Thursday, September 18, 2014

Captain Phillips

I don't remember the last time that I was so tense as I was during Captain Phillips. And that is saying something when you consider that I already knew enough about the story to know how it was going to end.

So what could make a popularized and well-known story so perfectly engaging?

Two words: Tom Hanks.

Yet it would be unjust not to give credit to the absolutely excellent work of the actors portraying the Somali pirates, especially Barkhad Abdi. Their erratic, frightening behavior is so realistic that it's chilling. They have no thought of right or wrong, no sense of reason, no qualms about killing a man on the spot. Watching the three main Somali pirates had a maddeningly tense quality to it--the entire movie you just wait for them to completely snap and rip Captain Phillips to pieces. They walk the line and unpredictably leap from one side of sanity to the other, and at no moment are you ever finding yourself breathing easily. This tension, uncertainty, and anxiety fuels the pace of the movie more than any of the action does. The pirates are so realistic and believable, that even as the audience, I felt unsafe.

Admirably, Phillips keeps his cool despite the crazed looks in the eyes of the pirates, but when the man gets desperate, you get desperate watching. When he starts to sweat, so do you. When he panics, you REALLY do. And when he starts screaming for help as he's about to be executed point-blank, you hold your breath.

Such is the mastery of the directing and acting of Captain Phillips, that even when I knew what would ultimately happen, I could. Not. Relax. It would have felt irresponsible. The last half of the movie or so takes place on an escape pod, therefore the visuals are extremely limited and confined. Most of what is seen for that segment is the inside of the pod, where Phillips and the pirates bake, and they all become increasingly more desperate and overwhelmed by heat exhaustion and panic. With these limited camera shots, the claustrophobic feeling was very real, even in an air-conditioned theater.  However, even prior to the extended sequence aboard the closed escape pod, the camera angles remained tight and close wherever possible, keeping the focus on the sparks of madness in the eyes of the pirates, or the beads of sweat on the forehead of Phillips. The cinematography was hugely successful in keeping me feeling trapped in the story, to the point that when the movie ended, I felt dreadfully thirsty from having been aboard the escape pod for so long in such high heat.

In my personal opinion, there is simply nothing that Tom Hanks can't do. His resume might have bad movies somewhere on it, but I can't recall a single time that even one of his lesser movies involved bad acting. Captain Phillips is no exception to this, and may in fact be one of Hank's finer performances in recent years. Although his performance is sterling throughout the movie, the true standout moment is when, finally rescued and aboard a safe vessel, Phillips starts going into shock. His trembling, stuttering, sudden emotional collapse is absolutely masterful.

While I'm not sure that I would see Captain Phillips again, it was certainly an excellent movie choice for an evening, and I've recommended it several times. Every award that Captain Phillips was nominated for, whether at the Golden Globes or the Oscars, was well-deserved.

Frozen: A long delayed review and opinion

Part of me really wants to write some sort of scathing review of Disney's latest mega-hit, just to be a dissenter. There was so much hype surrounding this movie that I purposely waited until May to see it, just so I could enjoy it somewhat free of the saccharine squeals, endless quotes usurping adult conversation, and repeated renditions of "Let it Go" everywhere from the Oscars to YouTube and everywhere in between. By the time I finally did see it, there were no surprises left because all social media and entertainment news centered around the ins and outs, Easter eggs, conspiracy theories, hidden agendas, and every other angle imaginable in Frozen. I'm serious when I say there is nothing stemming from Frozen that can surprise me.

Well first off, I won't deny that it actually is a pretty good movie, even if did feel like a shameless Disney scheme to make new princesses to add to their marketing collection. But don't get me started on Disney's marketing schemes. Anyway, this latest installment features a princess and a rarity: a queen that wants to be good. Generally speaking Disney queens are evil, and Elsa goes a little dark, but not evil. Although I'm going to guess that Elsa will still be marketed as a princess.

So assuming that any readers either saw the movie or suffered my same fate, I won't bother explaining the plot. But I'll admit I liked it. I respectfully but heartily disagree that it's the "finest Disney movie ever" as some have implied, but that's an opinion and they're entitled to it. Here's the thing: I liked it, but I didn't love it. And maybe that's because by the time I saw it, I felt like it had been shoved in my face (and ears) everywhere I went. The movie simply couldn't live up to that much hype, and even now I find it difficult to really assess the quality of the movie from a clear angle because I feel like all the hype surrounding the movie was orchestrating a pre-made opinion for me that I need only walk into, and be part of the collective.

With all that in mind, I'm doing my best to think objectively.

The music was pretty good, and it was nice to see a return to the "sing-along" styles of earlier Disney pieces in songs like "In Summer", "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman", and a few others. Certainly "Let it Go" is catchy and feels empowering. In context, it's a song that celebrates independence, freedom, and escape from social oppression, but with great cost: total isolation.  Some would argue that Elsa's decision to be in a self-imposed exile is to protect people from her powers. However, her complete glee in doing so seems to somewhat contradict that point, and opens a psychological box that I'm not sure I'm qualified to get into, but I'm going to try because I think that it has some very interesting implications.

  • Although inadvertently, I would posit that Elsa was emotionally abused. Her parents were well-meaning, but their insistence to "conceal, don't feel" did not teach her control-- it imprisoned her in fear. 
  • Going off the above point, Elsa flees her responsibility out of fear, and then experiences a freedom that drives her to...isolation. Not so different from her years of solitary confinement when you think about it, except that now in her ice castle there's no one she need fear hurting, if that was what she really was afraid of in the first place.  

With the above points in consideration, it's interesting that Elsa's freedom so closely resembles her years of concealment, and that she so enthusiastically embraces it. I suppose it's some sort of metaphor about hurt people choosing to stay isolated, and deluding themselves into believing it to be the best thing. She evolves from the attitude of "I have to do this for others" to "I want to do this for me." In Elsa's defense, she really did not know who she could have turned to for help. Her parents should have provided this support, so her choice to be isolated is understandable when weighed against her years of conditioning. Eventually Elsa figures out that learning to control her powers and daring to love will hurt much less than continuing to isolate herself in safety. For that reason, it might have been interesting to see "Let It Go" have a reappearance in the movie after Elsa's enlightenment, showing her actually letting go of her fears, rather than just unleashing her pent-up powers.

Onto lighter topics! I'll just talk about Olaf because he was my favorite. Josh Gad, who voiced the lovable snowman based his inspiration of Olaf on the iconic Genie. Reportedly, Gad wanted to create a character that could be just as unpredictable and unconfined by normal barriers as the Genie was in Aladdin. As a result, we have a snowman who is almost indestructible, more or less fearless, witty, and whose greatest desire is entirely incompatible with his nature (not unlike the Genie's longing for freedom). Without Olaf, Frozen would have really just been a dark and depressing tale, but Olaf's presence keeps things buoyant in the right moments. His wide-eyed childlike wonder at the world is endearing and amusing. Olaf has significant symbolic value, but getting into that would be laborious, so go and google it instead. Someone else has probably already written about it.

All in all, Frozen was a well-made and entertaining movie that proves Disney has still got a few tricks up its sleeve. It took a unique spin on the true love concept, appropriately transferring it to be between sisters, rather than a hasty romantic love. Furthermore, Frozen somewhat gives a smack in the face to previous princess tales that do involve a love-at-first sight occurrence. Anna and Hans meet, connect, and want to be together forever; it's really not all that different from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, or any number of other stories. It turned out fine for them, but Frozen takes a more practical, cautious approach to this cliche, and directly points out the foolishness of acting hastily on the euphoria of new love. For that, Frozen gets some extra points. I'm not one to say that stories of this nature need to be realistic, but it is nice to see a little cautionary reality thrown in every now and then as regards relationships. So my closing note is that Frozen was good and quite enjoyable, but I am ready to get back to the days when I could say "just let it go" without inspiring a chorus bursting forth from surrounding eavesdroppers.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I am so behind on current movies I have more than once considered forgoing blogging altogether. But then a slow day happens and I feel so inspired that I come back. And nothing fuels my inspiration like a good superhero movie.

So, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 picks up pretty much where the first one left off, with Peter (James Garfield) and Gwen (Emma Stone) enjoying their youthful romance in between Peter's crime-fighting missions. The chemistry between the two is one of the movie's strongest points, which is unexpected, but true. Their dialogue and interactions would be painfully groan-worthy in any other setting, with any other characters, but here the actors embrace the awkwardness and nerdiness of it so thoroughly that it comes off as endearing instead. Although Peter and Gwen have serious moments, most of their time is characterized by awkward moments, flirtatious smiles, and playful exchanges, rather than trying to convey a deep, star-crossed, impenetrable bond that inspires soap-opera style monologue and dramatic breathing. I'm looking at you, Twilight!

For Peter Parker, Spider-Man is a mask-- not an expression of his real self. He has his secrets, but in general Peter is unsure of himself, shy, and deeply sensitive. This is a stark contrast to the persona of Spider-Man, who is cocky, risky, and seemingly invincible. Spider-Man lives on the edge, and Peter deals with the consequences of Spider-Man's choices. Peter is still haunted by the broken promise he made to Gwen's father not to involve her in his dangerous life, and that guilt eats him up inside knowing that Gwen too could be hurt by Spider-Man's choices. Yet for all this angst, James Garfield's delivery of Peter (thankfully) doesn't come off as just a whiny youth; he's just burdened down with more responsibility than he is mature enough to handle. Gwen for her part is no damsel in distress, which is extremely refreshing. She is a strong character with youthful emotions, but doesn't ignorantly stray into trouble every minute, which is also a nice change. In fact, any time Gwen ends up in some sort of dangerous situation, it is almost always because she herself chose to get involved, and to her credit, she doesn't generally dive into anything that's over her head. That theme of choice becomes important later when Peter must deal with his loved ones' choices and consequences.

Every superhero movie needs a really good villain, and this is where Amazing 2 falls short. At first, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) just seems like a lonely and under-appreciated joe shmo who needs some recognition, appreciation, and friends. Although his obsession with Spider Man is unsettling, he's a fairly sympathetic character that just wants to be noticed, which you can't really blame him for. Once he transforms into Electro, he has a brief taste of fame and glory, and then it is ripped away as quickly as it came. Sadly, this is where he lost me. Max/Electro was relatively sympathetic up to that point (albeit in need of some mental health counseling), and might have remained so if his devastation at the mob's reaction to him had been handled differently. But because his immediate response to the mass rejection is murderous outrage, anything remotely identifiable about his character vanishes, and I ceased to feel sorry for him at all. From that point onward, he operates as little more than an impressive special effect, with motives so completely lacking in complexity and depth that he not only fails to be sympathetic, he also fails to be entirely loathsome. As a villain he's just mediocre. Impressive powers most certainly, but not at all striking or unique in terms of character or purpose. Unfortunately, true to the nature of Max Dillon, he'll be forgotten as soon another villain comes around. Electro becomes an inconsequential memory before the movie even ends, having already been upstaged by the next villain.

While Harry Osborne was not much more interesting than Electro, he will be remembered a little longer for a variety of reasons. One is that his actions are directly responsible for a major event that, in the original comic books, changed comic books forever (skip down to my spoiler section below the last picture). Another is that his final moments onscreen hint that he will be instrumental in bringing about a great villain uprising in the next installment. Like Peter, Harry has more to deal with than he is mature enough to handle. Unlike Peter however, his response is not reluctance and moral reflection about the risks, but outrage and primal self-preservation at all costs, with all things being worth the risk. Really, it is only this attitude that makes Harry at all dangerous. He's young, small of stature, lean of frame, so he's hardly intimidating before his transformation into the Goblin. Yet because nothing is too great a risk to save his life, there are no lines he is not willing to cross, even if it means he figuratively gives up his life to save it. Ultimately the citizens of New York City don't feel much devastation at the Goblin's hands-- only a select few get the full blast of his evil determination. But judging by his piece at the end of the film, I would venture to guess that he returns as a minor villain in the next movie. As a side-note, Dane DeHaan reminds me of a very young Leonardo DiCaprio, and to my recollection, the latter wasn't very good when he was very young. It's not just the Jack-on-the-Titanic hairdo either; his mannerisms and expressions are all reminiscent of DiCaprio. DeHaan isn't bad necessarily, but I also can't say I thought his performance stuck out as particularly memorable.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came dangerously close to overloading the script with too many villains and subplots, and although I think they mostly (though not entirely) avoided that pitfall (I already know others disagree), the inevitable part three already seems set up to go that direction. I hope I'm wrong, because I've greatly enjoyed the direction that this franchise has taken, but I must bitterly admit that most superhero trilogies usually have a weak point, and there has been something of a pattern in the part threes. Speculation and nervousness about the future of the franchise aside, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was an enjoyable comic book movie that has a good dose of humor and comedy with its drama, action, and heart-ripping emotion. Although there has not yet been a villain of any Spider-Man universe that stands out to the level of say, Loki or Magneto, perhaps there is still hope. And despite my love of good villains and undeniable lack of striking ones in Amazing 2, I can't deny I really enjoyed the movie. Maybe I'm a sucker for some superhero movies, but I'm okay with not always having a deep spiritual, emotional, or artistic reason for enjoying the things that I do.

By this point I'm not sure it's such a big spoiler, but just in case, you have been warned. The Amazing Spider-Man comic series had a pivotal, striking event that ended what is called the Silver Age of comic books. That event was the death of Gwen Stacy, shown artfully, beautifully, and tragically in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 movie. In the books, this event completely shattered the innocence and optimism that accompanied the comic book world. To that point, good triumphed over evil, and no matter how close the scrape, your main characters lived to fight another day with a shining hope that evil would fall. Then, in "the snap heard round the comic book world-- the startling, sickening snap of bone that heralded the death of Gwen Stacy" (Blumberg), that world changed. I knew this when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went into production, and I hoped against hope that they wouldn't do it, but I already knew before the movie began that they were going to stick to the canon and carry out Gwen's demise. And sure enough, they did. Dramatically, emotionally, hopelessly... crack. The full impact of this tragic event is unknown, but I would venture to guess that Peter is about to reach new depths of darkness, and new heights of determination as a result. Part three will tell.