Captain Phillips

October 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Tom Hanks, Bakhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (“United 93”)
Written by: Billy Ray (“State of Play”)

Not so much “Bourne” as it is a real-world drama like his restrained albeit powerful 2006 masterpiece “United 93,” director Paul Greengrass takes the same kind of reflective approach to “Captain Phillips,” the true story of a merchant mariner who was kidnapped by Somali pirates in April 2009. With Greengrass at the helm and two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks on board as Phillips, “Captain” is one of this year’s most well-crafted and convincing films and one that chronicles the bravery of the men who were able to end an epic standoff in a very impressive way.

Based on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Phillips and Stephan Talty, “Captain Phillips” introduces us to its title character Richard Phillips, a veteran cargo ship captain whose life out at sea has become one that he and his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) have grown accustom to. When Capt. Phillips arrives to the port for his next trip to Kenya and tells Andrea that he will “call [her] when [he] gets there,” it’s reminiscent of the words he tells Helen Hunt in “Cast Away” (“I’ll be right back!”) right before boarding a FedEx plane that crashes in the South Pacific. Things don’t turn out very well in either case.

When four money-hungry Somali pirates (led by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi as pirate leader Muse) find a way to take over the ship, Capt. Phillips is put in a situation no amount of pirate emergency drills could prepare him for. With most of his crew hiding in the lower decks, he is able to handle the aggressive Somalians who are adamant about making millions off their hijack. When the pirates’ plans don’t pan out, Capt. Phillips finds himself negotiating with the men to take the $30,000 inside the safe and leave peacefully on the ship’s lifeboat. But when the captain is forced onto the vessel himself and plans are made to use him as ransom, it’s up to the Navy SEALS to step in and take command of an extremely dangerous and seemingly unmanageable situation.

No stranger to being trapped or deserted in some regard (see the aforementioned “Cast Away,” his role as astronaut Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13” and to a more fantastical effect his role in “Big”), Hanks is simply masterful as Capt. Phillips. It’s easily his best lead performance since his last Oscar nomination in 2001’s “Cast Away” and one that should garner him the sixth nomination of his career. On deck with his crew and later with the pirates, Hanks emits a dominant demeanor despite knowing he could die at any second. His acting only gets better as the film continues onto the lifeboat where Hanks and Abdi both attempt to make the best case out of a worst-case scenario. They’re interaction is beyond intense as the lifeboat speeds through the choppy waters of the Somalian Gulf with U.S. military surrounding them.

While the film could’ve used a bit more emotional heft in portraying the captain as a family man, Greengrass keeps the blood boiling at such high levels. It’s no surprise he can do this well, especially with the work he has done with his more action-packed films like the “Bourne” films. Transferring that kind of gripping narrative into something with far fewer guns and hand-to-hand combat is a challenge, but he succeeds impressively. And if you think the final mission in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty” was something to ooh and aah about, the last half hour of “Captain Phillips” rivals it shot for shot. It might even make you want to get to the nearest Navy recruit station as soon as possible. Hooyah!

The Hunger Games

March 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

The Hunger Games
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”)
Written by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”), Suzanne Collins (debut), Billy Ray (“State of Play”)

There are a few things inherently lacking in director/co-writer Gary Ross’ highly-anticipated film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” that should be puzzling to anyone who is familiar with the history of the sci-fi genre and even the more complex ideas behind dystopian literature and how it carries into the social context of today.

Thematically, the film, which is based on the popular young adult series by Suzanne Collins, doesn’t have a single original thought in its flimsy framework. It’s bothersome because young fans of the series won’t care how similar it is to films of the past. Audiences just want something to replace the hole that will soon be left by “The Twilight Saga.” It is fortunate “The Hunger Games” doesn’t stoop to a level like Stephenie Meyer, but it still makes it hard to appreciate Collins’ concepts when she does nothing to separate herself from the pack.

Set in the future, “The Hunger Games” takes about an hour of the first act to explain the mythology behind the title competition. Two kids or teenagers from 12 different districts are chosen through a lottery system to compete in an all-out fight to the death on national TV where only one of them will survive. Representing District 12 is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss enters the competition after her younger sister Primrose’s name is chosen and she volunteers to take her place.

Whisked off to the Capitol (a sort of Emerald City on acid), Katniss and Peeta are pampered like royalty and assigned a mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games champion who is now a drunk, to teach them the ins and outs of a competition that will leave at least one of them dead.

Borrowing generously from the text of writers like Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”), and Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), “The Hunger Games” will definitely attract its fan base who have been itching to see the film come to life on the big screen. While its easily-accessible plot and characters also might generate some new interest from others not familiar with the books, the movie has no real ambition. More importantly, it fails to build any type of emotional structure around its characters besides Katniss herself. As kids get picked off one by one in the battle royale (look it up, kids: Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film “Battle Royale”), it’s about as affecting as watching pawns get removed from a chess board.

Take away the fact that “The Hunger Games” is a 142-minute rehash, and we’re left with a perfectly-cast Lawrence in the lead role who makes up for a lot of the film’s problem areas. As Katniss, Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for the fantastic 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” is a strong female protagonist that puts someone like the always-suffering Bella Swan of “The Twilight Saga” to shame. Lawrence is the reason to hope the inevitable sequels to this franchise can break away just a little more from Collins’ original text and at least give it a style that doesn’t feel so synthetic at times.

State of Play

April 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Kevin McDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”)
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Billy Ray (“Breach”)

There will never be another newspaper film like “State of Play.”

While it might be a bit extreme to say Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams are on the same tier as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford’s Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 media epic “All the President’s Men,” no one has ever come as close to capturing the true meaning of investigative journalism in the print media. Even with some sensationalism thrown in for flavor, “State of Play” is smartly done.

For the generation who like their news in short blurbs written by bloggers who use Wikipedia as their main source, this definitely won’t resonate with you. For those who still value the art of in-depth reporting and the way an actual newspaper still feels between your fingertips, “State of Play” is as tightly written as a front-page story grinded out on an unapologetic deadline by a veteran reporter.

Based on a 2003 British TV miniseries of the same name, “State of Play” follows old-school Washington D.C. scribe Cal McAffrey (Crowe) in the middle of a political scandal that slowly reels him personally and professionally. The mistress of his old college friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), has died of an apparent suicide, but with some exceptional fact digging, Cal uncovers other circumstances that could prove to be damaging to some governmental bigwigs and to himself on an ethical level.

There to pick up the slack as their scowling editor (Helen Mirren) keeps a sharp eye on her staff is internet reporter Della Frye (McAdams), whose blogging abilities are just impressive enough to provoke Cal’s traditional stance on his lifelong career. “I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix the next time you upchuck online.”

Still, a little new blood never hurt anyone especially with someone as hungry for a newsworthy story as Della. Crowe and McAdams’ chemistry blends well from the start and only strengthens as the political thriller dashes in and out of some sharp turns and detailed storytelling. It’s easily the best newspaper movie since 2003 “Shattered Glass” and the most intelligent film to be released in the first third of the year.