Mini-Reviews: Captain Phillips, Machete Kills, Runner Runner
Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is the rarest of gifts: a thriller steeped in humanity. Based on the 2009 raid of the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, it’s a triumph of studio filmmaking with a deceptive simplicity that unfolds to reveal surprising complexity, and its palpable tension caused my fingernails to mysteriously grow shorter during its runtime. Greengrass was clearly an inspired choice, as no action director alive so effortlessly creates the semblance of realism, and he’s never done it better than with this film. Tom Hanks also gives the best performance of his career; it turns out his intensely earnest Everyman vibe, usually captured behind the sheen of slick Hollywood fare, is perfectly suited for Greengrass’ grounded style. After an astonishingly intense start to the action, the tension somehow continues to steadily rise throughout, leading to one of the most emotional and satisfying endings to a film you’re likely to see this year.
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Machete certainly lives up to the title in Machete Kills. Blood flies freely, intestines spill, and heads roll across the screen. However, they also could have called the film Machete Drags; the 107-minute run-time grinds this Robert Rodriguez grindhouse sequel to a brutal pace, where despite all the mayhem on screen, it all feels like inconsequential filler until you get to the next looney tunes death scene. The first Machete stayed fairly localized to the US/Mexican border, but here, Rodriguez blows up the scale to a global level (seriously), thus removing any of the subversive pointed commentary the first had and replacing it with, well, more mindless action. The effectiveness of the film varies scene to scene, depending on which actors are present. Actors like Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins, and William Sadler are seasoned scenery-chewers, who know how to take these lines and deliver them with conviction. Others simply say their lines as heavily laced with irony as imaginable (Sofia Vergara and Lady Gaga the chief offenders here). The main issue simply resides in the execution: a Machete franchise is something that I fully support… in theory. However, I have no interest in seeing another bloated smirkfest like Machete Kills. The intermittent laughs aren’t worth the time.
Runner Runner is a peculiar case. It’s directed by Brad Furman, who with The Lincoln Lawyer showed he is capable of directing genre thrillers, and it’s written by Brian Koppelman, who has written several good mainstream films. Yet this movie is so bland, so lacking in character, that it feels like it’s the type that took every studio and test screening note until nothing remotely objectionable– or interesting– was left on screen. It follows a Princeton grad student (Justin Timberlake) who confronts a online poker tycoon (Ben Affleck) and begins working for him. He quickly realizes that he’s in trouble, but that happens long after you realize you’re in trouble for being in this theater. There’s nothing inherently bad about the film, except that it’s unmemorable in every way. Only three things stand out: 1. Ben Affleck has one or two throwaway lines at the end of scenes that sound ad-libbed (and stylistically different from the rest of the film). 2. The hero, a compulsive gambler, is named Rich Furst. 3. Yul Vazquez appears, a character actor who is great in everything I’ve seen him in. Nothing else in this film merits discussion. It’s a shame when generally smart and creative people get together and put out something so blah, but I suppose that’s a textbook example of what the studio system can make happen.