Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Review: "Escape Plan"

If you have been missing the nonsensical action flicks of the late Eighties and Nineties, then Escape Plan is for you.  In the film, we have Stallone and Arnold, two of the big heavyweights of the action genre, working together to try and escape a high security prison, run by the always awesome, Jim Caviezel.  That's all you need to know in order to decide whether or not to see this film.  It's fun, full of suspense, and has some good doses of action, but it's not wall-to-wall explosions either, and that's where I found most of my enjoyment coming from with this film.  While Stallone and Arnold are pretty much playing who they always play, the story is relatively smart and has a good number of twist and turns that keep you on your toes.  As a matter of fact, I'd classify this film more as a high concept suspense/thriller, rather than an action film, even though there are a bunch of gunfights, punches, and explosions near the end.  While Escape Plan may not be as memorable as Rambo or True Lies, due to its been there-done that vibe it just can't shake by throwing back to those kinds of movies, it's a fun movie that is well worth seeing if you love the cast and the genre.

I give Escape Plan a B+!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Movie Review: "Captain Phillips"

Ripped straight from the 2009 headlines, Captain Phillips tells the story of the Maersk Alabama cargo freighter that was taken over by Somali pirates, off the coast of Somalia.  The titular captain, is the real-life captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, portrayed in this film by Tom Hanks.  Often a movie star can ruin a film that is trying to be as real as this one,  but in this particular case, it's that anomaly where the movie star portrayal actually makes the film.

Captain Phillips is shot in a very gritty, realistic way.  The lighting is often underexposed and the camerawork is shaky, making it seem like you're watching an observational documentary of the real-life event, with only occasional Hollywood flourishes of subtle soundtrack to amp up tension.  At first glance, you might be fooled into thinking this was a documentary, relaying the brilliance of director Paul Greengrass, making the material seem more real and not so Hollywoodified.  As such, though, that is why the inclusion of a movie star, like Tom Hanks in the main role, was so important.

As an audience, we already have a pre-existing relationship with Tom Hanks.  By having an Everyman like Tom Hanks onscreen, it allows us to understand who Richard Phillips is without having to really tell us much about his personality or how he got to this point in his life.  It's one of those cases where a film takes place entirely in the present, with no flashbacks or long monologues to create character, so we needed a movie star, and Mr. Hanks knocks the role out of the park.  He's not so good looking it's distracting, and he is made up like a guy you could see on the street or walking around your local grocery store.  That's what makes him immediately believable.  Then, there's the simple fact that this role could have easily been one that a lesser actor would have chewed up all the scenery to try and realize, and you start to really appreciate the subtlety of the performance more and more.  While the supporting cast of relative unknowns and seasoned character actors are believable in their roles, this is Hanks's movie.  Though, newcomer Barkhad Abdi does get a few choice scenes as the leader of the pirates, Muse, even if that's the most any of the pirates get to do other than shout and point their guns.

While many of the characters in Captain Phillips lack much depth, in particular the pirates, the documentary-like approach to the material, and the sensational performance from Tom Hanks, make this film an intense cinematic experience.  As well, with a film such as this, where it's more about the now and the horror of the situation at hand, any detours to beef up characters, would have felt forced and untrue to what the goal of this film was.  This is a movie meant to give you the experience that Richard Phillips and his crew went through, and it excels in that arena.  This is why Captain Phillips is a film that should be experienced by any and all looking to have a little bit of thought provoked.  This is a serious endeavor that should be taken seriously.

I give Captain Phillips an A!

Monday, October 7, 2013

What if "Gravity" hadn't starred Sandra Bullock?

After a record breaking opening weekend at the box office, director Alfonso Cuaron's spectacular space thriller, Gravity, seems to be all that anyone can talk about right now.  Rightfully so, in my opinion.  The film is not only the best reviewed movie of the year so far, but it's also proving to be a commercial success with tons of Oscar buzz.  Safe to say this will be one movie that everyone will be talking about for the next six to eight months, at least.  However, as much as I loved the film, the film we ultimately saw was not always the one that we were intended to see, so take a walk with me down the, "What If," lane and ponder the question of, "What if Gravity hadn't starred Sandra Bullock?"

At this moment in time, it's pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else other than Sandra Bullock portraying Dr. Ryan Stone, the first time astronaut who must navigate the treacheries of outer space when she is disconnected from her space shuttle.  Her performance in Gravity is arguably the best of her career, and could very likely net her a second Oscar (a nomination is all but guaranteed), but she was not Alfonso Cuaron's first choice for the role, nor was she the second, third, or fourth.  When you put it that way it makes it seem far worse than it actually is.  In all honesty, this is an all too familiar tale in Hollywood, especially with big budget risk takers such as Gravity.

A film like this is a huge financial risk for studios, because if the movie works, then it's praised and makes money, but if it doesn't, it becomes one of the biggest turkeys of the respective year.  A film like Gravity defies every cinematic convention there is for films like this, and therefore it is not a safe bet just on the story alone.  When you add on the risk in designing new technology to have to realize Alfonso Cuaron's vision, that's a huge $100 million gamble that most studios aren't willing to take.  When there is a struggle to secure financing for a film, actors will often have to move on to other commitments because they only had a certain blocked off schedule where they could have done the film, making films like this a revolving door for actors.  This is the reason Gravity took four years to get to the big screen, went through two studios, and ultimately went through five different actresses and one different actor, before arriving at the one-two punch of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

This story all really starts at Universal Studios, who were initially going to produce the film.  As these things typically go, Universal hit a bit of a box office slump a few years ago.  A risk like Gravity just wasn't financially feasible then, so they had to let the movie go.  Of course, Alfonso went to Warner Bros. next, whom he had worked with previously, most notably on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Following the huge successes of the Harry Potter and Batman franchises, Warner Bros. was simply in a more secure financial position to take a risk on Cuaron and his passion project, therefore this is why the film took four years to reach screens.  Of course, you might be wondering who the other actresses were that were initially supposed to play Sandra Bullock's role?

Originally the role was going to be played by Angelina Jolie, with Robert Downey, Jr., playing George Clooney's part.  Then, they both had to drop out, which eventually led to Clooney's casting, but the Ryan Stone role was still up for grabs as it took a lot of time to prep this film and get ready for shooting, therefore many actresses came and went.  In this time before Sandra Bullock came on, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, and Marion Cotillard, were all considered, with Portman being offered the part but having to decline, due to scheduling, once again.

While we have yet to see the long term impact of Gravity, as the film exists now, I would safely call it an instant classic.  This will be a film long remembered for not just its technical precision, but its moving story.  Given that the film has already found so much success, I think it is entirely worth looking at all of the different scenarios that could have been had any of these other actresses played the part.  Therefore, in turn, I will take a look at all of the different, potential casting scenarios and break down how they would have impacted not just the film, but potentially even box office take and critical reception.  For starters, I'll ponder the simpler question, what would Gravity have been like had Robert Downey, Jr., played the role of veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski, rather than Clooney?

Honestly, considering the humor that comes from Kowalski in the script, and his bravura attitude, I can very easily see Downey, Jr., in the part.  In fact, I might even argue that the role still feels as if it was written for him, however there are some who still find Downey a little bit too much of a smart alec, where as Clooney has this air of easy charm and likability about him, that just makes him not only a safer choice, but a better choice.  Partially because of the roles he plays, Downey, Jr., often comes across as self-absorbed, where as Clooney often seems a little more giving and down to Earth in his portrayals.  It doesn't hurt that Clooney also appears older than Downey, Jr., which gives an added weight to a character that is supposed to be a veteran astronaut on his final mission.  Would the film and its reception been different had Downey, Jr., played the part?  First off, I don't think the character of Kowalski would have been as likable, or as credible as a veteran astronaut, had Downey played him.  Second, and most importantly, while I feel that the film would have been a box office success with Downey (given his "It" man status right now), the role still would have played second fiddle to the actress opposite him, therefore box office and critical reception all really hung in the balance on who portrayed Dr. Stone.  This brings me to the real meat of this article:  "What if someone else had played the part that ultimately went to Sandra Bullock?"  Let's start with the first choice, Angelina Jolie.

There's no denying the fact that Angelina Jolie is a movie star and a huge celebrity, I mean, just look at the countless tabloid headlines in the grocery store, but I don't think Gravity would have been as successful starring her.  Here's the thing that Sandra Bullock brings to the role, an innate likability.  This is something that most other actors struggle with.  This is just Bullock's essence.  She's the type of person that what you see is what you get, and there are no false pretenses about her, and people like that.  She's not afraid to be emotionally vulnerable or to do something that might seem goofy or silly because that's just who she is.  Someone like Angelina Jolie takes themselves more seriously than is needed (as a matter of fact, most of the other actresses up for the part all do in some way, shape, or form).  There and again, I do think the film would have more than likely been at least financially successful starring Jolie, especially if paired with Downey, Jr., but I don't think the film would have resonated enough with audiences emotionally to have played like it has so far.  Then there's the simple fact that Jolie was asking for a $20 million payday, which would have ballooned the already risky budget even higher, making it harder to recoup its costs.  Now, what about the other actresses?

The first thing that would have been different had Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, or Blake Lively, played the part, is that they're all a good deal younger than both Bullock and Jolie.  In the film, Dr. Stone is grieving over the loss of her daughter, not to mention the fact that she's an important medical engineer who more than likely had to go to college all the way till she was nearly thirty, and then she'd of had to of more than likely done many more years of work in the field before she got noticed by NASA.  While it is very feasible that all three of the above mentioned actresses could have already had a daughter and lost her, it would have been harder for me to have bought them as an expert in the field of medical engineering for the simple reason that they haven't lived long enough to have believably fit the role and its requirements.

For me, I find it more credible with it being an older woman, and I think the film plays better that way.  Then there's the simple fact that both Portman and Johansson tend to take themselves just as seriously, if not more so than Jolie, and I think that, coupled with their youth, would have made the film less well received both critically and commercially.  As for Lively, with her being the least famous of the actresses up for the role, it would have really been a roll of the dice that just would not pay off, given that she could not draw in a large enough audience to even make a fifth of what Gravity made opening weekend.  Then there's the lack of credibility, with her being the youngest of all the actresses sought out for the role, therefore critics would have probably not bought her character and called Cuaron out on it.  Similarly, I feel had Marion Cotillard netted the role, she would have fallen into many of the same traps.

There is no denying that Cotillard is a very talented actress, and I do think that had Cotillard played the part it would have given the film a more international flavor because Cuaron would have probably let her play the part as French.  However, like Jolie, she tends to take herself very seriously, and while she is old enough to be credible, like Lively she is not a big box office draw, therefore it just would have not worked with her in the role.  Of course, I think the real question is whether or not this film would be getting any of this Oscar buzz had any of these other scenarios played out?

Ultimately, it's hard to tell whether the film would still be considered a major Oscar player had any of these other scenarios played out.  For one, because had any of these other scenarios played out, the film might have come out last year or the year before, and I don't know if it would have looked as impressive going up against some of the Oscar films of the past few years.  Personally, I think it still would have at least been a contender in terms of Visual Effects, Cinematography, and Sound.  As well, I think Alfsono Cuaron would still be in talks for Best Director, given that he'd have called all of the same shots and still made many of the same directorial, stylistic decisions that make Gravity what it is, but would he be the frontrunner?  Now, that is the more interesting question, because while a director does call the shots, there is no denying the impact of the right actor or actress to elevate the director's work and give it emotional resonance.

Seeing people as likable as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in dire straits, we actually care about them and worry for them, therefore we're actively engaged in the story.  Had we not really cared that much for them, we might think, "That's cool, but I don't feel anything."  A response like that would have probably been the nail in the coffin for Cuaron's chances to have won Best Director, and would have more than likely ruled the film out of Best Picture.  So in summation, I don't think that Gravity would have been a major presence at the Oscars had any of these previous scenarios played out, and I don't think any of the other actresses would have made the role of Dr. Stone engaging enough to have gotten any talk for Best Actress, either.

Overall, Gravity is one of those films where everything came together the right way, at the right moment in time.  Had the film been made earlier, it more than likely would have not been as emotionally resonant, considering the myriad of other casting choices.  This is a film, that as it exists now, is one of the best movies I've seen in a long while, and is definitely the best movie I've seen in 2013 so far.  This film deserves every accolade it has received thus far, and deserves a great many more that are sure to come.  Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, are all serious possibilities at all of the film awards' shows coming up, most notably the Oscars.  I would not be surprised at all to see Alfonso Cuaron accepting an Oscar come next March for this film, and that isn't me making a bold prediction or nothing, it's just stating the fact that Gravity is that good.

If you haven't seen Gravity already, I urge you to see it, preferably on the biggest screen possible.  This is one of those movies that, while it will more than likely play well on a TV screen, just has to be experienced on the big screen to get that full, all encompassing experience that only seeing a movie on a three story tall screen with surround sound can give.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Movie Review: "Gravity"

What more can be said about director Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece, Gravity, that hasn't already been written by almost every single other person that writes about movies on the planet?  In the film, Sandra Bullock portrays Dr. Ryan Stone, a first time astronaut on a routine space mission that turns to disaster when she is disconnected from her space shuttle by space debris.  It's one of those amazing films that has you thinking the whole time:  How did they do that?  The combination of the real with the computer generated is so seamless, that you can never tell what's physical and what isn't, because it all looks so real.  To say that this film lives up to the hype would be an understatement, so as I sit here writing, adding to the neverending parade of noise surrounding this film, I figured I'd take an atypical approach with this review.  I'm going to sum up what I thought about Gravity in a game of word association, rather than going into depth on the story and how emotionally powerful it is on all of the base human emotions, from fear to a will to live, because otherwise I could keep writing all day long.  So, without anymore preamble, here's what I really thought of Gravity:

Space -- Beautiful.
Alfonso -- Genius.
Sandra -- Phenomenal.
Disaster -- Suspenseful.
Humanity -- Triumphant.
Oscar -- Guaranteed.

I give Gravity an A+!