Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ender's Game, Last Vegas, and All Is Lost

          Games People Play—Ender’s and Elders’
           
                   Review by Ken Burke             Ender's Game

Outer-space sci-fi story about Earth’s battle with insect-like aliens and children as military commanders, especially gifted Ender seen as Earth’s last best hope.

                                                                           Last Vegas
          
Genteel comedy about 4 oldsters at a bachelor party in Sin City; predictable but charming if you like the actors or can empathize with their various situations.

                                                                           All Is Lost
         
Gripping drama about a man adrift in the Indian Ocean in a leaky boat, then the problems get increasingly worse; despite disconcerting lack of dialogue, Redford is superb.

[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.

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First things first, I’m feeling much more focused on writing this week because my wonderful wife, Nina, is just about over the intestinal problems that have plagued her for the last month, so speedy full recovery, Sweetie!  While Nina’s physical problems were troubling, fortunately they weren’t as confounding as some of the traumas faced by the protagonists in the movies under review this week (which don’t include the seemingly spectacular 12 Years a Slave [Steve McQueen] because Nina’s now reading the book in preparation for seeing it this weekend), where life-and-death-situations have to be resolved in a couple of cases and life decisions had to be made in the other one.  I’ll start with Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood) as it focuses mainly on adolescent leads, then move on to the stories that involve considerably older primary characters (it’s also far and away the most profitable of the 3 to be reviewed this week, although All Is Lost should top the $1 million mark if it expands beyond its current paltry 130 theaters).  As usual, it’s “Damn the spoilers, full speed ahead!” so read at your own risk as I plow through these first 2 generally-enjoyable cinematic voyages on my way to the watery masterpiece that will “anchor” our discussions.  In Ender’s Game we have a narratively-superficial (although planetary-continuance-concerned)-conflict between Earthlings and a giant-ant-like-species known as the Formics who first tried to invade our planet 50 years prior to the events of this movie, based on the very popular 1985 young adult novel by Orson Scott Card (Card himself isn’t very popular with many who support gay marriage because of his outspoken attacks on that option for those so inclined; however, despite my wholehearted backing for any rights of the LGBT community I agree with my local San Francisco Bay Area colleague, Tony Hicks [at http://www.delcotimes.com/arts-and-entertainment /20131031/will-orson-scott-cards-outspokenness-affect-enders-game—this may be a bit of a slow download], that a boycott of this screen adaptation based on opposition to Card’s views is a poor match both because you’ll find none of that sort of thinking reflected in this movie and, in my opinion, because you’ll find a compelling moral question to be pondered, especially in these “stand your ground” days of “shoot first and ask questions later”).  What’s really the critical conflict here, though, is the one between the evolving worldview of young Andrew “Ender” (nickname coming, as best I understood it, from his position as the last of his parents’ offspring, because he’s already a questionable “third” in a future global society that promotes only 2 children per household) Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) and the hard-liner position of his military commander, Col. Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), who recruits Ender into his Battle School, despite Ender’s older brother, Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak), and sister, Valentine (Abigail Breslin), having previously washed out of the program, him for being too aggressive and her for being too emotional; it’s Graff’s hope that this final Wiggin will be the better balance of his siblings’ personalities, enhancing the clear intelligence and determination that are already notable Ender characteristics in the prescreening program where he’s been under observation by Graff and military psychologist, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis).  A certain level of empathy and understanding of the mindset of the enemy is what Graff needs to find in his next battle commander—as long as it doesn’t interfere with the ruthless drive to succeed (Graff’s sole character trait), a concern that keeps Graff at odds with Anderson’s desire to not push Ender too far nor too fast—but his tactics with Ender are motivated by a strategy that constantly collides with the inner directives of his young charge.

What happened 50 years ago (2086 in this chronology, but a factoid I got from an Internet search, not from what I gleaned of the on-screen plot, which may zip confusingly past a few story items for those of us not familiar with the source book) is that Earth was on the verge of a terrible defeat by these invading super-insects (who bear a bit of a resemblance to the likewise almost-indestructible aliens from Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996]) when their mothership was destroyed in what was understood as a suicide run by heroic Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), which caused the collective-consciousness invaders to suddenly fall from the sky when their central command was obliterated (also similar to the Independence Day solution where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum figure out how to destroy that alien mothership, although the other invader fighters had to be taken out one-by-one using the same Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope [George Lucas, 1977] strategy of exploding the ships’ reactor cores—a finale I found exhilarating the first time but which was beginning to get old already in 1983 when Lucas used it again to blow up yet another Death Star in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand]).  Ever since that first Formic invasion, Earth has been united in a strategy of training older children as the leaders of a counter-invasion against the Formics, given that their young minds are more facile, enabling them to respond better to the fierce attack assumed to be mounting back on the Formic home planet (which I never did understand the location of, a relevant retrospective concern when this whole thing comes to closure).  As it turns out, Rackham ejected from his craft just before impact so he’s been working behind the scenes with Graff all these years (he must have been damn young himself back in the first battle) to cultivate the sort of leadership needed for these budding commandos in order to respond to the superior technology and assault strategy that our Earth forces assume the Formics are formulating, even though we’ve heard nothing from them during the lengthy interim.

Ender is purposely set up by Graff into situations where he’ll face resentment and isolation from the other recruits in an attempt to see how he handles competitive and dismissive reactions from his fellow potential-future-soldiers, trying to ascertain if he’s truly “the one” needed for this all-or-nothing attack on the Formics, in hopes of preventing any further incursions from them.  (Once again we have the echoes of earlier stories of this type—including Neo [Keanu Reeves] as the savior of mankind from our takeover by intelligent machines in The Matrix trilogy [Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003] and Anakin Skywalker as the assumed-prophesied-bringer-of-balance-to-The-Force-and-harmony-to-the-Galaxy [although that turned out to be his son, Luke in the previously-mentioned Episode VI] in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace [Lucas, 1999]—noted in these “resemblances,” which also have hints of Harry Potter as the foretold necessary bulwark against the return of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort, that are part of what undermines the impact of Ender’s Game for me, even though I acknowledge that Ender’s source material predates almost anything else I’ve cited here, a constant problem when filmmakers finally give screen life to a concept that’s been around for awhile but has since been eclipsed by newer stories that may well have borrowed from the older tales—one of the difficulties that plagued the interplanetary story of John Carter [Andrew Stanton, 2012; review in this blog’s March 17, 2012 posting], even though that source material came from Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars, first published in 1917) .  Graff isn’t opposed to Ender making some allies, as he does with Petra Arkanian (Hailee Steinfeld)—there’s just a hint of how some romance could also develop between them (and it may in the many books by Card that follow his original, but I’m not interested enough to pursue that line of inquiry) if they weren’t so preoccupied with their military training—but everything for Graff hinges on Ender unleashing his skills to bring maximum hurt (more so than we understand at first) to the Formic race, so to up the ante he assigns Ender to the Salamander trainee “army” commanded by half-pint-stature-but-full-fury-leader Bonzo (for those of us old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’ chimpanzee co-star in Bedtime for Bonzo [Fred de Cordova, 1951] it’s hard to expect much from a guy with that name; sure enough he never eases up in his hatred for Ender, eventually leading to Bonzo’s serious injury when they clash one-on-one) Madrid (Moises Arias), so that our besieged hero must not only deal with standard military harshness from Graff and Sgt. Dap (Nonso Anozie) but also be on guard against some of his own fellow recruits.

What preserves Ender in these situations, though, is a combination of supremely high I.Q. (so that he’s able to quickly devise counter-strategies against his adversaries, even when he’s outnumbered, in a manner akin to author Lee Child’s one-man-army, Jack Reacher [one movie of his exploits so far in 2012, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, starring a surprisingly-effective Tom Cruise despite the vast physical differences between him and the books’ character description; review in this blog’s December 23, 2012 posting]) and a willingness to do whatever it takes in terms of intimidating his opponents (even with excessive violence) so as to prevent the consideration of future attacks; this is the attitude that harmonizes so well with Graff’s, giving him reason to think that Ender is the solution he needs to neutralize the anticipated next invasion from the Formics.  Ender proves his abilities in the orbiting Battle School’s zero-gravity-warfare-simulator, allowing first the Salamander army and then his own Dragon army to triumph, even though the Dragons were up against 2 teams in their conflict.  Yet, even with this success Ender must still endure the pent-up wrath of Bonzo, whose near-fatal injury in actual combat against Ender causes the boy intense grief and a demand for contact with his sister back on Earth or else he’ll quit the program.  Graff gruffly accedes to Ender’s demand, but surprisingly (to me, at least) Valentine encourages him to continue with his military training (I guess she’s convinced as well of the immanent attack by the Formics, realizing that her brother represents Earth’s last best hope against the invaders).  So, Graff and Ender head back to space, although not to the Battle School but instead much farther out to the asteroid Eros where a command station is in place on the ruins of a former Formic outpost.

Ender now finds himself in command of a small squad made up of the cadets whom he most respects (with mutual admiration from them, including Petra) who understand that the final simulations will not be the type of playing-field-survival-games Ender excelled at in the Battle School environment but will now be computer-based scenarios that allow him to command a huge army (with subcommand assigned to his various squad members) that will be part of a training-assault-exercise on the Formic home planet.  In their final “graduation” battle the combat is furious—at times it seems that the enemy will overcome our heroes—yet Ender’s rash-but-successful-plan opens up an opportunity for Petra to fire some sort of annihilation weapon that initiates a chain reaction, laying waste to the whole planet.  It’s only after the “exercise” is completed that the child warriors learn that this was no simulation:  they were actually directing real squads of airborne invaders (1,000 of whom died in battle) against Formic defenses which allowed them to really fire the death-weapon at Formic (I guess that’s what it’s called; we never get an actual name for this planet, at least that I recall) so that it’s soon a fire-ravaged cinder with all life upon it destroyed (this is where I get confused as to where this planet actually is, how our huge Earthly armada was able to get that far into the galaxy [?] to be able to engage the Formic forces, but let’s not concern ourselves with such mundane limitations, shall we?), thereby eliminating the threat of another invasion of Earth but only through the complete annihilation of another species, which was Graff’s plan all along even though his young warriors never knew of that intent (for me, this has echoes again of Star Wars Episode IV and the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, although that time it was the good guys who were killed, creating “a great disturbance in The Force’; the only one seemingly disturbed by the destruction of the Formics in our current story is Ender).

While the technology employed in getting Ender’s Game to look impressive in its Zero-G battle simulation scenes (as well-done-visually as with Sandra Bullock “swimming” through 2 defunct space stations in Gravity [Alfonso Caurón; review in our October 9, 2013 posting], although the gravitas of Caurón’s film certainly outweighs Ender’s adventures) and its massive attack on the Formic world makes for an entertaining-enough couple of hours of explosive diversion, I found the aforementioned frequent plot resemblances and pre/barely-teen story focus to be not that interesting for my tastes.  However, the underlying moral conflict between Ender and Graff finally got my attention in the closing scenes of this movie as we learn 2 crucial bits of information that put everything we’ve seen before into new perspective:  (1) there was never any intel that verified another Formic invasion of Earth, only the assumption that if they didn’t succeed the first time they surely would try again, and (2) they weren’t planning on coming back to Earth after all, which Ender learns when he follows a sort of ESP-feeling (another of his talents) out onto the surface of Eros where he meets a dying Formic queen (again, ant-like [but massive] in body structure and communal-telepathy-ability with her minions) who communicates to him that the egg he’s found there is of a new queen, which invigorates him from his post-massacre stupor to head off into the galaxy on his own to find a new planet to house a rebirth of this all-but-destroyed-species (an action justified in this plot, given his new commission as admiral with no limits on his actions or motivations nor need for a crew to help him pilot his personal spaceship).  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that this parable of negotiate vs. assault strategies means that we can always find a peaceful solution to every potentially-catastrophic-situation (I see WW II as inevitable, unless everyone was willing to live under Fascist domination, which I’m glad they weren’t; conversely, I’m hopeful that non-military-resolutions can be found for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons and possible Iranian nuclear warheads, but I’m not naïve enough to assume guaranteed success in these endeavors purely through diplomacy), but it does raise concerns that simply because hostile aggressors exist means that the only response is to terminate them prior to any further inter-societal dialogue (in this extreme, it reminds me of an old Li’l Abner comic-strip storyline from writer/artist Al Capp in which the strip-within-the-strip featured Fearless Fosdick, a police-detective-parody of Dick Tracy, who once had a case where he knew that somewhere there was a can of poisoned baked beans so anytime Fosdick saw anyone with a can of beans he’d shoot that person dead before they might die of the poison—totally illogical, but as we see in Ender’s Game it’s not that far removed from Col. Graff’s obsession that the only good Formic is a dead one).  Maybe there’s even more of substance to be found in the follow-up Ender stories (if so, we may find out if the movie continues to succeed at its opening-weekend-pace of $27 million domestically and shows parallel resonance internationally), but I’m already impressed with the humanitarian concerns shown in this first installment (although, they emerge in a purposely-ironic way only after the non-returning-invaders have been exterminated, just to make the point more poignantly) and would be interested to see wherever Ender goes in his extra-terrestrial travels (as long as he doesn’t start campaigning against non-heterosexual unions on distant planets).

One travel location that I don’t have to wonder much about—both because I’ve been there before (but not for a long time, so a return trip in the near future would be a good plan) and because it’s been the locale for another well-known adventurous foursome—is Las Vegas, bachelor-party destination for groom-to-be Billy (Michael Douglas) and childhood-friends-from-Brooklyn Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman), and Sam (Kevin Kline) in Last Vegas (Jon Turtletaub).  While there’s a specific game involved briefly here (where Archie wins a fortune at blackjack) the real game is once again bubbling toward the surface as these 4 old guys (I’m not playing any semantic games with “older” here so as to avoid connotations of aging-irrelevancy; these guys are all depicted as being about 70, which is “old” in anyone’s chronological understanding of human lifespan, as long as we understand that term doesn’t necessarily imply feeble, incapacitated, useless, or the like; I’m not exempting myself from consideration either, as I’ll soon be 66—and claiming my larger dole of Social Security than if I’d taken it immediately upon retirement—and feel comfortably appropriate as “old” as well, but with an eagerness to live at least a couple of more decades [as long as my memory doesn’t deteriorate drastically beyond its current shortfall and my health remains solid; otherwise, we’ll just have to see what evolves]) confront their various physical and psychological limitations, trying to realize some understanding of their current situations that don’t come through their anticipated easy salvation via booze, sex, or marriage to someone almost young enough to be your granddaughter.  Last Vegas has been so often referred to as something like the “geriatric version of The Hangover(Todd Phillips, 2009) that it’s hard not to think of it in that manner—although thankfully free of tigers, chickens, random babies, and Mike Tyson—even though this time the morning-after-regrets concern nothing more noxious than a revolving bed and an impending wedding for Billy to 2-generations-removed-almost-32 Lisa (Bre Blair).  Billy, with his beachfront home in Malibu, is the most financially-successful of the group, having thrown parties for the rest of them when they each married, although Sam’s the only one left with a spouse (not that she brings him much joy in their retirement community in Naples, FL where he’s becoming disengaged as a mate and despondent from being surrounded by people who truly act and feel “old,” as if death is their only anticipation).  Archie’s departed wife—not dead, just divorced a long time ago—isn’t mentioned much, as his focus is on being overly-protected by his son, Ezra (Michael Ealy), in their Englewood, NJ home after Archie suffers a mild stroke, but Paddy’s wife’s (Sophie) death has left him a recluse in his Brooklyn apartment, so beaten down by her loss that he rarely gets out of his pajamas and robe, while harboring a vicious grudge against Billy for not attending her funeral (Billy was too heartbroken to come because he never got over encouraging her to go with Paddy decades ago when both men were serious about her but Billy felt the more natural connection was with Paddy—although Paddy doesn’t know any of this, so much of the movie continues Paddy’s disgust with Billy until all comes together nicely at the end).

As much as I enjoy seeing all of these stars working together for the first time—and as much as I can appreciate the personal tasks that each of them must consider and confront as the story winds on to its conclusion after some various Vegas-themed antics such as them somehow being recruited to judge a bikini contest (which concludes with the far-too-obvious-and-hopefully-not-mean-spirited-appearance of a very plus-size woman who stands out in stark contrast to all of her lithe competitors—it seems to end on a good note as they’ve all held up “10” cards for all of the previous contestants, so now each pair of our guys holds up a “1” but put together to imply a pair of “11”s, in an attempt to put a good-natured spin on the situation), being comped a luxurious suite by the lavish ARIA hotel (a real place, so I’ve now found out) in response to Archie’s winnings, having a fabulous party attended by all the trendiest people in Las Vegas (including a group of drag queens befriended by Sam), along with Sam’s ongoing quest to make use of his exasperated wife’s blessing for him to use the Viagra pill and condom she’s sent him off with in hopes that somehow a “don’t-tell-me-the-details-fling” will get him back into better shape to show some life with her—I have to admit that Last Vegas just feels too much like a great initial concept (“Let’s hire these well-known, well-loved actors and turn them loose like ancient adolescents in Sin City!!”) that had essentially nowhere to go for the full 105 min. running time so that one silly scene after another—such as the ongoing bit where young wiseass Todd (Jerry Ferrara) mistakenly thinks these guys are big-time East Coast mobsters so he functions like a servant for them so that they won’t take action against him for his initial insulting behavior or where Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson has a cameo as himself but not enough of a celebrity to earn entry to Billy’s big party in the suite—keeps cropping up until it’s time to resolve everyone’s problems in roughly the final 10 minutes.  It’s a cute premise for an older old viewer such as me (although I can see where younger audiences might find it amusing only in a condescending manner, simply laughing at these guys because they dare to continue finding substance in their aging [read, “beyond shelf life”] existences, and the critical establishment has literally been that unkind with a 44% average from Rotten Tomatoes and 48% from Metacritic [more details in the links below if you like]), but it’s possible that the most fun you’ll have with Last Vegas is just watching how these seasoned actors have so much fun with their roles, finally getting the chance to play off of each other for the first time in each of their lengthy careers.  There’s nothing terribly inventive nor surprising here (except for the setup of Archie appearing to have blown most of his savings at the card table, only to find out that he’s up over $100,000), but these old pros know how to handle what they’ve been given with grace and style, so just watching them play out their dilemmas can be entertaining enough, if you’re in the right mood for what’s being served up here.

Just to make sure that all of our leads get their needed salvation there’s the introduction of another major character, laid-off-professional-turned-lounge-singer (in an almost-forgotten lounge where she and her musicians often outnumber the audience) Diana (Mary Steenburgen), a delightful, no-nonsense woman who naturally catches the attraction of both Billy and Paddy (once again, of course, it’s mutual, so as to maintain the difficulty quotient).  Also once again Billy tries to be noble, telling Diana about Sophie, then removing himself from the competition in favor of Paddy, of course complicated by the fact that he’s still engaged to Lisa who’s arriving the next morning with her sweet but vapid bridesmaids Taylor (Christie George), Madison (Janay Oakland), and ... Madison (Diana Boyle)—anybody remember the similar setup from the second big Bob Newhart TV series Newhart (1982-1990) where backwoodsman Larry (William Sanderson) keeps introducing himself and his siblings with “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother, Darryl (Tony Papenfuss), and this is my other brother, Darryl (John Voldstad),” or maybe that’s just for us “old” folks—and by Paddy overhearing all this about Sophie, which really turns him to despondency.  Diana’s not thrilled about it either, not seeing herself as someone to be “gifted” at the whim of these men.  As our guys’ final day in Vegas dawns, though, everything finally takes a turn for the better as Paddy tells Lisa that Billy’s not right for her, that he’s more in love with preserving an image of his youth than he really is in love with her (which Billy confirms later to his friends, bemoaning how rapidly his life seems to have disappeared—another telling moment that those of us of a certain age can easily relate to but may come across as strange to younger ears), Paddy comes to the realization that whatever motivation Sophie had in her initial choice of him over Billy still led to a relationship that was valid and cherished so he’s now resolved to get over himself and start enjoying life again, while Archie is finally tracked down by a frantic Ezra who’s told by his father that this particular old man is going to make his own decisions even if he dies from another stroke (Sam had his own epiphany during the party the night before when he finally gets his chance to have sex with a willing, sensuous young woman but realizes that if a triumph isn’t something he can share with his loving wife then it’s not worth doing).  This story begins when the 4 guys and Sophie are all kids in Brooklyn, then shifts to 58 years later to get us into the main plot; it ends 58 days after the Las Vegas escapades as Billy and Diana are getting married (after he apologized for the misconstrued “property transferal” episode), Paddy is now going out with his neighbor’s grandmother, Archie is enjoying being a babysitter for his grandchild, and Sam’s got his own rotating bed where he and his wife have re-launched their once-again-successful sex life.  It’s certainly no Earth-saving-finale (botched as it may have been) like we experienced in Ender’s Game, but the male characters in Last Vegas have their own crises which are meaningful enough in their private lives, brought to easy-enough solutions for this low-key comedy (which won’t burden us with Hangover-ish sequels) but still pointing to valid situations of concern for many of us in society’s gray gardens, trying to find ways to stay relevant to ourselves as well as to a world at large that often wants us to bequeath an inheritance to posterity but then quickly get out of the way so that someone else can spend it.

For Robert Redford’s unnamed character in All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor), it’s not clear if anyone will get any inheritance or even notification upon his demise because we know nothing about him (except that he must have some wealth to afford the smallish-but-still-39-foot-yacht he’s on, he must know something substantial about sailing given that he’s alone in the midst of the Indian Ocean [1,700 nautical miles westward from the Sumatra Strait], and he’s in some sort of turmoil with/about his family—the boat is named the Virginia Jean, presumably the name[s] of loved ones, but we’ll never know that either—because the film opens with him narrating in voiceover [V.O.] what sounds like a farewell note expressing his sorrow at his inability “to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right,” declaring that “all is lost,” presumably not just exasperation about his likely imminent death but also melancholy that something more significant or at least fulfilling hasn’t come of his life).  We later find—after going back 8 days to see how this predicament came about—that this is a note he wrote, then put into a sealed jar tossed into the sea as his provisions have just about run out, his hopes of being rescued have completely faded, and he sees no alternative to a lonely, miserable end in the middle of nowhere that will likely be listed as merely “disappeared, date and location unknown.”  There’s no other V.O. in the film, with just a tiny bit of other spoken words, as he attempts to send a Mayday distress signal from his poorly-functioning radio, yells “Help!” as a passing ship comes almost close enough to run him over, then collapses in his life raft with a disgusted “Fuck!” as another ship fails to see his flares in the gloom of night.  Other than that, it’s all visuals and natural sounds for about half of the running time, then a subtle use of mood music to enhance his travails for the rest (a useful tactic so as to keep the experience from becoming too sparse for our attention-span without that acoustic-emotional-barometer becoming as overbearing [although, justifiably triumphant] as the climatic scenes of Gravity).  Thus, we end up with what is largely a silent film in terms of our normal expectation of continuous on-screen dialogue, but not a traditional silent film that steers our understanding of plot situations with intertitle cards; this is truly an image-based experience of one man’s desperate attempts to save himself when his boat is suddenly damaged by a large metal shipping container (of sneakers, as if to ironically remind him that his personal failures—whatever they may be—aren’t going to allow him the miracle of walking on water or finding any other spectacular relief from his perilous position) which has seemingly fallen off of some cargo ship somehow, somewhere only to randomly put his life in peril as water rushes into his cabin, damaging his radio and cutting off all power in his vessel.

He still has his sail and his charts, as well as enough glue and scraps to attempt a temporary patch of the hull hole (along with a hand-operated bilge pump that temporarily rids him of the liquid saturation of his living quarters), but after he hits his first storm the situation becomes increasingly dangerous as his mast breaks off, taking the sail with it, his boat eventually sinks, the life raft that he turns to also has leakage problems, his drinking water was become contaminated with sea water, and even his attempt at fishing is thwarted by a shark that grabs his catch before he can reel it in (his isolation is illustrated marvelously by a quiet shot from underneath the raft where sharks and other fish swim casually around, showing them to just be natural residents of this territory while he is hopelessly drifting through it with no propulsion, no means of connection to other humans, no reason to believe that any rescue is likely).  He makes use of just about every item that he can find on his damaged yacht in an attempt to find some way out of his living nightmare, including a sextant to help him chart his progress toward shipping lanes that he assumes could result in his rescue (but doesn’t) and even the rain gear that he dons while attempting to steer his battered boat through the pounding waves of a storm; however, every strategy he employs or hope that he floats proves useless, as the intense sun-drenched days (the ones that aren’t filled with deadly rain, waves, and wind) drag on, with his options evaporating like the precious drops of fresh water that he retrieves from sea water through a simple but ingenious device that traps a bit of sunbaked condensation, a brief respite from dehydration but one that can only feebly sustain him for a ever-shortening time.  Sadly, when his best chance of salvation comes with some passing huge cargo ships he’s not blessed with a watchful Captain Phillips (review of this somewhat-related-nautical-crisis-film, directed by Paul Greengrass, contained in our October 16, 2013 posting) so 2 different floating behemoths steam right past him, totally unaware of his desperate attempts to signal his presence with flares (odd that no one noticed them at night, but his rubber raft wouldn’t show up on a ship’s radar so I guess that if no one happened to be looking in his direction he could just as soon be one of hundreds of passing fish as be a fellow “traveller” anxiously hoping for contact).  Once he’s drifted out of the shipping lane he’s back to being too far from land or any type of anticipated contact to survive with the scant provisions he has left; thus comes the reprise of his initial proclamation that “all is lost.”

Redford gives an outstanding performance here, conveying just about everything with facial expressions and body language, showing his character to be a fit sailor but still one likely in his 70s at the mercy of the elements, not merely lost in a self-imposed “cone of silence” as is Paddy in Last Vegas (a reluctance to say much in Paddy’s early scenes actually comes as a relief to his companions because when he does talk it’s all complaints about everything around them, especially the presence and person of Billy).  When I was single many a year ago, living in a small apartment in San Jose, I often broke the imposed silence of the home-from-work-situation either by leaving the TV or radio on just to have some sense of the presence of other human beings or by talking out loud a bit when there was no need to just to hear the sound of a person’s voice, even my own.  This device is used at times by characters in films when no one else is present just to give the audience an ongoing sense of connection with the person on screen—Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone does this a lot in Gravity, but I understand her need to hear a voice when she’s suddenly denied contact with her Houston overseers and with her colleague, Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who’s been chatting up a storm for the entire film until he voluntarily floats away in an attempt to help her preserve the resources she needs to return to Earth.  Yet, Mr. No-Name (officially noted in the credits as Our Man) as played by Redford is of another-but-also-legitimate-personality-type, with no need nor inclination to chatter out loud to himself.  He knows he’s in a dire situation, with little time to waste in making decisions or taking specific actions so he contemplates, he responds; it’s all very natural to be so silent.  In fact, he probably set out to sea by himself to immerse himself in silence so as to contemplate whatever happened back on land—maybe this voyage was an attempt to get away from his troubled situation in hopes of rectifying it later, maybe the damage done was unlikely to be repaired (just like the temporary fix on his leaking boat) so he just wanted to get away in a situation a step removed from killing himself (although fate takes a hand here, seemingly determined to finish that job for him).  Whatever his circumstances, his silence seems organic, just as Redford’s response to the character’s motives and needs feels organic, that he’s inhabiting this man and his unspoken sorrows, delivering to us a performance that equals anything he’s done previously in conjunction with other actors, delivering pages of dialogue (unlike the rare 31-page script for All Is Lost, about ¼ of usual length which just shows how much is normally devoted to dialogue rather than to scene and delivery descriptions or camera directions).  Just as I think that Bullock (for now at least, until all of the other “prestige” films debut by late December) deserves a nomination for Oscar’s Best Actress (although my front-runner is still Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine [Woody Allen; review in our August 16, 2013 posting]) I’d also advocate a probable nomination for Redford (nevertheless, from what I hear and soon will see the front runner for the Best Actor Oscar may be Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave).

How such awards-recognition will play out is still a mystery and a source of speculation for now but will be answered within a few months.  What actually happens at the end of All Is Lost (if there’s any last ounce of your consciousness that still needs a Spoiler Alert, please take heed before you read anything else but my film-related music recommendation in the following paragraph) provides another source of cognitive speculation, but one that will never be answered because we could cite evidence either way.  What seems to happen is that Our Man, in his last hours as he sees the situation in the dense darkness of the night, notices the light of a distant boat (fishing, we assume, although awfully far out from shore, like the determined angler in Hemingway’s 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea [adapted to the screen in 1958 by John Sturges, Henry King, and Fred Zinneman, the latter 2 uncredited, with Spencer Tracy in the title role]) so he attempts to announce his presence by burning what paper he has in the raft.  Just as he might be thinking, “What else could go wrong?” the fire rages out of control, burning the raft so he has to jump into the ocean.  In a scene that again evokes Gravity he senses that his time is up so he lets go of the water-treading struggle and begins to sink toward a peaceful death, just as does astronaut Bullock when she cuts off her oxygen, but, like her, he’s shaken out of his tranquil state by seeing the light from the boat very close to the rim of his blazing raft.  Again, like the re-inspired Dr. Stone, his will to live resurfaces, just as his struggling swimming strokes push him frantically toward the life-giving air (Stone has to do something similar at the very end of Gravity), just in time for a hand to reach down and claim him before the film ends in a fade-out to white (instead of the usual black).  The easy explanation is that Our Man’s luck has finally turned, an improbable but available rescue has occurred, and we can all go home feeling more positive toward our own difficult navigation of life in this demanding universe.  Or … we could interpret this as all part of a final delusion in the mind of an already-sinking, battered man (even though he’s still in the raft) so that maybe there was no light in the distance at all or if there was, leading to the raft fire and his jumping overboard, maybe he only imagined the rescue when he actually was drowning, so that the final white light on screen could be conveying his moving on to an afterlife experience, whether celestial or just the result of final brain chemistry (we do know that Gravity’s Dr. Stone hallucinates the return of Lt. Kowalski—oops, another spoiler, but you should know what to expect from me by now—yet her fading consciousness arouses her to final self-salvation; what goes on with Our Man isn’t as clear, much as we’d want to celebrate his last-minute harrowing rescue).  However you see the ending of All Is Lost the lead-up experience is masterful filmmaking and acting, a marvelous exploration of how much we’re compelled to cling to our existence, even when we’re not yet convinced that it’s been as worthwhile as it should have been.

The Beloved Fenway "Diamond"
(at least when this Noo Yawker 

sings "Sweet Caroline")
     I would assume I’ll be promoting All Is Lost for Best Picture as well (along with Gravity, and surely 12 Years a Slave [more on that next week]), but until those nominations are finalized here’s your musical metaphor to finalize this review, a single song to apply to all of the grim (although the Last Vegas guys get to transform to grinning) determinators from this week’s work, Neil Diamond’s story of another grim guy also looking for direction and meaning when both seem far too elusive in “I Am … I Said” (included on the 1971 album Stones); however, because this 1 song is supporting so much cinema I’ve give you some choices: the original (cheesy) music video from 1971 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhEaHcQgyLs, a live recording of Neil also from 1971 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zScGNNWfQ-I, and a more recent rendition (Madison Square Garden, 2008) at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=qejYBo_hs00 with his current more-talk/less-singing delivery, if you somehow prefer that after seeing him more-or-less sing the Red-Sox-now-mid-8th-inning-tradition of “Sweet Caroline” live from Boston’s Fenway Park during this year’s baseball postseason.  However, if you want to just get a sense of the song without Neil’s visage in it at all here’s a video that uses the music but puts other images to it in a contemplative fashion at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBTa59n8WgE.  This should keep you occupied until we meet again, unless you’re already sinking into an Our Man’s exhaustive state from reading through all of this week’s verbiage; if so, just float along for awhile until either Ender flies by in his rescue module or Archie buys a streamlined yacht and pulls you aboard.  Either way, nothing is lost.
            
If you’d like to know more about Ender’s Game here are some suggested links:

http://www.endersgamemovie.com/ (this one took forever to load on Safari on my computer but came up quickly on Firefox; just in case you have a problem, here’s another “official” site: http://endersgamemovie.tumblr.com/)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocIhpFHWvjc (box office results and some analysis for opening weekend returns [November 1-3, 2013] for Thor: The Dark World, Ender’s Game, Bad Grandpa, Last Vegas, and Free Birds [a true turkey of a movie it seems, which I'll gladly avoid])



If you’d like to know more about Last Vegas here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E12W86TeOtQ (an AARP 5:15 featurette on Last Vegas, shows how a movie is marketed to someone as old [and wise, of course] as your faithful critic)



If you’d like to know more about All Is Lost here are some suggested links:



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWb5toifdFE (8:43 interview with writer/director J.C. Chandor and actor Robert Redford)



As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control, as well as difficulties we’ve encountered with the Google RSS Feed Alert when used in conjunction with iGoogle and Google Reader.

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at kenburke409@gmail.com.  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Ken, it's Jason from www.saltypopcorn.com.au posting Alistair's reply he left on Salty via LinkedIn haha - so convoluted to get you a message :).

    From Alistair:
    Hey Ken, thanks for the comment,
    I read your review, as it is always good to get a different perspective on things, and I totally agree that part of the entertainment of the film is observing these veteran actors just having fun. I think the adage ‘one for me, one for you’ applies for this film.
    They just wanted to be in the same film as each other, playing characters that they could have fun in a film that clearly wouldn’t be up for any Academy Awards.
    Thanks
    Alistair

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Alistair, Thanks for your reply. Ken

    ReplyDelete