Wednesday, October 23, 2013

All Is Lost Review

You wouldn’t think that Robert Redford would be able to play a survivalist this late in his life. At 77 the Hollywood sex symbol is, well, getting up there and I thought for sure his “Butch Cassidy” and “Jeremiah Johnson” days were behind him. And yet, in JC Chandor’s “All Is Lost”—in which Redford plays a nameless man who gets stranded on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean—he proves that he’s still got what it takes to survive, and to fight.

After we hear a voice over monologue and see what appears to be a wrecked boat, “Our Man” (as Redford’s character is listed in the credits) is awakened by the sound of a stray shipping container crashing into the side of the boat. He doesn’t panic and springs immediately into action. You can tell he’s a seasoned sailor, his resourcefulness is pretty much instinct. Though, Redford still gives him an everyman quality; nothing he does in “All Is Lost” feels exaggerated or unrealistic. He’s not like Bruce Willis in latest installment of “Die Hard,” who blindly jumps out a window and just happens to land on a nearby ledge. In other words, he isn’t a superhero.

For the movie’s entire hour and forty-seven minute running time it’s just Redford vs. the elements, and I mean we see no one else but him. Chandor makes “All Is Lost” without any story fat to complicate things. We don’t see where Our Man comes from and how he got to be on the boat, there aren’t any flashbacks, the action doesn’t shift to another character, or group of characters and best of all there aren’t any other one dimensional meat heads on the boat with Redford to be killed. Considering that most survivalist movies do contain these things, this barebones method proves to be surprisingly effective and refreshing.

I should also mention that, since it is a one-man survival tale, Redford has about eight lines of dialogue total and most of them are in that opening monologue. This means that the performance is mainly physical, which even for a young actor is difficult to pull off. This is where Redford’s old age actually comes in handy. As intelligent and resourceful as the character is, you can also see that he’s a little frail. Sometimes he stumbles around the boat or struggles to do certain tasks, like pump water out of the boat. It gives his performance more dimensions; he’s not some strapping muscular lad who has perfect agility. Redford also does a lot of great facial acting: his expressions of frustration, of fatigue and most importantly determination look one hundred percent authentic. No matter how many times he gets knocked down (and sometimes he is literally knocked down or thrown off the boat by a wave) he never gives up.

I know that last point makes the movie sound sappy and sentimental, but because Chandor’s style is so straightforward and naturalistic it doesn’t feel that way. There are a few lingering poetic shots from underwater showing a school of fish swim around the boat but overall “All Is Lost” looks like a realistic depiction of someone stranded at sea. Alex Ebert’s score can be heard faintly, but for the most part Chandor lets the natural sounds within the movie’s environment speak for themselves. The roaring of the waves, the creaking of the boat, the splitting of the wood, the flapping of the sails in the wind and sometimes there’s just silence.

JC Chandor is a rising writer/director to look out for. He’s only made two features (this one and the superb “Margin Call” in 2011) and he’s not only proven he can make high quality pictures, but he’s also capable of working in different genres and styles. “Margin Call” was a Mamet-esque horror story about the early hours of the 2008 financial crisis. To go from that—an ensemble film and virtually all dialogue—to a virtually dialogue free, one-man survivalist story already shows impressive range.

“All Is Lost” won’t be for everyone; it’s simple, non-spectacle style won’t be exciting enough for some and other people will probably want that story fat I mentioned earlier. That’s a valid criticism, I guess, but I still don’t think any of it is necessary. There’s no explicit character development because it’s suggested in Redford’s actions and behaviors. And a lot of it is thanks to Redford; with a lesser actor “All Is Lost” wouldn’t have been nearly as great.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Parkland Review

Peter Landsman’s ensemble drama “Parkland,” about the John F Kennedy assassination, left me both underwhelmed and frustrated. Underwhelmed, because it’s nothing more than a basic history lesson about the event and frustrated because two of its many characters could have had their own movie, both of which would have been far more interesting than this one.

 Based on the book “Four Days in November” by Vincent Bugliosi, the movie begins in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Everyone is going about their daily routines but there’s an aura of excitement in the air as Air Force One touches down and the President (along with his wife) begins riding around town. I don’t need to tell you what happens next, but all hell breaks loose and that initial excitement turns into panic and grief. “Parkland” proceeds to recount this tragic event and the three days following it from the perspectives of multiple people.

There are the doctors at Parkland hospital (some of which are played by Zac Effron and Colin Hanks) who tried to revive the President. Then there is Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the ordinary nobody whose home movie documented the assassination, along with the Dallas chief of Secret Service played by Billy Bob Thornton. Then there’s the FBI as they search for the assassin and realize that they just missed him. And finally, JFK’s security team and Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald.

On paper this sounds solid, and I’m sure Bugliosi’s book (from which Landsman adapted the screenplay) is an interesting read but Landsman’s film does a lot of restating the obvious: we know that JFK was assassinated, we know that the country was in serious mourning, we know that doctors tried to revive him, we know that Oswald was assassinated as well, etc. It doesn’t really have anything new to say about the event and by the end you’re wondering why it was even made in the first place.

 The film is fast paced and shot (by Barry Ackroyd) in cinema verite style but it still feels flat and clinical. The film doesn’t create much tension or excitement on its own. Like Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 drama “United 93,” it never transcends “the true life event” that it recounts. Worst of all, because the picture includes multiple perspectives and has a relatively short running time (ninety three minutes) it fails to explore any of the characters in any great depth and so we’re left with a well made but skin deep dramatization of those four turbulent days in November that is more fit for the History channel than for a theatrical movie. The acting is fine for the most part, no one is flat out terrible, but because none of the characters are given enough time to blossom none of the acting is outstanding either.

This leads me to why I found “Parkland” frustrating. The two most interesting characters in the entire movie were Zapruder and Robert Oswald, and as I watched their scenes I kept thinking about how both of them could have benefited from having their own movie, as they both provide a fresh perspective to the event. Just because of one little home video, Zapruder’s life was forever altered and he never could handle it. He was, after all, just another excited JFK supporter eager to catch a glimpse of the President. And as for Oswald? Well, imagine being the brother of the JFK assassin. There’s so much potential with these guys but since there so many other characters, they remain undeveloped.

“Parkland” is made with good intentions and you’d think that a multi-angled account of the JFK assassination would be compelling. But by trying to tell such a big story in such little time, Landsman ends up telling us very little that we don’t know. The movie should have been longer, perhaps even a miniseries, but I still think Landsman’s best bet would have been making a movie about just Zapruder or Robert Oswald.


Gravity Review

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” opens with a static shot of the earth as seen from space. After two or three still seconds we see a distant spaceship enter the movie from the right side of the screen. It gradually drifts toward us, getting bigger and bigger. From there, the camera floats and glides around the ship, introducing us to our protagonists: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on her first space mission and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney a veteran astronaut, as they’re working on repairs from outside the spacecraft. Sometimes the camera follows Matt, as he himself is floating around monitoring Ryan’s work, before slowly weaving back into Ryan. The situation is calm and besides some casual smalltalk going on between them, it’s quiet because there’s no sound in space. Can you imagine that? Silence.

But this serenity soon evaporates and “Gravity” becomes terrifying and intense. Floating debris from a nearby satellite comes shooting by at bullet speed and without going into too much detail, Stone gets detached and is soon drifting in empty space. The scene is exhilarating and appears to unfold in a single take (I say, “appears” because, since the movie utilizes CGI and green screens, there’s a possibility that Cuaron and co editor Mark Sanger did a really good job of hiding the cuts). And this is the nature of the rest of “Gravity:” a series of extended, fluid and graceful shots/scenes of Ryan and Matt as they try to find a way to get back to earth.

From a filmmaking standpoint, “Gravity” is a near masterpiece. Specifically because it makes you feel like you’re in space, floating and rotating around with the characters. The camera never seems to be mounted anywhere, even when it’s not moving (like at the beginning of that first scene); you still get the sense that it’s levitating, almost like Cuaron was able to suspend gravity momentarily in the studio. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make good use of the 3D, not just by adding nice little touches like having objects fly out of the screen at you but also by bringing the audience into the world of the picture. You may as well be wearing an astronaut suit yourself.

Steven Price’s score starts off faint and as the tension mounts it gets louder and more thundering. And the fact that there’s no sound in space makes some of the action set pieces (the debris crashing into the spaceship, causing explosions) appear more haunting and beautiful. The acting is great across the board; Clooney is his usual relaxed, smart-alec self and Bullock’s performance goes from panicky and panty to confident and in control.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in these visual and auditory pleasures, but at the same time “Gravity” is a case of style and spectacle over substance. As cool and unique a survivalist tale set in space sounds, there’s only so much you the survivalist can do, only so much you have control over and so most of the time it's just Ryan floating around in space. The movie can get repetitive at times. Now, I don’t mean to say that “Gravity” has no substance whatsoever but even at a brief ninety minutes the story does feel a little too stretched at times. The ending feels especially drawn-out and I think it could have come five minutes earlier.

On top of that, some of the CGI (the explosions) looks unfinished and as great as the 3D looks it still dims the picture considerably. In addition, there’s a character motivation involving Ryan’s daughter stated early in the film that I wish Cuaron would have revealed more subtly or, even better,  merely hinted at.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on “Gravity.” Visually it’s astonishing and it should be experienced on the biggest movie theater screen you can find. Cuaron is an immensely talented filmmaker but considering how rich and vast his last feature “Children of Men” (all the way back in 2006!) was, “Gravity” feels like a slight step in the wrong direction.