The real-life hijacking of a US cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009 provides Paul Greengrass with a typically visceral subject for his latest film.
Captain Phillips (12A)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Max Martini
Combining the full-tilt energy of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum with the rigorously even-handed, documentary-style veracity of Bloody Sunday and United 93, he brings the full weight of his skills to bear on proceedings to create a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that goes far beyond the story’s high-stakes flash-point moments.
His success in this respect is facilitated in a large part by an astonishing performance from Tom Hanks in the title role. Playing Richard Phillips as a cautious, hard-working family man who frets about the economy, the employment prospects of his graduate son and the rapidly changing and increasingly cutthroat nature of the freighter business he’s in, he digs deep to convey the steely resolve required by this ordinary man to get through this extraordinary situation.
There are no false heroics or big movie star moments; Hanks instead connects us to the events on an emotional and very human level and Greengrass compliments him by refusing to serve up simplistic Hollywood-style judgments on the Somalis doing the hijacking.
In the opening scenes, for instance, Greengrass intercuts shots of Phillips going through his routine as he prepares for his latest job with scenes of desperate Somali fishermen as they vie with a local warlord for a place on the crew of the next pirate expedition he’s sending out.
As a young fisherman called Muse (Barkad Abdi) is picked to captain a skiff and assemble a crew, the film offers not quite an equivalent situation to Phillips and his crew, but rather an expedient way of showing how both sides are part of a malfunctioning global economic system in which the risk-to-reward ratio is moving in the wrong direction for all concerned.
Greengrass has always been good at layering these kinds of complexities into his films without making them didactic. He doesn’t force-feed you politics; he smuggles such things into the action and that’s very much the case here as he plunges us into the chaotic throes of the actual hijacking. Indeed, the baffling logistics involved in launching a low-tech assault on a such a massive cargo ship immediately subvert expectations about the type of film this is going to be.
In essence, it’s a David-and-Goliath battle in which you’re naturally on the side of Goliath and Greengrass jacks up the tension in the first instance by cutting between the ship’s lumbering attempts to outrun the tiny skiffs and the Somalis’ frantic and determined attempts to get on board.
Though Phillips’s initial attempt to outmanoeuvre his pursuers proves successful, the inevitability of their return – with little more than an additional motor on their tiny boat – adds a palpable level of dread to proceedings.
As does the absence of immediate air or naval support when the second assault comes the next day, something that not only reinforces the remoteness of the situation, but also reflects the realities of a world that doesn’t place a high enough value on human life.
This second assault is even more nerve-fraying than the first and once on board the volatility of Muse and his crew is tested by Phillips and his men as their efforts to neutralise the threat without weapons immediately tests the resolve of both sides. That conflict is brilliantly expressed during a sequence in which the pragmatic Phillips is forced to take the squabbling pirates on a tour of the ship.
As Muse urges his accomplices to head for the engine room, Phillips does all he can to keep them focussed on a methodical top-to-bottom search of the boat to give his crew time to shut down the power and make it harder for their assailants to accomplish their goal.
Every step and gesture feels like an attempt by Phillips to prevent chaos from erupting and the film works in the same way, with Greengrass’s multiple roving cameras keeping us on an uneven keel, constantly anticipating the worst.
That happens when the situation escalates into a kidnapping. As Phillips is taken hostage and taken off the ship, the film recalls the Wages of Fear in that what follows is an incredibly slow pursuit but one intensified by the volatile, unpredictable nature of the situation – particularly as the desperate reality becomes ever more evident, not just to Muse and his men, but to Phillips.
Of course, as he has elsewhere in the film, Greengrass orchestrates all this with the heart-in-mouth intensity for which he’s rightly celebrated (and which very few of his many imitators are able to pull off). And yet, it’s the surprising simplicity of the film’s final moments that packs the biggest punch as Greengrass and Hanks serve up a completely unexpected moment of transcendence that’s as good as anything either has done.
Enough Said (15)
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener
* * * *
The latest from Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Lovely & Amazing) is a smart, funny, poignant take on dating at a time in one’s life when neuroses are fuelled by the niggling fear that any new relationship will inevitably result in past mistakes being repeated. That’s certainly the case with Eva (Julia Louis- Dreyfus), a divorcee who gradually forms a strong connection with Albert (James Gandolfini – in his penultimate role) after meeting him at a party.
Their relationship is a slow burn, but there are definitely enough sparks to suggest things might get serious. Trouble is, Eva has also just unwittingly befriended Albert’s ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener). Alas, when she puts two and two together, she can’t stop herself from letting Marianne’s frequent diatribes against Albert taint her own feelings towards him. Holofcener uses this deliberately contrived set-up to score big laughs from the casual cruelty people inflict on their other halves, and Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini respond in ways that actually feel like reactions real people might have. The end result is that rare thing: a slick mainstream movie that reflects the messiness of real life.
Love, Marilyn (12A)
Directed by: Liz Garbus
The mystique of Marilyn Monroe gets another run through in this hilariously pretentious documentary featuring an all-star cast “performing” readings of her recently uncovered letters and diaries. Though director Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World) places Monroe in historical context with the usual mix of archival footage and expert commentary, her more creative attempt to get to the heart of who Monroe really was backfires as the parade of stars she’s enlisted attempt without much success to inject her every thought with special meaning and significance. Whether it’s a peroxide-haired Lindsay Lohan desperately courting parallels with her idol, or the likes of Viola Davis, Ellen Burstyn and Glenn Close earnestly trying to locate the truth of Marilyn’s myriad private reflections on love, life and fame, the whole enterprise has the whiff of an acting workshop run amuck.
In the midst of it all, the film attempts to make the case for Monroe’s talents as an actress, something that’s best done by simply watching her films and leaving half-baked psychoanalysis and needlessly comprehensive biographical details out of the equation.
Directed by: David Soren
Voices: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Maya Rudolph, Michael Pena, Luis Guzman, Samuel L Jackson
* * * *
It’s a strange thing to see an animated movie from a rival studio that out-Pixars Pixar, but this entertaining effort about a speed and motor-racing-obsessed snail who dreams of competing in the Indy 500 feels like the movie Cars should have been. Which is to say: it actually makes an effort to explain and justify the world of its characters in story terms as opposed to just expecting audiences to accept it as read. Voiced by Ryan Reynolds, the film’s titular hero is a garden snail whose burning desire to live life in the fast lane becomes a reality when he falls into a tank of nitrous oxide and finds he can power around at incredible speeds.
Falling in with a Taco stand-owner (Michael Pena) who races snails in his spare time, Turbo manages to convince this big-dreaming human to club together with his fellow down-at- heel small business owners and enter him into the Indy 500. If the plotting is a little derivative, the finished film is fun, well made and peddles its believe-in-yourself message with more subtlety and subversion than you might expect.
Prince Avalanche (15)
Directed by: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault, Gina Grande
* * *
While David Gordon Green’s forays into mainstream consciousness suggested he wasn’t going to be one of those indie directors whose voice would be obliterated the moment he had a budget, the double whammy of Your Highness and The Sitter suggested he’d lost all connection to the young, Malick-inspired maverick who made George Washington, All the Real Girls and the underrated Undertow. Prince Avalanche, though, marks a bit of a return to those lyrical salad days. Shot fast and cheap in the wake of a bush fire that decimated a Texan national park, the film follows two highway repairmen as they repaint the lines on the local road.
While the older Alvin (Paul Rudd) relishes the peace and quiet of the job, the younger Lance (Emile Hirsch) just wants to talk about women and sex, an obsession that irritates Alvin, not least because he’s in a long-term relationship with Lance’s sister. Emerging from this hardly scintillating starting point is a surprisingly engaging meditation on friendship and manhood, with the scorched landscape serving as an effective symbol of the emotional turmoil both characters are struggling to confront.
The Lebanese Rocket Society (PG)
Directed by: Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige
* * *
Lebanese film-makers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige interrogate aspects of their national identity with this whimsical documentary investigating the largely forgotten space programme that captured the imagination of their native land in the 1960s.
The first dedicated rocket programme in the Arab world, it was launched by mathematician Manoug Manougian at Beirut’s Haigazian University, but after being taken over by the army and abandoned in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, it seemed to have been eradicated from the cultural memory.
Uncovering a wealth of charming period footage of the rocket men and their inspiring experiments, the film suggests that the titular society became a symbol of hope for the region, one that represented the utopian dream of unity that has since been obliterated by ensuing conflicts. The fact that it’s been forgotten about is thus a reflection of a damaged national psyche and a people that no longer have the confidence to dream.
It’s an intriguing theory, but the film doesn’t quite manage to tie everything together in a convincing manner.