Gravity (2013)

At once intimate and epic, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama does things differently than its counterparts – and way better.

gravityUSA
5*

Director:
Alfonso Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Alfonso Cuarón

Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 90 minutes

Films like Gravity are one in a million. Besides reminding everyone of the incredible visual talents he has that never overwhelm the story he tells, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who has honed his skills at directing long but dynamic scenes with a single take, ambitiously faced the challenge of a minimal cast and has delivered a film for the ages.

Although an opening title card informs those viewers who have never seen Alien or read its famous tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” that there is no sound out in space, and that life for humans is impossible in such a void, the silence throughout the film is truly deafening.

Drifting high above the blue marble, NASA scientists Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are leisurely at work on the exterior of their spacecraft. The experienced Kowalsky is listening to some music, propelling himself from side to side with his jetpack and having a lot of fun. Stone is a little more tense. She’s young, and until recently her familiarity with space had been limited to time spent in a simulator, always with disastrous results.

NASA’s mission control, on the other end of the line, patiently listens to Kowalsky tell his stories for the umpteenth time, and all the while we are immersed in the beauty of Planet Earth’s blues and greens in the background. This may be the first feature film that actually warrants the IMAX ticket.

But even while we are awestruck by the beauty of the scene, shot in a seemingly unbroken take for several minutes, there is a gentle shift toward exceptional danger. First, Stone asks Kowalsky to switch off the music, which is being pumped through her headset as well, so that she can concentrate. The silence, only disrupted by the duo’s breathing, suddenly makes for a much more dramatic soundtrack. Stone is struggling to finish her work, and Houston is not picking up whatever she is doing. And then, suddenly, chaos envelops the scene.

Debris from the destruction of a Russian satellite hurtles their way, causing a chain reaction with far-reaching effects that will last until the end of the film. It’s mostly small bits of material, but at the velocity they’re traveling they are miniature mobiles of death, and when the spacecraft starts to break up, we realise how quickly this can turn catastrophic.

What makes Gravity so exhilarating is not only the very obvious technical mastery of its director, but the combination of elements that are perfectly controlled yet never feel like they are calculated to elicit a particular response from the viewer. The minimalism of the cast, the setting and the action may well lull us into a false sense of comfort, but every so often we get another jolt to the system because we are reminded how perilous the vast emptiness of space can be to an earthling. 

As Stanley Kubrick knew all too well when he made his landmark science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence is not only necessary because it faithfully recreates the conditions in space but also because its effect on the viewer can be devastating. Whereas Kubrick’s film had an astronaut’s oxygen supply cut during a spacewalk by a disgruntled computer, and a soundtrack that cut all sound as we saw the poor man drifting out into space, Gravity has scenes of large-scale destruction in complete silence, which is absolutely chilling to watch.

Stone and Kowalsky survive the first incident, but as the story progresses, their oxygen tanks running empty and them having to face recurring disasters, all the result of that Russian satellite exploding offscreen, we see how small things can lead to heavy damage.

Cuarón, whose director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki already did some terrific visual work with single takes in the director’s Children of Men, here again uses special effects in ways that bring us closer to the story. At one point, the camera is right up against Sandra Bullock as she tumbles farther and farther away from Earth. Every time she breathes, we edge closer, until the camera seems to penetrate the helmet of her space suit. It continues, until it turns around (inside the helmet!) and shows us her point of view.

The only misstep takes place late in the film, when the camera becomes an invisible presence pointing out a potential hazard that the character in the scene fails to notice.

But Gravity is not only about the visuals. While mostly focusing on the drama to survive the constant ordeal and steer clear of flying debris that only accumulates, it also has some beautiful moments that create a connection between us and them. To reveal the content of these moments would be to give away too much, but one particularly effective gem comes in the form of a radio conversation in which neither speaker can see or understand the other, but ends with us emotionally wrecked.

Gravity does not stand in awe at the mystery of space that made 2001: A Space Odyssey such a hit and still fuels discussions about its meaning. It does not try to reinvent the wheel; it is a story about staying alive in the most desolate place imaginable, and Cuarón’s handling of the space-fiction material is epic but never self-important and takes our breath away.

All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford’s tour de force as a man lost at sea makes us realise what has been missing from single-character movies.

all-is-lostUSA
4.5*

Director:
J.C. Chandor

Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank G. DeMarco

Running time: 105 minutes

It’s not easy to carry a film all on your own. Philip Baker Hall did it as a ranting Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a film that unfortunately wasn’t as compelling as director Robert Altman’s other chamber film, the ensemble-driven Streamers, and to some extent Ryan Reynolds (with the help of voices on the other end of a phone line) pulled it off in the disturbing Buried.

All is Lost puts all previous lone-character efforts to shame (most notably, Tom Hanks’ talkative island man in Cast Away), as the film’s main and only character does not even have a name, and the director doesn’t take the easy way out by having him speak to himself. Played by Robert Redford, “Our Man” has a full three lines of dialogue, of which half consist only of the odd four-letter word to explain his frustration with the situation or vocalise the realisation that this may be the end.

The situation is the following: Having navigated his yacht to a point on the Indian Ocean far away from any civilization – and most significantly, 1,700 miles from the seaway all cargo ships use to transport their goods across the vast body of water – he wakes up to discover his yacht, the Virginia Jean, is taking in water. While he was asleep on the calm seas, a container filled with tiny shoes had fallen off a cargo ship, bobbed on the waves and eventually struck his boat. Fortunately, for the most part, the hole can be repaired; unfortunately, it’s not going to be calm seas all the time, and plain sailing is out of the question.

The film is about survival on open waters as much as Gravity is about survival in outer space. In both films, there is no one to help you when you need it most, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what to do and how quickly to do it, because time – or oxygen, or fresh water – is running out.

Being a seaman means being creative and prepared for anything. When you are exposed to the elements, with only yourself and a tiny boat standing between life and death, a situation can turn extremely challenging if you don’t know how to deal with potentially disastrous turns of events. You can never completely relax.

That is what Redford’s character here learns very quickly. And even though we know nothing about him – not his name, nor how long he has been on the water, nor anything about his family history – we feel entirely sympathetic towards his predicament. We can see he is doing his best, and he clearly has spent some time on the water during his lifetime, but still, the fear is always there that nature will wreak too much havoc for him to handle.

Every time we hear thunder rolling, our stomachs start to churn, and for most of the second half of the film, the tension is nearly unbearable. It is the result of many different factors that include the sharpening of our senses, because there is never any dialogue to distract us from the action; the potential that the lead character will drown; and the uncertainty of how long this ordeal will last before the sun breaks through and the enormous waves subside.

We have not seen this kind of action at sea since The Perfect Storm, and although a few shots of Redford at the helm taken in the midst of a storm don’t look entirely realistic, the rest of the production comes across flawlessly, at least in its visual presentation. I am no seaman, so I can’t judge how accurate or suitable the character’s actions are and whether they in any way made the situation better or worse. But Redford’s depiction of a man whose demeanour changes from calm, controlled and determined to dehydrated, exhausted and slightly delirious is a truly compelling job of acting, and he deserves great credit for steering the film in the right direction.

The film is only the second by director J.C. Chandor, whose 2011 début Margin Call also took place in a limited time and place: over a period of 24 hours in an investment bank, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

All is Lost has a perfectly ambiguous ending, and although one can quibble about the need for an opening voice-over that attempts to frame the film in terms of suspense rather than surprise (as if the title didn’t suffice), it is a breath-taking work of fiction that shows what single-character dramas should look like.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Class Enemy (2013)

class enemySlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriters:
Nejc Gazvoda

Rok Biček
Janez Lapajne
Director of Photography:
Fabio Stoll

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Razredni sovražnik

Although inviting comparisons with the French The Class (Entre les murs) because of filmmaker Rok Biček’s decision to shoot the entire film inside a single school building (the camera never even ventures outside, not even onto the playground), the Slovenian Class Enemy, which uses first-time actors for the student roles, is a more stylised representation of the tension created by a teacher whose straight talk is the spark that ignites an outwardly calm but already combustible situation.

The film is based on real events the director himself was witness to during his first year of high school, although he significantly altered the focus by having a single teacher (instead of what was historically a larger group of individuals) bear the brunt of the students’ attacks. The character is called Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor), a cold and distant educator who has only one desire: To see the children make something of themselves and achieve their best by doing their best, which he judges not to be the case at all when he replaces their beloved German teacher, Nuša (Maša Derganc), who is also the class teacher.

But the very first scene, which is set before Zupan’s arrival, should make it clear to those paying attention that all is not well. A dreadful silence hangs in the air, and we soon learn that one of the boys, Luka (Voranc Boh), has lost his mother. This being a high school, with dozens of children who are all very different, many things are said that can have an impact on others, and one ill-conceived comment by another boy in class, Tadej (Jan Zupančič), about how unnatural it is for someone to grow up with two fathers (because he says a child cannot grow up well if it doesn’t have both a mother and a father), seems entirely inappropriate in light of Luka’s recent loss.

Throughout the first act, an introverted girl named Sabina (Daša Cupevski) seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the only thing holding her back from the precipice is her ability to play one of Chopin’s piano preludes. Zupan seems impressed and is even mesmerised by her performance, but before long he has a direct talk with her about her plans for the future, and when these appear to be nonexistent, he tells her she may become just another “loser”, and perhaps her parents are to blame.

She flees the class room in tears and literally into the white light outside that floods the screen, before we learn she has committed suicide. The students soon revolt against what they deem to be oppression, or even totalitarian rule by their German teacher the “Nazi”, and the consequences are grave.

Biček’s director of photography, Fabio Stoll, bathes the entire film, with the exception of a final scene that takes place outside, in a cold blue hue, and costume designer Bistra Borak also clothed most of the actors with navy blue material or jean jackets. The effect on the audience, remarkably, is not alienation but a thorough immersion in the frigidity these characters all have to deal with, because they all deal equally awkwardly with the life-changing event of a student’s suicide, for which there is no definite reason.

The director is no stranger to the depiction of existential anguish, as his student short Duck Hunting presented the case of two young men who take revenge on their father for an act he committed that is clear but never shown. Biček is a formidable director, completely in control of his subject, and his script, tightly focused on the mass heart ache and the easy transition to a mob mentality, has a palpable feeling of mystery and sadness at its core.

There is never a dull moment, and the shift in our understanding of the teacher’s motivations, from fear to potential empathy, is handled adroitly by the director, who also edited the film along with co-screenwriter Lapajne. This may be one of the best feature films débuts in a very long time. Despite the limitations the director imposed on himself, which prevent us from seeing these people interact outside the confines of the school, their bubble of existence inside the building does provide us with a sense of cohesion — a bubble of existence that is self-sufficient and whose energy can exert great force on those it comes into contact with. The events hurtle towards a well-conceived conclusion that makes a great deal of sense and provides us with an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying.

Buried (2010)

Buried [2010]USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:
Rodrigo Cortés
Screenwriter:
Chris Sparling
Director of Photography:

Eduard Grau

Running time: 95 minutes

A high-concept like almost no other, Buried has an immensely ambitious premise that will draw throngs of viewers interested in seeing whether the film could possible find a way to deal with the restrictions it imposes on itself. It is a restriction of place, as the entire film takes place in a very small space: a coffin underground, inside which the main character wakes up during the black screen that opens the film.

While Quentin Tarantino played with the same idea in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience will be right to wonder whether an entire film following the same approach could be as entertaining. But the actor playing the role also has to be up to the task, as he has to carry the entire film on his shoulders, and has to keep our attention for the full 95 minutes of the running time. The film therefore makes us ask two very important questions: Does the film overcome its self-imposed hurdles, and does the actor hold our attention?

The answer to both, unfortunately, is ‘not really’. However, the film does immediately grab our attention, as we wonder whether the man we find in close-up, Paul Conroy, will escape from his coffin, and how he will manage to do that. That opening black screen, during which we share the actor’s disorientation and fear, is also a wonderful way to start, but what the film fails to do is stick to this approach. Instead, perhaps as a way to make us forget about the tiny space, director Rodrigo Cortés and his director of photography, A Single Man lenser Eduard Grau, employs very fluid tracking shots that circle Conroy’s body, trapped in a tight space we lose track of because of the ease with which the camera moves about.

The actor is Ryan Reynolds, not exactly known for serious roles. This was obviously meant to be Reynolds’s big break from his comedy and superhero work, with many a close-up letting us understand his frustration and despair when a single tear streaks down his cheek. But even though his situation would seem to be easy to empathize with, Conroy is not exactly a likeable character, as anyone offering him assistance on the other side of the line gets a response that doesn’t seek to convey anything other than hysteria at his own situation and the expectation that he will snap his fingers and others will locate and save him. On the other hand, his interlocutors, for the most part, are equally annoying, as they keep on asking him how he ended up in a coffin and how he phone them if he is so far underground. These conversations lead nowhere and become repetitive very quickly, suggesting the dialogue was mostly made up on the spot.

Conroy doesn’t seem to be very clever, either, as he continues to use his lighter to illuminate his surroundings, even when there is no particular need to do so, except to keep an audience used to seeing images at the cinema satisfied. Of course, the lighter won’t last forever, and while this may create some tension with the viewer (who knows there will come a point at which the lighter will fail, perhaps to the utter surprise of Conroy), it also speaks volumes about how stupid Conroy is. Except for humanitarian reasons, there is no reason why we would like to see Conroy survive this ordeal. At best, we expect to see how far underground he is, or where he finds himself.

Buried was obviously made on a very tight budget, although oddly there are a few stylised shots, including one that features a cutaway of the coffin, that seem to want to release us from the feeling of claustrophobia the film obviously elicits. This approach is difficult to understand, as the director undermines the very basic idea that Conroy must be saved within a small amount of time because he will run out of air, and so might the audience. Instead, Cortés lets his camera dance all over the place, including capturing panoramic 360-degree shots inside the confined space that ought to give us an impression of suffocation, not liberation.

There are a few uncomfortable silence and utter darkness, but these are too sporadic to have any real effect on the film, as they seem to be added almost as an afterthought. The heavy breathing, coughing and shuffling in the darkness with which the film opens set the tone, but that tone is crushed when the camera reveals a man stuck in a coffin but having a camera (the audience’s point of view) that can easily move around inside the space.

Buried could have been a very impressive effort to involve an audience ready to sympathize with a man stuck in a tight space, but we cannot, because the character is so bad and we simply don’t have the same experience of fear that he is supposed to feel. Also, since when does alcohol burn the way methanol burns? Or is our hero drinking methanol? There are many questions here that indicate a film badly conceived around a rock-solid central premise. This was not Ryan Reynolds’s big break, and unfortunately the stylistic excess would be repeated in the Cortés-produced Grand Piano.