Tuesday, 19 November 2013

'Gravity', 'Thor: The Dark World' and 'Hannah Arendt': review round-up

'Gravity' - Dir. Alfonso Cuaron (12A)

It's been a long wait since Alfonso Cuaron's last film, with modern masterpiece 'Children of Men' coming out all the way back in 2006, but at least it's been worthwhile: 'Gravity' is comfortably one of the year's stand-out pieces of cinema. It's an unrelentingly tense amusement park ride of a film that has the courage to wear its heart of its sleeve and which could even revive mainstream 3D from its complacency coma, with perhaps the most compelling use of the technology seen to date. As well as being a showcase for jaw-dropping visual effects, 'Gravity' also shows us a more kinetic and violent depiction of outer space than we're used to, with astronauts smashing into things and endlessly spinning in the void with no way of slowing down. It's perhaps destined to be to the space movie what 'Saving Private Ryan' has long been to pop culture depictions of the D-day landings, acting as a lasting cinematic reference point and a representation of the truth in the public imagination, whatever its actual (and completely irrelevant) scientific inaccuracies.

Essentially 'Gravity' is the story of one human's clawing, panting, sweaty fight for survival against desperately long odds, as Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone - a small-town medical engineer with minimal NASA training - tries to avoid being struck by a calamitous cloud of satellite debris and somehow make it back to Earth without a spaceship after her mission goes horribly wrong. Though Stone has some very real, physical challenges to overcome - such as a depleting oxygen supply and the aforementioned debris field - the chief obstacle she faces is her own weary indifference to life itself. The film is about what it takes for this person to make the difficult decision to live when lying down and dying would be much easier - and, even, more comforting. Through various visual metaphors and lines of dialogue we come to see Stone as someone eager to shut all of the world out in some doomed bid to return to the womb: where George Clooney's charismatic, veteran astronaut sees wonder, Stone appears indifferent and complains of feeling physically ill. At its heart this is a small-scale story about an introverted, deeply personal problem - albeit projected onto an epic and exciting story.

I'll perhaps write more about the film and its themes when more people have had the chance to see it. In the meantime I'll just tell you that it had me awestruck, terrified, nervous and thrilled, pretty much for its entire duration.

'Thor: The Dark World' - Dir. Alan Taylor (12A)

Despite the strain of having to serve as the sequel to two different movies and enduring a fraught production history which saw original director Patty Jenkins replaced by TV veteran Alan Taylor, unhappy stars, last-minute re-writes and several rounds of re-shoots - 'Thor: The Dark World' is a pretty decent bit of summer fun. It's not necessarily the most cohesive or consistent entry in the Marvel Studios canon - not as exciting as 'The Avengers', as funny as 'Iron Man 3' or as perfectly formed as 'Captain America: The First Avenger' - but it's still a damn good time at the pictures, mostly thanks to the performances of, and chemistry between, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddlestone as feuding Norse god brothers Thor and Loki.

The film recovers from a fairly pedestrian (and overly serious) first act as soon as the fan-favourite, trickster is unleashed upon the movie in a big way, with Loki and Thor forming an unlikely and completely terrific buddy comedy partnership which (all-too-briefly) elevates the movie to a higher stratosphere. The rest of the film is entertaining, to be sure - especially when supporting characters under-served by the first film come to the fore, such as Jaimie Alexander's Lady Sif and Ray Stevenson's Volstagg - and the action is also suitably exciting throughout, especially during a London-set climax that borrows much from the finale of the original 'Monsters Inc.' to fun effect. It's overall a solid bit of action-comedy fare. But there's no denying it's only when Loki is on-screen that it really feels like anything genuinely special is happening.

So great is Hiddleston's presence in the role that he overshadows everything else that's going on in the movie, relegating Christopher Eccleston's villain Malekith to the role of peripheral irritant rather than that of the desired world-ending threat. His increased presence here also sidelines Natalie Portman and the Jane Foster-Thor love story, which was a hugely enjoyable part of what made the first film tick. It's perhaps no surprise that one Shanghai theatre accidentally displayed a fan-made poster in its lobby, depicting Thor and Loki embracing: their's is the real love story here, albeit one that is tragically doomed. For what it's worth, 'Thor: The Dark World' does successfully feel like a sequel to both 2011's 'Thor' and last year's mega-hit 'The Avengers', addressing how events fit in to the immediate aftermath of both stories in ways that should satisfy fans of the overriding Marvel Cinematic Universe arc. It's an entertaining, sometimes brilliant, often muddled misstep, but one that leaves the "franchise" in an exciting place and will leave fans longing to see what happens next.

'Hannah Arendt' - Dir. Margarethe von Trotta (12A)

This brisk and tightly focussed biopic of the Jewish-German philosopher and political thinker Hannah Arendt, portrayed charismatically and without much in the way of showy affectation by Barbara Sukowa, looks specifically at the period of her life for which she is perhaps most famously remembered: her controversial coverage of the 1961 trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Israel for The New Yorker. Margarethe Von Trotta's compassionate film looks at the ensuing controversy over Arendt's dismissal of the Nazi, who would be executed for his role in the Holocaust, as a petty bureaucrat and as evidence of the "banality of evil": essentially that the greatest threat of society and morality is those individuals who refuse or are unable to think for themselves. Those who hide behind procedures and rules and orders in an unthinking way, paying little interest in the consequences. It's a compelling idea and one that the film explains and explores well.

It's frustrating watching a thinker being chastised by intellectuals and educators for trying to think, as opposed to merely behaving in a reactionary and crowd-pleasing way, yet in showing this 'Hannah Arendt' paints of a picture of its subject as a brave and fascinating genius whose various published works should be eagerly sought out. A German-language film, albeit set in New York with several American actors, sometimes the English language scenes feel clunky, and it does seem to present Israel as some sort of romantic idyll, but overall this is a really interesting drama about the perils and pitfalls of daring to think and of the calamities that await our species should we refuse to. It may be a period piece, but the subject matter is timeless.

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