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The Shelf: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, MACHETE KILLS, CAT PEOPLE

The threat of violence is all around us on The Shelf this week. Pirates are attacking ships, mercenaries are invading the borders, and Ed Begley Jr. gets his arm torn off by the panther version of Malcolm McDowell. It’s dangerous out there, you guys. Plus, human monsters, ancient monsters, butt monsters, and two releases with “Bang Bang” in the title. Weird, right? Like, really weird.

Captain Phillips

Director Paul Greengrass is known for his tense and realistic depictions of action and fear. His work on the second two Bourne movies solidified him as an auteur of shakycam, but it was his Oscar-nominated work on the very sad biographical drama, United 93, that really made people sit up and take notice. His newest film, Captain Phillips, is much more in the vein of the latter: hijackers from without taking control of an American vessel. In this case, it’s a huge ocean freighter making its way around Africa when it’s attacked twice by Somali pirates, the second time resulting in them getting aboard and threatening the lives of the crew. The ship’s captain, played by Tom Hanks, has to try to calm the situation and make the desperate men, led by Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi, leave. That doesn’t quite happen.

This, of course, is based on the true story of the 2009 hijacking of the mining vessel Maersk Alabama which resulted in Captain Richard Phillips being kidnapped and held for ransom in one of the MV’s life boats. It’s an incredibly tense situation, with a portion of the early hijacking, in which the crew of the ship set up tiny booby traps for the pirates, coming across as a very high-stakes game of Hide & Seek, well established as the most nerve-wracking game one can play. As a viewer, you begin to catch yourself wringing your hands and grinding your teeth as the story unfolds and more bad stuff starts to happen. Throughout, Hanks’ Phillips is trying in vain to make the pirates leave and let him go, taking with them the $32,000 they have in the safe, but these men answer to an even nastier man and they can’t go back without millions. Both men are in a situation they hate, but have to do what they can to survive.

While there is some doubt raised as to whether what the real Capt. Phillips did was as brave and selfless as what the movie version did (in fact, it’s been flatly refuted by many members of the Maersk Alabama’s crew), Hanks gives one of his best performances in years and is more raw than he’s perhaps ever been onscreen. Abdi earns a very deserving Oscar nomination for his role as the lead pirate, who is clearly young and out of his depth but, again, desperate. We really begin to feel for him and his plight, even as he does very unsympathetic things. The interplay between the two of them is brilliant, and makes the movie that much more compelling.

The Blu-ray features a commentary by director Greengrass and a three-part documentary on the making of the movie. Slight but informative.

If you’d like to learn more about this movie, check out Dan Casey’s review, his interview with Barkhad Abdi, and listen to Tom Hanks on the Nerdist Podcast.

Machete Kills

This is a really weird case: a sequel to a movie that was a spinoff from a fake trailer made for a spoof movie that didn’t do well financially. And yet, somehow, Machete Kills got made. It’s an infinitely better film that its predecessor, Machete, and I think most of that is to do with the fact that Robert Rodriguez actually directed the whole thing, as opposed to “co-directing” the first part, which really just meant he directed the fake trailer and all of those bits get pulled in for the film, even though they look a billion times better than the rest of the movie. Make sense? Okay. Rodriguez has always been the king of action movies that are shot on the cheap but use big name actors because they take such a small time commitment. This one’s full of names who are in bits and pieces, and at the center of it all is Danny Trejo, who is just a badass.

The story follows Machete Cortez (Trejo), a former Federale turned mercenary trying to help Mexicans in their fight to get across the border. At the beginning of the movie, whilst on a mission, he and his partner are attacked by a paramilitary group and his partner is killed, leaving him distraught and without the will to keep fighting. He must, however, because he is picked up by the President of the United States, played by Carlos Estevez (it’s Charlie Sheen, you guys), and made to go into Mexico to kill a ruthless and maniacal warlord (Demian Bichir) who has a bunch of high-quality armaments. However, the warlord has a device attached to his heart that, if stopped, will send a missile to blow up the White House. So now Machete has to bring this man back to America so the device can be defused, but everyone in Mexico hates him and wants him dead. Add to that a cadre of angry prostitutes led by Sofia Vergara, a disguise-wearing assassin played initially by Walton Goggins, and a deadly beauty pageant girl played by Amber Heard, and Machete’s got his work cut out for him. Oh, and Mel Gibson’s in it as a time-travelling Bond villain.

Machete Kills is very silly, but it’s actually a great deal of fun. Rodriguez knows how to shoot action and who to cast to make the very arch dialogue as funny as possible. Bichir and Gibson actually give by far the best performances in the film as the loquacious and baroque villains, and they play nicely off of Trejo’s steely-eyed, craggy-faced stoicism. The main complaint I have about any of it is that the CGI effects are truly awful a lot of the time. I love that Rodriguez is all about filmmaking on the fly and doing it all himself or in-house at his Austin, TX, studios. But, that being said, some of the more outlandish effects look like they belong in an Asylum or Syfy original movie, which immediately takes the project down a little bit. Some of it looks great, mind you, but some of it looks awful.

Those things aside, Machete Kills is a whole lot of fun and a very enjoyable way to spend an evening. The Blu-ray has a 20-minute making of and some deleted scenes. Wish we got a proper Rodriguez disc like he did with so many other movies, but maybe there’ll be a special edition.

Cat People Collectors Edition

Paul Schrader was a big name in the ’70s and ’80s for his gritty, often hard-to-watch stories. As a writer, he’s probably best known for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but he also directed movies like Hard Core and American Gigolo. His follow-up to Gigolo is a pretty oddball choice, really, in that it was a remake of a 1940s Universal horror movie about a woman who might turn into a cat but we never see it. Weird, right? Well, Schrader turns up the eroticism and sort of downplays the horror a bit to make his version of Cat People very distinct and original.

The story follows a young woman (Nastassja Kinski) who was orphaned her whole life and who comes to New Orleans to meet her long-lost brother (Malcolm McDowell). Turns out, though, that these two are part of an ancient society of people who turn into panthers when they get sexually aroused. Like ya do. When McDowell as a panther attacks a prostitute (Lynn Lowry), the local zoo people (John Heard, Annette O’Toole, Ed Begley Jr) decide to take in the poor creature and put him in the tiniest cage of all time. Eventually, Kinski comes to the zoo, not yet knowing why, and gets a job there and becomes the romantic fixation of Heard, but also of her own brother, who believes that the cat people must only get it on with each other. It’s very bizarre.

Full of atmosphere, nudity, spurts of violence, and cougars that have been dyed black, Cat People is definitely a film you need to watch closely to fully comprehend. It also benefits from a really haunting score by Giorgio Moroder and a killer final song performed by David Bowie, which was been given new life when used in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

The collectors’ edition Blu-ray features interviews with Schrader, Moroder, Kinski, Heard, McDowell, O’Toole, and Lowry. So, everybody, really.

ALSO AVAILABLE

Blue Jasmine – I didn’t particularly like Woody Allen’s latest film, for a number of reasons, but I’d be a fool not to recognize the brilliantly pained performance of Cate Blanchett as the titular character suffering from a nervous breakdown.

Comedy Bang Bang Season One – The first season of Scott Aukerman’s brilliant spoof talk show comes to DVD with commentaries by some of the more colorful characters on the show. A Bob Ducca commentary? That’s all you need to know.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Weird this is coming out the same week, huh? Synergy, perhaps.

In a World… – Lake Bell’s directorial debut has her trying to break into the cuthtroat business of movie trailer announcing and pits her against big shot Ken Marino and her own father. Check out my interview with Lake Bell about the project.

Bad Milo! – And speaking of Ken Marino, in this movie he has a tiny demon living in his butt. So there’s that. Hear him talk about ass monsters and more on the Nerdist Podcast.

Die Monster Die! – Boris Karloff is at it again in this film loosely based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, the first movie to use the Cthulu-creator’s work.

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