‘Captain Phillips’ (2013): A Film Review

By Max Conoley, Editor

Photo: Columbia Pictures
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

There’s no denying that Captain Phillips is a superbly made biopic. Paul Greengrass’ distinctive lens captures a powerful, immersive portrayal of the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by a group of Somali pirates after they hijacked the container ship Maersk Alabama in 2009. This film gets a lot of things right. But it also comes across a few speed bumps along the way.

Captain Phillips can essentially be broken up into two separate films; the first half leading up to the hijacking which could be better, and the second half regarding the tense situation between Phillips and the pirates in the cramped quarters of the lifeboat which is flawless.

Tom Hanks hasn’t delivered a performance that has received serious Oscar buzz in years and, I’ll be honest, he is fantastic in this film… at times. Like I said, the second half fires on all cylinders and he has never been better. He attempts to hold his composure while the tensions flare among his captors is some of the best acting I’ve seen all year. But in the events leading up to that, his performance seems a little forced, as if he is giving an imitation of Phillips rather than being him.

Also giving terrific performances are Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, as the pirates. None of these men had ever acted before and were selected from approximately 700 candidates. Needless to say, I think the casting director nailed it. There has been Oscar buzz for Abdi’s performance as the unspoken leader of the pirates, but I wasn’t as impressed with his individual performance as I was with the scenes involving all of the pirates arguing over their next move.

Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) does a good job at structuring the scenes. It’s clear that the dialogue is an integral part of this film, unlike most action thrillers made these days. What I don’t understand is why he didn’t delve more into Phillips relationship with his family, or why he even included it at all. The film opens with Phillips conversing with his wife (Catherine Keener) on his way to work. He sends an email to her while on the ship after the first hijacking attempt, and that’s it. It really confused me as to why they decided to use this at all. I did find it funny that they billed Keener second in the credits, even though they weren’t listed by order of appearance.

Paul Greengrass is best known for making action movies with a lot of shaky cam and that is evident again in Captain Phillips. Shaky cam normally doesn’t get on my nerves and Greengrass is one of the few directors to have mastered the technique. Of course, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) should be credited for using it to its utmost effectiveness. There are times when the movie would be better off titled “Claustrophobia: The Movie”.

I know people challenge the accuracy of the film. Some of the members of Phillips’ crew have reportedly stated that Hanks’ portrayal is way off. They have said that the real Richard Phillips knowingly put his ship and crew in danger by ignoring reports of pirate attacks in the area and sailing within the recommended 600 miles from the Somali coast. I understand where they are coming from, but I just wanted to see the movie.

All in all, Captain Phillips is a great film to watch. But some unnecessary scenes and slow pacing for the first hour or so hold it back from being so much more. But it’s still a real thrill with good performances, outstanding camera work, and a finale that will leave you speechless and seeking a cardiologist.

FILM GRADE: B

‘Rush’ (2013): A Film Review

By Max Conoley, Editor

Photo: Universal Pictures
Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Rush.

Every sport has its memorable rivalries. Boxing has Ali vs. Frazier. Baseball has New York vs. Boston. And in the world of Formula 1 racing, for at least one year, there was James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda, and that is the story told in Ron Howard’s Rush. And I got to tell you, I loved every bit of it.

The last Ron Howard film that I actually liked was 2005’s Cinderella Man, which is also a sports film. In Rush, Howard takes a well-crafted script from Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and makes a film that is more like a shot of pure adrenaline.

The film takes back to the early 70’s when the hard-partying, aggressive driving Brit James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the calculating, somewhat arrogant Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). Hunt is what race car drivers were stereotyped as back then. He sleeps with all the hot girls, he drives with a left foot, and he looks more like a rock star than a driver. Lauda was a perfectionist who viewed racing as a business and preferred working on his car in the garage over smooth talking business people at parties.

As the film progresses, we learn about Hunt and Lauda separately. They rarely share screen time and when they do, they make it clear that they don’t like each other. But they have similar backgrounds. They both came from money, their respective fathers wanted them to go into the family business, but they decided not to and worked their ways up to the big time. Hunt will stop at nothing to win, literally. I don’t think he knows where the brake is. Lauda, on the other hand is aware of the dangers of the sport. He knows that every time he’s out on the track, there is a 20% chance he won’t make it.

Hemsworth shows us that he can do more on screen than just throw a hammer around as his performance here as Hunt is great. He looks and sounds like the late, great racer. And Brühl’s work as Lauda is nothing short of brilliant. They’re nomination worthy pieces of acting that I consider two of the best performances of the year.

Aside from the lead performances, there are a few worthy supporting performances of note. Olivia Wilde, in all her beauty, does great work as Suzy Miller, the British model who married Hunt after the 1975 season, only to leave him a few months later for Richard Burton. Alexandra Maria Lara is terrific as Lauda’s wife, Marlene. And Christian McKay, one of my favorite character actors working today, does fabulous work as Lord Alexander Hesketh; the owner of Hunt’s first racing team who I wish had more screen time, because he doesn’t show up at all in the entire second half of the film.

Howard proves once again that he can make good movies after the disaster that was The Dilemma, but, despite the great performances, Rush, like the people it is about, is absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) and the great Hans Zimmer’s score form a deadly combination, the engines of the F1 cars sound incredible, and the hair and makeup people deserve recognition as well.

Rush was one of the most exciting movie going experiences I’ve ever had. Terrific performances, pitch perfect direction, outstanding music selection (even Gimme Some Lovin’), and everything else come together to make this movie a memorable one. This is one of the best sports movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them. See Rush, you’ll be glad you did.

FILM GRADE: A

‘Don Jon’ (2013): A Film Review

By Max Conoley, Editor

Photo: Relativity Media
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson in Don Jon.

Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young guy who objectifies most of the things in his life, who has a bit of road rage, and spends way too much time watching porn. In other words; Jon Martello is your basic average guy in his 20’s whose life is about to get a major lesson about relationships.

Gordon-Levitt continues to raise his movie star status here with some great work as the titular Jon. He’s a stereotypical Guido bartender from New Jersey who is more satisfied from late night porn sessions with his laptop than he is with, as he and his buddies call it, “a dime.” That all changes when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a dime if there ever was one. Johansson is off the walls brilliant, throwing on a Jersey Shore accent for good measure.

The relationship that Jon and Barbara have is anything but perfect. Jon, as we know, is addicted to porn. Barbara take on relationships has been shaped by romantic movies like Titanic or any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. Barbara sees Jon not so much as a boyfriend, but as a project. As the film progresses, Barbara tries more and more to shape Jon into the man that he should, at least according to all the movies she watches. He knows she isn’t going to be very pleased when she discovers his secret, so he does what any grown man would do in a situation like this: Wrestle the dragon during the day when she’s not around.

The real scene stealer in this movie, though, is Jon’s family, who check off all the boxes in the wacky family stereotype department. His dad (played hilariously by Tony Danza) is always watching the football game from the dinner table and has no idea what a TiVo is. His mom (Glenne Headly) is always asking him when he’s going to be getting married, despite the fact he doesn’t want to settle down just yet. And his sister (Brie Larson) is always staring at her phone and only says one thing the whole movie.

`At times, the movie can get a little choppy. There were times when I had no clue what kind of movie Gordon-Levitt was trying to make. Julianne Moore’s character, Esther, a student in a night class Jon takes because Barbara told him to, seems a little too convenient. It’s as if Gordon-Levitt felt like there needed to be a character that would teach Jon the true meaning of relationships. It seemed felt like she took the lead in the third act instead of Jon. There was also an issue I had with Jon’s sister in that the one line she has just so happens to make the most sense of anything else in the entire movie if you think about it.

Despite not being fully aware of what I was watching at certain points in the movie, Don Jon is still an entertaining piece of film. It serves as a great debut for Gordon-Levitt behind the camera (in case you didn’t know, he wrote and directed this as well), proving that he is much more than the kid from Angels in the Outfield. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year, and probably the most accurate portrayal of modern relationships in over a decade.

FILM GRADE: B

‘Prisoners’ (2013), A Film Review

By: Max Conoley, Editor

Photo: Warner Bros.
Photo: Warner Bros. Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in Prisoners

Pray for the best, prepare for the worst. This is the philosophy by which Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a carpenter living in Pennsylvania, lives by. He tells his teenaged son that the most important lesson his father taught him was to be ready for anything, but nothing could have prepared him for what is about to happen.

Dover and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are happily married with a teenaged son and a young daughter. The film opens with them going to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the home of their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their two children of the same age as the Dover’s kids. What starts out as a happy feast between the two families transforms into every parent’s worst nightmare when the two young daughters ask if they can go to the Dovers’ quickly. The children are allowed to leave, but they never return.

Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving an RV through the neighborhood around the same time the girls disappeared, is quickly apprehended and labeled the prime suspect. The problem is, Jones has the IQ of a ten-year-old, meaning there is no way he could successfully kidnap the girls and not leave a shred of evidence. So, he is released into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo) with orders to not leave the state. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the parents, Keller in particular, are less than thrilled about this.

Hugh Jackman has delivered some good performances in the past, most notably as the superhero Wolverine, but this is by far the best performance of his career. As the film progresses, Keller slowly becomes the kind of demon that a religious man like him would condemn. Although he is a man that the audience should feel remorse for, his actions throughout the film make you consider losing faith in him, but they also make you think long and hard about what you would do if you were in the same situation as him.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lead detective on the case with a perfect arrest record and a determined look in his eyes. Unlike Keller, Loki doesn’t have a personal life to speak of. Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends, we see him eating his dinner in a diner and having a conversation with his waitress over the signs of the Chinese Zodiac on his placemat.

Throughout the film, Keller and Loki butt heads every time they share the screen. Keller is determined to find his daughter by any means necessary. Loki is just as determined, but police scrutiny and his sound methods are leading the case in a direction that Keller doesn’t agree with and there is nothing Loki can say or do that will convince him otherwise.

The performances in the film are all top notch. Jackman and Gyllenhaal both deliver the best performances of their careers, each worthy of award consideration. Bello, Howard, and Davis don’t have as much screen time as you would expect considering they’re the parents just as much as Keller is. Dano, who I never really have liked as an actor, gives a great performance, his character’s clothing and just the general look on his face make him seem like a total creep. Leo also shines in a small, but pivotal role, and Wayne Duvall also does some fine work as the chief of police that is making Loki follow the evidence instead of his gut. The real stars here, however, are the people behind the camera. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) had not made an English language film prior to this, but his previous films have displayed his talents from behind the camera and they show again here. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) took a generic plot idea and turned it on its side with a script that keeps the audience guessing while incorporating some powerful religious-based overtones to the story. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is electrifying. And the cinematography is some of the best from the great Roger Deakins, who has ten Academy Award nominations dating back to 1991, it’s that good.

As good a film as it is, Prisoners is not for everyone. Some of most pivotal scenes involve torture that might make you feel uneasy later on. The two-and-a-half hour running time and the slow pacing make the film drag on at certain points. With a little sharper editing, I think this film would have come out just as good, if not better, with a running time of about 20 minutes shorter, but the problem is that I can’t think of any scene that would have been better of if left on the cutting room floor. That is my only issue with this movie, though. You will not forget Prisoners after you see it.

FILM GRADE: A-

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