Two movies - Captain Phillips and City of Ghosts - take us to foreign climes where unconventional things happen. In the first movie we know exactly what's going to happen because it's hinted at so strongly from the beginning that we'd have to be stupid not to read the signals. In the second movie, which begins in New York but soon after heads to Cambodia, we have almost no idea what's happening, what's happened, and what will happen. Eventually we get the picture, but it takes quite some time, and if it wasn't so well crafted and full of such eccentric characters, we might not hang around to find out.
Captain Phillips is earnest, and super realistic. City of Ghosts takes place in a world where apparently only peculiar people live - with the exception of the main character (played by Matt Dillon, who also directed and co-wrote the film). Even his love interest is a strange woman who seems to have no life beyond the moment.
Captain Phillips was intensely exciting, although much too long: we know from the beginning that Phillips, the captain of a container ship heading through pirate waters will be boarded by the most ambitious but tiny group of Somali pirates; there are only four of them and they argue with and scream at each other - and everyone else - a good deal. And we know that once he's taken prisoner by them - they're allowed to escape with some money onto a lifeboat - that he'll eventually get rescued. This is a film based on a true story, and Phillips survived.
Yet somehow in the midst of all the tension the films' often quite dull; the crew of the container ship are played in a way that allows none of them to be individuals, and Tom Hanks is left to carry most of the movie on his own. Of course he can do this, but he no one to play against before the Somalis arrive, and once they do it's all shouting and screaming and scrambling to get out of the way of bullets. It's perhaps indicative of the script that the opening scene, in which Hanks and his wife head to the airport for the umpeenth time so he can fly to the place where he'll board his ship, consists of a dialogue that is not only intentionally banal but oddly uninteresting. Hanks and Catherine Keener (who plays his wife) seem to be wondering what the heck they've got themselves into, script-wise.
City of Ghosts holds our attention as it wends its way through a very murky and surprisingly long opening stretch by providing us with a bunch of quality actors (including those playing very small parts) who bring individuality not just by having quirky roles to play but by being individuals themselves. (Of course the actors in Captain Phillips are different people; but they're not given anything to get their teeth into.) The cast of this film are such a varied bunch that you begin to wonder if Cambodia doesn't attract strange Europeans. They're like the actors who used to play in the old noir movies: such a movie might not be up to much itself but once you add in the likes of Peter Lorre and co, even in small roles, you have interest and intensity on the screen: those actors never failed to bring life to their parts, however well or badly written they were.
The roles here aren't badly written at all: the actors might not always say much but we know that there's plenty of subtext, and we wait expectantly to find out what the heck they're on about. Matt Dillon plays a man with some considerable angst; it's an angst he can hide from the FBI, but once he gets to Cambodia, he starts to unravel in some degree. Nevertheless, unravelling isn't where he intends going,
and he spends more of the movie ravelling up again than unravelling.
Stellan Skarsgård is a world-weary character, one of the
henchmen of the elusive Marvin (played by James Caan with an awful confidence
and suave evil), and he remains ambiguous from whoa to go. Whose side is he really on, and is he going to get his comeuppance or not? Should he get it, even? We sympathise with him; he's trapped in his own corrupt behaviour and can't find a moral way out again.
Gérard Depardieu is a fat, barkeeper-cum-hotelier who lies through his teeth with almost every sentence he utters, who keeps control of the crazies who come into his bar, and who carries a bambino of mixed parentage around with him much of the time. Depardieu is obviously enjoying himself in the role, though he's not as consistently at home in it as the other members of the cast are in theirs.
At first it seems as though Dillon is merely filling up his screen with oddballs to make things quirky. But the oddballs are in part caused by the strange country that Cambodia is, and Dillon is intent on making us realise that Cambodia isn't the place for unwary tourists to go. One of the apparently drug-addicted archaeologists (I think that's what the group were) soon succumbs to the evil that's just under the surface because of his naivety and because of his assumption that Europeans/Americans can behave as they like.
When the plot finally kicks in, about halfway through the movie, things both tighten up and also become a bit more conventional. But Dillon has a way of putting scenes together that eschews the usual. There's an element of Fellini in the way he peoples the film with the curious and misshapen, and perhaps another director would have concentrated on different kinds of theatrics. Nevertheless, the risks he takes in filming the story this way pays off.
Dillon takes another risk, that of casting a real-life taxi-driver, Sereyvuth Kem, as the man who takes him everywhere in one of those pedi-cart taxis. Kem provides a wonderful gentleness and wisdom, a cleanliness and honesty in the midst of the city's widespread corruption. You can believe that this man would very likely do the good things he does in the movie. He's virtually the heart of the movie.