Monthly Archives: October 2013

Somali pirates from Captain Phillips movie

Captain Phillips movie review: Tom Hanks versus Somali pirates

Somali pirates from Captain Phillips movie
Somali pirates from Captain Phillips movie

Captain Phillips starts out terrific, mainly because the director immediately brings you into the world of piracy and you feel the tension mount, as Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) must quickly rally his crew to avoid capture from Somali pirates.  But this is only the first attempt.

The real-life story of Captain Richard Phillips was widely reported back in 2009. I vaguely remember it myself but frankly wasn’t that interested in the story at the time. Matter of fact, the story of Somali pirates capturing a freighter filled with food and clothing just didn’t grab me. Yes, it does make for effective drama on the high seas but I wasn’t captivated by it.

The film follows the plight of Captain Phillips as he desperately fights to protect his crew from invading Somali pirates. Now in the first twenty minutes alone we get a taste of just how precarious a situation Phillips is in because he reads a warning sent over email about the presence of pirates in his vicinity. Captain Phillips insists the crew practice security drills in the vein hope that if indeed his freighter is boarded the crew will successfully defend itself. The first sequence is surprisingly riveting. The Somali pirates are first spotted on radar and Philips orders the ship to increase its speed to avoid capture. The freighter does successfully outrun the pirates. But pirates don’t give up easily. And on the second attempt, the pirates are successful at boarding the freighter.

Somali actors make for excellent pirates

The acting by the Somali pirates is all around excellent.  Led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirates are a ragtag of poor but fearless Somali natives who care nothing but to capture their next freighter and come away with a huge haul. When the pirates first board, they are disorganized. The crew remains hidden down in the engine room and have turned off the ship’s power. Phillips offers the pirates money, a lifeboat to get away, and even suggests first aid for one of the pirates who has injured himself. But Muse and his men get greedy. And instead of accepting what cash exists on board, they demand millions and expect to get it.

The pirates soon realize they are ill prepared to take control of the freighter and through a series of mishaps end up nearly losing their leader, Muse. The pirates are successful, however, at capturing Captain Phillips and taking him hostage. They leave the freighter on a specially designed boat. Throughout, Phillips does his best to distract the pirates, offering first aid, and then turning the pirates against one another. The Navy gets word of Captain Phillips capture and proceeds to rescue him. Once the pirates learn of the Navy’s involvement, they are quick to use Phillips to extract millions in ransom money. The Navy has other ideas and next thing you know Navy SEALs parade out of the sky and we know that this story has only one ending.

Swimming in salt water with your eyes open

The film attempts to build on the tension of the SEALs negotiation with the pirates for Captain Phillips’ life. What I didn’t like was the surprise attempt by Captain Phillips to escape the lifeboat by actually pushing one of the pirates into the ocean and he himself jumping into the water hoping to be rescued. How many times have we seen movies where the actors jump into salt water and open their eyes to see where they are going?  Why you don’t try it sometime and let me know how well you see in saltwater and how comfortable it is on your eyes? I never believed for a second that Captain Phillips would have done something as stupid as trying to escape the lifeboat, especially when Navy ships had surrounded the lifeboat and there was no way out for the pirates.  All Captain Phillips had to do was just sit tight.

The final ending scene we see Captain Phillips being taken to get medical treatment. He’s in a state of shock. This is probably the best acting of Hanks throughout the film. He’s listening to the nurse as she tersely asks him if he’s OK and where he might be hurting. The camera stays close on Hanks. Captain Phillips asks if his family was of his situation. Yes, responds the nurse. Hanks lies down on a table and our film fades out.

Drama doesn’t escalate like it should

Overall, a good film but there was more suspense in the first 20 minutes when the pirates made their first attempt at boarding the freighter then during the last 20 minutes when we know that there is no way out for them and they will most certainly die or be captured by the Navy.  Was Tom Hanks a hero? The movie sure paints him out to be. But this CNN interview with the real-life Captain Phillips describes a different story entirely. Just goes to show you Hollywood loves to spin a story any way they can to sell it to the public.

Gravity debris

Gravity movie review – It’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey

Gravity debris
Gravity collision in outer space

Gravity fails to inspire

If you’re planning on seeing Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, you might want to read this review first. As most of you cinema fans know, the American movie industry is based largely on hype. In order to generate that hype, you have sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which amalgamates a bunch of national movie critic reviews to provide a percentage of what critics overall think of the movie.  It also includes fan reviews. But the emphasis is first placed on what the national movie critics think. Critics definitely influence the fate of movies and how well or poorly they will do at the box office. Movies that tank are often the butt of jokes and movie critics themselves get their share of the blame by producers who feel their film was never given a chance.

But back to Gravity. The visuals are, for the most part, spectacular on the big screen. I felt like I was floating in outer space and nauseous at the same time. Director Alfonso Cuaron certainly does his best to use technology as a means of capturing the story of our two beloved astronauts at the center of the picture, George Clooney (Lt. Kowalski) and Sandra Bullock (mission specialist Stone). George plays a cowboy’esque astronaut; he’s quick to raddle off tails of his escapades back on Earth to alleviate the boredom of his spacewalk. I can’t recall the last time an astronaut was ever bored in outer space. He comes across as a smart-ass. If I were an astronaut, I’d be insulted by Clooney’s performance.

Now I’m not sure what astronauts are like in outer space and I’d be very curious to hear recorded conversations between NASA headquarters and the astronauts in space to get an idea of just how chummy the communications are. But by any stretch of the imagination, Lt. Kowalski’s personality is a real turn-off. He’s the “know it all” so when the proverbial sh-t hits the fan, he’s the one that will lead the rescue of himself and Bullock. Well that’s not exactly how it goes and I won’t go into greater detail about how Bullock saves herself but the repartee between both characters had a false ring to it.

When astronauts travel to outer space together don’t they know a little bit about the background of each other? I’ve got to believe they do and yet we have Clooney peppering Bullock with questions about her family life back in Illinois when her oxygen levels are dropping precipitously. Why would Lt. Kowalski knowingly endanger Stone’s life by asking her more questions when she should be slowing down her breathing and not be talking at all?

Stone, as played by Bullock, is more realistic. She’s doing her best to not vomit while performing her duties nearly 400 miles above the Earth’s atmosphere. There’s nothing to dislike about Stone but then you keep asking yourself is there anything special about her? Not sure there is.  Bullock displays adequate relief and drama as things progressively worsen for her. But by the film’s conclusion, I was sort of like, thanks Hollywood, I know how this one is going to end.

In space no one can you hear vomit

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

My expectations for Gravity had me thinking that I was going to be overwhelmed by the gigantic universe. And in a way I was but at the same time director Alfonso Cuaron performs the cardinal sin.  In outer space, there is no sound. No oxygen. There is silence. But throughout the entire movie, Cuaron actually plays sound. As if it was necessary? If any one of you reading this now ever watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will remember that the scenes taking place in outer space were DEVOID of any sound! It was creepy!

But in Gravity, we’ve got sound; we also have synthesizer music that tries to heighten the level of tension. It’s absolutely ruinous to the film’s drama. I’m not sure what prompted Cuaron to provide a soundtrack but this film would have been so much more memorable if there had been NONE. Imagine, you’re watching mission specialist Stone fighting to survive in outer space and all you can do is watch and you can’t hear a pin drop!

Much of Gravity is based upon a series of calamities. Things just get worse and worse for our astronauts once they have been notified by Mission control that a shower of debris is heading their way. We see in slow motion just how powerful the collisions are and I can’t imagine why visuals alone wouldn’t be sufficient to keep your attention. But Cuaron insists upon a soundtrack and suddenly we are taken away from outer space and brought back down to some studio somewhere on planet earth where a composer is fiddling around on some MacBook Pro figuring out what sounds can be made to fit the disaster on screen.

The casting of movie stars did little to enhance Gravity

Movie critics like Mick Lasalle of the San Francisco Chronicle couldn’t rave enough about the casting in Gravity. I’m not sure why they fell in love with the acting in this film. As previously mentioned, Clooney’s macho bit was obnoxious. Bullock did surprise me. I’ve never liked her voice or her acting. But she does an adequate job here. Not that the dialogue she’s given was believable in the slightest. Talk about family and children just seems trite even in outer space. Screenwriter Jonas Cuaron had to come up with something for our astronauts to say but I think he misses the boat. Bullock, when alone in her capsule, adequately expresses her fear of dying. In a funny moment, Clooney appears out of nowhere and we expect him to “save the day.” Alas, it’s only a dream. The thing is, did I really care if Bullock was going to make it or not? When you watch the ending of the film, you might actually have a good laugh instead of the catharsis you were hoping for.

I don’t think the casting of Clooney or Bullock was in anyway inspired.

Time to revisit 2001: A Space Odyssey

Back in 1968, no one was prepared for the “Space Odyssey” that Stanly Kubrick brought to the screen. In particular, the battle between HAL and astronaut Dave Bowman was scary and watching HAL kill off one of the astronauts was positively frightening. And guess what?  There is NO SOUND IN OUTER SPACE. Watch this clip to remind yourself of just how powerful a scene this was not only then but to this day. I can tell you that Gravity doesn’t even come close to matching the drama of this one scene alone.

Let’s do away with the Hollywood soundtrack and SOUND IN SPACE

When I read all of the ridiculous reviews praising this film’s grandeur and inspired casting, I’m reminded why it’s so beneficial to be a student of history. You can research and identify what films have come before that tackled similar subject matter. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a more honest attempt at capturing drama in outer space. Director Alfonso Cuaron missed the opportunity to create a dramatic film without the Hollywood varnish. He blew it. We not only get an artificial soundtrack but we know that Sandra Bullock will survive.

If you’re like me, you don’t go see movies to make you feel good. You go see films to be riveted, captivated, and drawn into something that makes you forget it’s only a movie. It’s a movie that doesn’t come rapped with a bow tie. I can’t say Hollywood makes too many of those. Films that make you forget they are films are an endangered species.

For those who go to the movies to simply turn off your brains than by all means go see Gravity and be enthralled by the large scale visuals of floating in outer space above planet Earth. But for those who see films to be both entertained AND engaged than you require just a bit more truth, profundity, and less Hollywood contrivance.  In particular, let’s do away with the Hollywood soundtrack. Let’s do away with the artificiality of soundtracks, meaning synthesizer-oriented sounds that are clearly added to height the drama, which a film, if it’s a great story to begin with, doesn’t need.  The human drama provides plenty of soundtrack until itself without the need for an artificial one.

Don't fund Obamacare

Republican party stupidity: John Boehner leads the way

Don't fund Obamacare
Don’t fund Obamacare

Republican party dingbats!

In reviewing the comments made by Republican party house leader John Boehner (and those of his colleagues) it boggles the mind just how stupid the Republican party leadership must be. Raising the debt ceiling is not about signing a blank check. It’s about signing a check to pay for what already has been spent.  This is not a spending spree and yet Republicans are insisting that President Obama must negotiate with them in order for the debt ceiling to be raised.

Obama is correct that he is in no way obligated to negotiate with a political party that is putting a gun to his head. No debate can begin until the Republican party resigns from its obstinate position. This ugly episode of American politics must surely not be forgotten when 2014 arrives. More importantly, this is all about the Tea Party disdain for government services. This minority faction has infiltrated the Republican party, literally poisoning it with its hatred of anything that smacks of government welfare. The irony is that Obamacare is all about trying to provide health insurance to millions who don’t have it and/or cannot afford it. As reported in the New York Times, Obamacare still won’t be able to provide health insurance to those who can least afford it.

What is so blatantly clear and above all hurtful to American society is just how contemptuous the republican party has become of government itself. Funded by Libertarian fanatics, the Koch Brothers, the Republican party has routinely stymied Obama in trying to pass any progressive legislation since his re-election. Remember the immigration reform bill?  What about Gun-control legislation?  All of it, for the time being, stuck going nowhere.

Obamacare: “unprecedented federal intrusion”

The Republican party offers no alternative to Obamacare, only their contempt of it. Because if it actually provided health insurance to millions more people, it would embarrass Republicans who kept championing the evils of the legislation.

In 1994, the conservative thinker William Kristol published a manifesto about why Republicans had to stop then President Bill Clinton’s attempt at national health care legislation.

“Passage of the Clinton health plan in any form would be disastrous,” Mr. Kristol wrote, italicizing for emphasis. “It would guarantee an unprecedented federal intrusion into the American economy. Its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.”

There you have it. Republicans cannot abide at just how necessary government has become in American life. Millions of Americans depend upon government. The free market is simply not able to provide adequately those services deemed crucial for survival. It’s the middle class that stands to benefit the most from Obamacare. To conservative Republicans, losing that segment of the electorate to the Democratic party would cost them dearly in all future elections.