You could speculate about the reasons for it but few could deny that there's something in the air with survival narratives. Last year saw "The Grey," "Life Of Pi" and "Kon-Tiki" premiere to acclaim, and right now Sandra Bullock's battle against the void of space in "Gravity" has led to rave reviews and phenomenal box office. The latest to pit his wits against the force of nature is Robert Redford, in "All Is Lost" [A-], the second film from "Margin Call" director J.C. Chandor.
Having premiered at Cannes—where many, correctly, suggested it should have been in competition rather than a special screening -- the film hits U.S theaters this week, and while Alfonso Cuaron's bigger-budget affair is likely to continue to dominate the conversation, Chandor's film absolutely deserves to share the plaudits. It might be less technologically spectacular, but it's just as controlled and impressive a piece of direction.
It also makes "Gravity" look positively pandering in its refusal to give in to convention. For close to two hours, Redford is the only soul on screen, without so much as a volleyball to talk to. A clearly accomplished sailor, referred in the credits as "Our Man" but never otherwise named, he wakes up one morning in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a hole in his boat caused by a whopping great shipping crate. The yacht, the Virginia Jean, is waterlogged, his navigational equipment and radio is fried and useless, and there's no power. Oh, and there's also a storm on the horizon.
Beyond that, Chandor keeps things minimalist. Other than a brief introductory voiceover that gives a few hints, you find out nothing about Redford: there's no tragic backstory or specific person to get back to (even Paul Greengrass' no-nonsense "Captain Phillips" brings in Catherine Keener to humanize the stakes). As such, some may find the film chilly, but for me, Redford does a beautiful job of showing character through action. Even aside from the impressive physical feat of a man in his '70s pulling off the stuff that he does, it's something like a career best turn from the actor.
And yet it's Chandor who comes off as the MVP here. There's no CGI wizardry to distract the eye here (indeed, some slightly dodgy blue screen work is arguably the film's biggest problem), but the film's still tense and absorbing, the filmmaker shooting his limited locations inventively enough to give it variety, without ever letting the form become the content. More than anything else, it's a cunning and spare exercise in visual storytelling, treating the audience with enough respect to let them discover Our Man's latest obstacle without having it spelled out for them, and that's highly refreshing in this day and age.
Back on dry land, the music documentary is a well-trodden form at this point, and even decent ones like last year's "Shut Up And Play The Hits" find it hard to stand out from those that came before. But "Mistaken For Strangers" [B+] has a unique perspective. It might be another doc that follows a band on tour—in this case, grown-up indie rock faves-turned-surprise mainstream breakouts The National—but it doesn't just have music on its mind, as it's directed by Tom Berlinger, the younger brother of the band's frontman Matt Berlinger.
Tom is also front and center on screen: he's a somewhat aimless aspiring filmmaker with a string of homemade exploitation homages to his name, still living at home with his parents, and very much in the shadow of his rock star big brother. He's offered a chance to roadie for the band for a year, just as their record High Violet blows up, and documents the experience, as it swiftly becomes clear that he's his own worst enemy.
There's a slightly disingenuous quality to the film at first: the buffoonish on screen Tom is hard to reconcile with the adept quality of the filmmaking. But over time, you realize that Berlinger isn't just putting his own struggles on screen, but documenting the making of his own movie, a neatly meta twist that explains away that initial disconnect. As such, there's more meat to it than most tour docs, especially as the sibling relationship becomes more central to the film as time goes on. Brisk, deeply charming and often very funny, it might not provide a deep insight into the band and their work, but it's all the more accessible for it.
Another documentary that feels niche on paper is "Jodorowsky's Dune" [B+], in which debut helmer Frank Pavich tells the story of what's often described as one of the greatest films never made: the attempt of Chilean maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky to adapt Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic "Dune" in the 1970s. Assembling a killer creative team including Dan O'Bannon, Moebius, HR Giger and Pink Floyd, and a cast that featured, among others, David Carradine, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali, Jodorowsky planned out his vision in detail, and came surprisingly close to realizing it, but ultimately fell at the last hurdle when U.S. studio backing couldn't be found.
Jodorowsky, now in his '80s and just having returned to filmmaking, is a garrulous, honest and delightful host, and Pavich cunningly animates some of the extensive storyboards, with the result that you leave the documentary feeling like you've actually seen a film that never came to pass. I didn't completely buy into the film's thesis that the movie could have changed the face of movies if it had been made, and it's probably going to be more engaging for cinephiles than for a wider audience, but it's an enormously entertaining look at something that undoubtedly would have been a very special piece of work.
Not everything can be a winner, unfortunately, and British rom-com "Hello Carter" [D] missed the mark by a wide margin. The film, executive produced by Michael Winterbottom and marking the directorial debut of his long-time assistant director Anthony Wilcox, it toplines "Stardust" and "Boardwalk Empire" actor Charlie Cox as the titular Carter, who's been lovelorn, homeless and unemployed ever since his girlfriend broke up with him a year earlier. At the end of his tether, he tries to get back in touch with her, a quest that brings him into the orbit of his ex's troubled movie star brother (Paul Schneider) and a sweet recruitment consultant (Jodie Whittaker).
It's a promising and likable cast, but Wilcox's script (expanded from a short of the same name) is turgid, rarely funny, tonally awkward and more than anything, as bland as milk. And the actors are mostly wasted—Whittaker's good, but Cox is sort of wet and sappy, and the usually excellent Schneider is genuinely awful, mannered and distracting. Wilcox doesn't have a bad eye, but he'll need much, much stronger material next time out.
Finally, I raved about Frederick Wiseman's "At Berkeley" [A] at Venice but the film's London bow is a good excuse to bring up one of the best films of the year again. A four-hour epic following the great public university, it's a captivating picture about education, educators and the educated, and is something close to a masterpiece.
TOMORROW: Richard Ayoade finds "A Double," Hong Sang-Soo introduces "Nobody's Daughter," and Kathryn Hahn gets some "Afternoon Delight."