Friday, September 27, 2013

NYFF51: Opening With Wave-Inducing 'Captain Phillips'

IF there were ever a film over which the hawks and doves can duke it out, it is “Captain Phillips.”

The film, which opens The 51st New York Film Festival in its world premiere this evening, concerns the 2009 incident in which several young Somalis take over a ship near the waters of their country. To call these desperadoes pirates is stretching the term to the extreme. A more likely moniker is “shipjackers.”

The film is based on the book by Captain Rich Phillips who was at the helm of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship when the hapless, but dangerous young men commandeered it from the confines of their rickety boat – hardly a seaworthy vessel.

Well, from there it is what the media says happened, what the U.S. military says happened, of course, what the captain says happened and what actually happened. The Somalis? Clearly, they had no say. The truth of the matter is in there somewhere. (See video at top).

In any case, “Captain Phillips,” which opens widely on 11 Oct., tells the tale from the point of view of the captain himself. Overall, the film is well-acted. Tom Hanks is in fine form as Phillips; ditto for the four Minneapolis-based, first-time actors who portray his captors, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahet M. Ali.

The action scenes, many shot with a hand-held camera, are riveting and the kind of work that director-documentarian Paul Greengrass (“The Borne Ultimatum) excels at.

At too many intervals, however, “Captain Phillips” drags; the pacing is slow. It is boring to put a fine point on it. The film can be cut by 30 minutes and still retain its impact. Speaking of impact, the scenes featuring the mighty U.S. military have a stock feel, as if they have been lifted from “The Hunt for Red October” or some similar film in which the military figures prominently.

Furthermore, the military scenes are a bit obscene. The response to a ragtag ring of bandits is so outsized as to induce nausea. Think about it. Three rickety fishing vessels and warships of the world’s current greatest military. This is where the hawks and doves will do battle.

On one side will be those who see the millions of tax dollars gone to fund such a dubious operation at the expense of so many important programs that go unfunded in this country. The other side will be the cheerleaders who see such a response as necessary to protect U.S. interests and to send a strong signal to other malcontents who would dare muck with America. In other words, “bring it on!”

Not a bad way to open a film festival. Thankfully, much of the fare at NYFF51 is not as icy hot and spicy as “Captain Phillips.” The closing film, Spike Jonze's "Her" about the role of electronic devices in our lives, has eyebrows raised, though lips are sealed. Among films that have loosened lips is Steve McQeeen’s “12 Years a Slave.” It, too, is based on a memoir. This one by Soloman Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofar) who chronicles his abduction from Washington, D.C in 1841 and subsequent sale into slavery.

The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch and frequent SM collaborator, Michael Fassbender.

On a lighter note is “About Time, ” Richard Curtis’ delightful take on time travel. Like, “Love, Actually,” it has a large cast, including Bill Nighy. Best described as a black comedy is Catherine Breillat’s autobiographical "Abuse of Weakness" ("Abus de Faiblesse.")

NYFF51, which shutters on 13 Oct. with TBA encore screenings, is the first in a generation or so that does not have Richard Pena at the head of the selection committee. It shows in some of the selections, such as “About Time,” which has too much levity for the typical NYFF film. Another two are Philippe Garrel’s “Jealousy (“La Jalousie”) and Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” (“Jiao You”).

The former reads too fluffy and inconsequential, while the latter has an amateurish, school project vibe.

Visit to learn more about The 51st New York Film Festival, including tickets and showtimes.

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