Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 31min

“Life in space is impossible,” Alfonso Cuarón tells us in the opening seconds of Gravity, and there is little that unfolds over the next ninety minutes of tight, suspenseful storytelling that would suggest anything different. Up in this hostile, black void where space junk moves faster than bullets and the slightest technological malfunction can lead to instant death, Earth is further away than ever, and yet it rarely leaves our sights. All through the film, it sits there in the background of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous IMAX shots, offering a distant promise of safety to those astronauts at the centre of this tale navigating an unfriendly universe.

Beautifully composed symbolism with the interior of this space shuttle, wrapping Ryan up in this womb.

For Dr. Ryan Stone, crewmember of the Space Shuttle Explorer, it is a world she has deliberately run from, numbing herself to its joys and tragedies by consuming herself in a desolate emptiness. Gravity spells out its metaphor of depression and rebirth with little ambiguity, and yet this does not imply that there is a lack of nuance in Ryan’s characterisation or Cuarón’s thrilling narrative. Rather the opposite – it is in its heavy symbolism that Gravity reaches back to our most primal instincts, evoking the warmth of a womb as Ryan curls up into a foetal position, tethered to the space shuttle she has sought refuge in by what might as well be an umbilical cord. Later, the sound of crying babies over a radio signal inspires a connection to her own past as a mother, and her eventual emergence from water to land is attached the archetypal image of evolution, tying her back to the very roots of her humanity. Much like Cuarón’s previous effort, Children of Men, Gravity displays a philosophical approach to visual storytelling, opting for bold images and rich, humanistic allegories.

Mimicking each step of evolution, emerging from the water and learning to walk again. Gravity’s critics have called this symbolism heavy-handed, but they often fail to mention how potent and earned it is within the film.

The other significant similarity worth drawing between the two films is the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki, who together unravel scenes of action and mayhem through marvellously choreographed long takes, refusing to release us from the grip of the narrative. No doubt the most impressive and engrossing one of all is the opening shot lasting 13 minutes, slowly drifting the Explorer into view above the Earth while its passengers float around its exterior on a spacewalk. Here, there is no sense of spatial orientation in the camerawork, which rolls and spins in wandering motions and latches to characters as if connected by an invisible bungee cord. Ryan and her playful commander, Matt Kowalski, are given just enough time during this setup to reveal their polar opposite personalities before the reveal of satellite debris hurtling their way. Chaos dominates as the ship is ripped apart, and it is only when Ryan’s connection is severed and she is left spinning into the depths of space that Cuarón finally cuts, physically marking the point in his narrative that a new complication emerges.

A bold 13-minute long take to open the film – the collaboration between Cuarón and Lubezki continues seven years after Children of Men with remarkable ambition and execution.

As we grow more familiar with our leading woman, the visceral vulnerability of Lubezki’s cinematography continues to extend beyond disorientating camera movements, and eventually fixes itself to Ryan’s face in an anxious close-up, helplessly tumbling further away from home. When her breath starts to fog up the glass, the camera drifts inside her helmet to take her perspective, effectively bridging the gap between the cold objectivity of space and the sensitive subjectivity of her own mind.

Cuarón is heavy on the close-ups of Bullock all through Gravity, moving his camera inside her helmet and taking her perspective. It is certifiably her best performance to date.

Emphasising this tension even further is Cuarón’s unique approach to sound design, fully realising the chilling potential of a vacuum where the only existent noises are those which reverberate through radios and within one’s own helmet. The sound of giant ships colliding with sharp, metallic objects and being violently torn to pieces amounts to nothing but silence here, confronting us with the merciless indifference of the universe. Instead, it is voices, breathing, and heartbeats which meet our ears, accentuating the most human elements of scenes that otherwise threaten their survival. Given the minimalism of these soundscapes, there is additionally a lot of heavy lifting done by Steven Price’s music score in coordinating suspense, blending orchestral and electronic sounds while emitting any percussive instruments that throw off conventional rhythms.

Even within Gravity’s screenplay though, Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, develop a propulsive narrative which is simple enough in its structure, and yet holds us tightly in its vacillation between pitiless violence, heartbreaking sorrow, and hopeful anticipation. For as long as Ryan remains in space, the orbiting space debris will just keep hitting her in waves, effectively setting multiple 90-minute deadlines for her to make it from one safe refuge to the next. Much like the grief she carries for her deceased daughter, this recurring threat traps her in a cycle of destruction, formally tying her immediate circumstances to her larger character arc, pulling her from the depths of despair to a rediscovered taste for life.

For a film that is largely stuck in one location, Cuarón’s scenery rarely gets boring – a combination of his moving camerawork and shots like this that peek the sun over the horizon.

For Sandra Bullock, the ability to carry such an emotional journey through scenes with no other actors is a truly impressive feat indeed. George Clooney is just present enough as Kowalski in early scenes to offer a light-hearted counterpoint to Ryan’s despondency, revelling in the extraordinary delights of their work that she carries out with routine monotony, and it is in his eventual death that she undergoes yet another process of grieving that she is well-acquainted with at this point. The difference in her reactions to both instances of traumatic loss make are notable though – rather than distancing herself from humanity and escaping into space as she did following her daughter’s passing, the grief she finds in Kowalski’s sacrifice reinvigorates her desire to ground herself once again.

Cuarón’s trademark green lighting making an appearance every now and again, most notably here as she hopelessly submits to her fate.
Re-entering the earth’s atmosphere like a falling angel – truly epic, spiritual imagery.

In this way, the black void Ryan tenuously navigates through Gravity becomes a potent visual rendering of her depression, pushing Cuarón’s narrative beyond the genre trappings of science fiction and into the realm of profound spiritual allegory. It is not through dialogue that he draws these parallels, though there are certainly pieces of mystic curiosity that are present in pieces of dialogue that ponder the value of prayer. It is rather within its restless, floating camera and graceful symbols that Gravity evolves into a cinematic wonder, teasing out that compelling tension between bleak, barren emptiness and a determined embrace of life.

Gravity is currently streaming on Binge and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen Brothers | 1hr 45min

Like a folk ballad that keeps returning to the same chorus over and over, Llewyn Davis’ life moves in circles, always sending him back to the dim, smoky Gaslight Café in New York City’s Greenwich Village to play the same familiar set. The spotlight that casts him in a pale grey wash also cuts out silhouettes of the audience and industrial brick arches, framing him as he plucks and sings a melancholy tune. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” he charmingly quips after he strikes the final chord three minutes into the film, but by this point Oscar Isaac has already won us over with just his singing. After his performance, Llewyn encounters a shady man wearing a low hanging hat in the alley outside, and soon gets beaten up for some incident that occurred the previous night.

Bruno Delbonnel’s lighting is gorgeous all throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, but especially within The Gaslight Café where spotlights are diffused in the smoky air, and silhouettes of audiences and architecture are imprinted against the club’s walls.

By the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, we will recognise these events as part of a Groundhog Day rotation that pins our hapless protagonist down in a perpetual cycle of misfortune. This is not some supernatural time loop though, but a trap of Llewyn’s own making, propelled by the same bitterness and self-loathing that leads him to lash out at others. This outward anger is not one we see until a little deeper into the film though. For a long time, the only hints that he might have an obnoxious spiteful side come from the way we see others treat him. The only people he gets along with tend to be abundantly generous and tolerant, while those like Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, hold nothing for him but derisive contempt.

This masterful character study from the Coen Brothers may very well be their greatest to date, and with a desaturated colour palette that follows Llewyn between American cities hoping to find success, it proves to be one of their most impressive visual accomplishments as well. The frigid New York winter that lines sidewalks with snow and hangs a chilly fog in the air also appears to seep into the Coens’ interiors, where rundown apartment complexes and steel train carriages enclose Llewyn within rigid, oppressive structures. One particular hallway is even framed to look like a dead-end in the way it narrows to a point, and every single time we return to this location Llewyn is shot walking away into its apex where his path terminates.

The Coens have crafted few films with as strong a visual aesthetic as this, using industrial and rundown structures to set Llewyn on narrow, oppressive paths.

Rarely has a Coen Brothers film been as bleakly beautiful as this, and it is no coincidence that Bruno Delbonnel is the cinematographer here either, bringing his flair for stylised pictorial textures to scenes of crushing destitution and melancholy. At the same time, there always remains that touch of darkly comedic wit that the Coens wield with such sophistication over, offering Llewyn some sort of hopeful resolve before knocking him down again. It comes with an especially sharp jab when he is invited by a friend to help with a studio recording, only to discover that they are recording a cheap novelty song with no artistic integrity, and again later on the road to Chicago when his driver is arrested for suspected intoxication, suddenly leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Pairing a washed out colour palette with shots through dirtied windows to compose these gorgeous frames.
A chilly winter mist hangs in the air through the film, adding a light textural touch to Llewyn’s bleak misfortune.

Isaac wears the weight of Llewyn’s poverty and hardship with a beaten down acceptance, so much so that it has almost become part of himself, giving in to despair the moment it arises. There is no version of this character that one could imagine being better off – this is the way he has always been and will continue to be beyond the bookends of the film. Still, the cutting comments hurled his way hurt no less, cutting down any remaining shred of hope. When F. Murray Abraham’s music producer, Bud Grossman, tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here” after a gorgeous, soulful rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’, it might as well be a death sentence to his musical ambitions.

Then again, maybe that hope was lost long ago along when his best friend and musical collaborator, Mike, died of suicide. In the returning motif of ‘Fare Thee Well’, the Coens give this tragic backstory its own poignant theme, and the hole that has been left in Llewyn’s life feels even deeper when we discover that there is a missing harmony in the song that Mike once filled in. With him gone, Llewyn resists any suggestion of playing with others as a permanent act, abruptly chiding one friend who tries to fill in Mike’s harmony and later rejecting an offer of joining a trio. The uninformed suggestion from Bud that Llewyn “Get back together” with his partner makes every other criticism feel all the more damning. If Mike was his only path to success, then he is effectively out of options.

An achievement of production design as well, especially in this diner where patterns are mirrored between chairs, tables, and hanging light fixtures.
Negative space dominating compositions, exposing Llewyn’s crushing loneliness.

Without any one person to ground him to the world, perhaps then we can look to the tabby cat he is tasked with caring for after accidentally locking it out of its owner’s apartment. With its name remaining largely unknown throughout the film and its habit of running away, it too becomes a slippery figure much like Llewyn, rejecting stability in favour of an untethered life that simply puts a burden on others. There is a distinct irony that he is the one who must deal with the consequences of that behaviour for once, but even with that new perspective there is little hope that he will change much. Just as the same chorus will always be around the corner, the Gaslight Café will always be at the end of the road, and Llewyn will always drunkenly self-sabotage his own friendships. The Coen Brothers more than anyone recognise the grim humour that lies in a stubbornly nomadic character like this, and it is in its quiet tragedy that Inside Llewyn Davis becomes one of their most movingly tactile cinematic portraits of adversity.

“Llewyn is the cat” – a misheard phrase near the start slyly hints at the Coens’ own well-crafted metaphor.

Inside Llewyn Davis is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

The Grandmaster (2013)

Wong Kar-wai | 2hr 10min

The kung-fu of The Grandmaster is more than just a kinetic explosion of violence aimed at bringing an opponent to their knees. For Wong Kar-wai, it is about the precise impact of every tiny motion. A punch landing on a concrete pillar, shaking the snow off like a mini earthquake. Raindrops bouncing up off dark puddles. The swift draw of a blade to land exactly where it is intended. In one conflict between rivals Gong Er and Ip Man, the contest comes down to who is the first to break a piece of furniture, the latter eventually losing when he accidentally splits a staircase. Wong has rarely indulged so much in the fast pacing and fierceness of action cinema, and yet the delicate attention to detail in his slow-motion cinematography, extreme close-ups, and elegant choreography also ties The Grandmaster to the brooding, lyrical style that he has spent decades honing with such meticulousness.

Wong is more in tune with his Akira Kurosawa influence than ever in The Grandmaster. His use of weather to bring extra layers of movement and atmosphere to his action scenes is gorgeous. So much of this film is just drenched in rain, bouncing off pavement, bodies, and architecture.

The rise of Chinese martial artist Ip Man to the position of Grandmaster is the subject of Wong’s fascination here, and his regular collaborator Tony Leung draws on an entirely new skillset in taking on the role of the Wing Chun expert. His composure exudes authority, and when he wears that wide-brimmed fedora in dimly lit scenes of rain and smoke, he even strikes the figure of a film noir hero, finding a balance between the light and dark that resides within him. In his pairing with Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er, there emerges something subtly mystical that transcends the traditional biopic format – across decades of their lives, neither seem to age.

Though there is a mutual affection and trust that is revealed between them over years of war and political turmoil, the two move in very different directions, with Ip Man starting a family and Gong Er choosing to seek vengeance on her father’s back-stabbing student, Ma San. Perhaps these experiences are the foundation for their attitudes towards elitism in martial arts, with him hoping to teach younger generations the techniques of Wing Chun, while she refuses to divulge her father’s secrets of the Baguazhang to anyone else.

The scope of this narrative is huge, and Wong proves he is more than capable of imbuing each setting with its own texture, from the rainy alleyways to the grand manors and snowy landscapes.

In stretching his narrative across the 1930s to 50s, Wong gradually expands its scope to epic historical levels, and the visual splendour of Wong’s snowy landscapes, dark alleyways, and sumptuously designed manors more than matches its grandeur. Just as significant as his gorgeously staged wide shots though are those close-ups that tune into the sizzle of a cigarette or the graceful swish of a foot through a puddle, bringing a visceral impact to every single movement and strike amid scenes of otherwise fast-moving combat.

Close-ups of fights and ordinary actions caught in slow-motion. The impact is visceral and key to the texture of this film, heightening every tiny impact and sound effect.

It is especially in the train station scene where Gong Er finally take her vengeance upon Ma San that we see Wong at the height of his stylistic powers, diffusing dim, golden light through the smoke and snowflakes that gently blow across the platform. His camera dances with the opponents in dazzling whip pans and slow, deliberate motions, while right next to them a train picks up its speed, its moving lights, ringing bells, and clacking sounds underscoring their conflict with its own dynamic, accelerating rhythm.

A highlight of the film and of Wong’s entire filmography. This train station combat is kinetic, with the movement of the snow, smoke, and train heightening the choreography, all within this perfectly lit golden space. Easily one of the best fight scenes of the decade.

Even without his regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle beside him, Wong proves that he not only has the eye to capture jaw-dropping imagery, but the editing skills as well to bring us deep into the art of combat. Ip Man himself would go on to teach Bruce Lee among other skilled martial artists, though it is through the struggles and remarkable feats of combat captured in such delicate detail in The Grandmaster that Wong delivers a beautifully artistic impression of the man beyond the lessons he left behind.

The action scenes may move fast, but Wong still takes the time to indulge in his soft lighting and ornate architecture.

The Grandmaster is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Touch of Sin (2013)

Jia Zhangke | 2hr 10min

Four vignettes of modern-day China, each inspired by real national news stories, and all culminating in an act of desperate violence – this is the formally bold artistic statement which Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke puts forth with A Touch of Sin, pushing the boundaries of his usual neo-realistic style until they overlap with more traditional crime thriller conventions. China’s soulless, exploitative economy remains the source of much disaffection here, but where many of his previous characters let their disillusionment linger in a state of ambivalent inaction, here it is transformed into a fixated bitterness, with each of his four leads being brought to forceful, parallel conclusions about how to tip the scales of inequality.
 
Frustrated by the wealth gap between its labourers and managers, a worker representative at a coal mine in Shanxi goes on a crusade of justice against his superiors. An estranged husband returns home to his family for Chinese New Year Celebrations in Chongqing with a mysterious accumulation of money, which he has gained through morally reprehensible means. A receptionist at a spa in Hunan grows tired of her affluent clients’ misogynistic attitudes, snapping in a moment of cathartic brutality. And in Guangdong, a factory worker who is constantly being shifted between jobs that place little value on his wellbeing, is eventually driven to an act of self-destruction.

No doubt Jia’s bloodiest film to date, edging neorealism over into crime thriller conventions.

Jia’s formal exercise in comparing these four diverse, self-contained tableaus makes for perhaps his most confrontational attack yet on China’s move towards a dehumanising, capitalistic economy. Still Life implied violence in the deconstruction and demolishment of towering structures, but this is the first time he has chosen to represent this cultural decline so viscerally, through the depiction of actual bodily harm. Whether it is a premediated string of murders or a spur-of-the-moment action, each perpetrator in A Touch of Sin is driven by an overwhelming sense of nihilism, realising they are left with no options except that which they would have never considered before.

Jia’s use of architecture is always notable, particular here as he harkens back to more traditional, historical structures and then taints them with scenes of violence.

Though Jia’s use of architecture as character is evident, the sheer variety of geographical locations prevents A Touch of Sin from developing a consistent aesthetic. An ancient temple sets a holy backdrop to a callous assassination, smoke stacks and factories appear in a montage evoking Yasujiro Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, and the bright red Wushan Yangtze River Bridge from Still Life arches over a canal like a welcoming entrance, but should Jia have followed through on any of these stylistic choices a little more, he might have been able to find greater form in the connection between each vignette.

Some nice Ozu-style pillow shots are used here, though may have been more impactful if it was built into the structure throughout.
Returning to this location from Still Life, rightfully one of Jia’s favourite pieces of scenery that he always knows how to use to great effect.

The Roberto Rossellini influence that Jia exhibited in his earlier films with his use of dilapidated buildings does make a return here, but there is an even more notable narrative inspiration from the Italian neorealist’s 1948 film Germany Year Zero. In the final vignette which follows the alienated factory worker, Xiaohui, the young man steadily accumulates one misfortune after another, and this persistent bleakness builds towards his devastating, climactic suicide. While every other act of violence implies an external connection between the aggressor and their victims, Xiaohui’s isolation keeps his destructive fury contained to his own mind and body, capping off A Touch of Sin not with a ferocious attack on authority, but rather a moving plea for empathy

A Touch of Sin is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.