Tag: Barkhad Abdi

Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks is kidnapped by pirates in Captain Phillips

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain Richard Phillips), Barkhad Abdi (Abduwali Muse), Barkhad Abdirahman (Adan Bilal), Faysal Ahmed (Nour Najee), Mahat M, Ali (Walid Elmi), Michael Chernus (Shane Murphy), David Warshofsky (Mike Perry), Corey Johnson (Ken Quinn), Chris Mulkey (John Cronan), Catherine Keener (Andrea Phillips), Max Martini (SEAL commander)

The best of Paul Greengrass’ directorial work brings documentary realism to compelling real-life events, laced with tragedy. He’s made extraordinary films about Bloody Sunday and 9/11 and bought his unique style to Jason Bourne and the Green Zone of Iraq. Captain Phillips continues this, bringing to life the true story of the hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of its captain Richard Phillips. And this is a brilliantly tense and dynamic film which seizes the viewer in a vice-like grip and never once lets up for a moment of its runtime. 

Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, dedicated and professional merchant captain, whose ship is eventually seized by four Somali pirates, led by Abduwali Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who landed BAFTA and  Oscar nominations for this work here). Phillips is determined to protect the crew (who are hidden around the ship), while the pirates are desperate for a life-changing score that could free them from lives of crushing poverty in Somalia. With such high stakes to play for, Phillips and Muse find themselves engaged in a battle of wills and wits – but with only one of them armed with a gun.

Greengrass’ film is almost unbelievably tense. From the first appearance of Muse’s skiff off the Maersk Alabama to the film’s end, Greengrass manages to keep the audience on a knife edge for over two hours – this despite it being based on a true story where we know the hero will come out in one piece. Shot in the typical Greengrass style, with an at-times jittery handheld camera – brilliantly shot by Barry Ackroyd, a master of this style – this is an immersive drama to an extreme degree. You really do feel part of the action, with the immediacy of the shooting infecting the entire viewing experience.

This is powered further by Greengrass’s superb work with actors – and he draws some marvellous performances here. Tom Hanks – inexplicably not nominated for an Oscar – gives a near career best performance as Phillips. Hanks’ natural skill at playing regular, relatable guys in impossible situations is perfect for Phillips, but he mixes it here first a slightly stern authoritative distance Phillips has with the crew and a deep sense of duty. On top of which, thrown into an impossible situation Hanks has Phillips walking a tight-rope of being seen to co-operate with the hijackers, while trying to work against them, while simultaneously becoming increasingly frayed around the edges. The final sequences alone – of a shocked and emotionally exhausted Phillips – were deserving of the highest honours, raw and honest work from Hanks who confirms he is a great actor.

To go toe-to-toe in scenes with Hanks would be a challenge for most actors – imagine how difficult it must be for a first time performer. Chosen from thousands of applicants, Barkhard Abdi is superb as Muse. Confident, determined but quietly, unspokenly, out of his depth, Muse is determined not to be taken for a ride, but also desperately improvising – a man who feels he doesn’t have choices in his own life, so must cling to an opportunity no matter how remote it becomes, until the bitter end. Abdi is fierce and strong – “Look me in the eye – I’m the captain now!” he firmly tells Phillips – but as the film progresses, it’s clear his control over the other pirates is loose and, smart as Abdi is, he’s also naïve in how much power he holds against the might of the US military sent to free Phillips.

Greengrass’ film skilfully adds enough beats of the poverty and desperation of Somalia to avoid these pirates ever becoming just faceless heavies and thieves. The group are introduced in a poverty-stricken fishing village, Muse choosing from dozens of desperate volunteers to man his crew. Muse stresses to Phillips that while there may be more choices than fisherman and pirate, in Somalia there aren’t – and that international shipping lines have disrupted the traditional fishing areas around the Somali coast. These are desperate and determined men –not blindly evil – and they need a massive score – the $30k they’re offered from the ship’s safe isn’t going to cut it.

The film brings this intensity into play for every action of the pirates. Early on, the smallness and decrepitude of Muse’s skiff is compared frequently with the height and vastness of the Maersk Alabama, with the pirates’ daring and dangerous boarding of the ship as tensely involving as the ship’s crew’s struggle to evade them and protect their own lives.

The wide open vastness and hide-and-seek of the Alabama is then expertly swopped for the claustrophobia of the escape ship that the four hijackers and Phillips spend the final hour of the film on. Here anger rises within the ship – cramped, hot, low on water, with some of those in the ship badly wounded – while outside, the US military masses to prevent the ship making it to the Somali shore. Any idea that the pirates will triumph is removed – but the tension still exists as to how Phillips himself can survive a situation on his small boat that is spiralling faster and faster out of control.

All this superbly marshalled by Greengrass from start to finish, the film a masterclass in wringing every drop of expectation and investment from a compelling real-life story. With wonderful performances from the two lead actors, the film never once lets up in its electric pace and all-pervading sense of danger. With Hanks and Abdi superb, it’s a film that won’t let you go for a second. Inexplicably, despite a Best Picture nomination, the main elements of its success (except Abdi) – Hanks, Greengrass and Ackroyd – all missed out on nominations. That’s the problem when you are so skilled you make it look easy.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Ryan Gosling does a man’s job filling some difficult shoes in Blade Runner 2049

Director:  Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Officer K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Ana da Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Lt. Joshi), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), Carla Juri (Dr Ana Stelline), Lennie James (Mr Cotton), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Barkhad Abdi (Doc Badger), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sean Young (Rachael)

SPOILERS: It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Blade Runner 2049 without revealing some of the workings of the plot. Since the film makers have gone out of the way to say “don’t reveal any of the plot” I thought it fair to say I’ll discuss some things fairly freely here. So you’ve been warned!

Making a sequel is a risky business at the best of times. Then imagine making a sequel to a film that is not just a cultural and artistic landmark film but one people genuinely love. The possibility of creating a massive disappointment? Pretty big. You need some guts to take that on – like announcing you are making Gone with the Wind: Blown Away or Casablanca: Everyone Back to Rick’s. That’s the sort of challenge for the makers of the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. Could they make something that both complemented and expanded on the original?

The year is 2049 (of course!). K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner with the task of hunting down long-lived Nexus-8 replicants – the twist being (and its revealed in the opening minutes of the film!) that K himself is a replicant, a more obedient Nexus-9 model. After “retiring” aged replicant farmer Sapper Morton (a career best Dave Bautista), K locates the buried remains of a female replicant who died after an emergency caesarean section. Terrified that replicants may be developing the ability to reproduce, K’s superiors order him to “retire” the child and all who know of it. As K investigates, his loyalties become ever more divided – while sinister corporate genius Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Nexus-9 hit-woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) have their own plans for the replicant child.

So the big question is, does Blade Runner 2049 succeed? The answer is a firm and reassuring yes. The big issue is, does the existence of this film affect (or even ruin) the previous film? Blade Runner 2049 not only complements the original, it builds on and expands its themes, and poses far more questions than answers. In some ways it’s even more profound and searching than the original – arguably it engages with ideas and concepts even more overtly (and richly). If your concern going into this film was it would end any discussion about whether Deckard is a replicant or not, then have no fears – the question remains as open as ever (and works either way for this story).

Even more than the original, this film tackles what it means to be human and how we define humanity by the ability to express emotions and empathy. It comes at this from a different stand-point from Blade Runner by removing any doubt about our hero’s nature. What is more, he is a replicant deliberately designed to be more obedient than earlier models. A cool, minimalist actor with a mastery of small expressions, Ryan Gosling is almost perfectly cast as the quiet K, developing deep yearnings to be more than what he is. The entire film revolves around this question of how capable K is not only of forming emotions, but of making his own choices.

The ability to live freely and choose is at the heart of the conundrums for all our characters. To what extent are they able to do this? K goes about his work of dispatching fellow replicants with a quiet reluctance, but does his duty nevertheless. But he is a character yearning to be “more” – and what, in many ways, is more human than that? The film taps into this expertly with K’s belief that maybe he himself is replicant child. The film’s mantra is about choosing what we live and what we die for and, regardless of who or what we are, being able to do this is what makes us “more”.

In a film stuffed to the gills with replicants and other artificial characters, we are constantly asked to address and question how far each of them goes towards achieving “humanity”. Just as with Blade Runner, the only two definitely human characters (Niander Wallace and Lt Joshi) are strangely distant, hard to read or even cruel authoritarian figures, making a damn bad case for real humans.

Joi (brilliantly played by Ana de Armas), K’s girlfriend, is a warm, caring, loving woman – but she’s also a hologram, designed to be the perfect companion. K and she go to great lengths to protect and care for each other over the film – and her final fate is a deeply moving moment. But Joi is a computer programme – and a late sequence in the film where K interacts sadly with a looming holographic advert of another Joi that repeats many of her phrases in a disconnected style casts a sad light on all their previous interactions. Every time Joi said anything with love or affection to K, was this just a computer reflecting back what her owner wanted to hear?

It’s not a great surprise to say K does eventually learn to make his own choices and to decide his own fate. In many ways this is a fable of growing up – K accepting his limitations while forging his own destiny – but it makes a contrast with other replicants. While the older models form their own resistance, K’s counterpart Luv (an imposing Sylvia Huks) can’t or won’t break free of following Wallace’s commands. There are more than a few hints Luv is not always happy with the duties she is asked to perform (at one point she weeps quietly as a replicant is dispatched). But at others, she’s clearly striving as much as K to be “special” – she triumphantly repeats a mantra to herself about being the best, like a daughter trying to impress her father.

These new characters offer such diverse and exciting story-telling opportunities, you almost don’t notice that Deckard doesn’t appear in the film until nearly the third act. Harrison Ford may have been slightly uncomfortable in the original – but he fully understands the more assured, confident Deckard in this film, who has made his peace with leaving the world behind. Ford gives this new Deckard an almost Han Solo-ish shoot-first swagger, but mixes it with a world-weary sadness. I’d go so far as to say he’s actually better in this film than the first one.

Which is a further testament to the strength of this film. All the themes and ideas of the original are used as bouncing-off points for further exploration. This never feels like a retread, reboot or remake – it feels like a rich and rewarding piece of intelligent sci-fi by itself. I actually feel it could be watched independently of the first film, and still have plenty to offer. It’s not interesting in tying the first film up in a bow – instead it serves as a stimulus for future discussion. You could imagine a sequel to this film sustaining enough interest for 35 years.

Technically of course the film is an absolute marvel. Roger Deakins’ photography is gorgeous, capturing every element of this dystopian nightmare world in a series of brilliant images, in turns drained, bleached and sun kissed. Every frame is artfully composed for maximum impact. The production design is similarly magnificent, Dennis Gassner’s work melding the world of the original, with its steam-punk look, with a mix of technological developments. The score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is similarly perfect, giving the film a brooding intensity.

But most of this artistry comes back to the film-making mastery of Denis Villeneuve, a director so gifted I think he may be more interesting than Ridley Scott. His control of the pace of the film is brilliant – despite being very long, it never drags – and he shoots every scene with a careful, intellectually engaged brilliance. He is able – possibly even more than the original – to mix emotion and elliptical theorising, and to draw a raft of brilliant performances from an outstanding cast. More than anything else, he treats the audience with respect, giving them a measured and thoughtful film that trusts we have patience. Villeneuve tops Arrival here, and does so with confident aplomb.

Blade Runner 2049 is a film that demands to be seen more than once. It’s a patient and intensely thoughtful piece of science fiction, that asks profound questions about humanity and the characters in it. I don’t really feel from one viewing I’ve got a grip on it – in fact the more I think about it, the more its haunting, elegiac quality starts cramming into my head. You need to be patient and go with it – you need to be in the right mindset for this slowburn concept film. But, get in that mindset and this film is constantly rewarding. If you want to criticise something, I will acknowledge that many of the female characters are a little more clichéd (most are prostitutes or similar) – but this world where many women seem to be in subservient roles to men is in many ways an extension of the world created in the original film (and now an expression of the dystopian future).

However this is a great film. A really great piece of adult science-fiction. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest it is better than the original film.

Eye in the Sky (2015)

The great Alan Rickman is an exasperated General, in drone-strike moral fable Eye in the Sky

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Helen Mirren (Colonel Katherine Powell), Aaron Paul (Lt. Steve Watts), Alan Rickman (Lt. General Frank Benson), Barkhad Abdi (Jama Farah), Jeremy Northam (Brian Woodale), Iain Glen (Foreign Secretary), Monica Dolan (Angela Northman), Richard McCabe (George Matheson), Phoebe Fox (Carrie Gershon), Babou Ceesay (Sgt. Mushtz Saddiq), John Heffernan (Major Howard Webb)

As Shakespeare said, sometimes we are urged: “to do a great right, do a little wrong”. Eye in the Sky is a film about that dilemma. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 on the terrorist “Most Wanted” list are meeting in a house in Kenya. They are preparing suicide bombers. A series of attacks could be minutes away. A drone strike will probably save hundreds of lives. Seems obvious doesn’t it? Unfortunately, sitting in the fatality zone is an innocent young girl, just trying to sell bread. Take out the bombers and you’ll save dozens of other children – but you’ll almost certainly kill this one child.

Your initial reaction to this sort of situation would probably be “thank goodness that’s not my decision”. Problem is, you get the feeling many of our elective representatives feel the same: as the situation escalates (from capture, to kill, to controlled strike, to a certainty of civilian casualties) so does the buck-passing, from politician to politician all unwilling to make a call.

Guy Hibbert’s well researched and thought-provoking script combined with Gavin Hood’s taut direction make this a gripping conversation thriller about the impossibility of moral debates. Hibbert’s script brilliantly piles moral debate on moral debate – just as we accept the desirability of one action, the circumstances change with bewildering speed. Everything, from a change of travel plans to battery failure on a vital piece of equipment, amps up the pressure and makes the situation more morally unpalatable.

The buck-passing becomes almost a dark farce in this expert script. A put-upon civil servant is repeatedly sent to communicate with a string of senior leaders, from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister. Later a crucial decision takes place over a conference call, with an ever-expanding series of international attendees. It’s like a deadly serious Yes, Minister, with Jeremy Northam’s junior minister a flummoxed and vacillating Jim Hacker.

The military seems equally divided – senior officers focus on the big picture, aware of the evil they must do but seeing it as a necessity to prevent worse acts, but the junior ranks actually executing the strikes push back with increasing distress. Mirren’s colonel pressures a sergeant into effectively falsifying a fatality prediction for the girl, to push her superiors into authorising the strike on this vital target. A shallower film would have played great play of this. But Hood and Hibbert never take that easy route.

The film also explores distance conflict. Nearly all the participants are based thousands of miles away, watching on screens and pushing buttons. Rickman’s General has a knock-out final speech about his first-hand experiences of the horror of suicide bombings – and compares this to the moral objections of the greatest opponent of military action in the film, who has watched it all play out with “coffee and biscuits”. Remote warfare is neither in itself good or bad – and those objecting to actions are not angels, just as those pushing for action have their own moral reasons for doing so, and the film demonstrates that amidst all this, the “right answer” (if there is such a thing) can be almost impossible to identify.

Conversation thrillers like this are dependent on the quality of the actors – so it’s lucky we’ve got a great cast here. A gimlet-eyed Helen Mirren is as tough as you’ve seen her as the field commander who suppresses all doubt in pursuit of the greater good. In his last on-screen role, Alan Rickman gives one of his best performances as a wry, humane general who has come to terms with the hideous moral cost soldiers have to bear. His increased exasperation at the procrastination of his political masters adds some black comedy, but he also gives the character a wonderful humanity (a prologue in which he struggles to buy his grandchild a present is not only wonderfully witty, but humanises the character immediately).

Few actors do tortured conscience under the surface better than Aaron Paul – and his drone pilot turned reluctant killer provides much of the moral force of the film. Paul’s sensitive and anguished divide between following orders and living with the knowledge he’s wilfully condemning a child to death is beautifully done. Barkhard Abdi grounds his field operative not only with much of the film’s more conventional derring-do, but also layers the character with dedication and selflessness.

Eye in the Sky is a marvellous piece of tense and layered film-making. It makes high drama out of moral quandaries, and really makes us pause to stop and think about the impact of our decisions both in a wider context, and a very painful immediate one. The professional military figures – even Mirren’s cold Colonel Powell – are motivated by a painful familiarity with acceptable loss, rather than gung-ho aggression. The politicians struggle to reach a decision not only through reluctance, but with empathy for their potential victims. It overeggs the pudding with its final shots of the young girl who has unwittingly been at the centre of a major international incident, but other than that it hardly puts a foot wrong.