Here’s a PEOPLE guide to what to see and what to skip this weekend.
Don’t ever believe the commonly floated lie that there are no good movies for adults anymore. There are plenty. Right now, in fact, you can go out and see Rush, Enough Said, Don Jon, Prisoners, Blue Caprice, The World’s End and a handful of great films lingering from the summer.
But I suspect what people mean when they decry the current state of cinema is that there are so few instant classics these days – and that’s actually true. But then, maybe it should be. Because when a film as transcendent and breathtaking as Gravity comes along, its rarity makes us appreciate it all the more.
Stunningly beautiful, with a tour-de-force performance from Sandra Bullock that should garner awards-season notice, Gravity is easily one of the best films of the year. The 13-minute opening shot – not scene, shot – starts with astronauts Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) on a space walk that I’d call routine, but for the fact that walking in space is still anything but. Then word from NASA crackles in through their helmets that an exploded Russian satellite is sending debris their way. In what seems like an instant, that gorgeous void of space transforms into the gates of hell, leaving Stone and Kowalski utterly alone to save themselves.
That’s all you’ll get from me with respect to the plot. What happens next should be experienced firsthand as you immerse yourself in the world created by director Alfonso Cuarén, a world at once intimate and incomprehensibly vast. If James Cameron took 3D filmmaking to a new level in Avatar, then Cuarén propels it to its apotheosis, as he, himself, shows new mastery and restraint.
Subtle references from 2001: A Space Odyssey make their way into the spare script, while the technical precision of the camera work makes the experience less one of watching people in space, and more of being in space with these people.
And then there’s Bullock.
It gives nothing away to say that while Clooney is his usual devastatingly charming self (and that charm is used to terrific effect in the film), Bullock does the heavier lifting. She delivers a performance that’s emotionally complex, riding the highs and lows of what, astonishingly, may not even be the worst day in Stone’s life, all while performing a complicated technical ballet to make the effects-heavy shots work. And I have to add that if you see a woman pushing 50 on that screen, then you have better eyes than I do, because she looks amazing. If she’s not in Oscar contention this year, right along with Cuarén and the film, I’ll be stunned.
Perhaps most surprising, though, is that all of this talent, this exquisite perfection of the art form, is in the service of a popcorn movie. That’s not a denigration of popular films, by the way, but a celebration of the genius apparent in this one. Gravity is likely to be the most exciting, thrilling, don’t-forget-to-breathe movie you’ll see this year. It will also be one of the finest. – Alynda Wheat
See These Two, But Only If You Can’t Get into Gravity:
After Gigli and before his reemergence as Oscar-winning auteur, there was a period when it seemed that Ben Affleck‘s primary contributions to pop culture were made playing Texas hold ’em in casinos and on cable poker shows.
In Runner Runner, a trifle of a thriller set in the world of overseas online gambling, the actor takes campy delight in sending up that period of his life – and perhaps expunging it from his psyche. His performance adds a great deal of fizz and fun to this decidedly slight film about Justin Timberlake‘s Richie, a Princeton grad student who moves to Costa Rica to antagonize and then join forces with Affleck’s shady gambling-tycoon-turned-Ponzi-schemer.
It may be a film noir setup, but Timberlake, always in hustler mode, is too Teflon slick to ever seem like a soul in peril. Indeed, until the last third of the film, he hardly breaks a sweat under the Costa Rican sun, and when goons beat him up, it has all the viciousness of a West Side Story knife fight. Gemma Atherton, as Affleck’s chief operating officer, is on hand to bring the sexy back, but the part is so underwritten, she barely registers.
While Runner Runner lards on the clichés (if you double down every time someone says, “The house always wins,” you’ll leave with empty pockets), the film offers wonderfully pulpy bon mots, delivered with relish by both Affleck and Anthony Mackie, who plays the FBI man driven to bring him down. Yes, it has its share of silly moments, but Runner Runner has the good sense to move through them with speed and propulsion. The result is a lot like a night in Vegas: less than memorable but a fair amount of fun while it lasted. – Oliver Jones
Set in the four days following the assassination of President Kennedy 50 years ago next month, Parkland (named for the Dallas hospital that treated the president) catches those closest to the incident in a moment of personal and national shock. The film – or collection of scenes, really, since the finished product is distinctly disjointed – starts as a kind of forensic examination of events, then morphs into a traditional drama surrounding the Oswald family.
Procedural issues of the events prove fascinating: Where does the First Lady go when the White House is no longer her home and Air Force One no longer her ride? What happens if the coffin is too big for the plane? Who does the autopsy? The result of all of this dispassionate reportage is that Parkland strips a national tragedy of some of its emotional impact. That’s an interesting artistic choice, but I’m not sure it’s the right one.
The dogleg the film takes in its final reels is compelling for entirely different reasons. As Robert Oswald Jr., James Badge Dale is deeply relatable, realizing that his shiftless brother, Lee (Jeremy Strong), is now the most notorious man in the world, while Jacki Weaver plays Oswald matriarch Marguerite, a preening peacock who’s somehow convinced that her son was a government agent. These scenes feel nothing like the rest of Parkland, but are nevertheless some of its best. – Alynda Wheat