MINI-REVIEWS OF THE FINAL NOMINEES
Oscar Nominee Movie Reviews – “Captain Phillips”, “The Wolf of Wall Street” & “Philomena”
**** (all three)
Reviews by Paul Preston
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – Paul Greengrass is now officially one of my top five directors, and certainly one of the most remarkable, with a string of ferocious films, all vibrating with impressive authenticity. Whether it’s the birth of the IRA, The Iraq War or a hijacked airplane on 9/11, Greengrass is the most successful you-are-there filmmaker working today, and “there” in his films is really nowhere you ever want to be. “Captain Phillips” takes viewers to the Maersk Alabama shipping vessel off the coast of Africa as it encounters Somali pirates.
Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances ever (saying a lot) as the titular captain, who attempts to outmaneuver and eventually out-think the pirates at every turn. Much has been made of the last fifteen minutes or so of the film and Hanks’ heartfelt acting in it, and much SHOULD be made of it. I had NO DOUBT that Hanks had truly experienced everything that we just witnessed, not that he was acting like he did, but that he really was there. It’s a stunning piece of believability that every actor should watch. And as Phillips “comes down” off of having to be smart, brave and locked in a dangerous place for two hours, we get to share that with him as an audience and kind of snap out of it as well. Greengrass is transitioning us from this horrifying situation to our regular lives just as Phillips is encountering the same thing. It’s played out masterfully.
Also very real are the unknown actors who play the Somali pirates, including unknown non-actor Barkhad Abdi. He certainly looks the part, and somehow, as a novice actor, never thought he had to “play up” his role as a villain. He’s helped by a script by Billy Ray that delicately balances the pirates’ roles as desperate people urged on by warlords in their country to steal and doing that without tugging heartstrings like a lesser film would brazenly do. And the Navy SEALS…holy damn, the Navy SEALS. All I’ll say is that they are so badass, they don’t just take a boat out to the Alabama to attempt a rescue of Captain Phillips from the pirates, they JUMP OUT OF A PLANE to get there. Because they are badass.
All the tech elements here are fantastic, cinematography and editing work to guide the eye through treacherous spaces and the production design seamlessly switches between on-location shoots aboard a ship and claustrophobic sets inside a lifeboat. One miracle the film pulls off (with the help of a driving score) is building genuine suspense out of a situation where we know the outcome. It’s an adult film that brilliantly steers clear of gimmicks and clichés. There is NO bullshit in this movie, it’s my pick for best of 2013.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Run Time: 134 Minutes
Distributor: SONY Pictures
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET – Are you ready for some “Holy shit!”? ‘Cause I said that a number of times during Martin Scorsese’s ode to ‘80s and ‘90s mega-super-excess. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a balls-out performance as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker whose first day on the job was one of the 1980s worst stock market drops, and whose last day on the job put him in jail. The in-between is some of the craziest debauchery ever put to screen.
I liken this film to “Natural Born Killers”. In that film, Oliver Stone had to pull out all the stops to portray the media as the enablers that they are, and in “Wolf”, Scorsese had to pull out all the stops to show the outrageous behavior of the rich, privileged and really, really dumb who came up in the stock trade business. Notable moments include Matthew McConaughey in another role from the “I’m sorry I did romantic comedies for ten years” apology tour as a seasoned trader who teaches Belfort the ropes. Also Margot Robbie as the hottest thing walking acting her ass off, holding her own with an on-fire DiCaprio. Plus, something I’ll just call “The Quaalude Scene” – a scene for the AGES.
There’s a mock outrage going on over this film that I can no longer abide. People are claiming the moral high ground by condemning “The Wolf of Wall Street” as glamorizing the irresponsibility of these stock traders. True, their exploits are dangerous, but they LOOK dangerous. Anyone who thinks the reckless behavior of these numbskulls who get arrested for doing it is glamorized is watching a different film than I am… And not for nothing, this is the funniest movie of the year.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: December 25, 2013
Run Time: 180 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
PHILOMENA – Who knew Steve Coogan had it in him? Here in the states, we’ve only gotten Coogan in small portions – “Tropic Thunder”, “Night at the Museum” and “The Other Guys”, but in England, he has a massive resume with over twenty years of solid work, including the indelible talk show host Alan Partridge. So, I suppose The UK knew Coogan had it in him to write, produce and star in a film as absorbing as “Philomena”, but it was great new news to me.
“Philomena” is based on the true story of Martin Sixsmith, a BBC reporter who aids in a woman’s desperate search for her son, after she had given him up in a convent. Not just any convent, but the Magdalene laundries, where “fallen women” endure harsh working conditions and insurmountable guilt (an earlier film visit to this era yielded another top ten film from 2002, “The Magdalene Sisters” – highly recommended).
Judi Dench is the perfect foil for Coogan as they set out to discover the man her son would become. And there are numerous surprises in that trail. In the end, “Philomena” is a cry for humanity – Sixsmith argues for and demands it from others, as a determined journalist might do, and Philomena Lee embodies it. It’s ultimately a moving and unforgettable tale of forgiveness that was more involving than I imagined it would be.
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Release Date: November 27, 2013
Run Time: 134 Minutes
Distributor: BBC Films