Tag: robert redford

All is Lost

All is Lost (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

An unnamed man (Robert Redford) wakes up in his boat to find that water is flooding his yacht. He goes outside to investigate and finds that an orange shipping container has breached the side. He works quickly to patch the hull but it proves to be the least of his problems when he notices ominous nimbus clouds from afar.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, “All is Lost” is a small miracle because it successfully engages the gut and the mind with almost no dialogue for over a hundred minutes. Many other movies, including similar stories of survival, accomplish far less with a lot more words. This story is about a gentleman in his late years who refuses to die in the ocean. We learn about him through his action and reaction against the elements that nature throws his way.

There is no subplot. I anticipated some syrupy subplot about the lead character having a family or whatever he will leave behind if it just so happens that he fails to make it out alive. Such a tired device never rears its head. But we are curious about him. If you wake up and find that your boat is slowly sinking in the Indian Ocean, would you panic? I most certainly would. But the nameless man remains composed. He seems experienced. Observing him attempting to fix the hole is like looking an ace student solving algebraic equations: following a step-by-step process and having the confidence that everything will work out in the end. We hope he will not overlook a simple mistake.

So, we look a little closer and ask questions. We learn about his background through the clothes and accessories he wears. Does he own the boat or is it a rental? Where is he from? Where is he heading? What does he think is the worst case scenario? Few answers are provided so we imagine. In a way, we form a connection with him through being accustomed to his presence but not really knowing him as a person. We have questions and to see him die before they are answered means a lack of closure. That is why when he is thrown off the boat and his life is threatened in some way, our heart races or we hold our breath in anticipation.

Redford’s acting and Chandor’s direction form a partnership. When the actor’s movement is brisk, the camera parallels the sudden motion. When the camera is up close to the actor’s face, the performer paints a story with his eyes. With nothing but endless water and skies as a backdrop, the partnership must not waver or else it risks sacrificing the tension to be delivered only at the right time.

“All is Lost” is a high class dramatic thriller. It is limited in scope by choice but it gets just about every element exactly right. It supports the idea that it is more difficult to pull off smaller films. Here, there is no distraction designed to create a spectacle out of nothing. There is only a damaged boat, the dark water, the portentous skies, and the resourceful man.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

In my original review of Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” I asserted that the picture is nothing more than a movie that happens to have a superhero in it. The predecessor, though the action sequences are beautifully shot, is flat, boring at times, and has a villain with an endgame so confusing and paradoxical, the material never gets a real chance in engaging the viewers. The core is hollow.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” based on the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the same writers as the original, feels and looks like a completely different movie. It has more inspiration, enthusiasm, well-timed comedic moments, and characters worth caring about. As a result, a highly entertaining and confident mainstream blockbuster is created and just about every scene gets it right.

Each time a vehicular chase is involved, one can always expect three elements: a ridiculous amount of wasted bullets, glass shattering in every direction, and, perhaps most importantly, an increasing level of suspense. If one comes to think of it, the approach is not dissimilar to the better installments of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Let us take the pivotal scene with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of an espionage agency called S.H.I.E.L.D., behind the wheel as an example. It is, in a way, inspired by horror greats: utilizing a simple thing as space to trigger our hearts to beat that much faster.

It begins with a glance at a man in a police car while at a stop light. Notice as the action unfolds, although the violence grows incendiary, accompanied by a boost decibels, there is increasingly less space for our eye-patched hero to wiggle through. Assuming that one has seen him in other Marvel installments, we already know how effective of a fighter he is when he is free to move around. But this time the conflict is fresh because not only is there no room for escape, no one is coming to help him. We believe that he is in genuine danger. We hold our breath as the intimidating masked man with a metallic arm gets ever closer.

The plot is technical and almost irrelevant but here it is: S.H.I.E.L.D., under the direction of a senior official named Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), is about ready to launch its latest creation called Project Insight. It involves three heavily weaponized helicarriers that, in theory, will protect seven billion people across the globe. They are so advanced that once they are in the air, they never have to land. By sharing a connection with satellites, these helicarriers will supposedly be an effective tool to terminate acts of terrorism before they even occur. Though a man born in the 1920s and later cryogenically frozen for about seventy years, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sees through the flaw in the project immediately. He claims what will be achieved is not true freedom but fear.

The final statement above hints at a more interesting Captain America. While I find his background to be sufficiently absorbing because he was so determined to become a soldier despite weighing only ninety-five pounds and standing at about five feet four inches, I have always found his reasons for wanting to become a soldier lacking special depth. He always wants to do the right thing—not like Iron Man, who can be a jerk sometimes, or The Hulk, who is almost always out of control. Here, the definition of the “right thing” is a muddled a little bit. And yet it is enjoyable that his character arc is not so obvious as to cause his change to come off as false. Thus, we look forward to the further changes in his reasons for fighting in the inevitable sequels.

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a superior follow-up in every single way. The action is more thrilling, the motivations of the villains make more sense (even though their identities are able to be seen from a mile away), and we learn something new about our heroes. It is—without a doubt—a step forward for both the “Captain America” franchise and the Marvel universe.

The Conspirator

The Conspirator (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Seven men and one woman were arrested for conspiring to assassinate the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. Abraham Lincoln was dead and the government wanted someone to bury in order for the nation to be able to move on, not just from mourning and sorrow, but also to a new era in which the Civil War was history. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), manager of a boarding house, was accused of being a conspirator in the assassination led by John Wilkes Booth. Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a veteran lawyer, came to her defense but almost immediately appointed young and reluctant Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). Johnson knew that if he led the defense, Surratt would have no chance because Johnson was also from the South. Aiken, at least initially, was convinced she was guilty. Based on the screenplay by James D. Solomon and directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” was a well-crafted courtroom drama about the scarcity of justice in a nation that felt terrorized to the core. I admired the film’s insistence on tackling difficult questions. It offered us answers from many points of view but it was wise in highlighting the fact that the so-called truth is irrelevant if the stage is plagued with bias. Aiken was an interesting character because he had a difficult task in separating his beliefs from his duty as a lawyer. McAvoy was quite good in the role. Although he looked a bit young, there was ferocity in his eyes when he witnessed something unconstitutional and downright immoral. As a former soldier in the war, he thought he had seen it all, but he learned, in a subtle way, that bureaucracies had its share of traps and subterfuge. It was fascinating to see him adapt and at times even fail. The picture was shot beautifully. During the courtroom scenes, I was transfixed in the way the light emanated from the windows and how it landed on clothing and people’s faces. Smoke and dust blurred certain images but it was so natural that it made me feel like I was in the room. However, there were a few distracting elements that took me out the mood. I felt as though the pace of the rising action was diminished by the flashback scenes when Mary still had her freedom. The flashbacks were somewhat unnecessary because it took away some of the mystery that surrounded Mary’s allegiance. I got the impression that Redford wanted to humanize Mary just a little bit more when he really didn’t need to. Furthermore, Justin Long, as Aiken’s friend, and Alexis Bledel, as Aiken’s romantic interest, were miscast. Their styles of acting were distractingly modern. I felt their struggles in adapting to the film’s specific time period. Regardless, “The Conspirator” contained powerful messages about patriotism. Watching the film, people can and ought to learn that a true patriot is not someone who cries hardest in times of terror or grief; a true patriot is someone can see past the overwhelming feelings and commotions, someone who is loyal to the concept of what is fair.

Quiz Show

Quiz Show (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) had a great memory for the most minute facts. It served him well while participating in a game show called “Twenty-One,” but the businessmen behind the show wanted to get rid of him because ratings have plateaued. They attributed the trend to Herbie’s unlikable personality and plain looks. The show was in dire need of new blood and the current champion was to be replaced by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a university professor with classic American good looks and a charming personality. But the two men with record-breaking winning streaks were not as they seemed: behind the scenes, they were given the answers to the questions prior to appearing on live television. Based on Richard N. Goodwin’s novel and adapted to the screen by Paul Attanasio, “Quiz Show” was an unflattering but highly effective look at the relationship between television and advertising in the 1950s. It was also about the integrity of man and the popular saying, “Everyone has a price.” Stempel and Van Doren, merely pawns in the grand scheme of things, got more than they bargained for and the picture positioned us to experience their rise and fall along with the irrevocable shame born from their trials. The moment they decided to prostitute their intelligence was also the moment they put themselves in harm’s way, being paid significant amount of money for a reason. For a price, they became the most visible figures of a lie. Millions of audiences across the country were witnesses of that lie. Visibility meant responsibility. We observed, in careful direction and fascination by Robert Redford, these two men standing on their tiptoes in increasingly deep dark waters. But what I loved about the film was we learned about and identified with the two men’s circumstances. Stempel was a working class and he thought he could use the money for his family. But he also loved fame and being in front of the camera. He desperately sought for attention and those around him perceived him as unstable. On the other hand, Van Doren decided to join the show because he hoped that he could inspire kids to take part in active learning. In a way, he also did it to make his father (Paul Scofield), a man whose name didn’t go unrecognized in posh parties and gatherings, proud. Next to his father (or his reputation), he felt small. Both Stempel and Van Doren were good men but, like us, they had flaws. Instead of providing us easy answers, Redford painted the two men as both victims and accomplices instead of villains. I must also highlight Rob Morrow’s performance as Dick Goodwin, a shrewd lawyer who gathered the facts and exposed the treachery. I was transfixed on his swagger mixed with a New York accent and powers of deduction. “Quiz Show” made me think about popular game shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy.” Martin Scorsese’s character wisely pointed out that the reason people watched game shows was not due to great feats of intelligence. People watched because of the money. Somehow, I couldn’t disagree.

All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men (1976)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Five lawyers, who worked for Richard Nixon, were caught breaking and entering in an apartment complex to plant materials that would ultimately discredit their Democratic rivals. Two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), were assigned to the case but they didn’t expect the trail to the truth to be so deeply embedded in conspiracy. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, “All the President’s Men” was engrossing in every way. Like all great films I admire, the magic was in the small details. First, its realism was highlighted due to its lack of score. The clacking of busy typewriters and electric dialogue were the only music available to our ears. “Source” was perhaps the most common and critical word thrown around but it was the most elusive capture. At some point we wonder, to our exasperation, how many sources Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor, needed to run the story that would potentially open Pandora’s Box. Second, the partnership between Redford and Hoffman’s characters were constantly on the forefront. Many potential sources led to dead ends but the duo had unwavering passion and integrity for their work. We may not know who they were outside of their jobs but we didn’t need to because their careers consumed their lives. Woodward and Berstein started off as strangers who happened to work on the same floor. The awkward tension was underlined in the way the camera captured their interactions. During their first few conversations, I couldn’t help but notice that there was always something between them such as a desk or a cubicle divider, particularly when they disagreed on how to approach the research necessary for their article. When one spoke, one character was in one frame. Throughout the picture, such techniques were less numerous because they learned to work together efficiently. The physical distance between the two men decreased, their conversation took place in one frame, and, in the final few shots, they shared the same work space. Lastly, I found Hal Holbrook’s performance as Deep Throat, Woodward’s main source who had strong ties with the most powerful men in the nation, to be quite astonishing. It’s a rarity that I’m impressed by a man covered in shadow for the entire time he’s on screen. Audiences who are not particularly interested in history shouldn’t feel that they would be confused because they are not familiar with the Watergate scandal. “All the President’s Men” worked as a smart and suspenseful political thriller. Despite its subject matter, it should be admired for its bold decisions. My favorite scene was a five-to-ten-minute sequence of laser-like focus involving Woodward trying to track down a man named Kenneth Dahlberg using a telephone. It looked simple but that was its brilliance. A less skilled direction could have made the investigation dry and utterly uninvolving.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
★★ / ★★★★

I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t enjoy this western classic about two fugitives, Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford), who decided to go to Bolivia in order to escape the law and rob banks there instead. Directed by George Roy Hill, Newman and Redford were definitely charismatic and their characters had a brotherly chemistry without even trying; unfortunately, everything about it was so blasé to the point where I thought I was watching boys acting on their id rather than men trying to accomplish something that they could be proud of (no matter unlawful such things may be). Although it had a lot of energy especially during the chase and gun-wielding scenes, the movie had no idea when to turn down the energy and focus on the characters so that the audiences would know more about the two leads, such as where they came from, why the turned to the life of crime and what was it about their relationship that made them dependent on each other. The romantic angle regarding Katharine Ross as Etta Place was a mere filler for me. Those scenes lacked passion and sensuality so I was somewhat uncomfortable watching it. I wish Redford and Newman’s characters had more edge or danger instead of just being likable because there were times when I thought the film glorified violence. Except for the final minutes, I didn’t feel like their actions had any sort of consequences so the movie became one-dimensional for too long. I expected a lot coming into this film because I’ve heard from both critics and audiences alike that it was nothing short of exemplary. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I saw the picture, I don’t know, but it didn’t engage me like “Bonnie and Clyde,” with which it had a number of parallels. I wouldn’t have minded the (very light) humor so much if it let the darkness took over from time to time. It’s a shame because I really do love watching Newman and Redford because I think they’re very talented actors. Luckily, they star together again in “The Sting,” a movie that really showcases the two of them as a whole package backed up with superior writing and direction (also by George Roy Hill).

The Sting

The Sting (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I’ve heard a lot of great things about this film back when I was not yet in love with the cinema but never actually tried to search for it. I recently got around to watching this picture because I was in the mood for a classic story about American con men. What I loved about “The Sting” is the partnership between Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Each of them brought something to the table that the other one lacked, so having them together on screen was a joy to watch. I’ve seen a few of Redford’s more modern movies but none of them comes close to his performance here. In the beginning of the film, I thought he looks like a man who’s just in it for the money (and maybe a little bit of revenge) but as the film unfolded, among the chicanery and greed, he surprised me. He played the character with such honesty and introspection to the point where I realized the real reason why he does the things he does. Even though he cons other people, he feels remorse and is aware that he’s just like anybody else: capable of loneliness and hoping for a break from it all. As for Newman, I haven’t seen him in a lot of movies but this convinced me that I should. Behind those bright blue eyes, I found a certain connection–a sort of power–that is hard to come by in modern cinema. I must also commend the director, George Roy Hill, for the excellent pacing and the way he told the story. Yes, the 1930’s look of the film is magnificient–from the shiny vintage cars, exquisite clothes, colorful buildings up to the certain dialects the characters used–but without that feeling of wide-eyed excitement, all of those elements would’ve gone to waste. I thought this picture had a nice balance between thrill and comedy. Even though it’s comedic 80% of the time, that 20% of darkness peeks at the audience from time to time and that’s when I really I got involved. I wish the movie explored that darkness a bit more because it reminded me of modern gangster films’ certain styles and attitude. On top of all that, “The Sting” has a handful of twists and double-crossing that I didn’t see coming. This is a must-see.