Gravity – Review

Gravity_cap

4Star

by Ken B.

I am about to write a statement that I will probably never write again:

See this movie in 3D.

With Gravity, a confident case that 3D doesn’t have to be a gimmick has been made. With Gravity, the feeling of fear is real and powerfully expressed. With Gravity, there is evident proof in the potential of minimalist setup against an epic frame. With Gravity, you feel what is happening. This is a powerful, immersive experience. There is true terror, both thanks to superb direction and incredible acting.

There is a lot of plot, but I’ll only reveal as little as possible. This is something you need to see for yourself. Matt Kowalski (GEORGE CLOONEY) and Dr. Ryan Stone (SANDRA BULLOCK), are two astronauts sent up to do repairs to the Hubble Telescope. Suddenly, a misguided launch of a Russian missile strike sends debris launching into space, knocking out communications satellites around the globe, killing contact with Houston, and wrecking the shuttle, leaving, at first, Kowalski and Stone stuck in the immaculate blankness of space. (There is more – I promise – but it won’t mean as much if I tell you here).

While one might think just from reading the above synopsis that Gravity is about a botched space mission, at its center, screenwriters Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón have written a film that deals with one of our greatest and most unanimous fears: abandonment. (I might write a stray observation soon for those who viewed the film where I try to explain how this is placed in the movie in more ways than one.) In reality, despite the blockbuster budget and the setting in space, this movie conveys a powerful sense of claustrophobia. The most featured performance here is undoubtedly of Bullock’s (for reasons that I’d rather not spoil), and if there was an Oscar-worthy performance to be found in a CGI-heavy movie, this is it. She must convey many emotions in this 90 minute movie, and she handles it with professionalism and raw feeling and power. Carrying a movie of this size, essentially alone, is no easy task on an actor. (That’s not to say that Clooney as Kowalski and Ed Harris as the Mission Control voice over aren’t welcome either – it’s just that at the end of the day, it’s Sandra Bullock’s character who really matters.)

There’s only one proper way to watch Gravity, and that is in a theater and in 3D. Taking off the 3D glasses a couple of times during the film, I observed a notable flatness and distance to what was happening on screen. The 3D is technologically superb, the atmosphere is surreal, and even the smallest details are dealt with in the highest form. The cinematography by Cuarón regular Emmanuel Lubezki does wonders, with occasional POV shots early on, especially in the immediate aftermath of the debris hit. The 10 – 15 minute shot that starts the movie off is pretty great as well, and traditional shots placed in as the adventure moves on are good. As I’m writing this review, I’m listening to Steven Price’s brilliant score. It was noteworthy with the film, but to listen to it isolated is a greater experience. It almost succeeds in telling the movie’s story by itself. It moves perfectly with the film, and is awe-inspiring and massive from its very style and creation.

Gravity features no complex storyline frills. There really isn’t any possible symbolism until towards the very end. A movie that has enough strength working for it in the acting, writing, and technical fields doesn’t need to cram in any more stuff – at its length, it would only backfire. This, indeed, is a masterful entry of the chronicle that is 21st century filmmaking. It must be seen to be known, and when known, won’t be forgotten.

Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray / Blu-ray 3D

gravityposter2

A Clockwork Orange — Review

Clockwork_orangeA

4Star

by Bret W.

This review was originally published to the now-defunct website The People’s Reviews in September 2000.

Straight on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has released a film that goes completely the other way in the manner of a glimpse into the future. Where 2001 showed the future to be serene and peaceful (albeit complex and dark in the incident portrayed), A Clockwork Orange shows a future where the youth are interested only in the Ultra-Violent. A homeless man says it all, when he speaks of the conquest of other planets in space and how men don’t care about the state of lawlessness the Earth has lapsed into.

The central character is Alexander Delarge, or Alex, who is the leader of a band of hoodlums who spend their nights terrorizing the local population, destroying property, stealing cars, and clashing with other bands of hoodlums. The members of his gang, however, find his methods tiresome and desire larger returns for their work. He squashes this brief mutiny only to be betrayed by the mutineers, and finds himself serving time in prison for murdering a woman.

At the prison, he learns of a medical procedure that is being tested that is supposed to get prisoners out of jail quicker. He volunteers for the process, which is a conditioned-response training that makes him ill when he views acts of violence. After two weeks he is released back into the world of violence from which he can no longer defend himself, and ends up more pathetic than the least of his victims.

While A Clockwork Orange is a social commentary on the perils of mind control, it is also a tale of violence in a world gone very wrong. Kubrick’s powerful imagery and shocking use of color, coupled with Malcolm McDowell’s tremendous no-holds-barred portrayal of the most ultra-violent Alex, team up to make this one of the most high-impact films of all time. Even by today’s standards, this is an extremely nasty and violent film which leaves a lasting image in the viewer’s brain. It’s almost frightening to think of the mind that could dream up such violence, let alone visualize it for the big screen.

The video in the Kubrick Collection is released in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, which means that you get a letterbox effect but one that is not as severe as with 70mm Panavision (1.87:1 aspect ratio). Even if you do not like widescreen editions, it’s very unobtrusive, and still shows the panorama of the widescreen cinema shot. What you lose is a thin line at the top and bottom of the screen, and what you gain is the breathtaking art in Kubrick’s talented eye. You also lose the pan-and-scan video view, which can be very annoying even to those who dislike the widescreen video format.

Regardless, those who haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange would do very well to see it. Fans of Kubrick, as well as fans of Tarantino and Rodriguez, will love this film. I place it in my all-time top ten list of films.

L.A. Story – Review

LA Story

 

4Star

by Bret W.

L.A. Story has a dreamlike quality to it that makes it one of the most beautiful and magical love stories ever put to film.  Deeply intense in its visual splendor, timely in its comedy, rich in its romance, L.A. Story is, in my opinion, one of the finest films ever made, which seats it firmly in my top ten list of favorite films.

Harris Tellemacher is the Wacky Weatherman for an L.A. TV station, but is disillusioned with his life.  A Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities has failed to put him in the station that he feels he deserves.  Everything around him is false and contrite, including his relationship with his girlfriend of three years.  Then he meets Sarah, a journalist from London who is writing a story about L.A., and his entire life is turned upside down.  He goes on a date with SanDeE, a girl from a clothing shop, then breaks up with his girlfriend when he finds out that she’s been cheating on him with his agent.

His new freedom from his relationship gives him reason to approach Sarah, the woman he feels he cannot be without.  Through a series of blunderings it appears that they are never to be, but in the end, love and the weather conquer all.

I’ve always said that I’m not a huge fan of romance films, and yet it seems there are quite a few in my top ten.  L.A. Story is surreal at times, flowing in like the tide, crashing like a wave on the beach, flickering like a candle, roaring like a fire.  It’s passionate and tender.  It’s also immensely funny, with some of the jabs that Steve Martin takes at life in L.A.  He paints the city as a pretentious place where everyone is too important to be anywhere on time, where no one can walk to destinations no matter how close they are, where above all else, appearance is the most important thing and must be upheld at all times.

Speckled with an array of stars, L.A. Story is a film that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The comedy is extremely funny, the romance is deeply touching, the imagery is awe-inspiring, even the music lends a soft lyrical quality to the film.  Put these things together and you have one of the greatest romance/comedies of all time.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has never seen it, and even to those who have.

Full Metal Jacket – Review

220px-Full_Metal_Jacket_poster

4Star

by Bret W.

Many films have been made about the Vietnam conflict and the state of American society at that time.  Full Metal Jacket, however, is the definitive Vietnam war film.  Kubrick captures the full scope of the journey from boot camp to Mei Cong, and it’s not a pretty trip.

It starts with the dehumanizing of the young Marine recruits, first at the Paris Island barbershop, and later in their first introduction to the Drill Instructor.  The D.I. has a job to do and he does it well: he breaks the individual spirit to build a team, a single unit of men from a kaleidescope of boys.  The journey for the recruits is long and dark and difficult, and takes each recruit down a different path.  For Pvt. Joker, its a journey from the smart-alec kid to the hardened stand-up man.  For Pvt. Pyle, however, its a much darker journey that takes him to the depths of his inner evil and ends in two deaths.

From Paris Island to Vietnam, the tone is shifted from the strict regimen of boot camp to the lax atmosphere of death and destruction.  Joker has become a field journalist for Stars and Stripes, the military news paper.  He’s become disillusioned with his duties in mocking up his stories to make them seem more positive to the soldiers who read them.  Sent to the front on a field assignment after the Tet Offensive, he meets up with Cowboy, who was in Joker’s unit at Paris Island.  They take their squad into Hue City (pronounced “Way”) to face death and destruction, and the frustration and impotence of war.

Full Metal Jacket is a stark depiction of one of the blackest spots on American History.  Kubrick masterfully shows the full range of emotion throughout; the fear and anguish, the anger and loneliness, the frustration and cockiness.  He touches on all of it without holding back.

I once said that this was the definitive Vietnam movie, but it’s more than that.  It’s the definitive war movie.  It shows much more than just the killing and the death.  It shows the aloof calm exterior hiding the tense unsure interior.  It examines the depths of the war and how the war makes the evil inside men acceptable and justified.

Kubrick puts all of these elements under the microscope and presents them to the audience in their rawest form to give to us the finest war movie ever made.

Apollo 13 – Review

by Bret W.

Ron Howard scores big  with his cinematic retelling of one of the tensest moments in the history of Humankind’s race for space. As a theatrical reproduction of an historic event, it’s both gripping and moving. Howard successfully puts the audience right there in 1971, on the edge of our seats and hanging on every minute, just as the world was back then.

Telling the story of events that actually happened is tricky for filmmakers, because if we really want to know what happened we can look it up, either online or down at the local library (we all remember those buildings, right?). What the filmmaker has to do is to put the audience right there, in with the main participants. Howard does this with tight camera shots inside the Odyssey space capsule. He shows us the tension, the anguish, the sheer heroics of the men both hurtling toward the moon and standing on Terra Firma back in Houston, Tx. He gives us a glimpse of the engineering feats accomplished on that seven-day journey that turned a “routine” moon excursion into the single most solidifying event for Americans, and indeed, the Human race worldwide.

Talking to those people old enough to remember (not to make anyone feel old, but I was 2 years old at the time!), I’ve found that there are three events in a ten-year period that were significant enough that people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. These are the assassination of John Kennedy, the retreat from Saigon, and the Apollo 13 mission. With this kind of attention given to this significant event, and with everyone knowing exactly how it will end, Ron Howard still gave us something to be tense about. This is not like Titanic, which had a human interest story thrown in to make the history interesting (how many times have you heard someone say “I know how it ends, the boat sinks”?), Apollo 13 IS the human interest story taken straight from history. You buy the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge.

I guess you can say I really enjoyed this film. Excellent acting, with standout performances by Hanks, Sinise, and Harris propel this story into Oscar-caliber filmdom. Again, Howard’s cinematic eye and an incredible score by James Horner tie up all the ends to make Apollo 13 one of the better films of the 1990’s.

The Longest Day – Review

by Bret W.

It’s June, 1944, and the greatest battle of World War II has begun. Where Saving Private Ryan tried to insert a human interest story into the D-Day invasion, The Longest Day perceives the invasion as THE story, and wraps up all the little substories into one glorious three-hour adventure.

The Longest Day depicts the heroism and the desperation  the humanity of war. It’s not a pretty war film, and it’s certainly ahead of its time in its realism and depiction of death and futility in the heat of the battle. This is one of the finest war films ever made, and certainly one of the most star studded. The battle scenes are very realistic and show how the invasion stalled on some of the beaches where others broke through only to face further adversity inland. The glory of this film is that in three hours, it appears to capture every single second of the longest day of the war.

Fans of war films will love this film, and its even enjoyable the second and third time. Even by today’s standards, it’s a terrific film, although it’s devoid of much of the blood and gore of modern war films. Regardless, if you want to see history in the making, watch The Longest Day.

Metropolis Restored – Review

by Ken B.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis received a restoration after 25 minutes of long-considered-lost footage surfaced in South America in 2008. There are only two scenes considered in such poor condition that they are unsalvageable, and they are briefly described in intertitles. The restoration is a mix of passable to sharp and brilliant, but this is not a discussion about the picture quality of the restoration, it is an essay detailing this restored version of a film long considered to be paramount in the development of the science fiction genre and filmmaking itself. When we look down that road, there’s hardly a flaw to be seen.

As we all know, Metropolis concerns a future, c. 2026. The rich are sharply divided from the poor. The poor work and live in the depths of a bustling, gigantic city, the rich in a lavish world, filled with fountains, clear skies, and sprawling landscapes. The clash of utopian vs. dystopian becomes very clear here, and then is largely upfront within minutes following. There’s Freder (GUSTAV FRÖLICH), the son of Joh (ALFRED ABEL) the creator of this city. Freder, one day, sees a woman named Maria (BRIGITTE HELM), who presents a load of the children of the poor to briefly witness the grand tapestry that is the world of the rich. Freder is intrigued by her, and he attempts to locate her once she disappears into the depths. There he sees for the first time, the world of the workers. He is deeply alarmed by what he witnesses, and is soon brought into this dark side of the metropolis, and the thoughts of change that the workers entertain.

Metropolis, of course, draws from the European Expressionism period, which occupied the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ideas it brought in terms of early cinema, art, writing, and music created a surrealist vision that still exists within artists today. Such films like Metropolis and Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922) are very much reliant on symbolism, and there’s no lack of that here in Lang’s masterpiece. Its budget of 5.1 million Reischmark equates to roughly 200 million US dollars today. In that sense, it is one of the more expensive films ever made, and its grand scale of production is certainly evident of that. The workers descending into the mouth of the beast, the wide images of the glimmering city, and the famous robot as it comes to life. The score from Gottfried Huppertz is fantastic, highlighting each and every emotion that has been written into the film.

Metropolis today seems like a very ambitious film, with entire shots filled with kaleidoscope images of blinking eyes, a mediator to bring together two split societies in the form of a robot, that robot also representing death and the seven deadly sins, as is so pointed out while looking at the credits at the beginning, hundreds of extras rioting in this grand shots, and a plot wide and reaching throughout every molecule of its existence. In 1927, the dawn of cinema it began to shape culture, it was even more risky to undertake. You certainly today, in a world of comic book adaptations… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… cheap horror films… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… remakes… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… can’t imagine a director with a strong enough gut instinct to tackle anything that would have come close to such an innovation technically. I mean, if you cite James Cameron for Avatar, I will helpfully point out to you that Metropolis has something called a coherent plot. And while Inception (Nolan, 2010) is technologically superb, it cannot yet say the ripples it made on filmmaking following its release are apparent. To truly understand the full magnitude of Metropolis, one must watch it. The recent restoration brings us within 10 minutes of the original premiere edition of the film, the closest a modern audience has gotten seeing one of Fritz Lang’s most memorable films in its original form.

Metropolis ends on the title “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”. As those words sink in, the depth of the past 148 minutes soon become clear in this monument masterpiece. The deep layers of Lang’s creation are nothing short of magnificent. The cinephilic treatment that Metropolis is given can alienate some looser moviegoers in, but this is, in its most basic form, a sci-fi movie, but it puts every other sci-fi movie to shame.

The bottom line is, when you know that cinema is the art form that created this, along with titles like Citizen Kane, Nosferatu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Boulevard, you shudder to think it also created things like RV, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, Bio-Dome, the Twilight films, Skyline, the Ed Wood films devoid of charm, and 95% of Adam Sandler films. The quality of film is a mixed bag, and when masterpieces like Metropolis are carved into history and visited by audiences throughout the generations, you begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, all hope is not lost.

It’s a Wonderful Life – Review

IAWL

by Ken B.

In 1974, the Frank Capra Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life fell into the questionable universe of the public domain. While an absolutely rubbish colorized version emitted from that event, the chance of entire new generations experiencing such a wonderful and uplifting story also came into existence as the crisp black-and-white version could be shown everywhere throughout the 1980s. By 1995, Republic Pictures was able to side the Supreme Court’s ruling of Stewart v. Abend to technically hold copyright, however NBC makes it a holiday tradition to show this movie multiple times each year (still – I watched this thing off YouTube in one fair resolution 2 hour video).

We all know the story. George Bailey (JAMES STEWART) is greatly depressed by the state of his life – he believes it would have all been better had he never existed to begin with. An angel-in-training named Clarence (HENRY TRAVERS) attempts to earn his wings by showing him the negative effects that would resound had he never been born.

That segment, the most memorable, is the last quarter of the film. The other chunk of the movie traces George’s life from 1919 on to the Christmas Eve of which the movie itself begins and ends. Each segment, or era of life presented of the film never exists too long, it moves forward in a contempt and expert matter.

The cinematography from Joseph Walker is something to be admired as well. Each shot is splashed with lush detail and decoration, further plunging the viewer into the frames that pass by for 130 minutes. On another technical note, the “chemical snow” developed for this movie made sure that instead of noisy cornflakes, artificial snowflakes fell quietly, and did not interfere with the dialogue or other important sounds. The main street of the fictional town Bedford Falls was a giant set piece stretching 300 yards with over fifty buildings, explaining the then-massive $3.2 million budget (equivalent to $36 million today). The acting, from Stewart, Travers, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, H.B. Warner, and William Edmunds, among others, reflects acting at its best for the era of cinema and style, adding to the total impact over the decades.

It’s a Wonderful Life is an enduring classic for a reason. It teaches virtues of hope and happiness, and how small positive actions have large positive conclusions, like one big happy butterfly effect (weird). Never especially dated, considering it’s over 65 years old, it can be shown again and again to different generations, an un-remake-able (hopefully) tale that lives and breathes with culture itself, and must remain preserved in its original form. Frankly, this review itself seemed unnecessary, since I don’t know anyone who hasn’t at least heard of this movie, but hey, I got to complain a little bit about colorization, so it all completes.

My Fair Lady – Review

by Bret W.

This…is without a doubt…my all-time favorite film.  It has everything one needs in a full entertainment package: music, dance, a gripping story, unparalleled acting, songs that cannot be outdone.  The colors, the comedy, the drama and pageantry that make My Fair Lady in my opinion the greatest cinematic production in the history of film are lost and unequaled in the modern era of film making.  My Fair lady represents the pinnacle of the era of Hollywood musicals, and the turning point of American film.

It is the story of two people.  Professor Henry Higgins is a refined and abrasive bachelor who makes a study of speech and who pines for a return to proper English among the masses.  Eliza Doolittle is a cockney flower girl who desires to improve her station in life.  When Higgins’ friend, Colonel Pickering, wagers that Higgins could not teach Eliza to speak properly, Higgins and Eliza embark on the toilsome task of taking lead and turning it to gold, the alchemy of the throat, or if you will, teaching Eliza to speak like a proper lady.Its a task that drains them both to the point of exhaustion, when Eliza finally has a breakthrough.  In his excitement, Higgins decides to test her speech skills the next day at Ascot, a very upper-crust horse race venue.  Although she falters in her first trial, with more training and encouragement she is presented as a lady at the Embassy Ball, and is asked to dance with the Prince of Transylvania.  However, after this glorious victory, Higgins seems to forget about Eliza, and she becomes distraught at the thought of having to leave him.

This is a love story that does not appear to be a love story.  It’s a wonderful story of becoming, becoming proper, becoming loved, becoming in love.  The music and lyrics of Lerner and Lowe transcend merely being songs.  It is a musical dialog.  Whereas in most musicals, there is dialog, then everyone starts singing and dancing, then dialog again, in My Fair Lady the music is the spoken word and vice versa.  The language is so crafted that one cannot tell where the song begins and the dialog ends.

The acting, of course, is perfection.  Rex Harrison plays the perfect and definitive Henry Higgins, and although there was controversy over Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle, she took the part and made it her own.  Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks of Eliza Doolittle as Julie Andrews, who portrayed her in the Broadway production.  Audrey’s elegance and demeanor came across especially well in the Embassy Ball scene, where her stunning beauty became the star around which the others in the scene orbited.

Only once does a film of this magnitude, majesty and beauty come along.  That once has come and it is My Fair Lady, the fairest lady of all.

Jerry Maguire – Review

by Bret W.

Most times you can classify movies as one of two categories: Chick Flicks and Guy Movies. Chick Flicks are touchy-feely love films that are so damn sappy that they make guys wanna puke. Guy Movies have action, a lot of it, and usually a fair amount of blood and ammo thrown in to boot.

Jerry Maguire is a film that can fall into either category, and indeed crosses boundaries to fall into both quite well. On the one hand, it’s a story about a love affair and marriage between a fallen man and a very young widow and single mother. On the other hand, it’s a story about the emergence of a star football player propelling the Arizona Cardinals to their first playoff berth in ten years. So while the women are swooning over the love story, the men are all cheering the hard hitting football action.

But again, this film transcends even this strange dichotomy. Weaving these two distinctly different stories together is another underlying theme of emergence and transition. Jerry is the jaded and highly successful sports agent who experiences an epiphany one night, changing his outlook on the sports world in general and changing his life forever. Thereafter the film chronicles his struggles as an agent, losing his clientelle and managing to hold on to just one arrogant and undervalued (in his own estimation) wide receiver for the Cardinals. Where Rod Tidwell, the client, fails on the field he is wildly successful in his homelife and his relationship with his wife and son. His transition comes on the field and in the locker room, where he changes from the brash and disliked jackass to the fully developed team member who raises the morale of the entire team.

The one woman who believes in Jerry is Dorothy Boyd, an accountant who leaves Jerry’s firm when he is fired in order to go to work for him. She professes that Jerry inspires her for his conviction, and in the beginning he falls in love with the notion of her loyalty. He also falls in love with the notion of being a father figure to her son. In the end, however, as they grow together, he falls in love with her.

Jerry Maguire is a perfect film, fully deserving of all the stars I could possibly give it. It’s perfect because it appeals to the audience on so many levels. It’s the mushy love story for the women, and it’s the action-packed sports adventure for the men. It’s also a hell of a story spun to perfection by the talented director, Cameron Crowe, and wonderfully scored by Crowe’s wife Nancy Wilson (formerly of the Seattle band, Heart). It’s a film to watch with a date to bring you closer, or a film to watch alone to make you feel better about life in general. It’s a fantastic film on all accounts, and that is what makes it one of my top ten films of all time.