All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

The French Connection

French ConnectionIf you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie.  Rather, it is a completely kinetic film.  Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s.  It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.

In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score.  Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night.  As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker.  From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon.  With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.

When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable.  Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses.  As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film.  Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below.  When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.

Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal.  Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it.  The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police.  Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent.  Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time.  Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad.  As the French might say, “this is life.”

Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly.  The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).  It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.

For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers.  Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks.  I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth.  It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.

Catching Fire

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Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, is an excellent sequel. Like the first film, it’s based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Although Ms. Collins co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, she settles here for the role of Executive Producer. While that might have been a problem, I think that was really for the best.

For one thing, the novel Catching Fire has a few issues. Many times I felt kind of lost while reading it, mostly due to description. I couldn’t really see some of the action, especially in the Games arena. It felt rushed, as if the action was streaming by me, rather than keeping me actively engaged. The final problem in the novel is that the ending left me up in the air. I didn’t think it resolved–it seemed rather clear that it was only the first half of a book. The movie resolves all of these problems beautifully. Either that, or I was simply reconciled to the ending. It’s hard to tell.

At two hours and fifteen minutes from the opening to the final credits, there is plenty of time to see the action unfold. And while I generally don’t care for movies that long, some films are some noteworthy exceptions–where the action, story, and character all combine to keep me totally engaged for the entire length. Catching Fire meets all of those requirements.

A good example of how the movie took a generalization and graphically made it beautiful is in the look of the costumes. In fact, all of the visual flair of the movie makes the story come alive. The dress that Katniss wears to the President’s welcome party is stunning, interweaving the colored feathers of the mockingjay on her shoulders. The wedding dress that she wears for her interview with Caesar is beautiful. When she twirls and the fire engulfs the dress and turns it into a mockingjay, complete with wings, the effect is nothing less than astounding.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film, as she did with The Hunger Games. There is something really special in the way she carries herself, the use of her voice and her eyes, that makes her one of those rare acting personalities that seem to reach inside you. Some actors have “it” and she has “it” in spades. Her body of work is already very impressive, considering her youth. Her acting in Winter’s Bone is amazing, as is her Academy Award winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and I’m hoping that she chooses her scripts well and has one of those careers that is meteoric.

All of the supporting actors that were great in the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel–Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch are all perfect. The best performance of this group is given by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a moving character arc as Effie, bringing her full turn from giddy capital gadfly to broken realist. In addition, there are a couple of new characters here that really make the story go. First of all, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Evansby, the new Head Gamemaker, and secondly, Jena Malone is cast as Joanna, the misfit victor who joins the revolution along with Plutarch.. Both of them are really great.

All of the scenes inside the new Hunger Games arena are extremely well-done. They have visualized the arena from the book very precisely and it makes a terrific battleground. The clock dangers, especially the poisonous fog and the attack of the apes, are heart-pounding sequences and memorable filmmaking.

The final reason that the film is better than the novel is that the ending brought a feeling of resolution. I can’t stress enough how difficult this is, given that the ending is really (just like in the novel) a cliffhanger. I walked away from the movie looking forward to the final installment, but not feeling as if I had been left hanging. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence’s face is way plenty to keep me going until Mockingjay finishes filming and is released. I loved the final graphic of the mockingjay’s twisting around from a silhouette posture and turning into something resembling a phoenix surrounded by flames in the circle. Beautiful.

If you loved The Hunger Games, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find Catching Fire to be a marvelous film and well worth the investment of time. Highly recommend.