Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Captain Phillips

            The plot of 2014 Best Picture nominee Captain Phillips is straightforward. Man captains boat in dangerous waters. Pirates hijack boat. Captain thwarts pirates’ attempts to ransom boat. Pirates flee boat with captain as hostage. U.S. Navy rescues the captain. Captain Phillips rises above its action thriller origins by refusing to present a story of American triumph in the face of adversity. 

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Captain Phillips

            Director Paul Greengrass undermines this American exceptionalism by sympathetically portraying the Somali pirates. He demonstrates the pirates’ deplorable lives on land before they attempt to hijack the boat.  They struggle to feed themselves, bribe and cajole their way onto pirate crews, and threaten anyone in their way. The brief scene on the Somali beach demonstrates the effective power of the unseen Somali warlords who control the pirates. By keeping the pirate crews small, the desperate would-be pirates viciously compete for a shot at a million dollar payday. The Somali warlords have inherited and perfected the technique of divide and conquer from their colonial past. The European symphony of imperialism plays on long after the Europeans turned off the lights and left.

            Greengrass makes excellent use of space throughout the film. After the Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi) flee the container ship with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) in tow, the action of the film narrows within a tiny lifeboat, yet outside the scope of the incident continues to expand. Greengrass uses these contrasting notions of space to question the absurdity of the entire incident. By the end of the film, several U.S. Navy warships and a SEAL team stage an elaborate rescue of Phillips to stop four Somali pirates in a lifeboat incrementally inching its way towards the Somali coast. As the Americans attempt to negotiate with Muse and the SEAL team moves into place in order to kill four teenagers, Greengrass leads the viewer to question whether the incident warrants such a response. Inside the lifeboat, the Somali pirates, especially Muse, unrealistically cling to the idea of a million dollar payday, ignorant of the consequences of kidnapping an American. As the pirates bumble and fumble their way through their plan, they remain convinced, despite their inability to communicate with their bosses and net closing around them, that they will get their payday. When the Navy lures Muse off the lifeboat as part of its rescue plan, he stubbornly believes that handing himself over to the Navy will lead to his money. After the death of the other three pirates, the Navy takes Muse into custody. Rather than ending on a note of triumph, the film closes with a shocked Phillips in the sickbay trying to get control of himself and make sense of what has just happened.

The two captains. 
            Captain Phillips also contrasts the lives of the two captains, Phillips and Muse. Muse points out to Phillips when he seizes control of the Maersk Alabama that he is the captain now. They are both captains and middle managers of different ventures. Muse works to enrich Somali warlords with the outside hope of enriching himself. Phillips, worried about his family at home, hauls freight from one part of the world to another. Their fates reflect their respective backgrounds. Phillips, the citizen of a global superpower, garners the attention of the United States Navy and a SEAL team, all in order to secure his safety. Muse, a citizen of a poor and starving collection of warring tribes, ends up in prison. His Somali warlord bosses sacrifice him in order to live another day. The film highlights the differences between when the two captains when Phillips notes that the ship is carrying food aid to starving Africans. The pirates react indifferently as the food has little bearing on their situation. Tom Hanks does some of his best work in years as Phillips, the competent middle manager thrust into an escalating situation. He and Barkhad Abdi as Muse play well of each other, as Muse remains supremely confident despite his deteriorating condition.   

            In Captain Phillips, Greengrass challenges his audience to look beyond the pirates as simply villains and find sympathy for four teenagers who were nothing more than pawns and victims of birth and circumstance.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Revisiting Star Wars

            As we near the premiere of the seventh Star Wars movie, the somewhat confusingly titled, The Force Awakens (was it asleep?), let’s revisit the first film in the franchise: Star Wars: A New Hope. (We’re talking about the original theatrical cut of the film that was briefly made available on DVD a while ago, so no Greedo shooting first, no Han Solo talking to Jabba, and no other George Lucas nonsense).  

We're talking the original here.

             The cast represents one of the film’s greatest strengths. In his non-Indiana Jones iconic role, Ford plays the roguish Han Solo with the right balance of confidence, cockiness, and cunning. These traits shine through in the Cantina scene with Greedo. Greedo holds a blaster on Han the entire time. Yet Solo never betrays any concern over the situation. He calmly talks to Greedo while preparing to draw his weapon—confident in his ability to talk or blast his way out of the situation. When the conversation goes south, Solo demonstrates command over the situation by drawing first and killing Greedo. Ford’s nonchalant delivery of the “Sorry about the mess” line provides some darkly humorous closure to the scene. Mark Hamill successfully portrays Luke’s youthful angst and wonderment at the larger world. Even though the viewer has no idea what he is talking about, Hammil’s exasperated “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” highlights the world weary attitude unique to moody and sullen teenagers. I imagine the world of Star Wars must have confounded and frustrated Alec Guinness. Guinness won an Academy Award for The Bridge on the River Kwai, starred in Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A veteran Shakespearean actor, Guinness provided much of the exposition that drove the plot and made the fantasy world of Star Wars believable. While Princess Leia spends much of the film a prisoner, her character never succumbs to the cliché of a damsel in distress. Carrie Fisher’s chemistry with Harrison Ford becomes apparent in their first scenes together. Leia sarcastically berates Luke’s foolhardy plan of breaking her out her cell without a plan to get out of the detention block. Fisher plays Leia with a commanding and defiant air that serves her well opposite Luke’s naiveté and Han’s brashness.

None of this BS. Han shot first. 

            Lucas’s clunky dialogue—especially in the later prequel trilogy—presents the biggest problem in the film. He frequently causes the actors to nearly swallow their own tongues with his difficult to parse sentences. Darth Vader’s warning, “Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed” may read well on the page, but speaking it and listening to it are another matter.  The hard tongue sounds required to tie the alliteration of “technological terror” together ruins the flow of the sentence. There is a similar problem with Luke’s description of his home planet, “If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from.” The real problem is the subordinate clause, “that it’s the farthest from.” It is not immediately clear that the “it’s” refers back to the planet, and the “universe” is the unstated object of the preposition “from.” Film viewers do not want to have to do this much literary deconstruction in a sci-fi fantasy film. 

            The climactic Battle of Yavin IV, where the Rebels attack the Death Star, demonstrates the best that Lucas has to offer as a filmmaker. The visual effects remain believable even thirty five years later. Filming much of the battle within the cockpits of the X and W Wing fighters gives the viewer an intimate view of the battle and as the beleaguered pilots die off, the battle becomes even more contained and personal. Eventually Luke and Darth Vader square off as Luke races to destroy the Death Star. Lucas paces the battle scenes well, shifting between the battle raging in space and the Rebel and Imperial command centers as the Death Star nears closer to its firing position. The ticking clock provides increasing tension as the Rebels launch their bombing runs. Lucas takes the viewer right to the edge as Vader seems set to destroy Luke’s X-Wing before the triumphant return of Han Solo and the Rebels snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

            While it has been parodied and copied a million times over, A New Hope remains enjoyable viewing over thirty five years later. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Natchitoches Meat Pie

            Some states like Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, or New Jersey don’t have an official state food. Others like Wisconsin and Vermont have one. Louisiana, on the other hand, has five:

1.  Doughnut: the beignet
2.  Jelly: Louisiana sugar cane jelly
3.  Jelly: Mayhew jelly
4.  Cuisine: gumbo
5.  Meat pie: Natchitoches Meat Pie

So to sum up Louisiana has one cuisine, one doughnut, two (!) jellies, and a one official state meat pie. Jellies, beignets, and gumbo are pretty straightforward and easy to understand, but what is a Natchitoches meat pie and why is it the official meat pie of the state of Louisiana?

Natchitoches or New Orleans? 
             Natchitoches is a city of about eighteen thousand people located in central Louisiana. It is the parish seat of Natchitoches parish, which is about the size of Rhode Island. The city sits along the banks of the Cane River Lake, a river that once carried river traffic down to New Orleans, but has since been dammed. The city is known as a tourist attraction due its history and location. Front Street, the city’s main road, bears a striking resemblance to New Orleans. During the Christmas Festival, residents decorate the waterfront along Cane River with thousands of Christmas lights. The Festival includes fireworks, a parade, and other celebrations. There are several former plantations and historic sites that sit just outside the city. The city was also the location for the film, Steel Magnolias. Natchitoches was the oldest permanent settlement by the French in the Louisiana Purchase. Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established a fort and trading post there in 1714. The French wanted to trade with local Indians and keep an eye on the nearby Spanish.

The official state Meat Pie 

            So how then did the meat pie evolve into something famous enough to be named one of the official state foods of Louisiana? Well, the meat pie itself includes ground beef, ground pork, onions, peppers, garlic, wrapped inside of a pie shell. The crescent shaped shell is then fried and can be served on top of other traditional foods like red beans and rice. Despite its status as a French colony, the meat pie borrows from Spanish culinary traditions. It is remarkably similar to an empanada—a Spanish dish that features a pie crust wrapped around a savory filling. The Natchitoches version emerged out of the cultural contact between the French, Spanish, and local Natchitoches Indians. This cultural contact is especially important since early versions of the dish relied on a wheat crust. Wheat, as a crop, does not grow in the wet, hot climate of central Louisiana. Rather it had to be imported from Texas or carried up the river. As a result of this limited supply of wheat, the dish was primarily popular among local elites who could afford it. Due to its unique location and history, the meat pie is only found in Natchitoches.

            Restaurants in downtown Natchitoches all serve meat pies and every September the town hosts a meat pie festival, inviting participants to whip up their own versions of meat pies. So if you ever find yourself in Natchitoches be sure to give the meat pie a try. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

            Mad Max is one of those franchise/reboots that manages to surprise its audience. Marvel has cornered the market on competent franchise filmmaking. DC is attempting to follow in Marvel’s footsteps, but by positioning itself as the “serious” comic book movie series—as if all-powerful alien and a billionaire vigilante are somehow too highbrow for humor. As studios invest more and more into serialized filmmaking, the movies themselves become a means to end, rather than an end in themselves. MacGuffins populate the Marvel movies, each one a precisely planned piece of a plot puzzle. In the recent Avengers movie, the mention of the Infinity Stones, presaging Marvel’s Phase Three is more eye rolling than enticing. Tell this story, not the next four (Avengers: Infinity War due out in 2018!). Mad Max: Fury Road, a reboot of the Mel Gibson/George Miller franchise, offers unrelenting entertainment and spectacle. Apart from a brief introduction and interlude, the film is a non-stop chase sequence, brilliantly shot and choreographed.  Unlike many other franchise movies, Miller’s visuals show the audience the story, rather than relying on its characters to tell it.

Even the posters look awesome.
            Miller has presented a gorgeous and colorful post-apocalyptic landscape. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic film fare generally feature muted landscapes and color palettes, immersing the audience in a dark and dreary future. Instead the sun glitters off the desert and convoys of death cars. Relying primarily on practical effects, Miller swings soldiers atop long poles, in and out of the camera’s view, as they rein fire from above. Cars flip over, explode, and barrel relentlessly forward. There’s even a guy playing a gigantic guitar that shoots out flames. Another vehicle carries a squad of drummers, driving home the sense of unrelenting action. In one sequence, a storm envelops the chasing cars. Blinding sands give way to dark blue lightning in a stunning array of color. The film cuts quickly through the action, but never in the incoherent way that characterizes Michael Bay’s recent filmography. There are a few moments of glaringly obvious CGI, but nothing on the scale of other recent blockbusters (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson). Miller uses the desert oasis that bookends the film to visually demonstrate how power works in this future: gigantic wheels and machines bring water from the earth, providing hope for a desperate populace and power to the man who controls it.

The chase is on....
            The film’s plot is straightforward and the dialogue sparse. Characters rarely speak more than a few words and almost never call each other by name. Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, a soldier in service of Immortan Joe, the deluded and tyrannical leader of a colony of survivors in a post-apocalyptic Australia. Joe yields power through his control of natural resources and has built himself a cult of personality that would make Stalin jealous. His people view him as a God, giver of water and life. The women of his world, Furiosa and a group of five of his wives, see through the façade. They compose and execute an escape plan. As Furiosa escapes with the wives in tow, another of Joe’s soldiers, played by Nicholas Hoult, uses the recently captured Max (Tom Hardy) and his blood to fuel the pursuit. Hardy and Theron are the standouts in the film. With so little dialogue, Miller relies on the ability of this pair of actors to bring their characters to life through their physical performances. Theron’s face conveys her character’s determination and deep psychological scars. Hardy similarly demonstrates Max’s psychological break following his inability to save his family. What follows is a story of escape and redemption told through furious and unremitting action.

Yes, that's a man playing a flaming guitar.
            Mad Max presents fully realized female characters without having to justify them. Their power is ingrained and assumed in this world. Immortan Joe treats his women as property, the film doesn’t. They are Joe’s victims and they’re not going to take it anymore. Miller’s vision doesn’t have room for passive women who need the guidance or leadership of a man. As the film reaches its climax, the final confrontation involves Max, Furiosa, and a gang of women against Joe’s army. There are no speeches reminding the women of their power. They don’t need them. They don’t need to prove themselves to anyone. Miller makes this point by showing the audience these women’s power. Furiosa demonstrates her skills by destroying her enemies. She and Max trade blows and the wheel of their war machine without outshining each other. The other women have their moments as well. highlighted by the female motorcycle gang that helps bring the film to a close. Instead of simply making an argument for female empowerment, Miller clearly demonstrates it through the actions of his characters.

            Through its stunning visual effects and effective lead performances, Miller grabs hold of the viewer and never lets go. He revels in the spectacle of the film and we are all the better for it.