Mini Review: Gravity (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Before its early October release, positive word of mouth and plenty of hype had been building around director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, his first film since 2006’s dystopian drama Children of Men. While plenty of curiosity has been milked out of its vague promotional campaign, Gravity is so much more than a movie about people floating around out in space. Mind you, it very well could have been and it still would have impressed through its special effects. No, Gravity is an inspiring tale about drifting through existence and never giving up even when it seems like things are lost. Guided by powerhouse performers George Clooney and a never-better Sandra Bullock, Gravity consistently holds its own with its stunningly emotional performances that bare heart and soul, a truly amazing accomplishment because the human side of the film could easily have gotten lost in all those CGI stars. Speaking of those CGI stars, Gravity is crafted through some of the most amazing special effects and 3D you may ever see. If this film is playing in 3D in a theater near you, you owe it to yourself to shell out the extra money to see it in that immersive format. It’s absolutely essential to the overall experience.
Gravity tells the story of Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowlaski (played by George Clooney), two astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer. While carrying out a bit of maintenance on their shuttle, Ryan and Matt receive a warning about debris from a destroyed Russian satellite rocketing their way. Ryan and Matt acknowledge the warning, but they don’t seem to be too worried about it. Matt is having a grand old time gliding above Earth with his thruster pack and Ryan is busy trying to hold down her last meal as she tinkers with the ship. Suddenly, what seemed like a minor threat only moments ago appears in the distance and the debris from the satellite rips apart the Explorer. In the midst of the destruction, Ryan is detached from the shuttle and launched out into space. With oxygen low and very few options, Matt begins trying to rescue Ryan and lead her to the International Space Station to regroup. Over the course of the rescue, Matt and Ryan get to know each other, and they reveal sensitive parts of their personal lives. But their fight for survival is disrupted when the debris that destroyed their shuttle descends upon the International Space Station and threatens to destroy their only hope for survival.
Placing the viewer inside the space suits and allowing us to assess the situation through the eyes of the characters, Gravity continuously keeps us on the edge of our seat. In the opening ten minutes, you’ll be allowed to marvel at the sublime beauty of space as Cuarón lets his camera float around without a cut in sight. You’ll feel like you’re right there with Matt and Ryan, swapping stories and jokes as Earth glows brightly below you. In 3D, it’s even more phenomenal, giving you the sensation that you’re actually floating around in the stars. I’m usually indifferent to 3D, but I must say that Gravity could very well be the greatest 3D film ever made, rivaling the neon fairy tale word that James Cameron ushered us into with Avatar. This was also the first time that 3D actually started to make me feel a bit nauseous through Cuarón’s continuous movement. When the satellite debris hits and Explorer is reduced to tiny little pieces of shrapnel, the beauty is replaced by terror. You’re consumed by the idea of getting sucked out into infinite darkness with very little hope for rescue. You’re just left to drift and count the minutes until it’s all over. It’s made even more gut wrenching when we begin hearing about a tragedy that rocked Ryan’s life not long ago.
Considering that Gravity is limited to only two main characters, Cuarón recruits two of the biggest names in Hollywood to orbit Earth. Clooney is his usual dashing self as the lighthearted Matt, the guiding light to Bullock’s Ryan. He’s full of jokes about his good looks and he gets a chuckle out of sharing the same stories with both Huston and Ryan, both of which groan when he starts rambling on. Meanwhile, Bullock gives an exhausting performance as Ryan, a broken-hearted astronaut who appears to be drifting through her own life in addition to drifting about in space. It’s best not to reveal too much about her character, but you truly feel like you get to know her inside and out. Her pain pricks your heart and her successes will make you swell with hope. I’d personally be surprised if we don’t see her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars. Overall, while Gravity is a technical wonder that will continue to amaze many years down the line, Cuarón really delivers a knock out through his story of rebirth. It becomes a classic tale about coming back from tragedy and pushing on even when you’re convinced there is nothing left to fight for. It’s a celestial blast of hope that could very well be the finest film of 2013.
Batman & Robin (1997)
by Steve Habrat
If Batfans were worried about what direction the Batman films were going in after 1995’s half-campy Batman Forever, our worst fears were confirmed with Joel Schumacher’s 1997 atrocity Batman & Robin. For this Batfan, I remained in denial about the movie for several weeks after I saw it, refusing to admit that it was downright awful. As the days passed, I began to face the truth and accept that Batman had been turned into a two-hour toy commercial that had little respect for the character I had grown up with. Schumacher had done what absolutely no one wanted to see and that was return to the silliness of the 1960s. Even more family friendly than Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was relentlessly juvenile, with Looney Tunes sound effects, the dynamic duo playing hockey with the “hockey team from Hell”, and Mr. Freeze delivering some seriously appalling one-liners that made any proud Batfan want to smash their head into a wall then curl up and die. Oh, and they totally ruined Bane! As a result of Batman & Robin, I actually gave up Batman and quit collecting the comics and toys for years after. I was so embarrassed by it and even today when I revisit the film, it is a real chore to get through. For two hours, Warner Bros. and Schumacher crush your spirits and spit in your face with lines like “You’re not gonna send me to the coolah!”
Batman & Robin begins with Commissioner Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle) summoning Batman (Played by George Clooney) and Robin (Played by Chris O’Donnell) to Gotham City to stop the sinister Mr. Freeze (Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) from stealing a cache of diamonds. Mr. Freeze narrowly escapes the masked vigilantes and returns to his hideout where he is trying to save the life of his beloved wife who is suffering from MacGregor’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, in South America, botanist Dr. Pamela Isely (Played by Uma Thurman) is working under the mad Dr. Jason Woodrue (Played by John Glover) who is experimenting with a serum called “Venom”, which transforms runts into super soldiers. He experiments on a scrawny criminal and in the process, turns him into the hulking killing machine Bane (Played by Jeep Swenson). Dr. Isely witness the experiment and when she refuses to join Dr. Woodrue, he brutally murders her with an assortment of different toxins that she was working on. Isely is reborn as the sexy seductress Poison Ivy, who joins forces with Bane and heads to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne about cutting the funding of her project in South America. Once she arrives, she bumps into Mr. Freeze and together, they form an alliance that will have Batman and Robin scrambling to find all the help they can get.
In interviews about the film, Schumacher explains that Warner Bros. really pressured him to keep things light for the children, even more than they did on Batman Forever. They also ushered in toy companies to have a strong input in the design of gadgets and vehicles and it is completely obvious. It was an attempt to make things more “toyetic”. There are countless gadgets strewn throughout the film, most of them serving no purpose at all. Then there is the Batmobile, which looks like a supped-up sports car that will be used for street racing rather than battling crime. I’m stunned that Schumacher didn’t throw text on the screen that read “For sale at your local Wal-Mart!” just so everyone knew it was available. The film has a paper thin plotline that barely makes any sense at all, the whole grand scheme here is that Mr. Freeze wants to freeze the city. The annoying aesthetic that Schumacher applied in Batman Forever is also punched up to one hundred as the film constantly looks like it was filmed in various glow-in-the-dark nightclubs as techno pumps into the fight scenes. While all of this is bad, nothing can compare to the performances that Schumacher captures.
Stepping in for Val Kilmer is the hunky George Clooney, who is so uncomfortable in the role that he is practically looking into the camera and saying it to us. His Bruce Wayne is a grinning and sunny philanthropist who refuses to brood or be at odds with his duty of protecting Gotham City. He is more of a wisecracking dad to Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who belts out cringe inducing dialogue at every turn. A scene where Batman and Robin glide through the sky on makeshift surfboards has Robin yelling “Cowabunga!” as he surfs over the rooftops of Gotham. There is a disposable side plot that finds Robin growing tired with all of Batman’s rules, which consistently keep him alive and he doesn’t even realize it. He whines and moans that Bruce doesn’t trust him but it never leads to anything substantial. Schumacher also can’t resist lacing the moments between Bruce and Dick with a homoerotic feel that once again is completely out of place. Things really get weird when they begin bickering over Poison Ivy, who introduces herself at a charity ball that has the dynamic duo arguing over who will take her home. The scene culminates in Batman whipping out an American Express card and warning Robin to “never leave the Batcave without it”. I don’t know about you, but I would think it would be odd that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be at his own charity ball but Batman is there bidding millions of dollars to take Ivy home. Maybe it is just me, but I think doing something like that would give yourself away instantly.
Then we have the villains, who once again steal most of the movie away from the title characters. Schwarzenegger is a lumbering chunk of blue cheese as he delivers some of the films worst lines of dialogue. Every line written for the man is a one liner that references freezing something. He crashes a party and shouts “Everyone chill!” as the guests shriek in terror. Then there is the femme fatale Poison Ivy, who is equally cheeky when she delivers lines like “Curses!” as she is foiled by Batgirl. She spends a good majority of the movie trying to seduce men and kiss them, which is the only thing deadly about her. Then we have Swenson’s Bane, a mindless brute with greenish skin that grunts, groans, and moans as Freeze and Ivy give him commands. For a villain that was extremely deadly in the comic books, it is such a disappointment when Robin and Batgirl swoop in and defeat this hulk. Alicia Silverstone shows up as Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece who likes to play sweet and innocent but has a knack for getting in with the wrong people. She ultimately becomes Batgirl but there is no build up to this. She just suddenly becomes part of the team and Batman never once questions her sudden appearance. Michael Gough reprises his role as Alfred and even he seems to be phoning it in here. He gets a side story that reveals his character is hiding an illness that may take his life. This is the most interesting part of Batman & Robin but it certainly doesn’t better the movie. Also returning is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon who is present only to grab a few laughs and then disappear.
By the time Mr. Freeze has converted a giant telescope into a freeze machine that will blanket Gotham City in a thick layer of ice, you will have completely checked out of Batman & Robin. Poison Ivy basically serves no purpose in the movie other than to drag the film out a little bit. Batman and Robin are unable to beat her even though she is powerless yet Batgirl swings in with one kick and Ivy is no more. Our heroes also have time to do a quick wardrobe change in the final act of the film, emerging onto the slick streets of ice town wearing futuristic armor that looks ridiculous. It doesn’t aid the trio in battling Mr. Freeze and seems like it is only here to look cool. And DON’T get me started on the nipples that are once again present on the Batsuit! Overall, it is hard to believe that Batman & Robin is operating in the same universe that Tim Burton created in 1989. An obnoxious mess of a film that is completely unwatchable from the get-go, Batman & Robin is not only the worst Batman film ever made, but is also one of the worst superhero films to ever grace the silver screen. A complete embarrassment on every single level, both for fans and the filmmakers.
Batman & Robin is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
by Corinne Rizzo
Totally sophisticated in most of his characteristics, Mr. Fox finds himself living in nature’s version of the suburbs after spending the majority of his foxhood stealing poultry and looting cider from the local farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. In an effort to move up in the world and out of the fox hole his family began in, Mr. Fox buys a tree trunk for the family to move into—right across the valley from his old chicken thieving stomping grounds—and his old ways begin to haunt his instincts. The hardship of instinct versus the inclination to do what is right puts Mr. Fox, his family, and his friends in some compromising positions and Wes Anderson’s sixth film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (based on the original children’s text by Roald Dahl), not only tells the story of the secret lives of foxes, but builds yet another invitation only universe in which to entertain the endless details that create a classic Wes Anderson film.
So, Fox meets farmer, farmer has chickens, chickens get stolen, farmers get mad, Fox gets caught, farmer traces Fox to his residence, farmer does everything in his power to kill Fox.
This is the basic plot of Fantastic Mr. Fox, though if Wes Anderson has anything to do with it, the plot can be considered a bit more complex than that. In fact, Anderson makes it a habit in his films to show how complicated things can really become either by giving a character an inclination toward drawing maps or continually document, or expose early on in his films the tribulation that each of his characters bear. In The Royal Tenenbaums, for example, the audience is introduced to each character by Alec Baldwin’s monologue. The survey of personality traits gives the viewer all of the information that is needed to anticipate any combination of conflict between the characters, while in The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson shows Mr. Fox himself as quite dexterous in the making of “master plans”.
The viewer is at that point given the essential plot out line and has become familiar with the players, leaving the imagination to begin piecing possibilities together, though you never can quite tell what Anderson has in store, even when the director gives you that essential information.
On that note, Fantastic Mr. Fox is complicated in plot and runs a good eighty-seven minutes, which is a whole lot longer than most want to sit through an animated film. Anderson’s twist on the story and the choice to use stop animation, though, is what drives the film. Voices like George Clooney, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman bring the familiar cynical tone to the characters that are popular in Anderson’s films, adding to the sophistication of the characters.
Important also to the film is the sense of humor these actors can bring to the characters. Often a scene that seems too sentimental or serious is broken by the true animalistic nature of each forest beast. Mr. Fox, wearing a suit with his hair all groomed does not hesitate to break a chicken’s neck with his teeth or growl and scratch when he doesn’t get along with someone. This is true for all of the characters and each one seems to have one of those moments in the film where they kind of just lose it and show what Mr. Fox calls the truth about himself, which is the fact that he is a wild animal.
The stop motion is incredible and crafty. Each creature has his own personae: Beaver, Beaver and Badger are attorneys, Kylie (an opossum) is kind of like a superintendent, and so the list continues. But what is so stunning that the puppets are dressed to the nines, all throughout the film. Ash, Mr. Fox’s son, even wears layers and layers of clothes, all modified with holes for his tail and ears. The imagery is seamless and clean and the expressions of the characters are meaningful and distinct.
Everything from a toothy fox grin to the twitchy radar ears of a scavenger, Anderson and his stop motion team have taken a children’s story and mastered it into a film enjoyable to all ages. The tendency toward foul language is replaced simply by the word “cuss” and the only sign of alcohol or drug abuse is that of the Bean security rat living in a cider cellar, which is the cleanest we have seen Anderson yet, but also displaying some of his strongest creative moments.
Top Five Reasons to Watch Fantastic Mr. Fox:
1) Bill Murray plays a badger.
2) You get a run through of every character’s latin animal names…so it’s educational.
3) Really the whole film is about eating.
4) The Beach Boys dominate the soundtrack.
5) The film can be used as a gateway to exposing your family and friends to other Anderson films.
The Descendants (2011)
by Steve Habrat
If the drama Blue Valentine could receive an R-rating partly for its graphic depiction of a marriage crumbling apart, then the R-rating in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants must have been for strong language and the graphic depiction of a midlife crisis. Payne really lays it on thick here but he softens the impact by mixing some comedy in with all the severe beatings that the Honolulu-based lawyer Matt King endures over the course of the film. The Descendants turns out to be a perfectly balanced dose of reality, never flinching to show how life can really deliver a blow but also going as far to show how we desperately try to keep our composure in front of others, even when it is the most difficult thing in the world to do. Payne, who also made About Schmidt and Sideways, makes the best film of his career (I’m still not sold on Sideways. I’m sorry.) and pushes George Clooney to give the performance of his career. And to think that I thought Clooney couldn’t get any better than his performance in Up in the Air!
The Descendants follows Matt King (Played by Clooney), a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who admits to being a second string parent and extremely tight with his money. He insists that even though he lives in paradise, he doesn’t sit around drinking Mai Tais all day. Matt also happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that inherits 25,000 acres of lush land on the island of Kaua’i. The trust is set to expire and Matt, along with a good majority of his cousins, is looking to sell the land. Just as Matt is finalizing the deal to sell, his wife Elizabeth is involved in a boating accident that leaves her comatose. This sticks Matt with raising his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Played by Amara Miller) and his troublemaking 17-year-old daughter Alex (Played by Shailene Woodley). Matt sticks by his wife’s bedside up until it is revealed to him that Elizabeth was cheating on him and on the verge of asking him for a divorce. After learning of the affair and his wife’s condition worsening, Matt sets off to find out who the man is that Elizabeth was seeing.
For those who teeter on extremely sensitive, The Descendants will be hell to watch. There are moments in the film where the emotional beatings are so severe that I wanted to crawl under my seat and not even watch them. We feel for Matt, whose heart hangs heavy and is caught in a situation no one should have to endure. He swings from grieving spouse to bitter and weary. Payne pads the blows by sprinkling some wonderfully staged comedic moments throughout the course of the film. His inclusion of Alex’s friend Sid (Played by Nick Krause) was a stroke of genius. Sid delivers some dazed stoner humor at just the right moment but even his character has cracks in his heart. Matt’s interactions with his berating father-in-law will have you egging Matt on to give him the verbal one-two. With all these cringe inducing exchanges and wrecking ball moments, Payne shows us just how cruel life can be.
Everything you’ve heard about the performances in The Descendants is true. Clooney, looking fatigued and weather worn, desperately clings to his sanity. His perilous attempts to keep his daughters in line warrant a pat on the back even if their defiance is justifiable. He simply hasn’t been the greatest father and he is well aware of it. He’s oblivious yet brave, keeping calm when more of his world crumbles down on him. He quietly deals, allowing his tears to flow in private and not in front of his daughters. Clooney also shows that he can be really, really funny. Watching him run through his neighborhood in boat shoes is classic as is his spying techniques. Shailene Woodley’s Alex is brimming with anger toward her cheating mother. She is the one that fills Matt in on what has been going on behind his back. Alex can be just as merciless as life is to Matt, but when her character comes around, she really aids Matt in coping. Matthew Lillard also shows up as Elizabeth’s squeeze Brian Speer, who has some secrets of his own when it comes to the affair. It’s nice to see Lillard tackling some serious roles and showing the world he is capable of more than just Scooby Doo. Beau Bridges also shows up in a nice cameo as one of Matt’s laid back and distantly understanding cousins.
The Descendants doesn’t waste any opportunity to show off the splendid landscape of Hawaii while setting it to comforting music. It’s an exotic film woven with vivid and authentic turmoil. I sometimes felt that I was tagging along with Matt in his quest to find closure and mend his wounds. The film delicately allows us to fall in love with the characters and in its final act, leaves the comedy behind and embraces full on dramatics. During the last act, Clooney turns his performance up to the highest level and unleashes a five-minute breakdown that will have you fighting back tears. Even though he is a fictional character, Payne, along with fellow screenplay writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, force us to admire his equanimity making it is all the more heartbreaking when he collapses. Payne also cracks the door to show us how we personally and privately deal with traumatic moments around us, which will really send needles through your heart. Draining on the emotions, The Descendants is ultimately about sticking together and having a shoulder to lean on in the worst of times.