Two of the very best films of the year currently are playing in movie theaters-- and raking in big bucks at the box office.
The first is PRISONERS, a taut suspenser about the mysterious disappearance of two young girls and the reaction of their respective families. Given the extreme behavior of one of the characters-- and I am referring here to a distraught father, played with much intensity by Hugh Jackman-- PRISONERS will not be for everyone. Still, the film is nothing short of riveting as it offers an account of what might be fairly described as every parent’s worst nightmare. Indeed, PRISONERS is the most vivid celluloid depiction of unrelentingly deep familial anguish since Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER.
Then there is GRAVITY, which might be retitled LOST IN SPACE. This is a two-character tale about a pair of imperiled astronauts. George Clooney is cast as one of them, and he essentially is playing George Clooney. This is not a bad thing, as Clooney effortlessly (and famously) radiates natural charm and likability. But Sandra Bullock, who plays the central character, offers a deep, heartfelt performance as a woman who is as emotionally vulnerable as she is a skilled scientist.
What also makes GRAVITY special is Alfonso Cuarón’s fluid direction. Unlike so many contemporary films that are structured around their editing, with shot after shot that are mini-seconds long, Cuarón loads his film with lengthy shots that feature fluid camera movement-- and that allow the viewer sufficient time to take in the scope of the on-screen imagery. And unlike so many contemporary special effects-laden films that focus on flashy visuals while spotlighting the antics of one-dimensional characters and feature plotlines that have more holes than Swiss cheese, GRAVITY exudes tremendous intelligence in its storytelling.
As I say, PRISONERS and GRAVITY both are box office hits. Still, there is enormous pressure on new movies-- and, in particular, new movies with big budgets and major stars-- to be instant smash hits. Does this explain why Tom Hanks, the star of the just-released CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, announced while selling his film on David Letterman that he is a Type-2 diabetic?
Just before their new movies open theatrically, name actors make the rounds of the TV talk shows. They yack up their product, with the host often adding that the film in question is a must-see, and these appearances are instantly forgotten. But Hanks’s admission of his medical condition earned headlines, and an increased awareness of his movie. So did news reports that the real-life crew of the cargo ship depicted in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS had filed a lawsuit against the ship’s owners, alleging that the title character, who is played by Hanks, was far less than the heroic figure depicted onscreen.
Then there is THE FIFTH ESTATE, also new to theaters, which tells the story of Julian Assange, the controversial WikiLeaks founder. It also was reported in the media that Assange had penned an open letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him in the film, in which he damned THE FIFTH ESTATE, calling it “toxic” and “deceitful.”
Will this media coverage, which conveniently appeared just before the releases of CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and THE FIFTH ESTATE, convince otherwise disinterested moviegoers to buy tickets to them, to see what the fuss is all about?
On one level, a film should be able to draw in audiences simply because of its high quality. This certainly has been the case with GRAVITY and PRISONERS. At the same time, in an era in which a movie that opens on a Friday will be dubbed a winner or a loser by Sunday based solely on its immediate box office take, it is understandable that movie-makers and movie-marketers will go to any and all extremes to sell their product to the public.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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