Tag: Oscars

The one issue with movies based upon real life events is that they are subject to the constraints of the real human lives they are depicting.

In the case of Captain Phillips, we follow alongside Capt. Richard Phillips as his ship, the Maersk Alabama, is attacked by Somali pirates. The depiction of the events that occurred is top notch, dynamic and entirely engrossing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the characterization of Phillips in this movie.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I am trying to knock Tom Hanks down a peg, as I really am a huge fan of many of his performance. In Phillips though, it doesn’t seem like he has a lot to work with.

This partially comes down to the story itself. Phillips spends the majority of the movie in a reactionary role, which is to be expected with him being a hostage. But, even prior to that, there isn’t much time given to flesh out more dimensions of who Phillips is. The audience doesn’t get much of an opportunity to see beneath the surface.

This comes down to the writing, either the script itself or the source material they had to pull from. But Phillips comes off as a journalistic, impersonal representation within the film. If more leeway had been given to allow a bit more emotion or insight into the character early on, it would help the audience to buy into him as the protagonist much more. And it would have given Hanks that much more fodder to use in creating the character.

Without this, the points later in the film, where we see Phillips break emotionally or attempt to connect to the audience, seem forced. It doesn’t seem to build naturally, it instead just erupts and leaves us asking “Why?”

Note: Storyline spoilers to follow; skip down to the bold text to continue.

One prime example of this is when Phillips decides to attempt to escape from the life boat. Given that Phillips was so calm and collected an controlled leading up to this point, it seemed completely out of character for him to take the risk to shove the armed pirate and jump into the ocean and swim for it.

Now, I know they are restricted to the real-life occurrences, but more needed to be done to show Phillips building to taking this brash action, especially when he knew that the situation would be coming to a close soon anyway. Not enough was layered in the characterization prior to this to allow the action to make sense.

Contrasting the plain representation of Phillips is the dynamic portrayal we see if the three pirates holding him hostage, especially that of the leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi).

With the pirates, more screen time is devoted in the beginning of the film to explain how they are forced into hijacking ships than is devoted to developing Phillips. Muse especially stands out, attempting to lead his crew to a huge payoff in order to earn less attention from the warlords demanding they earn more money.

As a newcomer onto the scene, Abdi does a phenomenal job of playing a character that should be despised, based upon our prior knowledge of the situation, and with skill turns it into one of the more sympathetic and believable characters in the film.

In fact, the one thing that Captain Phillips does extremely well is to turn what many believed to have been a black and white situation and display the various levels of grey within it from the four main antagonists. We have the previously described leader Muse. Along with him is Najee (Faysal Ahmed), who disagrees with Muse’s more lackadaisical approach to dealing with Phillips and wishes to command the situation more force, Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), whose injuries are tended to by Phillips and ends up sympathizing with him to some extent, and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali).

It is through these additional characters that we start to build understanding with. From the lifeboat sections onward, they also bring out more of the characterization of Phillips, which is much needed.

Spoiler-free from here on out.

Overall, the action in the film is handled extremely well. Director Paul Greengrass’ pedigre (the latter Bourne films and United 93) comes out in full force. At times, the shaky camera feeling can get a little in the way, but it wasn’t every completely incapacitating.  The pace of the action sequences is very sound, going from one piece to another and building suspense and intensity deftly to the climax of the various scenes.

The film does hit a few lulls at points, dwelling too long on conversations that could be more succinct and too the point, helping to keep that forward momentum moving towards the conclusion.

All in all, Captain Phillips is a solid film, aside from the title character. The fact that a good amount of character is missing from the way the character of Phillips was written almost gives credence to some of the discussions following the film that the man in real life does not live up to the legend surrounding him. If those pieces of character were left out by Philips in the writing of his memoir, that would actually explain completely why his characterization in the film feels so incomplete.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 7 Stars – Meh

Buy It: If you are a huge fan of films like Zero Dark Thirty or United 93 that give a bare-bones re-telling of real world events or you thoroughly enjoyed the book the film is based upon.

Rent It: If you were interested in the story back when it happened or you are interested in seeing another, unexpected side of modern piracy.

Skip It: If the only pirates you care about are Jolly Roger or Johnny Depp or  you cannot stand films that have poorly defined lead characters.

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Welcome to Oscar Week on the Hobby Box Blog! This week, as we scramble to watch as many of the Best Picture Nominated films as possible, the goal is to give you a review of the top contenders, leading up to our prediction of who will win the major categories on Sunday night!

So, we start off our first Movie Monday (admittedly a day late) right by kicking off Oscar Week with a review of American Hustle.

American Hustle – Review

One of the most beloved sub-genres in film has to be what I would call the “caper” film – being pulled off by a group of two-bit crooks kept together by the circumstances forced upon them. At its roots, American Hustle strives to exemplify the path paved by the giants of that sub-genre: The StingPulp FictionOceans Eleven, and Goodfellas.

In fact, Hustle has been compared in many ways to the latter film by many. In this, David O. Russell has pulled a con far larger than the characters within the film. This isn’t to say it isn’t a good film – I actually enjoyed it quite a bit – but, it isn’t quite at the level to be compared with the previously mentioned movies or in the same sentence as Oscar Best Picture.

American Hustle takes us to 1970’s New Jersey, where confidence schemes, bribery and corruption aren’t crimes, they are a way of life. At the center of it all is Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), an experienced con-artist struggling (unsuccessfully) to life a life of crime and a “normal” family life at the same time. He is partnered with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Richie Dimaso (Bradley Cooper) and at the start of the film, they are prepping to meet their mark, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

Note: Slight spoilers begin here. If you are fine with learning a bit more about the early part of the film keep reading. If not, skip to the end for the synopsis and rating.

I must preface my next comment by saying that audience doesn’t need to (and sometimes probably shouldn’t) always know everything that is happening in a given scene and why. Leaving a bit up for question can sometimes be a good thing. But the first two scenes of Hustle end up being a rushed and confusing few minutes. Things go wrong, but ultimately, the audience doesn’t completely understand how it went wrong, why it is significant and exactly what is really going on.

I will give credit where it is due, the introductory scenes do help to flesh out the basics of the characters – Bale is the sympathetically pathetic lead, Cooper is the heavy that tries to control the situation while not knowing how to and Adams is the calming, supportive force needed to hold the operation together.

Aside from that feel for the characters, there is no way for the audience to get a good grasp on what exactly is going on. Ultimately overcompensating for this deficiency, the movie then delves into about 30-some minutes of exposition in order to explain the complex relationships between the three characters and introduce Lawrence as Rosenfeld’s off-kilter wife.

In fact, the movie spends so much time with the exposition that when it catches back up to the beginning, the audience has forgotten that the meeting with Polito was where the film started. It is an interesting device, though it ends up a tad clunky in execution, falling short Tarantino’s masterful execution of these techniques (which the film seemed to be attempting to riff off of).

Fortunately, the film hits the ground running from that point forward, and the conflict between the characters and situations really do help to ramp the film up from that point forward.

Note: More plot spoilers to follow; if you haven’t seen the film, it may be best to jump to the end now.

In fact, that very next scene where Irving works to convince Carmine introduces the most compelling relationship and conflict within the film. In fact, the chemistry between Bale and Renner in each of their scenes is fantastic, building that magnetism between the two characters that the audience knows will ultimately come crashing apart in the ending.

I’m actually quite surprised that Renner didn’t get mentioned in nominations for Supporting Actor over Cooper for this film. Granted, Cooper’s portrayal of Richie Dimaso is solid, but from a character perspective really doesn’t develop as much from the beginning of the film to the end and is quite static compared to the highs and lows Renner experiences in portraying Polito.

In fact, I really think the only reason Lawrence and Cooper are nominated is because if their experience in last years Silver Linings Playbook, which was also directed by Russell. Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s imbalanced wife is fun and interesting, but nothing ground breaking. In fact, some of the more emotional scenes with her do seem quite forced and top heavy, which turns the character into a less believable caricature.

Any Adams’ portrayal of Sydney Prosser is phenomenal. With her character stuck in the middle of all of the conflicts, she does a phenomenal job of showing the complexity and internal struggle of being the one character that constantly has to maintain the con while pretending to be someone else, the well off British Lady Edith Greensly, whose “banking connections” in London allow for them to con numerous ne’er do wells of their money. Even down to the drops of accent every now and again at pivotal moments, we see the internal struggle that comes from having to not be yourself but a character at all times.

In the end, the audience feels a mixture of emotions – happiness that Irving and Sydney come out on top, but sadness for what happens to Polito when a he had is the best of intentions for what he was doing.

Spoiler Free from here on out.

All-in-all, Hustle is a fun movie that gives you a slightly different take on living a life of crime. However, at no point does it take that next step forward to the level of greatness found in the likes of Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas. The fact that Russell and Sony were able to build that comparison just goes to show you that they have a little bit of Irving Rosenfeld’s hustling expertise.

Rating: 5 Stars out of 7 Stars – Good

Buy It: If you enjoy a more cerebral con scheme or you really enjoy watching Amy Adams’ cleavage. I mean, really enjoy it.

Rent It: If you are a fan of Bale, Renner and/or Adams or you are looking for a movie with complex character conflicts.

Skip It: If you can’t stand Bradley Cooper or you are sick of ’70s crime dramas that are not as good as Goodfellas.

Am I spot on in my evaluation? Or does it seem like I am as confused as Richie Dimaso? Let me know your thoughts on the film in the comments below.