Monday, March 31, 2014

The Spectacular Now, Fruitvale Station

The Spectactular Now  
Director: James Ponsoldt 
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

High school coming-of-age movies have fallen a considerable height from the glory days of John Hughes, where teens were treated as three-dimensional people viewers of any age could root for and care about. A brief description of The Spectacular Now would easily fool anyone into thinking it's joining the recent scrap pile. Bad boy meets good girl and she has to redeem him. But director James Ponsoldt and (500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber flip that premise on its head, delivering a smart, sensitive drama that doesn't pander to its audience, while insightfully observing real life problems without a hint of manipulation or contrivance. Each decision feels carefully considered, with so much resting on the standout performances of the two leads, who are given the opportunity to play flawed, likable characters we want to see happy, independent of whether they end up together or not.

Miles Teller plays popular, but unambitious high school senior Sutter Keely, whose daily life consists of an endless stream of drinking and partying, with little thought given to his future. In a rare touch for the genre, Sutter's vices don't look fun in the least, depicted instead as a serious addiction that's taking over. He's basically a teenage alcoholic. His equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) dumps him and it's gotten to the point that even his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) can't put up with it anymore.

After a late-night partying binge he wakes up on the lawn of classmate Aimee Finnicky (Shailene Woodley), a pretty but socially invisible "girl next door" who reads manga and has a paper route. They start seeing each other. Sort of. That their relationship can't easily be classified because of how different they are is one of the film's biggest strengths and what follows is complicated, but in an authentic, messy kind of way.

Upon Sutter realizing he's actually falling hard for this girl, his thoughts shift to him not being deserving of her and there's this intriguing mystery that develops involving Sutter's long-absent dad (a brilliant Kyle Chandler). It's a supporting performance perfectly calibrated to subvert and challenge expectations of not only the character and story, but the actor playing him. Even seemingly minor players like Sutter's boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk) are so richly drawn in their brief appearances you'd imagine a film focusing on them would be just as rewarding. As Sutter's older sister Holly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead conveys that there's even more to her than originally thought, the character's snobby demeanor merely a defense mechanism masking the emotional pain of their upbringing.    

Ponsoldt knows not to try too hard and at a turning point where everything could have flown off the rails, he resists the temptation, choosing even more honesty. That this takes place in unnamed "Smalltown, U.S.A" in an unidentifiable era brings a universality to the story, allowing it to exist in a timeless vaccum. No one will be laughing at the music and clothes years down the line, as is usually the case with most other high school movies. What will be remembered is how Teller and Woodley take familiar character types and make them feel completely fresh, him with offbeat goofy charm and her with a realness and authenticity that never come off as "acting." And just watch what she does in that killer final scene. She's too good to be toiling away in YA franchises, even if this was ironically adapted from a young adult novel. Let's just pretend the giant check she's cashing for Divergent is really for this.

Fruitvale Station
Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Running Time: 85 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Despite certain misgivings I have about about the film itself, none of them affect my feelings about Michael B. Jordan's performance as Oscar Grant, the young man shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police at Oakland's Fruitvale Station on New Year's 2009. If anything, I wish that first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler's effort had the subtly and nuance of Jordan's performance, which sets a high bar the picture can't quite reach. There's little doubt that Oscar Grant was far from perfect. He was only human. And there's also little doubt what happened on that train platform was an avoidable tragedy with more than enough blame to go around, along with some unfortunate coincidences and bad luck. To say the transit cops handled the situation poorly would be a gross understatement, but it's hard not to feel Coogler's trying to unnecessarily stack the deck. The facts tell the story, yet he insists on going beyond that, to the point that by the film's finish it almost feels like we've gotten a public service announcement.

The film follows the last day of the 22-year-old Californian's life before being fatally shot on that train platform, circumventing the rocky relationship he has with his girlfriend and the mother of their infant daughter, Sophina (Melonie Diaz, really strong), and his own mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer). It paints a picture of an ex-con trying to do right and get on the straight and narrow for his family. For all we know much of it may have gone down as depicted. But certain details feel too convenient, with Coogler going so far out of his way to avoid portraying his subject as a saint that he ends up doing exactly that.

There's an early scene in which Oscar tries to save a dying dog hit by a car. Besides the incident being drenched in heavy-handed symbolism and blatant foreshadowing, I could have done without animal cruelty (real or simulated) to show us Oscar's a good guy. And just to level things out we also get a scene where he threatens his boss. No one thinks this young man "deserved" what eventually happens so it's perplexing that we're being lectured on his morality with contrived situations. Maybe they happened. Maybe not. But it rings false in the context of this film.

It's when we finally get to that train platform that things start to feel real. How the situation escalates to the point it does is so fascinating and disturbing that you almost wish the whole movie was this incident in real time, if it wasn't so difficult to watch. Coogler's clearly a skilled director, making excellent use of shaky cam to give us a found footage feel and show various points of view from different witnesses. Certain details from earlier pay off in surprising ways, creating a storm of events that tragically converge at the station. The last half hour earns its emotional response by doing away with the editorializing and grandstanding and just showing what happened .

Anyone who's seen Friday Night Lights knows how great an actor Michael B. Jordan is and so much of that natural charisma and quiet intensity is on display here. We care about Oscar because of his performance, one that too often must battle to overcome the script's flaws. It's a problem when a film is based on true events and you can't believe much of what happened even it it's completely true. The last shot reveals the film's true intentions. And that's the roadblock when tackling a controversial real life issue. Judgments and intentions are best checked at the door.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

Director: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Krysten Ritter, Ryan Hansen, Francis Capra, Percy Daggs III,
Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Enrico Colantoni, Gaby Hoffman, Jerry O' Connell, Martin Starr, Ken Marino, Max Greenfield, Amanda Noret, James Franco
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Following the announcement that beloved cult series Veronica Mars would be kickstarted into a feature film to simultaneously be released on VOD and into theaters, I was surprised just how much more interested I was in the controversial crowdfunding issue than actually seeing it return in any form. But after considering it, that indifference makes perfect sense. The first season of Rob Thomas' Veronica Mars is unquestionably flawless, deserving of its standing amongst the most creatively realized single season television dramas of the past decade. It took the unremarkable premise of a high school private eye and turned it into something that transcended the genre with its writing, tone and execution. Arriving at a time when serialized, self-contained storytelling wasn't popular and shows didn't revolve around strong female protagonists, telling one story throughout a season or even an entire series was unheard of. After turning loyal watchers into "fans" and forcing casual viewers to catch up later through word-of-mouth or social media, a cult was born.

In 2004 delivering one season of TV at such high quality was an anomaly. Not anymore. In fact, many showrunners have now done it multiple times, slightly diminishing Thomas' accomplishment, even if he got there first. A second solid season aired followed by a third that deserves to be forgotten and mostly is. But that first season is still magnificent and represents the best kind of episodic storytelling the medium has to offer. That's why it's so disappointing that network brass and even many fans insisted on turning the show into something it wasn't, failing to realize the gift they were given. They wanted it to be The Gilmore Girls or 90210 and the CW network responded by attempting it, causing the show to limp to the finish line in a far lesser state than it started. For further proof look no further than the fact that re-runs started regularly airing on SoapNet of all places.

With its legacy somewhat tarnished and that magical first season in the rearview mirror, trepidation toward this project is understandable. Worse yet, it exists to provide "fan service," which is partially responsible for unraveling the show to begin with.  Freed from the constraints of network television, this is a big test for Thomas, as we finally find it whether he was a single season wonder or it was outside factors that caused the series' eventual downfall. So with that in mind, how did he do?

Picking up nine years after the events of the third season, Veronica (Kristen Bell) has left her hometown of Neptune, California, graduated law school and moved to New York City, where she's in a relationship with college boyfriend "Piz" (Chris Lowell). While awaiting an offer from prestigious law firm Truman-Mann, she's contacted by her ex Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who's been serving in the Navy and is under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend Carrie Bishop, a former Neptune High classmate who went on to find fame as troubled pop star "Bonnie DeVille." Veronica agrees to fly back to Neptune under the condition of helping him and his still obnoxiously hilarious best friend Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen) find an attorney to build a believable defense.

 With her ten-year class reunion approaching and the case becoming more complicated, Veronica's soon drawn back in to the chaotic life she thought she left behind, much to the chagrin of her former sheriff father Keith (Enrico Colantoni). He's running Mars Investigations while sickened by the corruption overrunning Neptune under sleazy Sheriff Dan Lamb (Jerry O'Connell). With the help of old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and "Mac" (Tina Majorino), Veronica has to find Carrie's murderer and exonerate Logan, all while coming to terms with the past and figuring out what it means for her future. 

The movie answers one of its biggest questions right away in how much background Thomas intends to give the uninitiated, with a brief, narrated prologue that's quick and painless, yet doesn't waste the time of diehards who know every detail of the mythology. Archival footage marks the extent of Amanda Seyfried's role, as we find out how Thomas handles the absence of the series biggest star. Since her character's long dead, the passing acknowledgment of Lilly Kane seems to be a pretty easy solution. With a nine-year gap to be accounted for, it was the right move to keep the Veronica voice-over (which the series eventually fazed it out) since it's as good a device as any to catch viewers up to speed provided it isn't abused. Thankfully, it isn't.

Clever choices are also made with the opening titles and theme song, which I won't spoil. But what's surreal is just seeing the characters ten years later, but in the context of a feature film. It took some adjusting to since it does look and feel different with the sheen of a higher end production, yet still strangely the same. Visually speaking, it's the best VM has ever looked on a technical level with Thomas and director of photography Ben Kutchins capturing the color palette of the series' early days, as well as Neptune's noirish atmosphere.

The tease that age has mellowed Veronica and she's left her rebellious streak behind to settle down with Piz and start a legal career is short-lived. It isn't long before she's back home making quips and trading one-liners with her dad, the writing still as quick and snappy as before, and Bell's delivery of it just as perfect. She slides back into this character like riding a bike with the actress clearly relishing the rare chance to step back into the role she was born to play. In that respect, it's almost as if no time passed at all. What's interesting about the murder set-up is how it transforms Veronica back into the outsider she once was when the show began, bringing everything full circle. All fans can at least agree that the father-daughter relationship between Keith and Veronica is the most missed aspect of the show and Thomas definitely doesn't disappoint in following through with the full implications of that reunion.

Veronica's reconnection with Logan is admirably treated with a restraint I wasn't expecting considering my biggest concern was that relationship taking over the picture, much like it eventually did the series. If one thing can be pointed at as creatively torpedoing the show, it's that. Unsurprisingly, there's one scene involving this I could have done without, but at least it's built up to well and handled painlessly. Until Veronica joins a monastery, I'll just have to accept to the fact that the depiction of their relationship is a necessary evil, but one hardly as integral to the show's initial success as many believe. Dohring actually gives a really interesting performance here, doing away with some of the more milquetoast elements of Logan that emerged pre-cancellation while reintroducing the darker, angrier aspects of the character. We know he probably didn't commit the crime, but Dohring thankfully doesn't play it like that. While few will be happy to see Piz again but his presence does make story sense and Chris Lowell, who's done okay for himself since, is a much better actor now than then.           

What's most surprising is how serious everything is treated while still somehow retaining much of the fun. In a PG-13 rated film we're treated to swearing, bar fights and shootouts that wouldn't have been possible during the series' run due to budget constraints and network interference. And the class warfare aspect of Neptune is not only emphasized but kind of enhanced with a legitimate sense of danger looming. There's a feeling that the first time our favorite characters could actually be hurt, or perhaps worse.

The nine-year layoff for the characters is a blessing in disguise, as their aging assures the series can longer be pigeonholed into a genre it never quite belonged. It's also a slight detriment, since part of the original thrill came from a story of such epic scope revolving around high schoolers. Supporting players Wallace, Mac and Dick are given much more to do here than they were in all of the show's third season and help move along the plot rather than merely stop in for appearances sake. The big surprise in that regard is Weevil (Francis Capra) who's given a subplot that's almost downright shocking, playing on the character's shady past in a clever way.

Unexpectedly, the film is filled to the brim with cameos, one of the more notable coming from James Franco, who probably jumped at the chance to appear considering how he seems to have his hands in everything in pop culture. Bigger roles go to Gaby Hoffman as an obsessed Carrie Bishop impersonator who could also be a key witness/suspect in her murder and hugely successful show alum, Krysten Ritter, returning as Veronica's frenemy Gia Goodman. The part is expanded accordingly to capitalize on her presence, reminding us how we underestimated the actress' versatility the first go around.

My personal favorite recurring character, goofy private investigator Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino!) also makes a comeback, integrated briefly into the case. And yes, Max Greenfield does show up as Deputy Leo. It's hard to think of any big names left out whose absence damage the film, with maybe the exception of the original Carrie Bishop, Leighton Meester. The murder plot was probably conceived with the actress in mind so her unavailability is a blow, as it's easy to imagine she could have brought a lot more to it now. Jessica Chastain or Aaron Paul returning just isn't realistic but boy would that have been a shock had either appeared.

There is some clunkiness to the central mystery, but what really does work is how the film incorporates modern technology and social media into the investigation of the crime. This is technology that didn't exist (at least to this extent) during the show's run, so it's only fitting for a series that was always slightly ahead of the curve to now be able to pull the trigger on it. Thomas and crew delivered as promised, wrapping the show's and its title character's return into a thematic package about the battle between holding on and letting go.

The idea that Keith wants better life for his daughter than one in Neptune and is downright disappointed and angry at the possibility she'd consider throwing it away really resonates. In fact, it resonates in a way the series hadn't at the end of its run. It does surprisingly look and feel like authentic Veronica Mars and there's far less of a drop-off in the quality of writing than you'd expect. It's really as good as it could have possibly been, at many points recalling the mood and tone of the first and second seasons rather than the far lesser one that succeeded them. And although it's been called it, this doesn't merely come off as a reunion show with Thomas attempting to do more than reassemble the cast and call it a day.

None of the events or characters feel jammed in and it's unnecessary for us to adjust our expectations for who is and isn't there like we did for Netflix's revival of Arrested Development. It's unfair to compare such wildly different reboots (in separate mediums nonetheless) but it's really the closest thing to this situation we've got, proving how creatively risky bringing back defunct properties can be. While a solid effort, even diehards couldn't claim that fourth season holds a candle to the previous three, or even slightly resembles the show it was.

The waters should have been even choppier for VM, but unlike AD, its saving grace is that it went out struggling with some unfinished business. And since the show's quality fluctuated and it didn't deliver three perfect seasons like that series did, expectations are lower. It also has to deliver one powerful extended episode instead of an entire season, with the catch being that it has to look and feel cinematic, which it does. Add to that the pressure of the mainstream paying attention because of this untested funding and distribution model. Casual eyes have never really been on this series before and even if it is made to appeal primarily to fans, there has to be some entry point for everyone else. Or does there?

Whether this film appeals to those who haven't seen the show doesn't really even matter. When you consider how much work it took to resurrect this and the circumstances under which it eventually happened, the movie's potential success is dependent on the fan base being just large enough to eliminate risk for Warner Bros. This is being sold as a product with preexisting loyalty and familiarity so casual viewers just won't have the same long-term investment in the characters. But that doesn't mean someone who's never seen an episode wouldn't enjoy it. It just means they'd likely enjoy it on an entirely different level. As a smart mystery thriller.

As much potential as there is for this saga to continue or for the series to undergo a full-blown resurrection, ending it here would also be fine. Rob Thomas and this cast should never have to beg for money or hustle this hard because Warner Bros. won't financially support the series. The studio couldn't even manage to follow through on their basic publicity and marketing obligations. But regardless of those issues, there's no denying the Kickstarter approach works best for a property exactly like this. It wasn't about making Veronica Mars "happen" since that ship sailed a while ago, but rather giving the series the victory lap it deserves. And they delivered, making this trip back to Neptune one worth taking.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham 
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

My immediate reaction after the final credits rolled on American Hustle was that it was a "fun time." But I can't help but think whether that response would been different had I not known the film received ten Oscar nominations, including all four acting categories and Best Picture. Almost needless to say, expectations were pretty high for what ends up being the weakest film in David O. Russell's comeback trilogy, which includes The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. While much more of a mixed bag than either, what's most surprising is how light and fluffy it is. It's basically an all-out comedic farce that's more entertaining than expected, but also far less substantial. It's loosely based on a real FBI Abscam sting operation in the 1970's but it isn't a biographical drama of any sort and certainly won't be mistaken for Argo anytime soon. The script almost seems to be making a complete mockery of the story which hardly matters since the real draw here is the acting, with costuming and (sometimes overbearing) soundtrack choices trailing not too far behind. With a less talented director and cast it's easy to imagine this being a disaster. Actually, it's still kind of a disaster. Just a really wild and fun one.

It's 1978 when con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party in New Jersey and the two embark on a personal and professional relationship in which Sydney (posing as English aristocrat "Lady Edith Greensly") start running loan scam. When their latest mark turns out to be undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they're recruited by him to help with four stings in exchange for their release. But Sydney has other plans, getting romantically close to Richie to manipulate him as a jealous Irving stands on the sidelines. How much of this plan and her feelings morph into reality is a question that hovers in the air up until the end. Richie's biggest sting involves entrapping Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who's attempting to raise funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. This sets in motion a convoluted plot involving a fake Arab sheikh, a secret wire transfer and the mob. But Irving's most dangerous problem is his stay-at- home wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a certifiable loose cannon who's no dummy. She knows something's up, and that knowledge could tear this operation and their family apart.

Remember that scene in The Wolf of Wall Street when Jordan Belfort turns to the camera and tells us he did a lot of illegal stuff but won't waste time boring us with the details? That's American Hustle in a nutshell. If there were a pop quiz on all the double crosses, fake-outs or even just the basic mechanics of the plot, it's an exam many wouldn't pass. And yet Russell manages to make it completely beside the point, instead focusing on the interplay between these wild characters, each seemingly crazier than the next. Clearly, the major plotline has less to do with Abscam than the love triangle involving Irving, Sydney and Richie, even if there are points where we doubt it can be considered a love triangle since the characters are all playing each other. The whole movie functions as one giant scam with everyone wearing masks at various points.

The two best performances come belong to the women, with Adams showing a side of herself as an actress we've never quite seen before, turning in her most intense work since The Fighter. Tough, but emotionally damaged goods, Sydney knows she's battling for more than to just stay out of jail by pulling off this scam. She wants prominence in Irving's life, ahead of his wife and son and is willing to use the hapless Agent DiMaso to do it. If some people are smarter than they look, Richie DiMaso is definitely not one of those people, falling for Sydney's hustle (and cleavage baring attire) hook, line, and sinker. He's also somehow target a legitimately honest politician and all-around great guy for his sting. In fact, Renner makes Carmine so selfless and likable in what should be the sleaziest of roles, that it's  impossible for the audience not to resent DiMaso for deceiving him. But Cooper gives him this helplessly pathetic quality of a man struggling to move up the bureau ladder and win a woman he thinks he's in love with, but really doesn't know at all. His hapless superior (played hilariously by Louis C.K.) is literally the only character who is worse off or commands less respect.

Holding the whole film (and his hairpiece) together is Bale, the real brains behind the operation, which isn't saying much. With a hideous wardrobe and a huge gut, few would be able to recognize the actor, and when they do, even fewer would believe he was capable of being this funny. So misguided and self-absorbed, Irving destroys the one relationship he has that means anything to him: His friendship with Carmine. It's possibly the only scam he's ever felt guilty about.  He spends most of the movie in a complete panic, as would anyone married to Jennifer Lawrence's Roselyn, the only character not at all like the rest.

On paper, Lawrence again seems completely miscast in a role meant for an older actress, only to respond by stealing the movie with a performance that starts as fully comedic before moving into some darker territory by the last act. In a picture where it's tough to take anything or anyone seriously, she uses limited screen time to turn what could easily have been a one joke character into a real force deserving of audience sympathy. That's a tight rope to walk and while all the hype and praise surrounding Lawrence has been exhausting, she proves again with her work that it's deserved. Her intense sing-a-long to Wings' "Live and Let Die" is a particular standout. Unfortunately, an uncredited Robert DeNiro turns in a comedic cameo as--you guessed it--a mobster. Ugh.  He also appears at just the point where the film starts getting a little overstuffed, making his shoehorned arrival feel especially unnecessary.

While it's clear Russell has a love for the period and certain details are deadly accurate, there's rarely any doubt he enjoys laughing at it also. As do we. If he was going for a Scorsese vibe, what transpires on screen often comes across as a comedic spoof of that. Call it "Scorsese Lite." Was that intentional? Does it even matter? All I know is that the whole thing is a lot funnier than most would have you believe. About halfway through you just forget everything and revel in the zany antics of these characters and enjoyable performances. If the developments were treated more seriously it might have been a better movie, but I'm not sure it would have been nearly as entertaining or interesting. This is about watching talented actors at the top of their game successfully disappearing into their crazy roles. Even the characters seem to forget about their own story on occasion. American Hustle might be all over the place, but it's most successful when not taking itself too seriously and functioning as a bizarre character study. Luckily, that's most of the time.    

Sunday, March 9, 2014

All Is Lost

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's practically impossible to watch All is Lost without feeling the urge to compare it to Gravity. Both are survival stories that see their protagonist forced to fend for themselves in a battle against the elements and a race against time. But there are also key differences, the least of which being the setting or gender of the main character. While Gravity tells us everything we need to know about Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone and more than a few things we didn't, this film's everyman (known simply in the credits as "our man") is just that. He's never given a name and we know next to nothing of his backstory. At the risk of trouncing one film to prop up another, I couldn't help but wonder why writer/director J.C. Chandor's approach to similar material seems so much more effective. But the reason is abundantly clear the second we see Robert Redford's aging visage on screen. He'll be doing all the work. Any backstory or superflulous details will have to be projected onto the story by imaginative viewers observing his actions. What he doesn't say is where the story's power lies, testing that screenwriting theory that often the best scripts have the most amount of white space on the page.

The picture is as sparse and bare bones as it gets. At least Bullock had some company for a little while. This is Redford vs. The Sea. But don't dare call him the film's "star," as doing so implies we're getting a movie star turn that again exploits the actor's charisma, charm, or personality. This is instead the systematic deconstruction of all that, displacing the boyishly handsome "Sundance Kid" persona he's been most identified with over the years with a broken down old man. In this film Redford looks every last day of his 77 years and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as this time he answers the call, addressing the most popular career criticism leveled against him. That he doesn't take any risks. His response is a performance that's stripped, not only of all words, but all vanity. 

We join the adventure mid-crisis as Redford's anonymous seaman is lost somewhere in the Indian Ocean and awakens to discover his boat has collided with a shipping container, which has ripped a hole in the hull. And that's just the start of his troubles, as he's lost all navigational and communication systems and has little success patching up the damaged ship. Much of his time is spent putting band-aids on problems, both literally and figuratively, and contending with elements, such as a monster storm that tests his and the ship's capacity for survival. As the days wear on and the possibility of rescue seems less and less likely, the presumably inexperienced protagonist must rely on his own ingenuity to fight the ravages of nature as time takes its toll, physically and emotionally wearing him down.

To say that Redford "holds the screen" or "carries" this would be the cinematic understatement of the year. There's literally no one else in it, and aside from an opening narration and one screamed expletive, there are no spoken lines. What's so impressive is how he manages to do so much with that, both through his facial expressions and the character's exacting calculations in coming up with ideas to prolong survival. We can see and sense the wheels turning inside his head and are capable of determining a great deal about him as a person with no information dispensed to us at all. The best aspect of the performance are all the things he hints that are never revealed. It's not necessary to have a scene showing how he got out there or shoehorn flashbacks because Redford makes you imagine them. You can picture the stubborn man leaving on this trip thinking he has everything under control when in actuality the situation couldn't be further out of his hands. We can assume his boat, the "Virginia Jean" is named after a loved one. Wife? Daughter? Granddaughter? Whatever that relationship is, we're given tiny clues it's been strained before he set sail. We know nothing because Chandor knows whatever we cook up in our heads will be more powerful than simply being told about it. He trusts us, but importantly, trusts Redford to fill in those blanks.

For the most part, "our man" seems unemotional and confident, at least until things get very bad, and even then, he does a rather impressive job keeping it together. Still, it wouldn't take an experienced sailor to notice he doesn't know what he's doing, much like Gravity's Dr. Stone. But the key difference lies in the fact that while Bullock's character is equally incompetent, she's unwisely portrayed as an emotional mess, highlighting the film's weakness for spelling things out in big, bold letters. Redford's character makes some dumb decisions, but he never comes off looking like a fool because it stems from this false pride and ego we can't ever really get a handle on. That's a very subtle choice, and a lot more intriguing than a tacked on backstory involving a deceased child intended to trigger audience sympathy. That decision ultimately cements this as more a story about humanity and survival than visual effects and technical wonder (which Gravity does provide in truckloads). The technical achievements are primarily in sound,  joining Redford in co-piloting a picture with no dialogue, but plenty of noises that make you feel as if you're on the boat with this man fighting for his life. The score (provided by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' Alex Ebert) does the rest of that work and it's haunting, used in just the right doses.

It's hard not to view the Academy's snub of Redford as disgraceful and potentially one of the rare oversights where they'll actually look back in regret. So much of the film's narrative and central character is intertwined with the actor's personal  history and career that you can't help but draw a comparison to Mickey Rourke's nominated role in The Wrestler. An older actor thought to be past his prime fighting to survive and battling back, reminding us why he was so respected to begin. That this film came Chandor, the director of 2011's Margin Call is particularly ironic when you consider how talky and dialogue-driven that film was. This has an ending that will undoubtedly infuriate some who prefer pat conclusions that fail to ask anything of its audience. Even if he whole survival story card has been admittedly overplayed of late with Life of Pi, Gravity and Captain Phillips all causing audience fatigue with the genre, this is too well executed to ignore. The best survival stories are always about more than just survival. By choosing to say nothing, All is Lost ends up saying much more than most movies with supposedly greater ambitions.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Burning Questions from the 2014 Academy Awards

Does it speak to my interest in this year's telecast that I didn't bother watching any of the red carpet show?

Even just to laugh at it?

Wait, Jennifer Lawrence fell...again?

Wasn't it a relief not to open the show with a tiresome musical number?

After getting too many of them in recent years, wasn't the absence of musical numbers entirely a relief?

How long before people start complaining they want Seth MacFarlane back?

Is anyone ever going to cut the Oscar host a break?

Isn't it really a thankless job?

How about that Liza Minnelli joke?

Wasn't Jennifer Lawrence a great sport?

Aren't her facial reactions great?

Wasn't the Jonah Hill joke funny?
Didn't Ellen do a good job of keeping the monologue short and sweet?

Don't you wish the rest of the show moved as rapidly?

All things considered, didn't she open this pretty well?

Would you have guessed his win would be the first of many, many appearances Jared Leto would make throughout the night?

How about Pharrell's hat?

Was it really wise of me to assume the Academy would give makeup to a film titled, "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa?"

Could Harrison Ford come off any grumpier and bored if he tried?

Wouldn't JGL and Emma Watson make a good on-screen couple?

Wait... Kim Novak?!

Does it look like maybe she's had a little work done?

When she came out with McConaughey did you think she was the Yellow King?

Does Gravity insure that everyone will at least correctly predict every technical category?

Why does it look weird seeing U2 performing at the Oscars?

But isn't it nice having actual performances of the nominated songs again?

Does anyone miss dopey musical numbers that would have taken its place?

Did you notice Jared Leto inviting himself into the selfie?

Did you catch Liza Minnelli trying and failing to squeeze in?

Was it just not her night?

Don't we love her anyway since she's Lucille Austero?

Given her recurring vertigo, would she have been a better choice to present with Kim Novak?

Does someone saying they're going to make something the most "retweeted ever" just make you not want to reweet it?

Am I contributing to that epidemic by reposting it above?

Was there really any doubt which photo I'd use?

Does Kevin Spacey win the Oscar for Best photobomb?

Shouldn't he host the show next Frank Underwood?

Michael B. Jordan and Kristen B. Ell?

Can you believe Christoph Waltz is already a two-time Supporting Actor winner?

For the same role?

Was Lupita Nyong'o's acceptance speech on of the few memorably emotional ones in recent years?

Was seeing all these stars deciding on pizza funnier than it had any right being?

Didn't Ellen really commit to that entire bit in an admirable way?

Do we now know the only thing that makes Harrison Ford smile?

Did the whole pizza bit work because it actually looked like everyone was having fun at this event for a change?

Did you see how into it Martin Scorsese was?

Were you as hungry for pizza as I was?

Was Bill Murray's shout-out to Harold Ramis the most moving moment of the night or what?

Isn't is amazing that even here Murray can still shock and delight us?

How do we live in a world where neither of those guys have won an Oscar?

Does anything say The Wizard The Oz more than a performance from Pink?

What's with this whole "heroes" theme?

Should the In Memoriam segment be renamed the "What obscure person was left out so everyone can complain on Twitter" award?

Wasn't it heartbreaking seeing Roger Ebert, James Gandolfini, Harold Ramis and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the montage?

Wasn't Sarah Jones' passing handled strangely, with a message telling us to just go to the web site?

Shouldn't they get credit for at least doing something on such short notice?

When Bette Midler came out did the heroes theme only then start to make a bit more sense?

Did I ever tell you you're my hero?

That you're everything I wish I could be?


Is everyone who went out on a limb to pick Her for Original Screenplay feeling pretty good?

Doesn't Cuaron come off as a great guy?

Did anyone really think Cate Blanchett wouldn't thank Woody Allen?

Do people who think she shouldn't need to get some perspective that we're honoring the work?

Is McConaughey the only Best Actor winner with his own legitimate catchphrase?

Isn't that kind of cool?

Is Will Smith the only Razzie winner to have presented Best Picture the following day?

Didn't the pacing of the show kind of hit a snag in the last hour and a half?

What does it say when keeping it under four hours is an accomplishment?

12 Years an Oscar telecast?

Am I in shock I missed only two categories the entire night?

Am I glad I adjusted my predictions before the show?

Can you believe how many wins Gravity had without taking Best Picture?

Did American Hustle really just get completely shut out?

Despite being hit or miss at times, is Ellen the first host in a while to actually earn a return invite?

Doesn't it seem like we have the same complaints and discussions about the Oscars every year?

Given this year's crop of films, is the 7 percent rise in viewership proof this show was as entertaining as it could have possibly been?