Saturday, October 26, 2013

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (2013)
Dir. Paul Greengrass

4 out of 5

I can think of several reasons why Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is billed as “from the director of The Bourne Ultimatum” instead of the more apropos, Greengrass-helmed United 93.  It sends the message that Captain Phillips is a white-knuckle actioner about a solitary hero that just happens to be based on a actual 2009 incident of piracy off the Somalian coast.  And for a while - and within the obvious physical limitations of star Tom Hanks - the movie is exactly that.  (Call it Man Overbourne.  Or, better yet, don’t.) 

Rich Phillips (Hanks) is skipper of the Maersk Alabama, a container ship cruising a dangerous route around the Horn of Africa.  Phillips has willfully charted a course that leaves the Alabama miles outside of well-trafficked commercial shipping lanes and the relative safety of strength in numbers.  But when the worst-case scenario unfolds and four armed pirates board the ship seeking to hold it for ransom, Phillips leads his crew in improvising a defense, boldly defying their demands while trying to outwit the invaders.

It would be easy to turn the story of Captain Phillips into forgettable, inspirational mush, but Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) are mostly uninterested in moral absolutism.  From its opening scenes, the film focuses equally on Phillips and the pirates’ leader, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi).  It’s a strategy that pushes the film towards a critique of the global economic system that drives the starving, desperate Somalis to commit high-seas hijackings.  

Abdi is particularly fascinating in his acting debut.  He projects much more than the one-dimensional menace that a lesser film would require of him.  Here, he is a lowly link in an exploitative chain; his personal struggle for survival is tied up in pleasing his demanding bosses.  He’s also an intelligent foil to Phillips, a prickly taskmaster who’s prone to recklessness.  The standoff eventually moves from the Alabama to the ship’s emergency lifeboat with Phillips as a hostage and the U.S. Navy in hot pursuit.  It’s a recipe for a gripping thriller, made with Greengrass’ typical precision and featuring Hanks’ finest non-voice acting performance in at least a decade.  

Despite the initial complexity of its moral shading, Captain Phillips ultimately wants to have it both ways.  While Phillips struggles to survive in the lifeboat and the pirates start to bicker amongst themselves, an efficient human story morphs into the climax of The Hunt for Red October.  We’re treated to breathtaking helicopter shots of advanced naval technology as the duel of wits and ideologies gives way to a re-affirmation of American military might.  (So much for haves and have-nots!)  But one can’t blame Greengrass for how it went down.  He still ends the film on an intimate, almost disturbing note, complicating a straightforward tale of uncommon heroism by suggesting that in-the-moment bravery pales in comparison to the everyday courage necessary to cope with lingering trauma.

Friday, October 18, 2013

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013)
Dir. Steve McQueen

4.5 out of 5

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, a scathing indictment of Southern slavery that galvanized support for the abolitionist movement and, many historians believe, helped tilt the United States toward Civil War.  One year later, Solomon Northup wrote 12 Years A Slave, a book that resembled Stowe's fictional anti-slavery polemic, with one key difference - it was all true.  Born a free man in the state of New York, the African-American Northup was deceived and kidnapped in 1841, illegally shuttled off to the Deep South where he was sold as human chattel to a succession of slaveowners in the Red River region of Louisiana.  His firsthand account of life as a slave put the lie to the South's attempts to uphold slavery as a benevolent institution.

The film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave from director Steve McQueen (Shame) and screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) follows in both authors' footsteps.  On one hand, it's a historical horror show that takes an unflinching look at the cruelties and hypocrisies of the slave system - a passion play not unlike the many, many theatrical iterations of Uncle Tom's Cabin that followed in the wake of its publication.  But McQueen also stays true to the spirit of Northup's memoir, taking big, knotty issues of morality, racism, and economics and distilling them into their effect on the day-to-day lives of individuals.

To get there, McQueen assembles a magnificent cast, beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup.  A noted fiddle player in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, Northup is whisked to Washington, D.C. with the promise of employment in a traveling circus.  His benefactors, however, are actually bounty agents, and before long he finds himself on a ship bound for the New Orleans slave market.  Unable to reveal his true identity for fear of deadly reprisal, he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity in a nearly hopeless situation.

There's a definite stateliness to 12 Years A Slave that sets it apart from the rest of McQueen's provocative oeuvre.  From the rococo dialogue to Ejiofor's clean moral arc to the powerhouse supporting performances from Michael Fassbender (as an unfathomably cruel plantation owner) and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o (as Fassbender's most prized worker and the object of his dangerous affections), the movie finds McQueen treading mainstream waters for the first time in his career.  And yet the former avant-garde video artist still finds ways to add uncanny flourishes to this cold, sober reconstruction of historical fact: the eerie stillness of the Southern backwoods; the overlapping sound design that scores a church service to a bone-chilling ditty sung by a hateful overseer (Paul Dano); the agonizing extended scenes of individual suffering, including a near-lynching of Northup that seems to go on forever.

It's just what the movie needs to set itself apart from the annual pack of interchangeable historical prestige dramas.  These artful touches make 12 Years A Slave feel like the most honest film ever made about American slavery - and in many ways, it is - without diluting the appeal of the human story at its center.  Even so, McQueen aims for something bigger and more complex than a simple retelling of Northup's ordeal with its lessons of defiance and perseverance.  His goal, beautifully accomplished, isn't just to use history as a blunt tool to stun or move an audience, but as a prism to challenge and perplex us, cataloging the simple kindnesses and cruelties that people visit upon others, whether by force, by choice, or by chance.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Gravity (2013)
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

4 out of 5

There’s a budding archetype in Hollywood films that I like to call the Librarian Action Hero, inspired by Diane Kruger’s character in the National Treasure movies who quickly transitions from National Archives bureaucrat to adventure-seeking daredevil.  In this character arc - which can be satisfying if handled well - increased physical prowess accompanies a sudden change in temperament, generally triggered by a bit of advice or impromptu training given by a more adept mentor.

Alfonso Cuarón’s viscerally thrilling Gravity, has its own Librarian Action Hero in Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a technical specialist on her first space shuttle mission to fix the Hubble Telescope. Accompanying her is the jaunty mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a grizzled NASA veteran with a suspiciously ample supply of Danny Ocean-style bon mots.  But Kowalski’s wisecracks give way to steely reserve when high-speed debris from a decommissioned Russian satellite turn the shuttle and the telescope into mincemeat, severing communications with Earth and stranding the two astronauts in low orbit as their oxygen supply - and chances of rescue - dwindles.

A few visual nods to classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey aside, Gravity is less sci-fi than desert island survival:  it’s Apollo 13 on speedballs.  Cuarón relentlessly tosses calamity after calamity at his heroes, testing both their will to survive and the limits of credulity.  I mean that last part in a good way.  Gravity may stretch plausibility to add stakes, but the dangers are more immediate, more easily understood.  Cuarón and longtime DP Emmanuel Lubezki pump up the visual razzle-dazzle (fans of the pair’s famously intricate long takes will be very satisfied) to construct the wildest amusement park ride of their imaginations.  You’re supposed to learn about space travel from this movie in the same way that a high school physics class is supposed to learn about momentum by riding rollercoasters.

Though Gravity carries some unexpected weight via Dr. Stone’s backstory, the movie knows it has certain limitations when it comes to character development.  I’m not sure if Clooney’s dead-on impression of a stereotypical ‘90s action slab, casually shrugging off every disaster, is meant to serve an ironic purpose.  (It’s also mentioned that Kowalski will fall just short of breaking the record for longest spacewalk, which is Gravity’s own spin on the “cop with only two days until retirement” trope.)  Bullock, however, is in full Librarian Action Hero mode.  To her credit, she elevates the label with a performance that’s as much about managing fear as demonstrating technical competence.  As a whole, Gravity is focused more on the latter, with Cuarón using his virtuosic visual technique to rattle the body and stir the soul.  It’s all the terror of the infinite void with just a touch of the majesty.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Zero Charisma

Zero Charisma (2013)
Dir. Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews

4 out of 5

Geek culture has long since permeated the mainstream, but it hasn’t entirely eliminated the stigma from many obsessively nerdy pursuits: witness the indie comedy Zero Charisma and its evocation of the fantasy gaming subculture.  A self-lacerating ode to adult geekdom, the film stars Sam Eidson as Scott, the Game Master of a Dungeons & Dragons-like role playing game whose imperious approach to social situations frequently spills from the fantasy world into the real one.  But his illusion of control begins to crumble once Miles (Garrett Graham), an affable hipster nerd, joins the group and provides an easygoing alternative to Scott’s overbearing leadership.  Pretty soon he’s a shepherd without a flock, an indignation that isn’t helped by the sudden reappearance of his absentee mother (Cyndi Williams), trying to push Scott’s salty grandmother (Anne Gee Byrd) – who’s also his landlord – out of her house and into a nursing home.

Co-directors Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews wisely avoid sentimentality throughout Zero Charisma, refusing to shy away from their protagonist’s unpleasant nature.  Though beholden in some respects to the stereotypes of meek, sexless men huddled around a kitchen table pretending to be wizards and elves, the movie doesn’t totally bow to nerdic myths.  Scott is a hulking bully, a tempestuous metalhead who would sooner use physical intimidation and brute strength against his enemies than hide behind the anonymity of an Internet comments section.  And while Graham and Matthews are guilty of pattern repetition – Scott proclaims his worldview, reality intrudes on that worldview, Scott explodes with rage – they make an effort to explain the character’s behavior by hinting at the various reasons why he spends hours and hours in an imaginary realm that satisfies his quixotic desire for justice.  (“The gods demand retribution!” is his motto.  For what, exactly?)

Scott’s sense of fair play, however, is completely skewed, and the movie responsibly illustrates the consequences of his actions.  Zero Charisma follows in the footsteps of Robert Siegel’s Big Fan (another caustic character study of an incorrigible misfit) by couching any shred of redemption in hard-earned humility.  It’s one long, lonely journey to rock bottom for Scott, though his exaggerated hubris makes the heartbreak humorous enough to bear: a scene in which he claims that Hollywood plagiarized his ideas for The Matrix films is painfully funny, his ire escalating as his friends gently point out reasonable explanations for any similarities.  

Graham and Matthew are also wise to include glimmers of hope, particularly in the film’s perfect ending, without upsetting their delicate balance of verisimilitude and comic embellishment.  Ultimately, Zero Charisma works so well because of its attitude toward self-acceptance, rejecting the idea of a sudden transformation, and framing life itself as one long campaign to accumulate experience and abilities that can make navigating the next adventure a little easier.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013)
Dir. Jonathan Levine

2.5 out of 5

The lack of fanfare for the long-delayed teen slasher flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane seems unfair, given its long, arduous journey to the big screen.  Completed in 2006, the movie has languished in distribution limbo since then, appearing only at a handful of film festivals and on lists of notoriously unreleased films.  The project's original distributor, The Weinstein Company, unceremoniously dropped the film only to re-acquire it years later when a second distributor went belly up without succeeding in getting Mandy Lane into theaters.  It's exactly the type of backstory from which cult classics - or total disasters - are born.

It turns out that All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is neither of those, exactly.  A caustic rejoinder to years of aspirational high school movies in which the misfits yearn to be beautiful and popular, Mandy Lane explores the unsettling predatory aspects of the teenage dream, laying all its cards on the table in a grisly opening party scene where a boorish jock misjudges a leap from a rooftop into a pool, plummeting to his death.  It's an ill-advised attempt to impress Mandy (Amber Heard), a sweet-natured "good girl" whose swan-like physical transformation inspires her male classmates' aggressive sexual advances.  Her newfound social status is simultaneously unsettling and exhilarating, even at it alienates her former best friend, Emmet (Michael Welch), who takes the rap for egging on the drunken party jumper.

In barely 10 minutes of screentime, director Jonathan Levine (in what was to be his debut feature) manages to create a casually horrifying and yet still plausible scenario before moving the action to a remote ranch, where Mandy and her new popular friends celebrate the end of junior year by jockeying for each other's attention.  When an unseen killer starts picking off the revelers one by one, the movie becomes an exercise in how to construct scares with slow-burning suspense instead of gruesome, shocking violence, all in an attempt to prove...well, I'm not exactly sure.  Between the arresting opening and the fevered climax, there's not much "there" there beyond a technically proficient horror film with a half-developed satirical slant.  It feels like the leftovers of a much more ambitious feminist critique of the horror genre, as we're meant to experience Mandy's discomfort while she repels the horny advances of would-be Lotharios and the machinations of a psycho killer.  

Mandy is given plenty of agency as the film progresses, but it carries a muddled message on the plight of young, nubile eye candy in horror films.  In the end, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is hardly a game-changing statement, and it may be an ultimately regressive one.  The female characters' clunky, overwritten zingers - one girl criticizes another's intimate grooming habits, quipping “It’s like Sherwood Forest down there" - certainly don't help.  The touch of the man who would go on to direct funny, sensitive gems like The Wackness and 50/50 is almost invisible here, leaning on a slapdash visual style that's a cross between an intimate indie drama and a CBS crime procedural on whippets.  Heard doesn't display any hidden talents in a performance that predates her career arc as a minor sex symbol without a signature role; the standout player here is Anson Mount - currently the lead in the AMC drama Hell on Wheels - as a laconic shotgun-toting ranch hand/obvious suspect.  Given the subsequent trajectories of its stars and its director in addition to its long stint in movie purgatory, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane fittingly registers as a footnote, even by the low standards of B-grade slasher flicks.