Tom Hanks vs. the pirates in Captain Phillips

by Mark Burger

Tom Hanks vs. the pirates in Captain Phillips

We’ve come to that inescapable time of year when studios both large and small begin unleashing and unloading their big Oscar hopefuls, jockeying for position in what will undoubtedly be a crowded marketplace.

With Captain Phillips, it’s a certainty that, indeed, the Oscar race has begun. A first-rate dramatization directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Billy Ray, the film is relentless in its pacing, irresistible in its momentum and simply a class act from beginning to end. That Greengrass and Ray achieve such tremendous interest and excitement is especially remarkable given that the story’s outcome is known.

Tom Hanks, likely steering his own course toward Oscar’s favor (and deservedly so), is in top form as Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship sailing from Oman to Kenya along the coast of Africa — a region heavy with modern-day piracy.

Indeed, in the midst of the journey and in the middle of the’ ocean, the Alabama is approached by Somali pirates. Despite measures to repel them, the gun-toting pirates board the ship and make known their demands.

The film offers a detailed depiction of the procedures followed by Phillips and his crew, and the US Navy’s subsequent response to the crisis, yet there’s never a dull moment. It never gets bogged down with unnecessary dialogue or dramatic baggage. Catherine Keener makes a brief appearance as the outset as Phillips’ wife, but the focus of the film is the issue at hand.

Greengrass brings the same in-your-face immediacy — and, indeed, intimacy — to the story that he brought to his Bourne films and United 93 (2006), for which he earned his first Oscar nomination (but likely not his last). Yet the characters don’t get lost within the larger scope of the events. In addition to Hanks’ effortless star turn, the cast includes Chris Mulkey, David Warshofsky, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson and Yul Vazquez. They may not be household names but they’re familiar faces, and all acquit themselves credibly in support. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi is especially impressive as Muse, the pirate leader, and it’s again to Greengrass and Ray’s credit that the pirates are not portrayed simply as frothing fanatics or gun-toting goons, but as desperate men thrust into desperate circumstances that, knowingly or not, will ultimately end badly for them.

In Muscle Shoals, love of the music

Music mavens will undoubtedly savor Muscle Shoals, a documentary by first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier that provides engaging insight into the history of Fame Studios, located in the titular Alabama town (the birthplace of Helen Keller, no less) on the banks of the Tennessee River.

Fame founder Rick Hall, who has overcome considerable personal tragedy throughout his life, was the brains behind the endeavor, immortalized both in song (“Sweet Home Alabama,” anyone?) and now on film.

Longish but never lazy, the film features a legendary line-up of musical notables including Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys and Jimmy Cliff, all of whom provide insight into the legacy of Fame Studios. Their memories aren’t always candy-coated, but they remain indelibly imprinted — and some of the personal strife and creative differences common in any form of art often yielded unforgettable results, in this case for all the world to hear.

Given Anthony Arendt’s gorgeous cinematography and a can’t-miss selection of soundtrack tunes, Muscle Shoals is a treat for the eyes and ears, and it conveys its history in an unforced, engaging manner. Audiences would also be well advised to remain during the end credits; there are still a few amusing tidbits told before the screen goes black.

Muscle Shoals is scheduled to open Friday in Greensboro and Winston-Salem

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