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:
Advertisements

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

Drake’s “Nothing was the Same”

In 2009, no one would have thought that Aubrey Drake Graham, an up-and-coming Canadian rapper and Degrassi star, would make it big. Nowadays, he’s all anyone’s talking about in the hip hop industry. After his So Far Gone mixtape and his lucrative 2010 debut Thank Me Later, Drake was climbing up the unpredictable ladder of success and fame. It wasn’t until several collaborations with fellow rappers, including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, that Drake would become the next best thing in hip hop. Two years since his acclaimed sophomore record Take Care, Drake has become an international phenomenon, not just as a singer/rapper, but as a definitive paradigm in pop culture and for popularizing ubiquitous phrases (“YOLO,” to give an example). Despite the rapid growth in album sales and artistic recognition, Drake persists his career with a quiet yet determined attitude as he is surrounded by an overwhelming environment. Incidentally, this past week, Drake released his most personal and most unique album to date, Nothing was the Same.


Unlike his other albums, the guests on Nothing was the Same are minimal and mostly unprecedented, marking Drake’s voice and songwriting as dominant forces on the record. Although some would say that lack of collaboration can be destructive towards a popular artist (i.e. Mac Miller’s disappointing Blue Slide Park), Drake already contains a certain control on how to make an album both listenable and compelling without resorting to mediocrity. Plus, it’s kind of a break from his last two star-studded records, which ranged from Alicia Keys to Rihanna to Rick Ross.


On songs that don’t include featured artists, Drake comes into top form, both lyrically and musically. On the mystifying 6-minute opener “Tuscan Leather,” Drake vents his anxious feelings about fame, media attention, and glory over a glossy beat and a pipsqueak sample, made by rising producer Noah “40” Shebib, who created most of the soulful rhythms heard on “Nothing was the Same.” Much like other rappers, Drake mentions his ways with the ladies on “Furthest Thing” and “Connect.” But unlike certain rappers, he takes the subject matter to a personal level, talking about failed romances and his ambivalence towards falling in love. Occasionally, the 26-year-old Toronto rapper delves into monotonous territory, like on the ambient “Own It.” However, he manages to keep the album interesting on the passionate “Wu-Tang Forever” and funky highlight “Worst Behavior.” Additionally, his most popular solo single off Nothing was the Same, “Started from the Bottom,” has furthered his progression into dominating both hip hop music and pop culture, as the song’s title has become frequently used as an everyday expression among young teenagers.     


Prior to the release of Nothing was the Same, Drake distributed several songs  — “The Motion,” “Jodeci Freestyle,” “Girls Love Beyoncé,” “5 AM in Toronto” — that ended up not making the cut, but became viral Internet hits and held some significance towards Drake’s musical choices. These songs weren’t particularly personal nor did they ponder the captivating topics that Drake would mostly rap about in some of his biggest songs (“Over,” “Best I Ever Had,” “Headlines”). In fact, most of them were about Drake rapping with self-deprecating lyrics and tone. However, it was one way of showing how Drake is developing as an artist who can still make great music, regardless of the subject matter.


In addition to Nothing was the Same’s plethora of evocative songs, it also features one of Drake’s all-time best singles: the smooth, 80s contemporary radio smash “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Drake repeatedly expresses his true love towards a woman in the alluring hook, “I got my eyes on you/You’re everything that I see/I want your hot love and emotion endlessly.” Though it sounds corny on print, Drake’s surprisingly spot-on falsetto and guest Majid Jordan’s crispy vocals drives “Hold On, We’re Going Home” as a romantic, sensuous ballad. While Drake’s themes on “Nothing was the Same” primarily focuses on love and fame, he also discusses his relationships with friends and family on the smoky, R&B-influenced “Too Much.”


It’s amazing to see how an unlikely rapper turn into one of the decade’s most popular and celebrated hip hop artists. Drake’s journey has led to many roads that include Grammy awards, rap feuds, and platinum records. But he’ll ultimately be remembered several years from now not just as that award-winning, record-selling rapper, but as an individual who helps bring humanistic and emotional issues into hip hop, instead of solely centering on wealth and fame.

Grade: A-
Recommended: Yes
Suggested Tracks: “Tuscan Leather,” “Started from the Bottom,” “Worst Behavior,” “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” “Too Much”             

Kanye West’s “Yeezus”

It’s been more than a week since hip hop icon Kanye West released his sixth studio album, Yeezus. Around the same time, Kanye’s daughter, aptly named “North” West, was born. Though the coincidence of his album release and his newborn’s birth have nothing to do with one another, there is some strange significance. West recorded his new album, Yeezus, sporadically between last summer and over a mere 15-day period in Paris this year, which indicates that West might’ve had some apprehension making music while caring for girlfriend Kim Kardashian. In addition, Yeezus was neither promoted commercially nor did it advertise a lead single, much like electronic duo Daft Punk for their recently acclaimed comeback record Random Access Memories. Interestingly, Daft Punk also became some of the many unconventional producers and guests on Yeezus, which included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Chief Keef, Kid Cudi, TNGHT, Travis $cott, Frank Ocean, King L, and music mogul Rick Rubin. Although some rumored musicians, such as Skrillex and Odd Future, didn’t appear on Yeezus, the aforementioned guests and producers still make up an extraordinary group of experienced virtuosos, some of whom have worked with West in the past, particularly on 2010’s universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. On Yeezus, West delves deeper into the musical darkness and lyrical genius that Twisted Fantasy brought forth in 2010. Early reports suggested that Yeezus would be his “darkest disc yet.” Fans were most likely worried about the troubling news of a Kanye West album much different from his other LPs, despite West’s widespread recognition, media gravitation, and mesmerizing artistic integrity. However, because Kanye is also a mastermind at making music and a persevering collaborator, Yeezus has trascended expectations as another great Kanye West record and one of this year’s best hip hop albums.

Moody, abrasive, and unrelentingly provocative, Yeezus is not only Kanye West’s best work to date, but also a haunting, modern example of racism, materialism, sexuality, pop culture, and the perils of fame. Musically, Yeezus incorporates a much more raw sound, using acid house synthesizers, industrial music, Jamaican dancehall, and experimental post-punk. Artistically, Kanye applied a much more minimal approach to create Yeezus, its album cover being a regular CD packaging with bright red tape on the exterior. Though it was a surprise to many, the cover represents Kanye’s raw emotion, which he successfully displays throughout the album’s 40-minute length. Lyrically, West comes off angrier, more explicit, and much more sexually perverse than before. On “New Slaves,” the first unofficial single off of Yeezus, West extrapolates racial tension and misogyny in both a vivid and controversial way. Yeezus’ lyrics and music became even more startling when West performed both “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on the Saturday Night Live season finale. As Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter described when working on the album, Kanye was “rapping – even screaming primally,” especially on “Black Skinhead.” Fortunately, “Black Skinhead” is a powerful and breathtaking foot stomper,  encompassing tribal drums and those raw, primal screams Bangalter described.

The rest of Yeezus is equally as edgy and unlike anything Kanye has made before. Take the album’s third track, “I Am a God,” which, frankly, speaks for itself. It may be the most controversially titled Kanye song, but in a way, it’s a bit amusing, considering that Kanye has perhaps the biggest ego in the hip hop industry. It’s already enough that the rapper named his own album Yeezus,” comparing himself to the Biblical figure (a la John Lennon), and that the only official guest on the track listing is God. But what most mistake as shock value and blasphemy is actually Kanye’s own self-deprecation of being a celebrity, somebody who is bigger and better in modern day society, but is self-obsessed and dangerous. He even boasts his braggadocio on the classic line, “Hurry up with my damn crossants!” However, twice on the song we hear those primal screams again from “Black Skinhead,” only louder and scarier. These booming shrieks evoke Kanye’s illustration of a supreme celebrity, like himself, descending into madness. Maybe that explains his apprehension over the birth of his daughter, but it seems too odd to call it a “mid-life crisis” just yet because Kanye’s energy never wavers, both live and on Yeezus.

Throughout the album, he continues to push his vanity and musical influences over the edge. Some examples include the funky, acid house thrill ride opener “On Sight,” and the bleak, ambient “Hold My Liquor,” which features Atlanta rapper Chief Keef and Justin Vernon. The Bon Iver vocalist also stars on the overtly sexual track, “I’m in It,” alongside Jamaican musician Assassin. While both of their lyrics are incomprehensible, Kanye’s verses are wry and witty, but occasionally go into contentious territory especially on lines like “eatin’ Asian p***y, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” Several female fans and non-Kanye West fans have described “I’m In It” as misogynistic and emotionally traumatizing. But really, misogyny is just the bizarre art of being a hip hop artist. The only difference with West is that you can’t take something like “I’m In It” too seriously.

The second half of Yeezus continues to stock up on complex lyrics, ingenious production, and a sound reminiscent of his previous albums. Kanye’s Auto-Tuned vocals on the 6-minute centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves” recall the Auto-Tuned songs and dark themes from his fourth record 808s and Heartbreak. The song also features unusually paired yet exemplary samples from R&B singer Nina Simone’s soulful “Strange Fruit” and trap duo TNGHT’s ardent “R U Ready.” “Guilt Trip” is another similar 808s track, comprising of video game synthesizers, Auto-Tune, and morose vocals from rapper Kid Cudi. “Send It Up” is another noisy, sexually graphic song that features raps from King L. Yeezus closer, “Bound 2,” sounds much like the Southern hip hop from his first three records, The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, respectively. In addition to the sound, Kanye’s themes of family and unrequited love appear on “Bound 2,” as well as a repetitive Jackson 5-sounding sample and R&B singer Charlie Wilson’s exquisite vocals. It might not be a great outlier on Yeezus, but it reminds us of Kanye’s softer side and nostalgia.

Yeezus is definitely nothing anyone has listened to before, speaking on behalf of critics and Kanye’s fans. It extends the boundaries of hip hop and rap and carefully integrates various music genres, thanks to its exemplary collaborations. Despite the album’s meager amount of material (only 10 tracks), there’s a lot leftover, according to producer Rick Rubin. This could mean that nobody is really ready for what Kanye will unleash. All we know is that the new father will always keep us on our toes and that he keeps the virtue of unpredictability intact.

Grade: A
Recommended: Yes
Top Tracks: “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” “I Am A God,” “New Slaves”

                       

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