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Peril at Sea Double-Feature Part I: All is Lost

Last week I took in not one, but two intense stories featuring great peril at sea: All is Lost and Captain Phillips.

Today I am here to talk about All is Lost.  The film is a fascinating exercise in technique, as it depicts only one single human being on camera from start to finish: Robert Redford as the never-named protagonist.  The movie opens when Robert Redford’s character awakens aboard his small but nice boat, out at sea.  A Chinese shipping container has bumped up against Redford’s boat, puncturing the hull.  Mr Redford is able to extricate his boat from the lost shipping container, and quite ingeniously he is able to make a decent repair of the hole in his vessel.  But it turns out that the water that came into his boat through the hole has fried his computer and radio, and indeed all the boat’s electronics.  A terrible storm that comes a few days later takes his situation from bad to worst, and soon Mr. Redford’s character is in a desperate struggle for survival, alone at sea.

All is Lost is very well-crafted and extraordinarily well-directed.  The film is haunting in its austere beauty and intense, you-are-there no-frills realism.  I am very impressed by the work of writer/director J.C. Chandor (whose work I was unfamiliar with prior to seeing this film).  All is Lost is a bold undertaking of style and format, but while those aspects provide an intriguing hook for the film, the movie is more than just an interesting exercise.  It breathes as a complete, viscerally-affecting story.

All of that is because of the incredible skill of Robert Redford.  Mr. Redford is the reason to see this movie.  At 77 years of age, Mr. Redford is still an actor of tremendous skill, and this is a powerhouse of a performance.  Not only is he the only person on-screen for the entire run-time of the movie, but after a short opening monologue that we hear over blackness at the very start of the movie, there are less than ten lines of dialogue in the whole rest of the film.  The entire story of the movie plays almost completely over Mr. Redford’s face, and in his eyes.  It is wonderful.

One of the film’s stylistic quirks that I alluded to above is that the story starts at the exact moment that Mr. Redford’s character’s ordeal begins, and ends the moment that ordeal ends.  This is a very interesting approach.  By telling us nothing of Mr. Redford’s life before the accident that punctures a hole in his boat, the film keeps much of his character and his past a secret from us.  This focuses us in on the intense experience … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews The Sting (1973)

September 26th, 2011
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This was a fun one!  Last week I watched The Sting, the 1973 film starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, for the first time.  I’m a big fan of David Mamet’s con-man films (like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner click here for my thoughts on those films and several more by the great Mr. Mamet), so it was fun to go back and watch this terrific Best Picture-winning film.

Robert Redford plays Hooker, a street-tough grifter who, one day, working with his partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones — and yes, I did recognize his voice so I wasn’t surprised to look him up on-line and discover that he was James Earl Jones’ father!) scam a mob runner out of a lot of cash.  This, of course, brings all sorts of heat down on the pair.  Hooker winds up in Chicago, and tracks down a man he’s heard is the master of the long con: Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Together, the two hatch down a scheme to take down one of Chicago’s major gansters: Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

It’s easy to see why the pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman made this film such a hit back in 1973.  The two movie-stars are in top form, and the film gives these two charismatic and handsome actors plenty of room to play.  There were a few moments when I felt Mr. Redford laid it on a bit too thick in his portrayal of the young, stubborn Hooker, but for the most part he’s an engaging lead, and his charisma is potent.  Mr. Newman is an absolute pleasure to watch from start-to-finish, absolutely smooth as silk as the seasoned confidence man.   Mr. Newman is able to convey enormous intelligence and cunning behind Gondorff’s poker-face, and the first time we see Gondorff in action (during the poker-game on the train), it’s clear that he’s a master at his trade, played by a real master of his trade!

Robert Shaw is probably most famous for playing Quint from Jaws, but I’ll always think of him as Donald Grant from From Russia With Love (click here for my review) and also as Mr. Blue from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (click here for my review). He is absolutely fabulous as the mean, take-no-prisoners gangster Lonnegan.  Mr. Shaw puts on an Irish brogue that might not be entirely convincing, but which I loved nonetheless.  This man plays the bad-guy like nobody’s business, and he presents a real, credible threat to Hooker and Gondorff.

Hooker and Gondorff surround themselves with a cadre of fellow con-men in order to pull off the scheme, and I particularly … [continued]

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From The DVD Shelf: The Natural (1984)

I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last.  When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up.  What fun it was to revisit this fine film!

In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs.  As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game.  But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short.  Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.

There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale.  That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are.  Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white.  But it cuts deeper than that.  The film is, at essence, a morality play.  It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close).  Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends.  In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.

I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet.  Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.

At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs.  Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way.  The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with … [continued]