Thursday, November 14, 2013

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA: a review of "All Is Lost"

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor
** (two stars)

It will never cease to confound me about the hows and whens of some films, especially ones that are completely similar in tone, concepts and themes, will either work or not work, reach me or leave me wholly dispassionate.

In the space of one month, I have seen two visually ambitious, creatively and thematically complex survival drama films. Yet, where one film, in this case Director Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," has sailed to being one of the finest films of 2013, the other film, "All Is Lost," the second film from Writer/Director J.C. Chandor, has somehow left me feeling uninvolved and empty. Simply an odd feeling to have as there is truly nothing wrong with the film (aside from perhaps the final moments). Like "Gravity," this film places you in the terrifying company of one character desperately attempting to survive in an un-survivable locale in increasingly desperate circumstances. It is also a challenging piece of filmmaking that features Robert Redford as the film's sole actor as an unnamed character in a movie which contains virtually no dialogue at all. And yet, I found my mind wandering often, unable to connect to what I was viewing in any sense of a white knuckle fashion. Oddly enough, I do not wish for you to take my words as a means to stay away from this film because, and please do believe me, this film may quite possibly reach you in a way and with a power that it did not reach for me. And besides that, I strongly feel that films like this, which are a tad left of center should be experienced and supported That said, and for me and my sensibilities, "All Is Lost" was not nearly as compelling for me as I truly believe that J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford wished for it to be.   

Known in the film's credits only as "Our Man," Robert Redford stars in "All Is Lost," as an amateur sailor adrift in the waters somewhere in the Indian Ocean. As the film opens, our unnamed hero is awakened by the harsh sound of the hull of his boat, named the "Virginia Jean," being punctured open by a wayward shipping container. Finding water pouring into his boat, he springs into action to re-seal the hull and excise the rising water from the inside of the boat. While embarking upon his repairs, Our Man discovers that his navigational and communication equipment have been severely damaged from the crash and soon thereafter, he in plunged into an eight day nautical nightmare where he is forced to fight for his life within two storms, the loss of the Virginia Jean (where he is then additionally forced to sail in a tiny lifeboat), a school of sharks, a contaminated water supply, and no signs of life anywhere at all.    

Now, as you can see, "All Is Lost" sounds like a really good nail biter and the conceptual comparisons to the closely released "Gravity" would seem to make this an excellent companion film to view. However, the film was not what I had hoped for it to be. My issues with "All is Lost" have considerably much less to do with its presentation and considerably much more to do with my reaction to it. There is no question that J. C. Chandor has created an impressively helmed feature and that he is obviously attempting to strike for cinematic gold on his second time at bat. "All is Lost" is a crisp and cleanly told thriller that is confident in its visual storytelling. Furthermore, Robert Redford is equally impressive with this physically (reportedly the 77 year old actor performed the lion's share of his own stunts) and psychologically demanding role that proves that he is not simply going to settle for coasting upon his unquestionable film legend. In fact, any attention during awards season that Redford is bound to attract will not be disputed in any way by me as every bit of it is well deserved. It truly is a Master Class in acting as Redford shows so effortlessly how much and more impressively, how very little he has to do (especially without the power of his own voice) in conveying the film's deeply complex themes and meditations about death and our human desire and capacity to survive even when all options in doing so are rapidly running out.

And yet, I was unmoved.

Perhaps my disconnection to "All Is Lost" was due to the film's highly effective and unfortunately, spoiler ridden trailer which in indeed another symptom of film trailers being more effective movies than the actual film that it is advertising. Trust me, if you happen to view the trailer to this film on-line, you have essentially seen the entire film in a drastically truncated running time. Nearly every single beat and predicament our unnamed hero faces in the Indian Ocean is on display and as many times as I have seen the trailer over the last few months in theaters, I do have to say that white knuckle desperation has appeared again and again. But with the full, finished film seemed as if I was watching a two hour version of the trailer in that I was just waiting and waiting for all of the highlights to occur. Now, this is indeed not Chandor's fault by any means but it does indeed illustrate a major problem with film advertising in the sense that too much is being shown, and therefore, no mystery remains which makes for a movie that is underwhelming through no fault of its own. The trailers for "Gravity" however showed just enough, making you salivate in anticipation just wondering what could possibly happen next and wondering just where a film like that could possibly go. But even so, I watched those trailers for "Gravity" over and over in awe and terror and even seeing those trailer so many times did not diminish the overall power of that film in the least.
But even if you took the trailer out of the equation, for whatever reasons, I just could not help but to keep mentally returning to "Gravity" and how emotionally exhausting and even physically draining of an experience it was in comparison to the very similarly themed and conceived "All is Lost." And besides, a film has to be able to be successful completely independent of its trailer anyway. Just what was it about Alfonso Cuaron's visual storytelling that captured that pinpoint sense of primal fear which conjured up the sensation of losing my oxygen right alongside Sandra Bullock, the panic, shock and awe with every single perilous predicament that seemed to snuff of her character's life at any given moment? Even now, I can still think of that one shot where her body is spiraling end over end further and further into the vast blackness of space and the hairs on the back of my neck rise at the mere thought of being so lost, so un-tethered, so helpless and so doomed. And yet, as I watched "All is Lost," never did I once feel any similar sense of danger or life threatening pathos.

But let's go even one step further. Let's take "Gravity" completely out of the mix also. Let's think about other films that pit human against the simultaneously breathtaking and unforgiving backdrop of the natural world and its elements like Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away" (2000), Sean Penn's "Into The Wild" (2007), Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" (2010) or even classics like James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989) and "Titanic" (1997) and most certainly, Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" (1975). But, truth be told, those are all the cinematic "big guns." So, how about the comparatively tiny budgeted "Open Water" (2003) from Writer/Director Chris Kentis instead? Or even the infuriatingly self-congratulatory but somehow mesmerizing "Gerry" (2002) from Gus Van Sant? In all of those films, there is just that je ne sais quoi, that certain something in the cinematic storytelling that is so aggressively powerful and palpable that I am nearly able to forget that I am sitting in a movie theater or in the comfort of my own home that transcends mere movie viewing and becomes experiences where I am able to sit within the pit of my own deepest fears and questions of survival, life and mortality directly alongside the main protagonists. With "All Is Lost," I knew that was the effect J.C. Chandor was going for. I knew those particular emotions were precisely what he hoped to elicit from viewers. And while I would not be surprised if his tactics and techniques would work for many of you, for me, it all seemed as if he had all of the notes but somehow did not understand how to play the music, so to speak.

And then, there is indeed the film's ending, of which I will, of course, not reveal but I will tell you is apparently causing some level of debate among audience members (including the very one I saw it with). It is an ending that is needlessly ambiguous and for me, felt to be a complete cop out when placed against the finality of everything we had already seen over the duration of the the film. Those final two minutes or so of "All Is Lost" felt to be so disingenuous, so shoe-horned, and so phony to say the least and it depleted everything that came before them in my eyes.

And so it goes.

Dear readers, please do not let my words deter you from seeing "All is Lost." As previously stated, you just may have the experience J.C. Chandor intended for us to have but somehow eluded me. Or maybe, you will feel as I did with my assessments and if so, perhaps you will also ponder that the only thing that was lost by the end of this film was your money.

Let me know...

Sunday, November 3, 2013

TO SURVIVE, TO LIVE, TO BE FREE: a review of "12 Years A Slave"

Based upon the autobiography 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northrup
Screenplay Written by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen
**** (four stars)

Dear readers, at this time I want for you to take some moments and think, really think about what it means to be free. Take as many moments as you wish and return to this posting later if need be but I do want for you to think about this concept very seriously.

This afternoon, I took in a screening of Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" an adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free African-American man in 1841 who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for the duration depicted in the title. Throughout, the concepts of freedom, slavery and all that exists in between were firmly placed front and center on screen and within my own thoughts and emotions as I looked upon my place in the world as an African-American male in the 21st century. And frankly, how could I not? Here I am, a black man, able to leave my home, drive in my car across the city in which I live, use my own money from my own wages to purchase a ticket to a movie just like my Caucasian counterparts, and sit in that theater seat to view a depiction of the very issue that still sits at the core of our country's tentative and increasingly turbulent race relations with such unblinking ferocity, sublime poetry and voluminous humanity. This undeniable fact was not the least bit lost on me. That said, I also know, only too depressingly well, that although I am a college educated man, as well as a husband, teacher, writer, tax payer, home owner, productive member of society, I could lose absolutely all that I have spent my life earning and achieving, and most frighteningly, my life itself, if I just happen to cross the wrong path of another individual who will hate and fear me upon sight solely due to my skin color. The story and film that is "12 Years A Slave" would function as the most horrifying "Twilight Zone" episode ever made or as an unrelenting Kafka-esque nightmare only if this story were not a true one. Knowing that this story is a true one makes it all the more devastating.

In a performance that should definitely earn copious amounts of attention, recognition and awards, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northrup, a free, educated African-American man who earns his living as an accomplished violinist and lives in his Saratoga Springs, New York home with his wife and two young children.  One day, Solomon is lured by two men (played by Scoot McNairy and SNL's Taran Killam) into taking part with a highly lucrative touring job, which Solomon accepts. After an evening of fine dining and drinks, Solomon awakens the following day to discover that he has been drugged, kidnapped, chained, and soon to be sold into slavery in the Antebellum South despite his vehement protests which are met with brutal beatings and the enforced re-naming of himself as "Platt."

Solomon is first sold to the somewhat benevolent plantation owner and Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and consistently runs afoul of the vicious plantation overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano) as he desperately attempts to keep the validity of his identity and his education a secret in order to survive. The bulk of the film involves the second plantation to which Solomon Northrup is sold. Run by the raging, alcoholic, abusive and reptilian Edwin Epps (an extraordinary Michael Fassbender) and his equally deplorable and enraged wife Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson), Solomon is forced to work as a cotton picker with the demands of collecting 200 pounds of cotton a day or else risk violent retribution if the daily goals are not met. Solomon befriends Patsey (an outstanding and crushing Lupita Nyong'o), a slave who out picks cotton by 300 pounds alongside the male slaves and who has also become the primary object of affection for Edwin Epps and the bottomless scorn of his wife, Mary.

As Solomon expresses to another slave early in the film, "I don't want to survive. I want to live." And therein lies the existential crux of "12 Years A Slave" for how can one live if not able to survive and how can one survive if not able to live?

While it may be presumptuous to make this sort of an announcement, especially as I will undoubtedly be seeing 2013 film releases through mid January 2014, Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" is hands down the movie of the year. I know that I will see greatness again over these next couple of months, I am highly uncertain if I will see anything else that contains this level of power, grace, fury and artistry. "12 Years A Slave" is a crisply photographed, gorgeously filmed, unflinchingly written by veteran screenwriter John Ridley and sumptuously acted piece of work that demands to be seen, re-seen and re-seen again. To go perhaps even one step further, like Director Lee Daniels' "The Butler" from this summer, I feel that "12 Years A Slave" should be required viewing in all schools across the country so younger generations, and especially those in the African-American community, truly gather a sense of this undeniable and unquestionable American tragedy from which we still have not recovered from and to really begin to explore what does the concept of freedom for ALL people even means in the 21st century.

Although "12 Years A Slave" takes place in 1841, it is also film that speaks precisely to this point in time in 2013. In fact, I believe that with this film, alongside "The Butler" and Director Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," we now have three films released in one year that truly depicts the status of the African-American male over three distinctive eras in our nation's history, providing all of us with the crucial opportunity to really perform some serious self-examination and ponder how much has changed and unfortunately, how much has not changed...and how our nation is even heading backwards at this point in time.

For instance, I loved how McQueen showcased the full religious hypocrisy exhibited by the film's racists, plantation owners and members of the slavery business industry as they utilize the Bible and the perceived word of God as weapons and as forms of severe subjugation and the stomach churning process of reducing human beings to mere objects of possession to be sold, mistreated, abused and discarded. One sequence, where William Ford is leading an outdoor church service, is juxtaposed with the vindictive John Tibeats singing "Run Nigger Run" to his new slaves, including Solomon, all the while forcing them to clap out the beat in time. In several other scenes, we see how Edwin Epps consistently holds out the Bible as his religiously sanctioned "proof" validating his bigotry, violence and sense of overall superiority. And then, there are all of the other scenes where scriptures are being read while African-American children are being wrestled from their families only to be sold like cattle into bondage.

Watching this film and those sequences in particular,  how could I not think about a certain sector of our nation's current congress who proudly and sanctimoniously tout the Bible and utilize it to justify the inhuman laws they wish to pass? While we do currently have an African-American man as President of the United States (who is routinely disrespected to increasingly alarming and seemingly endless degrees), we also currently have a legal system in place, run by those very same self-righteous Bible thumping individuals, that will allow the dismantling the sanctity of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the race baiting forcing of American citizens to carry papers confirming citizenship lest be arrested, detained or deported and more disturbingly, the freedom of a child murderer who shot an unarmed teenager walking home, bothering absolutely nobody anywhere but just had the misfortune to have been born an African-American? The more things change...

What is also amazing to me is that "12 Years A Slave" arrives nearly one year after Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's highest achievement, the slavery epic "Django Unchained" (2012), and there is actually much that both films actually share that makes them work as companion pieces to each other. Like Tarantino, Steve McQueen's film never flinches, never blinks and never softens the physical, verbal and psychological brutality of slavery for even one instance. "12 Years A Slave" is not easy viewing in the least and nor should it be as it has to depict slavery as exactly it was: a holocaust. The difference, and a massive one, between "Django Unchained" and "12 Years A Slave" is that with Tarantino's film, we are indeed operating within some realms of fantasy despite his obvious and unprecedented moral outrage. With "Django Unchaned," there is superior catharsis. By contrast, there is no element of fantasy to be seen whatsoever in "12 Years A Slave," and therefore, there is no catharsis. Just endless suffering and tragedy, all with the stunning backdrop of the Southern plantations, and the glorious nature and wildlife that surrounds them.

The silence that McQueen utilizes often throughout the film is profoundly striking, especially during scenes of violence. In one section, Solomon is nearly lynched by John Tibeats yet after Tibeats is run off by other plantation workers, Solomon remains hung in the tree, his toes barely touching the ground and with soft, strangled gurgles emitting from his throat. McQueen allows this sequence, where Solomon is strung to the branch, to play out for a lengthy period and while there was this part of me just wishing that Django himself would ride onto the scene to save him, the reality is that there is no one. Life and time move onwards, without concern, care or judgement and the slaves continue on with their duties unless being strung upwards right next to him. Although one slave woman covertly arrives to provide Solomon with a quick drink of water before scurrying off again, the day journeys onwards and almost into evening before William Ford himself discovers Solomon and cuts him down. Yes, McQueen has delivered a sequence that is wrenching and unbearable but it is not gratuitous in the least and this is our history and we cannot be afraid of it if we are to move forwards.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply phenomenal as Solomon Northrup, a man trapped in a world he never made, never expected to find himself and forced into hiding his intelligence and pretending he is something he is not just in order to live another day and to hopefully, one day find himself back with his family again. It is incredible to me to regard the controlled and devastating power he accomplished, especially in the film;'s many scenes where he says not even one word. Late in the film, the fullness of his brutal plight is beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed as McQueen just holds the camera on his emotionally complex and expressive eyes and face. Ejiofor says nothing. None of Composer Hans Zimmer's evocative score is heard. Just the sounds of nature and the sight of Chiwetel Ejiofor lost in existential horror and dwindling hope regarding his fate and how it is even possible that he could have ever ended up in a situation such as this. Ejiofor conveys strength, conviction, intelligence, cleverness, rage, crippling sorrow, and a world's worth of empathy and pathos, making this performance his personal best. What would thrill me once the Oscar season heats up is to see Ejiofor and Forest Whitaker from "The Butler" both nominated in the Best Actor category, an unprecedented event, too terribly long in the making, yet completely deserving for both of these fine, fine actors.        

Michael Fassbender is a beast! He takes what could be a stock cardboard villain and fills him with a fullness of life, making him a true representative from America's dark past. The character of Edwin Epps is a cauldron of wrath, fueled by racism and alcohol and this brutal mixture of forbidden love/possession for his slave Patsey and how those emotions stir the jealousy he feels once Solomon arrives upon his plantation and the scorn he feels for his wife as she grows more enraged with Patsey's presence. As Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o is fearless for all she has to endure within this role as her character is terrorized and dehumanized from one end to the other yet, Nyong'o always ensures that Patsey's dignity is never sacrificed. Once Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o are together, the movie simply erupts to an nearly unbearable degree. One extended section, involving all three actors, a whip and a bar of soap is easily the most shattering piece of film that I have seen all year long and to that end Fassbender and Nyong'o should be up for awards and large amounts of recognition as well.

As I write and remember, it has dawned upon me that 2013 will mark the 20th anniversary of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." I recall how the world embraced that film. How it was upheld and awarded and sent to school across the country and discussed over and again, with the full purpose of never forgetting the atrocities humankind has endured and just barely survived. It would be my biggest wish that Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" receives a similar public embrace because here is a film that shows us how nothing is for certain in this world, how that proverbial rug can be pulled out from under you so instantly and without warning that you may find yourself in a situation that you could have never fathomed yourself existing in. That the freedoms that we all may take for granted just suddenly may not exist one day. Now, I certainly do not mean for you to read that statement with any sense of hyperbole. Just take a look at what is happening politically right now and ask yourself is this is the world that you were raised in, if this is indeed the world you wish to continue living in or for those of you with children, is this the world you wish to raise your children? I have believed for several years now that we have entered a stage where what is happening in our country is not about politics anymore. That what is happening right now speaks to our collective humanity and overall sense of morality. For all of the moral grayness in life, something are simply right and some things are simply wrong and in regards to our past, there is absolutely no way we can define slavery as anything but the ultimate of wrongs, as the internal damage from that chapter resonates to this day. The only way forwards is through honest and unmerciful discussion and endless compassion.

Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" forces all of us to really think about how we treat each other, how we defend each other, regard each other, and despite all of our prejudices, how do we recognize that we are all human beings deserving of tolerance, respect and dignity. For me, freedom is about being free of the need to be free...and as far as I am concerned, we have a long way to go before we truly reach the glory of freedom for all.

Even so, may none of us lose what we have already been given.

Friday, November 1, 2013


As always, now it is really time to head off to the races!!

Now that we have hit November, the movie studios open the cinematic floodgates unlike at any other point during the year--including the giant Summer movie season and it is always a challenge for me to keep pace. But, as you know, and the fates willing, I will do my very best to see all that I am able to see and share my thoughts and musings with all of you.

Last month, for me, it was all about "Gravity." This month, as far as I am concerned, it is all about Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave," which I will be heading out to see this weekend hopefully. Beyond that...

1. "All Is Lost," a survivalist drama set at sea and starring Robert Redford has surprisingly not made it to my city, and even our local Sundance theatre, as of this writing. I am expecting it to arrive soon and that film is very high upon my list.

2. "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," the second part of the film quartet series and now with Director Francis Lawrence taking over from the first film's helmer Gary Ross will be arriving just in time for Thanksgiving and you KNOW that I'll be there...along with the rest of you I am most certain.

3. Also arriving this Thanksgiving is the American remake of "Oldboy" starring Josh Brolin and directed by Spike Lee. That is all I need to get myself to the theater. 

4. I have to say that while I am indeed growing wearier and wearier with the seemingly endless onslaught of superhero costumed adventures and frankly, I could use a break from them, the Marvel Comics movies have surprisingly continued to set a high standard for high quality entertainment. Therefore, be expected to see a posting about "Thor: The Dark World" sometime this month.

5. And then, there's the new romantic comedy/drama time travel tale "About Time" from Writer/Director Richard Curtis who already gave us the wonderful "Love Actually" (2003), who also wrote the equally entertaining "Four Weddings And A Funeral" (1994) and "Notting Hill" (1999) as well as directed the well intentioned but flawed "Pirate Radio" (2009). Curtis has announced that this new film will be his last as a director and if that is indeed his intention, I hope that he will go out with the most heartfelt bang. 

With life, family, work, holidays, and even a companion blogsite all jockeying for my attention, I will try as I might to find the balance so I can achieve all that I wish to achieve. Stay tuned...

...and I'll see you when the house lights go down!