All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford’s tour de force as a man lost at sea makes us realise what has been missing from single-character movies.

all-is-lostUSA
4.5*

Director:
J.C. Chandor

Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank G. DeMarco

Running time: 105 minutes

It’s not easy to carry a film all on your own. Philip Baker Hall did it as a ranting Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a film that unfortunately wasn’t as compelling as director Robert Altman’s other chamber film, the ensemble-driven Streamers, and to some extent Ryan Reynolds (with the help of voices on the other end of a phone line) pulled it off in the disturbing Buried.

All is Lost puts all previous lone-character efforts to shame (most notably, Tom Hanks’ talkative island man in Cast Away), as the film’s main and only character does not even have a name, and the director doesn’t take the easy way out by having him speak to himself. Played by Robert Redford, “Our Man” has a full three lines of dialogue, of which half consist only of the odd four-letter word to explain his frustration with the situation or vocalise the realisation that this may be the end.

The situation is the following: Having navigated his yacht to a point on the Indian Ocean far away from any civilization – and most significantly, 1,700 miles from the seaway all cargo ships use to transport their goods across the vast body of water – he wakes up to discover his yacht, the Virginia Jean, is taking in water. While he was asleep on the calm seas, a container filled with tiny shoes had fallen off a cargo ship, bobbed on the waves and eventually struck his boat. Fortunately, for the most part, the hole can be repaired; unfortunately, it’s not going to be calm seas all the time, and plain sailing is out of the question.

The film is about survival on open waters as much as Gravity is about survival in outer space. In both films, there is no one to help you when you need it most, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what to do and how quickly to do it, because time – or oxygen, or fresh water – is running out.

Being a seaman means being creative and prepared for anything. When you are exposed to the elements, with only yourself and a tiny boat standing between life and death, a situation can turn extremely challenging if you don’t know how to deal with potentially disastrous turns of events. You can never completely relax.

That is what Redford’s character here learns very quickly. And even though we know nothing about him – not his name, nor how long he has been on the water, nor anything about his family history – we feel entirely sympathetic towards his predicament. We can see he is doing his best, and he clearly has spent some time on the water during his lifetime, but still, the fear is always there that nature will wreak too much havoc for him to handle.

Every time we hear thunder rolling, our stomachs start to churn, and for most of the second half of the film, the tension is nearly unbearable. It is the result of many different factors that include the sharpening of our senses, because there is never any dialogue to distract us from the action; the potential that the lead character will drown; and the uncertainty of how long this ordeal will last before the sun breaks through and the enormous waves subside.

We have not seen this kind of action at sea since The Perfect Storm, and although a few shots of Redford at the helm taken in the midst of a storm don’t look entirely realistic, the rest of the production comes across flawlessly, at least in its visual presentation. I am no seaman, so I can’t judge how accurate or suitable the character’s actions are and whether they in any way made the situation better or worse. But Redford’s depiction of a man whose demeanour changes from calm, controlled and determined to dehydrated, exhausted and slightly delirious is a truly compelling job of acting, and he deserves great credit for steering the film in the right direction.

The film is only the second by director J.C. Chandor, whose 2011 début Margin Call also took place in a limited time and place: over a period of 24 hours in an investment bank, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

All is Lost has a perfectly ambiguous ending, and although one can quibble about the need for an opening voice-over that attempts to frame the film in terms of suspense rather than surprise (as if the title didn’t suffice), it is a breath-taking work of fiction that shows what single-character dramas should look like.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Real-life story about family and forgiveness is brilliantly told in one of the best feature-film débuts of all time.

Fruitvale Station

USA

5*
Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriter:
Ryan Coogler

Director of Photography:
Rachel Morrison

Running time: 85 minutes

Fruitvale Station is not a film about race and immediately accessible to a very wide audience. The story is about the beauty, the frustration, the dreams, the indecision, the memories and the love embedded in one man’s last day on earth. With mesmerising performances, an intimacy that is utterly compelling and a main character that is far from perfect but does his best until his past catches up with him in the most tragic way imaginable, this is one of the best débuts I have ever seen.

The director is Ryan Coogler, who shot the film in 20 days only a few weeks after his 26th birthday. His story is small enough to focus on the details of Oscar Grant’s last day, based on the real events that took place New Year’s Eve 2008 and early on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of Fruitvale in Oakland, San Francisco. Its more ambitious moments, namely a handful of unbroken takes, don’t draw attention in a way one would have expected from an inexperienced filmmaker. They never stand out from the rest of the production, and perhaps the reason is the dynamite performance of the actor who plays Oscar, Michael B. Jordan.

The film is bookended by the events of New Year’s Day, and the opening scene is clearly shot with a cellphone camera or some other handheld device with low-quality images. The reason for this is only explained at the end, although the documentary quality accurately indicates the origins of the story with actual events. What we get during the film, then, is New Year’s Eve, which not only builds towards the evening’s midnight celebrations in San Francisco but also the birthday dinner of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

Over time, we learn a great deal about Oscar’s life through his interactions with those closest to him: his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother and his tight-knit group of friends. One of them is Cato, played by Coogler’s brother, Keenan. Cato works at the Farmer Joe’s Marketplace supermarket in Oakland, where Oscar was recently fired for turning up late to work once too often. The two are friends, but when Oscar’s attempts to get rehired by the otherwise affable manager are unsuccessful, he fails to mention this to Cato, instead telling him he will start again the following week. Oscar, whose tattoo spells out “Palma Ceia” (one of the gangs in the neighbourhood of Hayward) and who was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend, is actually a very vulnerable individual, and Coogler reveals his character with details that are surprising short but impressive.

Such moments include a flashback to a year earlier when his mother had visited him in prison, and another very intelligent add-on when he sees an ownerless dog, strokes it, before seconds later hearing a yelp from the highway, where he picks up the dog and carries its bloodied body back to the side of the road. Of course, this anticipates the events at the end of the film by showing us how quickly a creature can go from smiling and energetic to still and lifeless. But it is nonetheless (perhaps therefore) intensely poignant and may even move us to tears.

The seemingly mundane, within the context of a single day and given our knowledge that all of this is leading up to something terrible, takes on extraordinary meaning, and Coogler should be given all credit for imbuing his story with both energy and affection that always come across as entirely believable. Even Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), is a natural in front of the camera and cannot be faulted for a single false move or response.

Fruitvale Station shows us the story of one man who has his faults but is totally likeable throughout and whose life is filled with some of the experiences and feelings we all share, conveyed with the utmost sincerity. His beautiful smile, his love for his daughter, his aggression in the face of injustice and desire to change his life for the better are all attributes we admire. This is not the story of someone up against the system, but rather about someone up against himself and especially his past.

It is difficult to believe this was Coogler’s first feature film. Especially the slightly risky move of presenting one of the final scenes without showing us the face of its central or focal character is jaw-droppingly astounding, bringing with it the necessary uncertainty that the scene calls for. I for one cannot wait to see what Coogler does next.

Margin Call (2011)

01E_MGC_DOM_1Sht.inddUSA

4*
Director:

J.C. Chandor
Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank DeMarco

Running time: 107 minutes

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call opens with force, and its opening scenes sustain the energy of this film, which is mostly set in a single location throughout most of its running time, encompassing a diegetic time frame of roughly 36 hours.

There is no conventional setup; instead, the surprise is the setup. We meet the characters and the sudden turmoil in medias res, as employees at an investment bank see their colleagues being let go. The impact of this storm is all the more powerful because the axing takes place in full view of the entire staff, as the fateful meetings are scheduled in a conference room with a glass wall facing the rest of the office.

Margin Call gives us a rush of adrenaline already, and we don’t even know what the film is about, yet. But then we see Eric Dale getting fired. Dale is played by Stanley Tucci, and obviously, if Tucci is playing him, he has to be consequential. Indeed, although he may only appear in three scenes, his character is pivotal to the development of the film. To remind us of his significance, he is mentioned every few scenes, and we get the very real sense there would have been no Margin Call had it not been for the delicate project and catastrophic projections Dale had been working on.

Not that the film lacks big names. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto all feature in this cast of professionals. One has to admire the confidence of first-time filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose follow-up would be the exceptional All is Lost with Robert Redford as a cast unto himself in 2013. This film required an ensemble that works together in unison with characters only rising above the rest at very critical moments, and Chandor’s direction is flawless.

We eventually do find out that the film is set in 2008, and while this is not Lehman Brothers, it is a very similar outfit, with some of the same problems. Quinto’s character, Peter Sullivan, is entrusted with some deeply troubling data by the outgoing Dale, which basically show that the company is about to tank, as over the previous two weeks its volatility has started to exceed historical levels.

Luckily, one does not need to understand the terminology used to describe the systemic failures behind the action in order to grasp the seriousness of the situation here. The language is generally transparent and easy to comprehend, and is helped by some of the major players here just being good salesmen and not necessarily all that into linguistic gymnastics with financial lingo – some of the most highly paid individuals here cannot even read a chart.

In the middle of the film, there is a wonderful scene around a conference table when the self-admitted earner of “the big bucks”, the company’s CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), asks Sullivan to explain the situation to him and to those around the table, “as you might to a young child, or a Golden Retriever.” What Sullivan reveals to them, and to us, is that the firm is at a point where it either throws all sense of morality out the window and keeps on to a fraction of its cash, and likely making many on staff instant millionaires because of the way these things work out, or own up to its makes and loses all its money.

Of course, the firm chooses the former option, but while there is nothing wrong with the overarching narrative, the film falters in its final act by not letting us experience the exhilarating moral dilemma the characters face on the big day. Too little of the final day is shown, and most of the action seems tired and simply added on to the whirlwind of revelations and decisions of the night before, all of which we were witness to, including one of the most important meetings ever held at the company, taking place at 2:15 a.m.

The opening shot of the film – a time-lapse showing the Manhattan skyline – is also disappointing, as it establishes place but doesn’t convey the feeling of an adrenaline rush we would have got if we had immediately been shown the inside of the office. In fact, the film is rather unimpressive when it comes to its visuals, although the director does use green lighting effectively to convey the feeling of money everywhere.

Peter Sullivan is a wonderful character, and not only because of Quinto’s expressive face, but mostly because he seems genuinely nice. In one of the first scenes, he thanks his mentor shortly after he was fired, to thank him for taking a chance on him. Sullivan’s colleague, Seth, is played by the curious-eyed Penn Badgley, who is an equally charming character: slightly awkward and more sensitive to the highs and lows on the timeline, we also briefly see he wears white socks, subtly hinting that he doesn’t really belong in this rough and tumble world.

In the final scene, the focus abruptly shifts to the character of floor head Sam Rogers (played by Kevin Spacey), who we have learned cares very little about life outside the office. His dog, Ella, has died, although we don’t know whether it was a natural death or if he had finally decided to relieve the animal of its suffering. The film seems to imply his grief is noteworthy, because we get a few sounds over the black screen of the closing credits, but this entire scene is presented in a way that seems disproportionately overblown compared with the rest of the story.

Margin Call has some terrific bits and for much of its running time it is riveting. It is too bad the final few sequences are so rushed and don’t give us the kind of insight into the characters that were just starting to grow on us, as we really want to know how the actions they take affect them in the moment and beyond.