‘Runner Runner’ – a Losing Proposition ; ‘Gravity’ A Visual Masterpiece

runner runnerMOVIE REVIEW – ‘RUNNER RUNNER’

Movie Info

Richie, a Princeton college student who pays for school with on-line gambling, bottoms out and travels to Costa Rica to confront the on-line mastermind, Ivan, whom he believes has swindled him. Ivan sees a kindred spirit in Richie and brings the younger man into his operation. When the stakes get incredibly high and dangerous, and Richie comes to fully understand the deviousness of his new boss, he tries to turn the tables on him.

R, 1 hr. 31 min.

Mystery & Suspense, Drama
Forgettable ‘Runner Runner’ just limps along

Justin Timberlake plays an online poker player who gets in over his head after getting the chance to work for an offshore gambling company under investigation by the FBI. Ben Affleck plays his shady boss in ‘Runner Runner.’

by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
Even with its glossy Costa Rican setting, Runner Runner (* * out of four; rated R; opening Friday nationwide) is a vacant excursion with plot holes the size of a small Caribbean island.

Justin Timberlake plays Richie, a not-so-subtle name for a former Wall Street star whose career tanked with the recession in 2008. He becomes a Princeton grad student/gambling whiz, then casually tosses his education away and is sucked into the world of online wagering.

For context, a few establishing headlines and news snippets are shoehorned in to let us know that online betting is a growing practice on university campuses. Richie is a kind of Joe College bookie, hustling his classmates — and even a few professors — onto an Internet poker site.

When Richie loses his life savings — which just about covers the cost of one term’s tuition at Princeton — he deduces it’s a swindle and hops on the next plane to Costa Rica to face the guy who done him wrong. He gets his money back — no joke — but is seduced by the lure of fast-track wealth.

The refund and seduction are courtesy of an even richer guy, with fewer scruples — as in none. This Costa Rica-based CEO is gambling tycoon Ivan (Ben Affleck). When a character is named Ivan, he’s bound to be terrible. Everything in the movie is just that obvious, including the clunky expository voice-over narration.

One of the film’s biggest problems is that Richie is an unsympathetic and rather dim character. The badly drawn role does the likable Timberlake no favors. The talented singer/actor was better in The Social Network, Friends With Benefits, Alpha Dog and almost any SNL skit. He plays a Wall Street weasel who decides to go back to school when his other options disappear, and he contributes to the gambling addictions of students and professors. He’s hardly a figure of integrity. When a teacher approaches him for help with a bad bet he placed, Richie shrugs him off arrogantly. Consequently, it’s hard to care much when he gets used by Ivan.

Gemma Arterton plays Rebecca, Richie’s love interest, and also the COO of Ivan’s gambling empire. Richie and Rebecca look good together, but have a lackluster chemistry.

Meanwhile, the feds are closing in on Ivan. FBI Special Agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) is building a case against Ivan for racketeering, extortion, bribery and other unsavory practices.

Ivan is a devious and clever fellow. Affleck is at his best when his character is most malicious. Not only does he seem to be having fun with the role, but his Spanish is terrific. Audiences can debate whether he ought to play Batman, but his linguistic ear cannot be disputed.

Richie, on the other hand, is not as bright as his Ivy League admission would indicate. It’s glaringly obvious that his new boss is up to no good. But Richie is an odd mix of savvy and naïve. It takes a few beatings and double-crossings before his IQ points seem to register. And when they do, it comes to a pretty anti-climactic conclusion.

When the story lags, director Brad Furman resorts to focusing on shots of chomping crocodiles.

But neither toothy reptiles nor stunning beachside vistas (actually shot in Puerto Rico) offer enough risk or reward to make this gambling thriller worth betting on.

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gravityMOVIE REVIEW – ‘GRAVITY’

Movie Info

GRAVITY, directed by Oscar (R) nominee Alfonso Cuaron, stars Oscar (R) winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in a heart-pounding thriller that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earthand any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

PG-13, 1 hr. 31 min.
3D

Drama, Mystery & Suspense, Science Fiction & Fantasy

‘Gravity’ has powerful pull thanks to Sandra Bullock

kenneth.turan@latimes.com
“Gravity” is out of this world. Words can do little to convey the visual astonishment this space opera creates. It is a film whose impact must be experienced in 3-D on a theatrical screen to be fully understood.

Though the strong work of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney — the only two actors who appear on camera — is essential to what the film accomplishes, the great lure of “Gravity” is the way director Alfonso Cuarón, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber have collaborated to make us feel we’re stranded in outer space ourselves, no questions asked.

From its very first image of the shuttle Explorer and some of its astronauts floating close to 400 miles high, with a mammoth planet Earth huge behind them, “Gravity” revels in its ability to create images that convey the beauty, enormity and terror that being so, so far out there implies.

Not only does that first image knock us out, but Cuarón and company up the ante by spinning it out into a bravura sequence that lasts for 13 minutes without a cut. The director has done long scenes before — a seven-minute segment in “Children of Men” is especially memorable — but he’s never pulled one off with all the built-in barriers of working in a facsimile of outer space.

Those barriers were so steep that Cuarón, one of the most accomplished directors around (everything from “Y Tu Mamá También” to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) ended up spending nearly five years on the project.

Once the “Gravity” team realized that the only way to achieve the painstaking photorealism the project demanded was to seamlessly combine live action, computer animation and CGI, new systems had to be invented and new ways of using existing equipment explored. Even computer-controlled factory robots usually employed on automobile assembly lines were repurposed for cinematic uses.

The new technology also made possible what Lubezki calls “elastic shots,” which go seamlessly from an exterior wide view to a subjective point of view from inside a space helmet. When you add in the exceptional way 3-D technology is used to bring reality to an unreal situation, the result is a level of verisimilitude unprecedented for a story like this.

Because the film’s pair of protagonists spend a big chunk of their time buried in space suits, with the limited facial visibility that implies, it was critical to have actors with the kind of instantly identifiable star personas that Bullock and Clooney enjoy to keep us involved in the personal dramatics of the story.

This is especially necessary because it’s also clear that “Gravity’s” “lost in space, eager for Earth” scenario is on one level an unapologetic B picture exercise where whatever can go wrong most certainly will.

But while the core story of “Gravity” is pure genre down to the workmanlike nature of chunks of its dialogue, it makes the most of that situation by having a formidable narrative drive, a plot smartly worked out to the smallest, most persuasive detail, and an intense, immersive score and sound design by composer Steven Price.

As a result, “Gravity” puts you completely on edge, starting with type on the screen that explains that way out there, “there is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.”

Having established its location as a bad place for something bad to happen, the film’s screenwriters (Cuarón and his son Jonás) spend time with two of the astronauts floating around the shuttle, Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock).

As written and performed, Mission Commander Kowalski is for better or worse a cocky type as much as a character. He’s the garrulous “that reminds me of a story” space veteran who is introduced having fun maneuvering around space with a new toy, a portable jet pack.

“You’re the genius,” he says to Mission Specialist Stone. “I drive the bus.”

If Kowalski couldn’t be more at ease, brainy scientist Stone is the opposite. She’s the nervous greenhorn, trying to survive her first time in space and working hard doing the futuristic version of replacing a dead battery as Mission Control (a heard but unseen Ed Harris) kibitzes the situation.

Suddenly, very suddenly, everything falls apart. An unexpected amount of debris is headed toward the shuttle faster than a speeding bullet, and before you can say “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” Stone is floating untethered in outer space, all communication cut off, alone, alone, alone. And that is only the beginning.

One of the things that makes “Gravity” stand out is that its visuals of interior space are as striking as what it shows us of outer space. One particular sequence, of Stone gliding with weightless ease through spaceship corridors, is remarkable for its seeming effortlessness. In fact, the amount of work necessary to achieve that effect — including the invention of a 12-wire pulley system attached to Bullock and controlled by some of the puppeteers who worked on the theatrical version of “War Horse” — almost defies description.

No one has more screen time in “Gravity” than Bullock, and no one makes better use of it. Her bleak working conditions in this effects-heavy film demanded physical dexterity and the ability to withstand long periods of isolation, but through it all her gift for connecting with an audience, so essential for this kind of film, never fails her.

Director James Cameron is one of the small number of people thanked at the end of “Gravity,” and this couldn’t be more appropriate. His groundbreaking “Avatar” opened the book on the modern artistic use of 3-D, and this film is the next chapter — the most accomplished, persuasive use of that technology we’ve seen from then until now.
by kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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