Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: "Blue is the Warmest Color"

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Runtime: 179 minutes

Ever since taking the Palme D'Or at Cannes earlier this year, Blue is the Warmest Color has become mired in controversy. Though director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two stars embraced tearfully on the Croisette, a series of interviews leading up the US opening have brought out their share of bad blood. These exchanges have nabbed headlines, but to focus on them so intensely does a disservice to Kechiche's film, and the work of his actresses, with whom he shared the Palme in an unprecedented decision from the jury. Controversy or not, Blue is the Warmest Color is an intimately observed portrait of first love and heartbreak that proves that great work can come out of testy relationships. 

As in the director's other films, Blue is intelligently attuned to the mindsets of its characters. Seemingly ordinary dialogue scenes are allowed to play out far longer than one would expect, and it works in the film's favor. Though the film is a character study with little true narrative, it takes up three hours. That sounds daunting, but Kechiche's script - adapted from a graphic novel by Julie Maroh - captures protagonist Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) with breathless efficiency right off of the bat. Though posters for the film have played up co-star Lea Seydoux's blue-haired art student Emma, Blue is Adele's story without question. 

And unlike Kechiche's The Secret of the Grain, a film that suffered from an empty lead character (despite a vibrant ensemble), Blue takes off quite quickly thanks to Exarchopoulos' radiant performance. Along with Saskia Rosendahl in Lore, Exarchopoulos's work is one of the year's best break out performances, along with one of the year's best overall. Adele's sexual awakening is coupled with her discovery of her first love. Under Kechiche's guidance, the young actress effortlessly sinks into the role, never once hitting a false note in moments big and small. 

Matching her beat for beat is Seydoux. Though the film is told from Adele's perspective, Emma is never lost in the shuffle. As the second most prominent character, Kechiche and Seydoux never turn her into a mere sounding board for Adele and her developing sexuality. She's her own woman, fully capable of love, hate, tenderness, and jealousy. When things start to go south in the relationship, the film refuses to demonize either. Kechiche's camera may spend more time on Adele, but it never neglects Emma's own humanity. In the later, emotionally wrenching scenes, you can fully understand both sides of the couple's arguments, even though only one of them may be actually guilty. 

This attention to character comes through so strongly that by the time the much-discussed sex scenes appear, it's hard to feel scandalized. Kechiche may be indulging in what's known as the "male gaze," but because we have such a sense of who Adele and Emma are, the sexual moments never feel exploitative. As visually graphic as moments are, they remain moments shared between human beings, rather than two sex objects being trotted out simply to satisfy the lusty thoughts of certain audience members.  

The work on all fronts in Blue are so effortlessly effective, that it's nearly impossible to think about the headline-grabbing arguments that are practically being used to promote the movie at this point. Blue is the Warmest Color shouldn't need bitter arguments to generate interest. It's a beautifully rendered portrait of first love featuring two of the year's best performances. The film feels so complete, and so thoroughly earns every minute, that it truly feels like an epic depiction of emotional intimacy. More than any mud slinging, that's what deserves to the talking point when it comes to discussing this character-driven triumph. 

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: "The Counselor"

Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 117 minutes

There's no denying that Ridley Scott's career has seen its share of ups and downs. From the mastery of Alien to the outright boredom of Robin Hood, the director has always been somewhat at the mercy of his material. Plenty of directors aren't writers, but few big name ones have a track record that covers the entire spectrum between masterpiece and total failure. Scott's best work tends to come out of adequate screenplays that he can elevate (Alien, Gladiator), or in strong ones that he then makes even better (Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men). The same is all too true with The Counselor, which sees the veteran helmer join forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. 

Given the author's status and legacy, you'd think that any flaws to be found in The Counselor might somehow be Scott's fault. In a strange twist of fate, it's actually the other way around. The Scott-McCarthy union is far from a train wreck it's been proclaimed in certain corners. In fact, it's often quite enjoyable, even as it blatantly flies in the face of your average viewer's expectations. Scott's direction is some of his best in years, while McCarthy turns in an original screenplay that easily ranks among his weakest works. However, there's enough of the Old Testament bleakness from the author's strongest pieces that keeps the story afloat. Plenty of great novelists have made bumpy transitions to screenwriting. McCarthy is no exception, but in Scott's hands The Counselor is a strangely satisfying, albeit totally ruthless, tale of greed and its consequences. 

When we're first introduced to the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his fiance Laura (Penelope Cruz), they're wrapped in white sheets, closed off from the world at large by the thinnest of barriers. Given the man responsible for the story, however, it's all too apparent that it won't take much to trap these blissful lovers in the mire of the world at large. Like so many of McCarthy's novels, The Counselor is set near the Texas-Mexico border, and involves its share of shady figures with opaque agendas. This time, however, the author has turned his attention to the grisliest possible side of human decay: drug trafficking, and the violence that goes with it. 

As such, Fassbender is something of an audience surrogate, even though the actor fills in the blanks from the page quite effectively. After his opening exchange with Laura, far and away the most pure individual, he makes his Faustian pact with the likes of club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). "You're not quite the straight dude people think you are," teases Reiner, and in a sense that's true. The Counselor's decision to dip his toe in the drug trade is a hint at his corruptible side. Yet compared with the likes of Reiner and Malkina, both dressed up in assortments of garish attire, the Counselor is largely just guilty by association.

Not content to merely establish this, McCarthy's script - as per usual - has more on its mind. As much as the film has been promoted as a blood-soaked thriller, there's very little violence over the nearly two hour duration. With no room on the page to fill with gorgeously-wrought passages about grand themes, McCarthy sticks a great deal of it in the mouths of his characters. It's a decision that provides any number of strong moment, but is still the film's Achilles Heel. As best as the cast try, there are some lines that are just too "written," and they feel clumsy coming out of the mouths of human beings, even ones as broadly symbolic as these. When Malkina tells Reiner that "truth has no temperature," the line lands with something of a thud. There's more to be said about Diaz's performance, but in this instance, the fault lies with the words, and not with the actor.

And since it's inevitable, it's best to just get this out of the way: The Counselor doesn't hold a candle to Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men. No scene in this film reaches the cold, magnetic power of Anton Chigurh's strange conversation with a gas station attendant, for example. The Counselor is, undeniably, Mr. McCarthy operating at a broader level, which has its own advantages and disadvantages. The film tries to have it both ways, as a flashier sort of thriller than No Country, while still retaining its author's powerful essence. In a way, and I don't mean this as an insult, The Counselor is No Country for Old Men's pulpier, drunken cousin. 

So even though the material may not be as rich this time around, there's still a lot of good that Scott and his cast are able to wring out of the material, even as they stumble from time to time. Fassbender's nameless protagonist is a blank audience surrogate if ever there was one. Yet the Irish-German actor is able to find small ways of giving his character shadings of depth, even as he spends many of his scenes in a more passive position. And when it comes time for the Counselor to bear the fallout from his choices, Fassbender brings the same tortured intensity that he brought to his stunning turn in Steve McQueen's Shame two years ago, without any redundancy. Ms. Cruz, as the object of his affection, delivers lovely work with significantly less screen time. Laura is easily the sort of role who could have been cast with a nobody, left merely as a plot point. In Cruz, The Counselor finds an infinitely better option in casting the Oscar-winner, who is able to infuse her character with a warmth that makes one understand why the Counselor is so devoted to her. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the film's moral spectrum, Cruz's real-life husband, Javier Bardem, has a ball as Reiner. The last time the actor took on a character from McCarthy's imagination, he walked away with an Oscar. That's unlikely to happen this time, but Bardem turns a rather cartoony role into something surprisingly multifaceted. Mr. Pitt, as a slimy-looking, washed up cowboy, is also effective in small doses. He and Bardem do the best job of bringing out the (intentional) humor in McCarthy's writing, as well as the more sinister elements. A series of small roles rounding out the significant players are also effective, though none more so than Rosie Perez as one of the Counselor's clients. It's the sort of effortlessly effective performance that makes you wish Perez had much, much more to do.

I've saved Ms. Diaz for last, because her's is easily the most puzzling performance. Though she suits the role perfectly from a visual standpoint - adorned with tattoos, two-tone hair, and a gold tooth - her actual work is sadly less consistent. Diaz has fun with her two best-written scenes (one involving a priest, the other with her lawyer), but other scenes go from good to bad, often within a single line reading. For every chilly stare or malevolent bit of teasing that works, there are any number of moments that leave the actress sounding far out of her depth. Malkina is the sort of twisted femme fatale that should have been this film's standout. Instead, she's disconcertingly uneven, and there are too many instances where the blame lies with Diaz, rather than with McCarthy's words. 

Thankfully, Mr. Scott and his collaborators keep the whole thing moving along quite nicely, and deliver a polished, if frequently imperfect film. For all of its broader elements, The Counselor is still classic McCarthy, and Scott attacks the pulpy material with enough gusto so as to ensure more than a few stand-out moments. Working with recent collaborator Dariusz Wolski, the film is as rich and glossy as Scott's best, without ever suffocating the material. And, for a director known for staging marathon-length action sequences, he's able to rattle off the film's few flashes of violence with elegance and brevity. Relatively new composer Daniel Pemberton also makes a powerful impression with his ghostly score, which lends even the plainest of dialogues an undercurrent of impending catastrophe. 

One of the Counselor's most frequently used words in the film is "Jesus." Whether hearing something outrageous (a scene with Malkina and car that's sure to leave one talking), or horrific, this invocation of a deity is perhaps his last line of defense from the inky black world in which he's enmeshed himself. At first Fassbender's delivery is almost casual, as though he has no true need of the same religion that Laura holds so dearly. Yet as things inevitably go south, that delivery becomes gradually more panicked. Yet a hollowness remains, but with a purpose: the Counselor needs the intervention of a benevolent higher power, yet also realizes that he's gone past the point of saving. 

That's the sort of world that Scott mercilessly plunges one into, and it's certainly not for everybody. But either way, it's likely to leave you talking about something. In one early scene, the Counselor visits a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), who informs him that what defines a diamond are its little flaws, and that "The perfect diamond would be composed of nothing but light." That sentiment also applies to this icy gut punch of a film. It may be littered with imperfections, some particularly disappointing, but in a sense they help define what makes this film - Scott's best in quite some time - work on its own terms so well.

Grade: B/B+

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review: "Bastards"

Director: Claire Denis
Runtime: 100 minutes

Director Claire Denis is no fan of holding a viewer's hand, and her latest film proves to be no exception. The French auteur's career is filled with films that deliberately keep the audience at a distance. Even when the viewer is given information, it's the sort that tends to raise more questions than it answers. This approach to storytelling can work wonders, as in the outstanding White Material, which parceled out information about its world all the way through its searing, bleak finale. Then there are less satisfying works of Denis' career, like The Intruder, stays so vague for so long that one's interest is fully severed long before the credits roll. As luck would have it, however, Denis new film Bastards is far more in the vein of White Material, peeling back the layers of its plot and world on its way to a brutally unnerving finale built entirely on the implications of intelligently chosen details.

This latest venture has been billed as a revenge-soaked noir, but such a description does a disservice to the film's narrative balancing act. At 100 minutes, Bastards is shorter than some of Denis' best known films, but it's almost more immediately involving, and more briskly paced, even as it follows the director's expected MO. Opening with a disorienting series of silent images, the first few cards dealt go as follows: Sandra (Julie Bataille) is reeling from the abuse her niece (Lola Creton) has suffered at the hands of a group of powerful businessmen. Making matters worse is the fact that said businessmen have gone unpunished by the law. The best she can do is turn to her estranged brother Marco (Vincent Lindon), a naval captain who turned his back on the family business of shoe production. 

Yet as Marco readjusts to life on land, and starts an affair with his lovely neighbor Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), Bastards avoids diving head first into the thrust of its story. The rich photography coats even daylight scenes in a layer of neo-noir shadow, but much of the first half is simply a character study of Marco and his new paramour. Denis even reigns in her more elliptical techniques, and gives Bastards some of the most straightforward passages of her entire filmography (relatively speaking, that is). In keeping Bastards' heart of darkness at bay, the director is able to give her characters more room to breathe.  

Mr. Lindon and Ms. Mastroianni (moreso with the former) spend quite a bit of time with their poker faces on, but each is able to infuse their roles with subtly communicated emotional details. The roster of supporting players, meanwhile, are left more as plot devices, with their faces purposefully limited to one expression. This would be a problem were it not for the quietly effective work from the leads, which demonstrates what an actor can do with simple look of worry, or a barely-perceptible smirk. 

These character-driven elements are hardly warm and fuzzy, but they provide just the right amount of investment necessary for the film's last act. Denis' gifts as a writer (along with Jean-Pol Fargeau) and director become clear, as in White Material, when the disparate fragments come together just enough to finally hint at the bigger picture. What separates Bastards from White Material, however, is the narrative's scope and thematic ambition. White Material also centered on few major characters, but it also effortlessly wove in issues of class, sex, race, and modern colonialism. These issues were magnified that film's impact, despite the number of questions that remained unanswered. 

Bastards, on the other hand, is concerned entirely with the characters and their immediate connections. Ideas of power, corruption, and class rear their heads, yet their confined to the tightly enclosed setting. It's a story small enough to be applicable in just about any culture. That said, the noir stylings end up overtaking the narrative's potentially far-reaching implications. So even though Bastards may not grab one much beyond the surface, but in Denis' hands its still a quietly powerful surface. 

With films like Bastards, Denis asserts herself as one of Michael Haneke's only equals when it comes to depicting emotional horrors with a disturbingly calm tone. Rather than go for blunt shock value, her best films grab you and then linger in the mind, with their implications gnawing at the recesses of your imagination. There's a very good reason why filmmakers like Claire Denis, and why films like Bastards, present their stories in scattered puzzle pieces and leave so much work for the viewer. They know that putting all of those pieces together reveal of facet of humanity that's too difficult to deal with all at once. 

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: "All is Lost"

Director: J.C. Chandor
Runtime: 106 minutes

Almost all of Robert Redford's dialogue in All is Lost happens in voice over, during the first two minutes. As the camera pans across a cargo tank adrift at sea, we hear what are presumably his final words to those who knew him. Given the nature of the unnamed protagonist's circumstances, it's understandable that he would remain silent. Unfortunately, the film around Redford's stoic performance has even less to say than its lone character. Though effectively mounted and acted, All is Lost is ultimately too focused on the technical minutiae of survival to work as character study pitting man against nature.

As a simple tale of survival, All is Lost does still manage to get quite a bit right. Making a complete left turn from the talky financial drama Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor acquits himself quite nicely when it comes to staging bare bones story. Strip the middle section of Life of Pi of its computer generated fantasias and persistent voice over monologues, and that's essentially what All is Lost has to offer. Chandor also ups him game considerably during the film's first storm sequence, which involves an Inception-like scene of things going topsy turvy. 

Mr. Redford also makes a nice impression, though for large stretches that is probably due more to basic physicality than acting. The sense of tough, world-weary sufficiency is practically etched into the actor's face at this point in his life. Like Tommy Lee Jones, the increasingly prominent lines and cracks on his face seem to render him more effortlessly expressive and dignified with each passing year. 

And that's why it's such a shame that Chandor's script is such a wafer-thin piece of writing. Though the incidents that move the story, which takes place over a week,  prevent repetition, they are all that the film has. Like Redford's character, stranded out on the ocean, the script rarely attempts a dip beneath the surface. Compounding this problem is that there simply isn't enough of a surface to scratch in the first place.

Movies that rely on lone protagonists up against the elements are always fighting an uphill battle. There's a need to provide some level of backstory, especially when there's no establishing scenes a la Cast Away. And if a movie isn't going to look at where its stranded protagonists came from, then it needs to find ways of showing who that character is as they react to their situation in their methods, as well as their reactions of moments of success and failure. 

In All is Lost, we can see that Redford is a resourceful man, and clearly an accomplished solo sailor. He knows how to plan, and how to keep his cool when things go from bad to much much worse. Yet without any other forms of emotional release, big or small, Redford sometimes comes off as a bit of an automaton, albeit one in disguise as a 77 year old man. Even when yelling at a cargo ship as they cross his path, there's an emptiness and a lack of investment that works against the film, rather than in its favor. 

Rather than turn its simplicity into a virtue, All is Lost's script comes off more as a blueprint of a story than is still a long way from completion. A film like this should be a prime showcase for both a director and an actor. However, given the writing, Chandor undermines himself and his leading man. If anything, Chandor has more room to shine behind the camera than Redford ever does in front of it. As a result, All is Lost is a well-made, yet curiously underwhelming film that is sabotaged by its own attempts at narrative and emotional minimalism. It drifts on like the shipping container from the beginning, pulled by the waves, and never able to make any of its own. 

Grade: C+ 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review: "12 Years a Slave"

Director: Steve McQueen
Runtime: 133 minutes

When a movie has you doubting its quality for its first half hour, it tends to send up more than a few red flags. That was the experience I had with Steve McQueen's third feature film, 12 Years a Slave. All of the festival hype about this being a masterpiece didn't even seem remotely present. Yet over the course of its grueling duration, the movie has a way of getting under your skin long before you fully realize it. This is a film that rights itself so powerfully that it manages to meet, and possibly surpass, its overwhelming hype.

Arriving nearly a year after Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Slave is quick to position itself as a polar opposite. Tarantino's take on slavery was brutal, but so stylized that it quickly arrived at winking hyperbole. That tongue-in-cheek revisionism is nowhere to be found in McQueen's film, which sternly cements itself as one of the definitive cinematic portraits of the horrors of American slavery. 

Yet for all of the brutality, emotional and physical, on display, 12 Years a Slave's approach is remarkably restrained. McQueen, working off of John Ridley's adaptation of the novel of the same title, has ample opportunity to bludgeon the viewer into numbing submission. As we follow Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man captured and sold into the southern slavery machine, we are witness to unspeakable violence, as expected. But rather than reflect Northrup's own horror, the film spends most of its time depicting its atrocities with quiet detachment. Rarely has the concept of the banality of evil been so maturely transferred to the silver screen.

The effect is distancing at first, and it can make 12 Years a Slave difficult to fully engage with at times. There are moments made to elicit gasps of horror, but also any number of scenes presented so matter-of-factly that they appear determined to keep the viewer at arm's length. It's a strategy that could have proved damning in the long run. Instead, it all builds to a finale that packs what has to be the biggest emotional wallop of the year, and by quite a wide margin. 

The academically rigorous treatment that takes up most of the runtime is, secretly, the key to the film's success. By refusing to indulge in exploitation and wallowing in awfulness, the story clips along, capturing evil as ordinarily as possible, as though it were just another part of the day. The intelligence with which Ridley treats his characters, coupled with McQueen's vision, allow the film to work as an accessibly arty drama, as well as an honest and unflinching portrait of one of the biggest travesties in American history.  

And as the glue holding the story together, Mr. Ejiofor is tremendous, infusing Solomon with hope, determination, and despair without mugging. The middle of the story sees Solomon - with a new name, and reduced to little more than a cotton picker - as an observer and occasional victim. Rather than slip into laziness, Ejiofor infuses Solomon's defeated passivity with a tragic grace that only becomes more impressive as time passes. 

While Ejiofor carries the movie on his shoulders, he allows his co-stars the bulk of the film's flashier moments. As Mr. and Mrs. Epps, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson make up one of the most despicable, yet frighteningly believable, couples in recent memory. Whatever their quarrels with each other, they have no problem abusing and manipulating the slaves as a means of attacking each other. As Mr. Epps watches, with mocking delight, his slaves dance, his wife catches him eyeing young Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, also excellent). Her retaliation is to pick up a glass decanter and toss it at the girl's head, with all of the effort of tossing paper into a waste bin. It's a moment horrifying for its basic cruelty, the chillingly casual manner of its depiction, and implications it has about the Epps' worldviews. That the moment lasts but 10 seconds only  magnifies the scene's blunt force. 

At this point it almost seems pointless to point out the films flaws, considering how contained they are to the beginning of the movie. However, though the initial missteps don't undercut the power of the conclusion, they do start the film off in a puzzling manner that feels at odds with what follows. 

Rather than proceed in strictly linear fashion, the opening begins with a few vignettes of Solomon already on the Epps' plantation. Later, the film inserts brief flashbacks to Northrup's time with his wife and two children as they go about their life as free and respected members of society. The "payoff" that this structure delivers is little more than a condensed repeat of the opening scenes in a bizarre attempt to generate a moment of psychological tension. Compared with the elegant frankness of the film's majority, these moments can't help but feel rough around the edges. Hans Zimmer's early scoring contributions don't help matters, and threaten to send certain scenes careening off of the rails with their horror movie intensity. 

Thankfully, 12 Years a Slave's triumphs do more than make up for its failures. They absolutely demolish them. With all of the accumulated pain and suffering built up over the course of more than two hours, the film arrives at its shattering conclusion. It's an otherworldly combination of hopefulness about the story's end, as well as a cathartic end to a profoundly wrenching journey. McQueen's film could derisively be deemed his broadest and most accessible. However, by tapping into such a difficult subject matter with such precision, he has delivered a challenging, gripping story by staring evil in the eye and never once backing down. 

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: "Gravity"

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Runtime: 90 minutes

Much of the pre-release buzz around Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity has featured comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That Kubrick classic is not only held up as one of the greatest space-set movies ever, but also as one of the best made in any genre whatsoever. With its icy, yet hypnotic, atmosphere and complex symbolism, it's no surprise that 2001 is still kept on such a lofty perch. How can Gravity measure up to 2001's legacy? The short answer is that it doesn't. The long answer is that it doesn't because it's a totally different sort of space adventure, one that succeeds effortlessly on its own terms. 

Instead of trying to one-up Kubrick's film, Cuaron has made a movie that is the polar opposite. 2001 is a heady puzzle open to all sorts of interpretations, even as it's dressed up as a sci-fi adventure. Gravity is infinitely simpler. That's a statement, not an insult. Gravity isn't out to ask big questions or leave us scratching our heads. Instead, it's an expertly calibrated thrill-ride that seamlessly moves from one set-piece to the next, all executed with magnificent skill.

The plot is but a simple tale of man vs. the environment. After a Russian satellite is destroyed, the debris wipes out the space shuttle carrying veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and first-time space walker Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). With communications with Houston down, the pair are left to their own devices to survive long enough for some sort of rescue. Only, as the opening title cards inform us, this is an environment where there can be no happy co-existence. Life in space is impossible, so it's not a matter of whether the characters can adjust to their surroundings. They know full well what awaits them if they fail. 

And as a tale of desperation and determination, it's hard to fault what Cuaron and his team have pulled off. Running at a crisp 90 minutes, you'd be hard pressed to find a wasted moment in this visual roller coaster as it careens from one big moment to the next. Even in standard 2D, the sensation of being in space fully comes through thanks to Cuaron's bravura direction, along with Emmanuel Lubezki's photography, and the staggering visual effects that fill out his shots. As in Children of Men (2006), there are quite a few long takes, which only heightens the sensation of zero-gravity terror. Steven Price's score is also quite powerful, used consistently but never to the point that it becomes a suffocating sonic distraction.

But it's not all technical showmanship that makes Gravity such a relentlessly effective experience. Children of Men was also a first-rate bit of filmmaking, but it suffered from thin scripting and lukewarm performances. Gravity's writing may not be its strong point, but it certainly hits the mark considerably better than Children of Men ever did. There's little room to create full, satisfying dramatic arcs, but the scant characterization does come through in moving, and ultimately rousing, ways. 

This is largely due to what leading lady Bullock pulls off as the film's emotional anchor. While her co-star is used more for cheeky asides and star power (sometimes distractingly so), Bullock is fully convincing with what could have been an empty shell of a character. First and foremost, Dr. Stone has to simply survive, and Bullock carries herself with the right amount of fear and steely determination. The film could have easily turned into nothing more than an hour and a half of Bullock screaming and panting. Instead, there's enough attention to her character's past, as well as enough moments that give the actress room to breathe, that make her someone worth rooting for, instead of a blank audience surrogate.

Of course, given the set up, this means that the information we learn about Dr. Stone has to come in the form of dialogue that manages to cover all of the BIG important details of her life. It's not the most elegant approach, but Cuaron's directing never flags in the quieter moments. When things slow down (relatively speaking), and silence takes over, Bullock turns the handful of character details into a surprisingly affecting performance. The actress may not have much to sell, but she gives it her all and sells the hell out of it, even when the script threatens to become hackneyed.

All of this builds to a tremendous finish that is not only visceral, but also quite emotional. It's tempting to refer to Gravity as little more than an expertly-crafted theme park ride. However, I doubt anyone has ever been on a ride that worked their emotions over along with their nerves and adrenaline glands. Gravity is a narratively simple film, but to dismiss its achievements so flippantly ignores the tremendous amount of effort put forth by those involved. Cuaron's film, which took seven years to reach screens, is a powerful cinematic experience that uses its simplicity wisely, rather than as a crutch. It's not the next 2001, and it doesn't need to be. Gravity is its own sort of space adventure, and it's a fantastic one to boot. That ought to be enough.

Grade: A-