GRAVITY. Critics have complained that Alfonso Cuaron and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki tried too hard with the cinematography in Children of Men, and that their meticulously designed tracking shots, little visual masterpieces, take us out of the story rather than drawing us in. But Cuaron's reverence for story and character is well-served and not diminished by his very technical visual style, certainly in Children of Men, perhaps never more so than in Gravity.
The movie opens with a team of American astronauts at work on the Hubble Space Telescope. Veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) does laps around their shuttle with an experimental jet pack, while motion-sick medical researcher Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — on her first shuttle mission — attempts to install a device she's designed on the telescope. Word comes from Mission Control that a cloud of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is headed their way. They attempt to disengage from the Hubble as quickly as possible, but before they can react, the space shrapnel is on them and the rest of their crew is killed. Their shuttle inoperable, Kowalski and Stone have to rely on each other and Kowalski's jet pack to get to the International Space Station some 60 miles away. Needless to say, the trip does not go smoothly.
Gravity represents the best of science fiction as I see it. It's breathless and expansive, but at its heart is an honest, concise, human story. It manages to visually convey both the beauty and horror of space, creating a strange feeling of claustrophobia out of all that vastness. Bullock's performance is an especially strong one; she convincingly renders Stone as a person at the intersection of hope and resignation. She gives life to the story at the heart of the movie, which is ultimately about loss, strength and perseverance.
Gravity may be the most visually ambitious, technically challenging movie we'll see this year. Very few shots take place outside of the zero-gravity environment. Many of them involve multiple bodies moving on different axes in three dimensions. There are long takes and seemingly impossible tracking shots aplenty, and I can't think of a better way to photograph this story. The movie marries style and substance almost perfectly — the technique never detracts from the story, only amplifying the critical elements. I may not have been as on-edge with anxiety as I expected (my neurochemistry is probably still recovering from Prisoners), but I found the experience engrossing from start to finish. (Incidentally, this one's actually worth seeing in 3D). PG13. 90m.
RUNNER RUNNER. I'm not sure I've ever seen a 90-minute movie this light on story or character development. With just about enough plot to carry a half-hour TV episode, this thing feels like it's over before it even gets going.
Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, the gambling son of a degenerate gambler. Richie tries the straight and narrow, and is on-track for the big payday at a Wall Street firm when the 2008 collapse puts him out of a job. He enrolls in Princeton's MBA program to try to re-enter the upper crust, financing his higher education with online poker winnings. But in a Hail Mary attempt to pay off his degree, Richie gets taken for everything he's got. Having determined the mathematical impossibility of such a loss, he heads down to Costa Rica to confront the owner of the poker site, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Block offers him a job, everything seems to be coming up Richie — then the FBI gets involved. (It makes me tired just remembering the hackneyed plot.)
Runner Runner has pretensions to sexy espionage as a behind-the-scenes thriller about gambling. But it plays out as another dumbed-down version of the same old caper story Hollywood has been remaking since the 1940s. There's no compelling sense of danger, no surprise, no sexiness — really nothing to recommend it whatsoever. I suppose I should say that Timberlake and Affleck give strong performances, but it almost makes me feel sorry for them — it's that poorly done. R. 91m.
— John J. Bennett
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Somali pirates hijack a cargo ship captained by Tom Hanks, who wishes he were back on that island with his volleyball. PG13. 134m.
ENOUGH SAID. A woman finds out her wonderful new boyfriend is her friend's horrible ex. Whoops. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini star. PG13. 93m.
MACHETE KILLS. Roberto Rodriguez directs leather-vested Danny Trejo, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Michelle Rodriguez, Lady Gaga — you don't need the plot, right? R. 107m.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. The 3-D sequel goes a little Dr. Moreau when food creatures populate an island and hero Flint (Bill Hader) has to stop them. PG. 95m.
DON JON. Love makes a man out of playboy Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the touching comedy he also wrote and directed. With Scarlett Johansson. R. 90m.
THE FAMILY. Clumsy mob comedy from Luc Besson, who should know better, and actors (DeNiro and Pfeiffer) who deserve better. R. 112.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Style, story and a satisfying scare in director James Wan's haunted family follow-up. PG13. 106m.
PRISONERS. Wrenching masterpiece with Hugh Jackman as the father of a missing child and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective out to find her. R. 146m.
RIDDICK. Vin Diesel entertains as the genetic oddity/anti-hero battling bounty hunters and bad weather on a dark, barren planet. R. 119m.
RUSH. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl race neck and neck in Ron Howard's thrilling popcorn cruncher about the 1976 Formula One racing season. R. 123m.
WE'RE THE MILLERS. Implausible drug smuggling comedy wastes the usually funny Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Anniston. R. 110m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill