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« Burning Questions: War of the Five (Nerd) Kings | Main | TIFF Quickies: Young & Beautiful, Honeymoon, and Belle »

TIFF: "Gravity" & "Eleanor Rigby: Him / Her"

Here's to grand ambition, the spiritual cousin of self-sabotage; whatever scale filmmakers are working on, it's a thin (blood)line that separates them. An noble arguable failure and an unwieldy arguable success from the Toronto International Film Festival will illustrate…

The very talented multi-hypenate filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has been MIA from cinema for the past seven years. He's presumably been huddled over various computers or engulfed in endless meetings trying to work out the logistics of bringing this epic outerspace survival drama to the screen. [more...]

But the logistics and the budget seem to have gotten in the way. Gravity wants to be a masterpiece (and props to it for that) but abundant compromises are felt. It makes a point of telling you that there is no sound in space and sticks to it except for the HUGE score which drowns out the terror of the silence. It gives you only two players and casts them for maximum bankability (but for no other visible reason) and then has them play 100% stock characters that a screenplay computer program might write with no authentic-feeling contours, depth or pecularities (surprising for a writer of Cuarón's sensitivity). Finally, and here's the trickiest confusing part... the setpieces and key images are truly spectacular and inspired and shout "Look at me!" and you gladly obey. But since they're all the film is giving, and it clearly wants to be an emotional spiritual journey rather than just a f/x reel, it falls flat. The score begs that you "Feel this!" but, for me, I couldn't. I could only look at it.

C+ (B-?) Despite my initial disappointment, I'd gladly see it again to reconsider and hoping I connect more on second viewing. Because my god the beauty. (And the beauty of the folly!) 


Him (James McAvoy) and Her (Jessica Chastain)THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM & HER
And on to a different kind of self-sabotage. Imagine it, you're a young writer/director making your calling card debut feature. You've written a great script which is sensitive about grief and the ways people reform themselves after a tragedy but it's never maudlin (neat trick there) and often very enjoyable with a great sense of humor and resonant character beats. You have two super talented hot stars (James McAvoy & Jessica Chastain) as your headliners to draw this nuanced map of the grieving human heart. You've also nabbed a juicy supporting cast full of vivid talented actors  (Isabelle Huppert, Nina Arianda, Ciarin Hinds, William Hurt, Bill Hader, Jess Weixler, and Viola Davis who is really funny in this) and given them ALL quite a lot to work with so no one walks away with a thankless role. So you go and make a great devastating 2 hour romantic ensemble drama and you release it and everyone loves it and you win awards and "best new filmmaker" honors, right?

Not so fast.

If you're Ned Benson you've opted to make two pictures. Or maybe one picture of two halves. They might be released separately. Or maybe together. Or in quick succession? In alternating show times in the same theater like repertory? You claim not to care about the order they're viewed in and in your big international festival debut you switch the order so that people have a different experience. Unless you have "final cut" which most debut auteurs don't chances are your distributor will undoubtedly be calling the shots from here on out which is a big uh-oh moment. As I happened to see it at its premiere with Him preceding Her, this 3 hour movie felt like perfect conjoined fraternal twins, each of 90 minutes in length. I say fraternal since The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him (the one starring James McAvoy with Chastain in a supporting role) and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (the one starring Jessica Chastain with McAvoy in a supporting role) have very different temperaments, casts, and only share a few scenes... but not, crucially, the same takes of those scenes. We understand the drama wholly only through seeing both sides of it. 

If they release them separately which side gets custody of the heady romantic prologue?

I can't imagine that its safe to surgically severe Him and Her and release them into the wilds of arthouse theaters. And keeping them together but lopping off their limbs (say 20 minutes from both which seems likely) seems like high-risk business for something this delicately wrought and inventively conceived. 

B+ (for now... though who knows what incarnation of this movie will eventually screen for non-festival audiences in 2014)

Podcast a group discussion of TIFF 13: Oscar buzz, our favorite films, and more
Mano-a-Mano Hallucinations Norway's Pioneer & Jake Gyllenhaal² in Enemy
Quickies Honeymoon, Young & Beautiful, Belle
Labor Day in a freeze-frame nutshell
Jessica Chastain at the Eleanor Rigby Premiere
August Osage County reactions Plus Best Picture Nonsense
Rush Ron Howard's crowd pleaser
The Past from Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi & Cannes Best Actress Berenice Bejo
Queer Double FeatureTom at the Farm and Stranger by the Lake
Boogie Nights Live Read with Jason Reitman and Friends
First 3 Screenings: Child's Pose, Unbeatable and Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness 
TIFF Arrival: Touchdown in Toronto. Two unsightly Oscars

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Reader Comments (40)

Nat, how are Sandra and George in this? I am surprised at your reaction since it seems that everywhere I read, they are all raves. And how is the pacing since I assumed 90 percent of the movie is just Sandra by herself

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

This is why I've been coming to this site less and less. A C+ for Gravity? It's your opinion, but you just seem out of touch. You're way too harsh on great movies, and then you fawn all over Nicole Kidman or Michelle Pfeiffer's latest flop.

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterant

Your Gravity grade is a huge letdown for me. :( I really hope I love it. I hate being disappointed by movies I'm super excited about.

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

@ ant, don't worry ;) for years and years he has been describing Cate Blanchett as a supporting actress and stating that probably one day she might win another Supporting Actress Oscar. Yes, Nathaniel is clearly out of touch sometimes ;) in fact, his anti-Blanchettism continued all the way until the unanimous critical acclaim of her performance, then and only then he finally had no options, looked reality in the eye and placed her at the number 1 spot.

BTW, Harvey has picked up "THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM & HER"; are we witnessing a change in the 2013 Best Actress category or is he saving it for 2014? I wonder...

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Oooh, I'm excited for E.R. Him & Her! I hope it is released whole as 2 films. I would hate to have another situation like The New World where you're unsure if you've seen the same version as your friends. Or Bladerunner. Sigh. Still not sure which versions I've seen and what was released in theaters...

September 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

surprised with the grade for "gravity" (because apparently everyone loves it), but now that I think about it, what was going to be the story of the movie? a character-study in space? I'm thinking I'll be agreeing with you.

and I'm hoping chastain's movie is for 2014... imagine what would happen with the internet if we had a chastain vs. blanchett vs. streep competition? there would be BLOOD!

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

Marcelo: A Chastain/Blanchett/Streep showdown would be freaking legendary.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Nat, I read somewhere that one of the reasons Alfonso Cuarón took so much time off was because he was dealing with a divorce as well as an autistic son, so he had to take it easy for a few years while he made the transition to London and settled into his family, and then really focus on the movie. While I usually respect your opinion, I hope you're wrong about this one. I'm hearing great things about it and I'm ready to love it (and I do think you're sometimes too hard on some really good movies, I will never for the life of me understand why you hated Silver Linings Playbook so much for example). I'll let you know when I see it....

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

mike in canada - yes, definitely, and it would be remembered for years - among those who survived it -, because the internet discussion would turn very ugly (as 'fun' as that was, we don't need another davis vs. streep year)!

maybe if some consensus was formed at some point everything would be fine, but an open race til oscar night? I'm praying no! (and maybe secretly wishing that it happened)

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

His description of Gravity on paper seems like an accurate one for those who haven't seen the film. But I wholly believe the star wattage of the performers are a distraction in the official artificial environment the movie has designed for itself especially because it's 3-D.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I think it's a little unfair to call somebody out of touch just because they have a different opinion than what is perceived to be the general consensus. I loved Gravity, but I'm not going to get all worked up if someone has a different take on the film. If anything, it's nice to see bloggers and critics who don't feel the need to say the same thing everyone else is saying.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug

It just arouses further my interest in GRAVITY, cannot wait!

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterlasttimeisaw

ant & yavor -- if the site is not for you because I am sometimes anti-consensus it's not for you. what can I say? i can only write how i feel.

I will always have favorite actresses I fawn over (it's in my nature) and I will always have certain movies i feel differently about then the "general consensus (whatever that is... and that's usually still evolving for movies that haven't opened yet) just as literally everyone does. If there is a person out there that 100% aesthetically liines up with what everyone else feels all the time this person is a very boring person. ;)

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

yavor -- and if the history of my oscar predictions ALSO has to align with everyone else's opinion? GOOD GRIEF. how boring would this site be if it only echoed what every other site said? (also please to note: prediction rankings are PREDICTIONS and change from time to time depending on hunches, actual critical consenus, and future projection. I thought it very reasonable to doubt Blue Jasmine before I saw it since very few "leads" from woody allen films have ever made the shortlist... it was a reasonable doubt that proved wrong and the performance is great and I'm happy i was wrong.

So condemn me for that. But i would like to note that no one praised me for being literally the only oscar pundit who never bought into the "lock" and literally never predicted Cate Blanchett to get an oscar nomination for Benjamin Button.

so you win some you lose some. but with some people you just lose some lose some no matter how right you are :)

drew -- the pacing is fine. but the story is very repetitive. george & sandra were ok/charming/themselves but it's not really an actors' movie.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

My biggest fear with Gravity is that it's going to meander between genres with no clear narrative direction. There's only so much you can do with the lost in space concept being shown here. If you wait until the end to do the big boomy explosive stuff in the trailer, you're spinning your wheels on character study while the audience waits for the space stuff to really kick in. If you play that big action set piece too soon, you're left with too much time cleaning up the aftermath and not enough stuff happening on screen to make it engaging.

I normally diverge from Nathaniel on genre-esque films so I might wind up liking it. I mean, he gave Stoker a C+ because of the subject matter and it's still at the top of my list for 2013. I just know at this point that horror isn't really his thing and can read past that in a review to get an understanding of what a film has to offer.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

robert g -- it wasn't the subject matter (many great films have been made about violent people) it was the amorality combined with aesthetic affect and confusing characterizations... it all just led to a disgusting aftertaste. Thirst was just as violent and similar in plot and from the same director and I really liked that one.

why am i being argument today? peace out.

ON GRADING please try to remember that grades aren't everything. I'd rather see Gravity again that some films i rated higher... I just think for what it wanted to be it just wasn't reaching it. ithis is the time when you really need Nick's now abandoned extra grade which rated a film's ambitions and must-see'ness and originality apart from the rest of the considerations. Like you can do an ACE job of doing something that's been done a million times. Does that make you more of a must-see than a fumbled totally brave ambitious thing? No.

September 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Weinstein is holding Eleanor Rigby (and its other recent acquisitions - Can a Song Save Your Life and The Railway Man, and maybe there are more?) for 2014. I just hope they don't chop it up, I've been really intrigued by this movie, but it seems like editing would ruin it.

I feel like Blanchett may become the consensus Best Actress favorite early, BUT all the major performances still haven't screened. (This also troubles me about so many critics/pundits crowning 12 Years a Slave as the presumed Oscar winner - there are still at least half a dozen major movies yet to screen, plus the chance for a surprise.)

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne -- yeah. I loved 12 Years a Slave but if it were to win it would be one of the most brutal challenging movies to ever do so. Like a No Country For Old Men type deal and we know how how often that t type of 'very serious very artful effort that isn't coddling you from a real auteur' wins. i.e. very rarely.

September 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Can i just say, that i think its generally great when people's opinions on movies do not match up with the general consensus. I love that, because it brings debate and discussion on a film versus fawning/hate, with everyone constantly using the same adjectives for it.
I've ended up seeing so many movies more than once because of that ,the next time you tend to see where the other person comes from and I find that very amusing because, film is art, and it should come with difference in opinion, versus everyone just drinking the consensus kool aid.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRizz

I wasn't sold on blanchett but i willing now to consider without seeing the movie ultil its here in uk.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

Re: the "out of touch" comments. If you want to read someone who always, without fail, falls in line with critical consensus, Peter Travers is the man for you.
If you're coming to places like TFE (or Guy Lodge or mynewplaidpants, to shout out my film review holy trinity) it should be because you enjoy the voice.
When I see a movie I love, I'm sometimes more interested to read the dissenting voices than I am to read the ones that agree with me.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Ant & Yavor, why even have sites with articles and opinions then if all you're looking for is consensus? You may as well just glance at Golddetby's racetrack odds, or a site with all polls. There's a wide and worthy middle ground between Dave Karger (who has no opinions of his own) and Armond White (whose recalcitrance is ALWAYS calibrated against the majority) and Nathaniel inhabits it well.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAkash

Sandra Bullock doesn't deserve arrive at Oscar for her silly performance in gravity

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSilvana

Gravity doesn't meander. It's pretty straight-forward which I actually think so many people have problems with.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed too upon seeing it but I am a little shocked by this grading. I though giving it a B (I strayed between B+ and A- because I don't mind the movie being so populist popcorn fare given it is a 90 minute big studio space movie).

Gravity also is not so much a horror movie as much as a movie with the structure of a horror movie but substitute the monster/boogeyman who chases you through the neighborhood and that is Bullock's character and space.

Gravity is more of an expectations game. I feel like the reviews calling it back to Kubrick and Ophuls (where was this in the movie) did it no favors. It is a commercial movie that Hollywood should make more of. Go into the movie thinking that when you put on your 3D glasses than anything else.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

@ Akash, we have opinions, too and we're pointing things out every once in a while, that's all, if you're failing to understand that, you should not be making the point you're making in the first place :)

I'm overall pretty generous with Nathaniel and rarely bitch about things. It just happens that we disagree on Cate Blanchett and I'll be around to remind him of certain things.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I hope Sandra will still make Nathaniel's Oscar predictions list. I was really hoping he would love "Gravity" more. My enthusiasm has not been swayed one bit.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMN

Wasn't trying to be argumentative. The amorality you describe is what I would call the subject matter of that film. It's Poe-style Gothic fiction. Being forced to relate to the bad guy who thinks he's really the good guy is the point of the story. It's typical Chan-wook Park/K-horror in that way. You walk away shaken to your core by that country's horror stories. They exaggerate the worst aspects and motivators of real life crime and what it does to the people connected to the victims.

Mother, which I recall you enjoying quite a bit, is light and fluffy compared to your typical modern Korean horror film ,which Stoker essentially is. Park's work is especially shocking and obsessed with not casting a clear good or bad guy in the story. Three...Extremes is the best example. It's a slapstick slasher/torture short about a disgruntled actor trying to get a famous director to remember who he was by any means necessary. That one crosses the line for me because not one character in it is developed enough to justify investment in such an upsetting storyline.

I really was just trying to use an example of how I often agree with much of what you write because you're an excellent film critic but come to a very different conclusion because of personal preferences. Apparently I chose the wrong comment thread to try to agree with what you were saying to some of the more aggressive commenters.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Ant - have you seen Gravity? You vaguely refer to it as "great" but it's not quite clear if you mean that because you've seen it yourself or because of what other critics have said.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I dont know. People are saying Sandra is going to win her second Oscar for this, so some ppl must truly respond to the film. i remember last year Nat didnt 'get' Waltz and he won his second.. But interestingly, the German critics in Venice did not like Gravity at all, calling it simplistic and trite, (and loud) and back then, it seemed to me like they were the only ones (its still at 96 -at metacritic)

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBacio

I mean if Mike D'Angelo, Neil Young, and Guy Lodge all like the same major studio movie- maybe there is a there there if expectations are properly in check. The 3D is, objectively, astounding that I am shocked if was not even originally shot in the way.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Discussing does not mean arguing .. I like when people have different views from mine... I have learned a lot from people on this blog ... I am a movie watcher and enjoyer... I am not a critic... some of the regulars on this blog parse every detail of a movie .. if I did that I would not enjoy the movie ( unless they are flagrantly bad )
I do not enjoy the bloggers here who are so obviously agreeing/fawning over Nat's every word ... come on, have an opinion ( no matter how far out )... Nat has his opinion which we may or may not agree with!

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Ive been coming to this site since i was 13 because Nat isn't afraid to express his view. As much as i am dying to see gravity it is someone times a relief to see a bad review. When movies get so much good reviews the film tends to topple on its own buzz. I'm really scared that is going to happen to 12 years a slave. The real test is mainstream audiences.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

I was curious about how'd you react to the Eleanor Rigby situation, Nat, considering your stance that Movies are becoming too much like TV in terms of narrative. It doesn't seem like it bothered you here, though, so that's gotta bode well for it. As for Gravity, I'll wait and see. There's plenty of films I loved and you disliked, so it wouldn't be too big a surprised if I really enjoy this.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

I wouldn't call longer movies more like TV as that is given way too much credit to TV that only is having this so-called golden age because it is getting cinematic, not the other way around. I like to think we just caught up to European cinema (RWF and Bergman had plenty of their stuff, some of their best, on TV that clocked well beyond 2 hours) in that respect. People who argue TV vs. cinema seem unaware of how both have not been in the best shape for very similar reasons, particular in business model.

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

There are others out there lukewarm on Gravity as a whole; don't worry. I've been getting more nervous about it myself.

September 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

Cuaron's filmography as a whole tends to be a bit weird in that I tend to be a bit ambivalent when I first see them (Children of Men and Y tu Mama Tambien excepted) but they almost always improve with time for me. I think Cuaron has a bit of a problem with scripts in that they're never as tight or meticulous or as nuanced as the movie deserves. I have a feeling Gravity's going to fall under this same problem. (full disclosure: didn't read Nathaniel's review since I'm avoiding in depth thoughts until I see it, just glanced at the grade)

What I love about Cuaron is that he makes up for a bit bagginess or hamminess in the narrative/screenplay area with really interesting visual choices. And not just the aesthetics of it, but the sequencing and pacing of his imagery is really effective. The whole sequence in Children of Men where Clive Owen is walking through the abandoned school and comes across a deer is so much more interesting way of dealing with the horror of abandoned hope and weird blissed-out reassurance that life (for the natural world at least) still goes on that that movie juggles.

I sometimes feel that because he works so much in the visual element of film-making critics find it quite difficult to actually write about his work without sounding a bit wanky or academic. Which leads to a lot of reviews where discussion about the visuals are summarily dealt with and dismissed in a couple of sentences - "of course the visuals are breathtaking" etc. - when they're kind of the most interesting part of Cuaron's movies. I feel that since critics mostly see themselves as writers, they tend to dig films of that have strong writing, or are at least more willing to engage with them. And a movie with a really strong script but lackluster cinematic scope tends to be treated more kindly than those where it's the opposite way round.

September 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Alice -- i think you're writing, actually on that last part. People forgive lackluster visuals to great stories more quickly, far more quickly, than they do the other way around. I think part of that is because writing about writing is either than writing about visuals. Gravity will be a great "hit me with your best shot" candidate when it hits DVD even though it's going to be sad to see its best element reduced on smaller screens.

September 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I love Nathaniel's sometimes contrary opinion. What the hell, and why not? I mean I would, blasphemously speaking, rather see a Renee Zellwegger movie than a Nicole Kidman one. There I said it. But that doesn't make me stop reading here. And heaven knows no one is more IN TOUCH than Nathaniel.

As for Gravity, I'm sort of glad Nathaniel took some of the air out of its bubble because then I'll go into it expecting a C+ movie instead of an A+ movie. I'm much more likely to be pleased that way. :-)

September 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Nathaniel, yeah I should really comment more on the Hit Me with Your Best Shot series because they're consistently some of my favourite parts of your blog. I LOVE that you have a whole series dedicated to reconsidering older movies and reconsidering the look of them from all these different people's perspectives. It forces me to detach a bit from the STORY ABOVE ALL! side of my judgement, which I definitely need more training in. :)

September 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

I am sure Nat will agree with me that Blanchett is an overrated actress, so why should he give in to other critics? Can you imagine her and Nicole Kidman in one movie? Nicole will devournher alive.Nicole is the real definition of an actress. Forget Blue Jasmine, the Academy will remember only one performance this year - Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly!

September 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStupendous

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