Tag Archive: Ed Harris

Gravity (2013): Grade: A


Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron

Written by: Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron

Starring: Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

James Cameron: “I think it’s the best space photography ever done, I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.”

Buzz Aldrin: “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. The spinning is going to happen — maybe not quite that vigorous — but certainly we’ve been fortunate that people haven’t been in those situations yet. I think it reminds us that there really are hazards in the space business, especially in activities outside the spacecraft.”

Quentin Tarantino has named Gravity one of the top ten best films of 2013 so far.

When a filmmaker spends four years of his life (mainly to invent technology to make his film possible!) defying what has come before to make a bold, impactful statement in cinema, you breathlessly anticipate a generation-defining experience on the scale of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Pulp Fiction. With Gravity, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron has done what so precious few filmmakers have ever done: he has crafted a blockbuster type of story and infused it with an art-house sensibility to create an experimental thrill ride that has set a new benchmark of excellence. Its astounding to look back at Alfonso Cuaron’s American career beginning with a little children’s film called A Little Princess, then diving into low-budget foreign fare with Y Tu Mama Tambien, switching to a franchise blockbuster with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and now vying for James Cameron’s crown with a huge sci-fi artsy/commercial studio picture. Filmmaker Ang Lee is the only director I can think of who has displayed an ability to adeptly traverse across an eclectic diversity of genres and styles of cinematic storytelling.

Gravity’s plot is stunningly simplistic and I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Unknown actress Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie astronaut on her first mission to install a new experimental instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. Accompanying her on the mission is Matt Kowalski, played by another unknown actor, George Clooney. During the mission, the astronauts receive word that the Russians have fired a missile into a satellite and now the debris from the satellite is heading toward the astronauts at the velocity of a speeding bullet. Unfortunately, the astronauts are unable to avoid the satellite debris in time. Their shuttle is destroyed and the two astronauts are hurled out into space. With depleting oxygen and with more satellite debris headed their way, the astronauts must quickly figure out how to survive and get back to Earth.

The baseline understanding of Gravity is that it is fantastic and groundbreaking. Like with such films as Avatar and How to Train Your Dragon, Gravity is designed to be viewed in IMAX and 3D. With that said, this is a film that as spectacular as it is in terms of technology and thrills on the big screen, it is one whose seams will be a lot more apparent if you watch it on the small screen. Furthermore, once you have seen Gravity once, it will have less repeat watchability because you will know what happens and that sense of dreaded anticipation that makes the film so fun to watch will be gone.

Since watching Gravity, I have spent more time defending the casting choices of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney than anything else that pertains to this film. I too have never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock’s performances or her film choices. I cannot say the same for George Clooney, who may not have a wide range when it comes to acting, but the quality of his films cannot be denied (e.g. The Descendants, The Ides of March, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck). With that said, allow me to dispel any of your reasonable notions that no film featuring these actors can be any good. This may be my first and very last time that I will sing the praises of Sandra Bullock’s performance. Playing the role of a mother who lost her daughter in an accident and now spends her life buried in her work to forget the pain, Bullock does a fine job conveying the pain and loneliness of her character. Mind you, my approval of her performance is less an approval and more of a pleasant surprise that I finally got to see Bullock deliver a performance I could tolerate and respect. As for Clooney, admittedly, he puts forth the same schtick he has done in just about every movie he’s ever done (including Syriana, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). I don’t find anything wrong with that. Just like with other famous actors who have generally delivered the same type of performance, you either respond to it or you don’t.

Putting their performances aside, I was disappointed that Bullock’s character basically amounted to another stereotypical female. Dr. Ryan Stone was prone to emotionality and fear. She was inexperienced. When faced with a problem, her first response was to lock up and panic, and we almost never saw her approach a situation calmly and with intelligence. I wish we could have seen more of a heroine instead of someone who simply pauses, reflects, and waits for the next disaster to strike, and when that disaster comes, she is unprepared. And not surprisingly, when she decides to totally give up and die, the film “resurrects” the male character so that he can push her to move onward.

A big issue with thrill ride films like Gravity and Jurassic Park is that the technology overtakes the story. Sometimes, as with these two examples, the technology is ground-breaking and exciting enough to dwarf any issues the movie may have, such as the lack of a complex narrative. That is not to say that Gravity’s story is weak. Alfonso Cuaron is known as a visual storyteller and you see that skill displayed here, in which the dialogue is secondary to the visuals in terms of telling the story. By the way, the opening of Gravity is probably the best use of silence I have ever seen – it perfectly sets the tone of the entire film. In addition, it is a testament to the filmmaker’s storytelling skill that despite the fact that 80-90% of Gravity is all CG, you will never once be distracted by the technology or, alternatively, be drawn by it to the detriment of what is narratively going on in the film.

In terms of the technical craft that went into making Gravity, I can’t say much more than what I have already said. Cuaron boldly commits to the idea that what we will see is not a fictionalized/fantasy version of space that we see in every other space movie, but that the outer space our story takes place in is the real thing. Hence, there is no sound other than the voices of our characters. When there is an explosion, you do not hear it. Cuaron accomplishes creating a space that comes off feeling airless, isolated, and hermitic. Supplementing the sound design is Steven Price’s fantastic score, which perfectly marries the silence of space. Furthermore, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be credited with creating instantly iconic shots and compositions that will forever be hailed as essential additions to space-set filmmaking. Now not being a fan of 3D, I was also relieved that for once someone was able to make good use of the format. The 3D is never overwhelming. It is used judiciously and sparingly, frequently to heighten the emotional moments rather than serve as a battering ram of laser pyrotechnics.

Gravity may not have the philosophical ambition of 2001, the space adventure to which it is most often being compared to. However, fairness demands that we recognize this film for trying to be something else. With its deliberately archetypal characters and chewy dialogue, Gravity feels a lot like something James Cameron would have made and that is an enormous compliment to make. In short, Gravity is a brilliant, unerringly entertaining thriller that will make you believe in the higher power of movies, of how a giant screen, a darkened room, and a story can take you to places you can’t even imagine. As a fun little tidbit of information, the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13.


The Abyss (1989): Grade: A-

936full-the-abyss-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? When The Abyss is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime, then you have to wonder why this problem is not getting the sort of attention that world hunger receives. The rumor is that the film is set for release on Blu-ray in 2014 so if you have never seen The Abyss it would be best to wait until then.

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, & Michael Biehn

Directed by: James Cameron

Written By: James Cameron

[NOTE: This review is of the director’s cut, not the theatrical cut, of The Abyss] In my not so humble opinion, the finest science fiction stories are those that have something to say about the state of our current society. They show us what society can be if we head down a particular, usually destructive, path. War of the Worlds; Brave New World; Fahrenheit 451; I, Robot; A Clockwork Orange and more recent stories such as Children of Men; Wall-E; and the upcoming Elysium, all have political and social themes interweaved into their stories. After the success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron finally earned the clout to tell an original story in the way he wanted. The concept for The Abyss had been brewing in his head for a long time and, in the epic and grand fashion that characterize all of Cameron’s movies, The Abyss was no exception in both the ground-breaking and extreme fashion it was made and in the scope of its story. With The Abyss, Cameron also began introducing us to his political and social views, in particular to humanity’s wanton and destructive nature, which have further been explored in Terminator 2 and Avatar. The Abyss also introduced us to James Cameron’s growing obsession with exploration of the ocean – something he seems more interested in than in making movies.

The Abyss is basically an underwater adventure involving a nuke, a psycho Navy SEAL, and a sort-of benevolent alien species. The film stars a then relatively unknown Ed Harris, who plays Bud, a gruff but charming oil worker who leads a motley group of roughnecks on an underwater oil rig called Deep Core. The film starts out with an American nuclear submarine that encounters an underwater alien. Its mere presence causes all electrical devices to shut down, which basically means the submarine gets royally fucked. It ends up crashing into a rock wall, killing its entire crew and sinking into the abyss. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nuclear sub contains nuclear warheads (duh), which the American government doesn’t want the Russkies to get its hands on. So they send a team of Navy SEALS, led by Cameron regular Michael Biehn, to retrieve the nukes. Since Bud and his crew are located near the sunken sub and they have expertise and the equipment to operate at huge depths, the oil crew is recruited to assist the SEALS in getting the nukes. However, Biehn ends up going batshit crazy, thinking the aliens the crew has just seen is a new threat (possibly Russian) that must be eliminated.

Directors frequently come out with “director’s cuts” of their movies and they do so for various reasons, length being the main reason. Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott are two filmmakers who are probably best known for coming out with their own cuts of their movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out with longer editions after the films’ theatrical release. The films were not a major improvement over the theatrical version and you would not be missing out on anything by not seeing them. On the other hand, Ridley Scott has released a seemingly endless number of versions of Blade Runner and it is arguable whether they improve upon the original theatrical cut. However, both the LOTR trilogy and Blade Runner were already considered to be great films in their original cuts and the director’s cut merely improved upon them. The Abyss is the only film I can think of where the director’s version turns a decent movie with a very problematic ending (the theatrical cut) into a far better movie that substantively changes the motivations and story. Does The Abyss still have problems? Yes it does, but Cameron’s version makes those problems a little less noticeable.

I remember seeing Prometheus last summer and thinking how little chemistry and character development the ensemble cast had. With the exception of Michael Fassbender’s robot character, none of the other characters were interesting or believable and the actors playing them were not very good either and felt miscast. In watching that film, you can’t help but be reminded of The Abyss and how perfectly cast its actors are and how well Cameron developed their characters. Cameron had already proven with Aliens that he could tell a story with many characters and he uses that skill even more effectively with The Abyss. In those first 20 minutes of the movie, you are immediately introduced to Bud and his crew and see some of their key characteristics at display. But most importantly (and this is something that Prometheus spectacularly failed at), you totally buy into the fact that these characters are oil rig workers. Part of this is the pitch-perfect casting of actors who look like they could be found working on an oil rig. The actors in this film are all experienced, but they are not well known and they don’t look like beautiful Hollywood actors. You can tell that Cameron carefully researched not only the technology involved in having an underwater oil rig, but also the day-to-day lives and the lingo of oil rig workers. This shit is important – otherwise, you get what we saw in Prometheus.

Many of you will probably not appreciate this because you may be unaware of what skill it takes to be an efficient screenwriter. However, for the majority of The Abyss, especially during its first 30 minutes or so, Cameron does not waste a single frame of film. The film starts right off with the nuclear submarine encountering an alien and sinking. Boom. We then go to the oil rig and get introduced to Bud and crew. Boom. From the conversations between the characters, we learn Bud is going through a divorce. Boom. The oil rig crew is then told they have to help the SEALS investigate the sunken sub and accompanying them is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). BOOM. We also notice that Michael Biehn’s character is already displaying the shakes, indicating that he’s suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome. Right away Cameron establishes two points of major conflict in the story: Bud having to deal with his estranged wife and Michael Biehn being set up to be the crazy antagonist.

The action sequences in The Abyss are similarly well placed throughout the film. Each action sequence progresses the story forward – not a single sequence is put in for the sole sake of providing the audience with eye candy and thrills. And although the film has plenty of action, you never feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of the film (like say in Man of Steel). Like all of James Cameron’s films, The Abyss was made to be enjoyed on a very large screen and the action sequences particularly looked spectacular when seen blown up. However, it is a testament to how well the action is set up when you can still experience the edge-of-your-seat suspense that audiences did in theaters. Two sequences in particular are pure genius: One is where the oil rig is being dragged to the edge of the abyss by a fallen crane and the other is when Bud and his wife, Lindsey, are trapped in a mini-submarine that is filling with water and they only have 1 wetsuit between them (I have posted the clip from this scene below).

There is no doubt that Ed Harris gives a wonderful performance in The Abyss and if it wasn’t for that film, I don’t know where his career would have ended up. But as great as he is, I was most impressed by what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio brought to the screen. She is an absolute revelation and perhaps with the exception of The Color of Money, I think her performance as the hard-nosed and passionate Lindsey is the best performance of her career. This is not a surprise when you consider James Cameron’s habit of creating strong women characters (Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Kate Winslet in Titanic, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere in True Lies, and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in Avatar). Lindsey is not your typical damsel in distress who is waiting for Bud to come to her rescue. In fact, she is the one who sacrifices her life in the mini-submarine by allowing herself to drown so that Bud can swim them both back to the oil rig. In that scene and in the later one where she has a heart-to-heart conversation with Bud as he descends into the depths of the abyss are compelling and raw performances that Mastrantonio gives.

Lets not give Ed Harris short shrift either. As the grizzled, tough, but compassionate leader of the oil rig team, no one but Harris could have played this role. With a friendly-looking face, a good sense of humor, and an everyman blue collar demeanor, it is impossible to not want to be working for Bud. Harris had a rich and challenging role to take on because his character not only comes to reconnect with his estranged wife, but he finds himself in the position of having to basically save the world (oh, and take on an insane Navy SEAL). Speaking of which, Michael Biehn does a commendable job playing the antagonist who decides to set off a nuke. At times his performance is a little hammy and over-the-top, but I suppose a trained killing machine suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome would begin to act a bit extreme.

Another interesting aspect of The Abyss is the film’s recognition of the end of the Cold War. During the movie, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of a nuclear war and events are played out in the same fashion as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Michael Biehn’s character represents the whole “us vs. them” mentality of the Cold War and by making him go crazy, the film comments on how outdated and insane this way of thinking had become by 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell and one year before the fall of the Soviet Union.

During its theatrical release, The Abyss was criticized for not explaining why there were aliens at the bottom of the ocean. In the director’s cut, however, previously deleted scenes were put back in that finally give us a reason for the aliens’ presence. I appreciate the fact that the aliens are accounted for and I thought the giant tidal wave scenes looked pretty cool back in the day. However, I remain unconvinced by why the aliens want to destroy humanity for its destructive ways – why would they give a shit? Furthermore, I found it totally unconvincing that the aliens decided against destroying humans based on a little text Bud sent Lindsey basically telling her that he’s going to sacrifice himself by plunging into the abyss. Let us not even go into the very end of the movie where the aliens raise the oil rig to the surface – I guess alien technology magically made decompression unnecessary. I’ve wondered if Cameron simply ran out of time and money to make a better ending because it stands in such stark contrast with the rest of the movie. That whole climax feels like it was rushed and hastily put together.

Nevertheless, The Abyss remains a highly watchable science fiction adventure film that gives us that rare combination of suspenseful and non-stop action, strongly developed characters, and wonderful performances. The film remains one of James Cameron’s best efforts. If you cannot wait for the blu-ray to come out and you want to see this now, watch the special edition version of the DVD and check out the 1 hour documentary on the making of the film. You will gain a much deeper appreciation for this movie when you see the grueling conditions this movie was made under.

I have frequently belated the fact that Hollywood is no longer able to successfully make epic-style movies. Many filmmakers have tried, but with the exception of a precious few, most absolutely suck at presenting us with a story where you as the audience member can feel the epic scope of the film. Of the few directors who can pull this off and who HAVE pulled this off in the past is Australian filmmaker, Peter Weir (THE TRUMAN SHOW, MASTER & COMMANDER, WITNESS, GALLOPOLI, and THE MOSQUITO COAST). It is always a treat to see a Peter Weir film because he doesn’t make many movies and when he does, you know you’re in for quite an experience. I wasn’t completely sold by his last film, 2003’s MASTER & COMMANDER, which I found to be too boring despite its technical and acting achievements. However, given the director’s past success, I was more than willing to give him another chance. Trailers for his latest film, THE WAY BACK, looked promising and a return to form for Weir. I have been waiting a long time for a David Lean-style epic and the story for THE WAY BACK promised such an epic. Unfortunately, what plagued MASTER & COMMANDER afflicts THE WAY BACK.

Peter Weir’s latest is the remarkably true story of an unlikely group of escapees who flee the Siberian Gulag and brave the harsh physical conditions to eventually make their way to freedom in India. The story takes place in the 1940s when the world was embroiled in World War II. The plan is hatched by a Polish prisoner (Jim Sturgess), who has recently been sent to the Gulag. Those joining him in the escape include an American (Ed Harris) and a convicted Russian murderer (Colin Farrell). Along the way, the group meets a runaway girl (Saoirse Ronan) who also joins them in their journey. THE WAY BACK depicts the harrowing journey this motley group of prisoners takes as they travel south through the arctic wilderness of Siberia to the uncompromising desert heat of the Mongolian desert.

You immediately know that at least one of the prisoners completes his journey because otherwise there would not have been anyone to chronicle the journey and we would never have known about it. The appealing aspect of THE WAY BACK is discovering what the characters had to do to survive their ordeal. In that sense watching the film is like watching a more extreme version of the show SURVIVOR. The characters had very few resources at their disposal so the chance of reaching India was quite slim. From a historical and informational perspective, THE WAY BACK is a fascinating movie to watch just to see what it took to get from Siberia to India. Where the film falters, however, is getting us to invest in the characters themselves. For this film to work, it is imperative that you give a shit about the characters. You are embarking upon a journey with these people so you must empathize with them and feel like you are with them for the whole ride. I didn’t really feel that at all. Peter Weir certainly tries to create this connection between the audience and his characters, but where he fucks up is in the first act when he introduces them to us. We spend very little time in the beginning getting to know the characters before they begin their escape. We see a 1 or 2 scenes with Colin Farrell’s character and a few scenes with Ed Harris, but that’s not enough to help us understand those characters except for getting a very broad sense of who they are. Worse yet, the other characters who form the escapee group is completely ignored in the first act and I wasn’t really introduced to them until long after they have escaped. By then, its too late to create the character-audience connection and, as a result, you as the audience don’t really give a shit as to what plight may befall those characters. This becomes very apparent in the death of two of the characters where I think Weir intended to draw an emotional response from his audience.

In terms of acting, the entire cast delivers a strong performance, especially (and surprisingly) Colin Farrell. A few years ago, critics and studios were heralding the coming of Colin Farrell as the next big superstar who combined prodigious acting talent with movie star looks. I never bought into it despite seeing almost everything the actor starred in. I’m not saying Farrell is a bad actor, which he certainly is not. However, he never lived up to the expectations that everyone seemed to have of him. Here, Farrell does a wonderful job in playing a convicted Russian murderer. Although he does ham it up a little, Farrell convincingly displays the ferocity and unstableness of his character so that you never know when or whether he will suddenly turn and betray his escapee comrades.

I haven’t seen Ed Harris in a movie in quite awhile so his return to the screen in this movie was a welcome sight. Here he gives a quiet, understated performance that seems to perfectly fit the age of the actor. Little is known about Harris’ character and we only get bits and pieces of his character’s background as the film progresses. Sadly, the man who recorded his account that formed the basis of this story didn’t know what eventually happened to Harris’ character. Harris never told anyone what his last name was so there was no way to find out how Harris’ story ends. Harris is the only American in the group and the fact that an American ends up in the Gulag is enough to make him the most interesting character in the film.

Jim Sturgess sort of serves as the main character in THE WAY BACK. He initiates the escape plan and leads the group to their final destination. He is also the person who chronicles the story that forms the basis of this movie. I know I have seen this actor before, but since I’m on a plane and I have no wi-fi access, I can’t look up his credits and I can’t remember off the top of my head what films he has appeared in. Like the rest of the cast, Sturgess does good work here. He sort of reminds me of Jeremy Davies (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), but less of a pussy.

Finally, we have Saoirse Ronan, the only female in the group of escapees. Again, I have no wi-fi access as I write this so I can’t look up what films Ronan has appeared in, but I know I have seen in her something very recent (THE LOVELY BONES? Yes? No?). Anyway, apart from her very cool sounding name, Ronan is someone I think we will be seeing a lot of in the future and not just for her unique looks, but mostly because of her potentially great acting skills. She too does a good job here, but I think she has the potential to do much better as she continues along her career and you see a hint of that here.

THE WAY BACK continues a long-running theme in Weir’s films, which is that of man versus nature and man versus society. In films such as this, MASTER AND COMMANDER, THE TRUMAN SHOW (which also stars Ed Harris), and THE MOSQUITO COAST, Weir’s characters rise against seemingly insurmountable odds to pull off what everyone tells them can’t be done. Here, the prisoners take on that which everyone in the Gulag considers to be a suicide mission: escaping Siberia and surviving. Our characters take on both nature and society to accomplish their goal even when it seems apparent that what they’re doing is nothing more than a fool’s errand. Weir explores this theme most successfully in his very underappreciated THE MOSQUITO COAST, which was about a man and his family who attempt to create a utopian society in the middle of a jungle.

I really wanted to like THE WAY BACK especially considering that it may be many years before Peter Weir directs another film. Even though the film contains all the ingredients of a successful epic film, Weir is unable to combine those elements to craft a story that had a huge potential to be an instant classic. Instead, the film comes off as a 2 hour Discovery Channel documentary instead of a drama that explores the human spirit and its endurance to survive. With some more finessing, I think Weir could have made that film and I wonder if there is a longer, director’s cut out there that we will hopefully see on blu-ray.