2014 First-Time Viewings: February Week 1

Captain PhillipsCaptain Phillips

I think I’ve always liked the idea of a Paul Greengrass film more than final result that always ends up onscreen. The veteran filmmaker has made a career of tackling touchy sociopolitical subject matter through relatively mainstream fare; take a look at Green Zone or his contributions to the Bourne series and you’ll find visceral films that aren’t afraid to mix in some commentary with their action. That blending is exactly what I like to see from directors who make their name primarily through genre pictures, but Greengrass’ filmmaking instincts hardly ever feel to me to be up to the task.  His last handful of films have found him operating in action-thriller mode, with the larger emphasis on action, a mode of moviemaking with which he’s never seemed entirely comfortable. There were enough appealing ideas in those films, but they felt like showcases for his weaknesses as a filmmaker rather than his strengths. Which brings us to his latest film, a story that seems better-tailored to bring out Greengrass’ best.

A couple qualities elevate Captain Phillips a step above Greengrass’ more inconsistent past work. The first is that this is predominantly a thriller, not an action film. It’s a small distinction to make, but an important one; Greengrass’ handheld, up-close-and-personal aesthetic is better suited for scenes of quiet tension than scenes of aggressive bombast. The second is that the film is anchored by two strong performances from Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Most films would emphasize the big star over the newcomer, but Greengrass gives equal weight to both of these people, emphasizing that there really are no villains in this situation, just people brought together by the opportunities given to them. The evenhandedness is appreciated, but it also exposes some flaws in the other characterizations, particularly in the supporting pirate roles. One of them is a young kid who seems there only to spark sympathy, while another is a loose cannon, there to add extra tension and unpredictability to the film’s final third. The need to rely on these kinds of character shortcuts holds back Captain Phillips from becoming something great. I think though with this film Greengrass has finally found something approaching a comfort zone, and I would expect his efforts in the future to hew close to this one while continuing to show increased confidence in other areas. 7/10.

Zatoichi's RevengeZatoichi’s Revenge

The tenth film in the Zatoichi series. When I wrote down my thoughts on the film that came right before this one, Adventures Of Zatoichi, I remarked on a trend the series was exhibiting, where the best entries were immediately followed up with the least remarkable entries. Well, now I’m starting to notice another, more positive trend: the series is good at bouncing back into good graces. It happened with Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold after Zatoichi On The Road, and now it’s happened again with Zatoichi’s Revenge.  The film opens with the blind swordsman returning to the town where he was taught his significantly-less-deadly trade as a professional masseur. Upon his arrival, however, he learns that his old teacher has been murdered and the deceased’s daughter has been forced to move into the local brothel. The uneasy situation in the town does not sit right with Zatoichi, and so he sets out to rescue the girl from her new surroundings and uncover the details behind his teacher’s sudden death. It goes without saying that he leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.

The biggest takeaway I had from watching Zatoichi’s Revenge is that the filmmakers had clearly got their hands on some Sergio Leone westerns. The Italian filmmaker’ s influence can be felt all throughout this film, from the more stylized framing and composition of scenes to the score from frequent series composer Akira Ifukube, which takes clear inspiration from Ennio Morricone in its use of Spanish guitar and harmonica on top of the more traditional musical palette. The similarities don’t stop there though: brief flashback sequences play out in sepia tone, and the fight sequences are given much more time to breathe, a shift away from the efficient bloodletting of past entries (the highlight here is a lengthy tracking shot of the blind swordsman walking through town and striking down everyone who unwisely comes into his path). Much like Zatoichi And The Chest Of Gold, Zatoichi’s Revenge is lacking in the emotional element that has driven the best films in the series. But if you’re just in the mood for a stylish and entertaining adventure, this would be a more than suitable selection. 7/10.

The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

It takes a decent while before the feeling of déjà vu disappears from James Ponsoldt’s 2013 coming-of-age drama. You’re introduced at the beginning to the hero of the story, popular high-school goofball Sutter, and you can’t help but see a little Lloyd Dobler in him, albeit in a slightly more obnoxious form. You watch as Sutter stumbles his way into the good graces of the pretty but introverted bookworm Aimee, and now you’re really starting to wonder. “Hold up for a minute, isn’t this Say Anything…? I’m not sure how much more patience I’m going to grant this.” That The Spectacular Now is able to eventually distance itself from that monolith and achieve its own thing, and achieve it well, is one of the great reliefs from the last year of film.

Ponsoldt’s film really breaks from Cameron Crowe’s ’80s teen classic in its handling of the central romance.  Unlike in Say Anything…, where there was never much of a question of the intimate connection between John Cusack and Ione Skye, the pairing in this film never feels like a match made in heaven. It isn’t even clear if the two of them are entirely good influences on each other (she starts to follow his lead when it comes to excessive alcohol consumption). But even though the relationship is flawed and not likely to lead anywhere, they help each other recognize parts of themselves they never knew existed before. The fact that Sutter and Aimee are not soul mates helps the film transition smoothly into its final third, which places increasingly less emphasis on the romance and more on Sutter’s personal awakening. The film is really his story; he’s the one we follow throughout the entire drama, watching his progression from goofball slacker/burgeoning alcoholic (like Simon Pegg’s Gary King in The World’s End, this is the kind of guy who will always look back on his high school years as his best years) to someone with more awareness of himself and his potential. It’s not the smoothest road: a car accident seems thrown in to jolt the viewer, so little impact does it have on the rest of the story, and scenes of Sutter struggling with grade problems feel superfluous when he successfully graduates only a handful of scenes later. But it is certainly one worth traveling. 8/10.

Trailers/Clips:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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