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Phillips thrills, Machete is dull 

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CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Director Paul Greengrass has a dead-accurate, razor-edged sense of story. One could say he makes action movies (the second and third Bourne installments, Green Zone), but that doesn't quite get it. He distills the essential elements of large-scale conflict into absorbing, often impossibly intense human dramas. Despite taking on big stories about big subjects, his work always carries an air of intimacy and smallness that amplifies its themes. Captain Phillips uses as vast a canvas as anything on Greengrass' resume, but he and star Tom Hanks boil it down to the essentials, yielding a deeply involved, compelling study in adversity and vulnerability.

Captain Phillips is based on the real-life April 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk-Alabama, an American cargo ship en route from Oman to Kenya. Four very committed Somali pirates (all between the ages of 17 and 19, I've lately learned) successfully board the ship, taking Captain Phillips (Hanks) and a couple of the crew hostage. The remaining 20 or so crew members manage to evade capture, eventually shutting down all of the ship's power systems and nabbing the pirate leader. An attempt to trade him for Phillips goes awry, and the captain ends up sharing the close quarters of a lifeboat with his captors.

As this stalemate wears on, the story becomes a study in foils: Phillips, a hard-nosed Yankee family man, contrasted against Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a slight but ferocious go-getter with warlord bosses breathing down his neck. The U.S. Navy establishes a presence on-scene, attempting to negotiate a peaceful resolution as relations within the pirate group begin to erode. Phillips tries to reason with Muse, who sees returning to Somalia with his American hostage as the only viable solution. The situation can't help but end badly for at least one of the parties involved. The resolution is a matter of historical record now, but the movie is so charged, so riveting, that I'd rather not spoil the surprise for those who don't know how it ends.

True to life or not, Captain Phillips is top-shelf action-drama through and through. It bears all of Greengrass' cinematic fingerprints: a balance of thoughtfully composed static shots and visceral, frenetic handheld camera; a structure of constantly escalating risk; fluid but forceful editing; an exploration of the human ability to adapt to trying circumstances. If you like what he's done in the past, you'll enjoy this. But even those who could take or leave his earlier work may well be won over by Hanks' performance here. I was concerned initially that his movie-stardom would distract from the harsh realism of the story. But he's Tom Hanks for a reason, and that reason is that he is very, very good at what he does. He may not always choose the most adventurous roles to take on, but in Captain Phillips he gives a truly open, vulnerable, startling performance. The movie satisfies on any number of levels, but Hanks does some career-best work here, and it is captivating. PG13. 134m.

MACHETE KILLS. Does anyone else remember the genesis of this character? Machete seemed such a promising prospect when he was just a fake movie trailer in the intermission between Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. We were so full of hope back then...

Machete debuted in 2010 and immediately revealed that the titular character worked better within the confines of a one-minute trailer. The movie had some fun moments of ultra-violence and gratuitous nudity, but its nods to exploitation cinema — without which it would not exist — were too imitative, not inventive enough. Compared to this sequel, though, the first installment seems like a masterwork.

Machete Kills opens with our eponymous hero (played by the great Danny Trejo) framed for murder and weapons trafficking. He's saved from the noose by a red-phone call from the President of the United States (Carlos Estevez, wink), and it's off to Mexico to deal with an ever-expanding, increasingly disappointing underworld that includes a murderous madam, a revolutionary leader with multiple personalities, a sinister arms manufacturer with a Star Wars fetish, and a host of other incidental characters. (There's less fun to be had than the description would lead you to believe).

Co-writer/director Rodriguez attempts so much with Machete Kills that it was bound to fail. As the wafer-thin plot blows down the road, he piles ever more predictable twists and hastily sketched caricatures. The action set pieces, some of which could have been pretty cool, come and go with inadequate setup and lazy execution. Rodriguez made his name in the business by creating a big effect with modest resources, but here he inverts the formula and it blows up in all our faces. I wanted to like Machete Kills, I really did. And to be fair, it has its moments, but they're too few and too far between. Tragically — almost unbelievably — this movie is deeply boring. R. 104m.

John J. Bennett


CARRIE. Prom prank goes awry in a remake of the Stephen King classic. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as the mother and daughter with issues. R. 99m.

ESCAPE PLAN. Stallone and Schwarzenegger are busting out of the joint. And evidently still working out. Know where your exits are. R. 116m.

THE FIFTH ESTATE. Benedict Cumberbatch goes blonde as WikiLeaker Julian Assange. With Daniel Bruhl as his partner in transparency. R. 128m.


CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. The 3-D sequel goes a little Dr. Moreau when food creatures populate an island and hero Flint (Bill Hader) has to stop them. PG. 95m.

DON JON. Love makes a man out of playboy Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the touching comedy he also wrote and directed. With Scarlett Johansson. R. 90m.

ENOUGH SAID. A woman finds out her wonderful new boyfriend is her friend's horrible ex. Whoops. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini star. PG13. 93m.

GRAVITY. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are adrift in space. It's the best of sci-fi with a real human story. PG13. 90m.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Style, story and a satisfying scare in director James Wan's haunted family follow-up. PG13. 106m.

PRISONERS. Wrenching masterpiece with Hugh Jackman as the father of a missing child and and Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective out to find her. R. 146m.

RUNNER RUNNER. Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake go 5 o'clock shadow to 5 o'clock shadow and try to stretch a 30-minute plot into a feature film. R. 91m.

RUSH. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl race neck and neck in Ron Howard's thrilling popcorn cruncher about the 1976 Formula One racing season. R. 123m.

WE'RE THE MILLERS. Implausible drug smuggling comedy wastes the usually funny Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Anniston. R. 110m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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