Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass, the 58-year-old director behind this year’s Captain Phillips, has recently been known for effectively conveying intense drama onto the silver screen. His past projects, which include 2002’s Blood Sunday, 2006’s United 93, and two of the Bourne films, have been praised for their brilliant compositions of action mixed with depth and intelligence. Nowadays, it’s very rare to see such films, since most action movies focus too much on the big explosions and less on developing interesting characters or thought-provoking situations. Fortunately, Greengrass fills in this void with the intense, 2-hour biopic Captain Phillips.
Although lengthy and stressful to watch, Captain Phillips’ greatest moments are thanks to Greengrass’ meticulous directing and yet another outstanding performance from a reliable Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the titular character, a cautious but brave cargo ship captain, whose boat is hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa. When Somali pirates take him hostage during the second half of the film, Captain Phillips finds himself and his crew in a dire life-threatening situation. I was initially doubtful about the film’s ability to maintain the tension between Phillips and the Somali pirates, since most of the second half lacked a consistent tone of thrills between the characters. Fortunately, after some long waits for excitement, the film’s jaw-dropping climax arrived. Without spoiling anything, the climax essentially evoked both an awe-inspiring performance from Hanks and a sense of relief. Captain Phillips ultimately captures the agony of Phillips’ character, providing an inspiring story of persistence and giving the audience a sense of pride for the United States Navy.
Another unique quality that I found while watching the biopic was how, much like his other movies, Greengrass uses a strong and predominantly unknown cast (aside from Hanks and a quick appearance from actress Catherine Keener, playing Phillips’ wife). Though Hanks presents a commanding presence onscreen, the other actors are a pleasure to watch as well, including first-timer Barkhad Abdi, who portrays the Somali pirate leader Abduwali Muse.
Despite the film’s realistic depictions of brutality of the merchant mariner’s perilous experience in 2009, Captain Phillips is not exactly historically accurate. Although his actions during the incident have been described as heroic, some crew members considered him reckless. According to these crew members, he originally ignored warnings of approaching Somali pirate boats and failed to keep his crew safe . Some even sued the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line, the shipping companies who owned the ship, for nearly $50 million. They alleged “willful, wanton and conscious disregard for their safety” by Phillips, who was hired by the companies. Luckily, Greengrass quickly justified this criticism with his own experience of carefully shaping Captain Phillips, explaining that it took months of research and interviews with the crew and military responders who were involved in the real hijacking. He reassured that “[he’s] 100% satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film, including the role playing by Captain Phillips, is authentic.”
Regardless of these controversies, Captain Phillips as a film alone still stands triumphant, despite some faults in the prolonged action sequences. It not only epitomizes the ideal form of Hollywood action films, but also reignites the sensation of watching deeply emotive and cerebral thrillers. Unlike most action movies, Captain Phillips humanizes both the heroes and villains in the story. It may be hard to sympathize with every character, but after watching this film, I could see that it poses a lot of interesting questions about the reality of a largely overlooked issue and how it affects the core of our nation’s security.
Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes, preferably for fans of cerebral thrillers
Watch the trailer here:

Man of Steel

Man of Steel‘s director, Zack Synder, has had some critical setbacks with his earlier movies. Despite the commercial breakthroughs of 2007’s 300 and 2009’s Watchmen, the 47-year old filmmaker had trouble finding a way to evoke his interest in sci-fi thrillers and make it into a compelling and visceral cinematic experience. As a result, he made 2010’s underwhelming Owls of Gahoole and 2011’s vapid Sucker Punch. However, after talks of a Superman reboot in 2008, Synder found his way back in the movie industry with a sense of optimism, ethos, and stability, after he collaborated with The Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan. Together, they’ve formulated what would become one of this summer’s most highly anticipated blockbusters, Man of Steel

I wish that Synder had only put more thought into Man of Steel because, to be honest, it has the potential to be much more captivating and thought-provoking than it was made to be. Looking back on the 2 and 1/2 hour movie, Man of Steel is weakened by its wooden script, underdeveloped plot points, and overlong action sequences. In addition, Man of Steel doesn’t really feel any different from any other generic superhero film. But nevertheless, it’s filled with rich visual effects and an impressive ensemble cast. In the starring role of the titular character, actor Henry Cavill looks the part of Clark Kent/Superman, but sometimes it feels as though there’s some emptiness within his character. Furthermore, Amy Adams does an adequate job of portraying love interest Lois Lane, as does Kevin Costner playing Clark’s adoptive father and Russell Crowe playing Clark’s biological father, Jor-El. The subplot between both fathers and their superhuman son is surprisingly one of the high points of Man of Steel, as it exhibits a emotionally gratifying depiction of Superman’s origin story. Though, this is slightly ironic, considering that this subplot is much more palpable than the action sequences and that Synder usually focuses more on the on-screen fighting in his films. Regardless of the occasional over-the-top action, Man of Steel maintains the emotional aspect of a great superhero film.
Still, there are a few drawbacks from Man of Steel, including the stilted portrayal of main villain General Zod by actor Michael Shannon. Although Zod is a classic character from the original Christopher Reeve Superman films, Shannon’s performance isn’t as gripping nor as authentic as one would expect. The awkward screenwriting makes Zod’s character even more unrealistic. In addition to Shannon’s underwhelming Zod, the lengthy battle between him and Superman drags on way too long during the climax of Man of Steel. Another disadvantage from the million-dollar budgeted film was the mediocre chemistry between Cavill’s Superman and Adams’ Lois Lane. Both actors are genuinely attractive people, but when paired together, they don’t really capture the essence of the titillating relationship between Kent and Lane in previous Superman films. However, that’s not to say that they could continue a very interesting relationship in Man of Steel‘s sequel. 

Man of Steel isn’t a Dark Knight, but thankfully nor is it a Green Lantern; it’s somewhere in between. Despite its five year process, Man of Steel‘s plot, writing, and acting could still use some work. However, needless to say, the visual grandeur and thematic material is undoubtedly outstanding and well-thought out. Luckily, Man of Steel has already achieved commercial triumph nationwide, but hopefully its sequel will have better critical success.
Grade: B
Recommended: Yes 

Star Trek Into Darkness

Warning: This article does contain some spoilers.

The Enterprise has returned and the tides have yet again turned. After 2009’s spectacular reboot of Star Trek, the Gene Roddenberry franchise had become reignited by the forces of director J.J. Abrams. Abrams had became a bold new face in the film industry after Star Trek‘s release and is particularly known for his rich special effects, in-depth storytelling, and interesting characters. Star Trek had refreshed the eyes of devoted Trekkies and even non-Trekkies. Although Abrams was unprecedented at the time of his directorial debut, the summer popcorn hit Mission Impossible III, the 46 year-old director continued to delve into the flow of extraordinary filmmaking with his 2011 E.T.-inspired, coming-of-age tale Super 8. Although Abrams has worked as a producer and writer for a variety of popular early 2000s shows (AliasFelicity, Lost) and continues to do so (FringeRevolution), his repertoire of sci-fi thrillers and psychological dramas has so far been his strong suit. Even after the return of the Enterprise ship four years ago, Abrams’ work has still resonated among critics and fans, especially with his effective collaborations with film mogul Steven Spielberg, composer Michael Giacchino, and the brilliant writers behind the Star Trek reboot, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Fortunately, J.J. Abrams and the Enterprise crew brought forth a much more intense and crazier follow-up in this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

Although it’s not as fresh nor as thought-provoking as its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness is filled with visually dazzling effects, high octane action sequences, and even some cleverly placed references from older Star Trek films (spoiler alert!). Chris Pine reprises his role as the self-absorbed womanizer Captain James T. Kirk, with the addition to Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saladana (Uhura), Karl Urban (Bones), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Simon Pegg (Scotty), Leonard Nimoy (older Spock), John Cho (Sulu), and Bruce Greenwood (Commander Pike). The story also introduces new characters — or should I say, old — from previous Star Trek Films: Carol Marcus, played by the beautiful Alice Eve, was supposedly Kirk’s first love in the original series, but in Into Darkness, it’s a predominately plutonic relationship (so far); John Harrison, performed by “Sherlock”‘s exquisite Benedict Cumberbatch, is a rouge Starfleet commander, who later reveals himself to be…SPOILER ALERT…read at your own risk…..are you sure you want to find out?….seriously?…..alrighty then….Khan. For those of you who don’t know, Khan was the titular villian from the highly acclaimed cult classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and was considered to be one of the most popular and memorable Star Trek villians ever created. This reinvention and reincarnation of Khan is almost good to be true and Benedict Cumberbatch, though a newcomer to film, is spot-on and fittingly mysterious. Although Into Darkness reminiscences a few lines from The Wrath of Khan (the unforgettable “KHAAAN!!” scream), it fortunately doesn’t interfere with the story’s originality.

The plot of Into Darkness continues the story of the Enterprise crew, as the newly instated Captain Kirk and his ship embark on a troubling journey and battle against John Harrison, ultimately leading to violent disasters, which in some way reverberates back to a major modern issue in society today: terrorism, particularly 9/11. Although you may think that the movie dramatized the 9/11 attacks with the sci-fi action and whatnot, Into Darkness carefully demonstrates this theme boldly in the action sequences, but without pushing the limit too much. Luckily, this didn’t bother critics, as it holds positive critical reception and a score of 86% on RottenTomatoes. As a marketing campaign, Into Darkness was promoted a few months before its release. And though it has so far earned over $200 million, its opening weekend box office intake was modest compared to its predecessor. However, I don’t consider $84.1 million modest. But nevertheless its critical success, top-notch acting, and deftly paced storyline make the trip to see Star Trek Into Darkness worthwhile.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes

Iron Man 3

Even after five years since the first Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. still remains a total badass. The 2008 film adaptation of the Marvel superhero comic series not only revived Downey Jr.’s celebrity lifestyle, but thoroughly recognized him as one of the greatest actors in the current film industry. His irresistible charm, lingual dexterity, satirical sense of humor, and committed acting has rightfully earned him the role of Tony Stark, a womanizing philanthropist, whose deft engineering skills shapes his superhero alter ego, famously known as Iron Man. With the help of his assistant/lover Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his best friend/partner in crime Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Tony Stark fights off both crime and publicity, while still managing to crack up an entire audience and keep them on the edge of their seat at the same time. After two critically and commercially successful Iron Man films, as well as last year’s summer blockbuster The Avengers, Tony Stark returns as the titular character in Iron Man 3.

Though some may think the external appearance of the sequel looked a bit predictable, I was surprised by its unpredictability after watching the trailer and the actual film. Firstly, every single scene blew my mind, whether it was the epic opening, the eye-opening plot twists, the gripping action sequences, the comical moments, or the satisfying ending. Although Jon Favreau stepped down as director after making the first two Iron Mans, director Shane Black continues the impressive progression of a franchise that was already producing at a high level. Plus, we still get to see Favreau reprise his acting role in Iron Man 3 as Stark’s overly protective bodyguard Happy Hogan. Shane Black already has experience with Downey Jr., after both collaborated in Black’s dark comedy debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Thus, he helps maintain the franchise’s durability by making Iron Man 3 in his own way without going over-the-top (i.e. Michael Bay).

In continuation from The Avengers, Tony Stark narrates the aftermath of his experience in New York in Iron Man 3. The premise depicts a sullen, post-traumatic Stark up against two new villains: a mysterious terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the equally mischievous “mad scientist” Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Both pose threats towards Stark, his loved ones, and even Iron Man himself. Given its ambiguous plot in the trailer and its many spoilers in the actual film, I won’t reveal much. But I will say that it was way better than its adequate 2010 predecessor and almost as good as the acclaimed 2008 debut.

With impressive visuals, a strong story, a well-written script, and even a few surprises, Iron Man 3 works as both a witty Marvel action-adventure and a riveting, cerebral thriller. Iron Man 3 might also be the most intense and dramatic out of the three films. In addition, even though Tony Stark does remain the same self-absorbed narcissist that we love, we get to see a more human side of Stark that feels more compelling than overly sentimental, thankfully. Downey Jr. also continues to do some great acting, but even more from its amazing supporting cast, which includes the aforementioned Ben Kingsley, Guy Pierce, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a small but intriguing role performed by Rebecca Hall.

Though this sequel might not appeal to the non-superhero fans as it did for the first film, watching Iron Man 3 will still be a satisfying experience and one never to forget. For the actual Iron Man devotees, this will definitely be worth watching and, like I said before, way better than Iron Man 2. Out of the many spoilers in the film, I will only reveal one that I hope will give optimism for fans of the franchise, who haven’t seen it yet: Tony Stark will return.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes  


Oz the Great and Powerful

This prequel to the 1939 American classic The Wizard of Oz may not be as bad as you think. Sam Raimi, director of other cinematic masterpieces, such as the Spider-Man trilogy and The Evil Dead trilogy, transformed the world of Oz into a breathtaking visual spectacle. Although Oz the Great and Powerful is visually dazzling and wondrous, it lacks the magic that made the original 1939 film one of the most celebrated movies in history. Let’s just say, this movie is much more style over substance and the script isn’t as dazzling as its visuals. However, this prequel did attain some fine performances from James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.

Despite how incomparable this movie is to The Wizard of Oz, there were some cleverly put-together themes and backstories that both resonate and expand on the characters of Oz. Unlike the backstories of Broadway’s acclaimed Wicked, this Oz film follows the journey of Oscar Diggs, a womanizing con man/circus magician, searching for meaning in his life a chance to reach the peak of his potential. When a tornado strikes Kansas (deja vú, anyone?), Oscar travels in a hot-air balloon into the color-saturated world of Oz, filled with mystical creatures, witches, munchkins, and quirky townspeople. All three of the witches play sisters, two of them (Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz) bent on destruction and the other (Michelle Williams) fighting for justice. As the new leader of Oz and with the use of his “magic,” Oscar must save the people of Oz from the Evil Witches in order to restore peace and balance throughout the land.

Somehow, these backstories surprisingly work well and skillfully interlock the stories behind the witches and the wizard of the original Oz. Although the movie is rated PG, there were indeed a few realistically frightening scenes, especially with the enhancement of technology. Just watch out for the flying baboons and when the witches in their true form, you’ll know what I mean. Another great witty addition to Oz the Great and Powerful were the Wizard’s cute sidekicks, China Girl (voiced by Joey King) and Finely the winged monkey (voiced by Zach Braff). Although there’s no Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, or Tin Man, these cute and hilarious supporting characters uplift the film with comic relief.

But occasionally, Oz the Great and Powerful would suffer from clichéd melodrama and corny moments, such as the Munchkins’ brief musical number, which is indeed as cringeworthy as you can imagine. Also despite the fantastic visual effects, one could tell that some scenes felt visually inauthentic and cheesy, especially during the fight scenes.

Even so, Oz the Great and Powerful is not only an impressive Disney financial feat (it earned $79.1 million in the opening weekend), but it neither upstages the original Wizard of Oz, nor does it fail to provide its own clever twist. Watch the trailer here.

Grade: B+
Recommended: Yes
Rated: PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language