Chuck Koplinski: Spectacular visuals, performances untether 'Gravity'

Movie studios, and film critics, are prone to hyperbole, so it's often advisable to take anything that either says with a grain of salt.

That said, you need to trust me when I say that Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is one of the most visually stunning and ambitious films ever made.

For once, the hype is true as this is a genuine event movie, one that's required viewing on the biggest screen possible. No matter how large your home video system is, it will not do this film justice as it was meant to be seen in the IMAX format. Cuaron has created a fully immersive experience, one that with its sense of scope literally swallows the viewer, creating the most beautiful and frightening depiction of outer space to date.

From the very first moment, Cuaron serves notice that what he has in store will be unique. The opening shot is of the Earth as seen from outer space, the curvature of the planet sloping gently down the center of the screen, the brilliant blues and greens of our home set against the vast darkness of space. It's a silent shot, and Cuaron lets us drink it all in for a moment or two before we notice that a space shuttle is floating in the distance, docked with the Hubble Telescope, a sight we slowly approach. It's an incredible, humbling vision that immediately envelopes and transports us into the story as this opening shot runs unbroken for the first 17 minutes of the film.

The story is a simple one that we're able to grasp during these opening moments. A small group of astronauts has been dispatched to the telescope to perform general maintenance and update its operating systems. The mission is a standard one, as trips to outer space go, but it soon goes horribly wrong when the crew and the ship are bombarded with space debris, which rips through and destroys the shuttle while killing three of the astronauts. The only two survivors are veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who happens to be on his last mission, and engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is on her first. What ensues is a thrilling fight for survival as the pair must contend with the threat of drifting away due to zero gravity, rapidly depleting oxygen supplies and the dilemma of trying to get back to Earth without a working spacecraft.

The film is quite simple, following a set structure as it has its duo encounter and solve one catastrophe only to have to face another. (That it bears more than a passing resemblance to "Apollo 13" isn't lost on Cuaron as he casts Ed Harris as the voice from Mission Control.)

The resulting tension is palpable, the result of top-notch special effects as well as the work of Bullock and Clooney. Shot in a large, rotating box filled with thousands of LED lights while being held aloft on wires, these two convincingly convey the horror, fear and dismay they feel at various times as they witness imaginary disasters.

They both accord themselves wonderfully, but truth be told, this is Bullock's movie. Appearing in nearly every scene, the actress ably carries the film on her shoulders, as she convincingly portrays her character running through a gamut of emotions, while delivering an intensely physical performance.

However, as groundbreaking as "Gravity's" visuals are, its story is somewhat pedestrian. Early on, we learn that Stone has suffered a devastating tragedy and has put her life on hold as a result. Her ensuing journey from resignation to actively living her life is obvious as are the film's themes of isolation, grief and acceptance.

No matter, this is a film that was meant to be experienced as a spectacle, and without question, it is that, as the grandeur on display in "Gravity" is unprecedented and must seen to be believed.

'Gravity' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Paul Sharma, Amy Warren and Basher Savage.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; produced by David Heyman and Cuaron; screenplay by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron.

A Warner Brothers release. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language). At the Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Don Jon" an entertaining look at skewed expectations. (3 stars)

If Joseph Gordon-Levitt's debut as a director proves anything, it's that he's a filmmaker to watch. With "Don Jon," he not only tackles the thorny issues of sexual addiction and the media's impact on our perception of the world, but he ably uses editing, camera movement and pace to create an aesthetic that reflects the themes he's exploring.

Having written and taken on the title role in the film as well, it's obvious that Gordon-Levitt had his hands full, and if there's room for improvement, it would be in the screenwriting department as a faulty third act prevents this from being a completely successful directorial debut.

The film hits the ground running as it's established early on that Jon is a creature of habit. He goes to church every week, visits his parents each Sunday for dinner, works out constantly and watches online pornography many, many times a day. The intensity and frequency of this act is effectively reflected by a series of ribald images that are edited together at a rapidly building pace that abruptly comes to a halt once Jon has seen enough. He thinks this normal, reasoning that all men his age engage in this sort of activity.

However, a fly is thrown into the ointment of his routine when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a veritable force of nature who, on the surface, is Jon's ideal woman. However, things hit a snag when she discovers (pokes around and finds) her new boyfriend's extracurricular activities and leaves him. This sends Jon, as well as his parents (a very good Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) into a tailspin as they've all fallen under Barbara's sway without realizing how self-centered she truly is.

While it may be a bit of a stretch, Gordon-Levitt makes the argument that women who buy into the fairy-tale vision of the typical romantic comedy are just as damaged as men addicted to porn, as both walk away with unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex and relationships. Jon expects his partner to not only be physically gorgeous but willing to participate in sexual acts that are deemed normal in the world of pornography but may seem deviant to others. Similarly, Barbara's expectation of being swept off her feet by a knight in shining armor who gives up everything to make her happy is equally unrealistic. These Venus and Mars points of view may not be as common as the film makes out, but they serve to make an effective point regarding how the media shapes our perceptions of ourselves, our world and those in it.

It's a valid criticism and one that's effectively made at turns both comic and dramatic. The film is quite funny without ever being condescending, always conscious to render the characters in a sympathetic and human light.

That being said, the final act feels a bit too calculated and convenient. While attending night school, Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a much older woman who ultimately takes him under her wing and helps him develop a more mature outlook on life and relationships. Gordon-Levitt falls into his own trap by casting someone as attractive as Moore in the role of mother/Madonna/whore as this is a film fantasy in and of itself. Once we get Esther's backstory, while tragic, it feels as though she has been sent over from central casting.

Still, the first hour of "Don Jon" is so well-made and thoroughly entertaining that one can forgive it its third-act faults and hope that Gordon-Levitt can finish a bit stronger the next time around.

For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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