Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Captain PhillipsTitle: “Captain Phillips”

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writers: Billy Ray

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In 2009, the Maersk Alabama, a large cargo ship, was hijacked by Somali pirates while traveling around the Horn of Africa. After getting some money off the ship, they took Captain Richard Phillips hostage aboard the Alabama’s lifeboat, which led to a lengthy stand off with the U.S. military, eventually resulting in his rescue.

Based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea, “Captain Phillips” is an intense thriller based on the true story of this hijacking. It manages to be suspenseful even though we know the ending already, which seems to be a problem with some films lately.

The acting is done well. Tom Hanks turns in his usually good performance, although his accent, while possibly accurate as I’ve never actually heard the real Richard Phillips speak, gets annoying after a while. The real breakout star of this film is Barkhad Abdi, who plays Abduwali Muse, the leader of the pirates. Wow, where has this guy been hiding? He manages to be authorative, friendly, and creepy all at the same time, as though we think we can tell what he’s thinking but we’re not quite sure. While this might be a bad thing for an actor in other roles, it was spot on here. We’re scared of him because he seems unpredictable, and he makes a great villain. Abdi is destined to become a star if he stays in this industry.

The movie is tightly cut. Having read part of the book, I can tell you that a lot is cut from it for this movie, but a lot needed to be cut. We’re not bogged down with tiny details of ship operations or Phillips’ background, but we don’t need to be. We see what we need to see for the sake of this story and this movie.

If I have any further complaints, it’s that the pace can be uneven. While the film is tightly edited, the film’s pace can alternate between intensity and boring lulls. I don’t expect there to be intense action all the time and I understand the need to give the audience a breather now and then, but sometimes the difference seems too far apart. Fortunately, this isn’t that prevalent a problem and only happens in a couple of instances. The film also starts out kind slow, but if you stick with it, you’ll get your thrill ride.

I understand that there’s been some controversy regarding the accuracy of this film. I’m not going to try to pass judgment on its accuracy, and I’m only trying to examine the merits of this film on its own. Most films based on true events are dramatized fairly heavily, but I will also say that the accusations came out of the New York Post, so…yeah…we might want to take that with a big grain of salt.

“Captain Phillips” is an intense thrill ride that will satisfy with a tight story. If nothing else, it has brought the talent of Barkhad Abdi to public attention, and I look forward to seeing his work in the future.

“Captain Phillips” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

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Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers ClubTitle: “Dallas Buyers Club”

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ron Woodroof is a Texas cowboy who has old school views until he is diagnosed with AIDS and given 30 days to live. This is 1985, so treatments were still being sought out at this time. After finding himself unable to get the potentially life-saving drug AZT (although this drug has a number of problems of its own), he crosses the border into Mexico and meets a doctor who can give him access to large amounts of this and other life-saving medications that can improve the lives of AIDS patients but are not available in the U.S. due to a lack of FDA approval. So he begins bringing the drugs over the border and forms the Dallas Buyers Club, where people pay for membership but get the drugs for free, with the idea of skirting prescription drug laws, which doesn’t necessarily work well legally as he finds out.

In what could be considered a potential followup to last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” “Dallas Buyers Club” is based on a true story from this era about how the AIDS epidemic was handled and how large pharmaceutical corporations tried to cash in on ineffective treatments. It’s a story that was touched on the aforementioned documentary but explored in more detail here.

The main things that carries this film is the acting. First, Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof as a bit of an arrogant ass. However, I heard some people who knew the real Ron Woodroof when he was alive and they said that, well, he really was kind of an ass. McConaughey practically ruined his health for this role, dropping 47 pounds and being seen having trouble standing on his own. That takes commitment, even if he’s not the first person to do this. But the sacrifice paid off. McConaughey played the role so well and he looks so different. Secondly, Jared Leto plays the role of Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS who befriends the homophobic Woodroof. Again, Leto reportedly lost 30 pounds for this role, and under all the makeup, I actually wasn’t sure it was him when I first saw him. He loses himself in the role and makes it incredibly believable.

Story-wise, this film tells a solid story, although at times it’s a little confusing. We’re not always sure how much time is really passing between scenes, which is likely due to some editing trouble. However, when you’re dealing with people who have a limited amount of time left, as well as drug trials and the like, knowing the timing of events is important. The story can occasionally drag, and I didn’t like the way the film ended before an actual resolution was found. It basically ends at one point and we’re told the eventual outcome through a screen card that simply tells us what happened. Kind of a fail there. It was like they didn’t have the budget or desire to keep the story going.

With incredible performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and a solid true story, “Dallas Buyers Club” is a great film that should be watched to study how one of the great plagues of our time was handled so poorly. However, the film gets bogged down by questionable editing and a poor ending that detract from the film’s overall effect. I still like the film a lot, but with reservations.

“Dallas Buyers Club” earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Gravity

GravityTitle: “Gravity”

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the interest of full disclosure and to make sure that people fully understand my take on this movie, I need to mention that I saw the 2D version of this film, not the 3D version. I’ll explain in a moment why that’s important.

“Gravity” is a disaster film that follows one person for most of the movie. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and rookie astronaut sent into space to install a new instrument to a satellite. When a satellite is destroyed, the debris sets off a chain reaction the showers their orbit with high-velocity debris, severely damaging their shuttle and equipment, leaving one person dead, and Ryan and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) stranded. Thus begins a desperate attempt to try to return to Earth safely as everything seems to go wrong.

To start, the cinematography is brilliant. But this is also why I wanted to mention that I didn’t see the 3D version. Right from an opening shot of a loose screw floating towards the screen, it is very obvious that this film is intended to be watched in 3D, but it can be distracting when watching it in 2D. Now, even in 2D, this film is stunning, even dizzying, so I can imagine that motion sickness is a major problem with the 3D film. But it can actually feel like you’re floating in a zero gravity environment with the combination of cinematography and visual effects.

As for the acting, the fact that Sandra Bullock is alone on screen for most of the movie is a difficult task, and one that she takes on and nails amazingly well. It feels like we’re watching a rookie astronaut desperate to get back to Earth. And she’s fantastic. It’s honestly stunning that it’s taken this long for her to get this meaty a role in this strong a film.

Admittedly, it’s not completely perfect, mostly when you look at the technical aspects. There are some odd things, such as the way Sandra Bullock’s hair doesn’t float quite right, or the fact that the space stations would not be orbiting that close together. That’s the science geek in me talking, but I’m sure that someone who knows more about this could nitpick it for you. Also, by the end, the story disasters get a little excessive. In a story where everything that can go wrong does, it can start to get annoying and a little unbelievable, and we want to say, “We get the point already!” Oddly, it was another Sandra Bullock movie, Speed, that had this problem as well.

However, what we get is still an intense film, with great visual effects, cinematography, and incredible acting. This is an awesome achievement. It’s a shame that this film will likely get labeled by some people as “science fiction” rather than “drama.” This is a great film that should be seen by everyone.

I also want to add that, to add a new dimension to this movie, a short film, Aningaaq, has been released and is available to watch online at the link. It depicts the other side of the radio conversation that Ryan Stone has one point during the movie.

“Gravity” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Her

HerTitle: “Her”

Director: Spike Jonze

Writer: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

A light and touching comedy, “Her” follows Theodore, a lonely writer going through a divorce who decides to upgrade his computer operating system to one of the first interactive artificial intelligences. As he gets to know Samantha (the A.I.), he realizes that he begins to develop feelings for her, something which he finds out is not that unusual and that others are developing relationships with A.I.’s as well. However, as Samantha begins to evolve and as she doesn’t have a body, things begin to change in their relationship, which has to evolve as Samantha and Theodore each begin to change.

This movie, while lightly comical like Spike Jonze’s other films (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) is actually a very deep look at relationships in general. The typical idea of relationships is that they are static entities. But in reality they are living and growing as the participants live and grow. “Her” take this concept to the extreme, essentially “birthing” Samantha as a fully grown entity of sorts and having her evolve beyond the ability of human understanding. Because of this, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship changes and evolves dramatically and quickly during the course of the movie, showing an extreme version of the fundamental problems that relationships can go through as they change.

But it’s still a comedy. Not a slapstick comedy, but a comedy. It’s an intelligent comedy that is acted very well by Joaquin Phoenix (who seems to be redeeming himself after the “I’m Still Here” fiasco) and Scarlett Johansson, even though we only hear Johansson’s voice. Yet the relationship they develop is believable, along with other character’s reactions to it, from acceptance to denigration, much as interracial relationships used to be handled (and still are in some places).

The problem is that because it involves a computer A.I., I can see some people labeling this movie as science fiction, which is completely unfair. It also has a very pastely production design and some odd fashion choices that some can find and have found distracting. This is a relationship comedy, through and through. It’s touching, it’s genuine, and it’s thoughtful in ways that few films manage to truly be. And it’s still a comedy. I know I keep saying that, but it’s worth the reminder.

“Her” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Nebraska

NebraskaTitle: “Nebraska”

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Bob Nelson

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Woody Grant is an old man with a history of alcoholism and is now suffering from dementia. When he receives a scam letter telling him that he has won one million dollars, he decides that he wants to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to personally collect his “winnings.” His son David, knowing this isn’t real, decides that he will drive his father to Lincoln personally. On the way, they stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne to visit his brother, and there David finds out more about his father’s past than he ever knew, since his father is a man of few words, and they discover who their friends really are.

“Nebraska” is a wonderful and touching film about a son discovering who his father really is as that man slowly slips away. Veteran character actor Bruce Dern finally gets his day in the lead role of Woody Grant, and, oh boy, does he knock it out of the park. June Squibb is wonderfully comical as Woody’s wife, Kate, who never stops talking and doesn’t seem to have any filter. Despite having a bit of a cantankerous relationship, it’s clear that they still care for each other.

The choice to shoot this film in black and white is interesting. Shooting in black and white is an incredibly difficult feat, as the lighting and camera control become so important to provide a contrast usually provided by color. But I can understand the choice. This is a character-centric movie. And constantly flooding the screen with views of colorful sweeping plains (this is Nebraska, afterall) behind the characters would be distracting. But it also gives the movie an older feel. We’re looking into Woody’s past, and the black and white visuals give us a feeling that we are seeing something old, as well gives the film a minimalist tone.

This is a touching and funny film that has deep layers despite its initial stark appearance. Alexander Payne has a talent for making light comedies that can still strike a serious note, and it’s worth the time to watch this film.

“Nebraska” earns 4 out of 5 stars.