Tag Archives: B+

ALL IS LOST

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B+

It’s the season for solitary survival stories at the movies. There was a time when James Franco had things pretty much to himself in “127 Hours,” but recently Sandra Bullock has made the box office hum by being marooned in space in “Gravity,” and now Robert Redford is a yachtsman left adrift in the middle of the Indian ocean in “All is Lost.” The only prospect worse, one might quip, would be watching any of these films alone in a theatre auditorium.

Actually, as cinematic exercises each is a quality product. But despite its location on the open sea and far less virtuosic direction from J.C. Chandor than Danny Boyle’s, “All is Lost,” anchored by an admirably restrained performance from Redford, is more akin to the confinement of “Hours” than the broad outer-space vistas of “Gravity.” It’s been rightly described as minimalist filmmaking, which begins with its only extended dialogue sequence—a voice-over read regretfully by Redford as his unnamed character pens a farewell note to his family and friends after coming to terms with the fact that he’s unlikely to survive much longer, drifting in a battered rubber life raft without any more food or drinkable water.

The film then skips back to when the man’s boat, the Virginia Jean, was intact and he was going about his solo crossing of the ocean with professional skill. Awakening one morning, he finds his cabin floor drenched in water, and when he investigates he finds that a huge shipping container, which has presumably fallen from a cargo ship, has rammed into his yacht, spilling some of its cargo—sneakers—into the sea and, more importantly, leaving a gaping hole in the hull. The camera follows him as he pries the metal crate from his boat and then uses whatever materials are at hand to patch up the damage as best he can.

But, of course, the ad hoc repairs prove insufficient, especially when bad weather comes up and the yacht is tossed around by enormous waves. With the radio out and the navigational system equally dead, the man does everything he can to keep the boat afloat and preserve whatever supplies he can. Ultimately, though, he’s forced to abandon the craft for the flimsy life boat, all the while employing whatever skills he has to pilot himself into the shipping lanes, where he hopes to be noticed by a passing vessel and rescued.

Throughout the earlier portion of his ordeal the man strives to maintain his normal patterns as much as possible—shaving, having regular meals and the like—just to keep going. And he shows himself supremely resilient and remarkably composed, going about his tasks with an attitude that remains quietly resolute, even hopeful, until all actually seems lost. After a few desperate, apparently futile, attempts to attract the attention of somebody on the vast barges he spies in the distance, carrying the same sorts of boxes as the one that wrecked his boat, he gives in to the inevitable—or is it? That leads to a final sequence that’s deliberately ambiguous, involving a light that can be taken in a variety of ways, any of which seems just a bit of a cop-out. (“Gravity” suffered from a similar reluctance to take matters to their natural conclusion.)

Still, until that final steeping back from the brink, “All Is Lost” is a survival story that eschews melodramatic exaggeration in favor of a straightforward approach that extends to Redford’s understated yet authoritative performance. With a very limited number of lines to deliver—largely confined to be a few choice expletives after that opening monologue—he conveys the character’s changes with subtle shifts of expression, and makes us believe in the man despite the fact that we’re given absolutely no back story on him. This is, after all, an existential piece, in which only the “now,” and the decisions and actions taken in it, matter.

Chandor keeps a firm but not unyielding hand on the rudder, refusing to lapse into cliché or sentiment. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco complements that approach with work that emphasizes an almost tactile sense of reality, though the visuals opt for a more poetic touch when associate cinematographer Peter Zuccarini takes the camera underwater for shots of sharks circling the life raft or the man swimming for dear life. Pete Beaudreau’s editing sometimes feels a bit sluggish, and Alex Ebert’s score can get a mite blowsy, but these are minor defects.

You have to admire the authentic texture of “All Is Lost,” even in the few scenes filmed in tanks. But that comes not merely from the technical expertise of the filmmakers but from the naturalism of Redford’s performance. He handles the physical demands of the part splendidly—and they’re considerable—but what’s most impressive is how he maintains the character’s stoicism without it becoming simply dull. Perhaps that’s partially the result of our familiarity with the actor—he’s practically a member of the family, after all. Without an ounce of showy overindulgence he brings a gentle dignity to this “Old Man and the Sea” tale—though the story itself is as much Sartre as Hemingway.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB

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B+

Viewers will be shocked at Matthew McConaughey’s emaciated appearance but—given the string of extraordinary performances he’s given since “The Lincoln Lawyer”—not the quality of his acting in “Dallas Buyers Club.”

McConaughey lost forty pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician working the rodeo circuit who’s diagnosed as HIV-positive during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. A volatile, randy, hard-drinking fellow often in trouble with the law, he’s also instinctively homophobic (a trait which, if the recollections of those who knew him are accurate, the script exaggerates for dramatic effect), and insists that the doctors who give him the news after he’s brought in following a work-related accident must be wrong. But when he finds himself as shunned by his former friends as gay sufferers are by society at large, his attitudes gradually change.

That dramatic arc, however, is spurred by his immediate incentive to procure whatever drugs might be available, even on a trial basis, to treat the infection. Unable to get into the group testing AZT under the guidance of the very pair of physicians who diagnosed him, Woodroof bribes an orderly to steal the medicine for him, and when that avenue is closed drives to Mexico, where expatriate American Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) tells him that AZT is toxic and provides him with alternatives—vitamins and supplements as well as meds as yet unapproved by the FDA.

That sets off dollars signs in Woodroof’s head, and soon he’s smuggling the items into Texas as a commodity much in demand in the gay community, eventually going worldwide to secure the meds he wants. But rather than trying to sell them outright, he follows a clever distribution scheme. He sells memberships in a club, one of the perks of which is a monthly supply ostensibly for free—and he enlists to serve as a star salesman among his potential customers Rayon (Jared Leto), a drug-addict transsexual who was part of the AZT test group.

From this point “Dallas Buyers Club” turns into a David-and-Goliath story, with Woodroof facing off against FDA officials, who use every legal avenue at their disposal to shut his business down while continuing to promote the promise of AZT, despite dangerous side-effects of the drug. The implication, of course, is that the agency’s actions were incited by pressure—and perhaps financial incentives—from the pharmaceutical companies that could profit enormously from sales of their product. As the conflict escalates, Eve Sacks (pretty Jennifer Garner), one of the two doctors involved in the trials, gradually emerges as Ron’s principled, rebellious ally, while the other, Dr. Sevard (Denis O’Hare), aligns himself with the establishment and the myopia it represents. And, of course sparks fly between Ron and Eve, though for obvious reasons their relationship must remain platonic. Ultimately litigation will be required.

To a great extent the film, written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and ably directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, follows conventions familiar from previous pictures. Woodroof’s transformation from hostile bigot to understanding, sympathetic brother to the gay community stretches back to Jonathan Demme’s twenty-year old “Philadelphia,” in which the lawyer played by Denzel Washington followed much the same emotional trajectory. More generally, the tactic of using an outsider to a mistreated community to make a story more accessible to viewers who might well be outsiders to it themselves, rather than just telling the story from within, is an old one that was repeatedly employed, for instance, in films about the civil rights struggle. (This would be a very different tale if Rayon were its central character, instead of a fictionalized catalyst to Woodroof’s transformation.) And, of course, the little-guy-against-the-system aspect of the narrative is an age-old device—one need only think of “Erin Brockovich,” for example.

Yet “Dallas Buyers Club” works, mostly because of McConaughey’s electrifying performance, which makes Woodroof the sort of high-octane rogue it’s impossible to dislike. And his triumph is closely matched by Leto’s, an inspired piece of work that even puts across a clumsy scene in which Rayon visits his estranged father in hopes of getting money to keep the club afloat. Together the two also manage to pull off the predictable scene in which Woodroof uses physical force to compel a bigoted friend (Kevin Rankin) to treat Rayon courteously rather than spit out insults at him.

Otherwise the cast aren’t terribly well used, with Garner stuck in a stock part and even Steve Zahn able to do little with the role of a Dallas cop who’s sympathetic to the trouble-making Woodroof. But Dunne underplays nicely as Dr. Vass, who’s essentially the instigator of it all. The mid-eighties milieu is reasonably well caught, and the general grubbiness of Woodroof’s world is certainly captured by production designer John Paino, art director Javiera Varas, set decorator Robert Covelman and costume designers Kurt and Bart, with similarly gritty cinematography by Yves Belanger. But it has to be noted that the picture wasn’t shot in Dallas, and the locations aren’t really a convincing simulacrum of the city, looking more like Louisiana (not surprising, since that’s where it was filmed).

“Dallas Buyers Club” can be criticized for shoehorning its story into a familiar framework to make it more comfortable for mainstream audiences. But the astonishing turns by McConaughey and Leto nonetheless give it a powerful charge.