Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus
In 2009, international headlines were made when Richard Phillips, the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage by Somali pirates for four days before being rescued by the US Navy. He wrote a book about his experiences, Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, and now Paul Greengrass – the director the of The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum and, more relevantly, United 93 – has brought the story to the screen in the impressive Captain Phillips.
We have all heard about Somali pirates and how dangerous the journey around the horn of Africa can be for cargo ships without really knowing how it works. The notion of seafaring pirates seems so old-fashioned that it is, for the uninitiated, difficult to fathom how the practice still takes place in the present day. As such, part of what makes Captain Phillips so interesting is the procedural nature of the film. Almost a docu-drama, the film shows us how high seas piracy functions in the modern world. We get to see not only how a small group of pirates can take possession of a massive container ship, but also the processes the container ships go through in the face of a pirate threat. But don’t let Greengrass’ devotion to detail and process fool you into thinking this film is in any way bland. Captain Phillips is intense, gripping storytelling.
Emotionally, the film is carried by a strong leading performance from Tom Hanks. Phillips is a veteran seaman. When he is aboard he is all business. He likes to be prepared, and initially gets his crew offside by insisting on running emergency drills. But when those emergency threats become real as the boat is approached by a skiff containing four pirates armed with automatic weapons, there is no one the crew would rather have in charge. Alongside a strong sense of duty and responsibility, Phillips is a cool head under pressure and a quick thinker. He is a schemer. The brilliance of Hanks’ performance is that so much of it is about what the character is thinking. But what propels this performance to sit among the very finest work that Hanks has produced are the post-trauma scenes in which Phillips, who has to this point been so measured, is simply unable to process the incredible ordeal he has just been through. Those scenes are devastatingly effecing. Hanks is a certainty to earn a Best Actor nomination at next year’s Academy Awards and will be a real chance of joining Daniel Day Lewis in the three Oscars club.
Hanks is the only name in the cast unless you count the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife at the beginning of the picture. However his performance is complemented by some equally strong work from the supporting cast, most notably the four first time actors who deliver impressively nuanced performances as the Somali pirates.
One of the great strengths of Captain Phillips is the way that it chooses to humanise the Somali characters when it so easily could have presented them as a terrifying other. Greengrass breaks from Phillips’ point of view by subtitling the Somali characters, so that unlike Phillips we can always understand what they are saying. In doing so he gives us access to those characters. Instead of one collection of bad guys we see four distinctly different men, displaying different emotions and reacting to the experience, and to the figure of Phillips, in individual ways. Their captain, Muse, is a man acting out of desperation. Not just the desperation of poverty which compels him to steal and kidnap to stay alive, but the desperation to prove himself to the other men in his village who deride him for his slight build. He goes on his own emotional journey in the film as he attempts to prove himself as a leader, with the way he finds himself simultaneously drawn to and pushing away from Hanks’ Phillips because he possesses the leadership qualities Muse aspires to being really interesting. The humanising of the Somali pirates is helped by the fact that despite being the aggressors and as such the villains of the film, they are also consistently the underdogs, and as an audience there is something in us which is compelled to sympathise with the underdog.
It is always impressive when a film based on high profile actual events, and therefore with a well-known outcome, manages to create and maintain legitimate dramatic tension. With Captain Phillips, Greengrass goes much further than simply maintaining dramatic tension. He delivers one of the most intense, gripping and interesting films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford
It was once said that all a film needs for drama is two people having a conversation. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) seeks to prove that one of those people is redundant in his second feature, All is Lost, the tale of an ageing man alone at sea.
Our man is on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean when his yacht collides with a shipping container that has fallen off a cargo ship. With his communications and navigational equipment ruined and his vessel taking on water, the resourceful man finds himself fighting to survive and at the mercy of the ocean.
All is Lost is a minimalist film. There is no fat on it. The film starts at the moment that the Virginia Jean starts to take on water and it finishes at the moment that we discover his final fate. It is a film unburdened by context and backstory. We know very little about this character outside of his immediate circumstances. We don’t know why he is out there. We don’t know if he has a family or not. We don’t know if he is a good person or a bad person. We don’t even know his name. All we know is that he is a human being and he is fighting for his life. And you know what? That is enough. That is all we actually require to care about this man and become invested in his situation. In a time where every reality television contestant comes complete with a tragic backstory of a hurdle they’ve overcome, a relative with terminal illness or a child they’re hoping to inspire, all designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience and cynically tug at their heart strings, it is refreshing to see the way that Chandor trusts his audience. He trusts his audience to care without needing to over-emotionalise the situation.
As the film’s lone character – credited simply as ‘Our Man’ – Robert Redford is compelling to watch. With no other characters to talk to, he hardly speaks a word in the film. Chandor’s faith in the audience to work things out for themselves means he doesn’t resort to having the character talk to himself. Nor does he include a narration to explain what he is thinking and feeling. Instead it is up to Redford’s face and his actions to do the talking. Where a more insecure actor may have given into the temptation to overact, Redford maintains an incredible subtlety. Our man is stoic and unemotive, which makes those moments when his resolve does break all the more powerful. But despite this stoicism we can always see that his mind is working, that he has a plan. It is a masterful performance from a Hollywood legend which should see him in the mix come award season.
All is Lost screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year, with Redford receiving a standing ovation for his performance. It is the type of film that is more likely to make its presence felt at film festivals than at the box office. The nature of Chandor’s film means that it is a less commercially attractive prospect than last year’s lost at sea film – the equally brilliant Life of Pi – but it is a powerful piece of filmmaking which really sticks in your mind.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Roland Joffé
Starring: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro
Opus Dei, meaning “the work of God,” is a secretive and somewhat controversial Catholic order whose public image has not been helped by its portrayal in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The confusingly titled There Be Dragons provides an alternate, positive portrayal largely through its focus on the early life of the order’s founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva. This sympathetic portrayal is unsurprising given two of the film’s producers are Opus Dei members.
British director Roland Joffé hasn’t been at his best since the mid-1980s when he made The Killing Fields and The Mission back to back, getting Oscar nominations for both. But he has always been willing to explore Christian and spiritual themes in his filmmaking, particularly against historical backdrops. This made There Be Dragons, which explores themes of forgiveness, conscience and the morality of war against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, a perfect match for him.
There Be Dragons parallels the stories of two childhood friends, one a saint and one a sinner, during the Spanish Civil War: Josemaria Escriva, a priest forced to flee Spain over the Pyrenees in order to escape persecution, and Manolo Torres, a spy who has infiltrated a group of fascist rebels. Of the two it is Manolo, a fictional character introduced by Joffé, who becomes the real protagonist despite being unlikeable. This is problematic as his character lacks clarity, you don’t know what motivates him, and therefore he is difficult to emotionally engage with. Escriva is also a very simplistic, two-dimensional character. He never seems to be conflicted about making what should be difficult decisions to do the right thing in the face of terrible situations, which reduces the emotional impact of the stance he takes.
There Be Dragons struggles to overcome a convoluted story which lacks context and clarity. The Spanish Civil War was a complicated conflict involving fascists, communists and anarchists, but There Be Dragons doesn’t give you enough insight into the ideology of the conflict. So unless you have the required prior knowledge, you don’t really understand where our central characters fit on the ideological spectrum. Similarly, unless you already have an understanding of Opus Dei, it is not until the epilogue that you are informed about the significance of Escriva. So while the picture has some quite impressive moments, particularly visually, the fact that you don’t gain any particular insight into either Opus Dei or the Spanish Civil War is disappointing.
Rating – ★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta
In 2010 Derek Cianfrance announced himself as a rising filmmaker to watch with the critical hit Blue Valentine, an intimate and emotional exploration of the beginning and the end of a marriage. His latest film, the sombre drama The Place Beyond the Pines – which takes its title from the Mohawk Indian name for Schenectady, the location of the films events – is a very ambitious project. The film is an epic, multi-generational morality tale of guilt, responsibility and consequence told in three distinct but interrelated sections.
The first section, and the most engaging of the three, concerns stunt motorcycle rider Luke played by Ryan Gosling. When Luke’s circus pulls into Schenectady, he discovers that he has an infant son in the town from his visit a year earlier. This discovery sparks a paternal instinct in him and, determined to provide for his child, he sets about robbing banks, with his skills on a motorbike provng handy for getting away. Gosling and Cianfrance worked together on Blue Valentine and they appear to bring out the best in each other, as Gosling is engrossing to watch in this role.
In the second section Luke is left behind and our focus turns to young policeman Avery Cross played by Bradley Cooper. A chance encounter with Luke thrusts Cross into the spotlight. An ambitious man, Cross finds himself on a path which will lead all the way to the office of District Attorney, along which his morals are constantly being tested. Bradley Cooper showed in Silver Linings Playbook that he does possess some acting chops and his performance as a conflicted and guilt-ridden man, while not as electric as Goslings, carries the middle section of the film.
Unfortunately Cianfrance’s film loses some momentum with its final section. Set fifteen years later, this section focuses on the sons of Luke and Avery, exploring the ways in which the influences of their fathers’ actions play out in their lives. The storyline becomes messier in this closing section. You feel a narrative shift as what had been an organic story seems to make way for what the filmmaker wants to tell us. With the focus in this closing episode being shared between the two young characters, AJ and Jason, as well as an older Avery in the process of running for District Attorney, it lacks the concentrated focus of the earlier sections.
The Place Beyond the Pines is beautifully shot by Sean Bobbitt and through these four male characters it offers an interesting exploration of masculinity, but ultimately this admirable film doesn’t quite achieve Cianfrance’s lofty ambitions. It appears to be a case of the filmmaker’s reach exceeding his grasp. Some of the lines and narrative connections the film draws just feel a bit too neat. Is the destiny of the two sons as inescapable as the film wants us to believe? Can what the film wants us to accept as fate at times be more appropriately attributed to coincidence? The attempt to engage with the age old concept of the sins of the father being visited upon the son means that what starts out seemingly as a realist story ends up becoming something more akin to classical tragedy.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, John Hurt, Ray Stevenson
In Alabama in 1969, a wealthy, Southern family is rocked by the news that their mother, who left many years ago and re-married, has passed away and her new family is coming over from England to bury her in the town where she was born.
That’s the set up, but it doesn’t really matter because in Jayne Mansfield’s Car the story isn’t really the focus. It is a film about characters and interactions and relationships. Thematically it is a film about our relationship with life and death, about family, and about changing notions of courage and heroism, particularly in relation to war. The film’s title comes from a ghoulish sideshow attraction which visits their town, peaking the interest of patriarch Jim who has a morbid fascination with car accidents, and serves as a metaphor for the American impulse to try and glamorise death.
Director Billy Bob Thornton is better known as an actor and Jayne Mansfield’s Car is very much an actors’ movie. The film is very wordy, made up of numerous scenes of dramatic monologues and dialogues. This gives the impressive ensemble cast – including Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Thornton himself – plenty of chances to flex their acting muscles. Unfortunately, while there are some very solid individual performances, particularly from Duvall and Thornton, the cast never really knits together to make a believable family. Likewise, while some of these dramatic scenes are very interesting, they don’t really combine to make a whole of any great substance.
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is very slow and feels much longer than its two hour running time. The lack of a central narrative thread means that your engagement with the film really goes through peaks and troughs. Too heavy handed at times and too vague at others, it never quite hits the mark, always striving for a level of emotion that isn’t quite there.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Directors: Pauline Chan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Zhu Lin, Claudia Karvan, Lincoln Lewis, Rhys Muldoon
For every Australian film like The Sapphires that makes a splash, there are dozens of other Australian films which just slip under the radar, without the backing to finance the saturation marketing required to be a hit at the box office. Pauline Chan’s 33 Postcards, an Australian and Chinese co-production, is one of these other films. A small drama which has made more of a splash on the festival circuit than it did at the box office, it is a well-crafted and touching film.
Mei-Mei is a young girl growing up in a Chinese orphanage. She has no family. She doesn’t even have a name. Her moniker simply meaning “Little Sister.” As a result she derives much joy from the correspondence she has with her Australian sponsor, Dean Randall. When her orphanage’s choir is invited to tour Australia, Mei-Mei sees the opportunity to finally meet the man who has meant so much to her. However, when she tracks down Dean, she discovers that all is not what she has been led to believe. Dean is incarcerated in Long Bay Correctional Facility serving a sentence for manslaughter, and has been there for the entirety of their correspondence.
It is great to see Guy Pearce, a genuine Hollywood actor, coming home and putting his weight behind a small film like this. He gives a restrained performance as the tortured Randall, a nice foil to the more exuberant performance of newcomer Zhu Lin as Mei-Mei.
33 Postcards is quite a lovely film about two lonely people who find comfort in each other. It explores the way that the act of sponsorship gives both characters a greater feeling of self-worth. For Mei-Mei it comes from the knowledge that she has a family, even when she discovers that family is not quite what she believed it to be. For Dean, it comes from the knowledge that, despite the mistakes he has made in his life, there is at least one person whose life is better because of him.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Terrence Malick is not your usual filmmaker. He was a philosophy student at Harvard who graduated summa cum laude before heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before deciding to enrol at the American Film Institute. Since then he has had an intriguing 40 year career as a director which has amazingly only resulted in six feature films. While he left academia a long time ago, that philosophical streak still exists in his work, and as he has grown older his films have become increasingly contemplative and esoteric.
His last film, The Tree of Life, divided critics and audiences alike with some declaring it the film of the year while others found it excessively self-indulgent and pretentious. His new picture, To the Wonder is a similar style of film to Tree of Life, though likely a step further away from the mainstream and less well executed.
As a filmmaker, Malick is growing increasingly disinterested in narrative. So while To the Wonder has a narrative of sorts it is not really the primary focus of the film. We meet two outsiders living in Oklahoma. Marina is a Ukranian single mother who has moved to America from Paris after falling in love with an American, Neil. Father Quintana is a Hispanic Catholic priest who moved to the area to minister. Both have been compelled to move their by love, but both now find themself feeling increasingly isolated and distant from that love. The picture contrasts Marina’s relationship difficulties with Quintana’s crisis of faith.
For this exploration of love in its different forms, Malick is more interested in evoking than describing. Instead of getting scenes, we simply glimpse moments. Instead of having passages of dialogue, we capture a sentence here or there. The prominence of the musical score over dialogue means the film can feel almost like a silent movie.
Like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder is a visual and aural experience with an ethereal quality. The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked twice before with Malick, is breathtaking. Whether in the streets of Paris, the plains of Oklahoma or the humble homes of Bartlesville, Lubezki and Malick give us beautiful, emotive images. However unlike its predecessor, To the Wonder doesn’t have the substance to support its style. The combination of these stunning images, an expressive score, and a narration of philosophical whisperings in French and Spanish has led more than one critic to liken the film to a high end perfume commercial.
An impressive principal cast including Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem suggests that the chance to work with Malick is obviously a draw card for actors. But don’t come expecting to see movie stars because Malick’s camera doesn’t treat them that way. Case in point is Ben Affleck, who despite being a big name star, constantly finds himself on the periphery of the frame, often with his head cut out of the picture. In the film’s first passages in Paris Affleck hardly says a word. We assume this is because his character doesn’t speak French, but then when the film migrates to America we still don’t hear from him.
To the Wonder has an impassioned spirituality. You can’t help but feel that there is an autobiographical element to Father Quintana’s longing to again experience the presence of Christ in the world around him. Unfortunately though, the film lacks clarity, with the vagueness of its events, characters and themes more likely to leave you scratching your head than deep in philosophical reflection.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean