Friday, October 18, 2013

Bon voyage! Robert Redford captains J.C. Chandor's fine sailing saga -- ALL IS LOST

Get ready. But for what? Is this, as it appears, a kind of classy, arthouse version of the oh, no, no, no! mini-budget-but-grueling experience of Open Water? Best not to know any more going into ALL IS LOST, the new film from J.C. Chandor, that very talented writer/director of Margin Call, who is here dealing with a primal, man-against-the-elements theme, instead of the perhaps slightly-less-primal struggle of man-against-fellow-man (or woman) of the earlier film. But is today's audience ready for a movie about an aging sailor for whom, as the title proclaims, all is lost? Or is it prepared, rather, for a "movie," in which we know from vast experience, that hope springs eternal? We shall see.

In any case, the filmmaker, shown at left, has given us for the most part something we seldom see at the movies: A kind of you-are-there, moment-to-moment, often suspenseful, sometimes scare-the-wits-out-of-you experience in which we give up much of what we expect and demand from motion pictures -- dialog, back-story and characterization for starters -- and instead plunge into things head-first. I suspect most intelligent audiences won't mind the trade-off one little bit. So very well has Mr. Chandor filled his screenplay with incident, small and large, then paced his 107-minute movie like a continually cresting and waning wave, and so hugely effective is his star, the 77-year-old Robert Redford, who though showing every one of those years in his face, still commands a remarkably strong-looking and agile body, this one-of-a-kind film appears to be an instant classic.

Come on: Am I telling you that a movie featuring but one character, has almost zero dialog, and promises a set that is either inside the yacht or out on the ocean will rivet you for the total of its running time? I am. That Mr. Chandor has not even given Redford a cat to accompany him on the voyage and to whom he could chat now and then (and get us all sentimental in the process) speaks volumes about the kind of movie he wanted to make.

If only he had completely achieved this, All Is Lost might have been among the greatest films ever made. But there's that pesky thing about, well, the movie's music (credited to Alex Ebert), for one thing. If ever an endeavor could have managed nicely without any music, it's this one. Just the sound of the sea and wind and storm and occasional silence would have been fine -- and sometime Chandor gives us this. But then, in all those key dramatic moments, we get the musical "hype," which just adds to the "movie-ness" of it all. To be fair, I must say that the friend who attended the screening with me never even noticed the music. He did, however, thoroughly object to the barely-there shot of an appendage at the conclusion, which I found wonderfully swift and smart. To each his own, I suppose.

Story-wise, there is also the problem of something that occurs more often than it might. The first time, we're pinned to our seats with hope and despair, the second seems a bit like rubbing it in, and then.... On the plus side is the object that starts the whole story moving, simultaneously putting us in touch with globalization and the world in which we live.

Then there's the terrific character played by Redford. We know nothing about the man -- except, through his "goodbye" note, the words of which we hear read at film's beginning, in which he tells whomever that he is sorry. Yet in his moment-to-moment intelligence, actions and thought this guy becomes indelible. We are he and he us. And we don't need to know a lick about sailing per se to stay with the movie. This speaks volumes about Chandor's (and his editor Pete Beaudreau's) ability to get us to follow so easily what is happening and why, and further, to connect so strongly with our sailor's character and humanity.

While the photography is everything it ought to be (up top by Frank G. DeMarco, underwater by Peter Zuccarini), I do question the need for the underwater stuff, gorgeous as it is (that school of fish is memorable indeed), because it takes us away from our guy and further, it's something that our hero himself can't see, so why are we seeing it? I guess, simply to give us a little relief from the expected impending doom.

While these are not necessarily niggling problems, they still do not detract in any major way from the film's overall worth. Despite its faults, All Is Lost remains the kind of movie you rarely encounter. It's an achievement and -- more so, I think, than the also-at-sea Captain Phillips -- an absolute must-see for film buffs and maybe even for that quirky and fickle populace known as the "mainstream."

The movie -- from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions -- opens today in Los Angeles at the AMC Century 15, Arclight Hollywood and The Landmark in West L.A.; in New York catch it at the Angelika Film Center, City Cinema 123 and AMC Lincoln Square. Next Friday, October 25, it breaks out nationwide.

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