Tag Archives: Academy Award

Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks

 

I believe I’ve said it before, but, just in case I haven’t – historical films don’t have to be historically accurate to be good films. Ideally, yes, they would get every detail correct, but films are designed to entertain and to inform. Whether the events as shown in Captain Phillips accurately line up with the real-life event or not, it is pretty darn great film.

Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama container ship, who takes charge when his ship is attacked by Somalian pirates. Making smart tactical decisions that save the life of his crew and sacrificing his safety for the safety of the rest of the people onboard the ship, Phillips stands as a hero who takes a terrible situation and manages to walk away with not only his life, but the lives of the people he is responsible for as well.

Hanks gives the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Seriously, he continues to amaze me with his capabilities as an actor. I don’t know about the real-life Richard Phillips, but Hanks’ portrayal is filled with an incredible emotional depth. Through him, we see a compassion for not only his family and his crew, but also for the Somalian pirates who attack the ship. We also see his dedication to the job at hand, his solid resolve, and his desire to put others’ needs ahead of his own. The closing scene of the film, where Hanks’ character sits in shock with the nurse after being rescued from a hostage situation with the pirates, is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes I’ve ever seen.

Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate Muse, and he’s pretty excellent as well. The pirates as a whole are equally dedicated to the task at hand. One of my favorite parts about the film is that it never portrays the pirates as bad guys; they are simply young men whose social situations demand that they find a more…creative…means of income. Phillips sees this side of the pirates, which is why he acts so compassionately to them. It also leads to a particularly sobering moment when he says something to the effect of, “surely you must be able to be something aside from fishermen or kidnappers,” to which Muse replies, “maybe in America.” This line highlights how good we have it over here in America, humanizing the pirates and showing that their intentions are not evil from their perspective – they are simply trying to live.

My only slight criticism of this film is the shaky cam work that we have learned to be typical of Paul Greengrass films (cough Bourne Supremacy cough) makes an appearance here, and, though you could argue that it emulates the feeling of being on a boat in choppy water, it never really adds to the film.

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this film aside from praising Hanks’ performance. The only thing that might stop him from winning the Academy Award for Best Actor is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The script here is smart, Hanks’ performance is top-notch, and the long run time never feels overbearing due to the suspenseful engagement of the film from the very beginning. Captain Phillips is one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave

The purpose of cinema is often to entertain, but that is not always the case; sometimes, its purpose is to inform, to educate, or to enlighten. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Though it’s certainly not comfortable viewing, it is powerful, emotional, and heart-breaking film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his family in 1840s New York. A true story based on Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave follows him as he is captured and sold into slavery, with him remaining in captivity as a slave in Louisiana for twelve years before being released. We are given a glimpse into the cruelty of the slave trade and the struggles that Northup faces during his time in captivity.

In a film full of excellent performances – with “excellent” here meaning “painfully believable” – from the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, among others, it’s hard to imagine that one person would stand out – but stand out he does. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a performance that can be described with nothing less than the word “incredible;” the emotions he brings to the story, from joy to fear to anger to depression, are each powerful in their own way, and I found myself captivated every time he was onscreen. Another standout performance comes from Lupita Nyong’o as another slave named Patsey. She goes through quite a lot throughout the course of this film as well, from being the apple of the slaveowner’s eye to begging for death to being flogged for wanting to take a bath. Her performance is also an extremely emotional one – one that will likely bring you to tears more than once.

Often in the film, we are treated to long, still camera shots that linger on Solomon’s face as he stares into the distance, contemplating his current situation. These shots are interesting in that they allow us to see the subtleties in Ejiofor’s acting skills; we can see his emotions develop in real time, like a glimpse into his soul, and it is an unusually compelling technique that works astonishingly well. During these scenes, and during other scenes in which the focus is mostly silence, we are also treated to Hans Zimmer’s minimal but profoundly touching musical score. He utilizes a single theme throughout the film, but each time we hear it, it seems to adapt a new meaning – hope, despair, hopelessness, joy, reunion, thankfulness, tension, and others are all heard in the repetition of this simple theme. Zimmer has been improving with each new score he releases, and it certainly shows here as he deviates from his typically exciting, driving scores to something much more intimate.

This film is difficult to watch in many scenes as we are shown cruelties that no person should have to endure, but it is a sobering and important glimpse into our nation’s past. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of this film is not to entertain, a statement which may draw comparisons to my review of the 2012 Michael Haneke film Amour, which I only awarded 2.5 out of 5 stars because it was such an incredibly depressing film, no matter how artful or masterful it was in execution. Precedent might dictate that I rate this film similarly, but the fact here is that the two films are entirely different in nature. 12 Years a Slave is an often depressing film, yes, but it also has one of the most satisfying endings of any film I’ve seen (you’ll cry if you have a heart), and the historical significance of the story and of the depictions of slavery in the film make this film one that I would entirely recommend…if you can stomach it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a definite contender (and likely the winner) for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film itself and Steve McQueen as director just might walk away with Best Picture/Director.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality


Argo (2012) – Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat is a composer who I haven’t been familiar with for long, but it’s no secret that I really enjoy his film scores especially those of the past couple of years (see my reviews of his scores to The King’s Speech and Rise of the Guardians). His score for last year’s Ben Affleck film, Argo, is no exception…it’s nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

Desplat’s music has always been characterized by a beauty unparalleled by his contemporaries. This beauty is apparent from the very first track, “Argo,” which opens with a lovely solo on the ney (a flute-like instrument known for its use in Middle Eastern music), backed by soft, harmonious strings and an ominous drone on the tonic, leading to a faster-paced melody on an oud (a guitar-like instrument that also features in Middle Eastern music), with a sort of anxious undertone. This background anxiety is present throughout most of the score, which is fitting due to the fact that anxiety is a large part of the action in the film. Anxiety is not the only emotion expressed in this score, though; we also hear longing (such as in the track “Missing Home”), despair (“Sweatshop”), and relief (“Cleared Iranian Airspace”)…Desplat’s talent for emulating emotion through his music is evident.

One of my favorite parts of this score is that Desplat composes differently depending on the setting of the action on screen. For example, throughout most of the soundtrack we are treated to a style of music that brings to mind the Middle Eastern culture, which makes sense because most of the story takes place in Iran…this is why such instruments as the previously mentioned ney and oud are used so prominently. However, in “The Mission,” we hear a completely different style more reminiscent of traditional American film scores, with a sweeping string orchestra and quite typical harmonies. This theme is later heard in the track “Cleared Iranian Airspace,” but the genius of it all is that neither of these tracks are completely “American”…”The Mission” ends with the return of the ney, hinting at the journey that the main character will soon be taking, and “Cleared Iranian Airspace” starts with dissonance, representing the tension of the situation, eventually clearing out into the American-style theme mentioned before.

Parts of Argo sound similar to some of Desplat’s previous compositions, though not in a way that is frustrating (I’m looking at you two, Zimmer and Elfman!). The main instance of similarity (that I heard) is in the track “Held Up by Guards,” which sounds faintly like a theme from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, heard here in “Showdown.” Like I said, they don’t sound exactly alike, but definitely noticeable (to me, at least). Also worth noting is the fact that both the scores to Argo and Life of Pi (composed by Mychael Danna), which is also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, feature beatboxing (Argo – “Hotel Messages”Life of Pi – “Piscine Molitor Patel”), which isn’t typical of usual film scores. However, it works well in both cases.

Alexandre Desplat is one of the best composers of our day, a fact supported by his fantastic score for an equally fantastic film, Argo…it certainly deserves its nomination for Best Original Score at this year’s Academy Awards. Will it win? I’m not sure, but with his top-notch emulations of emotion and beauty and his appropriate usage of Middle Eastern music to reflect the setting of the film, Desplat’s score for Argo is one of the best of 2012.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

1. “Argo”     3:38

2. “A Spy In Tehran”     4:18

3. “Scent of Death”     3:26

4. “The Mission”     2:08

5. “Hotel Messages”     2:04

6. “Held Up By Guards”     5:32

7. “The Business Card”     2:56

8. “Breaking Through the Gates”     3:51

9. “Tony Grills the Six”     3:30

10. “The Six Are Missing”     3:22

11. “Sweatshop”     1:32

12. “Drive to the Airport”     3:45

13. “Missing Home”     3:00

14. “Istanbul (The Blue Mosque)”     2:18

15. “Bazaar”     3:46

16. “Cleared Iranian Airspace”     6:02

17. “Hace Tuto Guagua” (performed by Familion)     3:40

Total Length: app. 59 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. Read my review of this film here!


Argo (2012)

When I first heard of Argo, I had no interest in seeing it. Sure, it was getting great critical reviews, but I didn’t know anything about it except that Ben Affleck directed it and starred in it. I don’t watch much television, so I never saw a trailer that would spark my interest, but this past week, after seeing it nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, I finally decided that I should take my time to find it and watch it. Luckily, the theater in my hometown holds on to movies for a while, so I was able to catch a showing this morning. The only Ben Affleck movie that I can recall seeing is 2003’s Daredevil, which I’ve since forgotten (for a good reason), but Argo succeeds where Daredevil didn’t: for starters, Argo is actually good. In fact, it’s downright excellent.

For those who don’t know, Argo tells the true story of CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez (Affleck) and his mission to exfiltrate six American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Iran by pretending to be a Canadian film crew. As Bryan Cranston’s character – Mendez’s supervisor, Jack O’Donnell – says in the best line in the film, “this is the best bad idea we have…by far.” Yes, the idea sounds ludicrous, but in the film’s execution it comes across as possibly the only thing that could save the hostages from certain death. Ben Affleck plays his role with a hard determination; he knows that so much hinges on this ruse and that so much could go wrong, but his resolve as Mendez shines through. Cranston does an admirable job, as do both John Goodman as John Chambers, a Hollywood makeup artist with a history of helping the CIA with disguises, and Alan Arkin as film producer Lester Siegel…though I’m not sure I would say that Arkin is deserving of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.

There isn’t a lot of character development in this film, but it isn’t non-existent. One of the hostages is reluctant to participate in the deception, but he eventually realizes that Mendez is putting his own life at risk by trying to save theirs, so he participates and eventually helps to convince the radicals that they are who they say they are. Mendez himself changes a little bit, with the ending visit to his estranged wife and son suggesting that his visit to Iran has helped him to realize the importance of family and of being there for his son. 

My favorite moment of the film takes place during a reading of the script for the fake movie that Mendez is pretending to make; as he stands at the table with the fake cast and listens to them read through the script, we are shown everything that is currently happening in Iran with the hostages…the people dying, the demands being made by the Iranians, the hostages pent up in the the home of the Canadian ambassador. It’s a juxtaposition of the fake story that Mendez and team have created and the reality that the hostages are experiencing on the other side of the world. It’s a powerful moment in the film, and, to me, it really showed the importance of the success of this mission…failure wasn’t an option.

Argo is not thought-provoking so much as it is just a great story; it’s a dark caper (the real-life event is referred to as the “Canadian Caper”) that manages to be simultaneously intense and humorous, bringing laughs at one moment and an anxious chill up your spine at the next. Fueled by the smart script that relies more on storytelling than on action and by Alexandre Desplat’s score (nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, though I’m not sure if it’s better than Williams’ score for Lincoln), Argo is one of the best films of 2012.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for language and some violent images

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, here!


The Adventures of Tintin (2011) – John Williams

2011 was a great year because, after a four-year wait, we got not one but two new film scores by John Williams. The first of these was The Adventures of Tintin, which, along with Williams’ score to War Horse, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.

While War Horse‘s score was decidedly more dramatic, The Adventures of Tintin‘s score is whimsical and fun, as well as quite reminiscent – in a good way – of Williams’ earlier scores. For example, “The Secret of the Scrolls” features a mysterious theme that reminds me of both “The Map Room” from the original Raiders of the Lost Ark score and the latter portion of “Diagon Alley and the Gringotts Vault” from Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; all three have a simplicity to them that promotes thought and emanates a sense of wonder and magic.

The title track, “The Adventures of Tintin”, is catchy and sleuthy…at least, that’s the way I hear it. It’s heavily influenced by jazz, which is a bit different from the typical John Williams stuff but entirely welcome and refreshing. In contrast with this new style, Williams returns in full force with his leitmotifs – a musical phrase that represents a specific character/event/place; there are specific themes written for Snowy, the Thompsons, and other characters, including Tintin, but my favorite has to be the leitmotif representing Captain Haddock. First introduced in “Captain Haddock Takes the Oars”, Haddock’s theme begins as a sloppy, drunken low wind melody, but it transforms along with the character into something sturdy and impressive, as heard in “The Clash of the Cranes”.

Williams combines all of these elements – jazz, simplicity, references, and leitmotifs – to create something adventurous in the old-fashioned sense of the word and, overall, truly amazing. Despite the fact that it’s an animated film, The Adventures of Tintin boasts a score that could make just about any action/adventure film jealous. Though its themes may not be as instantly iconic as those now associated with Star WarsIndiana Jones, or Superman, it takes turns in paying homage to each of these classic film scores in a way that is fresh and new. At 80 years old, John Williams has “still got it”.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

1. “The Adventures of Tintin” 3:07
2. “Snowy’s Theme” 2:09
3. “The Secret of the Scrolls” 3:12
4. “Introducing the Thompsons and Snowy’s Chase” 4:08
5. “Marlinspike Hall” 3:58
6. “Escape from the Karaboudjan” 3:20
7. “Sir Francis and the Unicorn” 5:05
8. “Captain Haddock Takes the Oars” 2:17
9. “Red Rackham’s Curse and the Treasure” 6:10
10. “Capturing Mr. Silk” 2:57
11. “The Flight to Bagghar” 3:33
12. “The Milanese Nightingale” 1:29
13. “Presenting Bianca Castafiore” 3:27
14. “The Pursuit of the Falcon” 5:43
15. “The Captain’s Counsel” 2:10
16. “The Clash of the Cranes” 3:48
17. “The Return to Marlinspike Hall and Finale” 5:51
18. “The Adventure Continues” 2:58

Total Length: app. 66 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. – I didn’t want to taint the body of the review with something like this, but I have to mention it: there is a moment in “Presenting Bianca Castafiore/Renee Fleming” when the soprano hits a high sustained note and breaks glass…loudly…ON THE ALBUM. And I absolutely despise it.


The Help (2011) – Thomas Newman

I saw The Help in theaters back in September ’11 and really enjoyed it, so I decided to read the book that it was based on earlier this summer, by Kathryn Stockett. I also purchased Thomas Newman’s score to the film to listen to as I read. In addition to being good reading music, it’s a really great film score.

Thomas Newman is the master of small, light, and fun film scores, and The Help, despite being a film about a serious subject, is all of these; though I’m a huge fan of John Williams, James Horner, and Michael Giacchino, who all use really big orchestral sounds in their scores, it’s refreshing to inject yourself with some Thomas Newman every once in a while. “Upside-Down Cake” and “Deviled Eggs” are light and playful, “Them Fools” and “Amen” are light and beautiful, and “Celia Digs” and “Ain’t You Tired (End Title)” are light and emotional.

Of course, you could argue that every single track on this album is emotionalEach track twangs on the heartstrings of the listener, which is no small feat for small orchestration. Tracks like “Jim Crow”, which features an aggressive acoustic guitar riff, blend in to the setting of the film, giving everything a Southern vibe that brings the message all too close to home.

I own several Thomas Newman scores, and none of them disappoint, including The Help. Newman’s score should have been at least nominated for an Academy Award, but, since it is less-theme based (though there are a few beautiful themes floating around throughout), it didn’t stand a chance against Williams, Shore, and Bource. That being said, if you’re at all a Thomas Newman fan, you should buy this. Also, if you’re not a Thomas Newman fan, you should buy this.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

1. “Aibilene”      3:07
2. “Them Fools”      2:49
3. “Upside-Down Cake”      1:22
4. “Mississippi”      3:49
5. “Heart Palpitations”      1:43
6. “The Help”     2:18
7. “Jim Crow”      1:45
8. “Skeeter”      1:03
9. “Miss Hilly”      1:13
10. “Write That Down”      1:37
11. “Bottom Of The List”      3:23
12. “Deviled Eggs”      2:03
13. “First White Baby”      2:00
14. “Celia Digs”      2:06
15. “November 22”      1:11
16. “Not To Die”      1:28
17. “My Son”      2:50
18. “Trash On The Road”      1:37
19. “The Terrible Awful”      2:56
20. “Constantine”      4:08
21. “Gripping Testimonials”      1:32
22. “Sugar”      1:49
23. “Amen”      3:06
24. “Mile High Meringue”      2:00
25. “Ain’t You Tired (End Title)”      6:29

Total Length: app. 60 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad