Oct 18

“Gravity” and Other Films Sharing Themes of Solitude and Peril

By now everyone’s probably heard of the Sandra Bullock/George Clooney danger-in-space flick Gravity. Tom Long, Detroit News, calls it “‘Castaway’ in outer space.” Likewise, Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com, also compares it to Cast Awaybut also to such other films as 127 Hours and the new All Is Lost.

In those three films, respectively, Tom Hanks is marooned on an island, James Franco is a mountain climber trapped under a boulder, and Robert Redford is alone on a damaged yacht in a violent storm.

Previews of All is Lost, in addition, remind me of Life of Pi, in which a young shipwreck survivor, now in a small lifeboat, battles the elements alongside several wild animals.

All have relatively high consumer rankings. On IMDB, they get the following scores out of a possible 10 (and it’s rare that a movie gets a 9 or above).

  • All Is Lost is rated 7.2.
  • Cast Away and 127 Hours are both over 7.5.
  • Life of Pi 8.1.
  • Gravity‘s currently got an 8.7.

What do all these movies have in common?

Solitude amid life-threatening circumstances.

For some, solitude is scary no matter what the circumstances—so, all the more scary when you think you might die. For others, solitude is a desirable state. But if you think you’re going to die without the chance to communicate with anyone, what’s the likelihood it’s still desirable?

What’s the burning issue in each of these films?

Will he/she survive? Also, what keeps people going in the face of overwhelming peril, and why do some persevere while others give up?

As stated by Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com:

If anyone asks me what ‘Gravity’ is about, I’ll tell them it’s a tense adventure about a space mission gone wrong, but once they’ve seen and absorbed the movie, they’ll know the truth. The root word of ‘Gravity’ is ‘grave.’ That’s an adjective meaning weighty or glum or substantial, but it’s also a noun: the location where we’ll all end up in time. The film is about that moment when you suffered misfortune that seemed unendurable and believed all hope was lost and that you might as well curl up and die, and then you didn’t. Why did you decide to keep going? It’s is a mystery as great as any in physics or astronomy, and one we’ve all grappled with, and transcended.

What do we feel while waiting to find out what happens?

High anxiety.

In reviewing Captain Phillips, based on the true story of a U.S. ship hijacked by Somali pirates, Lee Jutton opines about the new wave of “the cinema of anxiety” (Just Press Play).

It feels as though as long as there have been movies, there has also been the debate about which is the more important category for a movie to fall into: art or entertainment? One can argue that the perfect film should be an equal mix of both. However, it seems as though there is a third category forcing its way [into] pop culture discussion: anxiety….The escapism provided by an outing to the theater has been marginalized by the kind of moviemaking that can barely be enjoyed as entertainment, because one cannot relax enough while watching it to do so.

Selected Reviews 

Claudia Puig, USA Today: “Gravity is an extraordinary force to be reckoned with, a majestic, innovative, heart-pounding spectacle imbued with poetry and profundity.”

David Denby, New Yorker: “Gravity is not a film of ideas, like Kubrick’s techno-mystical 2001, but it’s an overwhelming physical experience — a challenge to the senses that engages every kind of dread.”

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “Gravity is harrowing and comforting, intimate and glorious, the kind of movie that makes you feel more connected to the world rather than less. In space, no one can hear you scream. But a whole audience can hear you breathe. And that is a wondrous thing.”

Mar 28

“28 Days”: Hollywood Version of Addictions Rehab

Due to the high costs, whether you have health insurance or not, month-long treatment of addictions is not in the cards for most people. Less expensive treatment options are generally now the norm. But we’ll always have, as a dramedy-type reminder, the movie 28 Days (2000). In this film, Gwen Cummings (Sandra Bullock), a writer for a city newspaper, messes up her life to such a degree that she’s forced into a rehab facility known as Serenity Glen. It’s that or jail.

Here’s the trailer:

If you didn’t already pick up on it, rehab-speak runs rampant in 28 DaysCharles Taylor, Salon: “It’s one of those movies that make you feel like you’re going through a therapy session.”

Gwen herself says while in rehab: “I am so tired by the way you people talk. You know, I mean, ‘one day at a time.’ What is that? I mean, like two, three days at a time is an option?”

Some of the best quickie lines come from Betty, the tough nurse played by Margo Martindale, when she announces over the PA system the upcoming educational topics. These often start with “Tonight’s lecture…”:

  • How many brain cells did I kill last night?
  • Are you a blackout drunk, or don’t you remember?
  • I’ve worked all 12 steps, can I go home now?
  • What’s wrong with celebrating sobriety by getting drunk?
  • Is God an alcoholic?

The following is a more serious scene involving a group meeting that occurs after Gwen uses again:

It’s not uncommon for substance abuse counselors to be in recovery themselves, and this movie reflects this. At one point, top counselor Cornell Shaw (Steve Buscemi) tells a group of patients what it was like for him to be in the grip of chemical addiction:

…I would tell myself, ‘Tonight, I will not get wasted.’ And then something would happen. Or nothing would happen. And, uh, I’d get that feeling. I think you all know what that feeling is. When your skin is screaming and your hands are shaking. Uh, and your stomach feels like it wants to jump through your throat. And you know, that if anyone had a clue how wrong it felt to be sober, they wouldn’t dream of asking you to stay that way. They would say, ‘Oh, geeze, I didn’t know. Here. It’s okay for you. Do that mound of cocaine. Have a drink. Have 20 drinks. Whatever you need to do to feel like a normal human being, you do it.’ And boy, I did it. I drank and I snorted, and I drank and I snorted, and drank and I snorted, and I did this day after day after day after night after night. And I didn’t care about the consequences, because I knew they couldn’t be half as bad as not using. And then one night, something happened. I woke up. I woke up on a sidewalk. And I had no idea where I was. I couldn’t have told you the city I was in. And my head was pounding, and I looked down and my shirt is covered in blood. And as I’m lying there, wondering what happens next, I head a voice, and it said, ‘Man, this is not a way to live. This is a way to die.’

Although it’s been many years since I saw this film, I do remember kind of enjoying it despite its flaws. And, judging by a lot of consumer reviews online, so did many others.

Feb 02

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”: A Critical and Personal View

I’d never read the 2005 novel on which the new movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) is based, but I’d seen theatrical previews several times and was eager for its arrival. Watch below, and maybe—or maybe not—you’ll agree:

From this trailer, I get that there’s a kid who knows he’s always been different from the other kids—but has the good fortune to have as his movie parents the loving Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. I see a kid who suffers a shocking and profound loss on 9/11—the death of his dad. Accustomed to doing various reconnaissance expeditions his dad had regularly directed for him, he then sets out on one of his own making to find the lock that a key of his father’s will open. He meets many strangers along the way, including Viola Davis and Max von Sydow, who also look like troubled souls.

Question for Some Research: Is this film really worthy of my attention or is the preview better than the movie itself?

A summary of problems I encounter regarding Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:

For starters, many figurative tomatoes have been thrown at it on the popular movie review website—even by many of the “top critics.”

Next, the title. Critics find it highly mockable. Extremely this and incredibly that. I need not repeat any of the multiple variations on this theme. As you can make up your own without even seeing it, how extremely easy and incredibly unoriginal.

Third, the number of critics who find it either manipulative, contrived, exploitive, or all three, would astound even Oskar Schell, the 11-year-old protagonist of this film who actually likes to count things.

Finally, Oskar himself, as played by Thomas Horn, a real-life TV Jeopardy genius/winner. Several reviewers make a stink about disliking him. I wonder, though, while reading their harsh words, what it actually may say about the critics themselves. For instance, are they missing the possible nuances about being a special kid who might be on the autism spectrum? Are they aware but insensitive, uncaring, intolerant?

After all of the above, I consider not seeing it after all. But what about the advice Oskar has shared with us in the trailer? “Dad said, you can’t be afraid. Sometimes we have to face our fears.”

I see the movie.

The title twist I now most appreciate? Kelton SearsThe Spectator, calls it Extremely Honest and Incredibly Divisive. To his audience of college students who themselves were youngsters about Oskar’s age on 9/11/01:

For those who are ready to go back and take a second look at what happened, this film is spectacular and revelatory for the very same reason it is upsetting so many people. It takes the terrifying, upsetting, uncomfortable plunge, and it succeeds.

Sears also says:

…This film will rip your heart out—but it’s okay, because it finally gives meaning to a day that still hardly makes sense. This film reminds us that everyone has lost something.

But what about Oskar? Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly, for one, notes that there’s a mightily significant burden placed upon him:

…Here’s a tale that compacts the grief of an entire world, country, city, and thousands of loved ones left behind into the pain of one vulnerable, fictional boy.

And Rafer Guzman, Newsday:

Horn delivers a star turn as Oskar, a child trying to make sense of a tragedy that still baffles us all.

And me? I watched this intense and highly intelligent and hyper-focused boy methodically and painstakingly work and work and work towards making sense of his unfathomable grief and loss—and I never ever tired of taking the journey with him.