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Blu-ray Review: 'Captain Phillips'

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The Film:

Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips” has been one of the most lauded films of 2013, earning nominations from major groups such as AMPAS, PGA, DGA, WGA, SAG, and BAFTA. There are certainly a number of things to like about it, and it is a decent film, but after having seen it twice, I still don’t see why it’s been garnering as much attention as it has been. It’s a somewhat simple film, telling the story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), who takes charge of a cargo run that goes through dangerous, pirate-infested waters. The voyage has hardly begun when the ship comes under attack from a group of Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). They manage to board the ship and take the crew hostage, but circumstances eventually force them to kidnap Phillips and flee aboard a small emergency vessel, leading to a tense standoff between the pirates and the US Navy.

The first act of the film is arguably its best, containing some of the tensest sections that involve the pirates trying to board the vessel and eventually holding the crew they are able to find hostage. You know they’re going to get onto the ship, but Greengrass provides plenty of excitement here as the crew does everything they can to prevent that from happening. Once the pirates are forced to flee in the emergency craft, the film goes into a strange period of hibernation (reminding me a lot of how “American Hustle,” another big award nominee, is structured) where very little happens. Sure, you get a little bit of excitement, such as an escape attempt by Phillips, but you know it’s not going to end quite so easy. For the most part, this section ends up making the audience wait for the story to pick back up again, which, luckily, it does.

This brings us to the big finale where the tension level is once again put on high as we wait to see how things play out. The only issue that Greengrass and company have in this section is that it’s a little drawn out. It’s understandable that he wants to milk the tense standoff for everything it’s worth, but after a while, you get to a point where you’re just ready for it to conclude. The ending itself certainly doesn’t disappoint. Between the desperation of both parties, it’s very hard to take your eyes off the screen. It’s rather obvious that Phillips survives (he wrote the book off of which the film is based), but how he was rescued still makes for a grand finale.

The best elements of “Captain Phillips” are Paul Greengrass’ direction and the cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, both of whom have been nominated for Oscars before in their respective fields. Greengrass is well-known for being able to create tension with his techniques in films like “United 93,” The Bourne Supremacy,” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Here he uses his skills to great effect once again, delivering a film that gives a riveting “you are there” feeling to the experience. Ackroyd’s cinematography adds to the effect with lots of handheld camera shots, something that leads to what some commonly refer to as “shaky cam,” but here it works extremely well.

Tom Hanks has been getting a lot of notice for his portrayal of Phillips, and while it’s a decent performance, it’s not one that I would go throwing awards at (and apparently the Academy agrees). He’s most effective in the first act as he tries to save his crew and mislead the pirates, but after this, he basically gets stuck in a corner of the emergency craft and is given very little to say or do. There’s also been much made about his final scene. I see what he was trying to go for, but it ends up coming off as a bit silly and over-the-top. Barkhad Abdi, Hank’s co-star, has also been receiving a lot of recognition for his performance as the leader of the Somali pirates, but this is even more puzzling. Abdi is not a professional actor (in fact he was a limo driver before this film), and it shows. That’s not saying it’s a bad performance. It’s satisfactory, but by no means is it award-worthy.

What we end up with with “Captain Phillips” is a film that works well overall, but could have easily used a little trimming from the midsection to help it flow a lot better. That being said, there’s plenty of tension to keep the parts that do work moving rapidly, drawing the audience into the story and making them wonder how things will be resolved in the end. Critics may have been exaggerating its greatness a bit, but it’s still very much worth seeing.

Video/Audio:

“Captain Phillips” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that has been remastered in 4K, giving it the best look possible. Every frame is crystal clear and sharp, showing all the hard work that went into it for this release. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also top-notch, allowing you to hear every little sound at appropriate volume and in perfect clarity. This is another release where you simply couldn’t ask for better video or audio, both of which provide an optimal experience.

Special Features:

Commentary with Director Paul Greengrass: This is a rather disappointing commentary track that merely has Greengrass spending most of the time describing what’s happening on screen while providing very superficial info about what he was trying to do with each scene. I was hoping for much more detailed information on the making of the film, but sadly there’s not really any to be found.

Capturing Captain Phillips: A fantastic behind the scenes look at the making of the film that features interviews with the cast, crew, and even the real Captain Phillips and his wife. It runs about an hour and shows us the difficulties of making the film on the open sea, giving us a look at Greengrass’ directing techniques in the process. This is definitely worth taking a look at if you’re interested in how the film was made or if you’re just a fan of learning about filmmaking in general.

Conclusion:

With a decent film and a great in-depth “Making of” documentary, this is easily a recommendable release. I wish there had been more to the commentary track, but everything you need to know, you end up learning in the extensive look behind the scenes anyway. While I still find it a little strange that “Captain Phillips” has been getting as much awards attention as it has, it’s still worth taking a look at for Greengrass’ intense direction and a story that will have your eyes glued to the screen. For most of it at least.

Score: 3.5/5

Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.

Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: You're Next, A Single Shot, Insidious: Chapter 2, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Elysium, The Hunt, Touchy Feely, The Rooftop, Drinking Buddies, Inpractical Jokers: Season One, Planes, Paranoia, The To Do List, Blackfish

Now playing in theaters: The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Dallas Buyers Club

Also be sure to check out my lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2013.

Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.

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