I like to separate artists from their work. Mel Gibson is a semi-delusional, racist, sexist, domestic assault nutbag type of guy in life, but I still loved seeing him recently in the under-seen Get the Gringo. Same goes for Woody Allen (the whole Soon Yi thing), Roman Polanski (pedophile), Sean Penn (beating up Madonna) and a host of other obvious talents whose private lives punctured their public image. But what if a film, based on a true story, turns out to be the product of a self-aggrandizing opportunist? Can a false premise be divorced from the film itself?
I have to ask because of Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass's taut, seafaring thriller featuring a stellar performance from Tom Hanks as a cargo ship captain who, with his crew, is taken hostage by Somali pirates.
Based on the book by the real-life Richard Phillips (with writer Stephan Talty), a lot of doubts have been cast about the heroic nature of Phillips as told in his memoir, A Captain's Duty, and realized by Hanks in the film. In fact, a group of crew members is suing the shipping corporation, Waterman Steamship, for malfeasance in putting Phillips in the captain's chair at all.
But when you get something as tense, visually exciting and expertly crafted as Captain Phillips, does any of that really matter?
Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) leaves the States to pilot a cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama, through Somalian waters en route to Oman in 2009. He is the picture of competence, getting the crew to secure the ship and making them ready to set sea with his terse yet comfortably strong leadership -- and with a massive cargo of food aid for the hungry in sub-Saharan Africa.
Little does he know (or did he?), a Somali warlord is prodding his pirates to bring home the thicker cut bacon. Enter Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who takes the initiative to lead a small band to sea in search of a huge score, which they spot when Phillips ship leaves the standard shipping lanes to make the trek to Oman, putting them in prime pirate territory (something the film explicitly acknowledges).
Phillips does his best to keep them at bay, pushing the engines to the hilt and then getting his crew to hide when it's clear that Muse and his cohorts, armed with Kalashnikovs, will be boarding momentarily. What follows is a harrowing couple of days as Phillips tries to protect his ship and his crew, eventually being taken sole hostage while waiting for the cavalry to arrive.
And it does, en masse.
While, at heart, Captain Phillips is just a straight ahead, high-seas, hostage rescue tale, there are a couple of underlying themes to punctuate its more pulse-pounding charms. Greengrass, from a script by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games), is careful not to paint the pirates as entirely evil thugs (we never really see their warlord leader) but mainly as desperate fishermen who -- lacking anything to catch -- have to get a slice of the local economic pie. That's mirrored by the opening conversation Phillips has with his wife, Andrea (the always welcome Catherine Keener), as he laments that his sons will have to cut through so much more competition and corporate bullshit than he did to ever have the opportunity to pilot a vessel of their own. Different worlds, global problems.
Excuses, Excuses. Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips tried telling the magazine salesmen he was on his way to work, but they wouldn't take no for an answer.
The other theme is that of American military exceptionalism, and it would almost be fetishistic if it weren't somewhat serving to underscore how fucked the pirates lives really are. They're so out of their element, it gets to the point that you feel empathy for them because they'd probably rather be doing something else.
But the message of monolithic, imperial might is clear. The little old lady sitting next to me oohed at each sweeping shot of destroyers and battle cruisers and aircraft carriers set to Henry Jackman's gripping score, as if Channing Tatum had just taken his shirt off. What this movie probably means to some people is kind of creepy.
But it's still a skillfully executed thriller. Greengrass reigns in his predilection for shaky cam as an art form, capturing viscerally immediate, often haunting images with cinematographer (and Ken Loach favorite) Barry Ackroyd (The Wind That Shakes The Barley). He directs Captain Phillips with the with assurance of a master, wringing every drop of suspense from the story while crafting a gripping visual tableau that rides on the desert-like waves and the faces of his two leads, Hanks and Abdi.
Hanks is in top form here. He sinks into the role of Phillips and is perfectly cast if for no other reason than you always root for him. He's our generation's Jimmy Stewart and, in Greengrass, Hanks has found his Hitchcock. But that gets taken to another level in the film's final scenes, where Hanks mines a place of emotional rawness that might be unlike anything we've ever seen from him before.
Abdi is a revelation as Muse. The Somali-born actor makes his feature debut here and he strikes a perfect balance between menace and layers of genuine sincerity. He's unsure and desperate, and he has a definable rationale that isn't evil, just necessary. He can't even go home unless he succeeds. For a movie that's a fairly black-and-white action thriller, for better and worse Captain Phillips achieves a strange sense of nuance.
If you're looking for it.
Herb & Dorothy
Herb and Dorothy Vogel are so damn adorable. That's not even sarcasm. They really are. The lifelong sweethearts, she working for the New York Public Library and he as a postman, pooled their money living in a tiny, one-bedroom apartment to amass a collection of over 4,000 works of art -- running the gamut of styles and mediums -- which became known as the Vogel Collection, one of the biggest privately-owned art collections in history. Their passion for collecting art and championing the artists wound up becoming a major influence on the late 20th century American scene.
Herb & Dorothy picks up at the end of their lives together. Herb, wheelchair bound and not talking much, and Dorothy, the spry one, take it upon themselves to break up their massive collection of works, granting 50 pieces to museums in each of the 50 states, calling the program 50 x 50 (the Oklahoma Vogel Collection resides at the OKC Museum of Modern Art).
Throughout, we learn about Herb and Dorothy's relationship to art and themselves, both of which seem inseparable, as well as their connection to the artists they champion, a core group comprised of names like Richard Tuttle and Charles Clough, a self-described "psychedelic conceptual folk artist" whose work appears in each of the 50 collections among a raft of other knowns and unknowns. The variety of eclectic works on display in Herb & Dorothy is worth the look, alone.
But the doc also delves into the nuts and bolts of curating and staging a show, as well as the controversies that surround artists like Mark Kostabi, who commissions others to create his work. That recalls age old arguments of what constitutes an artist to begin with -- and reminds one of the viewpoints surrounding the legitimacy of Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash from 2010's Exit Through the Gift Shop (Guetta commissioned graphic designers to complete his big opening show).
Say Rats! Herb and Dorothy Vogel in Herb and Dorothy strive for warmth and contrast in all their cat ransom photos.
Herb & Dorothy also provides a look at how art is taken by the young, a generation of video gamers who've grown up around graphic art their whole lives, and what abstract and modern works mean to them. The answer is not so encouraging, much less the state of funding for public museums, which are cultural sanctuaries that increasingly fall prey to municipal budget cutting. When the city of Detroit is forced to sell its priceless works of art to pay the bills, it's a reminder that our true culture -- the one Real Americans don't necessarily understand -- is being eradicated by the whims of the free market and the apathy of the disinterested.
Director Megumi Sasaki does an able job of intertwining the underlying voices and points of interest within the story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, making for a fascinating, if workman-like portrait. The talking head interviews are pretty standard issue, though they are loaded with some passionate personalities (the collections guy at the Honolulu Museum of Art is amusingly animated in a semi-fanatical way), and there's nothing particularly pretty about the presentation of some very pretty things.
But if you didn't know who Herb and Dorothy Vogel were before, you won't forget them after you see this. Herb & Dorothy's melancholic denouement is equal parts touching and satisfying in a way that makes up for any finesse that's lacking it its execution.
Herb & Dorothy opens at the Circle Cinema on Friday, Oct. 18, with its director Megumi Sasaki following up the presentation on Oct. 19. For ticket information visit circlecinema.com.
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