Monthly Archives: October 2013

All Is Lost — 9/10

ALL IS LOST (2013, J.C. Chandor)

Chandor’s virtually wordless follow-up to his talky debut MARGIN CALL pushed all of my existentialist buttons. As a wide-eyed teenager in college, I became a philosophy major almost exclusively because of existentialism, and devoured the texts of Camus, Sartre, Wright, and Nietzsche. That kid would have absolutely loved ALL IS LOST, and thankfully, though I am older and not any wiser, this guy loves it too.

There’s not a more textbook situation to explore the philosophy of existence preceding essence than showing a guy we know nothing about waking up alone in the middle of the sea, discovering that his sailboat has been the victim of a random accident. They say the saddest and shortest story ever written is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (It’s been attributed to Hemingway but probably dates back earlier). The cargo crate that pokes a hole into Redford’s boat is filled with baby shoes that will never be worn, and after that incident, Redford is both forced to do what it takes to survive against nature and ultimately plunged into despair. We learn everything we need to know about him through action — because action is all there is in this movie (and, by extension, in life — according to the aforementioned philosophy). The only dialogue is the brief voiceover narration of a letter he is writing, a distress call on the radio, some pointless shouts of “Here!”¬†and one brilliant scream of “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” As a bizarro-world GRAVITTY, ALL IS LOST gives us no backstory because there isn’t one to have. We’re seeing a life created, not a life midway through.

Where some films would take this premise and dip into Christianity or Hinduism (LIFE OF PI), or perhaps Emersonian Transcendentalism (anything by Malick), Chandor goes full-on Camus with the hostile indifference of nature’s storms, sharks surviving off the fish Redford wants, the absurdity of the baby-shoes crate, and the despair of contaminated water, flares going ignored, and the vast expanse of a quiet, merciless ocean. [The Indian Ocean might as well be Van Sant’s desert from GERRY]. Yet Redford faces these challenges with the practical necessity of a seasoned yachtsman (his age and location indicate this ain’t his first sailing trip) and moments like his insistence on shaving give him a specific humanity. There’s no moral judgment in this film because morality doesn’t exist — it isn’t immoral in a villainous or message-y way; it’s amoral by philosophy. Right and wrong are foreign concepts when there is only action. And perhaps the most beautiful and emotionally powerful statement is that (I’ll say it obliquely) despite the fact that we live and die alone, we cannot achieve survival without other people. It’s a humanism that can choke up even the surliest cynic.

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12 Years a Slave — 7/10

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013, Steve McQueen)

As soon as people saw this thing in Toronto it was mega-hyped as the movie of the year. Best Picture Oscar seemed an inevitability, countless think pieces, rave reviews, huge Metacritic score — and for me, highly anticipated strictly on the basis of its director, who made my favorite movie of 2011. By those high expectations, 12 YEARS A SLAVE was a bit of a letdown. But it’s good and you should see it and get super sad and bummed out for a day.

Nobody will ever accuse McQueen of being a subtle filmmaker — HUNGER has a series of look-at-me setpieces and an incredibly bold, serious tone. SHAME is the same way and even sharper, more specific, and intense. But this film, perhaps because of the subject matter, suffers a bit from the heavy-handedness. It almost sinks under the weight of its own importance. Not that there was ever a place for levity or frivolity in this story, but still…

Characters are all painted in very broad strokes except for the hero. There’s the grieving mother, the evil slaveowner, the slightly less evil slaveowner, the stern housewife, the house Negro, etc. I wish the specificity of McQueen’s directorial eye extended to Ridley’s writing and characterization. The exceptions are of course Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon, who deserves all the year-end awards he’ll get for Best Actor (he’s strong, vulnerable, sympathetic, conflicted, intelligent, and believable), and Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey — an incredible debut performance. There is plenty of other good acting on display (The Newsroom/Homeland’s Chris Chalk, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, etc.) but it’s in the service of some pretty obvious stuff. Fassbender is quite good as Epps but he struggles to add depth to a shallow role. The standout weak performance comes from Brad Pitt — partially not his fault, as the character is almost a device, and he can’t hide his movie star baggage in a small supporting role, but it distracted me nonetheless.

McQueen’s eye is still phenomenal, and Sean Bobbitt’s photography is exceptional (can’t wait to see what he does for Spike Lee in OLDBOY). A few images have lingered with me since I saw it yesterday. And indeed I still got choked up at several moments towards the end. But all that said, this isn’t a particularly challenging film. It’s a little obvious, it’s a lot heavy-handed, it’s quite self-serious, and it’s begging to be reckoned with. In other words, it’s a guaranteed Best Picture contender.

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Gravity — 8/10

GRAVITY (2013, Alfonso Cuaron)

A LITTLE PRINCESS, perhaps the greatest children’s film I’ve ever seen, is a story about storytelling. Cuaron directs it with the wide-eyed wonder of an innocent young girl, placing his protagonist in the role of filmmaker, in a way — existing in a miserable situation and creating beauty out of creativity, narrative, and humanist passion. GRAVITY, despite all the ways in which it couldn’t be further from the world of that delicate period piece, is almost a sequel.

The miserable situation this time is the cold, empty, cruelly indifferent expanse of space — and in it, Cuaron’s endlessly twirling camera finds beauty in its awesome dispassion, then allows its human inhabitants to rely on the power of storyelling. It begins with Clooney’s character telling anecdotes about Mardi Gras and Tijuana, and often has Bullock’s character claiming that if she somehow makes it back to earth, she’ll “have one hell of a story to tell.” Telling stories spans cultures, generations, and epochs — whether it’s the Russians, the Chinese, or the Americans (all of whom in some way aid or conspire against Bullock and Clooney in their adventure), we tell stories. To each other, and to anyone who will listen. It’s part of why we live and have communities, it’s the foundation of almost every form of art, and it’s what makes us immortal; our stories continue long after we’re dead, and they’re something we can pass on to our children.

In most ways, GRAVITY is a gorgeous ode to storytelling — not just for what its people tell each other, but for how Cuaron tells this story to us. Of course it’s a technical masterpiece; you’ve never seen anything like this on screen, and it’s so thrilling to see how special effects are entirely employed to further the story and convey the narrative rather than provide enough loud noises and flashing lights and explosions to sedate and cajole the masses. The problems I do have with the film aren’t enough to derail the story, but they do make some dents. It’s the dialogue that rings false or cliche at times, or the overreaching attempts at heartstring-tugging. But those faults are easy to ignore when you take into account the whole of this accomplishment: it’s ridiculously suspenseful, shot with TREE OF LIFE brilliance by The Lord Our God Lubezki, funny when it needs to be, and ultimately a visual marvel. It lacks the challenging profundity of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN and the verdant warmth of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, but like the darkly gripping CHILDREN OF MEN, it’s the kind of skilled, impressive filmmaking that can only come from one of the best in the business.

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