If July and August were somewhat banner months for independent film releases, then September and October seem to be carrying equal weight in the mainstream. It started with Prisoners in mid September, and every weekend sense going up to the end of October carries a hotly anticipated title. Ron Howard’s Rush came last weekend, which I’ve yet to see, followed by Gravity this week, Captain Phillips next week, 12 Years a Slave following that, and then The Counselor to round out the month.
For now, I’ve seen two of those titles, Prisoners, and Gravity. They’re among the best things I’ve seen all year.
It seems as if a major complaint of Prisoners is that it’s this nail-biting thriller that, how dare it, tries to be about something. Yes, Prisoners does have some fairly interesting, if not fully-cooked, ideas concerning morality and religion, and to me it’s all the better for trying them out. Is it such a crime that a mainstream thriller attempts to give the viewer something to consider beyond its plot? Is it such a crime that it’s imperfect in doing so? If there’s anything to really cause a fuss over with the movie it’s not its thematic ambition but rather the way in which it tells its story. I was amazed at how coherent and smooth the film was considering how much material is packed into it, and yet I still felt at times like it had too much on its plate. The movie handles its busy plot fine in terms of pacing, and yet there’s something hard to swallow about the whole thing. It might be that the intensity and the incessant motion of the plot actually end up doing harm to the loftier ideas that circle around it. Still, there are countless fantastic moves that the script makes in the careful way it reveals information, and as a movie that’s busy for the sake of shaking up the viewer, this one’s a smashing success.
Gravity is a bit smoother and harder to find fault with. It’s a dazzling visual piece that, unlike Prisoners, doesn’t really bother with any sort intellectual business, instead focusing on the viewer’s emotion. It plays at both our feelings of fear and excitement and our empathy. It doesn’t ask us to feel them, but effortlessly draws them out of us through the sheer power of its visual realm and the performances from its actors. It’s been called a cinematic miracle, an unprecedented feat, and yet there’s something very old fashioned and comforting at the film’s core. Director Alfonso Cauron, whose made the most of his few directing projects over the last decade (he made the best of the Harry Potter films, The Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as well as Children of Men), seems to be well aware of this aspect of the movie. The way he is able to shift the emphasis from astonishing scenes of outer space to intimate human emotion is indicative of his duality of interests. Yet the best moments of Gravity, and they show up every so often, are when he puts the two together. It's very possibly a truly great movie, though time will only tell if it holds up alongside 2001, which happens to be the title for this week's film class. Perfect timing.