Thursday, 19 December 2013

Recent movies: from Outer Space to Middle Earth

Every now and then a Science Fiction or Fantasy movie comes along that is a real game-changer in visual terms, a step up from what was previously possible. In my cinema-going lifetime this quantum leap has been provided by films such as Star Wars, Close Encounters, Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Avatar  -  all showing us something fresh and new or presenting highly advanced takes on older images. Of course, going further back into the history of movies, such films as The Wizard Of Oz, Forbidden Planet or 2001: A Space Odyssey represented similar paradigm shifts. To this list can now be added the absolutely gob-smacking Gravity...
 The plot of the film is simplicity itself: when a space shuttle is hit by debris from a destroyed satellite two astronauts ( Sandra Bullock and George Clooney ) are cast adrift in space and fight for their lives in the most inhospitable environment imaginable. From the very first seconds of the movie, when a distant object shining against a backdrop of stars floats slowly towards the viewer to resolve as a space shuttle with attendant, space-walking astronauts, you feel a part of the story. And when disaster strikes you are there every inch of the way with the desperate, frightened survivors as they try to cling on to life in the void. The camera whirls and soars, every reference point gone as the characters and space junk hurtle around the screen and around the planet, in a painfully hyper-real orbital ballet. Director Alfonso Cuaron achieves miraculous feats of cinematic beauty while immersing the audience in the characters' frantic, scrambling attempts to survive.
 But it's not all about the visuals. The two leads are wonderfully convincing. Clooney brings all of his twinkling charisma to bear as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, the old-timer trying to survive his final shuttle mission and also protect the newbie, Bullock's medical engineer, Ryan Stone. And, really, the movie belongs to her. Sandra Bullock gives the performance of her career as the recently-bereaved Stone, already unsure of her place in the universe even before being cast adrift physically as well as metaphorically. Often working with very little dialogue, Bullock absolutely convinces us of Stone's varying mental states throughout her ordeal, from fear and panic, through depression and resignation and out the other side to determination and courage. It really is an outstanding piece of acting and should, if there's any justice, receive some recognition come awards season.
Gravity is easily the best thing I've seen this year since Life Of Pi and coincidentally also grapples with Big Questions while also affording Big Thrills. It's out of this world.
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
It must be that time of year again :-) For the second year in a row Sarah, James and I took a trip to Middle Earth on my birthday. ( I had a great day, thanks for asking. ) This central section of Peter Jackson's latest trilogy is a lot of fun, more fast-paced and furious than the first movie, with less scenes of dwarves singing and washing up, and more scenes of giant spider action and hot elves. Bilbo, Thorin and the dwarves keep ( mostly ) calm and carry on their quest, through the spider-infested depths of Mirkwood, and on through the lands of shape-shifters and elves, to finally reach the mountain lair of the titular dragon, Smaug The Magnificent...
While neither of the Hobbit movies have matched up to the sweep and spectacle of the first Rings trilogy, this latest offering is great entertainment with some exciting action scenes ( especially the constantly inventive "barrel scene" with Hobbits, elves and Orcs all hurtling down and alongside a raging river, in constant battle ), the expected breath-taking vistas of New Zealand ( er, "Middle Earth" ), some lovely character moments for Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage, and  - of course -  that long-awaited entrance of the giant, scaly beast with the voice of Sherlock.
Smaug will undoubtedly take his place as one of the greatest depictions of dragons in movie history. A towering, fire-breathing leviathan with a cunning, vain intelligence, Smaug is a magnificently real collection of pixels. And it's a treat to hear Benedict Cumberbatch's silky tones issuing from the old wyrm's mouth as he verbally jousts with Freeman's Bilbo Baggins... prior to trying to roast him, of course.
So, while not a classic, TH:TDOS (!) is an unpretentious adventure with all of Peter Jackson's customary eye for detail, action and colour, and its 161 minutes fairly zip by. Same time next year...?

Soundtrack: Diamond Dogs by David Bowie

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