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Unexpected Item in Reaction Area Three – Captain Phillips

SPOILERS

I recently posed about Rush, which has a director I like and a genre I don’t, which was a delight, and Prisoners, which belongs to a genre I like, has a director I’d never heard of, and was disappointing. In the case of Captain Phillips, I love the genre as, like Prisoners, it is a thriller, and Paul Greengrass is one of my top ten directors. Captain Phillips exceeded my expectations and is one of my top films of 2013, as it is an incredibly gripping, highly intelligent, well balanced and merciless thriller.

Phillips Poster

Captain Phillips works because all its components support each other perfectly. Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain and Barkhad Abdi as his antagonist Abduwali Muse, leader of the Somali hijackers of the Maersk Alabama, deliver powerhouse performances that I hope will be remembered come awards season. Billy Ray’s script combines compelling personal drama with wider themes of globalisation and the poverty gap, while Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is tight and intimate to the point of claustrophobia. Greengrass orchestrates these myriad elements into a visceral and enthralling experience, drawing the viewer into the action and allowing us to feel the resolve and hunger of the pirates as well as the desperate fear of the Alabama crew. My hands gripped the arms of my seats all the way through and, while I did not feel queasy, I can understand that some might as the sense of being aboard ship was palatable. One critic said that after seeing the film he wanted a stiff drink – I wanted to lie down.

Strong reactions to films are something I like very much, especially uncomfortable reactions. A major reason we go to the cinema is to have safe thrills – while the sense of danger and exhilaration can be created by the right cinematic experience, we are very seldom in actual danger (accounts of heart attacks and vomiting at The Exorcist, Jaws and Alien notwithstanding). The main reason Prisoners disappointed me was that it did not leave me devastated, while Rush was thoroughly exhilarating. Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity are two films that have left me shaken and stirred this year, and Captain Phillips did the same. But what made Captain Phillips unique, not just for this year but in my entire cinema-going experience (which is extensive), is that I cried. No film had ever before prompted me to shed tears, and this got me thinking about what gets our tear ducts working. 

Weep

 

Lists of tear-jerkers tend to include Casablanca, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Bambi, Dumbo, Old Yeller and It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s Christmas classic did bring me very close to tears when I finally saw it (at Christmas, obviously), and there are others that cause me to well up such as The Lion King, Twelve Monkeys, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and, despite repeat viewings, Titanic (mock me all you want, I don’t care). All of these made me well up, so I could feel the tears in my eyes, but they would not flow, would not burst out of my eyes and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. In fairness, I hardly ever cry anyway, not because I’m a super tough macho man (though I am, please don’t hurt me!), but for some unknown reason, tears very rarely flow from me. I often wish they would, but when I feel tears in my eyes, I start willing them to flow, which takes me out of the tear-inducing situation and the damn things dry up.

The way my reaction works highlights the mechanics of tear-jerking cinema. Most reactions to cinema are a result of manipulation, because that is what film does. Anyone who does not like to be manipulated should avoid film, because film manipulates all the time, sometimes in such a way as to make you cry – recently I saw tears at Saving Mr Banks. Steven Spielberg’s films are frequent tear-jerkers, including E.T., Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and Spielberg has openly admitted that his films are manipulative. Schindler’s List, War Horse and, perhaps less obviously, Munich all caused me to well up, because they poured on the agony. Watching a man break under the emotion of what he has failed to do, a horse lie down and die, or a man who has committed terrible acts listen to the innocence embodied in his baby – these are scenes that Spielberg, with help from John Williams, draws out to inflict maximum anguish on the viewer. But once I feel effect of the manipulation, I try to encourage it, which takes me out of the moment and I don’t cry. 

Tom Hanks

This was not the case with Captain Phillips, crucially because the tears I shed were not solely out of anguish, as most weepy scenes are, but also sheer exhaustion. From the point where the hijackers take over the Alabama, there is no let up as they scour the ship, the crew fight back, Phillips is taken hostage, the US navy enters negotiations and eventually stages a rescue. Prior to the rescue, Phillips is brought to the limits of human endurance as the hijackers tie him up and blindfold him, all the while yelling at him and each other. The cacophony, the intensity and the empathy I felt for Phillips were what caused the tears to flow, and they continued in the aftermath when Phillips was brought aboard the USS Bainbridge and treated for shock – I cried out of relief and exhaustion as much as anything else. I have often considered Tom Hanks a rather bland actor, but no longer, as the anguish, rage, frustration, fear and desperation that he displayed in the film’s final act took me into Phillips’ dire position. When he was being treated for shock after being rescued, repeatedly thanking the naval officers, the sense of relief was palatable and deeply moving. I’m not always one to engage with characters, but on this occasion I felt very engaged indeed, possibly needed treatment for shock myself. Like Zero Dark Thirty and Gravity, Captain Phillips left me shaken and stirred, and also moved. I would not have expected a Paul Greengrass film to make me cry, so it was a very rewarding cinema experience. I tend to credit directors for making a film work, and Greengrass is great for delivering visceral, intense work, but hats off to all involved, especially Hanks for performing the most heartbreaking anguish I have seen in a long time.

Captain Phillips trailer launch - video

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Review of 2012 Part Six: The Neglected – The Raid on Killer Joe

Killer Joe

I’ve been posting recently on my top and bottom films of 2012, and realised I had been remiss earlier in the year.  Two films in particular impressed me in their own ways and are contenders for my top ten, so I thought it only fair to give them mention.  Both are smaller films, rather than the major blockbusters I’ve discussed recently.  I enjoy the mainstream, and seeing the full facility of cinema through big budget blockbusters and studio prestige films are among my favourite movie experiences.  The division between “mainstream” and “independent” is vague and indeterminate, and sometimes used nonsensically, not to mention inaccurately.  I have heard references to Clint Eastwood as an independent filmmaker, which is absurd as he is a Hollywood institution, whose films are always funded and distributed by major studios, usually Warner Bros.  Similarly, the world’s most successful independent filmmaker is George Lucas, who could also be regarded as the epitome of Hollywood.   If considered from a more analytical industrial perspective, the distributors of the films under discussion here are still related to major studios, so the division is unclear.

Not that it matters, as the quality of a film and one’s appreciation of it is not determined by who funded or distributed it, but by what is in the film itself.  Speaking from an auteurist position, as I do, one of the giants of New Hollywood back in the 1970s was responsible for my favourite comedy of the year, Killer Joe.  William Friedkin won the Directing Oscar for The French Connection in 1971, and went on to direct The Exorcist two years later.  He has never come close to the heights of that double whammy in the last forty years, but continued to make striking and interesting films (Bug), as well as some turkeys (Rules of Engagement).  Killer Joe is one of his successes, a pitch black comedy that is funny if you are prepared to laugh at its unflinching depravity.  Complaints about Killer Joe focus on all the characters being unsympathetic if not downright repulsive, which they are.  I question though whether being nasty is reason to criticise, as horrible characters can still be well-rounded and compelling.  To call the central family of Killer Joe white trash would be a compliment, as they are more the vermin that feed upon trash, but I was nonetheless intrigued to see what they did next.

My interest was held largely by commitment, from the script, the direction and some very fine performances.  Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church convince as a couple of idiot rednecks, Gina Gershon balances sultry with embittered, and Juno Temple conveys sweet naivety and disturbing sexuality.  2012 was the year of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, with acclaimed performances in Killer Joe, Magic Mike and Bernie, receiving an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor for his performances in the latter two.  I did not see those, but found his performance as the titular polite psychopath in Killer Joe to be both chilling and amusing.  McConaughey’s stony expression and slow Texan drawl lend themselves well to perfectly controlled menace.  As with other characters in 2012, the sound of the voice is central to the dangerous aura of the character.  Tom Hardy demonstrated the menace of his voice twice, famously as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (although his voice was clearly altered in post-production, so maybe that shouldn’t count) and then in the lower profile Lawless, in which he pulled off the remarkable feat of appearing dangerous while wearing a grey woollen cardigan.  A key element of Hardy’s menace was in his voice, a low, indistinct mumble that nonetheless conveyed clear authority and willingness to do harm.  In Skyfall, Javier Bardem’s almost liquid tones emphasised his relaxed attitude towards his murderous enterprises.  McConaughey’s sardonic vocalisations were perpetually chilling, especially as he spoke in much the same tone whether discussing his assassination fee or about serving tuna casserole.

Killer Joe is based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, and its final scene especially retains the script’s stage origin.  The escalating horror of this scene demonstrates the script’s conviction to deep levels of depravity, and Friedkin’s commitment to the story is demonstrated by the maintenance of the scene’s length.  Films based upon modern plays often shorten scene length, either through outright cutting of the script or fast editing.  When the length is retained, as in Killer Joe and also Doubt, the scenes are noticeably longer than those written specifically for the screen.  The maintenance of the final scene’s length increases the tension and indeed the horror of what may be the worst family dinner ever.  The commitment to the revolting events that unfold aids the power of the scene, and yet a twisted sense of humour is still present.  This is integral to Killer Joe’s success as a piece of cinema: the film presents humiliation and abuse, but with just the right level of wit.  Not laugh out loud funny, but still amusing if you have a strong stomach.

If Friedkin is a known if somewhat diminished directorial star, Gareth Evans is an utter unknown.  This anonymity worked to his advantage in his contribution to cinema this year, the Indonesian The Raid.  Having never heard of Evans until buzz about The Raid started, I was not sure what to expect.  What I got was the most blistering, dizzying, dazzling, delirious action film I had seen in a long time.  The combating characters flew as light as feathers yet struck with bone-crunching force – I lost count of the number of times I winced, ducked and said “Ow!  Ow!  Ow!”

I am not well-versed in martial arts cinema, The Raid being one of only a smattering of such films that make it into mainstream western cinemas.  It was also the only foreign language film I saw at the cinema in 2012.  I am keen on all films, but foreign language fare tends to be restricted to art house cinemas, and at least in Norwich, the art house cinema is more expensive than one of the multiplexes.  Unfortunate but true.  The upside is that a film like The Raid felt wonderfully fresh and different.  This is not to disparage western action cinema, which can provide visceral thrills very well as The Avengers and Skyfall did this year, but The Raid added some variety.  Whereas the wuxia genre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers provide balletic myths of martial arts beauty, The Raid was down, dirty, brutal and unforgiving, combining physical stunts with blazing guns and swinging machetes, to create an immersive and enthralling experience.

The Raid’s power is a combination of martial arts choreography and filmmaking.  I would describe the choreography as exquisitely channelled chaos: fists and feet flying in all directions could be chaotic and confusing (and in reality probably would be), but with the right choreography, it becomes a marvel of organisation.  This can be presented as something elegant and even serene, especially if slowed down as in the films of Zhang Yimou.  Evans, however, keeps the action fast and the cutting intimate, conveying a sense of velocity and impact.  As I have discussed previously, tension is key to action sequences, and build-up is crucial to tension.  Tension in The Raid comes in a variety of forms.  At one point, the protagonist Rama (Iko Uwais) hides in a wall cavity with an injured comrade.  The gangsters searching for them repeatedly stab a machete into the wall, only just missing our heroes.  This scene is extremely tense, the tension exacerbated through extreme close ups of the characters’ faces as well as the massive blade.  During actual fight sequences, the combat is continuous yet tension is increased as the violence escalates.  Why punch your opponent once when you can do so seven times and slam their head into a wall, just to make sure they’re incapacitated?  Several stand-out fight sequences are not only highly involving, but carry major stakes as these are important characters, particularly Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) VS Jaka (Joe Taslim) as well as Mad Dog VS Rama and Andi (Donny Alamsyah).  These fights go on far longer than human endurance would actually allow, but realism is not on the agenda here.  The agenda is to show people fighting in creative and elaborate ways, and make us feel every punch, kick, head-butt and blow from an improvised weapon (my personal favourite: a shattered strip light).

The Raid could be criticised for having a plot summed up in the tagline: “1 ruthless crime lord.  20 elite cops.  30 floors of chaos.”  This is unfair, as The Raid also features betrayal, corruption, loyalty, abjection and duty.  While its main selling point is incredibly talented practitioners of pencak silat, The Raid has the bonus of an engaging protagonist in Rama, some sympathetic characters, and a villain in Tama Riyada (Ray Sahetapy), complete with psychotic henchman Mad Dog, worthy of any Bond or superhero film.  While many of the characters are cannon fodder, I nonetheless cared when the cops were hurt or killed, because Evans made sure to keep the PAIN on-screen.  Visceral cinema can simply draw one along with the action, much as Joss Whedon does in his bravura long takes like the climactic battle in The Avengers.  Evans’ approach is more brutal, as the impact of each blow is clear.  Sound adds a great deal as well, and the smack of fists and feet, not to mention the burst of skin and the breaking of bones, aid the film’s immersive thrill.  While 2012 featured many stunning sequences, nothing matched the sheer physical thwack of The Raid.

The Raid