Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: "Captain Phillips"

Director: Paul Greengrass
Runtime: 134 minutes

Movies, like any art form, have a tricky relationship with reality. And that relationship only becomes more of a hurdle when the link to reality is concrete, and the story concerns matters of life and death, or success and failure. Even when a movie takes on a story that's decades old, reality tends to act as a roadblock to complete investment on the part of the viewer. That was the case with Brian Singer's Valkyrie, which told the story of a group of Nazi officials who attempted to assassinate Hitler. The subject matter of Singer's film is fascinating, but it fails to create an atmosphere that leads one to believe that (just maybe) the protagonists will succeed. 

A similar issue looms over Paul Greengrass' newest film, Captain Phillips, even though it's a far more compelling bit of fact-based storytelling. As in the director's wrenching United 93, the basic outcome of the story is well-known, but the details aren't touched on much. Yet where Greengrass' 9/11 hijacking film was an ensemble piece, Captain Phillips ultimately zeroes in on a handful of people. Among the main subjects is the titular captain (Tom Hanks), whose cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Above all else, Greengrass has retained his ability to plunge audiences into the unnerving immediacy of tense situations. The story of Richard Phillips, his crew, and the Somali pirates has more to it than people yelling threats and pointing guns. Billy Ray's screenplay generally keeps things moving, while still allowing for the general emotional toll of the incident to build. Watching Phillips match wits with the pirates, who are often ready to counter their defensive tricks, provides the film with some of its best moments. The no-frills, crisp filmmaking enlivens scenarios where the outcome is obvious. We know that the pirates will board the ship, but seeing the back and forth between the two sides of the conflict leading up to that moment is every bit as compelling as what follows.

Where the film starts to sag is in its last section, which sees Phillips trapped on the Alabama's lifeboat along with his pirate captors. While the level of incidental detail shown on screen is technically impressive, the film's home stretch is where the story's endpoint starts disrupting one's cinematic investment. There's a point where Phillips tale, however extraordinary, has to segue into its harrowing final moments. Greengrass and Ray, however, are determined to keep stringing the viewer along, to the point where you wish the Monty Python lads would arrive and shout, "Get on with it!"

Despite the final act's excessive length, it does at least give Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (playing pirate leader Muse) room to chip away at their characters' exteriors. Even as the final stretch wears out its welcome, the two men's performances help dig beneath the otherwise clinical treatment of the story. Phillips and Muse are both pushed to very different breaking points, and Hanks and Abdi find the humanity beneath their characters' single-minded determination. Abdi, in particular, makes a strong impression, albeit less overtly than his famous co-star. Whatever his character's background and motivations (which are sketched out in a brief scene in Somalia), the actor never turns Muse into a garish cartoon villain. Muse and his crew are credible threats, but the pirates are far from the racist caricatures they could have been in less intelligent hands. 

As good as the performances are, they still aren't enough to turn Captain Phillips in to more than ordinary. Greengrass' directing is as assured as ever, and suits the material perfectly, but the writing isn't as consistently engaging as it needs to be. This problem is only magnified by the story's ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter. It's a respectable account of the Alabama's hijacking, but there's nothing the be gained from this dramatization that you couldn't get from reading articles about the incident. 

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: "Rush"

Director: Ron Howard
Runtime: 123 minutes

The marriage of a Formula 1 racing story and Ron Howard, king of the middlebrow adult drama, is a head-scratcher on paper. Howard's films rarely dip into the sort of dangerous, even sexy, territory that defines the subject matter of a film like Rush. Yet even though this racing drama has its share of major faults, it certainly represents a return to form after 2011's dead-on-arrival rom-com The Dilemma. Most impressively, Howard even gets to show off his rarely seen stylish side.

If you're wary that Rush is little more than some lunkheaded racing drama, have no fear. Despite the subject matter, Howard and scribe Peter Morgan's story is as much a character-study as it is a cinematic adrenaline rush. After a brief mid-70s intro, the story proper kicks into gear at the top of the decade, quickly introducing us to handsome hothead James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and rival Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). Both men prove themselves as skilled racers on the Formula 3 circuit, but it's not long before Lauda finds ways of cutting corners into the big leagues. 

Yet Bruhl's Lauda is no cheat, despite the many instances where Hunt calls him a rat. Rats, according to Lauda, may be unappealing, but they're also smart and determined survivalists. While Hunt drinks and sleeps around, Lauda spends time obsessing over the smallest specifications of his car, even showing his Ferrari-backed mechanics a thing or two about design. As Lauda keeps his nose to the grind, Hunt continues to live life to the fullest, until it starts catching up with his career. Lauda is an obsessive perfectionist, but he also has Hunt beat when it comes to playing the sponsorship game. 

Morgan's script may not contain many surprises (even if you go in unaware of a major late game development), but it does at least keep the simple narrative moving. Howard's directing, filled with some of the flashiest techniques in his entire career, more than keeps pace. Even when the Hunt/Lauda rivalry scenes become redundant, Howard and his editors never let the film stall. The director also deserves credit for his handling of the slick racing sequences which, despite their Tony Scott-inspired freneticism, never lose coherence. If anything, one could argue that Howard and Morgan wait too long before fully delivering a real racing scene.

That's not to say that there aren't glimpses of the sport, or its deadly consequences. Morgan's focus, however, seems to boil down exclusively to the rivalry drama. This would be perfectly fine, even great, if it weren't for the hollowness of Morgan's own writing. As stated above, the scenes that pit Hunt and Lauda against each other lose their novelty quickly. Both men may refuse to significantly change, but Morgan never gives enough heft to the reasons for their mentalities. Hunt's condescending remarks and Lauda's hard-ass attitude make for some fun exchanges, but somewhere around the midpoint you wish they'd find something else to say to each other. It doesn't help matters that Morgan opens the film with voice-overs from both characters as a means of establishing their backgrounds. It's an efficient way of covering each man's emotional history (both were disowned by their families), but it undercuts the drama that the film actually does show us. 

At the very least, Hemsworth and Bruhl turn in a pair of effective performances. Both do their best to elevate the table scraps Morgan has thrown their way, and each has his moments. They so successfully inhabit their respective personas that it becomes frustrating to see them tackle such repetitive material. Bruhl emerges as the stronger of the two, though that's largely due to the tragic fate of his character that allows some excellent make-up work to do part of the acting for him. Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara are, likewise, effective, though they have even less to work with and a paltry amount of screen time.

The most satisfying "performance" ends up being Howard's work behind the camera. Aided greatly by glossy, stylish visuals from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, Rush looks as vibrant and dangerous as the races at the center of the drama. Regular Howard collaborator Hans Zimmer continues his recent winning streak with surging score that avoids his recent bombastic tendencies. Sound work is, unsurprisingly, up to par, and the racing scenes sound as good as they look.

Rush was, reportedly, a huge crowd pleaser when it played at the Toronto Film Festival, which is hardly a surprise. This is sleek and sexy entertainment that retains just the right amount of Howard's tasteful aesthetic. The film may drop the ball when it comes to the drama, but it never slides into tedium, thanks to Howard's flashy approach. Even if you're the furthest thing from a racing enthusiast, Rush has enough good qualities to make it an engaging, momentarily gripping, experience. Just don't expect it to linger much once the tires stop screeching.

Grade: B-  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: "Prisoners"

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 153 minutes

You'll have to look awfully hard to find anything new in a film like Prisoners, the English language debut of Quebec-born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. As written by Aaron Guzikowski, the film's tale of two missing girls and the search to find them covers its share of well-worn tropes, many of which can be found on one of the many police procedurals currently on TV. Yet thanks to superlative craftsmanship, effective plotting, and top flight performances, Prisoners rises above the average procedural, even though it never quite transcends the genre to achieve true greatness.

As the film opens, we see hear Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) reciting the Lord's Prayer as he and his son lie in wait for a deer to shoot. This immediate juxtaposition of faith and violence (on an innocent subject, no less) will echo throughout the film's tale of desperation, loss, and vigilante justice. On an overcast Thanksgiving Day, the youngest children of the Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) go missing. Though twitchy Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly finds  potential suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the hunt for the girls has just begun. Frustrated with the police department's inability to find strong evidence, Keller takes matters into his own hands.

All of this takes up no more than the film's first 40 minutes, leaving roughly 110 more. Yet rather than cram the remaining runtime with twists and red herrings, Prisoners finds a smart, and even surprising, balance between the mystery driving the narrative forward, and the character drama that holds it all together. While this makes the narrative less immediately compelling, it allows Prisoners to explore its characters and the repercussions of their actions without having to rush. Rather than try to pull off something we've never seen before, the film simply takes familiar ingredients and executes them with a very sure hand. 

There's also the matter of the effort that's been put into the film's look, which does its best to distance itself from the small screen as possible. With its gloomy visual aesthetic and haunting flares of music, Prisoners owes as much to the crime thrillers of David Fincher as it does to TV dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing. Where the film receives a considerable boost is in the lensing from master cinematographer Roger Deakins. With its rainy, wintery suburban settings, there appears to be little room for a movie like Prisoners to have any visual flair. Yet Deakins, with all cylinders firing from start to finish, finds ways of capturing the dreary and plain settings with a level of artistry that feels wholly cinematic, yet never pretentious or distracting.

The cast certainly aren't shirking their duties either. Stacked with talent in every major role, the entire ensemble gives it their all. Even Bello and Davis, whose characters are somewhat underutilized, have moments that they knock out of the park. Dano is effective as well as the mumbly Alex, while Melissa Leo underplays her ambiguous role as the boy's doddering aunt. Of the supporting roster, however, it's Howard who makes the strongest impression. Some of that is due to how the script uses the character, but the actor finds ways of communicating grief and confusion without ever being redundant. As one of the cast members who spends the most time playing off of Jackman, Howard makes his straightforward character a nicely conflicted foil. 

Where the acting really shines, however, is in the leading duo of Jackman and Gyllenhaal. The roles are radically different, yet the way they reflect the dual strands of Prisoners' narrative creates a compelling blend of material driven by pure emotion and by pure clinical determination. Jackman, coming off of a career high with Les Miserables, has the emotional side of the story to carry, and the ferocity he brings to the role is never less than gripping. For all of the hysterical yelling involved, the actor never sounds shrill or false. It may not be subtle work, but Jackman invests each growl and yell with a fury that would make even Wolverine cower. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gyllenhaal, who makes the less emotive role work in his favor. He puts a nervous bit of blinking, though initially distracting, to smart use as a means of communicating the character's internal processing of events.

Behind the scenes, Villeneuve deserves immense credit for his intelligent balance between the emotional and the procedural elements of the story. His previous film, 2010's Oscar-nominated Incendies, marked him as a talent to watch. Though more harrowing than Prisoners, that film also suffered from a messiness that built to a pair of twists that bordered on laughable. Prisoners runs nearly 15 minutes longer than Incendies, but it feels remarkably more focused, despite the room it allows for slow-building drama. Procedural mysteries live or die by how well they pull you in. Even the best of the genre, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, have their implausibilities upon reflection. Yet what makes a great procedural work is its ability to cast a strong enough spell to allow you to suspend your sense of disbelief. Following in the footsteps of those aforementioned films, Prisoners certainly succeeds on that level, albeit with less flash (you'll find no lip-smacking cannibals). 

The lone disappointment of Prisoners, however, stems from the very aspect of its script that also makes it a success. By aiming for character-based drama over thrills, the film starts to feel more generic as a whole, despite the first rate filmmaking. There's a tantalizing taste of the more ambitious, possibly pulpier, movie that could have been made in the form of a mysterious maze symbol. You can practically feel Guzikowski contemplating whether or not to take said symbol and use it to turn Prisoners into a denser and more twisted story. Instead, the resolution of the maze, and the main plot, comes across as rather expected, even though it's as well-crafted as everything that precedes it. 

In straddling the line between thoughtful character drama and attention-grabbing thriller, Prisoners somewhat robs itself of a sharper identity. In trying to focus more on emotional developments, the film forgets to give itself a memorable stamp. Not content to end with a whimper, however, Prisoners ends (and the sound team deserves kudos here) its somewhat mundane narrative with a brilliant piece of ambiguity. Just when it seems in danger of fading out forgettably, it throws in one last nasty little kick that ensures that it'll stay with you just a little bit longer (Law and Order looks cheerful in comparison). It may not be the next Zodiac, but Prisoners is still an compelling and satisfying mystery with a refreshingly adult look at unsettling subject matter. 

Grade: B+

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: "Enough Said"

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Runtime: 93 minutes

It's been three years since Nicole Holofcener last released a film, and it's been fifteen years since Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared on screen. The latter's previous appearance was in a Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, so it's quite fitting that her return would be in a film by the former. Though Holofcener's career is much younger than Allen's (and not nearly as prolific) her work feels right at home next to the typical Allen film. Instead of intricate plots, both directors prefer more open-ended explorations of the privileged middle and upper classes, and the various hijinks in which they dabble. And even though Enough Said's style and structure occasionally feel like that of a network sitcom, it is ultimately a highly enjoyable comedy, albeit one that operates at a broader level than Holofcener's previous work.

Having directed episodes of TV's Parks and Recreation and Enlightened in the years since her last film (2010's wonderful Please Give), it's not entirely surprising that some sitcom-y tendencies have slipped into Holofcener's authorial bloodstream. With its abundance of characters and hazily sketched subplots, Enough Said does have a tendency to feel like something of a pilot episode. Some of the comedy arrives in fits and starts, and some dialogue exchanges feel a too artificial for their own good. Under different circumstances, these traits would become large, painful thorns in a film's side. 

Enough Said, thankfully, has the low-key level of craft and acting that elevates its material into territory that is entirely pleasurable, rather than grating. That elevation comes largely from Ms. Louis-Dreyfus as protagonist Eva, and the late James Gandolfini as love interest Albert. The pair of TV titans (Louis-Dreyfus is close to beating Lucille Ball's record amount of Emmy wins) seem like an odd match at first glance. And, in fairness, it's kind of hard to picture Elaine or the Veep going for Tony Soprano. They appear to agree. When the two divorcees meet at a party, they both dryly comment that there's no one at the even they find attractive. Yet that first shared sentiment turns out to be a hidden sign. After a surprisingly enjoyable first date, Eva and Albert's relationship starts to grow in ways they never expected.

Of course, there are complications. If you've seen the trailer, you know how Eva's relationship with new client Marianne (Catherine Keener, Ms. Holofcener's muse of sorts) throws a wrench in everything. Yet whether or not you have foreknowledge of the film's surprise, it's hardly likely to affect your perception of the film. Holofcener keeps the pacing brisk, never allowing the more dramatic undercurrents of the story to suck the fun out of the film as a whole. 

At first, that makes Enough Said seem rather slight. And, truthfully, Enough Said is a modest, unambitious character-based comedy. Yet even among the sitcom-y scenes and situations, there remains a remarkable attention to detail when it comes to the characters. The ensemble is close to being overstuffed (with friends, ex-husbands, daughters, and clients), yet seeing Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini play against type is more than enough to give the film some intrigue. Watching the former handle less misanthropic and neurotic humor, and watching the latter be funny at all, proves to be the film's secret weapon.

With the amount of time TV stars spend in a role, they tend to become associated with a certain persona, and are thus more vulnerable to being typecast. And even though Louis-Dreyfus retains some facial tics from her Seinfeld days, by the time Enough Said rolls into its final reels, there's no mistaking Eva for Elaine. The maternal compassion and hesitant romantic longing that the actress finds, without going overboard, is a delight to watch. For such a simple set up, Enough Said pulls its leading lady in a surprising number of directions. Individually they may seem plain, but the combination that Holofcener and Louis-Dreyfus come up with here somehow feels fresh. 

More subdued, though just as enjoyable, is Mr. Gandolfini, in one of his last roles. While his untimely passing is tragic, he could still be alive, and his portrayal of Albert would be no less delightful. A self-professed slob, Albert remains good at heart. In situations where Tony Soprano would have lost his cool and started throwing punches, Albert keeps a level head and internalizes his feelings of anger and disappointment. It culminates in one of the film's best scenes, that also happens to be one of the few dramatic ones in the entire 90 minute run time. 

And even though Enough Said is broader than Holofcener's previous work, it still has her keen ability to use character-based comedy to touch on deeper emotional truths. She mines the realm of middle-aged romantic foibles for comedy and tear-jerking drama with remarkable dexterity. The humor may not be quite as successful, but it still builds effectively to several beautifully human scenes. While these moments aren't exactly enough to make Enough Said more than a good film, they further demonstrate Holofcener's gifts as an observational humorist and storyteller. Even when working at a gentler, more accessible level, the writer/director remains one of the most consistent voices among indie filmmakers, which bodes well for her future. As small as Enough Said is, it's still something of a miniature triumph for how thoroughly it fulfills its own small-scale ambitions. That's something that even personalities as disparate as Elaine and Tony Soprano could agree about.

Grade: B