Director Paul Greengrass is great at the particulars of a film’s story. That’s what made United 93 comes across a model of titanic restraint when it arrived, its keen attention to the simplest details of people reacting to terrible turns of history providing an emotional poignancy that Hollywood script speechifying could never muster. Even his contributions to the Bourne series are at their best when tightly focused on the physical mechanics of the scenes. And that’s what gives Captain Phillips its bracing immediacy. Based on actual events that took place in 2009, the film follows the hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates, bringing an attention to depicting the situation that is clinical without ever undercutting the harrowing tension. It is impressive across its entire running time, and Tom Hanks gives a stalwart, dedicated performance as the eponymous captain of the seized vessel. It is in the final minutes when the film delivers most impactfully, staying with the scenario after similar cinematic endeavors choose to look away, gifting the characters with the peacefulness of a slow dissolve to closing credits. Captain Phillips makes it clear that the trauma is only beginning for the people involved when the plot is at an end. In the real world, there’s no credit roll to obscure the agonizing aftershocks of those who’ve experienced brutality. Through his commitment to truth, Greengrass–aiding by Hanks, in the single most powerful scene of his career–offers a stark reminder of that fact.

A single scene can’t make a bad movie into a good movie, but it is possible to transform a good movie into one that’s near-great. At the very end of Captain Phillips, the new docudrama about a 2009 encounter between an American-owned freighter ship and a small band of Somali pirates, director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray choose to extend the film one crucial scene past the point when most fictions and fictionalizations of this sort would end. Audiences have been well-trained to view the culmination of whatever critical situation that drives the plot as the proper end of the story, but these filmmakers know that a deep, dark plunge creates rough water that can stretch for miles. The devastating final minutes of Captain Phillips not only carry their own impact, but cast everything that preceded it, already harrowing material, in even starker terms. There’s now no denying the power of the story. Greengrass and Ray make sure of that.

Actually, Tom Hanks does, too. The actor plays Richard Phillips as a fairly no-nonsense skipper of the massive ship, growing curtly passive aggressive when he feels the crewman are dawdling too lunch during their break. There’s a resolute level-headedness to the character and the actor, especially once the pirates have taken over his ship. Phillips doesn’t suddenly become an action hero, nor does he exhibit a preternatural ability to outthink his adversaries. He does, however, keep trying, and Hanks shows him operating with little more than a somewhat skilled everyman’s ingenuity. He is simply a guy doing his job. It just so happens that the job has gotten more difficult than it ever should have been. That’s a concept that carries through the entire film, applying to other sailors on Phillips’s ship and even some of the Somali pirates, who are clearly in over their heads in a illicit profession that they feel is the only choice they have given the dire circumstances at home. It’s one of many parallels drawn between the two crews and the two captains, the sense that they are trapped in circumstances beyond their reasonable reckoning. When Phillips briefly berates his crew for complaining about the dangers in the journey–they are workers and not military men, after all–it is later echoed by the leader of the Somali pirates, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). It’s a measure of the relative subtlety of the filmmakers that Phillips overhears this familiar exchange, but doesn’t understand it because it’s in a language foreign to his ears, depriving the narrative of the epiphanic moment of understanding the similarities that exist between the opposing forces. That would be too easy, and Captain Phillips, whatever it is, definitely isn’t built to take the easiest route.

This film presents Greengrass in the mode that suits him best, hunkered down with the mechanics of real-life travails. As was the case with his brave, excellent United 93, Greengrass is more interested in the simple, tense ways people respond to crisis than in whipping up some sort of motivating backstory. Greengrass realizes that the more mundane the situation–more than anything, Phillips simply follows procedure throughout the film–the more relatable it will be, and that will make it far more gripping than some sort of trumped up drama. It’s when Greengrass slips into considerations of greater conspiracies and easy villainy (as he did with his last film, Green Zone) that he loses his focus and, therefore, his impact. Captain Phillips is instead an example of Greengrass at his best: lean, committed and, best of all, willing to show every last repercussion of the situation he depicts.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Martin Scorsese, 2011). It’s very fun to watch Martin Scorsese in this later phase of his career in which he clearly feels empowered and has the accumulated goodwill and respect to make whatever damn movie he feels like at any given time. If that means he’s sometimes going to flip through his record collection and say, “Hey, what about this guy?,” so be it. This documentary on the Quiet Beatle isn’t hugely revelatory in any way, but it’s a nice, creative compendium of the life and art of someone whose undervalued membership in the most significant band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll alone makes him a compelling figure. Scorsese largely sidesteps the most familiar clips and photos in favor of digger a little deeper into the massive archives dedicated to Harrison and his former band, stringing it all together in a way that respects chronology, but also leaves room to let the progression of the film be dictated by mood. The best moments are those that capture Harrison in offhand ways that capture the cynical wit that shaped his talent. I’ll always value the moment that Harrison greets Paul McCartney, decades after they bandmates, by asking the oblivious rock legend if he’s wearing a genuine vegetarian leather jacket. At well over three hours, the whole thing is too long, but it’s harder to figure out what to cut out. The dullest portions for me revolve around Harrison’s ever-evolving spirituality, but that would perhaps be the least appropriate material to excise.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010). Paul Greengrass seems perfectly suited to working an Iraq War movie that deals directly with the machinations that went into starting the conflict in the first place. On paper, it combines the strength for dense information soundly considered that elevated United 93 with the clear, kinetic filmmaking that got him major hits with the second and third Bourne films. In execution, though, it’s a bland, muddled mess. Matt Damon plays an Army officer weary over being sent on horrible dangerous missions to look for hidden stockpiles of weapons that don’t actually exist. He begins exploring some leads on his own, uncovering the horrible truth about deliberate manipulations of intelligence to lead the nation to war under false pretenses. It’s a worthy topic, but it has no dramatic heft in Greengrass’s exploration of it. The revelations will be shocking to only the deeply misinformed, and the film is otherwise sadly inert, amazingly generating no tension from soldiers being continually and needlessly put in harm’s way.

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934). Nick and Nora Charles investigate the disappearance of a friend, tipping back cocktails and occasionally pausing to watch their beloved fox terrier do the occasional charming trick. The Thin Man is one of the great entertainments of its era, building a good, complex, assiduously honest mystery while infusing the whole affair with an abundance of charm and grace. Myrna Loy has star power to spare as Nora, but it’s naturally William Powell who owns the film as Nick, making intelligence and comfortable decadence into the finest qualities a man could possibly aspire to, especially if they’re exhibited in tandem. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich amazingly take the hardness of Dashiell Hammett’s language and transform it into pure, irresistible froth, practicing the sort of storytelling alchemy that was at its apex during that first decade or so after movies learned to talk.

Arthur (Jason Winer, 2011). I’m increasingly realizing what a small minority I’m in for holding the following opinion, but here goes: I think the remake of Arthur is pretty good. It certainly doesn’t reach the unlikely heights of writer-director Steve Gordon’s 1981 original, but it has an agreeable exuberance and just enough embedded cleverness to the humor. It tries to find its own voice even as it sticks to the general plot of the earlier film. Russell Brand is amusing and occasionally even inspired as Arthur Bach, the childlike scion of a wealthy family who distracts himself from his miseries with drink. It’s a gloss on the persona he’s stuck with for most of his film outings, but with innocence in place of arrogance, fearfulness in place of contempt. For me, it wears better than the well-established alternative. There are issues, to be sure: Helen Mirren never quite figures out how to give her sardonic nanny character a fresh voice (but then the Oscar-winning John Gielgud performance is arguably even tougher to best or reinvent than Dudley Moore’s ribald comic turn as the title character) and poor Greta Gerwig seems doomed to follow precisely in Parker Posey’s tire tracks as an actress who is vividly inventive in indie features and utterly stranded in big studio fare.

The Adjustment Bureau (George Nolfi, 2011). There has to be a point when filmmakers collectively decide that adapting Philip K. Dick stories for the big screen is a purely foolhardy endeavor. Either that, or they’ll consider providing an artistic example of the definition of insanity. In this latest stab at the impossible, Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve screenwriter George Nolfi makes his directorial debut by trying to wrestle Dick’s “Adjustment Team” into cinematic shape. Matt Damon stars as a man who discovered the fedora-topped agents who orchestrate reality to make sure it coheres to some grand plan concocted by an unseen higher power known only as The Chairman. It’s his love for a talented dancer played by Emily Blunt that causes him to continually push his predetermined charmed life off the rails. Positioned as a thriller with political commentary tossed into a mind-bending turbine, the film is instead unbearably pretentious silliness. The conceit of needing special magic hats in order to gain access to the backstage passages that the adjustment officers use to travel rapidly from place to place is especially goofy, making it seem like the universe is controlled by some weird hipster angels.

After a customary end-of-the-year rest, the Spectrum Culture site returned with a spiffy new redesign this week. It was fairly low-content for the first week back, so my contributions were limited to pitching in on a couple of lists.

First, I wrote on the latest Black Keys albums for our collection of the “honorable mentions” when it came to the best albums of last year. Besides that, the site has an annual tradition–in keeping with the features built around assessing older albums and films with fresh eyes–of kicking off the new year by looking back to the best pop culture of five years earlier. I wrote about The Lives of Others and United 93 for the film feature and Neko Case for the music feature.


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