Thursday 21 November 2013

Letterboxd: GRAVITY (2013), HITCHCOCK (2012) & NOW YOU SEE ME (2013)

Thursday 21 November 2013
★★★★ (out of five)

[WARNING: MAJOR SPOILER!] It's a huge technical achievement and the most impressive 3D experience since AVATAR (as space naturally lends itself to the extra depth the 3D medium allows), and it's a relief that GRAVITY's problems with a thin script and characterisations don't derail a tense and hugely entertaining 90-minutes of perilous spectacle and fine beauty.

Where GRAVITY excels is by representing space in a manner that eclipses previous attempts-- like APOLLO 13, where actors were filmed experiencing zero-G in a free-falling airplane nicknamed the "vomit comet". And that's undeniably impressive, considering APOLLO 13's effect is a genuine quirk of physics and GRAVITY relies on greenscreen and photo-real animations.

Beyond its technical achievements, Alfonso Cuarón's long-awaited follow-up to CHILDREN OF MEN expertly portrays the many dangers and psychological stresses of this most hostile environment—which, for all its incredible sights and silence, is somewhere almost indescribably alien where humans simply aren't designed to be. GRAVITY sells the weirdness and potential horror of living in space extremely well; a place where a domino-effect of bad luck could put your life in serious jeopardy, in an unimaginable way to anything on earth. Space is a place where you can be literally one hand grasp away from just drifting into the eternal void to die of oxygen starvation. A place where tiny fragments of debris travel faster than bullets, and could whiz straight through your head if you're not too careful.

The subtext of GRAVITY is that astronaut Dr Ryan Stone (a great Sandra Bullock) finds solace in space because it's the ultimate isolation from her memories of losing her daughter; a cocoon of silence and separation that allows her to continue existing in peace, albeit in an unhealthy way that can't be sustained. Once Stone becomes the sole survivor of an orbital disaster, she inevitably finds the inner strength and determination to embrace her life again, reinvigorate her spirit, and eventually make her way--literally and spiritually--back down to the blue planet (literally "reborn" after taking the plunge into a lake, shakily reaching terra firma to stand strong on a shoreline).

I found GRAVITY to be exciting and enthralling at regular intervals, with Bullock doing wonders with a role that's underwritten on the page. George Clooney's also good value as her constantly pragmatic and chipper colleague Matt Kowalski. There are some inevitable lapses in logic that more attentive viewers will furrow their brows over, and the scientifically-minded will poke numerous holes in the plot (like the ludicrously short distances between space stations), but repairing these flaws would result in a less dramatic and workable movie. The key thing is it gets the human emotion, it understands the environmental fears, and the effects paint the most believable portrait of manned space exploration I've ever seen. Also hard to imagine anyone not preferring the 3D version, too; even those who love to bore you about the format's pointlessness.

★★ (out of five)

HITCHCOCK feels like someone accidentally doubled the budget of a TV bio-drama, then wrote a script based on Alfred Hitchcock's Wikipedia page (with a smattering of trivia from IMDb) instead of any real insight into the man. And I have no idea why the make-up team accidentally turned Anthony Hopkins into Roald Dahl.

It's also another movie (after the ARTHUR remake) where Helen Mirren's the only glint of quality as Hitch's under-appreciated wife Alma, but she can't rescue this despite the movie focusing on her more than the Master of Suspense himself. Oh, and the excellent casting of James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins is wasted.

★★½ (out of five)

It's Louis Leterrier's best since THE TRANSPORTER, and NOW YOU SEE ME is entertaining for random, brief periods. But here's the thing about portraying magic in films: it doesn't work, because film itself is a form of magic. Audiences aren't impressed by card tricks and illusions in a movie, because we're accustomed to films cheating to achieve the impossible.

THE PRESTIGE managed to get around this issue because it was more a character study about professional rivals, but NOW YOU SEE ME doesn't have good characters. That's probably why it's crammed with movie stars to compensate, which only has an added distancing effect because we know Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Isla Fisher aren't master magicians. Their stage presence is horribly stilted as a result and their 'Four Horsemen' super-group are so smug it's painful. Imagine four David Copperfields.

NOW YOU SEE ME has an insane premise I can pick holes in until it resembles a cobweb. A quartet of street magicians—illusionist Daniel (Eisenberg), mentalist Merritt (Harrelson), escapologist Henley (Fisher) and sleight of hand expert Jack (the cheaper Franco brother, Dave)--are recruited by a mysterious mastermind to perform a series of magic tricks on a global scale. They begin by robbing a bank in Paris from a stage during a sell-out show in Las Vegas, which draws the attention of magic-hating FBI agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) and sexy Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent). Along for the ride is Magic Circle pariah Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), who makes his living exposing tricks, and the group's wealthy sponsor Arthur Tressler (Caine).

Too much about NOW YOU SEE ME didn't work for me. The magic is rarely electrifying for the aforementioned reasons, most of the in-movie explanations for the show's various twists are ludicrous (expecting far too much pre-planning and blind luck to be plausible), and when the big twist comes at the end... well, while I didn't guess it, that was because it's pretty stupid and calls too much into question about the previous two-hours. A sequel is on the cards, but your money's best spent going to see a live magician on-stage. Woodley Harrelson "hypnotising" people doesn't impress anyone.
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