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:
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Gravity

Cynics may think of Gravity as any ordinary sci-fi spectacle that’s heavy on visual effects and light on plot and character development. Some might also think that, based on Gravity‘s hectic trailer, it’s a mishmash of generic action and Sandra Bullock’s screaming for 2 hours. But what most people don’t realize is that Gravity‘s most imperative qualities come in the hands, eyes, and ears of prolific Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. Known for his visually and thematically compelling films, such as Pan’s Labryinth, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men, Cuarón uses his gifted writing, directing, and producing to boldly craft Gravity. Based on responses from numerous critics and audiences, the result is both satisfying and stunning

Gravity proves to be a fantastic addition to the sci-fi thriller genre with mesmerizing visuals, intimate cinematography, and intriguing storytelling. At moments, its visual grandeur reminisces to other acclaimed space films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. But one major difference between Gravity and other space films is the centralized and meditative performances on the story’s two protagonists, the neurotic rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and the talkative space veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). While reconfiguring the Hubble Space Telescope adrift in space, Stone and Kowalski are hit by debris from a damaged Russian space station, setting them into a series of unfortunate events. Without going into much plot, as to not ruin the rest of the film for interested moviegoers, Gravity‘s minimalist approach is much more unique and unconventional than any other space film. The film juxtaposes both the engrossing splendor and agonizing terror of being in space and that nothing in space is controlling you but “gravity.”

Despite the surprising 1 hour-30 minute running time, Gravity‘s scenes are lengthy and detailed, as a means to draw and pull (pun intended) the audience into the story. Though it could look and sound boring for some, Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography concentrates on using different camera angles to keep each scene both entertaining and alluring. In addition, instead of containing Bullock and Clooney in zero-gravity rooms during production, Cuáron shot most scenes using CGI and inside a mechanical rig attached to the actors and the camera. Although the use of CGI is common in most action films nowadays, with the inclusion of 3D, both come with great use in Gravity‘s captivating special effects.

Thematically, Gravity draws upon spiritual and psychological motifs, such as survival, fear, and resilience in the duration and aftermath of catastrophe. Cuarón’s practical and realistic portrayal of Bullock and Clooney’s characters embody clarity of mind and knowing what to do in the face of danger and isolation from everything and everyone else. Though these protagonists are the only two characters for most of the film, it actually cultivates a much more insightful perspective on people involved in perilous situations, whether it’s in space or down on Earth. Bullock particularly evokes a lost and fearful but ultimately durable character similar to Sigourney Weaver as the pivotal character in the Alien franchise. Of course, these themes are apparent through the film’s visuals and music score and help contrast the film’s multiple perspectives, the dichotomy of Earth’s beauty with the dark depths of space, as well as the silence of the space with the sound of the score. Furthermore, Gravity‘s modest yet perceptive script, written by Cuarón and his son Jonas, is another strength of the film’s qualities. Though some of the dialogue tends to be slightly melodramatic and cheesy, it helps build the film’s suspense and emotional depth for the most part.  

Gravity succeeds on almost every level, not just as an aesthetically powerful sci-fi film, but as an emotionally compelling survival story, as it grasps universal ideas on persistence in the midst of doom. It could just be another visually spectacular film that most moviegoers would regard as just OK or dull, but with Cuarón’s intuitive style, Gravity should surpass expectations.

Watch the trailer for Gravity here:

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes

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

Newsies

Now normally I don’t write about musicals. Primarily, I dedicate this blog to writing reviews for movies and music albums, but I also believe a stage musical is a small but essential medium as well. Take Wicked or In the Heights, for instance. Both critically acclaimed plays take part in the framework of pop culture, as well as the awe-inspiring wonder of visual and euphonic performances. Musicals not only astound audiences with great acting, marvelous power ballads, and flamboyant costumes, but make audiences want to see more in the end. That’s why I’ve decided, whenever I see a play, be it weeks or months from now, I will also be writing musical reviews.

I got the pleasure to travel to New York recently and a chance to experience some of the Big Apple’s greatest places, including Broadway. One of the newest musical productions, which I saw, was Newsies, a period musical adapted from the 1992 commercial flop film starring Christian Bale and Robert Duvall. Although Newsies didn’t perform well with audiences and critics as a movie, the play seemed to exhibit the opposite, according its highly praised reviews and many Tony nominations. However, after seeing the play myself, I begged to differ. Newsies had its moments, but overall it was brought down by a hackneyed script, cheesy romance, and overplayed musical numbers. The premise is loosely based on the real-life 1899 Newsboys Strike in New York City. The story centered on a group of homeless and orphaned newsboys, who sought out to fight against the added cost in selling newspapers. This raise in price was prompted by a stubborn newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer. The leader of the boys, Jack Kelly, attempts to spread the word about the strike, while desiring to move to Sante Fe to escape from the cruel and dumpy New York City. Jack and the newsboys get some help from a local vaudeville star and an ambitious journalist named Katherine, whom Jack falls for.

Newsies could have easily just been a simple non-musical play adapted from a non-musical film, but it wasn’t. Though, it’s hard to determine whether or not the singing and dancing could have worked for either. In the Broadway play, the singing was adequate but faulty and the choreography was superb but felt forced and exaggerated. The chemistry between Katherine and Jack was fitting, but Jack’s expression of love towards her, and vice versa, is completely clichéd and has Disney written all over it. The play itself is slightly tedious, but its lively performances make up for it. The thing that felt wrong about Newsies is that it didn’t pop out to me, nor did it have a single moment of awe or effective inspiration. I could see why now Newsies hadn’t been so successful as a film.

Grade: B-
Recommended: No