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.