Ender’s Game(11/16/2013)


I’m a sucker for good space opera.  I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek series, I know way too much about Babylon 5, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the Mass Effect games.  You can make basically any sci-fi features that has spaceship dogfights, intergalactic politics, or lofty discussions about interstellar ethics and I’ll be there.  I’m the kind of guy who thinks that, if anything, the Star Wars prequels would have benefited from having more talks of trade blockades and senatorial debates, not less.  So you’d think that the announcement that the long-gestating adaptation to one of the most famous space opera novels of all time finally coming to theaters would have me really excited, but really it mostly filled me with dread.  This wasn’t because of the continuing controversy surrounding author Orson Scott Card and his various hateful rantings (about which I’ll just say, anyone who isn’t able to separate art from artist probably has no business claiming to be a film critic), rather, it was because the film was being directed by Gavin Hood.  Hood is a rather pedestrian South African filmmaker whose work has gone from being merely overrated (Tsotsi), to being poor (Rendition), to being disastrous (X-Men Origins: Wolverine).  Basically his output has gotten worse as his budgets have gotten bigger and he seemed like the perfect person to botch this thing from the get go.  Still, I am a sucker for space opera, so three weeks into the film’s run I broke down and decided to give a go after all.

Set late in the 21st century, the film follows a pre-teen named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) who, at a young age, was discovered as a child prodigy in the realm of strategic thinking.  Such young men are considered extremely valuable in this world because Earth is only a few years removed from an invasion by an alien species called the Formics that Earth was only barely able to fend off and there’s a great deal of fear that a second invasion is coming.  Seeking to mold Ender into the next Caesar or Napoleon, an International Fleet colonel named Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) enlists Ender as a cadet at a battle school for young people.  At this school Ender is tested for his abilities in leadership, composure, and psychological fortitude and passes most of his tests with flying colors, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll truly be ready when the real battle comes.

It’s not too much of a mystery why the “Ender’s Game” novel was finally adapted now after sitting in limbo for almost thirty years: young adult fiction is a hot commodity right now in Hollywood.  The irony of course is that Ender’s Game wasn’t really marketed as “YA fiction” when it was published in 1985, I’m pretty sure it was just sold as straight up science fiction.  It’s only in retrospect that it seems to conform to that genre, or rather, what that genre eventually became.  The battle school that’s teaching Ender how to become a space hero bears a strong resemblance to the Hogwarts Academy from the Harry Potter series and the film’s placement of children into a dangerous and violent conflict is not entirely dissimilar from what the Hunger Games series is trying to do.  The only thing missing is an overwrought supernatural romance.  Of course there’s a good chance that it isn’t a coincidence that so many genre stories about young people that were written in the last twenty years have resembled Ender’s Game, it’s entirely possible that authors like J.L. Rowling and Suzanne Collins were directly inspired by Orson Scott Card’s original novel.  This is of course a double edged sword, on one hand the boom of YA adaptations has helped this movie finally get made in the first place but it also means the film could easily fall into the same trap that John Carter fell into: seeming to be a rip off of a number of other recent film that had themselves borrowed from the original source material that the film is based on.

Fortunately Ender’s Game is a much more popular and accessible work than the John Carter books.  It’s a very breezy and readable work but one with a lot of interesting ideas and a central story that really keeps you interested.  I read it at the tender young age of… twenty, and remember thoroughly enjoying it.  I’m not exactly sure whether my having read the source material made me enjoy this film adaptation more or less than I would if it was something I was unfamiliar with.  On one hand, I think I picked up on certain details in the story which aren’t really explained in the film (like what the significance of being a “third” is in the film’s world, or why Ender’s brother and sister are in the film) and it also gave me a certain appreciation for the film’s ability to get most of the novel’s story into a compact two hour film.  On the other hand, it also increased my disappointment at the film’s overall mediocrity.  This is a tough film to really review because it has no glaring problems to speak of but is also devoid of any kind of real spark that would turn it into something truly memorable.

The film’s first challenge is that it in many ways rests on the shoulders of various child actors.  The film addresses this by assembling a sort of who’s who of young actors from the last couple years including Asa Butterfield (of Hugo fame), Hailee Steinfeld (of True Grit fame), and Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame).  The results are mixed.  Most of the staring children are fine, but some of the kids in smaller parts come off a bit false in certain scenes, especially the ones who have to play stereotypical bullies in certain scenes.  Asa Butterfield himself is also a bit inconsistent.  He’s playing a character who’s supposed to be an exceptional talent and who’s operating under extreme pressure, there’s supposed to be something rather “off” about the character and that comes across in his performance.  It’s probably deliberate but there’s something kind of off-putting about the performance all the same.  This also makes him come off particularly false whenever he’s supposed to show any real emotion or anger.

It’s also worth noting that while this is being sold as an action blockbuster, that’s not really what it is.  There are certainly spaceships and CGI as well as a variety of set pieces in the zero gravity training environment at the battle school, and late in the film we do technically see a space battle, but this is more like a plot point than a genuine action scene.  This is appropriate to the source material but none of it is overly audience pleasing and I suspect that anyone going to the film expecting it to be the next Star Wars will leave disappointed.  The special effects are… serviceable.  They don’t look fake or anything, but they aren’t going to wow anyone and its frankly pretty clear that this was being made by Hollywood’s B-team.  That’s true about all aspects of this movie really.  One of the things I like to do when I get home from any movie is look through the categories of my annual Golden Stake awards and quickly assess which categories the film I just watched might have a shot at.  For this movie I could hardly think of a single one.  Not cinematography, not set design, not makeup, none of the actions scenes, none of the performances.  Nothing.  And mind you, none of these elements were noticeably bad either, they just didn’t excel at all.

Gavin Hood sort of acquits himself insomuch as he’s managed to make a mainstream film that isn’t a complete mess and as a screenwriter he should definitely get credit for making a pretty efficient adaptation that doesn’t abandon the original novel’s themes of the effects and consequences of war and of the failing to question authority.  Still, there were better people for this job and I can’t help but think of how good this could have been if even half of the talent and resources that were wasted earlier this year on gargantuan nothings like Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim had been funneled into this film (or, conversely, that some of this film’s interest in telling an interesting science fiction story had been funneled into either of those projects).  Despite all that, I do think there is enough here to recommend Ender’s Game, but pretty much everything about the film that does work comes straight from the source material and given that the book is not exactly a hard read it might be just as easy to go to your library for this one instead of your local multiplex.

*** out of Four


Blue is the Warmest Color(11/9/2013)


Generally speaking, I don’t follow film festival coverage very closely, in part because hearing about movies months before their release just makes me jealous of all the “real critics” who get to attend them.  The one exception to this is the Cannes Film Festival.  I devour almost every inch of coverage that that festival receives, eagerly await every last decision made by its juries, and almost always make a point of seeing whatever ends up winning the Palme d’Or.  Part of the reason Cannes is different from other festivals is of course the caliber of filmmaking on display, but really, it has more to do with the fact that their awards seem to matter more than at other festivals and they just tend to work better as a horserace than most.  I especially like it when films that had been more or less under the radar emerge as big winners, which is more or less what happened this year with the film Blue is the Warmest Color.  That film’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche, was most famous for the charming but somewhat predictable ethnic family saga The Secret in the Grain.  He was certainly an interesting filmmaker, but not really one I’d peg as the kind of masterful auteur that is normally awarded at Cannes.  And yet, his film won over the Steven Spielberg led jury to become the only the second French film (depending on whether or not you count The Pianist as a French film) to win the Palme D’or in the last twenty five years.  Now that the film is available to be seen in American theaters, I can see why the choice was made.

The film focuses in on a girl named Adèle (played by an actress named Adèle Exarchopoulos) who is in high school when the film begins.  She lives a fairly typical middle class life, but feels distant from her friends largely because she lacks their interest in boys.  She experiments with a young man named Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte) but is left unsatisfied by him.  Slowly she comes to realize that she is in fact a lesbian and during an exploratory visit to a gay bar she meets a young art student named Emma (Léa Seydoux) and after a while they start and maintain a relationship.

In France the film has the more direct title of “La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2” which of course translates to “The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 and 2.”  I obviously prefer the film’s international title, which is plainly more tantalizing and also points out the color blue, which is a motif throughout the film which marks the points of the story in which a given character is comfortable in their own skin.  Still, it is worth noting that the film is in two chapters, albeit chapters that are not marked by title cards and whose transition can only be easily be spotted if one is paying attention to Emma’s hair color.  The duality of these two chapters is important because they are essentially the bookends of Emma and Adèle’s tumultuous relationship.  The first chapter shows them falling in love and the second half shows them coming apart.  It is not dissimilar from the structure that Derek Cianfrance’s similarly excellent film Blue Valentine would have taken if it had played out in a linear fashion.

The difference of course is in the details, and there are a lot more of them in Blue is the Warmest Color which runs a full 179 minutes.  Don’t be intimidated by that run time, firstly because the film moves really fast and secondly because the extra time the film takes is sort of what makes it special.  The film really allows you to understand what these characters see in each other and how their relationship evolves as Emma becomes more and more successful as an artist and Adèle becomes increasingly isolated from Emma’s world.  It starts to become increasingly clear to the viewer that these two people don’t really have as much in common as they once thought and that their relationship was largely founded on blind passion.

That’s where the film’s infamous sex scenes come in.  I’m hesitant to even bring them up because this movie deserves more than to be known as “that one with all the girl on girl scenes,” but they’re in there for a reason.  Any serious and in depth exploration of a relationship like this is going to have to explore the characters’ sex lives and given how much detail we get about everything else between them, why not go into detail on this subject too?  As for the scenes themselves, well, I don’t think they’re executed perfectly.  The first one in particular seems flawed to me because it’s supposed to be Adèle’s first time with another woman and yet she seems awfully comfortable in the various positions on display.  Still, I think the scenes have a legitimate function in the film, and I’m also glad that a film with a sex positive message actually had the courage to “go there.”  More often than not, films that feature graphic sex, even great ones like Shame and Requiem for a Dream, are so scared of being labeled pornography that they go out of their way to feature some of the most grim and unpleasant sex scenes they can.  Kechiche might go a little too far here but I’m okay with that if it keeps him from falling to that oddly puritanical trap.

Blue is the Warmest Color is not a radically original film, but it makes up for it in its execution.  It’s a hypnotic film that grabs your interest and makes you really care about its characters.  The performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux both feel very authentic and the film’s dialogue also really seems to flow naturally.  There were probably bolder choices available to the Jury at Cannes this year, but I’d be surprised if there were choices there which offered an overall package as entrancing as this one.

**** out of Four

12 Years a Slave(11/2/2013)

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If there’s one movie that I’ve had trouble discussing over the years it’s Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.  I think Schindler’s List is a great film.  Out of four stars I’d give it four stars.  However, I don’t see it as some unassailable triumph that’s somehow above criticism.  Rather, I see it as exactly what it is: a movie, and not one that is without its flaws.  I think it’s too long and prone to digression, that the Amon Goeth sub-plot feels like it should be a separate movie, and that Liam Neeson lays it on a bit thick at the end.  All too often though, people seem to get oddly offended at the very notion that there’s anything wrong with Schindler’s List at all.  You can’t just think it’s a great movie; you have to be bowled over by it, and if you respond to it in any other way you’re suspect.  Well I’m sorry, but that’s just not how I responded to it, and really that’s not the way I respond to any movie.  Maybe I think too analytically or maybe I’m just not all that easily shocked, but simply showing me something awful from history does not really move me.  I bring all this up because there seems to be a consensus building that the new film 12 Years a Slave could easily be the film on the subject of slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust: display it in a way that is raw and honest, but within the context of a story that is accessible to a wide audience.  And once again I’m in the precarious position of loving the movie while not necessarily being shocked into a state of awe by it.

The film is an adaptation of the memoir of the same name by a man named Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man who was born free and lived a relatively comfortable life in Saratoga Springs, New York circa 1841 with a wife and three children.  Northup’s comfortable life shatters when he’s lured to Washington D.C. by a job opportunity and is kidnapped by two men and sold into plantation slavery.  At first he’s owned by a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who fancies himself a preacher and is ostensibly kinder to his slaves than most, but who is ultimately still guilty of the underlying evils of slave ownership.  After a quarrel with a cruel overseer named John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to a much harsher owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who fancies himself as a breaker of “troublesome” slaves.  Life under Epps is even more hellish than what we’ve seen previously, he whips people regularly, is having an abusive “affair” with a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and is prone to all sorts of senseless drunken cruelty.  All the while Northup maintains the hope of once again seeing his family and of reclaiming his lost identity as a respected violin player and family man.

Earlier I compared the film to Schindler’s List but when I did that I was mostly referring to the films’ respective places in the wider culture.  The film itself actually has a lot more in common with Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist than it does with Spielberg’s holocaust epic.  Both films are told from the perspective of individual victims of historical tragedy (who happen to both be talented musicians for whatever that’s worth) and show how both individuals were able to survive their respective ordeals and maintain their identities along the way.  It is of course worth noting that in this way both films are, depressingly, actually about “lucky” exceptions rather than the people who suffered the worst from these periods.  The Holocaust is primarily remembered for the six million who were killed in death camps, not the few Jews who managed to hide in Warsaw until the war finally ended.  Similarly, the vast majority of the people enslaved in the south had to live under such conditions for a lot longer than twelve years.

That’s the thing about this story, because of Northup’s status as an educated free man who is suddenly thrust into slavery he functions as an audience surrogate in a way that the average slave does not.  That is the story’s advantage, but it’s also kind of dangerous.  The film runs the risk of positioning Northup as a man in a uniquely unjust situation while perhaps overlooking the ongoing institutionalized dehumanization of the average slave.  It’s a tension that the film does seem to be aware of and takes some steps to address.  In particular, the film is wise to highlight the parallel story of a slave woman named Patsey, who is in the horrible position of being caught in the middle of a struggle between Epps and his wife.  Patsey is forced to work just as hard in the fields as anybody, she is sexually abused by her owner, she must deal with outward aggression on the part of the owner’s wife, and is physically abused more than anyone else in the film including Northup himself.  In short she is the face of both the female side of slavery and of the average life-long slave and does serve to highlight how exceptional Northup’s story actually is.

Of course I’ve spent so much time discussing the film’s depiction of slavery that this is the third film from director Steve McQueen, and that this alone makes the film extremely exciting.  McQueen (who is of no relation to the famous actor), has already made two extraordinary films in Hunger and Shame and this may be the film where the wider public becomes privy to his talents.  12 Years a Slave is more accessible than his two previous films, but it doesn’t feel like he compromised his style in order to achieve this.  McQueen is a guy with a unique sense of how to make his films feel unconventional while still allowing them look very professional and at times beautiful.  It’s sort of like what I imagine David Fincher’s films would be like if he were making art house fare instead of Hollywood thrillers.  I think the difference this time around is that he’s working with someone else’s screenplay and because of it the exposition is a little more straightforward and given that it’s a period piece the scale is larger.

It also helps that in this film McQueen has been blessed by an amazing cast.  Michael Fassbender, who starred in McQueen’s first two films, is back again.  This time he’s in a supporting role as the vicious plantation owner Edwin Epps, a truly vicious but also somewhat pathetic man.  It’s a role that allows him to “chew scenery” and that’s exactly what he does to some extent, but the scenery chewing works here and the character he creates is simply frightening.  However, the film’s star is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose role is a little less showy and is in many ways more challenging.  He plays a highly dignified, if sometimes flawed, character and all through the film Ejiofor manages to convey that this dignity is intact even though the character is often forced to resort to “yes master” pandering.  If anything Ejiofor makes his job seem too easy.

Another trendy British actor in the film is Benedict Cumberbach, who continues to show great range.  His work here is different from the larger than life performances he’s given in films like Star Trek Into Darkness and also different from his work as a quirky genius on “Sherlock.”  Instead he’s playing a very believably hypocritical man who is an interesting contrast to Fassbender’s character.  The film also manages to get a good performance out of Paul Dano, of all people, who is well cast as a creepy redneck overseer.  On top of all that the film also features a number of celebrities like Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, and Brad Pitt in small roles but they’re almost all outshined by a previously unknown Kenyan actress named Lupita Nyong’o, who is absolutely unforgettable as Patsey.

This is exceptional filmmaking and it tells an important story that illustrates a number of necessary truths about American History.  But is it a masterpiece?  Well, let’s just say that this is a film that’s almost certain to be somewhere on my year end top ten list, but reserving a slot for it on the next AFI list might be a bit premature.  In fact I’m not quite ready to call it my favorite Steve McQueen film.  Like Schindler’s List before it, I find myself greatly admiring this film without necessarily being shocked to my core by it.  But that’s fine, if my recent re-watch of Schindler’s List has taught me anything, there’s nothing wrong with being “just a movie” and there’s definitely nothing wrong with being “just a great movie.”

**** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 11/11/2013



Maybe we’re wrong to expect big budgeted science fiction releases to be legitimate events.  The new Tom Cruise film Oblivion is most definitely not an event and it oddly feels exceptionally unexceptional because of it.  It’s a movie that rubs me the wrong way, but I’m kind of trying to figure out exactly why.  Part of it is that the movie is a hodgepodge of ideas from better sci-fi movies like Wall-E, I Am Legend, and Moon.  Another part is that Tom Cruise is maybe a little too generic a presence in the film to really make his character all that interesting.  Also I don’t think it delivers all that spectacularly as an action film or as an effects vehicle.  It doesn’t really fail too badly at any of the above mentioned things, but it doesn’t stand out either, in fact the movie just doesn’t stand out in general.  I didn’t care much at all about the various plot developments as they were happening and generally found the movie to be this really forgettable and mediocre experience.

**1/2 out of Four


V/H/S was an anthology film that consisted of five short horror films and a framing story.  It got some definite buzz within the genre community, but I wasn’t really a fan of it at all.  I still wanted to check out this sequel though because I heard from some fairly reliable sources that this sequel was an improvement over the original.  I’ve got to say, I kind of feel like I was lied to.  I will give the film one thing: the third short, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans’ Safe Haven, is really cool.  It’s ambitious, it has time to build into something, and once it gets going it really cooks.  Outside of that highlight though, its more of the same bullshit we saw in the first V/H/S.  The acting is almost uniformly terrible, the found footage gimmick is usually wasted, the VHS motif mostly amounts to nothing, and the frame narrative is mostly worthless.  The films have brief moments of inspiration here and there, but most of them are failures.  So, we have ¼ of a good movie here, and that’s just not good enough.

** out of Four


Room 237 (10/13/2013)

10-13-2013Room237 When Room 237, a documentary that presents various interpretations people have of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, premiered at Sundance almost two years ago the big story surrounding it was that it could well be withheld from public exhibition by copyright laws.  Fortunately lawyers at IFC Films were confident enough about the fair use clause (or just confident enough that Warner Brothers had better things to do than sue over a semi-obscure documentary) that the film has been made available to the public.  The film essentially uses clips from The Shining and a variety of other films in order to illustrate a half dozen audio interviews with people who’ve developed theories about the film which range from plausible (that the film is a metaphor for genocide) to the psychotic (that the film was Kubrick’s confession for having allegedly helped fake the moon landing).  After Room 237 came out a lot of critics took against it because of hot “out there” a lot of the theories are, but I think these critics are maybe taking the film in the wrong spirit.  The film is essentially supposed to be a big brainstorming session amongst Kubrick acolytes and like any brainstorming session a lot of the ideas aren’t actually going to be on target, but it’s only by trying out some really wacky thoughts that you’re going to come up with a genuine innovation.  If nothing else Room 237 is a tribute to just how rich a source The Shining is because there aren’t a ton of films that will generate this much food for obsessive thought.

***1/2 out of Four

The Lords of Salem(11/2/2013)

I wasn’t a fan of Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, The House of 1000 Corpses, but after he directed The Devil’s Rejects I was something of a believer.  However, after enduring Mr. Zombie’s terrible Halloween remake and its equally terrible sequel I’ve kind of lost faith in the guy all over again.  Still, I held out hope that he could rebound if he returned to working with an original intellectual property.  As such I gave his latest film, The Lords of Salem, a shot but after watching it I’m sort of left with more questions than answers about where I stand on the subject of Rob Zombie.  There’s a lot to like about The Lords of Salem: Zombie has created a creepy scenario, he gets a lot out of his low budget, and at times he does seem to know exactly the right tone to set.  However I don’t think that Zombie’s vulgar “rock and roll” style doesn’t really work here much better than it did in the Halloween movies.  This style worked in The Devil’s Rejects, mainly because that movie wasn’t really trying to be scary, but this one is and most of Zombie’s flourishes just undercut the tension and distracts from the creepy atmosphere.  The film’s ending in particularly comes off as trippy rather than scary.  I think that if Rob Zombie is going to have a future as a filmmaker he’s going to have to either drop his usual schtick or he’s going to have to stop trying to be taken seriously as a horror director and maybe explore other exploitation genres to explore.

** out of Four


The Great Gatsby (11/11/2013)

11-11-2013TheGreatGatsby Like many people, my first and last exposure to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was in a high school English class and while I respected the book I still kind of treated it as homework.  I didn’t really remember a lot of the specifics of the plot, but I did remember getting the impression that it was a very somber book which only really used decadence as a backdrop for a rather melancholy story.  Needless to say, this seemed pretty far removed from the gaudy liquor soaked extravaganza that started to play out in front of me after I popped Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation of the novel into my Blu-Ray player.  The film isn’t quite as iconoclastic as his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but his style still seemed more at home in that earlier film, in part because we’re more used to seeing Shakepeare get staged in radical ways and in part because we’ve seen that play get adapted more often and audiences were a lot more hungry to see it get a new and unexpected coat of paint.

I really found Luhrmann’s approach far removed from the adaptation I wanted to see, but the film’s problems run deeper than that.  In fact the film actually calms down quite a bit in its second half and starts behaving the way you’d expect a Fitzgerald adaptation to behave… and this doesn’t actually work much better than the first half.  I think part of the problem is that I don’t think the film’s cast really worked particularly well.  Di Caprio is good enough at doing what he needs to do (look suave and give mysterious look), but I found Carey Mulligan’s Daisy uninteresting, Joel Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan stiff, and Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway extremely awkward.  Beyond that I’m kind of left to question if making a film out of this novel is, ever was, or ever will be a good idea.  I don’t think the novel’s structure and perspective really lend themselves all that well to cinema and given that this actually is a pretty faithful adaptation in word if not in spirit, that’s a pretty big problem.

** out of Four

Captain Phillips(10/12/2013)


When the MV Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates in the April of 2009 it was largely viewed through the lens of how the newly elected Barack Obama responded to the incident.  It wasn’t exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was a test of sorts for the young president, and by ordering Navy SEAL snipers to take out the pirates he more or less proved that while he might be less outwardly hawkish than his predecessor, he still wasn’t one to be messed with.  Between that and handful of jokes about how odd it is for there to still be high seas piracy in the 21st century the world had heard learned pretty much everything they cared to hear about this incident and everyone moved on with their lives.  Still, there was a little bit more story to tell.  How exactly do modern pirates board large merchant ships?  What do the crews do when these attacks happen?  And just who are these East Africans involved in this practice and what drives them to it?  That’s probably what led Paul Greengrass to choose this hijacking as the subject of his latest “ripped from the headlines” thriller: Captain Phillips.

The film is in many ways a simple reenactment of the Maersk Alabama’s ill-fated journey around the Horn of Africa.  The titular captain (played by Tom Hanks) is well aware of the fact that there have been pirates plaguing these waters and he diligently drills his crew about what to do in the case of an attempted hijacking.  Little does he know that a group of Somali pirates led by a young man named Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) has specifically targeted his ship and intends to seize it in due time.  In due time that’s exactly what happens; four pirates armed with AK-47s manage to board the ship and take Captain Phillips hostage while the crew hides below.  From here a tense standoff begins which will place Captain Phillips, the Maersk Alabama, and these four pirates in headlines around the world.

Paul Greengrass is of course known for making intense movies about real world events like Bloody Sunday and his masterpiece United 93.  That later movie is of course the film that Captain Phillips is ultimately going to have to be compared against even though that is kind of an impossible film to live up to.  9/11 is an immeasurably more important and dramatic event than the two-bit hijacking of a boat.  If anything, what the film Captain Phillips reveals is that the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama a fairly minor incident that was made important by the rather extreme response that it received from the American Navy.  The pirates in the film are, well, fuck ups.  They’re desperate young men with limited resources doing something that was certainly wrong but not overly villainous.  I’m not trying to excuse their conduct, which was certainly dangerous for everyone involved, but these were common criminals not too far removed from the type of people who’d rob a gas station.  In the film there’s something almost comical in the way these guys find themselves facing the entire might of the U.S. military for what they perceive as a rather pedestrian crime.

So, this doesn’t have the sweep or importance of United 93, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very well made film that on its face plays out on a larger stage.  The Maersk Alabama is on its face a very interesting location for such a film.  There have been very few movies that have used a modern merchant ship as a location, so there’s something kind of unique about the film from the word “go.”  The casting of Tom Hanks was also really smart; he has exactly the relatable everyman quality that his role required and I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the part. Also, his work in the film’s final scenes is a master-class.  The lead pirate played by Barkhad Abdi is also a pretty interesting character who’s played well by the unknown actor they’ve found to portray him.  I would have maybe liked to see a little more of what his life was like in Somalia before the incident in order to better understand him, but Greengrass does do a really good job keeping him from being a stereotypical villain.

Once the principal action begins the film manages to be pretty tense… at least as tense as a movie can be when everyone in the audience knows from news reports exactly how it’s going to end.  I guess you could say that United 93 had been similarly “spoiled,” but that was a story where we knew that everyone involved was doomed and that brings a whole lot more weight to a story than one where we know that things will end happily for our “hero” and not so happily for the “villains.”  I almost wonder if what they really would have had to do in order to recreate United 93’s sense of tragic inevitability was abandon Captain Phillips’ point of view altogether and made the pirates into the film’s de facto protagonists heading towards disaster.  Without that kind of sense of dread, the fact that we know the ending really only hurts the film rather than help it.  I think what we have here is a simple case of “too soon,” not “too soon” in the sense that people are still sensitive about the story, but “too soon” in the sense that we all too recently saw this play out on CNN and that this kind of makes the film feel redundant.  That’s not to say I dislike the film, in fact I admire it greatly and think it’s about as well made as it could possibly be, but it doesn’t really bring a whole lot new to this story.

***1/2 out of Four