When I first heard about Gravity, I suspected it would be similar to Avatar: expansive, massive in scope, a gorgeous piece of cinematography on the brink of visual chaos. I just didn't predict it would be so intimate. To his immense credit, director Alfonso Cuarón leverages three dimensions not simply as a cinematic gloss or eye-catching gimmick, but also as a tool for storytelling. When a nervous Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, both delicate and fierce) fails to catch a loose screw in space, she sighs, watching as it spins slowly, noiselessly away from her and toward the viewing audience. Fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, charming as ever) slides toward us, snatching it just in time, then smiling back to reassure Ryan. It's a throwaway moment made incredibly significant in 3D: Ryan's resignation and Matt's nonchalant grin are underscored visually, their subtle actions paying off tenfold as we learn more about each character throughout the film.
If we've learned anything about Serious (with a capital S) action films, it's that they must play out in one of two ways.
Option A: Establish a villain of non-specific European or Asian descent. Avoid killing off any good guys, but if you must, kill only one, and see that she dies protecting 13 others from certain doom. Once all the baddies die, have your leading man stare back in solemn victory, as though wondering whether it was all "worth it." But smash cut to a wedding / family reunion / beers-with-the-boys after a maximum of three seconds. (Examples: Air Force One, Taken, Inception, Apollo 13)
There's a surprisingly clever plot lurking within 2 Guns; unfortunately, it doesn't work as well in the actual movie as it does in the trailer. Bobby (Denzel Washington) and Stig (Mark Wahlberg) stroll onto screen as a couple of gun-totin', smack-talkin' gangsters, buying drugs, shooting chickens, and cruising up and down the US-Mexican border. But wait! Bobby secretly works for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and—whaddaya know—Stig soon holds a covert meeting with a handful of uniformed naval officers. Each oblivious to his partner's true colors, the two men plan a bank robbery, both expecting to surprise the other with an arrest (or kill, if necessary) once the deed is done. The bank robbed, the getaway accomplished, the men confront one another in the desert, only to realize they've been tricked. As it turns out, the con men themselves have been conned.
It's been hyped as the last great action film of the summer, which is a little like being the last month of regular season baseball or the last Republican primary debate before Super Tuesday. Haven't we seen enough? Fortunately,
Elysium opens with four distinct advantages. First, it's not about a super hero. Second, it's directed by Neill Blomkamp, the young prodigy responsible for District 9. Third, it has a compelling dystopian premise. Fourth, it stars a white, male, reluctant hero who wears special armor and solves problems by shooting things.*
*Okay: three advantages.
There's a moment late in Jack Reacher—a sometimes stylish, mostly silly action flick starring Tom Cruise—where Mr. Reacher (Cruise) swerves around a corner as a dozen cop sirens wail a block away. He steps out of his still-rolling Chevy, striding into a crowd of onlookers just before half the precinct arrives on scene. As the cops surround the (now empty) sports car, the onlooking crowd gleefully conceals Reacher, shielding him from view and handing him a baseball cap to blend in. The manhunt foiled, the cops exchange confused looks as Reacher makes his getaway on a bus, all while his fellow travelers nod at him as if to say, "we got you." Never mind they've never met him nor have any idea what (surely heinous) crime he's committed. Gotta stick it to the cops.
The Place Beyond the Pines moves quickly—perhaps too quickly. There's a daredevil circus show, sentimental bike ride, revelation of fatherhood, dramatic job resignation, and several beats of a tense love triangle all before the film's 15-minute mark. The pace rarely slows. By minute 140, you'll have to pick what to remember—and just like the film's damaged characters—what you'll let yourself forget. It's a bit of a shame, really, given that Pines packs in so many exceptional moments. In his rush to tell a story about loss and regret, writer-director Derek Cianfrance often forgets to show us how it feels.
He brought back the director (Gus Van Sant). He donned the same pouty, misunderstood face. He even co-wrote the script with another classically handsome, questionably capable actor (John Krasinski instead of Ben Affleck). But with Promised Land, Matt Damon fails to recapture the magic of Good Will Hunting, the 1997 feel-good drama about a gifted young man and his unconventional therapist.
With a silly title, safe plot, and Brad Pitt hair mop to make Tom Brady jealous, World War Z might seem like a dead film walking. Instead, it's a feisty thriller that does nearly everything right.
There's not much nice to say about After Earth, the latest M. Night Shyamalan stinker that apparently stars Will Smith. Still, the film deserves some praise for making three things abundantly clear.
1) Danger is real.
2) Fear is a choice.
3) Jaden Smith is a terrible actor.
After my first semester of college, I returned home for the holidays, plopping a pile of freshly-graded papers on my parents' kitchen counter. My curious father—a philosophy professor by trade—began reading the piece topping the stack. It was a review of a local Measure for Measure production (if it's still running, don't bother). "This is excellent," he said. "Very clever." Beaming, I began fixing myself a bowl of ice cream. You might have called it a celebration. "Hold on," he said. I turned to find him reading the second paper in the stack, his eyes darting feverishly from line-to-line. "This is not as good," he murmured, his brow rapidly furrowing. "No…this isn't good at all." Ice cream forgotten, I leaned over to see which piece he was scanning. "Ben: this is a philosophy paper. Stop trying so hard to turn it into another play review."