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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and Its Bold Mission
These are remarkable times for Marvel comic fans as film effects have enabled story and imagination to produce a visually stunning, realistic experience. With X Men: Days of Future Past, a strong team of writers and director Bryan Singer have created a highly entertaining quasi-sequel/prequel which reinvents the X Men world from all the previous versions. A logistical challenge from the get go, this film has accomplished the near impossible and approaches the excellence of The Avengers.
In a bleak vision of the future, mutants are being hunted down along with any human sympathizers by enhanced, robotic Sentinel hunters. With the last vestiges of hope at a remote location, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr AKA Magneto (Ian McKellen) join forces in a last ditch effort to alter the timeline using Kitty Pryde's (Ellen Page) transferring powers to send Logan AKA Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to his body in the 1970s. His desperate mission is to convince the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) to stop Raven AKA Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), from carrying out a vendetta against humans including a scientist named Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), who holds the key to the Sentinel army. However, tracking Raven is problematic while the younger Charles has lost his purpose having withdrawn into seclusion, and a young, embittered Erik is locked away for a significant crime. How Wolverine can 'put the band back together' is just the beginning of a convoluted storyline that not only involves time travel but exposing old, emotional wounds and the fleeting hope of salvation from a doomed future.
From the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare with its highlighted 'X', you know Singer has got his mojo back (after the misfire of Superman Returns). Having started the current Marvel era of filmmaking with X Men (2000), he knows these characters better than anyone, and the screenplay has a strong narrative with some genuinely funny lines. Like X Men: First Class, this film crisscrosses the globe from Vietnam to Paris to Washington D.C., and much of the early period parallels actual historic events and figures as in Watchmen.
Fate and destiny: can history be altered and can people change? The film has such a complex plot you wonder if it will shortchange the emotional content. It doesn't. In fact, you could almost have made this a two part film and expanded the possibilities. By trying to link the old with the new into one cohesive plot was challenge enough, but by sprinkling in bits of references to the Marvel canon and providing a great ending, comic fans should be giddy and thrilled. You don't have to have seen every X Men film, but it helps to enrich the experience for fans of Marvel lore by connecting a lot of dots.
Once again, the interplay between the younger Charles and Erik forms the core of a paradoxical love/hate relationship. First, Charles must find his way back from his self-imposed exile amid personal loss, and then it becomes a fascinating triangle of wills; Raven may be the target, but Erik and Charles struggle for her soul. Stewart lends authority (as the older Charles) as he narrates in grim tones the opening sequence which has parallels (as in the first X Men) to the Holocaust and human intolerance.
The large cast shines especially McAvoy and Lawrence, who gets to speak in Vietnamese much as Fassbender espoused German in First Class. You wish there were more of Stewart and McKellen, who are so good together, and despite relegating some cast members (including Halle Berry as Storm) to brief cameos or short scenes, plenty of familiar faces reappear from previous films to lend an air of continuity, and you feel the casts of both past and present are adequately represented.
New characters are introduced with cool powers particularly Evan Peters as Quicksilver, whose rapid speed proves instrumental in the film's standout sequence that ranks up there with X 2's opening White House assault by Nightcrawler. The special effects are that good. Just watching the final showdown where the mutants utilize all their unique powers to do battle with the Sentinels is a treat. Mystique's special morphing powers are on full display along with her acrobatic fighting style, and Magneto's powers are dead on as he literally raises RFK Stadium when the action shifts to DC and The White House.
Ambitious and well executed, X Men: Days of Future Past reaches the heights of X 2 and successfully merges two different universes both past and present, resets the timelines and events in a massive reboot, and results in a cohesive, entertaining story with an expanded, marquee cast. By applying equal parts reverence and boldness with the X Men mythology, Singer and company have accomplished a nearly impossible juggling act. With visionary directors like Joss Whedon (whose The Avengers is the gold standard) and Singer, the Marvel brand is likely to be an exemplary force of film entertainment for many years to come.
(Yes, stay until the end of the credits for a brief, elaborate setup for the next film!)
Captain America : The Winter Soldier and the Paranoia of Fear
Directed with the sure hands of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (TV's Community) from an excellent screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best of the stand alone Marvel films and a thrilling action film full of big surprises and twists with far reaching consequences. A superior sequel like X Men 2 and The Dark Knight, it raises the stakes of good story telling and intricate plotting of comic book adaptations in the guise of a political thriller.
Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his adjustment to 21st century life after his thaw from the deep freeze (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and befriends a fellow veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On a typical mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a team of agents to rescue a pirated ship which turns up an interesting bit of information. Meanwhile, as S.H.I.E.L.D. readies the major launch of a defense system in Washington, D.C., there are growing concerns expressed by boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As suspicions multiply, all hell breaks loose when there is an assassination attempt on one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s own. The conspiracy leads Captain America to a confrontation with a mysterious, formidable figure, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are extraordinary. With only a small circle of comrades, everything Cap has come to value comes crashing down. Loyalties are tested and just who will survive a major shift in the world order is just the beginning of an insidious plot.
For fans of Cap, these are grand times as the filmmakers have chosen a major story arc (The Winter Soldier) from his comic annals and incorporated Silver Age characters, e.g. The Falcon (Mackie) and Batroc. Recently, super hero films have chosen to bend the rules and take chances with tradition. This film goes much further than any previous Marvel adaptation. It features a good mystery, topical subject matter on individual privacy, and significant plot twists so much so that it is essential for the viewer to watch them unfold without any spoilers. The smart script contains witty lines amid a pervasive feeling of mistrust and paranoia. When Cap responds to Fury's state of the art weaponry to combat threats and says, "This isn't freedom. This is fear," it sums up the theme of the story. Think of this as homage to 1970s conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. The film also employs moments that references Mission Impossible, The X Files, RoboCop, and 24.
Acting is uniformly strong as some old, familiar faces return, and a few new ones get introduced. By now Evans has become the embodiment of the iconic hero, retaining his sense of justice, duty, and morals, virtues which are downright refreshing in a post 9/11 world. Rogers is a Rip Van Winkle out of his time and still learning to assimilate the world changes and cultural references with amusing results. Evans' chemistry with Johansson is believable yet ironic since their two characters have vastly different backgrounds. In a costarring role, Johansson's Black Widow is resourceful, smart, and deadly as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whose history is only beginning to be scratched. Perhaps Black Widow should have her own film! Jackson's Fury has an expanded role and reveals more facets of his mysterious background. Robert Redford (All the President's Men) has a significant, atypical role as a high level official, and he is outstanding. His presence alone adds legitimacy and authority to the film. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is an ideal buddy in arms to Evans. Emily VanCamp makes a good first impression as a young agent, and Cobie Smulders (returning as Agent Maria Hill) provides solid backup.
The many impressive action sequences are noteworthy for their ferocity and meticulous detail, but the standouts are a mad, opening car chase through the streets of D.C., and a remarkable fight in a glass elevator that surpasses the gem in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. There are moments of intense hand to hand combat that recall the best moments of the Bourne films on steroids. You've also got to love that shield; the film wisely displays all the creative ways Cap's shield is employed in combat. The violence here is realistically depicted and not cartoonish which pushes its PG-13 rating. Extensive use of hand-held cameras and more live action special effects than CGI lend a stronger sense of realism. D.C. locations make a splendid backdrop for much of the film.
Taking super hero filmmaking to new heights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully interconnects what we know from previous films and effectively challenges you to reevaluate everything in the Marvel Universe. It certainly helps to have seen the previous films, but there is sufficient background and context that a casual outsider would still enjoy it. (Fans of TV's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have a field day as the events tie directly with the show.) Though the film ends with open ended story threads that beg for another sequel, consider this as The Empire Strikes Back of Captain America. That's not such a bad place to be.
(As usual, don't forget two post credit scenes which are significant.)
A Mother's Redemption in PHILOMENA
A bittersweet tale of a mother's search for a loved one from her past forms the core of Philomena, a real life semibiography of atonement and forgiveness amid ignorance and the passage of time. As directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette) from a screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from Martin Sixsmith's book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee", it features impressive acting and an affecting story.
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) is an unemployed news writer in Britain who is searching for direction in his life. At the same time, an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), prays in church and commemorates an anniversary of the pain and loss of her illegitimate son. She recalls the distant memories of working at an abbey in Ireland and being forced to give her young boy for adoption. Her plight makes its way to Sixsmith who at first is not interested in human interest stories, but Philomena's anguish kindles a curiosity within Sixsmith and eventually grows into a crusade that has the support of a publisher. Stymied by false leads and lost records, Philomena's desperate search for her adult son leads to a revelation and the truth despite the dogmatic doctrines of a holy institution.
Simultaneously a love story of a mother for her child and an investigative mystery, this is essentially a two person play, in which Philomena and Martin are contrasts in personality and background-she has a naïvety about her while he is a born cynic. That she must experience a full spectrum of emotions during her journey from shame to anticipation to despondency contrasts with Martin's determination, anger, and frustration.
As expected, Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) excels in the sensitive role of an older woman anxious to reconnect with her son. She even gets the nuances and behavior of a woman who has had a sheltered, broken life and lacks the sophistication and social graces of normalcy. This detail is nice texture to her character. Like the sole photograph she has of her son, she clings to memories and hopes of redemption. Coogan is quite convincing as the determined reporter, quite a contrast to his comedic roots in British television and film.
There is liberal use of flashbacks to show Philomena's life as a teenage girl. Sometimes dredging old memories can cause great pain not only for Philomena, but for other people who hold clues to her son's whereabouts. What become of him? What kind of relationships and profession did he have in life? And perhaps, most importantly, did he ever wonder about his birth mother? The film shows how life can be a series of events punctuated by remarkable links and coincidences particularly in one revelatory moment that serves as a remarkable thread that binds the principals together. Some antiquated themes recall the stigma of being an unmarried mother and the practice of adopting illegitimate children through the church. In some ways this film is the flip side to The Cider House Rules.
It calls into question how much an institution like the Catholic Church may or may not have been complicit in the knowledge or whereabouts of her son. It seems too obvious to place responsibility and condemn the Catholic Church, the very foundation of faith, and its nuns as villains. In fact you wish you could learn much more about the motives and thinking of the older nuns and countless other nameless victims that passed through the abbey; Philomena is but one story. What about Philomena's life beyond the abbey? We see that she also has a grown daughter, and yet we don't have those details.
After all that has transpired, the detective work, and globetrotting from Europe to the United States, there is only the love between a mother and her son. In the end, a mother's hope and a reporter's quest become a heartfelt search for the truth, a truth born of love that transcends time.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
The Art of Survival in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
The fact it supposedly took nearly twenty years to bring the true story of Ron Woodroof to the screen is a somber fact which has not muted its impact over time. This heart wrenching chronicle of one man's desperate attempts against all odds features marvelous performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
It is 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and rodeo rider, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), has an accident and ends up in the hospital where he learns he has the HIV virus which causes AIDs, a death sentence which, according to his doctor, gives him thirty days to live and put his affairs in order. Stunned by the news, which heretofore was a sexually transmitted disease among homosexuals, Ron learns the grim truth about AIDs, a growing global epidemic. What's worse is the lack of any effective treatment even as trials for the experimental drug AZT begin via the Food and Drug Administration. Frustrated by ineffective drugs and running out of time, Ron takes matters in his own hands and begins to research the disease and travels to Mexico and other exotic locations for possible answers. He tries drug and vitamin combinations, a kind of AIDs cocktail, and begins to sell these to others. He even finds a way to circumvent the law forbidding his selling drugs by offering memberships. Helped by a fellow AIDs patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), his 'clinic' sees an explosion in membership as his cocktail gains in popularity. As the FDA and the IRS attempt to shut down his operation, he wages a one man fight against the forces that would close his enterprise and a hope for AIDs patients.
It is interesting that the world has come a long way in the treatment and survivability of AIDs, but back then there were severely limited resources. Also the stigma and intolerance of being gay was more pronounced. Ron's homophobic reactions evolve over time in a very convincing, realistic way, and he is affected and transformed to the point where he even takes on Rayon as an unlikely business partner and even friend. That relationship, that unlikely pairing, is what makes the story fascinating and at times poignant.
That it took a deadly malady to give his a life purpose and definition is the supreme irony. By no means a saint, he has casual sex partners when he isn't snorting cocaine or boozing it up, and when he isn't scamming a buck, utters a plethora of profanities when it suits him. He is a survivor and hustler who proves his resourcefulness in obtaining his drugs and vitamins even resorting to disguises, schmoozing, and legal maneuvering.
McConaughey (Contact, The Lincoln Lawyer) lost as much as 47 pounds for this role to depict the AIDs ravaged survivor; it's the role of a lifetime. Leto (Requiem for a Dream) equally excels as the transvestite and drug addict who befriends Ron and provides a window into the world of gays and more potential clients. Jennifer Garner registers a strong performance as a sympathetic doctor caught between treatment controversies.
You almost wish that the filmmakers (director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) had expanded upon the machinations of the FDA and pharmaceutical drug companies which held sway over life and death particularly in a standout scene near the end as Ron confronts the FDA in front of an audience. But this is primarily an intimate portrayal of a rebel, one whose self discovery leads to remarkable action and a profound effect on many others.
You do wish some of the plot lines had been more developed. For instance, Ron's police friend, Tucker, has a scene with his elderly father involving a drug; it would have been nice to develop that subplot which figures later when Ron needs help in a sticky situation.
The film is a low budget production, but that enhances its realism. A bittersweet story full of the charm and vigor that McConaughey brings to Ron Woodroof, Dallas Buyers Club lingers long after its closing credits as a testament of an imperfect person in an impossible situation who left a memorable mark.
Family Strains in NEBRASKA
Director Alexander Payne has had wild success in writing and directing stories (The Descendents, Sideways) about fragile individuals who are looking for a purpose and meaning amid love and heartbreak. In Nebraska, he takes a gem of a screenplay by Bob Nelson about a fateful road trip and elicits strong performances from a terrific cast.
An elderly man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is determined to travel cross country from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a million dollar prize despite the objections of his wife Kate (June Squibb) and skeptical son, David (Will Forte). He has a habit of wandering off much to the frustration of his family including David's older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). An alcoholic with a painful past, Woody takes the long road trip accompanied by David. Along the way, they stop by the town of Hawthorne for an impromptu family reunion where news of Woody's windfall spreads, and with it come greedy family and friends particularly in the person of an old buddy, Ed (Stacy Keach). As Woody and David approach their destination, old memories are revived and a father and son bond.
Payne creates a reality that successfully conveys a feeling of family and its dysfunction, which makes the story believable and authentic. While David realizes that he has nothing in common with his extended relatives (and you might not want them in your family either), you sure as heck won't forget them! The film is divided into a series of vignettes, some with amusing payoffs. Woody rarely filters his thoughts as evidenced in his explanation to David about how Woody and Kate started a family. It is a gem. There is an outrageous moment near the end when the brothers David and Ross attempt to right a wrong with hilarious results.
The journey is the point of the story. There are similarities in theme and characterizations to The Straight Story. David uses the trip as a way to get closer to his dad. In fact he learns some surprising things about Woody via the local newspaper and a certain female with a shared past.
Veteran actor Bruce Dern (Coming Home) makes the most of the role of a lifetime as a father looking for redemption. In the last chapter of his life, Woody does not have many prospects or things to look forward to, but he does have a prize that motivates him and is a sense of pride. It gives his empty life meaning. Grumpy and blunt, he can be confused and oblivious at times, but when he isn't drinking at a local bar, he has moments or clarity and recall that can be jarring.
The revelation here is the natural acting abilities of former Saturday Night Live player, Will Forte, who is completely convincing as the dutiful son, David. June Squibb is quite good as the mom who speaks her mind and proves a nice counterpoint to Woody. Her scene at the family cemetery is a riot.
The town of Hawthorne is not unlike the Midwest town featured in The Last Picture Show. Gorgeously Photographed in black and white amid a Midwest landscape, the film uses its setting to great effect as the towns and farmland become characters too like the old, derelict family house which serves as a touchstone replete with memories and demons. A grassroots country musical score complements the visuals.
In a way this is not only a father's quest á la Don Quixote but a son's search for his family's roots. The film makes a point of Woody's reasons for getting his pot of gold, and it comes down to family legacy. What are the things that matter and what do we leave for future generations? You root for him and want his prize to be genuine, but there are riches to be mined along the way. It's also about setting things straight as exemplified by David's final act. It's ultimately a family's unusual journey but particularly a son's love for his father.
Lonely Souls in HER
Ah, to find true love; movies overflow with this theme. Writer/Director Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) has really excelled in a mainstream film with a unique plot line. In Her, he paints the affecting tale of finding love in a most unusual place, and the result is a remarkable love story with two knockout performances.
In the not too distant future, operating systems (OS) have the ability to mimic human thought and interaction, perhaps even feelings. One lonely individual, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), decides to try the service after the painful breakup of his marriage (as seen through a series of flashbacks). His OS is named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and 'she' learns quickly and develops into what sounds like a fully intuitive, intelligent, and perhaps self aware program capable of sensitivity and emotion. At first bringing structure and order to his life, Samantha proves to be more than artificial intelligence, but rather a sentient one. Think of a female version of HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After a series of sex chat lines and a disastrous blind date, Theo, who desperately wants a female companion, realizes that Samantha is too good to be true. He shares his world with her through his smart phone, and she 'accompanies' him on his travels whether it be to a fair or for a walk. The two of them experience a relationship that transcends the lack of physical contact. How this unlikely pair will end up is the mystery of love.
Ostensibly a love story, this is really a science fiction film amid a deeply personal setting. This well written screenplay (by Jonze) works as a touching drama and explores the nature of human interaction and the meaning of love. It also touches on how deeply our society is plugged into the cyber world of reality. It would be interesting to see how Terry Gilliam (Brazil) would have developed this theme.
Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master) really embodies his loneliness convincingly. When his wife leaves him, he has to learn about letting go of someone and being open to new opportunities. You feel for him and his longings. Ironically his job involves ghost writing letters for other people, and some of the prose is romantic or emotional.
Johansson (The Avengers, Match Point) voices Samantha as a fully, living being with just the right mix of nuance and inflection. It is a bravura performance. Her Samantha is a bright pupil who becomes hungry for knowledge and experiencing human emotions; she has her needs and wants. When Theo and Samantha go out for a picnic with a coworker and his girlfriend, it becomes an unusual quartet unlike any double date ever. Even more, Samantha's desire to integrate with humans sets up a fascinating encounter via a surrogate. She in a sense is a reflection of the best and potentially the worst of human response and behavior. Is she capable of being jealous or disloyal? Could she even evolve into something else? These are some fascinating questions that come to mind. In a sense she becomes a metaphor for human existence.
Amy Adams (American Hustle) lends strong support as Theo's friend who also becomes involved with her own OS companion. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is effective in her brief scenes as Theo's wife, Catherine.
Stark cinematography and a moody musical score combined with good use of modern architecture (partly filmed in Shanghai) lend to a detached environment. The feeling of isolation and solitude permeate the sterile settings.
It would have been nice to learn more about Theo's world and if he had any other family. What was his background growing up and what are the implications of the program on society in general? What we get is a spare sketch of one man's world.
The story is ultimately about experiencing a special, human feeling and the search for one's soul mate. It's also about the joys and happiness in life that are but fleeting moments in time.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Temptations of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Director Martin Scorsese's ongoing collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio has yielded highly entertaining, prestigious films (The Departed, The Aviator). Their latest venture is the true, astonishing tale of Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort whose appetites for money, sex and drugs are a detailed observation on greed and temptation.
An eager, young executive, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), experiences the Wall Street disaster of 1987 which wipes out investors and costs him a job. Anxious to bounce back, he discovers the art of selling unregulated penny stocks and starts his own brokerage. Soon he is making a lot of money often at the expense of low income earners but also wealthy clients, and with the help of some cronies including new follower, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), begins to expand exponentially into a major force in the financial world. The emotional stress and pressure heighten his need for women, sex, drugs and then drugs upon drugs. As his excessive lifestyle spirals out of control, the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission begin investigating his company's illegal activities that signals the beginning of the end.
DiCaprio (Inception) gives his all as the out-of-control executive whose wealth is surpassed only by his defiance and greed. It is interesting to contrast his younger, innocent broker with his later, drug addicted shark. With maniacal fervor, he inspires and rallies a company's corporate culture. You are mesmerized by his bold, flamboyant salesman and yet, you look for any semblance of redeeming qualities. In a sense, Jordan is a metaphor for our corporate society's love of money and its ultimate corruption.
Hill (Moneyball) really shows a good range as Belfort's second in command. Can this be the same Jonah Hill who had a supporting role in Knocked Up? Matthew McConaughey has a memorable supporting role as a mentor to Belfort, and their scene together at a rooftop restaurant where McConaughey shows a ritual of self motivation is a hoot.
Margot Robbie is well cast as the beautiful woman who captures Jordan's heart and more. Rob Reiner has an amusing supporting role as Jordan's dad who sees the company as a sinking ship. In fact two other directors, Jon Favreau and Spike Jonze, have bit parts or cameos. Playing an FBI agent, Kyle Chandler, who has become the go-to actor for government types, is a good foil in his scenes with Jordan aboard a yacht.
There are some memorable vignettes such as the outrageous attempts to smuggle millions in cash to Europe, the crazy office parties, and an especially hilariously pathetic attempt by Jordan to drive home at the same moment he has a very bad drug reaction. When the justice system corners him, Jordan faces a decision not unlike the protagonist in Prince of the City. You know how this is going to go down, and when it does, it is an astonishing reversal of fortune.
At three hours, it is constantly engaging and well paced from start to finish courtesy of veteran editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The sweeping camera shots and rapid cuts show Scorsese at the top of his craft. He tells much of the film through DiCaprio as narrator and voice-over. In fact much of this film will remind you of the style and structure of his Good Fellas and Casino, and the ending recalls another Scorsese classic, The King of Comedy.
Make no mistake, despite excellent performances and a strong narrative, this film has scenes that are bordering on NC17; some scenes are so over the top in suggestiveness and explicitness that it would be hard to believe if it wasn't true. The film's depictions may lead some to question the filmmakers' intent, but Scorsese, without passing judgment, wanted to honestly show greed and power at its worst in the boardroom and the bedroom. Consider The Wolf of Wall Street as a supremely effective, cautionary tale of abuse of wealth at a time when such behavior flourished unchecked. You might not like the passengers on this flight, but it is a fascinating ride.
Captain Phillips (2013)
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and His Captors
Based on the real life story and book by Captain Richard Phillips, Captain Phillips is an authentic recreation of the events leading up to the hijacking of an American freighter ship on the high seas by modern day Somali pirates in 2009. Directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum), the film is a non-stop edge of your seat entertainment that puts you in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation. Tom Hanks and a talented supporting cast bring the participants to life in one of the year's best films.
Phillips is a responsible commander of a freighter with a small crew. As he boards his ship and readies to embark at sea, a group of Somali men prepares to search for nearby ships to board and hold hostage for money. As the freighter nears the Somali waters, the pirates give chase and the race is on as Phillips follows a series of procedures to elude and repel the invaders. When the pirates board and take control of the bridge by force, the dynamic has shifted to a hostage situation. As the Somali, who are smart and cautious, search the ship for other crew members, it becomes a tense game of cat and mouse. Led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirates want money even as US military forces come to the rescue. A tense standoff leads Phillips and his captors to the freighter's life boat and a race against time to save the brave captain.
Phillips and his crew take creative steps to make this hijacking as difficult as possible. They even follow a protocol for securing the ship from boarders by running drills and taking extra precautions. Phillips himself proves resourceful even when alone with his captors by making innocent suggestions that have ulterior motives and meaning.
The scene where the pirates take over the bridge is well shot and has a real time feel. Nobody shoots docudramas better than Greengrass with his rapid edits and hand-held cameras. He conveys a sense of progressively worsening desperation and hopelessness. Henry Jackman's score matches the intensity of the film.
Like the concluding mission in Zero Dark Thirty, the final sequence here is meticulously detailed and ratchets the suspense to an unbearable level even though most people know how these events transpired. The play is the thing, and Greengrass executes the finale like a true, military SEAL operation complete with preparations and tactics. The climax is a brilliantly edited moment of split second timing, patience, and decisive action. It affects the audience on a visceral level where so much is at risk.
Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks, Philadelphia) is completely convincing as Phillips. Abdi is authentic and menacing as Muse, all the more impressive since he was a total amateur when cast in the role. You even feel a bit of sympathy for Muse because he comes from a place of poverty where there are few options in life, and you come to realize that he is a person under extreme pressure from his bosses on the mainland. In fact, utilizing mostly unknowns aside from Hanks, works to the film's realism. The other Somali men are each given a chance to shine and have unique personas which makes what happens to them a shared experience.
You also wonder how Phillips' wife and family are reacting to the crisis but you never see them despite Catherine Keener's brief role as his wife at the beginning. That could have raised the stakes a bit more emotionally.
By the film's stunning resolution, there is an emotional release in Phillips that the audience shares. It is in these last several minutes that Hanks draws you into his heartbreaking trauma. It is here that he excels in an emotional performance in an emotional film, where a brave man said and did the right things under extreme duress.
American Hustle (2013)
American HUSTLE -the Art of Seduction and Survival
Suggested by actual events of the Abscam sting in the 1970s, the FBI plans to setup and arrest corrupt politicians. How they get the officials and the professional con artists that help the sting operation are the basis of a nostalgic film. As directed and co-written by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter), American Hustle is an acting clinic highlighting a convoluted tale of men and women who are looking for a big score.
In 1978, ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), forces con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), to help arrange a con on white collar crime, specifically targeting corrupt politicians. Richie wants to make a name for himself, and he is immediately attracted to Sydney and has designs on her beyond the con. Starting with a local, beloved mayor, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), high level political figures are drawn in, and there is the possible organized crime connection. Further, Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), threatens to derail the sting. As Richie's grand plan comes together, things get more complicated and risky, and Irving and Sydney must rely on their skills to survive.
These are very well etched characters. Each has something to gain, and each has an angle to exploit, whether it's Richie's dreams of a big bust or Rosalyn's threats to expose the operation. Kindred souls and survivors, Irving and Sydney have mastered the art of deception and manipulation. You feel a degree of sympathy for Irving despite his criminal past and his marital discord. Not only does he love his women, but he tries to save a friend from jail. Irving turns out to be someone to root for. In fact the world is not black and white especially when an FBI agent breaks the rules and gets involved with one of the principals. Carmine is the noble, elected official who truly believes in doing good for his community. Just who are the good guys and bad guys? Just who is conning who? Memorable scenes include a catty confrontation in a women's restroom, the face off between Richie and his beleaguered boss (played to great effect by Louis C. K.), and an incredibly tense meeting with a head mobster (Robert DeNiro in a lethal cameo).
Acting is superior throughout as expected in a Russell ensemble with the principals at the top of their game. Bale transforms his physical appearance as an overweight, balding schlep (a far cry from The Dark Knight's Batman). A sultry Adams (Doubt, Her) has a great time playing a kindred con artist with a British accent. Cooper (Limitless, The Hangover) has a ball as the gung ho agent with a 1970s perm who will step over his boss to get his time in the sun. Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Winter's Bone) excels as the wife who exhibits a bold brashness in public which delights her onlookers but risks blowing the sting.
There is liberal use of 1970's pop songs which blend with the costumes and hair styles seamlessly. The camera work is fluid and is reminiscent of early Martin Scorsese films. There is a very carefree attitude in the film's look and feel which is consistent with this loose, uninhibited decade.
A slice of the seventies with freewheeling hustlers and loose morals, at its core, American Hustle is a love story centering on Irving, an imperfect con artist and the women in his life. The film is essentially a con within a con and keeps you guessing until the end. Although the film's narrative is not as tight as it could have been, Russell has sacrificed a tiny bit of substance for style. Do admire this film for the many scenes that pit flawed characters against each other. Acting does not get much better than this.
Some films (Castaway, 127 Hours) have a simple premise, a basic tale of survival, devoid of large casts and complicated plot lines. Co-written with his son Jonás Cuarón, director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) has combined state of the art technology and remarkable acting by Sandra Bullock in a spectacular, tension-filled adventure, Gravity.
American astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), work on repairs to the Hubble space telescope as news of a nearby Russian satellite explosion is reported. The quiet serenity is suddenly displaced by hurtling debris that decimates the repair mission and causes great damage to the telescope and more. Caught up in a life threatening disaster and stranded in space without any hope of rescue, the two must improvise and utilize survival skills to survive under impossible circumstances. As hope fades and oxygen running low, the astronauts must make difficult choices to make it home alive.
Caurón successfully conveys the emptiness and vastness of space and how isolated it can be. What is remarkable is that this film could not have been made so convincingly until now because of recent technological developments. Even director James Cameron (Avatar), who was consulted early on, championed the film's ambitions for space realism that was years in the making. A ground breaking achievement in visual effects, not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Apollo 13 has a film so realistically depicted space travel. Even the realistic use of sound or lack of it enhances the authenticity. Great care and research obviously went into the production.
The film boldly starts with a continuous panning shot for thirteen minutes with nary a cut. When was the last time a major Hollywood film did that? There are some remarkable shots in space like the one instance where Bullock is in a womb-like position which acts as a metaphor of life. Gravity deserves to be seen in 3D (perhaps the best 3D film since Avatar) which opens up the magnitude of the visual effects. When did any 3D film show a person's tears? This one does. The realism and emptiness of space will be hard to match so convincingly in future films.
Cuarón establishes a basic premise and creates a major conflict while continually upping the ante of impending danger. The suspense is palpable as we feel as if we are there with Bullock and must figure a way to first get out of harm's way and then to go home to earth. The one film this reminds you of is Marooned.
This is Bullock's (The Blind Side) show all the way as you feel her fears amid every threat; she is in virtually every shot. We learn to understand her feelings and get a glimpse into her past about her regrets in life. Paradoxically, space becomes a place to escape her past or prove to be her death. One major theme for her character is learning to let go whether it be a painful past memory or letting go of something in the here and now. It's about finding a reason to live and finding a deeply personal redemption under the most trying circumstances.
Clooney lends strong support as her veteran colleague and voice of reason who offers instructions and calm amid tragedy. You will never guess who voices mission control, but here's a hint- see Apollo 13.
Sure, despite convenient coincidences that facilitate some plot points and a couple situations that are a bit hard to believe, Bullock sells it with her conviction and desperation; you buy into the situation regardless even if it may be hallucination or a dream.
What should be noteworthy is the fact that Gravity is rated PG in an era when PG13 and R rated major releases dominate the marketplace. And it runs a lean 90 minutes. How such a simple tale of survival and hope becomes not only totally engaging but such a compelling, landmark work of cinema is the lasting legacy of Gravity.