the pirates that are about to take over Richard Phillips' ship chew on Khat Ban to overcome the nerves and fears that come with taking on such a mission. The brilliance of Greengrass' film is how we get to know these pirates not as villains but as impoverished third world human beings with not much to lose. We've all heard about Somali pirate takeovers at sea in the news but the topic has never really been given a Hollywood treatment until now. Which makes the film even more interesting. Greengrass touches upon many themes, including the negative effects of globalization and the isolation of such impoverished third world nations. Somali actor Bakhad Abdi is exceptional as Muse, one of four pirates trying to overtake an American cargo ship 145 miles off the Somali coast.

Abdi's scenes with a brilliantly effective Tom Hanks as the Captain are what makes "Captain Phillips" indisputably great. Greengrass smartly decides to cast non-professional actors for the Somali roles, the risk pays off brilliantly. Abdi, looking jaunt and intense, matches Hanks scene for scene. He is exceptional and Oscar-worthy in a role that demands a lot of intense, real emotions. Muse nicknames Hanks "Irish" and calls him that many times throughout the film, their bond is a complicated one. Both men understand each other: Phillips knows Muse is doing what he has to do to survive and Muse knows that the Captain wants his men on-board unharmed and will do whatever it takes to achieve that. These two men share more in common than one might think and both are relying on the American government to get them out of this situation.

We all know how it ends, that's besides the point. What "Captain Phillips" ends up being about is the bond between these two men. They both come from significantly different cultural backgrounds yet they fully understand each other, they know why they are both there. While the other pirates, played by Barkhad Addirahman, Faysal Ahme and Mahat M. Ali, couldn't care less about Phillips, Muse does. Abdi is phenomenal and performs the rare -maybe never before achieved- feat of giving the best performance in a Tom Hanks movie. He and his pirate co-horts chew on Khat Ban religiously throughout the ordeal, trying to manage the situation by getting a simple high. They however find out it'll take much more than just herb to get through their botched hostage-taking attempt. The 135 minute "Captain Phillips" might sometimes feel by-the-books but whenever Abdi and Hanks are onscreen your eyes can't look away. They bring "Captain Phillips" up a notch and make it Greengrass best film since 2006's "United 93". 

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