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Knight at the Movies: Concussion; Gravity
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-10-02

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Between the sensational, career-defining performance by Robin Weigert in the lesbian-themed Concussion and the galvanizing one given by Sandra Bullock in the crowd-pleasing Gravity, it's not just a great week for women at the cinema—it's an extraordinary one.

Out writer-director Stacie Passon based her relationship drama, Concussion, on an incident that happened to her in real life. Unlike Passon, when upper-middle-class New Jersey housewife Abby ( Weigert ) gets hit in the head with a baseball by her son, the accident has the effect of awakening her to the realization that she's not just bored with life in the suburbs—she's middle-aged crazy about it. Sex with her pretty but distracted career-oriented wife Kate ( Julie Fain Lawrence ) is perfunctory at best; shuttling the kids to and from their various lessons, the drudgery of housekeeping chores and the infrequent get-togethers with the neighbors is Dullsville deluxe.

Through a set of circumstances that aren't quiet believable ( but, hey, it's a movie ), Abby's renovation of a Manhattan loft, a project that alleviates some of her routine boredom, leads to her spending afternoons as a high priced lesbian escort she dubs Eleanor. If this sounds like a lesbian-themed Belle du Jour with more than a dash of Diary of a Mad Housewife and the recent Afternoon Delight thrown in, that's because it should. That's to remind audiences that Passon's film—which was produced by Rose Troche of the queer cinema classic Go Fish—is in good company.

It's also more than a little refreshing to have a lesbian character explore her sexual desires exclusively with other women. I get that gender boundaries can ebb and flow given the situation ( something that Afternoon Delight briefly explored and The Kids Are All Right at length ) but Abby's firm stance to Justin, her handsome handyman/quasi-pimp ( nicely underplayed by the hunky Johnathan Tchaikovsky ), about only accepting female clients felt like a small but important victory at the movies for Our People.

And what a sensational crop of women! Abby—as essayed by Weigert makes 42 seem like the new 20 ( talk about sensual allure )—doesn't hesitate once she begins bedding the various women that Justin finds for her. Meeting each woman first for coffee allows Abby ( and the audience ) to take the emotional temperature of her clients, who range from a shy, overweight, grad student to a tattooed sexual barracuda to a hesitant businesswoman. When one of the housewives from Abby's circle shows up, the movie goes even deeper into questions of fidelity versus freedom.

Concussion is a very subtle, sophisticated take on modern relationships driven, naturally, by Weigert's nuanced, hard edged performance. Abby isn't easy to warm up to and Weigert isn't afraid to let the bitterness and cynicism show through, even as she's expressing her loneliness and frustration. She's a really complex woman and Weigert gifts her with full dimensionality.

The film's one misstep is in not changing the defining incident of the head injury, which seems to lead directly to Abby turning into the sexually voracious Eleanor. It's uncomfortably close to A Dirty Shame, John Waters' comedic film that used a similar experience as its starting point. That's unfortunate, as the two films could not be more different, and it should be discounted before seeing Concussion. The film is playing in theaters in New York and LA and is available in Chicago either through VOD or iTunes.

Sandra Bullock—our latter-day June Allyson-Doris Day, girl-next-door movie star who defines "niceness" in cinema—is back in a big way. After kicking butt at the box office this summer with co-star Melissa McCarthy in the predictable but crowd-pleasing The Heat, Bullock is once again going to earn her reported multimillion-dollar salary with Gravity.

Alfonso Cuaron's film, which he co-wrote with his son Jonas, is surely going to join the ranks as one of the greatest man-versus-nature movies in cinematic history. And Bullock's performance is similarly going to be cherished right along with it. The movie's storyline couldn't be more familiar—a lone individual facing the harsh elements must race against the clock to stay alive. But in setting this always welcome plotline in space, Cuaron literally expands its horizons to jaw-dropping proportions. It's one thing to be stuck in the wilderness ( 127 Hours ), marooned on a desert isle ( Cast Away ) or lost in the Alaskan tundra ( Into the Wild ) but pit those puny expanses with the vastness of outer space and you begin to get the idea.

At Gravity's outset Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer, is on her first space shuttle mission. Six hundred thousand feet above the earth's surface, she and her fellow astronaut, veteran Matt Kowalski ( George Clooney ), and a third officer are outside the shuttle walking in space when debris from a Russian satellite crash slams into them, sending them hurtling into the eerie, silent void. The debris knocks out other satellites, preventing any communication with earth and the possibility of a rescue. It's up to the survivors to figure out a way to save themselves.

Fifteen minutes in and with all stories of this ilk, Cuaron has his audience wondering where the heck we'll go from here. The range of emotions that Bullock's terrified Ryan goes through in the next 75 minutes mirrors the obstacle course she'll be forced to face down as the movie plays itself out. ( The character's increasingly desperate situation aptly recalls Thelma Ritter's famous line in All About Eve: "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end." )

Bullock's compelling performance and Clooney's typical warm, reassuring one are supported by the seamless, dazzling special effects. The movie—shot digitally by Emmanuel Lubezki—is stunning visually, filled with elegant, long tracking shots, judicious though emotive close-ups and awe-inspiring wide-angle shots. ( It's a must see at the IMAX. ) Considering those visuals, Steven Price's eloquent yet simple musical score is almost another character.

Gravity is that rare movie that can truly be called a cinematic experience—a breathtaking one. Robert Redford is set to perform the same man-versus-nature trick in the forthcoming All Is Lost, where he is adrift at sea in a sailboat. Won't it be a delicious irony if both he and Bullock are found in the winner's circle come Oscar time?


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