Captain Phillips

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog know that, every time I write a film critique, I notify the readers that the views I express are solely my own, and in no way must ANYONE feel obliged to agree with them. This week especially, I wish to reiterate that the readers do NOT have to agree with ANY of my opinions. In fact, I would rather like it if they didn’t. What I have to say about this week’s movie will be highly unpopular with some people, and I would absolutely love it if these individuals would come forth and explain, in a calm and collected manner, exactly why they disagree with me. Many people don’t realize it but, debate, even over small things like movies, is extremely significant. What debate does is offer people a healthy and exciting means through which to express their views. It allows all sides of a issue to be heard and, generally, facilitates the solving of that issue. It is something which we, as citizens of a nation where free speech is guaranteed by law, are extremely fortunate to be able to engage in, and if you will do me the great honor of reading and commenting on my review, I believe that we will be able to partake in that great fortune.

Anyway, the subject of today’s critique is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the film is a biopic about the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama. It was only released last Friday, and yet it already holds a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 82% approval rating on Meteoritic. Every review I’ve read of it has been positive. Rumors are even beginning to circulate that it will be nominated for, and win, several Oscars. Strangest of all is the fact that I didn’t like it. Wait! What? Yes. You heard right. I, Nathan Liu, aspiring author and amateur film critic, did not enjoy Captain Phillips. Did I hate it? No, not really. Rarely, if ever, have I found a movie with nothing to like in it, and Captain Phillips was not one of those movies. I liked the fact that my favorite actor–Tom Hanks–is the star. I liked the fact that there are several scenes shot in foreign languages–Somali and Arabic. I liked the fact that all the actors portraying Somali pirates are actually from Somalia. (I can’t even begin to describe to you how frustrating it is when I see a big-budget American movie set in another country, and yet none of the actors are actually from that country. Yes, Invictus and Hotel Rwanda, I’m talking about you.) Yet despite all these redeeming qualities, Captain Phillips is still weak in several areas, and it is these areas of weakness which I would like to focus on for the duration of this review.

The first thing I don’t like about Captain Phillips is the dialogue. It’s clunky, cliche, and in some cases, flat out devoid of emotion. About seventy percent of it boils down to the words “No,” “Don’t,” “Stop,” and “Please.” Now granted, seventy percent of the film focuses on the interactions between an American Captain (Hanks), and a group of Somali pirates whose English can only be described as broken. It therefore makes sense that the person who wrote the screenplay had the actors use simple words in these scenes. In reality, these people were probably only able to communicate on a very basic level. But the pirates’ dialogue isn’t really what I took issue with. What I truly took issue with was the dialogue that unfolded between characters who were native English speakers. I’m only a Senior in High School, and yet even I could have written more natural sounding lines than those that made it into this movie. Let me give you an example. In the film’s opening scene, Hanks and his wife are shown talking as they drive their car to the airport. Their conversation concerns normal, unimpressive things–work, their kids, etc. The screenwriter most likely chose to start the film off with this scene in order to give Hanks’s character, Captain Phillips, some backstory. The situation that Phillips finds himself in later on in the movie is pretty extraordinary, so it makes sense that the screenwriter should want him to look as ordinary as possible. If Phillips seems like your average, likable Joe, than the audience is more likely to have an emotional response when something bad happens to him. But the thing is, the dialogue in the opening scene does NOT make Phillips look like your average, likable Joe. It TRIES, very hard, to do this, but it is precisely this trying that undermines its ability to do so. I’ve taken several creative writing courses, and one thing that all my teachers have told me is to “show, don’t tell.” When you TELL the audience or the readers what to think, you distance them from the story and, therefore, decrease their enjoyment of it. There is a LOT of telling in the film’s opening scene. Phillips TELLS us that he thinks his son should work harder in school. He TELLS us that it is hard to get a job in this economy. He TELLS us that each voyage he embarks on is harder than the last. What all this TELLING does is make the character Phillips look like a fake person trying to come off as relatable. There are at least a dozen, more creative, ways in which the screenwriter could have conveyed all the aforementioned information about Philips to the audience. For example, Phillips thinks his son should work harder in school, so why not have a short scene in which he argues with his son about homework? Now, I understand that including a scene like this would make an already gratuitously long movie even longer, but I still think that the movie would be better overall. A film isn’t nearly as interesting to watch if it has crappy dialogue.

The second thing I don’t like about Captain Phillips is its cinematography. The whole movie is basically just one giant close-up of a person’s face after another. The director most likely did this in order to enhance the intensity of certain moments–If a character is frightened, then we, the audience, must be able to see their pupils right as they dilate. We must be able to see the sweat right as it forms on their brow. Also, the majority of the movie takes place on a cramped lifeboat, so perhaps the director thought that all these close ups might enhance the viewer’s sense of claustrophobia. Unfortunately for the director, these close-ups had the exact opposite effect on me. While I was watching the movie, I didn’t feel like I was trapped inside a tiny space with dangerous criminals. What I truly felt was A) visual overload at having to stare at something up close for so long, and B) disgust at the fact that  I could see every roll of fat on Tom Hanks’s neck. An image of a face doesn’t tell you anything about where that face actually is. A face could be in the corner of a lifeboat, or it could be in the front row of a massive auditorium. If the director truly wished to make the viewer feel as though he or she was in a tight space, then perhaps he should have used more creative shots, like birds-eye-views, to show how small the lifeboat really is. If he wished to convey anxiety or instability in a character, he could have used shaky shots or warped focus. All in all, what this lack of variation in terms of cinematography did was make the film look amateurish, as well as seriously decrease my enjoyment of the picture.

So there you have it. All the things I didn’t like about Captain Phillips. I’ve paved the way for a healthy debate. All you need do is respond. Now, I bet some of you are wondering, why does he want a debate so bad? Simple. Because debates help problems get solved, and we do have a serious problem in this country in terms of the quality of our cinema. We need to raise our standards for subsequent generations.

Alright, I’m signing off for today. Thank you so much if you  read this all the way to the end.

Nathan Liu.

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Why Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game” Brought Me To Tears

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Have you ever walked into a movie theatre thinking, “I’m  gonna like this one. I just know it.” and come out thinking, “Wow! That movie really sucked?” If you haven’t, then let me give you a little piece of advice. Never, and I mean NEVER, go into a movie with expectations. All you’re doing is setting yourself up for disappointment. I did that with Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and, believe me, the whole affair didn’t end well. Then again, its hard not to establish pre-conceived notions of a movie when you only know what trailers and reviews tell you. That’s precisely what happened with me and The Crying Game. You see, from all that I’d heard, it seemed like an absolutely perfect picture for me. Every review I read told me that it was politically charged, cerebral, semi-historic, and set in another country, all of which are huge pluses in my book. It even won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, so there was no need for me to worry about it being poorly written. Yet despite all this, The Crying Game failed to entertain me, and I ended up walking away from it feeling rather disappointed.

For those of you who don’t know, The Crying Game is a 1992 psychological thriller written and directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan. The film explores themes of race, gender, nationality and sexuality, all against the backdrop of the Irish Troubles. The movie begins with a group of IRA terrorists kidnapping a black British soldier named Jody. Their hope is that they can use him to negotiate the release of one of their commanders currently being held by the British.  For three days, they keep him in a safe house and wait for their demands to be answered. During this time, Jody strikes up an odd friendship with Fergus, a quiet but good-natured IRA volunteer. Jody knows that its only a matter of time before the IRA will realize that they can’t use him, and that, as soon as they do, they will kill him. He asks Fergus to go to London and look after his girlfriend, Dil, when he’s gone. Later, when Jody attempts to escape and is accidentally run over by a British Army truck, Fergus decides to honor the former’s request and crosses over to England. There, while working as a day laborer, he becomes acquainted with Dil, who is a beautiful and mysterious hairdresser/cabaret singer. Dil is instantly attracted to him, but Fergus, still wracked with guilt over Jody’s death, cannot fully reciprocate her feelings. Then, when he finally does work up the nerve to sleep with her, he discovers a shocking secret–she, or rather, he, is a transgender woman. Despite his initial revulsion, Fergus can’t keep away and, eventually, goes back to her. Then, when several of his former IRA associates show up and threaten her, he does everything in his power to protect her, even going so far as to take the blame for a murder he didn’t commit.

The story I just told you might sound pretty cool on paper but, believe me, its not so great when executed. By no means do I wish to insinuate that The Crying Game is the WORST movie I’ve ever seen–the current holder of that title is Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With The Zohan–but it’s definitely not the best thing either, and here’s why.

First of all, the acting of Stephen Rea–the man who plays Fergus–is absolutely atrocious. I have NO idea how he ever got nominated for an Oscar in this role. But before I delve any deeper into this discussion of acting, I, as an actor, feel like I should explain a few details regarding the intricacies of the art. First of all, there are two different types of acting–acting for the stage and acting for the screen. When you’re acting for the stage, you’re generally advised to be somewhat larger than life with your gestures and inflections, the logic behind this being that even the person sitting in the back row should be able to see and hear you. By contrast, when you’re acting for the screen, it behooves you to tone down your volume and pull back on your expressions. Well, in The Crying Game, Rea takes “toning down” and “pulling back” to a whole new level. The entire time he’s on screen, he speaks in this dry, apathetic, and unbelievably dull monotone. Even in those instances when he’s supposed to be enraged–like the time when one of his former IRA associates sticks a gun in his face and threatens to hurt Dil–he barely raises his voice. I don’t know about you, but if somebody who I thought was dead suddenly showed up on my doorstep, ordered me to commit acts of terrorism, and then flashed a piece in my face when I refused to do so, I’d pretty much be buried beneath a multitude of emotions, the foremost among them being fear, anger and indignation. Then again, maybe Rea’s lack of expression is something he did deliberately. After all, the character Fergus is a former IRA terrorist, and its possible that, after witnessing so much death and destruction, he simply became numb and indifferent to the world. But if that’s the case, why would Fergus be so choked up over the accidental death of Jody? Why would he do everything in his power to protect Dil? Questions like these just go to show you how weak both the plot of the movie and  Rea’s performance really are. On a side note, if any of you think you recognize Rea’s name, but just can’t pair it with a face, he starred opposite Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving in V For Vendetta.

The second, and by far larger, issue I had with The Crying Game is that neither Dil nor Fergus is given any backstory. Even after watching the movie several times, I still didn’t know who these characters were, where they came from, or what motivated them. This, of course, made it harder for me to care about them, and since they were the people that were on screen the most, it also made it harder for me to care about the story. Now, in some films, like Taxi Driver and The Dark Knight, important characters are deliberately not given any background in order to make them more unpredictable and, thus, more interesting. For example, the Joker wouldn’t have been nearly as terrifying a threat if we, the audience, knew who he really was. Looking at it from this perspective, I can understand why Dil, who is secretly trans-gender, might not be given much of a backstory. Too much information on her past could give away her big secret and, thus, spoil the movie’s one big surprise. But this still doesn’t explain why we never get to know who Fergus really is. Oh sure, we know that he is loyal and kind, that much is revealed by his actions on screen. But we don’t know where he was born, why he joined the IRA, or why he was so moved by Jody’s death that he was willing to abandon his old life and devote every atom and fiber of his being to protecting a person he’d never met. Maybe we don’t need to know. Maybe its better to let inexplicably good characters like Fergus simply be inexplicably good. Maybe I’m just being too harsh a critic and I should just calm down. Maybe I’m an octopus. Who knows.

I might not have liked the movie as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t still several aspects of it that I enjoyed. First of all, I absolutely loved Jaye Davidson–the man who portrayed Dil. In my own personal opinion, he gave a thoroughly believable performance as a woman, and he completely deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I’m actually somewhat surprised and disappointed that he didn’t get the award, but that’s besides the point. In addition to this, The Crying Game has some very interesting scenes with absolutely cutting-edge dialogue, like the moment where Jody tells Fergus the story of The Scorpion and The Frog.

Anyway, I’d give the movie an overall rating of 6 out of 10. It’s got an interesting plot and is reasonably well written, but the characters are hard to pin-point, and some of the acting is awful. If you guys disagree with my opinions, by all means, say so. I’d love to have a debate. Alright, I’m through for now. See you!

Nathan