Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Captain Phillips
I’d not been able to catch this at the cinema last year but, as recommended by Mark Kermode on his Radio 5 programme, watched A Highjacking, another ‘Somali pirates take merchant ship’ thriller, last year on DVD to compensate. Told how intense this film was, I was a little disappointed at first as it didn’t quite match the Danish film. But then…

Comparing the two is perhaps a little unfair as the Danish film was fictional, and so is free to wander wherever dramatic need requires, whereas this is based on a real incident, with real, named, characters and so is expected to stick pretty closely to the real events.

The film opens with Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) saying goodbye to his wife as he’s about to take command of a ship through the Persian Gulf, and we also see young Somali fisherman Muse (Barkhad Abdi) volunteering as a pirate recruited by gun-wielding thugs who ‘own’ the villages along the coast and intimidate the inhabitants. The ordinariness of Phillips’ life is pretty strongly contrasted with the scary gangster state Muse inhabits. The taking of the ship is pretty tense, as the crew try to keep off the pirates with water hoses, the only ‘weapon’ at their disposal and, having failed, secrete most of the crew in the lower decks and try to kill the lights and the engines until they can buy off or drive away their kidnappers.

What surprised me was that the recovery of the ship was only really the first act and, trying not to give too much away, there is plenty more action and tension as Phillips and Muse try to get the better of one another afterwards.

And the final scene – wow! Hanks completely should have got that Oscar nomination. If the rest of the film felt a little distant, a little controlled, to me, it was more than made up for by an absolute powerhouse performance in an utterly moving finale that felt completely real.


X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)

xmen dofp
Ok, so X-Men and X2 were great, First Class and The Wolverine were pretty good and X3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were execrable. So, a mixed bag to date. When I heard that Bryan Singer was returning to take charge, my hopes were raised but then people started pointing out, quite reasonably, that Singer’s record of late hasn’t been quite so stellar – and Superman Returns was, while not so bad as the X-Men stinkers, pretty turgid.

I’m glad to report that this film is among the best – not quite topping the list but a happy addition to the canon.

It has enough action and tension to entertain at the more visceral level and enough brains to justify the thrills. We start the action in a near-future where the last remaining mutants are fighting a losing battle against the Sentinals, giant super-powered robots designed to destroy mutants but now destroying anyone with the capacity to pass on mutant genes – basically, most of humanity. The mutants’ last trick is to launch attacks and keep sending one of their number, Bishop, far enough back in time to warn his colleagues when a Sentinal attack is imminent. Most people can’t go very far back without suffering brain damage. A high risk plan is hatched, to send Wolverine, who has preternatural healing powers, all the way back to 1973, when Magneto (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) were deadly enemies but will both be required (in their younger incarnations) to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the inventor of the Sentinals, an act which has been identified as the point at which the machines were both deemed necessary and provided with their unstoppable powers. In the meantime of the future time, the last remaining mutants prepare to defend the sleeping Wolverine from the Sentinals’ onslaught, who must be kept alive until his mission in the past is complete.

If the above reads as confused or confusing, it’s because there is a ridiculous amount of back-story and exposition I’m dropping, and an enormous cast of characters of whom we see only glimpses, who will mean an awful lot to fans of the previous films and/or comics but will just look like “decorative background colour” to anyone else. For the most part, I suspect the film is told well enough that a casual viewer could follow the plot, though specific scenes might appear cryptic or baffling. It is a shame that so few of the main characters got significant screen time; like X2, most only appear fleetingly (though I gave a “whoop” for the appearance of one of my favourites at the end). In tying both past and future franchises together, there was even more competition for attention than previously. I hope that, having reinvigorated the series, it will be possible to have films that concentrate on different casts, on perhaps a slightly smaller scale, as The Wolverine did.