There’s a scene early on in Gravity that encapsulates Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller’s status as the most purely cinematic experience of the year.
It features Sandra Bullock as one of two astronauts (the other is played by George Clooney) cast adrift in outer space after an orbiting mass of exploded satellite debris destroys their shuttle while they’re servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. Until this point, Bullock’s nervy medical engineer, Ryan Stone (her dad wanted a boy), has been seen mostly in long and medium shots. But as the space debris hits, spinning her into space (“like a Chihuahua in a washing machine”), Cuarón’s camera moves in for its first close-up.
It’s not necessarily a big moment (certainly not compared to the nerve-shredding sequence that immediately precedes it). Nevertheless, the way this close-up is marshalled and utilised makes the moment – and the film as a whole – special. Cuarón, whose last film was the remarkable dystopian thriller Children of Men, knows that a close-up is the director’s most powerful tool, which is why he holds off using it until this point; he doesn’t want to denigrate its impact. And nor does he.
As the camera glides towards Bullock’s face, it captures and conveys the worry and wonderment Ryan is experiencing as she panic-gasps her way through her limited oxygen supply, all too aware of the uniquely perilous position she’s now in, 600 miles above the surface of the Earth. The close-up, however, doesn’t rest on her helmeted visage. Instead, in a brilliant piece of filmmaking trickery, Cuarón’s camera appears to drift through the glass and into her space-suit, supplying us with an extreme close-up shot of Bullock’s face before shifting perspective and providing us with a point-of-view shot of her character’s now desperate situation. It’s Cuarón’s way of letting us know that Gravity is going to be a thoroughly immersive experience.
And so it proves. One of the few films to justify both 3D and the big screen in general (it’s being released in IMAX as well), it works so well because Cuarón tethers us to the characters before blasting us with the chaos – an old fashioned idea to which plenty of filmmakers pay lip service yet rarely succeed in pulling off. Cuarón does this quickly and economically in the opening minutes of Gravity, establishing just enough character details – a family tragedy in Ryan’s past; a broken marriage and imminent retirement for Clooney’s Matt Kowalski – to set up the film’s major theme: the need for human contact (which is also beautifully offset by the simple fact that the movie takes place in an environment in which “life”, as we’re told in a title card, “is impossible”).
It helps to have movie stars like Bullock and Clooney on hand to provide character-defining shorthand, and even though their dialogue in the film’s opening scene sounds a little stiff (the script was written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás, a filmmaker in his own right), its brevity and functionality sounds appropriately authentic. That said, Clooney can’t quite resist turning on the charm, but it’s Bullock’s movie really. It’s through her that we experience the ordeal. As she fights to stay alive over the next 75 minutes – yes, you read that correctly: in a radical and, let’s face it, heartening bucking of current trends, Gravity clocks in at a tight 90 minutes – she’s rarely out of frame.
Here, Cuarón has some fun with video game-style point-of-view shots of her hands grasping for something – anything – to hold on to at moments of high anxiety, and we get a sense of the emotional turmoil she’s going through too as she rambles away to herself after Matt reminds her that just because she can’t hear mission control (voiced – in a nice little nod to The Right Stuff – by Ed Harris), it doesn’t mean they can’t hear her.
But having firmly put us in her headspace, Cuarón crucially knows how to deliver spectacle in a way that still counts – and at a time when practically anything that can be imagined on the page can now be realised on screen, that’s no mean feat. Shooting in long, roving takes that mimic the drifting-through-space nature of the characters, he gives us time to see and absorb the full impact of each catastrophe as it happens.
He also makes brilliant use of Steven Price’s low, rumbling, bass-heavy score. Deploying it sparingly in place of traditional sound effects (because there’s no sound in space), he uses it to ratchet up the immensity and the intensity of the destruction every time that orbiting mass of debris comes around for another fly-past.
That said, for all the mind-boggling technical jujitsu Cuarón and his team doubtless had to master in order to make this work, what pulls you in is its deceptive simplicity, be it the accessibility of Bullock’s performance, the straightforward nature of the plot, or a just a carefully considered close-up.
Seduced & Abandoned (15)
Directed by: James Toback
Rating: * * * *
There’s something typically brilliant and barmy about James Toback’s latest film Seduced & Abandoned. A documentary of sorts, it pulls triple duty as an exploration of the state of the movie industry, a celebration of cinema itself, and a meta-narrative detailing Toback’s own fruitless journey to the Cannes film festival in an effort to raise $15 million for a proposed Iraq-set riff on Last Tango in Paris starring Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell. Unless you’ve experienced the provocative, out-there nature of past Toback films such as Fingers, Two Girls and a Guy and When Will I Be Loved?, that pitch might sound preposterous, but it serves as a useful conversation point to illustrate how depressingly tough it is to make anything that doesn’t revert to formula. Accompanied throughout by Baldwin, Toback and his star prove great company as they sit in endless meetings and listen patiently as financiers ask if there are any going to be any car chases or try to explain to Baldwin that his niche is really “submarine movies”. In between they have revealing meetings with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and James Caan, who regale them – and us – with frustrating stories about the extent to which they have to sing for their suppers in order to get films made.
Hannah Arendt (12A)
Directed by: Margarethe von Trotta
Starring: Barbara Sukowa, Janet McTeer, Julia Jentsch
Rating: * * *
In reporting on the trial of SS officer Adolf Eichman in Jerusalem in the early 1960s, the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” in her landmark report for The New Yorker. That description summed up what she saw in front of her at the trial: a mediocre bureaucrat driven by his willingness to follow orders rather than a monstrous desire to exterminate a people. The fall-out from this unwillingness to demonise Eichman is the subject of this stagey but thoughtful biopic, which covers important issues about complicity and victimhood with clarity if not much complexity (it certainly has none of the nuance one might have hoped would be accorded to such a intellectually rigorous woman). A dry, functional script makes her heroic status in the face of rampant and simplistic character assassinations clear, and too many expositional scenes at cocktail parties and the offices of the New Yorker further drain life out of the film. All credit, then, to Barbara Sukowa for her rousing portrayal in the title role. She manages to capture some of the fierceness, but also the vulnerability, of someone who suddenly found her every move, her every relationship and her every utterance scrutinised for signs of betraying her own heritage.
How to Survive a Plague (15)
Directed by: David France
Rating: * * * *
Here’s a remarkable snapshot of the beginnings of the Aids crisis as caught on film – or rather videotape – by those suffering from the disease as they fought to raise public and political awareness of their plight. Director David France, who has been chronicling the issue for decades as a journalist, has transformed a wealth of raw footage shot at protest rallies, town meetings and elsewhere, into a narrative that details the birth of the political movement ACT UP. Interspersed with talking-head interviews with survivors, the film deftly uses difficult and upsetting footage to give a sense of the extent to which the US government and the drug companies had to be shamed into taking the sort of action that has allowed some of the prominent figures seen in the archival footage to appear in the finished film.
Directed by: Daniel Auteuil
Starring: Raphaël Personnaz, Daniel Auteuil, Victoire Bélézy, Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Rating: * * *
In his second directorial outing, veteran French star Daniel Auteuil once again plunders the work of playwright, novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, following up the stately nature of The Well-Digger’s Daughter with a chocolate box rendition of the first in Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy. Previously adapted by Pagnol and Alexander Korda in 1931, Marius tells the story of a would-be sailor (Raphaël Personnaz) who is secretly in love with the daughter of his current boss Ceasar (Auteuil). Ceasar owns a Marseille bar overlooking the port from which Marius dreams of one day shipping off. But when Ceaser’s daughter, Fanny (Bélézy), catches the eye of widowed factory owner Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the jealousy it inspires in Marius forces him to confront his true feelings for her. What follows is a cutesy game of will they/won’t they in which the conventions of the period setting result in stranger behavior than you might expect. Auteuil uses the heightened, old-fashioned staging to his advantage here, although frustratingly, not to comment on the characters’ actions. Instead he seems determined to embrace the theatrical nature of the performances it inspires for the hell of it – an effect that can be both playful and irritating.
Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Starring: Gad Elmaleh, Gabriel Byrne, Natacha Régnier, Célline Sallette
Rating: * *
The French-based Greek filmmaker Costa-Gavras earned a place in cinema history with his verité-style political assassination thriller Z in 1969 (a film that inspired William Friedkin to adopt a similar approach for The French Connection two years later). Capital unfortunately, is no Z but a rather clunky financial thriller full of convoluted twists and turns. Gad Elmaleh takes the lead as a young executive appointed temporary head of a French bank when its CEO collapses on the golf course. Though the bank’s board members view his appointment as a temporary measure, wrongly believing he will be compliant to their whims, he has other plans. Determined to change the way business is done, he forms an allegiance with a shady, Miami-based hedge fund manager played by a one-note Gabriel Byrne but soon finds himself battling to save his soul. The script is terrible, full of pseudo-Wall Street mantras (“Money is the master, not the tool”) and the sort of overt symbolism that makes Oliver Stone look subtle.