LFF 2013: Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity - Image courtesy of Warner Bros 2013

Director Alfonso Cuaron returns after seven year absence from cinema with an exhilarating journey into outer space that sets new standards for visual effects.

When a seemingly routine US mission to fix the Hubble telescope goes disastrously wrong, two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) find themselves floating alone above the earth.

Like his last film, the dystopian drama Children of Men (2006), Cuaron and his crew have come up with a highly inventive approach to story, using a stunning blend of camera work and visual effects to create a chilling plausible dystopian world.

Whilst his latest doesn’t have the thematic depth of that film, it remains a gripping thrill ride, utilising cutting edge technology to elicit human emotion and create a powerful tale of survival.

For most of the film we are with a stranded Bullock as she struggles to find a way back home and this is her best role in years. She makes a convincing astronaut but also channels a wide range of emotions from panic to resolve.

As for Clooney, his character is cleverly used and he brings his usual charm and screen presence to his role as a veteran spaceman. An off-screen voice cameo from Ed Harris is a tip of the hat to his famous role in the last major space drama, Apollo 13 (1995).

For Cuaron this is another step in his chameleon-like career, which has included genres such as fantasy, Charles Dickens, the road movie, Harry Potter and sci-fi. Here he takes a bold step into the world of digital cinema and 3D and the result is as impressive as his previous work.

To describe Gravity as science fiction doesn’t feel right quite right.

For most of its lean 87 minute running time it feels terrifyingly realistic, even if in retrospect some of the narrow escapes feel a little bit too last second.

But make no mistake, this is a truly groundbreaking film with highly innovative camera work from Cuaron’s regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and stunning visual effects supervised by Tim Webber of Framestore (a previous collaborator).

The extraordinary long take that begins the film sets a marker for what is to come with shots of the various space craft and earth below that are a marvel to behold on a big screen.

Using a complex mixture of camera rigs, LED lighting panels, groundbreaking CGI and even puppeteers from the stage version of War Horse, the zero gravity of outer space is brilliantly realised, with the earth below just as convincing.

Cuaron and his team have wisely opted to use technology in service of the central story, which was perhaps the reason they opted for such a lean premise, and the result is a pure fusion of technology and emotion.

Sound, silence and a dramatic score by Steven Price also play a critical role in creating the extraordinary atmosphere of the film.

Although time will inevitably lead to more advanced visual effects, Gravity will still represent a landmark in modern cinema.

In a time of great uncertainty and opportunity for the medium, it represents how more traditional directors can utilise digital tools to tell a spellbinding story.

Gravity screened at the London Film Festival on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October

(It opens in the UK on Friday 8th November)

> Official site
> Reviews of Gravity at Metacritic

The Hollywood Reporter’s Actor’s Roundtable 2011

The Hollywood Reporter have posted the full video of their awards season round table with various actors in this year’s Oscar race.

It includes George Clooney (The Descendants and The Ides of March), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Christoph Waltz (Carnage), Albert Brooks (Drive) and Nick Nolte (Warrior).

As you can imagine this kind of gathering makes for a pretty fascinating discussion, especially as it lasts just over an hour:

It zig and zags across various issues but here’s a mini-breakdown of the highlights:

  • Oldman on being asked to play Charles Manson, the influence of his mother and the Bryan Forbes film that inspired a
  • Plummer on playing King Lear on stage, the most challenging role he’s played, being 80 and what makes actors great.
  • Clooney on becoming an actor, the career of his aunt Rosemary Clooney and making challenging films.
  • Nolte on getting old, 48 Hours, not finding work, repertory theatre companies and a great story about Barry Lyndon.
  • Brooks on the psychology of stardom, why Jack Benny was his idol and the overall social value of acting.
  • Waltz on finding success relatively late in his career, his roles after Inglourious Basterds and the nature of acting.

The Hollywood Reporter
> Latest on the awards season at Awardsdaily and In Contention

The Ides of March

A wonkish but highly efficient political drama provides George Clooney the chance to pay tribute to his favourite era of filmmaking.

Adapted from Beau Williams’ stage play Farragut North, the basic story is a cocktail loosely inspired by the skulduggery of recent US presidential primaries.

It focuses on a young, ambitious strategist (Ryan Gosling) who is assisting his campaign boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in getting an inspirational Democratic candidate (George Clooney) elected.

With the Republican field bare, the primary takes on extra significance, especially when a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), a journalist (Marisa Tomei) and an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) start to pose ethical and moral dilemmas.

With a script credited to Williams, Clooney and Grant Heslov, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to apply the weary but wise tone of classic 70s cinema to recent times.

It offers up an approach that seems to draw on the best work of directors such as Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet, with moral ambiguity, composed framing and a considered use of long takes all adding to the atmosphere.

Clooney has admitted that he delayed making this film until the brief tidal wave of hope that got Obama elected subsided and there is no doubt that this is trying to capture the dynamics of modern politics with an eye to the past.

It even appears to draw from some of the drama of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, as well as its 2004 predecessor in which Williams worked for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Throughout the film is peppered with neat little political references, be it the Shepherd Fairey Obama poster, Eisenhower’s campaign slogan (‘I Like Ike‘ crosses party lines to become ‘I Like Mike’) and there is a great line about an ‘unofficial rule’ for Democratic candidates (which I wont spoil here).

It seems the writers and crew have been absorbing documentaries as D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, reading dishy campaign books such as Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whilst blending them in with current disillusionment about the US political system.

For non-political junkies, this occasionally veers into territory that some might consider arcane, with operatives discussing strategies, insider websites and how a story might be killed or resurrected (then killed again), which might leave some audience members cold.

The original title of the play refers to a Washington metro station near to where veteran campaign operatives ‘retire’ to create lucrative political consulting firms.

But Clooney has opted to widen the scope of the material: the new Shakespearean title (which both refers to Julius Caesar and Super Tuesday) and the emphasis on themes of loyalty give it a relevance beyond a particular campaign or country.

One of the most immediately pleasurable aspects of the film is the pacing of the narrative, which starts off brisk and then sucks you into the unfolding drama, courtesy of the script and Stephen Mirrione’s brisk, efficient editing.

Shooting on location in Ohio and Michigan has paid off handsomely, as the bleak wintry landscapes not only feel realistic but seem an appropriate backdrop for the actions of the central characters.

This is probably one of the most dazzling Hollywood ensembles in quite some time: Gosling is believable as the brilliant but naive protagonist; Clooney exudes the charm and ambition of a serious candidate; Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti excel as the weary but wise campaign managers and Wood and Tomei are convincing in small but key roles.

If there is a flaw with the casting, it is that actors of the quality of Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle are limited to very minor roles.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael skilfully channels the desaturated look of 70s dramas like Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation and to create a strong visual palette for the movie.

One particular influence appears to be Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford as a hopeful Democratic candidate: it would make an interesting double bill with this film.

As an actor-director making serious movies inside the Hollywood system, Clooney is in some ways a modern day Redford and both films present fascinating depictions of ends justifying the means, both in politics and art.

Another film that offers an interesting comparison with this is Michael Clayton, a 2007 corporate thriller which itself was heavily indebted to Pakula’s conspiracy trilogy of the 1970s, only in The Ides of March it is Clooney in the Sydney Pollack (or maybe Tom Wilkinson?) role and Gosling in the Clooney part.

This isn’t quite on the same level as Tony Gilroy’s film, let alone its 70s forebears,  but it nonetheless offers us a darker-than-usual depiction of power, politics and the reality of grasping the White House from your ideological enemies .

The score by Alexander Desplat is suitably brooding and atmospheric, without ever overpowering the action on screen and combined with some clever sound editing, makes for some highly effective moments.

If The West Wing represented a fantasy of what the Clinton presidency could have been (and oddly predicted the Obama candidacy), The Ides of March perhaps represents a more realistic depiction of where American politics is at on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.

After Obama’s historic win of 2008, the country is more bitterly divided than ever: tea party lunacy fuelled by internet nonsense jostles with Wall Street occupiers feeling betrayed by the faith their Baby Boomer parents put in the governments of the last 30 years.

With both political parties and the current system seemingly paralysed by an inability to reform the financial system, a drama like this feels weirdly appropriate for the current times in which we live.

By showing the compromises and skulduggery on the campaign trail, it mirrors the bleak reality of politicians once they are in actually in power and the crushed dreams of the present era.

> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi and Metacritic
> More on the play Farragut North at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

LFF 2011: The Descendants

A comedy-drama set in Hawaii marks a triumphant return for director Alexander Payne after a seven year absence and provides George Clooney with arguably his best ever role.

Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, it explores the thorny emotional dilemmas facing landowner Matt King (George Clooney) after his wife is involved in a serious boating accident.

He also has to deal with his two young daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and the lucrative sale of ancestral land but when secrets emerge about the recent past he is forced to reexamine his life.

It seems odd that after all the critical and awards success of his last film, Alexander Payne should take seven years to make another, but the late 2000s indie collapse may have played a part.

I’m happy to report that The Descendants maintains his remarkable run of films that begun with Citizen Ruth (1996) and continued with Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004).

Like those it masterfully blends sharp wit with heartfelt emotion, exploring the nuances of family relationships with an intelligence rarely seen in mainstream US cinema.

This has been a Payne trademark but the setting here provides a distinct visual flavour as well as an integral feature of the story, whilst the ensemble cast is outstanding.

Clooney in the lead role gives arguably his best ever performance, dialling down his natural charm to convey the confusion of a husband and father confronted with some harsh emotional truths about those he loves and – most importantly – himself.

Reminiscent of his best acting work in Out of Sight, Solaris, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, he conveys a certain vulnerability whilst delivering the comic moments with consummate skill.

He is ably supported by what is one of the best supporting casts in recent memory.

The young actresses who play his immediate family members are terrific.

Woodley is a convincingly tempestuous but wise teenager, Miller as her younger sister is believably innocent and Clooney’s familial chemistry with them form the bedrock of the film.

There are also memorable turns from Robert Forster as a gruff father-in-law, Beau Bridges as a relaxed relative (seemingly channelling his brother Jeff as a Hawaiian Lebowski), Nick Krause as one of the daughter’s boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as an opportunistic real estate agent and Judy Greer as his loving wife.

None of these finely tuned performances would be possible without the screenplay by Payne (with credited co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) which laces the gravity of the central situation with some brilliantly executed humour.

The way the central dramatic scenario is blended with the characters and the wider themes of inheritance and time feel like a masterclass in screenwriting.

Payne’s directorial execution is exemplary.

He has always demonstrated a keen eye for small, revealing details: the ballot papers in Election, the letters in About Schmidt or the TV clip of The Grapes of Wrath in Sideways.

Similarly, The Descendants is also filled with wonderful, human flourishes.

Payne sprinkles them throughout the film with relish and without giving away spoilers, particular highlights feature a swimming pool, a black eye, a sneaky kiss and a farewell speech.

Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is reminiscent of his work on Sideways, creating interesting interior compositions and contrasting them with some gorgeous widescreen exterior work.

Hawaii isn’t always presented here as a picture postcard paradise – an opening monologue shrewdly debunks its glamour (“Paradise can go f**k itself”) – but nonetheless it forms a beautifully telling backdrop to the narrative as the climax nears.

Payne has admitted that he spent months editing the film with Kevin Tent and it pays off as the comic and dramatic beats are timed to perfection, whilst the Hawaiian flavoured musical score gives the film a distinctive mood and texture.

It is also an interesting depiction of the Aloha state, drilling deeper into the heart of the place than TV shows which have used it as a backdrop (e.g. Hawaii Five-O or Magnum P.I.) and even more recent movies such as Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which was partly set there.

His early work often focused on his home state of Nebraska, but he has always managed to find universal truths within particular locations.

This is the case in his latest film as the family dilemmas are at once specific and yet embedded within the culture of America’s newest state.

Mainstream cinema often can’t resist cliché whatever the genre, so it is doubly satisfying to find a filmmaker who excels in combining light and shade whilst using intelligent humour to enhance the gravity of the central narrative.

Strangely, it also plays like a reverse Michael Clayton: both lead characters are lawyers with relationship issues, but have to deal with very different financial circumstances.

Payne has long been a fan of classic 1970s cinema and where Tony Gilroy’s film channelled the spirit of Alan Pakula, this goes for a more bitter-sweet vibe reminiscent of Hal Ashby.

With strong reviews on the festival circuit and the marketing skills of Fox Searchlight behind it, The Descendants is likely to be a major player in the end of year awards season, but it is much more than just token Oscar bait.

In what happens to have been a year filled with remakes and sequels from the mainstream studios, this shows that Hollywood can still produce work which appeals to the brain as well as the heart.

The Descendants screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday (23rd) and Monday (24th) before opening in the US on November 18th and in the UK on January 27th

> Official site
> Festival reviews of The Descendants at MUBi

Trailer: The Descendants

A new film from director Alexander Payne is a pretty big deal, especially since he hasn’t made one since Sideways (2004).

The new trailer has now surfaced for The Descendants, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings about a land baron (George Clooney) trying to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife slips into a coma.

It also stars Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster.

Fox Searchlight will be hoping for awards season action when it gets released stateside in December and although a UK release is TBC, I would imagine it would open around January or February.

> Official site
> The Descendants at the IMDb
> HD versions of the trailer at Apple