“Captain Phillips” politically-charged, exceptionally capable entertainment

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Few filmmakers today have as singular an interest in contemporary political turmoil as Paul Greengrass, which makes his mainstream acceptance all the more remarkable. As the helmer behind the two most kinetic Bourne installments, Supremacy and Ultimatum, as well as the superb 9/11 docudrama United 93, Greengrass has proven tremendously influential in his intensely critical view of government and the shattering impact of large-scale dissent on the common American individual.

His new film, Captain Phillips, serves as perhaps his most successful synthesis of entertainment and political criticism. It uses the real-life incident of kidnapped cargo-ship captain Richard Phillips and translates it to the screen in a way that both preserves the sweaty, tense specifics of the incident while also ensuring the wider, deeper political theses are never lost on the audience.

Phillips’ 2009 imprisonment was well-documented in American media, but not to the extent that the filmmakers’ many creative liberties are terribly noticeable. While guiding a container ship to Mombasa, Phillips found his massive vessel seized by four Somali pirates. It is only when the pirates absconded in a lifeboat, with Phillips as hostage, that the American military took intense interest and began to slowly entrap the pirates.

Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) cannily use Phillips’ ordeal as a springboard to explore and criticize American imperialist dominance. The film introduces Phillips and the pirates in identical contexts — skilled professionals undertaking the best possible job their surroundings have allowed them — and never allows us to forget their parallels. It is when the pirates are cartoonishly outmatched by our military force, however, that a genuine fury begins to emerge in Captain Phillips. As the four would-be villains continue their frenzied, desperate bargaining with our military, the ironic tragedy of their certain, jury-free execution grows ever clearer.

And how is this complex outrage shown on a human scale? One of the most famous faces in American entertainment, Tom Hanks himself.

Hanks, playing Phillips, is in absolute peak form. The unthinkably difficult development of his character, from steadfast captain into weeping, desperate prisoner makes for his most complex, emotionally bare turn in years. The four unknowns playing the pirates deserve the highest form of recognition as well, as they must both exude brute physical force and a growing sense of, if not exactly conscience, then recognition of their fate. Barkhad Abdi as their leader is exemplary.

It’s important to note that, in addition to the heft and emotional weight Phillips carries, it never betrays its identity as military-based blockbuster entertainment. This may be its downfall, in a way. There are not so much action sequences in Phillips as much as the film itself is one prolonged, escalating set-piece, and the direction is as surefooted and capable as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Greengrass. However, as the film’s third act approaches and the focus switches from Phillips and his captors to the military forces that seek to collide with them, the film gets too bogged down in its own self-contained, hyper-accurate military jargon. It creates a sense of authenticity, true, but at the expense of becoming a bit monotonous.

It’s no spoiler to say that at the end of the film, the captain is liberated from his captors and his captors robbed of their lives. Yet Captain Phillips wastes no time in patting its audience on the back or reassuring them that this ending is a happy one; one emerges from the film all-too-aware that while Phillips may be free, the socio economic inequalities that forced his captors into their duties will remain totally unchanged. The song remains the same. And blood is on Phillips’ hands.

“Rush” is as sleek and engaging as it is philosophically muddled.

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Some directors gain a degree of their reputation on the basis of sheer versatility; greats like Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa and their modern equivalent, Spielberg himself, are distinguished by both their remarkable variety in genre, scope and style and fairly singular thematic focus. Ron Howard, by contrast, may be one of the most undecipherable directors today — and oddly enough, one of the most popular. Just when he seems to be a dedicated provider of high-stakes adult dramas (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon), Howard takes a bizarre sidetour into simplistic childrens’ film garbage (How the Grinch Saved Christmas), or abysmal Tom Hanks conspiracy dramas (The Da Vinci Code). Even after four decades in show business, it’s frustratingly difficult to get a grasp on where Howard is coming from, and worse yet, where he’s going much of the time.

Rush makes the quest to understand Howard no easier, but that’s only because it’s much more progressive than anything else in his oeuvre. Collaborating again with Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan, Howard has crafted a biopic that’s surprisingly edgy and wickedly entertaining for the exact same reason — its protagonists, two real-life Formula 1 rivals, must literally cheat death every time they go to work. It is a job requiring both intense calculation and a loose, improvisational outlook on life, and Rush largely focuses on this disconnect.

The two protagonists, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) embodied clashing perspectives as well. At the peak of their 1976 powers, which Rush explicitly chronicles, the two represented wildly opposite ideologies, with Hunt being the carefree playboy counterpart to Lauda’s clinical, calculating professional. What unites the two, however, is their perverse comfort with deathly conditions, savage hunger to rise to the top of their field, and willingness to throw most other relationships in life to the wayside in order to succeed.

The young leads performing them, Hemsworth and Brühl, are uncannily good. Hemsworth’s calling-card to the role was his effusive charisma in the otherwise unremarkable Thor, and I can’t imagine a better output for his signature intelligent arrogance. Brühl, by contrast, is steely, intelligent, and is a genuinely intense, fascinating presence. His character, Lauda, is certainly more in line with the general philosophies that guide Rush; there’s a sleek professionalism brimming beneath the surface here, often driving forward the more kinetic sequences but somewhat diminishing any emotional impact.

The film has to compress so many events into such a narrow timeframe that they’re often explained rather than truly evoked. One never gets much of a sense of triumph, loss, or connection to the protagonists and their achievements. It is only in Rush’s extended racing sequences that it transcends its emotional emptiness and becomes something else entirely — a manic, rapid, mechanical dance with death. Anthony Dod Mantle, one of the most adventurous cinematographers today, gives the film a deliriously colorful pop that is good enough to convince us we are watching events more thrilling than we are, especially when the characters are off the race-track.

But for all of the things Rush absolutely nails, it’s difficult to make out much of a guiding philosophy to the film. It presents two clashing philosophies on racing and spends considerable time demonstrating they’re equally valid, but given that its author, Mr. Howard, has spent an entire career avoiding statements of major controversy, one doesn’t come away with much. Rush brings us ever-so-closely to the verge of major ideas and genuine contemplation, then speeds away.

“Gravity” is among the most forceful, powerful films of the new century.

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Gravity is among the most forceful, powerful films of the new century: a technical wunderkind of unthinkable complexity and a near-miraculous unity of seemingly incongruous elements — both bruisingly claustrophobic while set across the infinite expanse of space, both immediately accessible and sweepingly allegorical, psychologically punishing and totally uplifting, and perhaps rarest of all, touting big, big ideas to match its $100 million price-tag and two world-famous leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The two play astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone and Walt Kowalski, who are wrapping up a Hubble Telescope patch-up when they are abruptly warned of an incoming debris storm. The debris proves to destroy the telescope, most methods of communication and nearly all of their rides home — leaving the two adrift and alone, miles above everyone they love and everything they have to live for. The 90-minute film unfolds practically in real-time, and as Gravity progresses it becomes clear the film’s focus is largely on Bullock’s character, Dr. Stone, who is already recouping from a piercing personal tragedy. Thus, she must find the will to live again as cosmic chaos rages around her, turning Gravity into an unexpected tale of spiritual rebirth.

It is impossible to consider Gravity without the four years it took to craft; save for the actors’ faces, everything in the film is digitally rendered — every debris particle, every sweeping, jaw-dropping planetary panorama, even every movement of the characters’ space helmets and suits. It’s revolutionary technology applied for perhaps the most old-fashioned purpose of all — to awe, to transport, to inspire contemplation.

Gravity, indeed, sparks one to consider no less than the scale of the universe. Director Alfonso Cuarón (how have I not mentioned him yet?), working closely with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski and veritable armies of visual-effects artists, create shots that move past the excellent and into the impossible — consider the 17-minute-long opener, which telegraphs our characters’ descent from peaceful space exploration into tetherless catastrophe; consider a subsequent close-up that follows Bullock’s character spinning aimlessly, slowly forcing its way into her helmet and perspective. With a camera that floats and follows as gracefully as its weightless subjects, Gravity marks nothing less than the invention of an incredibly expressive, languid new language of the cinema.

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has cultivated one of the most intriguing, diverse bodies of work in modern cinema — from the low-budget sexual exploration of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the best Harry Potter installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, and most recently, the towering fatalistic masterwork Children of Men. When considered together, his films constitute a loose panoramic view of life’s key rituals — death, sex, coming-of-age, societal assimilation. Gravity finds itself at the center of all of them, with the protagonists’ remarkable proximity to death instilling an incredible want, a need to survive. The result is a film of non-stop, pummeling action sequences that all directly speak to and impact the spiritual conditions of the characters. It’s high-wire, high-stakes cinema at its most balletic and its most exciting. Art and commerce intersect to exhilarating ends.