Monthly Archives: November 2013

Review – Gravity 3D (15) [2013]

Gravity - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alfonso Cuarón – Love In The Time of Hysteria, Harry Potter III, Children of Men

Cast:

  • Sandra Bullock – Crash, Premonition, The Blind Side, Minions
  • George Clooney – Syriana, The American, The Ides of March, The Monuments Men
  • Ed Harris – A Beautiful Mind, The Way Back, Man On A Ledge, Frontera

Music Composer:

  • Steven Price – Attack The Block, The World’s EndFury

Movies that have delved into the realms of outer space have usually fallen somewhere in the triangle of the sublime, the ridiculous and the farcical. Avatar, Star Wars I-VI, and Lost In Space give credence to this (erratic) trinity in varying ways. Among the spaceships, the ray-gun shoot-outs, and the convergence with antenna-eyed or raptor-style aliens, there has been little room (ironically) for realism in a film set in space. Until now. It may have none of the above, but Gravity gives us a true and uncomfortable feel for what it is like to be outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) making some repairs to the shuttle in view of Earth.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) making some repairs to the shuttle in view of Earth.

Gravity centres round Dr. Ryan Stone (Sadra Bullock), a Mission Specialist. She is on her first expedition into space, led by Matt (George Clooney), a veteran on his last voyage into space. Dr. Stone is making repairs to the shuttle that she and Matt are flying with, when debris from an explosion on a Russian satellite smashes into their shuttle. With the shuttle damaged irreparably, Dr. Stone must find another shuttle if she wishes to return to Earth.

That is essentially the storyline for Gravity. One problem with the plot is that the film uses up its central premise within 30 of its 91 minute running time. This means that for the last hour, the movie recycles itself instead of flesh-eating alien invasions or putting inter-galactic arsenals to the test.

But for those who would rather see another Star Wars, Prometheus or Elysium, do not lose faith. Gravity is very engaging. It has moments of knuckle-whitening tension, amplified by the fast beat, gradual crescendo and sudden silence of the music; all whilst our main character tries to reach another space vessel before her oxygen runs out. In respect of tension, the movie is similar to Sanctum; only in Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s directing style increases one’s ability to empathise with the protagonists’ predicament.

Predominantly, the film is seen through Dr. Stone’s eyes (or rather her space-helmet), as she swims around in the boundless, atmosphere-less blackness. Without a centre of gravity, the movie enables viewers to appreciate what it’s like to be in space, rotating endlessly unless one can find something to hold onto. And unlike (the lamentable) Lost In Space, Gravity gives audiences a genuine taste for how scary it would be to get lost in space and to lose contact with the only people who might be able to find you.

Matt (George Clooney), from behind his space helmet, gazing and admiring Earth, amidst the peace of outer space.

Matt (George Clooney), from behind his space helmet, gazing and admiring Earth, amidst the peace of outer space.

In part, one feels the depth of this horror because of Sandra Bullock’s energetic performance. Her character is almost always in panic (as any human being would be in her situation) and this exacerbates Dr. Stone’s (somewhat) complex personality. Due to an unhappy episode in her past, we see her mindset switch from despair to a willingness to live on (and vice-versa) repeatedly. This is something which viewers can relate to on a human level, and it was very important that Bullock achieved this feat. For much of Gravity, she is alone on screen, and if she had failed to show Dr. Stone’s personality to the full, audiences would likely have stopped caring about her.

The only other significant character in the film is Matt, played by George Clooney. And Clooney (surprise surprise) plays himself again as the smooth-talking, handsome wise-head, who goes and comes back (for plot convenience) to give sage advice. That is not to say that Clooney performs his role badly. It is just that we have seen this too many times already.

Bullock and Clooney aside, Gravity is remarkably consistent with its depiction of reality in space. Too often in (bad) films, one sees/hears characters breathing and talking in space. Here, however, there is none of that nonsense! The only time one hears sounds is through the space suit’s microphone, which is so refreshing (and illustrates that not all filmmakers have the paucity of knowledge of physics as Sidney Furie, the director of the rightly-maligned Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.)

Dr. Stone trying to grip a bar on the shuttle, or else she could be find herself adrift in the endless, empty abyss of space surrounding her.

Dr. Stone trying to grip a bar on the shuttle, or else she could be find herself adrift in the endless, empty abyss of space surrounding her.

Moreover, audiences are treated to stunning visual effects. The emptiness that is outer space, in all its wonder, is shown to be disconcertingly large. What’s more, the 3D (for once) enhances the visual experience, even more so than it did in Avatar and Star Trek II: Into Darkness. In Gravity, when debris flies at Dr. Stone, one jerks one’s head out of the way, believing he/she will otherwise be hit! Considering how often the 3D does little more than darken the film and add a couple more quid to the cinema ticket, one must applaud Cuarón for augmenting the experience in a positive and noteworthy way.

Over-all, Gravity is a great demonstration of what being in outer space feels like. That the film has no alien encounters or futuristic ray-gun fights gives the film an ironically grounded dimension that has been sorely lacking in so many other movies that have ventured into space. Due to Sandra Bullock’s great acting, the extraordinary level of consistency regarding the physics of space, the amazing special effects and the 3D, Cuarón has treated us to outer space’s awe-inspiring massiveness, as well as how frightening space can be when out there, lost.

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Review – Philomena (12a) [2013]

Philomena - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Stephen Frears – The Queen, Tamara Drewe, Untitled Lance Armstrong Biopic

Cast:

  • Judi Dench – Shakespeare In LoveMy Week With Marilyn, Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel I & IISpectre
  • Michelle Fairley – The Others, Harry Potter VII(i), Game of Thrones, Ironclad II
  • Steve Coogan – Tropic Thunder, What Maisie Knew, Northern Soul
  • Sophie Kennedy Clark – Dark Shadows, Nymphomaniac
  • Sean Mahon – Line of Fire, Reign of the Gargoyles, Dark Shadows
  • Charlie Murphy – Love/Hate, 71, Northmen: A Viking Saga

Music Composer:

Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn and Shadow Dancer had solid premises and the potential to be very good films. Alas, they all shared the characteristics of being flat, lacking in character development, and running out of steam long before the end. It resulted in their latter scenes being overly predictable or trite, or both. Similarly, despite being a decent film, Philomena suffers from the same traits.

Young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) holding her son tightly in the sole hour a day that she is given free time at the nunnery.

Young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) holding her son tightly in the sole hour a day that she is given free time at the nunnery.

Philomena is a British drama set in 2003. The movie is based on the true story of how an elderly Irish lady, Philomena Lee (when young, played by Sophie Kennedy Clark; when old, by Judy Dench), came to find her son, Anthony (when adult, played by Sean Mahon).

Anthony was taken away from Philomena in the 1950s when he was a toddler by the nuns at a Catholic nunnery, while Philomena lived there as punishment for her sin of becoming pregnant outside of wedlock. But now she has the help of a journalist in Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who has just lost his job as a Labour government advisor and a BBC reporter. He wants to write a story that will reinvigorate his career (as a Russian history author of all things) and helps Philomena to find out what happened to her son.

Philomena’s storyline is straightforward, logical and saddening, yet done with wittiness and dignity. The film wastes little time in getting the two main actors on screen together and moving them in the right direction, which is positive. Quaint Ireland is portrayed in a genial, green way, with cheerful locals down at the local pubbie, while a nasty side of the country is shed light upon by revealing some of the crimes of Catholic nunneries. (Naturally, the particular nunnery involved claim that Philomena distorts the truth and is misleading. As they would.)

Yet, Philomena rapidly feels tired, which is disappointing as one expects more from it. The movie is only 98 minutes long, but it feels longer. All the best jokes are in the trailer, so they lose their panache when said in the film. But in general the humour, which is far from dumb or slapstick, lacks the cutting edge of Woody Allen’s recent Blue Jasmine.

Philomena in her senior years (played by Judi Dench) talking about her past with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in the Irish countryside.

Philomena in her senior years (played by Judi Dench) talking about her past with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in the Irish countryside.

Moreover, Philomena has little character development and, like My Week With Marilyn, none of the characters seem to go anywhere either. This is despite the characters and the movie taking the correct (and predictable) steps towards the film’s (inevitable) conclusion, which is a strange and an unrewarding sensation as a viewer.

The lack of character arches is a real pity as some of the characters had the potential to be very interesting. Consequently, the acting lacks meat, even though all of the performances are good. Judi Dench is fine as the quirkily charming, if socially odd Philomena in her old age. But Dench’s performance is undermined by the fact that no-one believes she’s Irish. It does not help that Dench’s accent in the film flips between that of a Dubliner and the Queen’s English. In addition, as Dench is playing a role not too dissimilar to many of her past performances, audiences are invariably reminded that she’s English (in case they needed any reminding).

Steve Coogan plays decently as the disillusioned (and discourteous) man trying to find his way again after becoming unemployed in middle age. And Michelle Fairley, playing in a very different role to the dutiful Lady Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones, gives a good and amusing performance (with the little screen time she has) in her native Irish accent as the ruthless editor, manipulating all the facts that Martin Sixsmiths relays to her in order to create a more enticing story for her newspaper.

Judi Dench (left) with the real Philomena Lee (right) at the premier.

Judi Dench (left) with the real Philomena Lee (right) at the premier.

However, arguably the best performance of the film is from Sophie Kennedy Clark, as the young Philomena. In spite of the harsh living conditions in the nunnery, Clark demonstrates a mother’s true happiness when she holds her young son in her arms, as well as a mother’s brokenness when her son is taken away. Like Fairley, Clark is not in the film for very long. But the scenes with her on screen are the only emotional ones in this otherwise quite dull movie.

All-in-all, Philomena is a fine film. The movie provides audiences with a decent insight into the mean, inner workings of Catholic nunneries in Ireland in the 1950s, and has a good cast that deliver their lines well enough. Yet, Philomena lacks energy and runs out of puff long before its running time is over. Likewise, the film’s humour, general flatness, and lack of character development makes viewers feel like they’re cutting meat with a blunt knife. All the key ingredients to Philomena should have been sharper and more engaging as the film’s premise is a fascinating one.

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Review – Captain Phillips (12a) [2013]

Captain Phillips - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Paul Greengrass – Resurrected, Green Zone, Bourne II-III & V

Cast:

  • Tom Hanks – Philadelphia, Toy Story I-III, Saving Mr Banks
  • Catherine Keener – The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Into The Wild, Nailed
  • Barkhad Abdi – Eye In The Sky
  • Barkhad Abdirahman
  • Faysal Ahmed
  • Mahat M Ali
  • Michael Churnus – Love & Other Drugs, Men In Black III, Glass Chin
  • David Warshofsky – Public Enemies, Unstoppable, Now You See Me
  • John Megaro – The Big Short

Music Composer:

Piracy at sea is nothing new. Ships have been hijacked since the dawn of time and the problem is still rife in many parts of the world today. Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips shows us superbly what it can feel like when a ship gets taken over by a gang with guns.

Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) on the look out for pirates... and worried by how quickly they're advancing toward his ship.

Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) on the look out for pirates… and worried by how quickly they’re advancing toward his ship.

Captain Phillips is based on the true story which occurred in 2009 and the book, which came out the following year called A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, NAVY seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Captain Richard Phillips, himself. The film is about when the Maersk Alabama, a large cargo ship, is seized by Somali pirates near the Horn of Africa, and the crew are taken hostage.

The plot for Captain Phillips is straightforward, grounded and gets to the crux within 20 of its 134 minute running time. From them on the film is tense; so tense, one’s heart pounds in sync with the background beats, and one’s arms shake almost as much. Also, as the film is long, one feels as if the situation is being drawn out in real time. This is despite no lawyers appearing in the film, and little attention given to events behind the scenes in instances of hostages at sea (unlike the very good Danish film, A Hijacking).

The pirates on their little speed boat, eager to seize Maersk Alabama and gain a reward for it back in Somalia.

The pirates on their little speed boat, eager to seize Maersk Alabama and gain a reward for it back in Somalia.

That Somali piracy is a current and serious issue enhances the horror of the situation for Captain Rich Phillips and his crew, and the close up shots (Greengrass’ trademark) enable viewers to see the fear of captain and crew at hand. Although, there is a law suit presently being waged against Captain Phillips, claiming that the movie does not portray events aboard the Maersk Alabama in the run up and during the hijacking truthfully, the film feels (for the most part) chillingly realistic. Some may argue that the realism becomes less convincing as the movie goes on; for example, neither captain nor crew complain of hunger throughout the ordeal. But in the main, Captain Phillips seems sincere, irrespective of the outcome of the lawsuit.

Captain Phillips’ genuineness is helped by the pirates looking bloody scary and behaving in a frenzied fashion. Tom Hanks is likely to gain much of the plaudits come Oscar season, and his display is absolutely brilliant as the heroic (though this point is legally being disputed) and beleaguered captain; indeed, the grimmer the situation becomes, the better Hanks performs. However, the actors playing the pirates do just as much, if not more, to make the film as thrilling (stressful) as it is, since viewers are never sure how the pirates are going to react to movement on the ship, or outside of it.

The pirates, having taken the ship and Captain Phillips hostage, telling the captain that they're in charge.

The pirates, having taken the ship and Captain Phillips hostage, telling the captain that they’re in charge.

What is quite remarkable is that the film makes us empathise with the pirates’ predicament. Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M Ali, the four men playing the pirates (lacking all the glamour and savvy of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow or Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV), show us why some Somalis turn to piracy, as well as the problems that await them should they return home without large sums of money, or at least with a great bargaining chip to acquire large amounts of money. One almost comes to pity the pirates’ plight… but for the small matter of them holding a crew (and Tom Hanks) hostage.

All-in-all, Captain Phillips is a nerve-shredding, finger-biting thriller. Granted, the film almost exclusively focusses upon events on the ship and little else. But the movie is grounded and, regardless of its factual accuracy, it feels honest in every respect. Furthermore, Captain Phillips makes viewers experience the terror of modern-day pirates seizing a vessel at sea.

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Review – Gilad Shalit: The Interview (N/A) [2013]

Gilad Shalit interview title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Cast:

  • Gilad Shalit (himself)
  • Noam Shalit (himself)
  • Aviva Shalit (herself)
  • Hadas Shalit (herself)
  • Yoel Shalit (himself)

(This is documentary was shown at an exclusive showing in accordance with an event. It has not been widely released or given a rating by the BBFC.)

For anyone Jewish, Israeli, or otherwise who followed the Gilad Shalit situation, 18th October 2011 was an emotional day. In Israel, it is said that no-one worked and the entire population was glued to the TV. For after almost five and a half years in Hamas captivity, following his abduction in June 2006, an asserted international campaign led by his father, and hard negotiations, Private Gilad Shalit became the first Israeli soldier to return home pale, skinny and alive in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. This low-budget Israeli documentary, produced and aired almost exclusively for Israeli TV, gives us an insight into Gilad’s life during his illegal incarceration and how he is getting on with life since being released.

Gilad Shalit, looking pale and gaunt whilst in captivity, wherein he was not allowed to go outside for five and a half years.

Gilad Shalit, looking pale and gaunt whilst in captivity, wherein he was not allowed to go outside for five and a half years.

The documentary is only 40-45 minutes long and skips back and forth between Gilad’s time in captivity and events subsequently. Since there is no footage of Gilad’s day to day life in the hell-hole underground cell that he was forbidden to leave whilst in captivity, interviews with Gilad since returning home (smiling and with the colour having returned to his face) are our only insight into what his life was like.

The empathy one feels for Gilad is heart-breaking as he tells us his monotonous life in the lonely cell. He kept to a schedule and refused to let himself lie on his bed and just think, since that filled him with despair. The schedule often comprised of playing games with himself, such as bundling up shirts/socks into a ball and seeing how many times he could throw it into a basket/bin in a row.

However, as Gilad’s time in captivity went on, he tells us that his captors gave him a TV and a radio (how nice of them), watched games of sport with him, and played chess with him, which all helped to make the time go a little faster. Furthermore, Gilad says that occasionally Hamas broke the monotony by making him record a video or write a letter. Sometimes these were released, as the video in September 2009 testifies, and on other occasions they were not; although, his captors never told him either way.

Gilad Shalit on the day of his release, walking alongside his relieved father, Noam (right), and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (left).

Gilad Shalit on the day of his release, walking alongside his relieved father, Noam (right), and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (left).

Yet, it is not just Gilad’s time in captivity that is touching, but how he felt in the days leading up to his release, wherein he says (with some humour) that he hardly slept because he was so nervous, fearing it would all go wrong; and how he has fared in trying to rebuild himself since coming home. After rarely speaking to anyone regularly for years, one can only imagine how hard it must have been for him to re-adapt into a social scene again. Interestingly, Gilad claims that one of the worst aspects of coming out is that he feels left behind since his friends and family had moved on with their lives, whilst he hadn’t.

Moreover, Gilad talks fondly of when he went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of freedom personified, which he believes is symbolic of his life. But his trip also revealed another side of him: a desire to lead a normal life. Gilad is a painfully shy person and being a celebrity sits uncomfortably with his character, even though he knows it is something he has to live with.

Simultaneously throughout the documentary, we are given the perspective of Gilad’s mother and father, Aviva and Noam. Noam appears stern before the cameras. He says little but his determination to bring his son home is evident in his expression, as is his relief on the day of Gilad’s return. Gilad’s mother, though, is different. She weeps and prays for him while in captivity, and cries with joy afterward when he is home and returning to good health.

Gilad Shalit, as he looks today. Although skinny, he looks happy and healthy.

Gilad Shalit, as he looks today. Although skinny, he looks happy and healthy.

Over-all, the documentary is simple, short, and moving. The film covers many fascinating areas about Gilad before and after the events of 18th October 2011 from his angle and that of other members of the Shalit family. The documentary does not discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or re-open the debate about whether the price paid for Gilad’s release was worth it. Nor does it deal with any Post Traumatic Stress Disorders that Gilad may suffer from, or how Gilad feels toward his captors. This is understandable. The first is not something Gilad can answer objectively, and the latter two are personal matters and would be insensitive to ask. (And even if the issues were raised, they most probably could not be aired for political reasons.) In some ways, it is a shame that these topics are not raised. Arguably, they would have made the documentary more interesting.

Nevertheless, the documentary deals with almost all other issues and makes one’s eyes well with water. This is because the story of Gilad Shalit is such an affecting one. It’s a miracle he returned home alive. Two years have passed since his release and he seems to be making the right steps toward a full recovery. Please God he can go on to fulfil his potential. He deserves it!

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