Gripping ‘Gravity,’ routine ‘Runner,’ warm ‘Wadjda’

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FS, Contributing Writer

 

“Gravity”

As far as narrative goes, there isn’t much to “Gravity” (wide release). Alfonso Cuaron’s film simply depicts the struggle of two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) to survive after they’re trapped in space when their shuttle is destroyed by debris from an exploding satellite.

In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock’s astronaut struggles to survive after being stranded in space. -Photo courtesy of Business Insider
In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock’s astronaut struggles to survive after being stranded in space.
-Photo courtesy of Business Insider

What the film does offer, however, is technical virtuosity of the highest kind. The sequences of the pair desperately making their way across the emptiness to a space station where they hope to find safety, or trying to maneuver in zero gravity through the mangled corridors of the station’s interior, are visually incredible, especially since the whirling camera movements endow them with an almost palpable “you are there” quality.

The picture is less successful as a human drama: the characters are sketchily drawn, and the attempts to give them a degree of depth are sadly perfunctory. Nor does it carry the metaphysical weight that Stanley Kubrick brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But just as that film did in 1968, this one sets a new standard for credibility in the depiction of space travel – one that future filmmakers will have difficulty matching, let alone exceeding. And it makes for an exciting thrill ride that even movies set on earth rarely match.

Be sure to try to see it in IMAX 3-D. It’s one of the rare films that justifies the higher ticket price.

The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination will be marked by numerous books and documentaries, but “Parkland” (wide release) takes an unusual approach to the subject.

Instead of focusing on the major players, it portrays, in semi-documentary recreation, the reactions of others who felt its immediate impact.

One section, for example, concentrates on the emergency room staff of the titular Dallas hospital, who tried desperately to save the president’s life while his staffers and security personnel watched in horror. Another section deals with local FBI officers who debated whether to suppress evidence that they’d bungled investigations done in advance of the presidential visit. A third follows Abraham Zapruder, who took the famous film of the killing, in his dealings with the Secret Service and the press.

Even when “Parkland” turns its attention to an Oswald, it’s not the assassin Lee Harvey but his brother Robert, who must cope with both the legal ramifications for his family and the grandstanding of his wacky mother Marguerite.

The film is, at times, a tad tacky, like a pageant in which recognizable actors make relatively brief appearances without having much chance to create full characters. But it avoids sensationalism and in the end proves compulsively watchable despite its flaws.

“Runner Runner”

Ben Affleck gleefully plays a shady villain in “Runner Runner.” -Photo courtesy of Aceshowbiz
Ben Affleck gleefully
plays a shady villain in
“Runner Runner.”
-Photo courtesy of Aceshowbiz

If you saw “21,” the Kevin Spacey film about a group of MIT undergrads who ripped off Las Vegas casinos with their math skills, you may well experience a touch of déjà vu watching “Runner Runner” (wide release), in which Justin Timberlake plays a Princeton grad student seduced into joining an online gambling operation run by a shady American (Ben Affleck) from the security of extradition-free Costa Rica.

Many of the dramatic beats of the two pictures are virtually identical, and so is the protagonist’s ethical journey – at first naïvely giving in to the dark side but eventually turning the tables on his larcenous boss. And in each case one can forgive his dalliance with crime, since he’s only in it to meet his tuition expenses – certainly a laudable goal.

Easily the best thing about “Runner Runner” is Affleck, who delivers the villain’s amoral rants with glee. But otherwise the would-be thriller runs out of gas long before the final, very predictable twist.

“Wadjda”

Saudi Arabian filmmakers apparently operate under the same sort of political pressure felt by their Iranian counterparts, and so it’s not surprising that in “Wadjda” (Angelika), Haifaa al-Mansour follows their tactic of presenting a critique of her society through the eyes of a child.

A Saudi girl (Waad Mohammed) dares to want a forbidden bicycle in “Wadjda.” -Photo courtesy of MoviefiedNYC
A Saudi girl (Waad Mohammed) dares to want a forbidden bicycle in “Wadjda.”
-Photo courtesy of MoviefiedNYC

The title character is a mildly rebellious young girl who develops a desire to have a bicycle, though they’re only supposed to be ridden by boys. To raise the money to buy one, she decides to win a school competition focused on the text of the Koran, which carries a cash prize – though if the rigid principal were aware of her motivation, she’d probably be disqualified.

Juxtaposed with Wadjda’s story is that of her mother, a sophisticated woman who’s nonetheless prevented from driving a car, and who might well be abandoned by her husband, who’s so anxious to have a son that he’s considering taking a second wife.

On the surface “Wadjda” is a charming tale of a wide-eyed tomboy, but underneath it delivers a strong message about the subjection of women in a fundamentalist culture.

 

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