Captain Phillips

Once a journalist, Paul Greengrass changed careers and entered the film industry. He became a director and proceeded to make a career of doing movies about about tragic events. His films Resurrected, The Fix, Bloody Sunday, United 93, and now Captain Phillips are all “based on a true story.” Most audience members probably only know Greengrass as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum.

Greengrass brings his experience as a director of those action thrillers to bear on the story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama who are beset by Somali pirates. It’s quite a marvel that I was brought to the edge of my seat watching the story unfold. After all, those of us who remember the news stories from a few years back have already had this “spoiled” for us.

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Greengrass’ signature handheld “shakycam” style seems befitting for a movie set largely on the high seas. The direction is really superb and the action engaging. It all feels very authentic.

But the best thing about the movie is Tom Hanks as the titular Captain. At first I was really bothered by the odd New England accent he was affecting. It’s true-to-life but I’ve heard Hanks’ real voice so many times in other roles that it sounded put on. By the time the pirates were spotted on the horizon I had adjusted to it. When the emotional close of the film rolled around, I was completely sold on Hanks in the role.

As a movie, I really like Captain Phillips. It’s effective, well-paced, and Tom Hanks turns in one great performance as the lead. It portrays the whole event as being pretty unfortunate for all involved. It’s not waving a lot of American flags nor portraying the U.S. as some kind of bully.

The story is a sad one. Out of desperation and greed a couple young Somalis got themselves into the crosshairs of U.S. Navy SEALs where they stood no chance of survival. Although frightened for his life, Captain Phillips is also aware that the Somalis are doomed once the Navy shows up and practically begs them to let him go so they won’t get themselves killed.

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I really appreciated how the event was handled. Except for one thing…

Hey, remember how I mentioned that Paul Greengrass did the second and third Bourne movies? The great thing about them is they were entirely fictional. Unfortunately, to properly consider and discuss this movie, we have to look at how it compares to reality.

Apparently not very favorably.

According to the movie, Captain Phillips was a paragon of virtue. He’s overly cautious about the threat of piracy. He’s shown as a brave and sacrificial leader. In a word: a hero. On the other hand, you get the impression that his crew has a little trouble lining up under their Captain. They’re actually portrayed as a bit lazy in one scene.

The real-life crew tells a different story. The real Captain Phillips was allegedly reckless, arrogant, and a liar when recounting the events of the hijacking. There’s some pretty harsh criticism leveled at the man. If it’s true, that’s really disappointing.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

For me, that controversy does mar the film because it’s so concentrated on one man who may have been portrayed very, very inaccurately. Captain Phillips is a good movie for its filmmaking and acting, but when it comes to veracity I really have to question it. Then again, what do you expect from these “based on a true story” movies?

Gravity

This summer was a disappointing time for films. Thankfully award season has started. From now until the end of the year is our best chance for movies that hit that sweet spot of artistic integrity and entertainment value.

Most people seem to think Gravity is the epitome of that. Naturally, I disagree.

Let me start by saying I was reallyreallyreallyreally excited for this movie. I love space. I grew up reading books about NASA and the space program. I love space movies. I’m a real sucker for them. I’ll enjoy the space stuff even if there’s not a great movie surrounding it.

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I can say that Gravity is the best sci-fi of the year. It’s not inane and stupid like Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s not “just for fun” like Pacific Rim. And it isn’t preachy like Elysium.

So how is it, actually?

It’s very, very, very pretty. Look at that space! Space! Space!

The movie is an absolute marvel of visual effects and cinematography. The “camera” takes full advantage of the freedom provided by a zero-gravity environment. This leads to some lengthy free-flowing shots including the thirteen minute opening shot. Very impressive stuff.

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Also impressive is the sound design. I love it when there’s no sound in space, but so few movies respect this basic scientific fact. Gravity cleverly maintains scientific accuracy here. It’s only completely silent a few times. Elsewhere, the silence of space is covered by radio chatter, breathing noises, the muffled sounds of objects contacting the astronauts’ suits, and an effective score. Fair enough.

I willingly saw this movie in 3D.

That never happens.

I’ve been an avowed 3D hater for years now, but I read in all the reviews that it was worthwhile so I gave it a shot. I worried during the previews that I’d made a huge mistake. For example, the preview for The Hobbit gave me a headache. It was way over the top. And maybe it was because my eyes adjusted or maybe the effect was more subtle in Gravity but I was actually fine with it. I would be interested to see the movie again in good ol’ 2D just for comparison, but I don’t regret seeing the 3D version at all.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts who become stranded in space. The acting is good as you would expect from these two though I wonder if it might have been less distracting to have had lesser-known actors filling the space suits.

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George Clooney is playing George Clooney. He’s charming and fun to watch. He’s also a hugely comforting presence in a very frightening situation. That both helps and harms the film. Bullock is the real star here. I’ve heard lots of people rave about her acting here and I find no fault in it, but it didn’t blow me away either. I never stopped seeing her as an actress in a movie.

I think the problem was the writing. In terms of dialogue – there’s not much of it, but there are things that really bothered me. Bullock’s Dr. Stone gets a bit of backstory that I didn’t connect with at all. It came off as a desperate attempt to get the audience to care about her. The film didn’t need that. I would feel sorry for my worst enemy if they were drifting alone in space. That is a completely terrifying thought.

The other distracting “problem” is the scientific accuracy. It’s really, really good in most places, but there are some egregious deviations from reality that, depending on how much you know about physics and space travel, may really pull you out of the movie.

Director Alfonzo Cuarón has freely admitted Gravity is not about being scientifically accurate. Some concessions needed to be made in order to tell the story. Okay, that’s fine. But there’s really not much of a story to tell. It’s a very basic survival story and that’s fine. But for me it isn’t a happy medium. I would have personally preferred either more science or more story.

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For whatever reason, the film never really pulled me in. It is gorgeous to look at but felt distant from it most of the time. There were only a couple times I felt frightened or concerned. It didn’t ask me to invest much and I didn’t get much out of it. It was a fun ride. But it was just a ride.

Nevertheless, Gravity is absolutely worth seeing and I’m glad it’s done as well as it has at the box office. But for me it simply isn’t the transcendent experience I was led to expect and that other people are apparently having. In terms of effects and cinematography it breaks new ground, but it falls short of inspiring my imagination like other science fiction of the past.

Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies

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Far Cry 3 is a disappointment. It is not the game it could have been or should have been nor does it deserve the perfect and near-perfect scores it has gotten from mainstream game review sites.

Let’s talk a little franchise history. I bought Far Cry 2 back in 2008 under the false pretense that it was made by the same folks as Crysis which I had an absolute blast playing. It wasn’t.

The Far Cry series was begun in 2004 by Crytek but Far Cry 2 was an Ubisoft product. Apparently the Crysis series was enough for Crytek so they sold the IP. Consequently I was initially very disappointed with Far Cry 2. It didn’t feature anything like the highly empowering Nanosuit of Crysis. It wasn’t even very much like the original Far Cry. In fact, none of the Far Cry games relate to each other at all. They don’t even seem to be set in the same fictional universe.

Over time, Far Cry 2 grew on me despite some glaring annoyances with the game design like the infamous respawning enemy outposts, guns that would jam on you at exactly the worst moment possible, the very limited fast-travel system, and the bland, repetitive mission design. Far Cry 2 was trying to be something that no other shooter was. Its themes were ambitious. Its immersive design was laudable but problematic. But I kind of like the game. I even surprised myself by playing it twice through.

Far Cry 2 was good and different enough to get me interested in the potential of a sequel. My excitement for Far Cry 3 grew when I heard director Dan Hay talk about the themes and story arc this game would tackle. Even better: they understood many of the complaints about the previous game and were taking steps to rectify them! This was going to be awesome: a beautiful open-world shooter with a dark storyline about the protagonist’s descent into insanity.

I wish they’d made that game. They got halfway there. Some of it works. Far Cry 3 is a good game, but like its predecessor, its design and storytelling flaws keep it from being a very good or great game. And it could have been.

Continue reading “Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies”

The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 & 2)

I hadn’t really watched any of the recent slew of high-quality, critically acclaimed cable shows. Then, Netflix happened. *dun, dun, dun*

What did I choose to check out first? That zombie show, of course!

Well, strictly speaking that isn’t true. I tried to watch Portlandia which was recommended to me, but I really couldn’t stand the sketch comedy format and despite growing up in the nineties, I think I was missing the big joke of that show right from the get go.

So I clicked on Walking Dead out of sheer impulse. I’d also heard good things about it. And it had this awesome promo image attached to it.

NetflixHow could I resist? I don’t love zombies, but I do love post-apocalyptic, survivalist, skin-of-the-teeth dramas. Well, some of them. I generally love the settings if nothing else. There’s just something really interesting to me about poking around in the remnants of civilization all rules and objectives having been removed except survival and whatever else (if anything) is truly important to the characters.

The zombies, I thought, I’ll just put up with. Besides, I’d heard that the show was just as much about the dangers posed by the other survivors as by the zombies and indeed this proved to be true.

“Days Gone Bye” has got to be one of the best pilot episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. There are precious few shows that have engaged me this much from the very first episode. I usually find I have to be more patient with television. I realize it’s a serial medium. They’re taking it slower than cinema and often that’s very rewarding. So unless I am finding no enjoyment at all, I usually give shows until halfway through the first season to grip me. That wasn’t necessary at all with Walking Dead.

It wasn’t until I’d watched a few episodes that I realized the show was produced and adapted for TV by Frank Darabont, the director behind the well-known and regarded Stephen King adaptations Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (also The Mist, but let’s not talk about that). I’m probably slightly less bullish on Darabont’s films than the next guy (which isn’t to say I dislike them) but I have to admit that his ability to tell compelling and memorable stories-within-stories is a huge strength when it comes to a television series. I sometimes felt like Shawshank and Green Mile were being drug out like a TV series.

Darabont’s cinematic experience shows especially in the first episode and all throughout the first season. The season plays out like a long movie and, with the exception of occasionally dodgy CGI (which is forgivable), the show looks cinema quality as well. That’s pretty cool.

I want to play Left 4 Dead with these characters. Actually they mention Portal at one point which is funny because I’ll bet L4D doesn’t exist in The Walking Dead universe.

The best thing about the first season is its sense of urgency and mystery. There are always a couple of important questions the characters are trying to answer in these kinds of stories like: how widespread is the infection? Are there any safe places left? Is somebody working on a cure? Or even just the basic survival question: will I get eaten today?

And even though the answers to a lot of these questions are vague or standard, that last lingering question of survival is always there. The show builds an environment where you really don’t know who will live and who won’t. For that reason I really recommend you avoid any and all possible spoilers if you want to watch the show.

Something that constantly bothers me in fiction is when the writers let characters off too easily. If you build up a big threat and topple it without the slightest bit of trouble then you’ve pull all the teeth from your story. I will no longer believe anything you say when you tell me something is dangerous or threatening.

The Walking Dead has no such problem. There are consequences for all of the actions of the characters and consequences that are merely inherent in the harsh post-zombie world. In fact, this might be the only show I’ve seen where the writers could stand to be a little nicer to the characters. But, hey, seeing someone go through hell is a lot more interesting than seeing them go through Candyland… unless it’s full of zombies too.

Even if someone doesn’t die, there are nearly always negative consequences to plague the characters. Sometimes dying isn’t the worst fate.

Season one had me absolutely hooked from the get-go. For me it was the television equivalent of a “page-turner.” Do we have a phrase for that? We need one.

Then came season two.

I liked it. I watched it with almost as much enthusiasm as the first, but I also watched it directly after the first season without waiting a year. I imagine if I had been anticipating season two for a whole year I might have been disappointed with what I got.

The more you anticipate something, the more you expect of it and are likely to be disappointed with the actual outcome. It’s an interesting little bit of media psychology. I guess it relates to everything though, but it seems especially true and obvious when it comes to media. I saw the Matrix films years after they had all come out so I wasn’t nearly as disappointed with the sequels as most people.

Season two’s production, from what I understand, was plagued by budget cuts and the ousting of Frank Darabont. It shows. It’s not that the production quality decreases. The focus just narrows. The entire season takes place in more-or-less the same location rather than covering a lot of ground like in season one. So the sense of discovery is lost to a great extent. It is replaced by an increased focus on interpersonal drama and the supporting cast both of which are welcome… for awhile.

Unfortunately, the show also gets a little too bogged down. A little too slow. And characters start making the kinds of stupid decisions common to horror which really flies in the face of the caution exhibited by the survivors in season one (well, generally speaking).

There’s one point where a character who is in no position to leave the group goes off on her own because… I donno. She took stupid pills, maybe? Heck, when I was growing up we weren’t even supposed to go out on our own at scout camp and there were a lot fewer zombies there. Maybe only 50 or 60.

Of course they never call them zombies

Ultimately the story arc of season two proves rewarding although it gets even darker by the end. So, yeah. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart… in case you didn’t summize that from the – y’know – zombies and mass destruction.

It’s quite bloody and gory. I mean really bloody and gory. It’s probably average for zombie stuff, but I don’t watch horror myself so I wouldn’t know. Apparently there’s no such thing as blood borne illness in The Walking Dead or zombie fiction in general because these people are regularly covered in blood and gore but nothing happens to them so long as they aren’t bit.

The show is also quite tense and filled with conflict. So if that kind of thing gets on your nerves then you won’t like that aspect of the show either. I know some people object to such infighting when the characters are faced with overwhelming odds. But it’s pretty hard to argue that people (especially untrained people) don’t tend to act rationally or calmly when they don’t feel safe.

While it is far from unique or groundbreaking to incorporate Nietzsche’s well-known adage “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one” as a theme, it works really effectively in Walking Dead. As one critic said, the show it at its best when it’s not being subtle.

The surprising theme of the show is family. It’s actually quite sweet and heartfelt many times. There were individual scenes in the show I could picture my mom really connecting with… in between the scenes of zombies eating people’s intestines. Seriously! The themes of sacrifice, family, hope, and faith ring true most of the time they’re explored. Maybe it’s because it’s set in the South, but the show seems to be actually quite steeped in traditional values when it comes to family and the roles of men and women. That’s a refreshing change of pace from some of the more “progressive” shows which are clearly pushing for new paradigms in gender roles and family values (although is it just me or do all the women seem either heartless or abused?)

Family is a surprisingly big theme for a show featuring so many entrails

There’s one really touching scene in the first episode of the second season where a woman begs God for help and you really feel the desperation of not only her situation but of the entire group and humanity as a whole. I at least saw this as symbolic of how truly desperate humanity’s plight is. Our society and our transient accomplishments blind us to the need for reliance on God but stripped of that these characters must put their faith in something or else become suicidally hopeless or inhumanly monstrous. Of course the show is more interested in exploring “faith” in that silly, hollow, trite way television does, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s not like I expected The Walking Dead to be the show that gets theology right.

The show has hooked me. Season three starts in October and I’ll be happy to have a current drama to watch again (my last was Stargate Universe which I’m still mad at SyFy for canceling just when it was getting good). It does feel like it’s going in a bit more comic-bookie direction. Yes, I know it’s based on graphic novels, but I’m worried that they might start doing “cool” stuff for the sake of doing cool stuff. Hopefully instead it will continue to be well-written, unpredictable, and thrilling. For the most part, it has been so far. I finally like zombies for something more than video game target practice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Candyland zombie movie pitch to work on.