Sunday, October 13, 2013

New Website

My new reviews website,, is now active.  Please update your bookmarks.  I will no longer update this blogger page - all new reviews will be on  To all my readers, enjoy the new look.

Captain Phillips (2013)


Captain Phillips is heavy on compare and contrast.  There are two tough Captains, two wary crews, and two missions to complete.  Setting up a battle of wills, wit, and nerve between the two Captains, Captain Phillips threads a thin line between formulaic kidnapping and larger geo-political issues that are really behind the attackers’ motivations.

Starting with déjà vu references to Cast Away, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) says goodbye to his wife telling her he’ll be safe and will be right back.  This time, we are saturated with the transportation/shipping company Maersk instead of Fed Ex.  Phillips leads a crew sometimes more interested in union rules than trying to familiarize themselves with sailing through the most dangerous waters on Earth, off the Somalia coast lugging cargo from the Middle East to East Africa. 

On the other side, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), is under the thumb of a local Somali warlord.  Even though he successfully hijacked and ransomed a Greek ship within the past few weeks, he is forced back out on the water again by machine gun toting thugs demanding even more piracy operations.  He picks his rag-tag volunteer crew who appear more interested in food than the prospect of millions of dollars in ransom they will not see anyway since almost all the dough is kicked up the ladder to the guys with guns.

The plot and ensuing actions are dangerously close to mundane and expected not because of sub-standard filming or a lazy script, it’s because everyone in the theater already knows there will be a kidnapping.  There is an intense chase sequence of the gigantic cargo ship by the threadbare Somali crew, but we all know they get aboard and take Captain Phillips hostage; otherwise there will be no movie.  Even if you do not remember the true events behind the film from 2009, the preview ensures you will know everything that happens all the way up to the movie’s climax.

Captain Phillips is an effective film because it is strong enough to overcome everything we already know about the plot.  I know the ship gets taken over, yet the suspense of the take-over operation is palpable.  I know Phillips gets put on a smaller lifeboat vessel with the kidnappers, but how that comes about is interesting.  Kudos to director Paul Greengrass (Green Zone, 2010; United 93, 2006) and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, 2012) for creating clear and defining characteristics for each of the kidnappers.  We know who the vicious one is, who the kid is, and definitely who Captain Muse is.

This is Barkhad Abdi’s first acting role ever; he answered a newspaper ad in his adopted home of Minnesota.  He is menacing at times to assert his authority, he is exasperated because he just wants to do this business and get paid, and he is most of all afraid of going back home empty-handed.  Unfortunately for Muse, he kidnapped an American-flagged vessel not knowing the U.S.’s policy of non-negotiation.  In direct contrast with the screaming and in-fighting Somali crew, the Navy SEALs launched toward the lifeboat are ready to kill some people.

Tom Hanks, as usual, delivers a believable and sympathetic character.  His northeastern accent supposedly matches the real Captain Phillips down to the last syllable and it is intriguing to watch Hanks and Abdi spar against one another.  I categorized Hanks’s portrayal of Phillips as one of his more average performances until the end.  While not giving anything away, Tom Hanks catapults his performance into the stratosphere at the end; it is truly a gut-wrenching scene to watch and should be remembered come Oscar time.    

My slight complaint with the film is its only brief scenes in Somalia and cursory examination of why Muse is out on the water in the first place.  Muse does not personally crave millions of dollars in ransom; in fact, his life is already ransomed back home if he returns with nothing.  Muse and his crew are microscopic pawns in a much larger operation of organized piracy financed by unseen hands long removed from war-ravaged and poverty-stricken Somalia.  A deeper examination of these driving issues would place Captain Phillips among the year’s best, but it remains an above-average thriller without it.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Gravity (2013)


I have never been to outer space and I will never travel to outer space.  While this statement applies to 99.9% of us, Gravity is powerful enough to make us fear a place we will never go to.  I will never become untethered from a spacecraft and tumble clumsily by myself with little hope of rescue, but Gravity assures me I am afraid of it.  You have seen movies set in space before, but I guarantee you, you have never seen anything like Gravity before.

Here is a 90-minute film that feels like 30 minutes when it’s over; I was shocked so much time had passed by the end.  Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron has made wonderful movies before (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001; Children of Men, 2006) and continues his streak of excellence by knocking Gravity out of the park.  There is minimal dialogue, just a handful of actors, extremely complicated physics, and enough adrenaline to make you enjoy the end-credit sequence to steady yourself before heading out to the lobby.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a communications specialist fixing the Hubble Telescope on her first mission aboard the space shuttle.  Completely focused on the mission at hand, her physiological readings give away to mission control (voiced by Ed Harris) just how nervous she is tucked into her space suit separated from the safety of the shuttle.  Mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) struts around on the opposite end of the spectrum.  He zooms around in his jet pack dodging and weaving between the shuttle and his team of scientists while telling funny stories to keep everyone calm.

Almost immediately, the mission is aborted and everyone is packing up to go home because of a chain reaction event of space debris heading straight for the shuttle.  An already nervous Dr. Stone has no idea what to do but steady as an ox Kowalski is there to take charge and logically talk her through what the next should be even though the absolute worst situations keep arising as soon as they solve the most recent calamitous event.

Clooney plays Kowalski as a rock-steady leader whose first priority is the safety of his crew.  The movie belongs to Bullock though.  She is front and center in every scene and even though it all occurs in zero gravity, she has the weight and stress of the world on her shoulders.  Floating, zooming, and sling-shotting around space from one disaster to another at break-neck speed is interspersed every now and again by a breather.

In a noticeably gorgeous film, the best shot of the movie is a very vulnerable Dr. Stone floating in a fetal position, which I could probably watch for an hour by itself.  There is some discussion about the film’s cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life, 2011) who will absolutely be nominated for an Oscar for his work.  Just like last year’s winner, Life of Pi, how much actual photography is there when just about every scene is filmed in front of a green screen and filled in with CGI effects? 

Also, I have no doubt there are multiple plot problems with the physics of the film.  I do not know enough about it, but just aiming at an object in space and hurtling toward it is probably not going to get you there.  You would need one of the brains from The Big Bang Theory to explain it to you when it’s over; however, at no point during the movie did I have time to think about what is an is not plausible. 

As in Avatar, just about everything you see on the screen is fake, yet Gravity is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.  When a macro view of Earth is your background, it is hard not to just sit back and stare at it.  I highly recommend you see this film in 3D and on an IMAX screen.  Seeing at home on DVD for the first time will feel so much less impressive.    

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Don Jon (2013)


Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote and directed himself as the newest cast member on Jersey Shore.  His chiseled abs and bulging biceps strain to cover for his lack of height, his slicked-back, greased hair could ignite a forest fire should he encounter the smallest candle flame, his muscle car spouts the noise pollution of 1000 Priuses, and he is almost never seen sans gold chain and wife-beater.

The chain supports a gold crucifix openly displaying the centrality of Catholicism in his life.  Every Sunday, he confesses his sins with earnest energy to the priest the precise number of times he engaged in sexual intercourse out of wedlock and masturbated to Internet pornography.  Through voiceover, we learn Jon takes pride in his ability to scheme a pretty girl back to his pad, but he prefers a solo session of Internet porn to truly satisfy his urges. 

Jon may have a problem.  His Internet porn hobby occurs several times a day and always immediately following a round of out of wedlock sex with his club conquest passed out in bed.  These are grounds for concern.  This lifestyle description is only the setup though – perhaps Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) can break Jon’s routine. 

Jon meets Barbara at the club, gets turned down which only makes him want her more, and through persistence, ends up in his first committed relationship.  Barbara is a good girl who won’t give it up until she is in love and wants to shape her man into what the romantic comedy movies tell her he should be.  Manipulating his urges, she gets Jon to enroll in night school and agree to meet each other’s family.

Night school is a drag but bringing Barbara home to meet mom (Glenne Headly) and dad (Tony Danza) is scarier than any nightmare.  Mom’s only concern in life is seeing her baby meet a girl, settle down, and have a dozen kids and will worry him to death until it happens.  Dad uses high-voltage vulgar language to yell at the football games on TV and is more than prepared to get upset at the slightest provocation. 

Don Jon is Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut.  He pulls off the creative trifecta.  His script is fresh and original, his acting is believable, and his film is memorable.  Played by a harsher actor without as much of a kid’s face, Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Gosling, Don could have been a real schmuck.  Instead, Jon shows us he has room for improvement, not only with women, but in evaluating what is most important is his life.

Most guys in their twenties fixate on their body, their pad, their ride, and their friends.  Jon includes his family and his church - you would suspect this would provide him a bit more depth as a human being; however, he remains quite shallow and extremely selfish.  Here is a kid who needs to learn some hard lessons and hopefully emerge a better man on the other side.  Gordon-Levitt is just the guy to show us and at the same time make us care about this transformation.       

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush (2013)


Brains vs. braun; driving by the seat of your pants vs. driving by precision mathematics; put them together and they would most likely make the best Formula One driver in the world.  Separately, they are party boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and egghead Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl).  Their mid-‘70s rivalry sparked interest, at least internationally if not American, in open-wheeled auto racing; a far more life-threatening sport a few decades ago than it is now.

Heated rivalries and grudge matches spark intriguing story lines in sports.  Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, and Nancy Kerrigan vs. Tonya Harding are names that breathe fire into fierce competitions.  Would any of these folks have been as good without the other one to feed off of?  Well, Kerrigan probably would have.  The competitors in Rush are naturally polar opposites from one another in all respects save one, their desire to win. 

Starting down in the Formula Three trenches where the two leading men development their animosity toward one another and culminating on some of the fastest and most dangerous racetracks the world has to offer, Hunt and Lauda are convinced their respective life philosophies are the key to winning.  Pretty boy James hops from booze, drugs, and women into the driver’s seat.  Life is a game and humans are here to play it.  Tactician Niki knows smarts and perfection will lead to victory lane.  Through a drawn out series of smack talk and one-upmanship, these two racecar drivers could not be mentioned in separate sentences; Lauda and Hunt were a brand name.

Rush gives us more than name-calling and fast cars though; we also get their respective wives and off track behavior to complete their development.  James impulsively marries top model Suzy Miller (a heavily made up Olivia Wilde) but their relationship hides off screen until it’s time to pull the plug.  Niki sort of meanders into a marriage and even warns the girl beforehand that he can be difficult and does not want to be happy; happiness means you have something to lose out there on the racetrack.  I was unaware drivers are so introspective. 

Hemsworth and Bruhl are a joy to watch as macho men with too much swagger.  James is always up for a good time, but those moments before a race when he vomits his apprehension shows a hidden vulnerability.  Bruhl absolutely knocks its out of the park as Niki Lauda and steals the show.  He is strict with his crew, snobbish to inferior drivers, and is probably not the best conversationalist at the dinner table, but here is a man who knows exactly who he is, what he wants, and how he is going to achieve it. 

These parts, while effective in their individual scenes, fail to make a truly effective whole though.  Director Ron Howard found a good story from writer Peter Morgan (they worked together previously on Frost/Nixon, 2008) but there is no punch.  Niki goes through a devastating accident suffering gruesome burns to his face, but the previews already committed the sin of giving all of the interesting plot points away leaving only a few crumbs behind for the audience to discover. 

The racing scenes produce the adrenaline they want to out of you and the cinematography, which is invasive enough to march right up into the drivers’ facemasks, is laudable.  There is really something missing in Rush and I think it is in the script.  There are multiple conversations with the required platitudes about how their respective racing styles are effective or not or how they relish the competition, but they do not go deep enough.  Frost/Nixon showed some of the most riveting back and forths in the last decade; it is too bad some of that gravitas did not seep its way into Rush.     

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Natalie Dormer, Julian Rhind-Tutt

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prisoners (2013)


Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a Doomsday Prepper.  His basement is stocked full of propane canisters, non-perishable food items, water jugs, and everything else you would need to ride out the collapse of civilization.  He is a master carpenter, good with his hands, just taught his teenage son to kill a deer with a rifle; Keller is a man’s man.  He tells his son the most important thing he ever learned is to, “Be ready.”  When his young daughter is kidnapped, not only is family violated, his role as protector is shattered.  Keller was not ready for this.

The most practical thing in the world for Keller to do to get his daughter back is keep asking the prime suspect where she is.  If he will not willingly say where she is, asking will morph into intense torture until Keller gets what he wants.  The subject of Keller’s ire is Alex Jones (Paul Dano).  Alex is in his early ‘30s but has the IQ of a 10-year-old.  Unfortunately for him, his RV was seen in Keller’s neighborhood during the kidnapping.

The cops are on the case too, but Keller has no time for glacial speed and ineffective questioning techniques.  They are the ones who questioned Alex in the first place and cut him loose.  Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the investigation and grills Alex pretty good before concluding he is not their man.  Loki is not an old and grizzled veteran yet but this is not his first time around the block either.  Wishing Keller would just stay at home and comfort his wife (Maria Bellow), Loki checks out the usual suspects.

Half of Prisoners is a police procedural following Loki as he tracks the kidnapper and the other half loiters on Keller and his inner turmoil while he agonizes and prays to figure out how far he will hurt another human being who he is only pretty sure knows where he daughter is.  Keller’s neighbor, Franklin (Terrence Howard), lost his daughter during the same kidnapping but seems inclined to let the cops sort it all out and lacks the stomach to join in on Keller’s vigilantism.  His conscience feels superior to Keller’s because while he will not participate too much in the brutality, he is willing to let Keller turn the screws on Alex in hopes he finally breaks.

The problem with Prisoners half and half plot lines is neither story gets it due.  We learn absolutely nothing about Detective Loki.  Intriguing tattoos cover his neck and fingers but we learn nothing about them.  The first time we see him he eats Thanksgiving dinner solo in a Chinese fast food restaurant.  Why so lonesome?  On Keller’s side, we know he struggles as a workman in a slow economy, has some deep-seeded fears concerning natural disasters, but that is about it.  For a two and half hour film, our two protagonists are left almost as blank at the end as the beginning.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated for Incendies, 2011) creates a tense atmosphere and the feeling that nobody is doing enough to find these little girls but he lets the film meander too long.  Less would have been much more.  10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins employs original camerawork, especially of Alex, as he is held captive in some claustrophobic quarters with just a sliver of light illuminating his grotesque visage. 

Writer Aaron Guzikowski needs an editor with a fresh red pen and could use help on the ending.  I will give nothing away, but the ending is weak.  The perpetrator gives an explanation and it is just a throwaway line.  We learn next to nothing about why – why did we endure 153 minutes full of relentless set up and red herrings to run smack into a soft landing?

Prisoners is bleak and gray; I do not remember the sun coming out once.  With such a cold atmosphere and gripping premise, the film should be as impactful as Mystic River was; unfortunately, the paper thin characters cannot hold up such heavy material.

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola David, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano