Movie Reviews - 2013 postsMonday October 28, 2013
Movie Review: All Is Lost (2013)
Do all stories about old men and the sea immediately lend themselves to metaphor? It did with Ernest Hemingway and it does with J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) in his new movie, “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford.
Starring Robert Redford, I should add, and nobody else. You don’t see one other person in the movie. It’s just him and the boat and the sea. There’s hardly any dialogue, or, I suppose, monologue. We get a bit, at the beginning, of the old man reciting lines from a diary. “Thirteenth of July, 4:15 PM,” he says, and then, “I’m sorry.” He says, “I tried.” He gives the movie its title: “All is lost here—except soul and body, or what’s left of them, and a half-day’s rations.” Then he ends as he began:
To whom is he sorry and for what? Exactly what did he try? We don’t find out. We never even find out his name. He thinks, and reacts, and does, but he doesn’t talk much, not even to himself. The lack of words adds to the tension in the movie. It adds to the sense that we’re suffocating, drowning.
That we’re dying.
Eight days earlier, the old man, whom I’ll call Redford, wakes on his 39-foot yacht, the Virginia Jean, to water pouring into the cabin. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, his boat has struck the side of one of those giant metal containers, apparently filled with shoes, that apparently slid off a ship. He extricates himself ingeniously, using an anchor weight on the other side of the ship container, then patches the hole using homemade glue and something resembling gauze. He tests it. It holds. He pumps out the water. He tires, he eats, he sleeps. He watches the sun set and smiles.
But he’s in trouble. The water ruined his electronic equipment so he has no way to navigate, no way to send an S.O.S. And storms are approaching.
I’m a landlubber who isn’t good with his hands, so I’ll leave it to others to say whether Redford makes all the right moves. He seems to. He seems to make smart moves—using everything he has, everything around him—and it doesn’t matter. Storms are coming and he has a hole in the side of his ship.
It was about this point in the movie that I wrote in my notes, “Metaphor for age?” That’s how “All Is Lost” feels. It’s an Ivan Ilyich movie. The world closes in. Options disappear. No matter how smart you are. No matter what you can do with your hands.
The storm comes, the boat overturns, the mast breaks. Worse, the hole in the side is leaking again. Then the boat pitches forward and he’s knocked out. He wakes to water lapping up to the bed in the cabin. It’s waist high and getting higher. The ship groans under the weight. Once again he looks around. Once again he considers his options. They’ve disappeared. They’ve reduced themselves to one: LIFERAFT. Redford gathers what he can before the Virginia Jean sinks into the ocean.
The Lady or the Tiger?
We watch movies rooting for the protagonist—to live, survive, thrive—but some part of me, the critic part of me, remained aware that for this movie to have any meaning Redford has to die.
Even so, it’s tough to hold onto the thought. He reads an old book, “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” and calculates he’s entering a shipping lane. He encounters two big ships, and tries to signal them with flares, but they keep going. We don’t see anyone on them, they don’t see him. Sharks begin to gather. He’s slowly dying—of thirst, hunger, exposure. His hands aren’t working. He can do less and less. It’s impressive that Chandor and Redford make this interesting throughout. We keep caring. We keep wondering what he’ll do next. We want him to be rescued even though we know he should die.
Amazingly, Chandor satisfies both of these desires.
Redford’s passed the shipping lane, and hope is gone, along with food and water. Then he sees a .. what is it? A small boat on the horizon? Lit up? He wants to signal it but he’s used up all his flares on the bigger ships. So he creates a fire in an old, cut-out plastic container, and feeds the pages of his book into it. He stands and waves. Will the fire get out of control? Of course it will. Will he go into the water? Of course he will. He tries to stay afloat but he’s too tired, too weak, too old, and he sinks. He’s dying just as—no! The other boat, comes over to his raft, attracted by the flames. It flashes its light, searching the dark waters. And something in him, that drive in him, stirs, and he fights and swims up toward that other boat, and we see a hand reach down to grasp his, and we’re reminded—or at least I was reminded—of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And in that moment he’s pulled into the light. The End.
And a second later, the light goes on for us.
We can argue all we want about this ending—is this rescue or death?—but I tend to go with the interpretation that gives a deeper meaning. And the latter interpretation, death, actually encompasses both of our desires. We know the old man should die, and he does; but we want him to be rescued, and he is.
This hasn’t been a very good year for movies, and “All Is Lost” isn’t exactly a fun movie to watch. It doesn’t press our pleasure points throughout the way most movies do. But then most movies leave us feeling tawdry and unsatisfied afterwards. “All Is Lost” left me feeling still, yet exhilarated. It left me feeling this much more aware of the inevitability of diminishing options.
Movie Review: Stories We Tell (2013)
“Who fucking cares about our family?”
Joanna Polley says this with a smile at the beginning of “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s documentary about the history of her family, her mother, herself. Answer? We do. We particularly care about Joanna and her siblings. They’re fun to hang with. Joanna is beautiful with a twinkle in her eye, half-brother John Buchan has a more mischievous version of that twinkle, Mark is sweet and sensitive.
Who isn’t much fun? Who is often a silent and annoying presence in Sarah Polley’s doc?
One of the documentary’s central conceits is that we all have our stories, and they often differ, even when we’re talking about the same thing. We all have our perspectives and things get mangled in the telling. They get mangled by being processed through us. This is hardly news.
But the story of Sarah and her family is news—for most of us.
Remember the kids’ book “Are You My Mother?” That’s sort of what this is. The search for who the departed mother is (spiritually) becomes a search for who the father is (biologically).
The mother is Diane, a stage actress and free spirit, whom we first see in old black-and-white footage from, one assumes, a 1950s Canadian TV show. “Who, me?” she asks the camera, half self-conscious, half flirtatious. Yes, you.
She died in 1990, at age 55, when Sarah, her youngest, was 11. She had five kids by two men. Scratch that. Getting ahead of myself.
Her first husband, George Buchan, was the kind of man her parents wanted her to marry—stolid, good postwar job—but she found the life stultifying and they divorced. He got custody of the two kids because she’d had an affair. Apparently it was the first time in Canadian history that a mother hadn’t gotten custody of her own kids. This was 1967.
Was the affair with Michael Polley? The doc doesn’t say. Diane first saw him in a play, “The Caretaker,” and went backstage, and yadda yadda. They were both actors but otherwise opposites. She was excitable, he was calm. She liked people, he liked privacy. “Diane would be doing 10 things at one time,” Michael says. “I’d be doing half of one thing.”
Does Michael say this while reading from his memoir at the recording studio? Sarah has him do that. She makes this old man walk up three flights of stairs and makes him reread certain lines over and over. More: She shows how she makes him reread certain lines over and over. It’s an interesting dynamic—the director-child is father to the old man—but it doesn’t exactly show her in the best of lights. On purpose? Does she need certain lines repeated for us, for emphasis, or does she need her father to repeat certain lines for her, for satisfaction? Cut to: director in close-up, silent. Not telling.
Apparently Toronto, where they lived, is a bit like Seattle—full of cold and distant people—so it was a bit of a reprieve for Diane in the late 1970s when she got a gig performing in a play in Montreal. The title was ironic: “Oh Toronto.” Her marriage with Michael was also reprieved by the gig. He showed up, sparks flew. But she hadn’t been faithful to him there. Then she got pregnant. At 42, she considered an abortion but changed her mind. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael tells the off-camera director. “How close we were to you never existing?”
But who was the father? There were jokes, when Sarah was young, and Michael participated in them probably because he didn’t believe in them. “Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?” they’d ask. In her early 30s, a famous actress herself now, she tries to find out. She asks Geoff, the lead of “Oh Toronto,” but he denies it. She asks Harry Gulkin, one of her mother’s friends at the time, who produced the award-winning film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” if he thought Geoff was her father. No, he says. Why? she asks. Because I’m your father, he says.
Sarah reenacts the scene of the revelation. She dramatizes it. She actually makes it undramatic. Maybe that’s necessary or maybe that’s just her. Then we get Harry’s version of Diane, and Harry’s story of his love affair with Diane, and Harry’s subsequent father-daughter relationship with Sarah. A paternity test is done, emails are read, relatives are met, gumlines are compared.
When the news reaches him, Michael is stunned—he raised Sarah by himself from age 11—but ultimately he takes it with a kind of sad equipoise. The kids, too. John says Mark was disappointed in their mother but in the doc he’s actually rather empathetic. He talks about what a scary scenario it is, having someone else’s kid and hiding that fact from the people you’re closest to. “Look at the mess she got into trying to look like everything was OK,” he says.
It’s such a great story everyone wants to tell it: Michael, Harry, the press. Sarah’s against this. She’s against all of it. Which is probably why she made this doc, which attempts to encompass all of these stories—Michael’s, Harry’s, her siblings'—but which she ultimately controls. “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says. We can.
The ending is clogged with those points of view. Michael tells her the story should be funnier. “You see what a vicious director you are?” he says. Harry tells her the very idea of her documentary, encompassing all of these stories, is false. There has to be a singular point of view, he says. “The story with Diane is only mine to tell,” he says.
This echoes something he’d said earlier, for which I was grateful. People tend to treat love as the pinnacle of human existence—“to love another person is to see the face of God,” is how “Les Misérables” puts it—but I’ve always felt there’s a negative aspect that goes unspoken. Harry speaks it:
When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all or is a matter of any consideration. You just wind up sort of focused, intense, wanting to consume the object of your love, and nothing else exists.
“Stories We Tell” is delightful when the focus is on Diane, the mother. It is less so when the focus becomes Sarah, the daughter and documentarian. Maybe 10 minutes could have been excised from the end. Or maybe use these 10 minutes to give Sarah’s siblings, rather than Sarah, more screentime. They’re fun, Sarah less so. Which is itself fascinating. Sarah Polley has made a documentary in which she is the least interesting character. There’s something wonderfully Canadian about that.
Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)
In 2004, Karl Rove declared that American liberals want to “understand our enemies.” In 2008, Sarah Palin declared that Barack Obama wants to “read terrorists their rights.” Both are not-very-veiled code for the perceived weakness and general softness of the left.
In “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), written by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), and starring Tom Hanks (you know), we come to understand, a little better, our enemy, the Somali pirates, one of whom is read his rights at the end. But there is no sign of weakness here. The opposite. The superorganized, superefficient, massive technological power of the United States of America—aircraft carriers, helicopters, superbuff Navy SEALS, superscope weaponry—is brought to bear on four skinny dudes on a raft. Yes, the Somalis have automatic weapons. Yes, they are holding our title character hostage. Yes, they are often unpleasant.
Even so, the power discrepancy is so great, so absurd, I literally laughed out loud in the theater. Where’s the drama? There’s no drama. One side has everything, the other nothing. It’s such an unfair battle, you begin to wonder who to root for. The weight and power of the response almost seems to justify the crime.
Paul Greengrass tends to make smart action movies about the collision of first and third world: “United 93,” “Green Zone,” “Bloody Sunday.” In these, he never fails to show us a bit of the other side.
So with “Captain Phillips.” The movie opens in Underill, Vermont, in the quiet home of Capt. Richard Phillips (Hanks), who, in spring 2009, is prepping for his next assignment aboard the Maersk Alabama, which is moving hundreds of tons of cargo—food, fuel, water—from Oman to Kenya. Then he and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), drive to the airport. They have a conversation that’s a bit freighted. It comes to us with quotes attached. The kids aren’t trying hard enough in school, he says. The world isn’t like the world they came up in, he says. It will be tougher. Fifty guys are competing for every job. There will be greater competition.
CUT TO: Greater competition. Men in vans, with automatic weapons, pull up in a village in Somalia, and wonder why no one’s at sea. “The boss wants another ship today,” they say. Teams are picked. Sides are chosen. One team leader is hopped-up and wide-eyed. The other, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), casts cool, almost disdainful looks over the proceedings. He’s got a stillness to him. He says little and chooses carefully. At times he looks like the emaciated younger brother of Omar from “The Wire.” In another movie, he’d be the hero.
This is the collision that occurs: between two men doing their jobs.
The first half of the movie is exciting, pulse-pounding, etc., as Muse and Phillips play cat-and-mouse from a distance, then face-to-face. “You know the ship, they don’t,” Phillips tells his crew as the Maersk is being boarded. “Stick together and we’ll be alright.”
The crew hides. They power down the ship and claim it’s broken. Phillips plays innocent in the face of a semi-automatic. One pirate is nearly crippled by broken glass, another, Muse, is taken hostage. In the standoff, they offer the pirates $30K from the ship’s safe and a lifeboat, which looks a bit like the submarine from “Yellow Submarine.” The pirates take both and Capt. Phillips and head back to Somalia.
And that’s when all the drama drains away.
I’m not blaming the filmmakers for this, by the way. “Captain Phillips” is based upon a true story, or at least Captain Phillips’ account in “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” written by Stephan Talty. The movie fudges some details from the book—apparently Phillips was on the lifeboat for five days, not a day and a half; and apparently he was beaten and mock executed after his attempted escape; and apparently he didn’t have a nervous breakdown after his rescue—but overall the movie strives for verisimilitude.
No, I blame the U.S. defense budget. In 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent $682 billion on defense, which is $30 billion more than the defense budgets for the next 10 countries combined. Face to face, no one else has a chance. Put it this way: The Somali pirates in this movie got bested by unarmed slacker crewmembers and a 50-year-old man in a light blue polo shirt. What chance do they have against men who trained their entire professional lives for this? They don’t. Remember when the Dream Team—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, et al.—first showed up in the Olympics in 1992 and beat teams by like 75 points? It wasn’t a question of whether they would win, it was a question of by how much. Same here. You wonder how, not if, Capt. Phillips will be rescued.
Here’s how. U.S. military technology identifies the pirates, the square-jawed negotiator then calls them by name and gets them to agree to be towed. They take Muse on board, ostensibly for negotiations, but there are no negotiations. Instead SEALS take out the three remaining pirates with simultaneous headshots—boom boom boom—and Muse is read his rights. He’s now serving 33 years in a federal penitentiary.
Compare all of this with “Kapringen,” a 2012 Danish film about Somali pirates hijacking a Danish frigate, which was named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards. Without a military to come to the rescue, it becomes a matter of tense negotiations and threats and inevitable death. It’s about the toll taken and the lessons learned.
What lessons are learned in “Captain Phillips”? Unarmed frigates should be armed? Sail 600 miles rather than 400 miles from the coast of Somalia? Keep a SEAL team on retainer, as one doofus American posted on IMDb about “Kapringen”?
Here’s the lesson I learned: The U.S. military is powerful enough to kill drama. It’s so powerful, the people it’s protecting don’t need to learn lessons. Which explains so much about the current state of the United States of America.
Movie Review: Gravity (2013)
Is “Gravity” the new Hollywood spectacle?
The original kind, created in the wake of television, tended to be overlong, wide-screen, supersaturated Biblical epics. Hollywood studios were trying to give you an experience you couldn’t get in your home. They were trying to get you out of your home and away from your TV set. This type of spectacle was eventually replaced by epic musicals (“Sound of Music,” etc.), which were replaced by director-driven films with sex and/or violence (“Bonnie and Clyde,” etc.), which were replaced by the ascendance of B-movie fodder with A-movie production values (“Star Wars,” etc.). We’re still in this last period, more or less, but Hollywood studios are still looking to give you something you can’t get in your home. They’re trying to entertain you away from your home entertainment system.
“Gravity” is short: 90 minutes. It’s a novella of a movie. It promises, not a cast of thousands, but a cast of two. For much of the movie, in fact, it’s just one. It’s “Castaway” in space.
But it’s still a kind of experience, particularly with IMAX and 3-D, that you can’t get in your home. It’s an event.
But how’s the story?
In space, no one can hear things explode
“Gravity” opens beautifully. We see the Earth, boom, in front of us, huge, and surrounded by the silence of space. Then writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”; “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) holds on it. And holds on it. Then, slowly, people and voices come into view. They rotate into view.
It’s the five-person crew of the Explorer, a U.S. ship in orbit. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer tethered to the Explorer, is attempting to fix a motherboard outside the ship. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), astronaut, an old space hand, jets about, filling the vast silence of space with his cynical, amused charm. “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” he jokes. He tells well-worn or half-finished stories about his wife leaving him, about New Orleans in the 1980s, about how he’s going to come up short of breaking the space-walk record set by Anatole Somethingorother. He’s a George Clooney character: He knows his business, he knows the score, he’s been broken in some way but charm seeps through the cracks.
For the moment, Ryan is resisting that charm. She lives up her family name. She’s lost in her work.
Not for long, though. The Russians have destroyed one of their satellites, and this has destroyed others, setting off a chain reaction of orbiting destruction, with the Explorer directly in its path. This storm of debris arrives like a silent meteor shower, and Stone is torn from the Explorer and goes rocketing and flipping through space. Earlier, when asked what she likes about being up there, she replied, “The silence.” Here, she finds out how frightening that silence can be. Here, she’s grateful when she finally hears a human voice, Matt’s, in her radio transmitter. He urges calm. He tells her what to do so he can find her. Then he brings her back to the ship.
But the Explorer is no longer a ship, simply more space debris, and the rest of the crew are dead. There’s no radio contact with Houston. They’re alone up there. But Matt has a plan.
See that light over there? That’s a Soyuz space station. They’re going to head over there, Ryan tethered to Matt, Stone to Kowalski, and take one of its capsules back to Earth. But beware the orbiting space debris. By his calculations it will return in 90 minutes.
There are other things to worry about, too. They arrive just as she’s running out of oxygen and he’s running out of jet fuel. (Why does he not run out of oxygen? Isn’t he the one doing all the talking?) Worse, Soyuz is damaged, they bounce off it, and Ryan almost goes flying off into the void, forever, but her feet get tangled in the cords of a deployed parachute. Matt is less lucky. He sees that she won’t make it unless he lets go. So he lets go.
And then there was one.
The roller coaster
Other movies come to mind watching this one. “Alien,” obviously. (Terror in space, female survivor.) “Barbarella,” oddly. (A woman removing her spacesuit in zero gravity.) “Castaway,” as above.
But the dominating influence is Steven Spielberg. “Gravity” is a roller-coaster ride with smarts and art and, well, gravity, but it’s still a roller coaster ride. It’s still skin-of-the-teeth stuff. For 90 percent of the movie, Ryan is staying just one small step (rather than one giant leap) ahead of destruction, until the final, beautiful shots when her capsule splashes to earth, she crawls to shore, and pulls herself up on the land. You almost feel the weight of gravity holding her in place then. It’s a great shot. “Gravity” begins well and ends well, and the middle is a ride. But it’s just a ride.
Within this ride, yes, Cuarón and company do some good work. We get a bit of background. We find out Ryan lost a child, a girl, 4 years old, and when she died much of Ryan’s reason for living died with her. She shut herself off. She almost does that here. In Soyuz, before traveling to the Chinese space station, Tien Gong, she powers down the systems, turns off the air, gives up. She’s ready to die. She’s ready to join her daughter.
Then a knock on the door.
No joke. At first I thought it was one of the cosmonauts—the face looked gigantic and grotesque—but it’s actually Matt, the sexiest man alive, who has miraculously survived. He enters the spacecraft and fills it with his energy. Did you find the vodka? he asks. Well, I finally broke the spacewalk record, he says. Now let’s take this puppy home. It’s a great moment, even if it doesn’t seem reasonable—given the verisimilitude of everything else in the movie—and it isn’t. It’s a dream. A figment. Matt’s dead, she’s alone, but the moment—the dream, the vision, whatever—inspires her to try again. The whole scene is really well-done. I was happy when Matt returned (we needed something), and I was sad he turned out to be a figment, even as I realized it was the right thing to do for the story.
A helluva story to tell
So they do good things within the ride, but is it enough? Is Ryan an interesting enough character to hold the screen by herself for half the movie?
At one point, Matt, or maybe his figment, tells Ryan why she needs to keep trying: You’ll either die, he says, or you’ll have a helluva story to tell.
When you see “Gravity,” see it on an IMAX screen with 3-D. Make it an event. Because for all its spectacle, for all its effects, “Gravity” doesn’t have a helluva story to tell.
Movie Review: Una Noche (2013)
“From the tops of the trees you can see the planes coming in from Miami. Sometimes people come back to Cuba from the outside world. They return like kings: fatter, happier, trusting. They lose that nervous desperation.”
-- Lila (Anailín del la Rúa de la Torre) in writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s “Una Noche.”
Filmed in cinéma véritée fashion, “Una Noche” is a movie about that nervous desperation. It’s about three young people in Havana bouncing here and there, scrimping this and that. Do they have a plan? We assume so. We’ve seen the movie poster. We know what the movie’s about, more or less. But the plan has no center.
It’s a subtle film. Some friends of Elio (Javier Núnez Florían) pick on a gay guy and his face retreats. Is he gay? (Yes.) It’s an ironic film. Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) prostitutes himself to get the money to get the drugs to help out his prostitute mother, who has AIDS. It’s an evocative film. One of the characters mentions you can smell the tourists coming. “They use a soap we can’t get here.”
But mostly it’s about 90 miles.
That’s the distance from Cuba to Miami, from poverty to wealth, from communism to capitalism. It’s the distance to a different kind of desperation.
Lila and Elio are twins—she’s eight minutes older—who have always communicated well, who can almost finish each other’s thoughts. Lately, though, Elio’s grown distant, and Lila follows him around to find out why. She follows their father, too, a military man, and discovers he’s having an affair. She’s teased by other girls for the hair on her arms, and wonders whether she should pluck her eyebrows. She holds off the boys but dreams of first kisses. Despite all this, we don’t really get to know her, and what we do know isn’t that interesting. She’s most interesting in voiceover. All of them are.
We don’t really get to know Elio, either. Lila thinks he has a girl but he has a boy. Except the boy, Raul, doesn’t know it. Of the three, Elio is the most serious. He’s not following after other people’s drams, as Lila, nor sabotaging his own, as Raul, but moving forward. He’s doing it all for love.
That’s an answer to this question: What kind of desperation makes someone get on a small raft and paddle 90 miles across shark-infested waters? It’s not just the beacon on the other side. You need a push.
Raul is pushed by a mistake. There are two classes of people in Havana, citizens and tourists, and he’s seen talking to a tourist, and that tourist—or her father?—winds up in the hospital, so Raul is suspected since no one else is. “In Havana,” Lila says in voiceover, “only a fool runs from the police.” Raul is that fool. And that’s his final push. Elio is then pushed—or pulled—by his love for Raul. Lila discovers their plans and can’t abide Havana without her brother. That’s how all three wind up on this small raft, paddling.
The young and the pretty
One hopes, away from the bustle of the city, that things will calm down and the three will get serious. Instead, on the small raft, their stupidity has nowhere to hide. Raul complains about paddling. He asks for a backrub from Lila, flirts with Lila, tries to kiss Lila. Elio kisses Raul. They fight. Then the shark comes. By then, I’d lost interest. The characters were too stupid, too spoiled, to care about.
I gained some sympathy back again when Lila and Raul finally float, exhausted, to land, and are greeted by white jet skiers. For a second, we think: Miami. But wait, doesn’t the blonde-haired girl look familiar? Isn’t she the one Raul was talking to earlier? Indeed. One of the jet skiers, a tourist boy, leans forward and says, “Are you trying to get to Miami?” and flashes a big grin to his friends. It’s a joke to them, these boat people, trying to get to Miami but winding back in Havana. It’s a kind of horror for us. Elio doesn’t make it.
“Una Noche” is at its best when it gives us flashes of the hectic life in Havana, a city that time forgot, where 1950s cars coexist with knockoff smartphones. (They’ve improved the catcalls anyway. One guy, to a hot girl passing: “I’ll wash, iron and cook for you daily!”) It’s a trapped city and these three try to break free of it. They’re young and pretty, and, like the young and pretty everywhere, just not that interesting.