CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and MACHETE KILLS



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Captain Phillips, the new, inspired by real events, film written by Billy Ray, directed by Paul Greengrass, and starring Tom Hanks, is a big-budget, studio type blockbuster (though technically an indie, but tomayto, tomahto) version of the Danish film A Hijacking.  And god damn it if the sons of bitches don’t get away with it.
I’m not prepared to say that Captain Phillips is the better film of the two.  I’m also not prepared to say it’s not.  But it’s a fine film in its own right and one that will grip you by the gonads (or whatever you have that you don’t find comfortable having gripped) and will not let go.  The basic plot concerns Hanks, as the title character (natch, I mean, it is Tom Hanks, so c’mon, you know), at the helm of an American cargo ship when they are taken over by Somali pirates and then what happens when the Navy SEALS are called in to resolve the situation.  And resolve it they do; hell hath no fury like an America scorned.
Everyone contributes more than their fare share to the gritty, down to earth, yet still over the top, effectiveness of the film.  This is perhaps Hanks finest performance in quite some time (possibly because it’s his most interesting character in quite some time).  His Captain Phillips is an excellent leader that defines grace under pressure.  But he’s also rigid, a stickler and a bit of a prick (well, according to the crew members who are suing the owner of the cargo ship, he was much more than a bit of one).  Though people have complained of his faux Boston accent, in the end, it doesn’t get in the way of his losing himself in this character and completely disappearing at times (or is it that Phillips loses himself in Hanks; again, tomayto, tomahto).  And those harrowing final scenes of Hanks trying to hold himself together as a medical practitioner calmly, very calmly, very, very calmly tries to help him are quite haunting (improvised on the spot with Corpsman Danielle Albert).
The screenplay by Ray does start out a bit wibbly-wobbly with some dull, flat and on the nose conversation between Phillips and his wife (played by Catherine Keener for some unknown reason; I know the economy is rough, but there wasn’t any lesser known actor who couldn’t have spared a day or two for the shoot?) on the way to the airport.  But once Phillips boards the ship, the dialog is tight, to the point, with a strong feeling of verisimilitude.  Ray does an equally amazing job of creating very real, three dimensional characters in the Somali pirates, not just making them the enemy de jour, but trying to understand why they do the things they do without making them innocent.
Greenglass, however, is the perfect director for a film like this.  His trademarked hand held camera that shakes and his constant, jagged cutting give the whole procedure the feeling of a documentary.   And he never allows the forward momentum to stop.  Whether his camera sores through the heavens or focuses in close up on the characters, everything keeps going someplace.   The whole things feels as if the editor is on meth, or at the least has ADD (BTW, that’s a compliment).
Special note, though, must be taken of Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the “look at me, look at me, I’m the captain now” head of the pirates.  He’s not a professional; he was discovered driving a limo in Minneapolis, though he spent his first seven years in Somali.  But every once in awhile a movie finds a non-professional who, by being a non-professional, can bring something to a role no actor can.  This happened with Harold Russell for The Best Years of Our Lives and Hang S. Ngor for The Killing Fields.  Abdi gives a powerful realization of his character and his scenes with Hanks are riveting.
There is one aspect of the film that I must say I found myself becoming quite unnerved by.  Though the movie is filled with human beings, everything is so controlled by machines and computers.  Everything.  The helm of the cargo ship is filled with the latest, up to date IT toys; and so, it almost seems, is the Somali ship.  Both play a cat and mouse game using computers and radar alone for awhile.  And then at the end, the SEALS arrive, with the calm determination, the lack of emotion, the steely focus of the Roman soldiers in Spartacus.  In many ways, they seem half human, half machine, like a troop of Robocops.  At this point, the drama takes a rather curious emotional turn as Phillips and Muse’s humanity is squashed by technology.   Is this really the only way we can resolve our differences?  Maybe so, but I was still left feeling somewhat uncomfortable at this brave new world that hath such creatures in it.
What is there to say about Machete Kills?  Well, I realize that it is very difficult to make a good movie that is suppose to be a bad one, but still, this is the best director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kyle Ward can do?  It certainly starts out well enough with a fun preview of the next Machete movie, Michete Kills…in Space (kill me now, Machete, kill me now) and the preposterous opening scenes achieve the tone that Rodriguez is going for.  But from the moment Carlos Estevez (it’s hard to tell from the filming whether he’s out of house arrest yet) as the POTUS without the mostus shows up, it’s all downhill from there.  The whole thing is both too clever, yet not clever enough.  And the casual and cavalier killing of people as a joke is almost never funny, just dispiriting.  Only Demian Bicher (as a Mexican revolutionary with a multiple personality disorder), Sofia Vergara (as a madam with mammaries that can kill), and William Sadler (as a quite funny parody of Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night) get away with the ridiculousness.  Mel Gibson shows up, but he’s no Auric Goldfinger; even worse, he’s no Doctor Evil.  In the end, it’s a movie that doesn’t seem to have a reason for having been made.  With Danny Trejo as Machete.

THE HUNGER GAMES


No matter what faults the movie has, and it’s not perfect by any means, it’s certainly entertaining and it does get you going emotionally (surprisingly so at times) while still being one of the uglier views of humanity I’ve seen lately. As anybody who hasn’t been on the moon for the last year knows, it takes place in a dystopian future where two teenagers, male and female, are chosen by lottery from twelve districts to participate in a televised contest to the death as punishment for a rebellion that took play more than seventy years earlier (presided over by Donald Sutherland, one of those actors who, like Michael Caine, is good in everything he does and who does just about everything he can). The heroine here, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poorest district, an Appalachian mining town, and volunteers to replace her barely eligible younger sister; her father died in a mining accident and her mother has a habit of checking out emotionally. To paraphrase Birdie Coonan from All About Eve, she has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end. One should resent the filmmakers for pushing the underdog button so strongly here, but no, it works, possibly due to the strong performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who is now cornering the market on backwoods teenagers. The forward momentum never really flags until we get to the money shot, the battle royale that makes up most of the second half. It’s not dull and it gets the job done, but shouldn’t it have been just a bit more exciting? Not particularly well directed, it wasn’t always easy to know who was fighting who and what was at stake during various skirmishes; Lawrence spends a lot of time up a tree (both figuratively and literally) and almost always manages to survive by having someone else do her dirty work for her. But what is perhaps really missing here is what is going on outside the competition. The battle itself is pretty much a done deal; we know what’s going to happen there, it’s only a matter of how many variations on a theme the filmmakers can come up with. But it’s the citizenry’s reaction, what the television audience is thinking; it’s what is going on behind the scenes, the politics and infighting, that is really missing. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? No matter how many teenagers kill each other, the real story is the society that created such a nightmarish reality show. There are indications that there may be a ton of stuff left on the cutting room floor (to be included in the DVD release, I’m sure). Toby Jones, who has been in the Harry Potter series and played Truman Capote in the movie that didn’t star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is shown quite often with Stanley Tucci, who plays the commentator (you know, Jeff Probst); yet Jones has maybe one line the whole movie; to paraphrase Ronald Regan in Kings Row, where’s the rest of him? There was one moment when Lawrence is cradling a fellow doe-eyed contestant; from the movie audience’s point of view, one gets choked up; but, oh, how I wanted it to cut to Tucci who would say, “Yes, folks, that is really touching, that is really sweet—what do you think will happen when they have to kill each other”. I also wondered where all the commercials were; American Idol doesn’t exist just because people like it; it exists to make a profit. Certainly special credit must be given to the screenwriters Gary Ross (who also directed), Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for squeezing in an incredible amount of information and characters in such a short period of time (the whole thing might have worked better as a mini-series); they can’t do much more but sketch in things, but their damn good sketchers. The Art Direction and Production Design also deserves special recognition, though, as a friend asked me, what were all the kids doing on top of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the climactic fight scene? In the end, the set up doesn’t give the filmmakers an exit strategy. There is no way the movie can have a happy ending, no matter who survives—the Hunger Games will continue on, a reality that the movie doesn’t capitalize on enough. For a similar type story, see Series 7: The Contenders, also about a reality show fight to the death.

MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play


The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.