October 15, 2013

Gravity (10/15/2013)

Lettergrade: A-

My friend Randy saw Gravity recently (in 3D IMAX!) and was completely blown away by it. We both agreed that on a visual level, the movie is as immersive and as stunning as any that either of us have seen - and hey, I only saw it in a regular 2D theater!

While talking about the various story points, he said something I thought was really interesting: That in a sense, Gravity is a "great" movie without necessarily being a "good" one.

I understood right away what he meant (although I might not have put it that way, exactly). I suppose the story itself - which finds Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the lone survivors of NASA team sent up into orbit to perform some satellite repairs, only to be interrupted by some Russian space debris that destroys their shuttle and makes their chances of survival slim - does get a little contrived now and again, but if we're talking about Gravity as a work of pure cinema - as in something that's meant to be seen and experienced as much as it is meant to be contemplated and understood - I'm not sure I can find another picture that filled me with as much anxiety and tension for 90 minutes as this one does.

To that end, discussing this picture and what happens in it, seems to be a bit of a pointless exercise to me that will only undercut the experience for the uninitiated. I will comment, however, that Sandra Bullock really knocked my socks off here. I've always liked her, but she typically doesn't make movies that are aimed at my demographic, and so I haven't seen many of them. I have, however, occasionally acquiesced to seeing movies like The Proposal with my wife (as partial payback for forcing her to sit through crap like Scary Movie 4), and I have to admit that she's usually quite good in them.

Since Gravity is mostly from her perspective (Clooney is the only other actor who appears on screen - all others are voice only), she's got to carry much of the movie herself, and she does so beautifully. The movie is a fairly primal survivor story, and at times reminds me a bit of the stripped down, limited-point-of-view qualities of both Cast Away and (more obviously) Apollo 13. Nevertheless, the storytelling is interesting and unique… I appreciated that while the movie gradually fills some of the backstory for its two actors, it does so in a very clean, matter-of-fact way that isn't overly emotive, kind of "1970s style," really.

It's been an interesting year for movies in that some of them have been allowed to be a little more lean and economical in their storytelling than big VFX driven event pictures have been for the last twelve years or so (you know, the ones that typically run 3 hours). This movie only runs about 90 minutes, and plays perfectly at that length… no other frills and accoutrements are needed. Now that parenthood has made my free time much more precious and valuable than it used to be, I appreciated that Gravity found a way to be so brief, yet so powerful and memorable.

October 8, 2013

Enough Said (10/08/2013)

Lettergrade: C-

The first trailer I saw for Enough Said had the glossy veneer of a standard issue studio romantic comedy… the kind of lab-tested product that you would expect to star a former cast member of Friends back in the late 90s. Or to put it another way, the kind of thing I would have virtually no interest in going to see.

What turned my head as the ad went on, however, was that the picture appeared to have a pretty stellar cast: The ever-charming Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a supporting bit by Toni Collette, Catherine Keener in a small role, and perhaps most notably, the late James Gandolfini, whose final film this was.

And then I saw that the movie was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener… she's one of my wife's favorite filmmakers, having made some really interesting independent fare like Walking And Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money and her previous picture, 2010's oblique tome on liberal guilt, Please Give, which I agreed to see in part to try to make up for forcing my wife to go see movies like Scary Movie 4 on occasion. I've really grown to like and appreciate Holofcener's films myself, honestly, but I'm sorry to report that when we finally pulled the trigger on seeing this new one, I found it to have more in common with the glossy trailer that rubbed me the wrong way than it does with her other movies.

The picture is a love story about two divorced soon-to-be empty-nesters who meet and try to make a relationship work. The twist is that Louis-Dreyfus, a professional masseuse, realizes shortly after beginning to date Gandolfini that he's actually the ex-husband that one of her clients keeps talking smack about during their sessions. Upon making this horrific discovery, she's torn about what to do, but realizes that there's an advantage to keeping both relationships going. "I've been listening to this woman say the worst things about the guy that I'm starting to really like," Louis-Dreyfus says to her friend, "She's like a human TripAdvisor!" "But Albert is not a hotel," Collette counters. "Yes, but if you could avoid staying at a bad one, wouldn't you?"

That's a bit reminiscent of a Three's Company premise, I think, and it largely looks and feels like a sit-com in the first half too. This is not helped by a few key problems… The big one, I'm sorry to say, is Louis-Dreyfus herself, who seemed to have a little trouble adapting her delivery style that's always been so spot-on for Seinfeld, The New Adventures Of Old Christine and HBO's Veep (for which she has just won her 2nd consecutive Emmy) to a more intimate, languid feature's pace. During several of the early scenes, I kind of felt like she was mugging a little and giving big, punctuational line readings to a studio audience that wasn't actually there. During one of the early date scenes, both she and Gandolfini smile at each other so goddamn much that I felt like I was watching a Docker's ad or at the very least that the movie had some kind of Colgate cross-promotion going on that I didn't know about. In the second half of the movie, she is able to disappear into the role a bit more and let some of the sadness and humanity of the character get through, but early in the picture, at least, it's hard to look at her and not think of Elaine Benes.

That second half is where a little more of the interesting material creeps in, but if we're being honest, I should admit that the movie had already turned me off past the point of return at that point. Late in the picture, Louis-Dreyfus' screen daughter asks her mom if she still would have married her dad had she known in advance about all little things that would ultimately lead them to separate. I think that's an interesting inter-personal relationship question that's really at the heart of what this picture wants to get at, but it feels like the sort of thing that the movie starts to directly play with a bit too late.

There are some Holofcener bits woven throughout the movie that reminded me of what I really like about her other movies too… In particular, I thought it was interesting that Collette and her screen-husband have casual, almost callous conversations about whether to fire their maid. Scenes like those are throw-aways, really, but kind of speak to Holofcener's awareness of all the different class levels and layers of wealth that are present in the story, almost in a way that makes me wish that stuff had been a little more integral to what was going on. The film doesn't really address much that Louis-Dreyfus, a professional masseuse, probably doesn't have the same means as her friends, who have professions like "psychiatrist to the stars" and "well-published poet." Maybe class and economics were never really intended to play a large role in the movie, but it's another subject that the movie seems to bat at little, but never really do much with.

Add to all that an overbearing, acoustic-guitar based score by Marcelo Zarvos and you've got a picture that feels like it tries way too hard in the middle and doesn't offer enough payoff to justify that effort by the end. The film's most powerful moment for me was not even the ultimate conclusion of the main story with Gandolfini, but the scene where Louis-Dreyfus puts her daughter on a plane at LAX to go off to college.

I guess I'm grateful that there wasn't some big bullshit scene where Gandolfini interrupts a baseball game in order to declare his love for Louis-Dreyfus in front of 70,000 Dodger fans (which would unquestionably happen if Ashton Kutcher were in this movie), but nevertheless, I walked away feeling that the story wasn't quite a complete meal.

And before I stop typing, I should say that I really hate to bag on a picture like this which tries to tell an interesting, mature love story (but doesn't quite make it) so soon after writing a positive post about a movie like Iron Man 3, which doesn't aim to be much more than a noisy piece of dumb, entertaining fluff (and at which it succeeds). I feel like I should cut the movie a little more slack than I am simply for its intentions, but at the same time, I need to admit that I just didn't like it all that much.