Sunday, February 9, 2014

All Is Lost

You can count on a hand the lines of or number of sequences that feature dialogue. The film opens with a voice-over stating "I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. All is lost." Later the main character, who is credited at the end as Our Man (Robert Redford), says into his radio receiever "This is the Virginia Jean with an S.O.S. call, over" a few times as he struggles to repair his boat that crashed into a shipping container carrying shoes that must've fell off a larger boat. Then he lets out a powerful scream of "FUCK" when he is on a liferaft after having left his treasured boat behind. Then he screams "help!" as a container ship that is practically on auto-pilot just wanders quite literally right past him on the raft. He screams "help" some more at the end, but that's about it.

All Is Lost isn't exactly just a minimalist film for the sake of minimalism. It certainly features the spectacle one sees in Gravity and has a plot that could easily be similar to that of such thrillers as Saw, Buried, Frozen, Paranormal Activity, ATM, and numerous other low-budget horror films. It's almost more along the lines of a play where the action can take place in a single setting (The Sunset Limited, Glengarry Glen Ross), but in this case that setting is the abyss of an ocean. All Is Lost has minimalist elements, but it certainly feels more existential than anything else. It is ultimately about a man being sucked into a void that he has fallen into by himself. What do we know of him? He has a family which means he has a connection to something and therefore a reason to survive. He writes a note to them during an incredibly haunting scene that if the viewer takes a moment to think, they'll realize that the note chronoligcally matches up with the voice over based on a title-card's stated time that is presented as a subtitle toward the beginning of the film. The movie it turns out for his natch visual effects and craftsmanship to really be about survival when one's strongest enemy is his own loneliness. It's a character piece no matter which way one tries to decipher it.

This is the second film from J.C. Chandor (Margin Call). With this as his second feature he has already shown that he is a visionary talent of great depth and understanding of story and character and has exemplified such under qutie versatile circumstances. The film is beautifully shot by Frank G. DeMarco, has a great sound design and mix, and is well edited. The score by Alexander Ebert tells a story of its own just with the music in and of itself. Coupled with the images and during a film where the music moves between booming and atmospheric without any notice, it becomes a great tool to help further express what Robert Redford is already nailing with just a look.

Redford's expressiveness is interesting. It isn't like say Javier Bardem's in Biutiful where you can feel the pain just off his face alone. Redford is ragged, more intensive, and carries himself in just a specific manner that even his stoicism shines through in such a surprising and revelatory nature. It feels like the Sundance Kid has reinvented his no-nonsense persona into something much more modern and equal parts hopefull and downtrodden. We understand our man's methodology as he moves from patching a hole to navigating for his survival. This obviously all must've come from a well-thought out script by Chandor and this film's story alone sets it apart from many films I've seen. The best thing about All Is Lost is that it functions on so many levels and one of those asks for such a strong personal connection that it only feels natural for the material to make with its audience.

Catching Fire

Catching Fire is a sequel that is as good as its predecessor. Although this time directed by Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, the only telling difference of a change in style is the camerawork. Gone is the hectic hand-held running-through-the-jungle-and-not-getting-a-glimpse-of-what-is-around-them cinematography and in its place is a more streamlined look that most blockbusters seem to share. Not that there was anything wrong with the first film's visual style (I didn't find it as disorienting as others), but with the scope of the story getting bigger it seems we are now being treated to wide frames full of layers of action instead of jarring close-ups.

Story-wise, Catching Fire is a typical middle chapter. The story moves forward and as someone who is only vaguely familiar with the books, I'm quite impressed at the number of moving pieces that the narrative features. Ultimately, the plot remains with its lead character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Not to say the other actors (in particular Josh Hutcherson's great understated performance as Peeta) feel underused, but the film follows Katniss and every so often we are treated to the interior workings of the other characters she comes across. Lawrence carries her part with a sense of haunted responsibility that Katniss feels towards her people and she's proven with her past couple of roles that she can carry a movie as naturally as any other popular lead performer that graces widely released films.

Actors whose performances from the first film I enjoyed have returned such as Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson while new characters played by actors such as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Sam Claflin emerge and as a newer fan of this material, I'm incredibly impressed with what quirks the actors show off in their roles.

Still, it feels (like some lesser middle chapters of sagas) that the film is holding back because the eventual finale is coming. Katniss and Peeta's burgeoning relationship is put on hold for the sake of this year's new Hunger Games competition and even in the other supporting parts, there feels as if no new dimensions are added to the lives of these characters. Although I'm impressed by the narrative's scope, nothing all that shocking happens with the end result of the plot feeling sustained. I'm fascinated by how this series is exploring our pop-culture anxieties (reality television, feminism, etc.), but this film feels a little too much like a placeholder. At least it's a highly entertaining one.