Movie Review: “Spotlight” (Tom McCarthy, USA 2015)

In the early days of the synchronized sound motion picture, Hollywood had to seek out people to write dialogue. It was no longer a matter of the occasional title card, so the writing had to be stronger than it had been before. Lacking a substantial pool of established writers in the forms that the new motion picture would require, the industry turned to established writers in other media. As a result, Hollywood was flooded with east coast newspapermen like James Agee and Herman Mankiewicz.

So it should come as no surprise that newspapers became a big part of Hollywood. The mystery-thrillers that would eventually become detective stories were more often originally stories of heroic journalists fighting for the public’s right to know. The embrionic paranoid thrillers that became bleak pictures of the corrupt corporate-political structure of modern America in the ’70s were often tales of idealistic young journalists fightinga against editors who had been corrupted by the political and commercial leaders of the time. Even after screenwriters were well-established, similar types of journalism thrillers remained commonplace enough that we saw it peak in  All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976). Continue reading

Movie Review: “All Is Lost” (J.C. Chandor, USA 2013)

A lone sailor, wandering the ocean seemingly aimlessly, is startled by a thud and the sudden and unwelcome presence of water in his yacht. He heads to the deck to discover that his yacht has run into a shipping container full of shoes. He fixes the hole in the hull, only to realize that a major storming is rolling in. That’s essentially the entire plot of All Is Lost, a film that relies on the movie star charisma of 77-year-old Robert Redford and the very simplicity that deprives it of other attractions to carry it.

Following the damage to his yacht, what ensues is a fairly simple battle of man against nature, with the unnamed lead character battling vicious storms, the loss of more and more of his equipment, a not-entirely-friendly current, and even a shiver of sharks. It’s a naked, obvious allegory for the dangers of commercialism, suggesting that nature always lurks beneath and that only by giving up on commercialism and accepting being a part of nature can man be saved.

The film shows an admirable dedication to making its point, but is ultimately undone by its simplicity and the facileness of its point. The first 20 minutes or so tell us everything the film has to say, and then it just keeps on telling us the same thing until the end. I always say that a film can only make one point, but the idea of only making one point is definitely taken too far by this film’s repetitiveness. Every note of the film is clearly coming from then on, and it does not surprise in the slightest. We see the storm coming and we know it’s going to take out his yacht and leave him somehow adrift on the ocean, probably seeking a shipping lane since he ran into a shipping container, and that’s what happens. While it’s not necessary for a film to surprise, the obviousness of this film really is a weakness.

One interesting aspect of this film is contrasting it with a very similar film that recently received much praise: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA 2013). They are both simple, existential horror films filled with physical action sequences. However, where Gravity gives us a sympathetic lead by giving us a naïve, inexperienced female scientist and reduces the older, more experienced, calmer male figure to a sort of low-level mentor role, All Is Lost gives us a lead character who really should not engender sympathy and is older though equally in over his head and uses Redford’s sheer star power and charisma to force sympathy. It’s an interesting contrast in strategies, and even though Gravity is a better film, I think it is at least arguable that All Is Lost’s strategy proves more successful. A feminist critic could also probably find much to say about what the difference between the female lead of Gravity and the male lead of All Is Lost says about the position of women in current society.

Visually, J.C. Chandor and Masanobu Takayanagi don’t do much with the film. Much of the film is, for obvious reasons, left very naturalistic and simple, which works well enough even if does not really enhance the point. However, they also fall into the CGI trap far, far too often, especially later in the film, and that is much to the detriment of a film that otherwise, for all its faults, holds together pretty well.

Robert Redford, meanwhile, is excellent in his performance. He hardly has anything to say, mostly making his points just with his eyes and movements, and he does that well. He does not have as much to do as one might expect for an actor with that much screen time, but he does what Chandor gives him perfectly. More importantly for the film, he remains one of the absolute most charismatic actors in history. He was always a capable actor who stood out largely because of his looks and his undeniable charisma, and that’s what he remains even at this age and not having acted in a noteworthy role for nearly three decades. It’s easy to feel like we can go along with him for the ride and even feel sympathy for him, even though the setting makes it quite obvious that he’s actually a wealthy man who appears to be rather stupidly in over his head. It’s that charisma that makes Redford such a perfect fit for this role, and it makes the film come far closer to working than it seems like it should.

All told, All Is Lost is less than the sum of its parts. It’s a film that works on a minor level but just doesn’t quite hold together well enough to be as good of a film as the premise and Redford’s performance would suggest. It isn’t the simple, quiet masterpiece it sets out to be, but it’s a decent enough film to be worth a viewing.