Stranded in the Cosmos: Oh, Sandy….*

17 Oct

* With apologies to John Travolta and the rest of the Grease crew…

Congratulations to director Alfonso Cuarón and actress Sandra Bullock on the phenomenal success of their film Gravity, which has blasted all competition at the box office for the past two weekends.  So far, Gravity has earned $120 million+ at the domestic box office over the course of about 10 days.  Its first weekend take was 55 million; this past weekend, it pulled in a staggering 44 million, an almost unheard of drop of only 20%.  A rare feat, that; moreover, it did so against tough competition, and by that I mean two time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the riveting, fact-based Captain Phillips.  His film pulled in 26 million, which is indeed quite a bit of money, and a noticeable improvement over this titan’s last few efforts [1], but it’s still almost 20 million less than what Gravity earned in the same period. Now, of course,  part of the discrepancy can be traced back to the fact that Gravity is also playing in 3D IMAX presentations, and that equals higher ticket prices, so there’s that. Plus, Gravity clocks-in at a tidy 90 minutes compared to 134 minutes for Captain Phillips. Simply, the Cuarón-Bullock collaboration can be played more times per day than the Hanks film, which also increases the chances for hefty ticket sales.

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^ Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity: If you don’t believe that she is facing a disastrous turn of events in real time, there is no movie. A friend who has been convalescing after a nasty fall asked me why everyone is raving about Bullock but not doing the same for co-star George Clooney. Okay, no spoilers, but even though Clooney is a welcome presence, the truth is almost any actor could have played his part.

I don’t know if Cuarón’s movie will stand the test of time–well, do any of us ever know such a thing?–but it’s definitely the movie of the moment, and it’s definitely an artistic triumph as well as a technological breakthrough.  Allow me to backtrack just a bit. You know,  I have played around at screenwriting off and on for two decades, and one lesson that I learned, which seems easier in theory than it is in practice (at least for newcomers), is that film is a visual medium. “Make it more visual, ” my screenwriting instructor advised. Ditto my agent. Most novice screenwriters forget to let the action and other visual details tell the story; the tendency is to have the characters constantly explain themselves through over emphatic dialogue (sort of like old school daytime dramas, or soap operas, a relic of the era when such shows were aired on radio). Well, some films are still too talky, but that’s beside the point.  At any rate, over the years, I became much more adept at making my screenplays visual, and I was willing to make more risks as a result. Even so, I’m stunned when a director such as Cuarón has, for lack of a better word, the vision to make a movie as stunning and as complete as this one.

The plot, in case you haven’t heard already, concerns a pair of astronauts (Bullock and George Clooney) who encounter the unthinkable–debris from an exploded satellite hurtling through space–while engaged in a mission outside the confines of their space station. Before too long, the pair are floating through space, not quite lost but definitely with limited resources–and that includes ever-dwindling amounts of oxygen. Not to mention the fact that their ship is all but obliterated. I have to say that this is probably the most excruciatingly intense movie I have ever had the good fortune of sitting through–so much so that I don’t even mind ending my thought with a dangling preposition.  Most of the people I know who have seen Gravity have gone the 3D IMAX route, but I’m not  a huge fan of either format. Still, I have joked that the movie was so intense that I left bruises and nail prints on Michael’s forearm because I was clutching it like mad the whole time, and with every new twist, my nails just dug deeper. Poor guy.

The vision part, of course, comes from the simple fact that Cuarón did not have the luxury, well, you know, of actually shooting in space. Instead, he had to make his vision come to life on the confines of a soundstage (and at least one water tank) with actors suspended on wires in front of either green screens or a bank of lights to help simulate movement. The dregs of space were digitally composited later in post production, but that’s not all. Cuarón and his favorite cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, up the ante by backing away from rapid-fire editing effects and instead achieve a kind of ballet with camera movement, gracefully circling up, down, and all around the actors. The effect is damn near seamless, but, again, it didn’t just happen as Cuarón and Lubezki had to plan, plan, plan how to achieve each and every effect (knowing that 3D was always part of the plan) while also not forgetting to keep the story moving and to take into the account the burdens faced by the actors to work in such conditions. Mind-boggling. Plus, there’s that nifty trick of telling a story with limited amounts of dialogue–dialogue that is perfunctory at best. And, again, all of this unfolds in 90 minutes of real-time suspense.

Gravity has been one of the two most buzzed about movies since the rush of film festivals in August and September, the other being the fact-based 12 Years a Slave, which I can barely wait to see as well,  With these two films poised, as of this moment, to reap numerous Oscar nods, this could turn out to be a real horse race as movie insiders used to say.  Btw: Cuarón’s other credits include Children of Men (2006) and my all-time favorite Harry Potter entry: The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In between that entry and the acclaimed A Little Princess (1995), both of them geared primarily toward younger viewers, he squeezed in the Oscar nominated, and quite adult Y Tu Mama Tambien, co-starring hunkalicious Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

I’d be especially grateful to the Academy if voters could finally find it within themselves to honor Lubezki, a five-time nominee most recently in the game for Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Before that, he seemed destined to win for Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men (starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore). Lubezki actually won the American Society of Cinematographers award for both movies [2], so losing the Oscar, not once but twice, was a bit of a shocker. That he lost for Tree of Life seems a bit of a puzzler at first; after all, Malick’s movie was marked by one gorgeous image after another, much of it nature based and, reportedly, often without a lot of artificial lighting effects. Once upon a time,  it seemed as though the Oscar for Best Cinematography was earmarked for the film that had the most landscapes, sweeping vistas, etc., the thought being that Oscars were based more on what was actually being filmed rather than anything resembling technical expertise; however, a shift occurred beginning with Avatar and other movies conceived as 3D epics, such as Hugo (which bested Tree of Life) and 2012’s Life of Pi.  Maybe Lubezki will benefit from this new trend–or maybe he’ll suffer the inevitable backlash.

Speaking of backlash, let’s all rejoice for Sandra Bullock and her latest triumph. “Backlash,” you ask, “What backlash?” Well, let’s just say I’m extremely happy for Bullock, and she is likely to reap another Oscar nod, deservedly so, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Most of my readers surely know that Bullock won a Best Actress Oscar for  2009’s The Blind Side, a massively popular holiday offering (perfect for family viewing) based on the true story of an under-resourced high school student who eventually becomes a professional football star after being adopted by a family of considerable means (with Bullock on board as the fiercely protective adoptive mother). The role allowed Bullock to portray a strong, confident woman who, as the title suggests, gets thrown for a loop when she finds herself overcome with feelings she wasn’t aware she had. Even so, the actress played it subtly rather than go “big.” It’s a miracle that Oscar even noticed a performance that was so well-modulated.

Bullock’s Oscar victory took on the air of a fairy tale, as she had toiled for years in the business without so much as a nomination. Plus,  she had starred in two huge hits in the same calendar year: The Proposal (a somewhat mean spirited, yet popular, romantic comedy), and, of course, The Blind Side, which not only broke the $200 million mark  domestically but also became the biggest grossing movie EVER to feature an actress billed solo above the title. Nice work if you can get it.

So Bullock won her Oscar, and all was right with the world. Wrong! Barely a week passed before the actress split from her husband (what’s-his-name) after revelations that he was a serial adulterer. I can’t imagine, and I really cannot, what it would be like to have the apex of your career followed so closely by a colossal personal undoing.  Furthermore, if that weren’t enough, Bullock had no sooner won her award than all the naysayers started pooh-poohing her film, even going so far as to blame it for the Academy’s ever dwindling relevance. Such mean-spiritedness.  Well, I think it was Bette Davis who once said, regarding the talented yet controversial Debra Winger, birds only pick at the ripest fruit, so, yeah, I’d love see Bullock back in the race, dishing it right back to all the haters, oh, and of course, dishing it back to what’s-his-name.

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Watching Sandra Bullock in Gravity is often like watching an underwater ballet. When she isn’t trying to act while wearing a bulky space suit, she’s stripped down to allow for maxium fluidity of movement.

Also, Bullock’s performance is yet another marvel in a film chock-full of marvelous things. While Gravity is first and foremost a testament to Cuarón’s considerable gifts (that would be Cuarón’s and Lubezki’s gifts, actually), from an audience’s standpoint, Bullock is what drives the film and gives it heart.  Plus, how she achieves what she does, giving the audience a character to root for, isn’t as easy as she makes it look. After all, what it looks like is that dear, dear Sandy is lost in space without much hope to keep her going; however, the reality is much, much different.  As already noted, here are just a few things Bullock had to do during production: she had be suspended in a harness for considerable amounts of time while an intricately engineered camera swung to and fro all around her, reportedly coming within inches of her face at times, yet all the while she had to remain in character and had to remember where in the story  (the character’s arc) she was supposed to be, maybe not the easiest thing to do when all you have to look at are green screens and/or banks of lights.  How do you convincingly portray life and death terror amid such sterile, non-threatening circumstance? Likewise, sometimes she was required to act while submerged in a tank though, of course, she had to act as though she were  not in a tank. Again, she had to focus on staying in character and reacting to what the audience would be seeing much, much, later. To do required great imagination as well as concentration though this is not to say that I think she’s a shoo-in to collect another statuette, but the prospects for a nod seem more likely than not.

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^ Bullock (l) shooting a sequence inside a tank. Now that’s dedication. I believe that’s Lubezki on the right though it could be Cuaron.

What’s interesting about all this Bullock buzz is that what the actress is doing in Gravity isn’t too far removed from her role in Speed (1994), the movie that gave her a breakout role after years of second-tier duty. Remember, in Speed Bullock played a passenger (a down on her luck bank teller as I recall) who ended up driving a bus rigged with explosives, and she had to keep driving and keep driving through one high stakes turn after another.  The explosives are set to detonate if the bus slows down below 50 mph, so it’s up to Bullock’s character to drive at all costs while the experts  (led by Keanu Reeves) try to locate and disarm the bomb.  What I always loved about Bullock in Speed was the degree of dedication and energy she brought to the role. After all, she was more “acting” the part of a bus driver rather than actively driving the bus, but her task was to make the audience absolutely believe that  she was navigating an unwieldy vehicle through treacherous terrain, mostly in real-time. She had to pump a lot of  life into a tricky, demanding role and make it seem natural even though nothing about it was natural.  At the time, I was all up in arms that Bullock did not get more year-end recognition, mainly an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress. (If you were following me that year, you should have it in the notes.) That’s how singular I believed her performance to be. Nineteen years later, yes, nineteen whole years, Bullock is being praised, and poised for yet another Oscar, for once again drawing on her particular talent for taking risks, being relatable on camera,  and rising above the minutia of details that come with big budget action films, the difference being that she somehow goes deeper within herself in order to create a fascinating example of screen acting.

Oh, and another thing: I read somewhere that Bullock wasn’t even Cuarón’s first choice. According to multiple reports, Bullock was only approached after Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, and Natalie Portman, among others, were either rejected or were unable to commit. Jolie was even asked twice. Well, Jolie can certainly portray strength as well as vulnerability, but sometimes her movie star persona overwhelms her while Portman has the vulnerability but not necessarily the strength.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this remarkable movie and the actress who has helped an extraordinary director turn his vision into reality. What a treat for moviegoers all over the world. And, oh yeah, I’d love to see Bullock kick the totally unwarranted Carrie remake into Kingdom Come–or farther across the cosmos–this weekend. FYI to Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, and Brian de Palma: try to look away and you should be fine. I know that’s what I plan to do.  [Update: In its third weekend (Oct. 18-20), Gravity still held on to the #1 spot while Carrie, arguably the worst idea, at least for remake, since Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Pyscho folly, came in at #3–after Captain Phillips. Carrie might get a jolt as Halloween approaches, but it will be forgotten quickly.]

Thanks for your consideration….

[1] That would be such non-starters as Cloud Atlas and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which also starred Bullock.

[2] Okay, here’s my favorite Lubezki story, and I often repeat it whenever I see an opening.  Okay, back in the days when I was still working in movie theatres, I used to do a mini lobby display of all the nominees for the American Society of Cinematographers award. Because this particular honor is not as high profile as, say, the Oscars, the Globes, or even the Directors Guild Award, it was not often covered in the mainstream press; therefore, I would often take it upon myself to call the ASC headquarters in California to learn the names/films of the nominees. This was also an era in which the Internet was not as available as it is now. Anyway, In 1995, there was one movie that, to me, stood out among all rest visually speaking. That movie was A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) and starring Keanu Reeves;  it’s an American take, set in beautiful California wine country, on Italy’s Four Steps in the Clouds from the 1940s. At any rate, Lubezki was the cinematographer on Arau’s film, and his lush imagery just blew me away. Unfortunately, he was not in the running for that year’s ASC award–announced prior to the Academy’s roll call–and I expressed my shock over the omission to the woman I spoke with at the ASC, and that’s when she told me that there had been more discussion about that apparent oversight that morning than there had been regarding any other film.  Well, at least I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone. At any rate, a week or two later, when Oscars nods were unveiled, Lubezki was at least on the shortlist–but not for A Walk in the Clouds. Instead, he was in the running for his first film for the other Alfonso (Cuarón), A Little Princess, which came out the same year. Nice story, right?

Gravity at Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=gravity.htm

 Cuarón at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0190859/

Lubezki at the IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0523881/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Bullock makes box office history with The Blind Side: http://www.accesshollywood.com/sandra-bullock-makes-box-office-history-with-the-blind-side_article_27324

New York Post article about the search for just the right actress to play the lead in Gravity:

http://nypost.com/2013/10/08/5-actresses-who-almost-starred-in-gravity/

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4 Responses to “Stranded in the Cosmos: Oh, Sandy….*”

  1. Semigeekly 20 October 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    I enjoyed your behind-the-scenes approach here and agree with you completely about Bullock’s standout performance. It wasn’t until after I finished my recent post on Gravity that I realized I had failed to mention Clooney at all. The visual emphasis of the film also struck me but primarily for the depth of metaphor it suggested. Many viewers seem to find the plot overly simple, but I took that simplicity as an invitation to the explore the bigger ideas Cuarón may or may not have had in mind (http://wp.me/s3TIkQ-gravity). Gravity, exciting as it is, somehow manages to explore some heavy themes without ever feeling “artsy” or pretentious. I’d be interested to hear your take on that conceptual side of the project.

    • listen2uraunt 20 October 2013 at 9:07 pm #

      Thanks for reading and thanks for sharing a link with me to your own blog. I have seen some mention of Bullock’s character’s rebirth in a few reviews but not to the same degree as yours, which is one of the pluses of writing a blog. I think it’s interesting that you took a closer look at Tree of Life in your Gravity article as well. I actually loved Tree of Life. Probably my pick as the best of the best in 2011. Thanks! I’ll be looking at your blog again, no doubt.

      • Semigeekly 20 October 2013 at 9:58 pm #

        Tree of Life is one of my all-time faves, so it tends to rear its head now and again. I’ll see you around!

      • listen2uraunt 20 October 2013 at 10:06 pm #

        Similarly, I’d rate Malick’s Days of Heaven as one of my top 5 favorite films, but only if I were asked to limit my favorite films to a list of 5. It’s not really how I think, but I’ve never really gotten over it, and I saw it on opening weekend back in 1978.

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