(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) I went into Great Expectations with less-than-ideal preparation, knowing only that it was directed by Alfonso Cuaron and that it was a contemporary adaptation of a Dickens novel that I unaccountably hadn’t read. That may explain why the film feels so odd at times, especially during a third-act revelation that left me shrugging my shoulders more than anything else. (It doesn’t help that, well, you don’t have Robert de Niro pop up for a five-minute cameo at the beginning of the film without it paying off at some point!) Ethan Hawke is largely forgettable as the main character of the story, a boy-artist who has a brush with Floridian aristocracy before settling for an ordinary life. Everything changes when he’s mysteriously called to New York to pick up his brush once more, and meets a striking figure from his past. On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant as the object of his affections—she has aged well as an actress with occasional sex-symbol claims, but circa-1998 Paltrow was something special and Great Expectations plays it up nearly as well as Shakespeare in Love. Director Cuaron’s talent is obvious enough to be striking even today—his sense of atmosphere is terrific, especially during the film’s first half-hour. As for the rest, well, the Dickens story is adapted to the late twentieth century, but some of the more melodramatic moments of the original remain, to some puzzlement by viewers used to more contemporary plotting devices. The film does run a bit long at times, but it’s not a bad experience thanks to Cuaron’s frequent flourishes. I suspect that my appreciation for Great Expectations would have been more favourable had I been more familiar with the original novel, though.
(In Theaters, October 2013) I’m going to take a break from reasoned movie criticism and indulge myself in a few freefall back-flips about Gravity: This is a movie I’ve been waiting a long time to see, at least ever since I wanted to be an astronaut while growing up. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film takes us in orbit for 90 minutes, and I loved every moment of it, jaw hanging open in astonishment for much of that time. The narrative setup couldn’t be simpler (accident in space; astronaut wants to go home), but the execution is almost perfect: Seen in 3D, Gravity is the definition of an immersive experience. From the impressive 17-minutes-long opening take, this is a film that attempts something ambitious and manages a delicate balance between showing something new while trusting its audience to follow along without excessive dumbing-down. It’s not scientifically impeccable (the orbital mechanics are simplified, the plot armor a bit thick at time) but most of the compromises are conscious ones made in good faith so that the story can work on a more emotional level. Sandra Bullock is spectacular as the quasi-civilian thrust in an impossible situation, while George Clooney is his usual charming self as an old-school “Right Stuff” veteran doing his best to keep the situation under control. But it’s writer/director Cuarón who earns most of the praise here, because Gravity is an insane gamble that works: A technically-complex film that features grand thrills, thematic depths, beautiful visuals and new ways of telling a story on-screen. There are a few remarkable moments in this film, from seamlessly going to-and-from subjective perspective, soundless mayhem, zero-gravity fire and strong emotions conveyed without histrionics. It’s both a science-fiction film (despite the lack of speculative elements, it’s a classic “Analog story”) and a memorable thriller, and it arrives in theaters as an invigorating antidote to the kind of cookie-cutter moviemaking that big studios seem all too eager to present. It’s worth seeing in 3D, and it’s worth seeing in theaters: how many other films can claim the same? Assured of a top-ten spot on my year’s end list, and most likely headed straight to the top spot, Gravity isn’t just a great movie: it’s one that makes it worth feeling excited about movies again.