Tag Archives: Catherine Keener

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

The humble shipping container is arguably the most important invention of the 20th Century. Without it the world would be far less connected and international trade would be slower and less valuable than it is today. The container is therefore a facilitator for globalisation and a modern success story. However, while globalisation can be good — in widening trade,  breaking cultural barriers, and making the world connected — it is not without its externalities. And the conflict in Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips (2013, 134 mins) sees both sides of the globalisation argument come face to face where else but on a container ship.

The Maersk Alabama, an American-flagged feeder vessel routinely sailing between Oman and Kenya, made the news in 2009 when it was hijacked off the Somalian coast. While it’s well known that piracy is rife in the region this particular hijacking was notable for the size of the ship targeted. Her captain at the time was Richard Phillips and it’s his account of the incident, as told in his 2010 book A Captain’s Duty, that sees Tom Hanks step into his shoes.

Despite its maritime setting, the film sets two stories in motion. The first is the eponymous captain’s as he gets his briefing and packs his bags for the trip ahead. En route to the airport he references the current global downturn noting to his wife (Catherine Keener) that, back in his day you could walk into a job and work your way up the ladder. Not so now, with myriad applicants chasing every job, and, on the other side of the world, we see this first hand, as Somalian gang leaders demand a ship be captured. Those willing outweigh the eventual pirates.

When both parties finally meet we get a drawn out stalemate between crew and pirates, although the latter always have something of an upper hand…and guns. Chief among them is Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a skinny wretch who, perhaps because of his scrawniness, has something more to prove and therefore doesn’t need to think twice about violence to make himself understood. The performance is both engrossing and extremely intense; a real achievement for a first time actor. The much trailered moment when he commands Captain Phillips to “look at me” a perfect encapsulation of the portrayal overall. Also debuts, the remaining pirates (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali) show themselves as more than capable too, both in capturing the ship and in the infighting that follows.

Hanks, as Captain Phillips, is superb in so much that it’s easy to forget that the man on screen is a character being acted. His performance feels natural, embodying as he does a man who is calm under pressure at all times. How heroic one takes him in the context of a true story is a personal choice —  while the movie is based on Phillips’s account, it’s something that others involved have questioned — it works within the film because it needs to be a single hero facing off against the pirates rather than a concerted crew effort. The latter is simply not Hollywood. While support does come via the US Navy, the focus is all on the captain. Come the final few minutes, Hanks dials up his acting a further few notches, all that stoicism converted into something deeply raw, emotional, and affecting.

What really brings the movie together is the style in which it is delivered. Greengrass’s camera is restless, swinging this way and that as it hunts the action. It’s like being inside a documentary as it happens, such is its immediacy. Thankfully, away from the claustrophobic closeness to the action, he also gives us moments of air in which we can see the larger picture, of ships at sea. But even here, with a container ship’s relatively slow manoeuvring speed, we get a sense of high octane action. Days become nights and become days again, hinting at a longer duration for the story, but with no mention of days passing, time becomes compressed to ensure we remain on the edge of our seats.

Despite the veracity of his account, Captain Richard Phillips will certainly heed the old captain’s duty that he will go down with his ship. In history, at least. But it’s not who did what that should lead the debate around Captain Phillips. Instead the effects of globalisation as discussed in the movie are where the real debate should lie. Is the west, in all its capitalist glory, responsible for the poverty elsewhere that drives people to become criminals against their nature? If so, what can be done about it? While there’s no answers, the questions are posed. All a movie like this can do is educate others on how the comfortable western lifestyle as typified by Captain Phillips is not without its victims who will bite back.

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