Friday, October 4, 2013


Opening this weekend:

Gravity—Sandra Bullock is a scientist from the Space Shuttle. She’s spacewalking, installing some sort of new gizmo, when a collision with some debris sends both her and hotshot astronaut George Clooney spinning untethered through the cosmos. It’s basically the same setup as Ray Bradbury’s 1949 short story “Kaleidoscope,” except the men flying away from each other in that tale knew they were lost, and their conversation was a poignant poetic elegy to life.

Gravity, however, is a no-let-up survival thriller. Clooney and Bullock struggle to get back to the wrecked Shuttle, and from there to the International Space Station. At some point they get separated, and Bullock must make a third extravehicular sojourn, this time to a Chinese space station with working escape pods.

Clooney has fun fitting his own persona into the archetypical squared-jawed, calm in the face disaster astronaut, cracking dumb jokes and flirting with the terrified Bullock, partly to keep her spirits up, and partly just because he’s a flirt. But it’s really Bullock’s movie, and she’s uncommonly touching as this melancholic woman with a dreadful tragedy in her past who still keeps fighting to survive.

The director is the excellent Alfonso Cuaron, of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the…well, I can’t keep those titles straight, but the best and spookiest of the Harry Potter movies. He keeps the tension pulse-poundingly high in Gravity, and the otherworldly atmosphere beautiful yet hostile—the dramatic irony of sailing through the boundlessness of space and at the same time being oppressively trapped is not lost on him.

Gravity is so exciting, so close to a home run, that it seems ungrateful to nitpick, but there’s no way around it—the picture gets away from Cuaron in the end. The movie begins with a frightening sense of plausibility and realism, but as the story progresses its action also grows steadily more comic-book corny and improbable. It’s still entertaining, but it moves more into the realm of Hollywood hokum. Then, in the final minutes, as Cuaron piles more and more peril and obstacles onto poor Bullock’s plate, her plight begins to seem a little funny.

Another small grumble: The concussions which tear the spacecrafts apart happen, appropriately, with no sound at all, and the effect is weird and chaotic and chilling. But the filmmakers can’t resist piling on Steven Price’s brooding, ominous music, to cue us that something terribly dangerous is happening—and also, maybe, to reassure us that the sound system in the theater hasn’t malfunctioned. I can’t help but wonder if complete cosmic silence might have made these scenes even more disorienting and scary.

Parkland—The title refers to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, to which John F. Kennedy was taken after his motorcade passed Dealey Plaza in November 1963. He was already a goner by the time he got to the emergency room, and that’s the oddity of this film, directed by Peter Landesman—it’s all aftermath.

The main characters in Parkland are the likes of ER resident Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), or Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who was shooting home movies when the motorcade passed, or FBI man James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who had gotten a threatening note from Lee Harvey Oswald weeks before the shooting, or Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) of the Dallas branch of the Secret Service—ordinary people remembered for their proximity to an iconic historical shocker. We also get a look at the Oswald family—maybe the two best of the film’s many strong performances are those of James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey’s brother Robert, and Jacki Weaver as their nutty mother.

While Landesman’s script is adapted from a book by Vincent Bugliosi that reportedly espouses the Oswald-acted-alone viewpoint, the movie takes no obvious position pro or con on the matter of a conspiracy. It sticks to what is more or less undisputed in the record.

This could legitimately lead to the question of what, exactly, is the value of one more retelling of this extremely familiar story. I‘d guess that the answer, aside from capturing uniformly fine ensemble acting, is to suggest that national hysteria, perhaps mixed with the celebrity worship of Jackie Kennedy, may have been more than sufficient to account for the irregularities in the case that, in retrospect, seem so suspicious.

The characters scramble around recklessly, and while the movie seems to suggest that they’re honestly doing their best, they’re too stunned to get it right. A coroner seems ghoulish when he demands that the President’s body be left behind for an autopsy, and the Secret Service agents seem goodhearted when, "for Jackie," they ignore his demand, but the result is that no autopsy was performed in the highest-profile murder case in U.S. history.

Whatever your view of that strange and indelible historical episode, nothing in Parkland is likely to change it. But I found the film absorbing from start to finish.

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