All Is Lost (2013)

The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.

There’s no doubt it’s a film which has been purposely shorn of anything extraneous, though, and it doesn’t surprise me to read perplexed accounts of it from people who did not perhaps connect with its narrative minimalism. After all, there’s barely any speech in it, aside from one loudly muttered imprecation, an attempt to radio for help, and a spoken introduction. It’s that introduction which sets the film’s stall: we open at a point where the unnamed protagonist, played by the ageing Robert Redford, clearly believes himself to be beyond rescue. He is writing to an unidentified person, and his words form the film’s credo, after a fashion. He apologises, he states he was trying but has failed, and then utters the film’s title. Any further backstory is mere speculation, and one spends a lot of the film trying to glean hints of what his situation might be — he is out on the ocean all alone, but he’s wearing a wedding ring, so one could suppose that he is writing to his (estranged?) wife, maybe children. Perhaps he’s on a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps his character has made mistakes in his life that he’s trying to rectify, or maybe he’s out there because he wants to die. All is speculation.

What’s certainly clear, though, is that whatever Redford’s reasons for being out alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, once tragedy strikes, he works tirelessly to keep going. The tragic event opens the film after the spoken intro (between the two is an intertitle taking us back eight days), when his boat hits a stray shipping container and starts taking on water. From there, the film unfolds as a tense account of survivalism at sea, as the elderly but still rather spry Redford first tries to fix his boat, and then finds himself taking to a life raft to continue his journey. The setbacks he continues to face — primarily from the weather (at once stormy, then burningly hot) — make up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it all keeps things ticking along with some of the same anguished desperation that Gravity had, but in the maritime setting of Captain Phillips (another survival story, but against humans rather than nature).

Obviously, though, the religious themes are unavoidable here, most clearly in that introduction and then in a denouement (spoilers: I shall try to be oblique but you may wish to look away for this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) which can certainly be read ambiguously, with a shining light that suggests transcendence. Whatever the physical outcome for the character, the ending at the very least offers salvation, and that final image implies that this is what the protagonist has been looking for. It’s a curiously uplifting final scene. In retrospect, it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter what the specifics are of the protagonist’s failings: his journey is one of repentance matched by a final act of grace. His journey then becomes a form of ascetic denial, perhaps, taking him finally away from all comforts and connections until he is utterly cut off.

In this regard, it’s all a very Christian film about redemption, but in its broad strokes rather than putting across any specific ideology. What can certainly be said is that Robert Redford, being the only actor in the film and on screen for its entire running time, does a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult filming conditions. The lack of dialogue (meaning the lack of verbal explanations for his actions) only sharpens the subtlety of Redford’s acting, as he attends to dealing with his predicament. Of course, part of his success can be attributed to his iconic status within the firmament of motion picture stars, as we can see this character as a sort of version of those golden-haired golden boy characters he once played, but extended into extremis, and his now craggy and lined face conveys its own resonance. With its grand allegorical sweep, All Is Lost is as fine a way as any to see out a year of films.

All Is Lost film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; Starring Robert Redford; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013.

Gravity (2013)

I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).

Of course, there’s already a backlash but that’s to be expected. A lot of the criticism seems to focus on the science, and not being a scientist I cannot contribute to such arguments, save that if you’re obsessing about these things and then writing off the film as a result, you probably don’t understand much about art. The film certainly works as an immersive experience. It’s the first film I’ve seen in the IMAX format, and it impressed me. Even the 3D impressed me, and that’s a gimmick I tend not to have much time for. I suspect it may have been the fact that Gravity builds far more deliberately and quietly than most 3D films, with slower, more fluid camera movements reducing the ocular strain that usually accompanies the format (given that big budget movies tend more towards speedy, fast-cutting action). As a film, it has more confidence in its script and its images to create tension than in artificially engineering such feelings through throwing things at you, and I welcome that.

More persuasive are criticisms regarding the screenplay and characterisations. Not so much about the way it builds from a quiet opening through to the first act disaster that threatens the crew of a space mission working on the Hubble telescope — that much is done superbly well — as the actual dialogue which at times shades towards the mawkish. Then again, by the time we get to the worst of it (when Ryan encounters Matt in the space station’s landing craft), it feels like this has been somewhat earned by the film: Bullock’s character has, to say the least, had to deal with a lot of stress by this point. It also points to the way the film is a generation away from those films of the 1950s and 60s that expressed a wonder at the vastness of creation; the key take-home feeling of this film, via Bullock’s character, is relief at being spared the terror of this final frontier.

Then there are the characters. Clooney’s in particular seems a bit thin — he’s basically playing his usual ‘type’, bantering on with an easy charm and totally unflappable — though in a sense his calmness is like a decoy to the terror that hangs over the mission from the outset (there are more astronauts initially involved than just Ryan and Matt, but they don’t get any screen time). After all, from the pre-credits title informing us that nothing can live in space, to the precarious work they’re doing and the news of approaching debris from a satellite accident, the film frontloads the suspense. Added to this is the sound of Ed Harris’s recognisable voice from mission control, which for the movie-savvy amongst us is rarely a portent of good news.

The next paragraph may be classified as containing spoilers, although I’ve tried to be as oblique as possible. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re concerned.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr Ryan Stone, is possibly more problematic, as she’s loaded down with a sentimental backstory of the type that doesn’t trouble Matt’s experienced (male) astronaut. She too is basically a ‘type’, a mother-figure (after a fashion), tethered to the Earth by her experiences and her innate nature. If there’s some mythological heft to it, then it’s a mythology that trades on age-old tropes of woman-as-life-giver-and-nurturer. That said, the film problematises these links a little bit. If there’s a feeling at times that being in space is like being a defenceless baby in a womb (and maybe part of that is just my own flashbacks to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another formative space-set event film), space is instead clearly presented here as deadly and hostile, and Ryan is frequently untethered and terrifyingly afloat. And in recounting her backstory, her own status as mother has, it turns out, been undercut by gravity, the very force which is denying her safety in space. Her survival then is never assured, and the ambiguity even extends to the film’s final sequence, which seems to rehearse the ‘ascent of man’ and suggests a rebirth, or perhaps a new set of challenges to her survival.

Whatever the deeper meaning that one takes from it, the film is nevertheless assured at the visual level. The special effects and the cinematography is transporting and rather demands the immersion of the cinema; whether it will work in quite the same way at home on smaller screens remains to be seen. In that sense, this is a return to proper ‘event cinema’ status. It may eschew a lot of the extraneous noise of your standard big-budget big-screen spectacular, but it still trades on many of these ideas, aided by canny marketing and hype. However, it boasts an excellent performance by Bullock (far stronger than her recent work in The Heat to my mind), a clipped running time (all blockbuster films should be this concise) and those incredible space-set special effects sequences. The possibility of space travel may seem further than ever from our current generation, but if this film has any effect then it’s to make us rather more comfortable with that reality; the only terrors that await us are in the darkened auditorium of a cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s depressing, or a great thing. But for 90 minutes it tends a bit more towards the latter.

Gravity film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield [IMAX 3D], London, Monday 18 November 2013.

Captain Phillips (2013)

When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.

The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.

This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.

Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).

Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.

CREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.