All is Lost
Robert Redford delivers a tour de force performance as the nameless character, "Our Man", whose small yacht strikes a cargo container floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Water quickly floods the yacht and disables all means of communication and navigation thereby stranding him 1,700 miles from land. He's smart enough to figure out where his yacht is and where to steer it---he even marks his route on a map which happened to have remained dry. You hope, along with him, that a ship will pass by and rescue him somewhere Luckily, he has food and water albeit not enough to last him more than a week. Will he survive the ordeal? Or will the forces of nature ultimately win? The answers to those questions won't be spoiled here.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor takes many risks by telling a seemingly simple story sans exposition or narration and it's virtually all silent, with the exception of when Our Man very appropriately says the F-word and, in the opening scene, when he briefly reads out loud a letter that he's writing to his loved ones. Given the fact that Our Man doesn't talk to himself throughout his struggles at sea, you'll find yourself imagining what he's thinking and, essentially, narrating the film in your own head as you watch it. Silence is often more powerful than words, and All is Lost is a testament to that kind of power. Fortunately, Robert Redford is the perfect actor for such a role because his face is very expressive. You can notice many things about him just by paying attention to his eyes, for instance. One could even go to the extent of saying that he gives a terrific innate performance which means that both Redford and Chandor have a knack for grasping human emotions. When Our Man is sad, you'll be sad. When he's exhausted, you'll feel exhausted. When he's hopeful and happy, you'll feel the same way. No other American actor would have been able to pull off this role as effectively as Redford does. Kudos to him for taking the risk of such a physically and emotionally demanding role. Hopefully those risks will pay off with at least an Oscar nomination.
If All is Lost were written/directed more conventionally, it would have been a bore. Not a single moment rings false and, amazingly, the technical aspects of the film are quite impressive without inundating you with too many stunning visual effects. In other words, All is Lost never becomes shallow; it remains grounded in humanism and naturalism from start to finish.
Mondays With William centers on the relationship between William Laga, schizophrenic homeless painter from LA, and Marcelle Danan, a gallery owner who became his benefactor. Director Steve Beebe opts for a mostly observational approach without many talk-heads. Marcelle explains how she found William and why she decided to pick him up from the streets and sell his art while boosting his fame. The doc's title comes from the fact that she bought him paint every Monday for his paintings. The revenues from the art sales paid for his new apartment that she found for him. Marcelle's kindness and compassion toward William feels quite heartwarming and uplifting, but toward the end of Mondays With William he disappeared while she's away on a trip. She doesn't know where he is or even if he's alive for that matter. In the doc's most poignant scene, she gets ahold of William's mother whom he hadn't seen for many years. What happened to him when he disappeared still remains a mystery by the time the end credits role, and the same can be said for the reason why William and Marcelle's friendship fell apart. Did William become distrustful of her or perhaps become paranoid or tired of her generosity? Does it have anything to do with the decrease in sales of his artworks? Beebe leaves that up to you to decide the answers to those questions. Instead of investigating the questions, he opts for raising awareness homelessness and schizophrenia on the streets of LA while tugging at your heartstrings. At a running time of 90 minutes, the moderately engaging Mondays With William appeals more to the heart than to the mind. American Promise follows two African-American families who struggle to raise their children and confront learning disabilities as well as other issues as their children go through the American education system. Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, the doc's co-directors, film their son, Idris, and his son's friend, Seun, over the course of 9 years leading up to their graduation from high school. At times the footage comes across as merely home movies, so you'll feel like a voyeur and wonder why you're watching it or what's to be learned from all of this to begin with. American Promise probably could have used filmmaker who's a little bit more distant from its subjects; the fact that the co-directors are Idris' parents is in itself a conflict of interest. The running time 2 hour and 15 minutes sounds like adequate time to cover plenty of ground, but, unfortunately, much of the film feels repetitive, overlong and, worst of all, not illuminating enough. If it were only around 90 minutes long, it wouldn't be so bloated. American Promise opens at the IFC Center via Rada Film Group. If you're interested in design and architecture, there's The Human Scale, a doc about city planner Jan Gehl's ideas about improving the design of cities to make them more compatible with human beings. He makes a very valid point about how cities are alienating and isolating; human beings are meant to be communal and to walk around a lot instead of staying in their humble abodes with a roommate or, in many cases, alone. The bottom line is that cities should be more people-friendly. It's no wonder, then, that Gehl worked as a consultant for New York City's redesign of Times Square in 2009 which turned it into an actual square where people could walk around and gather at. Director Andreas M. Dalsgaard also travels to cities like Chongqing, China, Christchruch, New Zealand and Dhaka, Bangladesh to see what kind of changes related to Gehr's for urban ideas have been taking place there. The Human Scale offers insight into urban planning and remains fascinating throughout, but it's too dry and somewhat myopic. At times it even seems like an advertisement for Jan Gehr. What about including some other perspectives on urban planning to compare/contrast Gehr's ideas? That would have least added some tension to the doc and would've inspired some critical thinking among the audience, but instead you're merely fed Gehr's ideas without putting them into a complex, broader context. Distributor KimStim opens The Human Scale at the IFC Center.
The Taiwan Oyster
Two American kindergarten teachers, Simon (Billy Harvey) and Darin (Jeff Palmiotti), both work abroad in Taiwan. They attend a party where one of other their drunk acquaintances, Jed (Will Mounger), dies from a fall while trying to jump from one building to another. In a series of events that have to be seen to be believed, Simon and Darin succeed in stealing Jed's corpse from the local morgue and drive it through the Taiwanese countryside to be find a place to bury it. Nikita (Leonora Lim), an employee, from the morgue, joins them on their journey.
Part road movie, dark comedy, romance and drama, The Taiwan Oyster that works best experiencing rather than describing. Writer/director Mark Jarrett together with co-writers Jordan Heimer and Mitchell Jarrett amalgamate all of those elements in surprisingly organic, smooth and unpretentious ways that wouldn't have worked without such a wise, sensitive and grounded screenplay. It also remains unpredictable throughout while leaving just enough room for interpretation; it's refreshing that the screenwriters trust the audience's intelligence and let them absorb the scenes without any awkward jump cuts. One minute it pulls your heartstrings ever so gently, another minute you're laughing or amused. Each character has an arc, to a certain degree, and the completion of the arc feels well-earned by the time the end credits role.
The physical journey of Simon, Darin and Nikita concurrently becomes a spiritual journey where lessons are learned, epiphanies are experienced and revelations/truths rise to the surface, none of which will be spoiled here. Grounding the film further into a sense of realism are the well-nuanced performances by Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti and Leonora Lim. Neither of their performances rings false. It's also safe to say that the setting in Taiwan become a character within itself, although director Mark Jarrett wisely doesn't overindulge in the beauty and serenity of Taiwan's countryside. Rarely does a film work that's both plot and character driven at the same time without turning into an uneven, convoluted mess.