Sunday, October 27, 2013

Old Man and the Sea: All Is Lost

Robert Redford is the right man for the solo role in J. C. Chandor's All Is Lost.

Robert Redford is old. His face is rugged - cragged and weathered. He looks like an elderly sailor seeking solitude and separation from past pain.

He's just right for this essentially silent film about a solitary sailor battling the sea. Other than a brief voiceover, Redford only utters one word throughout the entire story, but he doesn't have to speak to move the story along. You know his mind is always calculating patiently, considering the next task he must perform in order to survive. As in films like The Naked Prey and Castaway, we are attentive to the things that he does in order to survive.

Meanwhile, Redford establishes tension and focus throughout, supported by thrilling action during a storm and beautiful cinematography of the sea. Underwater shots of creatures going about their business oblivious to the man's predicament might remind the viewer of Terrence Malick.

If Redford wins an end-of-career Oscar for this film, it won't just be a parting gift. It will be a well-deserved reward for a memorable performance in an exquisite film.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Help! Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor

I'll start by saying that I really enjoyed Fassbender's performance as a high-class lawyer faced with a decision that leads him down the road to a hellish punishment.

Good job, Cormac McCarthy! You know how to do dark themes. As for writing screenplays, I'm not so sure.

I love the NOVELS of Cormac McCarthy. I love his visceral themes, his simple dialogue that's pregnant with suggestions, his grim outlook on humanity. He's a great novelist, but here he has written a screenplay that is more novel than screenplay, and it dominates the story so much that it's impossible for this to be Ridley Scott's MOVIE. It's Cormac McCarthy's heavy-handed screenplay all the way through.

I won't list the film's many drawbacks, but I will say that McCarthy's penchant for dialogue overwhelms the story very quickly. We get numerous long, slow, often incidental dialogues before anything really happens. When things happen, there is a gripping tension in the film, but that doesn't last long enough to be very satisfying.

Actually, my main reason for writing this post is to send out a cry for help. Don't you love the Internet! Anytime I see a movie (and I usually see it opening night on Friday) and I come away somewhat confused by the ending, I dash home to my iPad and go to Wikipedia and, damn, if there isn't a big long detailed summary of the entire film already online! Jeez, how do they do that so fast? Geeks! Sorry.

The cry for help: Man, I guess Cormac thinks it's cool and cerebral to be vague about the plot. I'm okay with films like that as long as they deliver clarification at the end - an example being a film like Syriana that strings together seemingly unrelated scenes that all become related at the end.

I guess Cormac's commentary is that the details of the drug deal and who flim-flams whom are not important. But, damn, I want to know! It's important. So my cry goes out to anyone who can provide a summary of the film tying in the motorcyclist, the drug deal (and I guess the Counselor and Reiner (a Javier Bardem performance that makes me want to cringe when I see him in a preview) are going to make 20 million because they're buying and then selling for more?), the wire dude who takes over the deal, the fake cops who take over the takeover, Westray's (an enjoyable Brad Pitt) role in it all, and at what point Malkina (a very creepy Cameron Diaz) takes control of everything.

Or, maybe, Wikipedia's updated with a full summary.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

I Wish I Had the Power of Telekinesis Like Carrie!

I’ve always wished I had the power of telekinesis. I could lie in bed and raise my hand and my book would float across the room into my hands.

I could also take mean people and throw them over a house or something. That’s how I feel in Massachusetts from time to time where the people, in my experience, are an abrasive lot that go out of their way to be unkind.

One time on a rainy day in December, the only parking space I could find at the Hyannis Mall was in the middle of a huge puddle. I parked there and had to step through the puddle on the heels of my sneakers. Some guy took the trouble to drive by and say, “You fucking stupid son of a bitch.” Wow! What did I do to him? If I had telekinesis, I could lift his car and flip it over. In the nearby pond!

That’s like the time I was walking down a street in Cambridge one sunny day. Yeah, it was sunny, but it was still winter in the shade, so I was wearing my parka. Someone drove by and yelled, “Take off your coat, you idiot. It’s springtime.” If I had had telekinesis, I could have tossed him and his car in the Charles River that was probably still icy cold.

And just last night as I was walking across the parking lot after seeing Carrie, someone drove by and made a rude comment about the shoulder bag I use to carry my iPad. If I had telekinesis, I could hang his car from a tree.

That said, there is absolutely nothing subtle about Kimberley Peirce’s remake of Carrie. Every scene is exaggerated overkill. It starts with the bloody birth of Carrie by her Jesus-freakish mother (Julianne Moore, who plays the psycho to chilling effect). Carrie’s mother believes her baby is a cancer delivered by God to punish her for having sex.

Immediately following that scene, the shy teenaged Carrie has her period in the gym showers. She freaks out and ALL the girls in the locker room laugh at her, bombard her with a pile of tampons and sanitary napkins, and jeer, “Plug it up! Plug it up!” Peirce’s depiction of the cruelty suffered by someone who is different echoes her depiction of the cruelty toward the transsexual Brendan Teena (Hilary Swank) in Boys Don’t Cry, but here the cruelty is stretched beyond the believable into lurid hyperbole.

Without any sort of eerie, mysterious development, Carrie discovers she has telekinesis, and no time is wasted getting to the shattered mirrors and levitated furniture. But as this needless remake continues, the excellent performance of Chloë Grace Moretz shines through the comic book tone. She provides the only subtle, touching moments, as she makes her own prom dress and begins to see her muted beauty emerge after a cruel upbringing.

The strength of the film is that it works dramatically on our expectations. We know what unbelievable cruelty the bad girls are planning. We know how Carrie’s magical prom night will turn out. As she puts on her dress and her makeup, Moretz as Carrie made me cry. I shed a tear for Carrie, the innocent victim of horrible meanness, and I found myself on the edge of my seat, cringing, knowing what is going to happen.

That’s how this film finally works. When Carrie, streaked with blood, glares demonically and her sinuous arms start the real ball rolling, man, you want to stand up and cheer! I like how Carrie spares the few good people and punishes the mean ones horribly. This is a scene of glorious retribution exacted upon inhuman humans. God, how I wish I had telekinesis!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Mess with the Navy Seals: Captain Phillips


United 93 on a ship but with shakier camerawork.


While not as gripping as United 93, director Paul Greengrass has created another depiction of a real-life crisis that has the tone and immediacy of documentary-style realism. Greengrass establishes the tension from the beginning and maintains it for nearly the whole length of the film - with a lapse in its pacing when the story floats a little aimlessly in the scenes in the bobbing lifeboat containing Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) and the pirates. All in all, this is a very good story of one man's endurance in the face of modern-day piracy on the high seas.

The film's big drawback is the shaky camera style which seems ridiculously shaky at times. When the film introduces the pirates on a beach in Somalia, the camera shifts and shakes so much it's all a blur. Later, during the hijacking sequence, the camera dances around so much you have a hard time distinguishing between the four Somali pirates. Sometimes, too, the shaky camera style diminishes the tension because it's hard to register characters' expressions.


Tom Hanks is quite good as Captain Phillips, the ordinary merchant marine captain who is thrust into an extraordinary situation. Also good is Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the leader of the four-man Somali pirate crew that uses a small motor-powered boat to raid a huge cargo ship.



When there seems to be no hope for Captain Richard Phillips because he is being held hostage by armed pirates in an enclosed lifeboat heading for the Somali coast, the Navy Seals appear on the scene and we know from films like Zero Dark Thirty that the pirates don't have a chance.

The film balances nicely between showing the pirates as ruthless cutthroats while at the same time showing them as victims of a country that has been torn by famine and civil war and is at the mercy of warlords. There is no hope in Muse's life, and we get the sense that he is forced against his will to hijack freighters, but the film doesn't go far enough to show what his other motivations might include.

Then, as I said, the Navy Seals step in, and I found my focus straying from the sympathetic Muse, straying too from the kidnapped Captain Phillips, as I became fascinated by how Navy Seals sharpshooters set their sights on the heads of three pirates and prepare to fire each A SINGLE SHOT THROUGH THE WINDOWS OF AN ENCLOSED LIFEBOAT ROCKING BACK AND FORTH IN THE SEA! AND THEY DO IT! For me, this is the film's most memorable moment. Greengrass doesn't seem to glorify the Navy Seals, but their feat of arms certainly overshadows many of the tense moments involving the titular Captain Phillips.


This is a good movie, but the shakiness of the camerawork keeps me from running out to see it again.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What Goes Up Must Come Down: Gravity


Apollo 13 meets WALL-E. Throw in Clooney as Buzz Lightyear.


Director Alfonso Cuarón has created a dazzling visual experience that depicts the gripping ordeal of astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kuwalski (George Clooney) who are cast adrift in space after a high-velocity debris storm destroys their space shuttle. Cuarón maintains the tension throughout the film and uses his camera well to establish a sense of hopeless isolation as he frames Dr. Stone floating amidst a sea of stars or hovering over Earth’s continents far, far below.

Despite an irritating performance by Clooney as the ever-cheerful seasoned spaceman, playing country music and cracking jokes to the very end, this film is completely transporting for most of its 90-minute length.

The film is a simple story of survival against all odds, so there is not much story. There is an eerie moment as Stone and Kuwalski are floating toward the International Space Station when I thought the film might go off into a surrealistic, mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey vortex. I would have enjoyed that, but the film is what it is - a basic story of perseverance and triumph.

The film’s greatest misfortune, however, is its overbearing music. After a wonderful opening scene as the camera moves through the vastness of space and slowly closes in on the astronauts floating silently through their repair work on Hubble, the first onslaught of the debris is accompanied by blasting music. Instead of continuing with the wonderful silence of the opening, Cuarón feels he has to compensate for the absence of explosive noises by filling this majestic void with overly dramatic music that distracts the viewer from the thrilling images.

(SPOILERS) Another misstep is the scene in which Stone (Bullock) propels herself from the Soyuz space capsule by means of a fire extinguisher – just like WALL-E! They should have steered clear of something already done by a comic character in a Disney/Pixar animated film.

I would have left out the return of George Clooney’s Kuwalski in a dream which comes off as silly when a spookier appearance would have better suited the situation. (END SPOILERS)


There's nothing outstanding here, but Bullock’s performance grew on me. I feel it takes the first half of the film for Bullock to find her character and establish some engaging presence. She really starts to come through Academy Award-winning artifice in the touching moment when she realizes her predicament is hopeless and she shuts down the oxygen flow to end her life.

Other than voiceovers (including one by Ed Apollo 13 Harris), Bullock and Clooney constitute the entire cast, so it’s a little unfortunate that Clooney is miscast. He plays to caricature, much like a one-note Ronald Colman jesting in the shadow of guillotine.

Meanwhile, Bullock is slow to take the lead and hit her touching notes, and since she’s the only girl in town, this weakens the film’s emotional impact, an impact that cannot be fabricated by hitting Stone’s victorious touchdown on Earth with a blasting triumphal fanfare that's almost embarrassing.


All of them are visual:

The film holds your attention with dizzying shots of destruction in space, and during the slow bits, you can have fun identifying the features of Earth's continents far below. I love geography, so I found this very exciting. The space views of Earth are based on actual photographs. Especially arresting are the shots of Cairo, Suez, and the Nile, as well as the lower extent of Italy's boot. Some of the outstanding images include the sunrise, the moonrise, and the aurora borealis.

I am not a fan of 3D, but this is the best example of 3D I have ever seen. Starting with the first shot, there is a depth to everything that makes you share Stone's fear of heights. Later, the floating tear reflecting the hopeless Stone is spectacular.

(SPOILER) Although the gosh-darn preview gives away the calamity at the opening of the film, that scene is trumped by an amazingly intricate moment of destruction when the debris strikes the International Space Station. This is my favorite scene. (END SPOILER)


I have seen it twice in 3D, and I could easily see it again. I'd like to try it in 2D to see if it retains its visual depth. A third time through, if I find my attention straying from Bullock's performance, I can still feast my eyes on the features of Earth below.

NOTE: I saw it a second time in 3D, then a third time in 2D, and I must say I was just as immersed in the visuals in 2D as 3D because 2D has the advantage of deeper color saturation. As a matter of fact, I noticed details I hadn't noticed in 3D because they stood out more. Dr. Stone's tear may not float out of the screen, but it stands out brightly and reflects Bullock longer as the focus sharpens on it.