‘Gravity’ Soars on 5 Stars; ‘Parkland’ Recalls JFK: Film

In Alfonso Cuaron’s sublime space thriller “Gravity,” teardrops don’t roll, they float, perfect little spheres drifting toward our 3-D glasses with heartbreaking delicacy.

The film’s visual grace notes are as breathtaking as the big, sweeping effects that launch this work into a galaxy as stunning in its way as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In his first feature film since the 2006 sci-fi drama “Children of Men,” Cuaron has broken extraordinary ground here, creating a film-going immersion in outer space that, at least for those of us who’ve gotten no closer than an airplane allows, feels unfailingly right.

Written by the director and his son Jonas Cuaron, “Gravity” uses cutting-edge visual and sound effects to tell a deceptively simple story.

The sole survivors of a shuttle obliterated (onscreen) by a debris field of junk, space-newcomer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and right-stuff astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are adrift in space.

Tethered together, their oxygen running low and all communication with Earth disabled, the pair, with one jet pack between them, sets off for a distant space station before the next wave of trash arrives.

Clooney’s Angst

As Clooney’s cool-headed Kowalski draws out the terrified Stone’s tragic backstory, “Gravity” meshes the sci-fi operatics with some very human existential angst.

Playing out in near-real time, the 90-minute adventure (the 3-D version is highly recommended) contains one horrifying setback after another.

In one of the most glorious sequences -- Tim Webber’s visual effects are bar-raising -- the duo gets tangled in the long, undulating ropes of a shuttle’s deployed parachute, as if caught in the tentacles of a giant, billowing sea anemone.

Even as Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography swoops and swirls to mimic disorientation, “Gravity” never dissolves into trippiness. The narrative is clean and straightforward, the visuals as realistic as the view from a telescope.

The sound design is no less awesome, shifting among the tinny crackle of mission control, the heavy breathing inside the space helmets and Steven Price’s lovely, forceful score.

“Gravity” often switches to abrupt dreamy silences. In a remarkable scene, the humongous space station is soundlessly reduced to rubble behind Bullock’s back.

Promise Fulfilled

Bullock fulfills the promise of her earliest, smartest self, in a performance that’s emotional and flinty but without her late-career sap.

Clooney is a star without rival in a perfect-fit role.

Cuaron gets so much right with the tough-minded “Gravity” that a late-in-coming nod to spirituality feels like a sop, an unnecessary bow to foxhole enlightenment. He asks for the moon when he already has the stars.

“Gravity,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***** (Evans)

Kennedy Assassination

“Parkland” is named for the Dallas hospital where both President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were rushed after they were shot, on November 22 and 24, 1963.

The film chronicles the events of that violent weekend, focusing on groups and individuals in some way directly involved: the hospital staff, the Secret Service, the FBI, Abraham Zapruder and the Oswald family.

Despite flare-ups of anger and emotion that the actors could easily chew on, they rise to the seriousness of the occasion and rein themselves in.

Marcia Gay Harden as a Parkland nurse, Billy Bob Thornton as a Secret Service agent, Paul Giamatti as Zapruder and James Badge Dale as Robert Oswald (Lee’s brother) are superb.

Jacki Weaver, as Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, does come on strong, but the woman seems to have been such a toxic mix of bile and madness that Weaver may have caught something true.

The film’s writer and first-time director, journalist Peter Landesman, has put together a swift, riveting screenplay and done it justice. James Newton Howard’s bugle-heavy score sometimes pushes our emotions too hard, but on the whole the film keeps both breathlessness and sanctimony at bay.

Like the people whose story it tells, “Parkland” holds on to its dignity under the pressure of horror and grief.

“Parkland,” from Exclusive Media, is playing in selected theaters across the U.S. Rating: ***1/2 (Seligman)

‘Runner Runner’

Watching Brad Furman’s tedious “Runner Runner” feels like learning the rules of a card game you don’t want to play.

Justin Timberlake, miscast as an end-of-his-rope Princeton grad student, plays Richie, an online gaming wiz swindled out of his savings.

He travels to Costa Rica to confront the wealthy owner of the crooked online gaming firm, only to be recruited into the tycoon’s shady doings.

As the mogul, a bored, bloated Ben Affleck recites his lines as though even he can’t follow the plot, while Timberlake, with his pop-star polish and pressed shirts, couldn’t be less convincing as a street-smart bluffer.

“Runner Runner,” from Twentieth Century Fox, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.