Sunday, September 29, 2013

NY Film Festival Opening Night: Captain Phillips

The New York Film Festival opened on Friday with Captain Phillips, the new film from director Paul Greengrass, which recounts the true-life events of 2009 when the commercial container ship Maersk Alabama was taken over by Somali pirates, and its captain was taken hostage and held for four harrowing days. The film is an exciting hyper-kinetic addition to the director's list of works which include Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), two films in which innocent victims are tested by powerful, threatening forces. In this latest film, those forces are embodied by four terrific first time Somali-born actors headed by Barkhad Abdi, a performer with an incredibly frightening piercing stare, and a volcanic volume of energy. It is one of the most riveting cinematic debuts in a while, and anyone watching this film will never forget his performance as Muse, the leader of the pirates.

In the title role, Tom Hanks gives an excellent performance as Everyman in peril. With a Boston accent which starts out thick, and tends to disappear as the film progresses, he is well cast, and totally believable in this role. His finely crafted performance serves as a perfect foil to the out of control exuberance of his captors. The result makes for exciting film making that hits all the right notes. Mr. Hanks is particularly effective towards the end of the movie, and his concluding scene is unforgettable. But then again, Mr. Hanks has always been excellent at delivering the inner crux of his characters through a single finely crafted scene in a film. He did it in Philadelphia (1993) with an intense close-up and an opera aria, and walked out of that year's Academy Awards ceremony with an Oscar. At its conclusion, this film has crafted a similar, pivotal scene for the actor, and he is marvelous in it.

Captain Phillips represents an interesting departure for the New York Film Festival, often the home of highly personal small films from international auteurs. This Columbia Pictures release represents the first film presentation from the festival's new chief Kent Jones. It promises a departure from the twenty-five year tenure of Richard Peña. Under the old regime, the festival had no lack of auteurs, and a plethora of films from all over the world. Films from France were never strangers to the festival, and the promise of the avant-garde was always around the corner. The festival was a magnificent showcase for independent talent, but it always seemed to avoid the big Hollywood releases. More than likely, the perfect New York Film Festival film was Pulp Fiction, opening night of 1994. Here was a highly personal, idiosyncratic film that ended up being a juggernaut at the box office.

Captain Phillips will surely be a hot film at the box-office, but it is also a thoughtful character study of men who are driven to their breaking point: an excellent way to start the New York Film Festival this year.

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