Thursday, March 24, 2016

All is Lost

Written at the time of the film's release.

Redford at Morning/Sailor Take Warning
All Departing the Good Ship Hubris (We're Going to Need a MUCH Bigger Boat!)

I have a friend who once expressed an interest in sailing around the world in a small to medium sail-boat. They're a good friend, but I'd heard enough stories about their seamanship, that I could see it was a Bad Idea.  

Fortunately, I didn't have to say anything that might besmirch our friendship. I was just finishing up Sebastian Junger's "A Perfect Storm" and I left it at his place without mentioning it.

A couple weeks later, that trip never came up again. Manipulative? Sure. But, he's still around.

I should tell him to see this one as a refresher.

Now, All is Lost may have the longest, funniest and seemingly unnecessary scroll of end-credits this year, but that shouldn't discount that it is one terrific movie, with the simplest of plots, only one actor, a minimal of dialogue, and its being the most effective retort to a film-year that has been marooned in digital extravagance but minimal ingenuity.*

All is Lost begins with a "good-bye" letter, read in voice-over. The letter gives no specific information about what the situation is, other than "all is lost now," that he's finally nearing the end of his ordeal, reassuring us that it wasn't for lack of trying and that he "fought the good fight." He'll says he will miss "all of you."

And that he's sorry.

Fade to black.  "8 days earlier."
Boom. "Our Man" (Robert Redford)—as he's called in the credits—is awoken on a boat by a loud bang, and water pouring in. Lousy way to start the morning. He goes on-deck and sees that he's been rammed by a large container of unknown origin floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He systematically finds what he needs to anchor the container and steer his boat away from it, so that he can take a look at the gash in the side of his boat and plan his repairs.  He grabs the electronics that have been hit with salt water—laptop, cell-phone, radio—and takes them on-deck. Deep in some back recess of a cubby-hole he finds the fiber-glass repair kit and reads. Then he fashions a handle out of an easily broken piece of wood, whittles it to a point and uses it to pump out the flooded cabin and bring the boat enough out of the water to make repairs, then angles his sails over to the side opposite the gash to keep it above the water-line.
Okay, so that's 20 minutes gone by. The movie presents its protagonist a challenge with several components, which are methodically taken care of, there's no voice-over, no talking to oneself. It's just "this guy," (and you get over it being Redford very quickly), going through the paces of being alone in the middle of nowhere and trying to maintain his only means of support. We don't know who he is or why he's out there. He merely is, and now it appears that instead of sailing around the world, he's up shit-creek without a paddle. Again, no words are spoken, and for the next hour and some odd minutes, there won't be, save for a repeated attempt to hail a presence on the radio, and one long, frustrated "f"-bomb that certainly can be forgiven (and given a PG-13 rating) under the circumstances.
That's everything. A crippled ship on dangerous seas with threatening weather, no communication, and a grizzled old guy who may be out of his depth. Toss in a cruel God with a nasty sense of humor, and set to "liquefy."

Redford has never been better. Frequently, his failing as an actor hasn't been physical, but for some over-thought playing of his lines. That's not here. He's basically living this, doing the work, trying to keep the continuity and pull off a two-hour one-man show of "Sisyphus on the Water" where there's no place to hide. And his lined, haggard face is in that nether-mind-set of showing his thoughts while never betraying them. It's a performance of instincts, and Redford's instincts have always been impeccable. He keeps you engrossed and enmeshed throughout the entire movie.
Credit writer-director Chandor for that (his first movie was the excellent Margin Call).  As simple a project as it might be (and the budget's listed as 9 mil') it's still very close quarters to make a movie in.  The movie does pass the suspension of disbelief rule, as espoused by Johnny Carson.** We're in a limited space no matter where we are, and the only time we're off the boat is when a wide-shot's perspective is needed.  

The end credits are a giggle-fest because the movie is a guy on a boat for two hours, but has such a HUGE list of credits that seem to go on forever (even at one point "thanking" The Pacific Ocean and The Atlantic Ocean). I was amused at all the ADR credits (there is a voice-over at the beginning, but virtually no dialogue to loop). At. All.

But, that shouldn't take away from the film.  

What does take away is the score by Alex Ebert, which is a disaster, at times, confusing one, dramatically, with music that is sonically inappropriate or merely crushingly over-the-top. "Sonically inappropriate" What do we mean by that?   Well, at one point, a rhythmic thrumming is heard as "Our Man" wakes up. Is it a ship coming near? Are we about to be rescued? Why isn't "Our Man" reacting? Why? Because it's only the music...interfering. We can hear it. He cannot (and he's the luckier for it). Look, it's a rookie mistake (and it IS a mistake) to throw in some rhythmic percussion or ANY-thing with a repeating chop, because it can be mistaken for a motor moving unnaturally fast and distinctive from the slow lap of a wave. And when you're in such a limited space, you have to be careful what you do with the music to keep it out of the timbres of the natural sound, ESPECIALLY when the audience is so attuned and taking clues about what's going on from that sound. To add to the earache, Ebert's end-credit song is a stream-of-consciousness list of cliches that ends with "Amen." "Hallelujah," after all, having been taken. It might have been better to leave this one scoreless.

But, that music is the only container-sized blunder threatening this movie's ability to float. And hey, if you want a perfect companion for a double bill with Gravity, All is Lost is your movie.

* And it will continue: if one is paying attention to previews for the coming months, they are awash with dialogue-tropes that one could recite along with the movie: "I'm not afraid of you"/"You should be..." or "I've got it"/"You're going to need it..."  I'll bet those movies also contain "You just don't get it, do you?" and "They're standing right behind me, aren't they?"

** Carson remarked that he couldn't watch any of the "Survivor" shows because he knew that, just out of camera range, there was a Teamster with a maple-bar in his hand.

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