The 15:17 to Paris


Anthony Sadler muses aboard the 15:17 to Paris.

(2018) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, P.J. Byrne, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Robert Praigo, Tony Hale, Lillian Solange, Ray Corasani, Irene White, Mark Moogalian, Steve Coulter, Seth Meriwether, Heidi Sulzman. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

True heroism is a pretty rare thing. You never know where it might occur; in a school, or a nightclub – or on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

But on a hot August day in 2015, the latter is precisely where it occurred. When a terrorist pulled out an automatic rifle and threatened to massacre the travelers aboard the high-speed rail. Director Clint Eastwood, one of the best in Hollywood history, is tackling the events of that day and the three Americans who were involved – boyhood friends from Sacramento, two of whom were in the military. You would think that this would be in Eastwood’s wheelhouse but strangely this is one of his most disappointing movies in decades.

There are a lot of reasons that this movie doesn’t work as well as it might but the biggest is the script of Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by the three Americans involved. She chooses an odd narrative structure, starting with the beginning of the attack on the train but then going into a series of flashbacks into their boyhood and development into the young men they would become. It makes a bit of a mess of the story and there is a lot of necessary business – too much time sightseeing – that slows down a film that at just over 90 minutes should be zipping by.

Another part of the problem is Eastwood’s decision to cast the heroes as themselves. These young men have a lot of skills but acting is not among them. I’m not blaming them – you get the distinct feeling that these men are experiencing far more nerves in front of the camera than they did facing an armed terrorist – but I don’t think they should have been put into the position that they were. The child actors who play them as youths may be even worse.

The actual terrorist attack is done extremely well and is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there and by the time you do you may have been checking your watch. Now, there are some conservatives who will think that I don’t like the movie because the heroes are Christians who are into guns and the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I appreciate that they are a different brand of hero than we normally get on the silver screen and yes, they are normal Americans – that’s what makes their heroism more exemplary, even though they do have military training. The reason I don’t like the movie is because most of the time it’s boring and that has nothing to do with my political views but on my cinematic experience. The fact that mass audiences haven’t embraced the film is a testament to that.

REASONS TO GO: The story is truly inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and there are too many flashbacks – this might have worked better as a documentary rather than as a narrative feature.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some bloody images, sexually suggestive material and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to tackle the terrorist was actually a Frenchman but he turned down the Legion of Honor and asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from extremists.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Trouble is My Business

Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)

Pandora (2016)


Disasters bring chaos.

(2016) Disaster (Netflix) Nam-gil Kim, Jung Jin-Young, Yeong-ae Kim, Junghi Moon, Kyeong-yeong Lee, Myung-min Kim, Shin-il Kang, Se-dong Kim, Seong-mok Yoo, Dae-myeong Kim, Joo-hyeon Kim, Gang-yoo Bae, Han-jong Kim. Directed by Jong-woo Park

 

Nuclear power has been controversial for nearly half a century; the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have only furthered that controversy. While some countries have moved to phase out nuclear power as part of their energy production, South Korea continues to support their nuclear power program and in fact is moving to expand it.

Jae-hyuk (Nam-gil) is a technician at the Hanbyul nuclear plant near Busan. He is unenthusiastic about his employment there; his father and brother both died because of their work at the plant and he wonders if he is meant for the same fate. He lives with his mother Mrs. Seok (Yeong-ae), his sister-in-law Jung-hye (Junghi) and his nephew. He has a girlfriend, Yeon-ju (Joo-hyeon) who is pretty and encouraging but he finds it tough to get out of bed in the mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, the country’s young President Kang (Myung-min) reads a report from the Hanbyul chief engineer (Jin-young) detailing safety concerns and the company’s corner-cutting when it comes to maintenance. The idealistic President means to investigate but is thwarted by the Prime Minister (Kyeong-yeong) who is in the pocket of the corporation that runs Hanbyul.

Things are about to come to a head however; a 6.1 earthquake rocks the village and the gaskets on the coolant pipes spring some terrifying leaks. The maintenance deficiencies come to roost as the plant comes closer and closer to a major meltdown. With the cowardly management backed by the sniveling Prime Minister try to cover things up and refuse to allow the Chief Engineer to implement the measures he needs because they don’t want anyone to know what they’ve been up to. Finally, when all seems lost the technicians of Hanbyul will face an impossible choice.

Disaster films are all the rage these days in Korea and Jong-woo Park has a good one under his belt (Deranged) and this one did some major box office damage in December of last year. While most of the actors will be unfamiliar to Americans in general (unless they happen to be fans of Korean cinema) this is definitely an all-star line-up in Korea. Given the impeachment proceedings going on against the South Korean president and the extraordinary mishandling of the Sewon Ferry disaster by his government, it’s no wonder Koreans are flocking to these sorts of movies.

The movie is a mixture of disaster action and political/corporate intrigue and Park melds them seamlessly, with a slight edge going to the intrigue portions. Not that the action sequences are any slouch; some of the best effects houses in South Korea were utilized to make the nuclear plant set realistic (as no Korean power plants would allow filming in or near their facilities) and the damage is realistically done.

Also realistic is the reaction of the town populace which is mostly panic and chaos with a few notable exceptions. Nam-gil makes a decent hero and while his last scene is stretched out to near ludicrous length, his performance is nonetheless heartfelt. American audiences may have issues with the dialogue which is nearly all shouted as is traditional in Asian films. There is also an extraordinary amount of puking going on which I suppose you’d expect in a movie which depicts radiation poisoning to the levels you would imagine to be a given with a radiation leak of this magnitude.

The comic relief may be a bit too broad for American tastes and might feel inappropriate given the gravity of the subject. Still, I think American audiences who are willing to forgive that sort of thing will find this extremely entertaining and while the specific political references may go shooting over our heads, we can certainly relate to the collusion between politicians and corporate weasels to screw over the environment and the people living in it for the sake of profit. That sort of thing is sadly quite universal.

REASONS TO GO: The movie succeeds on a technical level. The general panic is accurately depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit over-wrought in places. The comic relief might be a bit too broad for American tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of disaster violence, some gruesome images, a bit of mild profanity, more puke than you can shake a stick at and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to be pre-sold to Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The China Syndrome
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: David Lynch: The Art Life

American Sniper


Taking aim on controversy.

Taking aim on controversy.

(2014) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Luke Grimes, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Leonard Roberts, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin, James Ryen, Jake McDorman, Eric Aude, Navid Nagahban, Mido Hamada, Kathe Mazur, Sam Jaeger, Chance Kelly, Elise Robertson, Ben Reed, Marnette Patterson. Directed by Clint Eastwood

As we deal with the aftermath of our country’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as it seems we are preparing to do battle with ISIS, it behooves us to seek out the aftermath of those who fought those wars. War is never easy on those who fight it, regardless of the reasons they have for leaving their homes and their families and going off to some godforsaken place to kill other human beings. We often take that part of our armed forces for granted.

Chris Kyle (Cooper), a proud Texan and would-be cowboy, goes because he feels that after 9-11, it is his duty to protect a country that he loves. He leaves behind a wife Taya (Miller), a strong woman of no uncertain opinions who eventually falls for the burly Texan despite having exceedingly low expectations when first they met. He joins the Navy SEALs mainly because he believes them to be the toughest SOBs in the military.

Kyle proves to be a gifted sharpshooter who is perfect for sniper duty. His first action requires him to make an agonizing decision when it seems that a young boy is getting ready to hurl an explosive at an American convoy in full sight of his mother, who handed him the device. He waits until the last possible second, before it becomes apparent that his intentions are to blow up the convoy; then Kyle shoots him dead, and then his mother for good measure when it appears she’s going to finish the job her son was unable to. Far from being a moment of triumph, it deeply affects the young SEAL deeply. When he sees a terrorist (Hamada) put a drill through the head of a child while his parents watch, he decries the Iraqis as savages and it’s hard not to argue with him.

Kyle goes through four tours, and each time he returns home as Taya puts it, he’s not really there. He’s nervous, jumpy, living very much inside his head while Taya tries desperately to reach him, to get her husband back. By now Kyle is also a dad, and while he goes through the motions of being a father and assures VA psychotherapists as well as his immediate family that everything is fine, everything clearly is not. He only seems to be whole in country.

As he piles up the confirmed kills, he gets the nickname of Legend which at first makes him uncomfortable but eventually he grows to accept. It is a mark of the respect in which his peers hold him as he becomes the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, for all the lives of American military men he saves with his unerring aim and precise shots. There is however a counterpart within the ranks of the enemy, one known as Mustafa (Sheik) who is in many ways a mirror image of Kyle – a family man, one obsessed by his work and absolutely deadly. Somehow Kyle needs to survive his tours and come back to his wife and family – a whole man.

Clint Eastwood has become over the years a great American film director and although he has had his share of missteps (cough Jersey Boys cough cough) his consistency has been as good as any. In a lot of ways this is going to be counted as one of his best works ever, although it is steeped in controversy more because of the subject matter than anything else.

There are those who have decried the film because in their minds it glorifies an individual who shouldn’t be glorified. Many have pointed out that the real Kyle, on whose autobiography this is based, consistently identified Muslims as savages (which he does in the film on one occasion) and has been labeled a racist because of it. He has also been taken to task for exaggerations or making up incidents out of whole cloth.

These are two separate issues and on the first, I can only say that it was common for veterans of war to dehumanize those they fought against. It is one way for the psyche to cope with having to kill other human beings. If they aren’t human, if they’re savages, it makes it easier to justify what you’re doing. Thinking that way may not necessarily be politically correct but it’s at least understandable.

The other can also be looked upon as something of a Texas thing. Now, making up a story in which former governor and ex-Navy SEAL himself Jesse Ventura was rude and insulting to fellow SEALs who were mourning a friend and getting clocked by Kyle is wrong and Ventura – who has been excoriated for doing so – has every right to defend his reputation, even if it means suing the widow of the man responsible because she is after all profiting from the story in a matter of speaking, since the story is a part of his best-selling book. While I give veterans a good deal of leeway in their behaviors, they are nonetheless responsible for their actions when they return home and are liable for the consequences of those actions.

That said, I don’t think this film glorifies war at all or this one in particular – at one point, at a soldier’s funeral, an unidentified woman who I assume is the soldier’s mother reads a handwritten eulogy condemning the war – but rather tries to give us insight into those who fought it. For me, the most compelling material is when Kyle is home, struggling to be home and be present with his family. It takes a good deal of time for him to finally want to be home, to finally let go of his feeling of duty and to get past his need to be a hero which the real Kyle was often accused of and Eastwood seems to agree was part of the man’s psychological make-up.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds for the role, really inhabits the role of Kyle, who actually resembled the late wrestler Chris Benoit in reality. It’s a mesmerizing performance certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he received. Cooper’s Kyle moves from a fairly normal aw-shucks cowboy to a heroic sniper in the field to a terse, uncommunicative stone wall of a man at home. It’s a brilliant performance that shouldn’t be missed.

Sienna Cooper’s performance as Taya is also flawless. It’s so good I wish the script and Eastwood would have devoted more time to her; at times she almost becomes one-dimensional because she’s trying to convince her husband to leave the war behind and be home. How she kept her family together, how she weathered those times when he was home and not with her (it must have been heartbreaking) would have added more nuance to the film overall. I’d have gladly sacrificed some of the battle sequences of Kyle in country for that.

About those battle sequences; they can be pretty intense and for those who might be sensitive to such things, you should be forewarned that there are scenes that are quite disturbing. However, the rest of us will find them, as I did, absolutely mesmerizing and keep you on the edge of your seat, as I was.

I don’t know why we need our heroes to be absolutely perfect. Nobody is, and Chris Kyle certainly wasn’t. I don’t know that I agree with all of his views or approve of some of the things he said. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great soldier, an expert marksman or a hero for saving the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of American troops. I do believe that for most people, how you feel about the war will color your perceptions of this film. The conservative right are hailing the movie as a masterpiece (which it isn’t – Unforgiven was far better) while the progressive left are decrying it as propaganda which it also isn’t. What it is when you get right down to it is a terrific movie about war itself, about surviving it not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, and how hard it can be to come home when the tour of duty ends.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is brilliant. Realistic and often heart-stopping battle sequences. Admirably allows viewers to make their own minds up.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally too intense for the sensitive. I would have liked to have gotten a little deeper into the mind of Taya.
FAMILY VALUES: Much gunfire and war violence, some of it quite disturbing. There’s also plenty of colorful language with some sexual references involved.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Chris Kyle and the real Marcus Luttrell of Lone Survivor fame actually met in SEAL school and became close friends which they remained for the rest of Kyle’s life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: A Most Violent Year

Captain Phillips


Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

Tom Hanks draws the line at being waterboarded for another Oscar.

(2013) True Life Drama (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Catherine Keener, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Omar Berdouni, Mohamed Ali, Issak Farah Samatar, Angus MacInnes, Amr El-Bayoumi, Stacha Hicks, Maria Dizzia, Georgia Goodman. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Most of us at one time or another will face a situation that will put our resolve to the test. Who we are and where our moral compass points to are defined by those moments. Few of us however will face that moment in a life or death situation where not only our own lives hang in the balance but other lives as well.

Richard Phillips (Hanks) of Vermont is a ship captain, a man used to commanding a merchant vessel filled with cargo, transporting it from one spot in the world to another. He’s not overly fond of the run up the West African coast past Somalia, a trouble spot from which piracy has become a commonplace means of acquiring wealth but it’s a job and he approaches it as such. He literally kisses his wife (Keener) goodbye at the airport, grabs his lunchpail and hardhat and goes to work.

But whereas he adopts a very blue collar approach to his job, he is certainly a leader. He expects his men to do their jobs efficiently and well and tends to be a bit of a hard ass. His officers respect him and while there is some grumbling among the union rank and file, isn’t there always?

For Muse (Abdi), life is much less clear cut. He lives in an impoverished Somali fisherman off of coastal waters that have been overfished to the point that they are literally barren of life. A local warlord insists that Muse and other village men go out and hijack another ship, even though they had just successfully taken another ship the previous week. Muse knows that this cycle will continue and has his eyes on a big score, enough so he can take what proceeds he can and move his family somewhere safer.

For Muse and the three men in his command – young Bilal (Abdirahman), on his first mission; Elmi (Ali) the clever driver and mechanic, and Najee (Ahmed) who chews khef leaves nonstop, making him aggressive and angry which is never a good combination. They spot the Maersk Alabama making its way up the coast and recognize this as their golden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Captain Phillips watches the skiff approach at speed and knows instinctively that these men aren’t there to fish. His pleas for assistance are at first met with skepticism but after he fends off one attack, the second leads to a confrontation that will eventually involve the U.S. Navy, a lifeboat and a hair-trigger situation that could lead to the deaths of not only the pirates but Captain Phillips himself.

Greengrass, who previously gave us a docudrama called United 93 which was one of the best (if not the best) movies on the events of 9-11 yet, is adept at taking a situation that was headline news, enough so that most of us know how it ends and nonetheless keeps us on the edge of our seats. Much of that falls to Hanks, one of the most beloved actors of his generation. Few actors are as likable as Hanks who is not so much the guy next door but the guy down the street who lets you borrow his riding lawnmower on a scorching Saturday afternoon in August. The man is able to project such decency that we are immediately drawn into concern for Phillips’ safety even despite the kind of New England frosty demeanor.

Most of us who are fairly aware of the world around us know pretty much what happened during the real events surrounding Captain Phillips and the Maersk Alabama in 2009 but most of us aren’t fully aware of the details. That allows us to be caught up in the tension and atmosphere and given the likability of Hanks we become fully invested in his fate.

Greengrass also makes the pirates somewhat victims of circumstance; you get the sense young Muse (who in reality was 18 years old when these events transpired) would have preferred a more honest day’s work. He has few options however and does what he must; the rail-thin Abdi gets some sympathy despite the brutality of some of his crew who are a hair’s breadth from losing it the longer things go.

It should be mentioned that the crew members of the Maersk Alabama have disagreed vociferously with the way events were portrayed in the film and have brought suit against the parent company and Phillips, claiming his recklessness brought them into waters he knew hijackings had taken place in, all to save money by shortening the trip.

That said, the movie works as entertainment and is certainly going to make a lot of best-of-the-year lists come December. Few heroes measure up to their own legend and I’m sure the real Captain Phillips probably doesn’t hold a candle to the Tom Hanks version. Regardless of how events actually played out, this was nevertheless an extraordinary event that will put your emotions through a wringer as depicted here and that can be an exhilarating thing.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Terrific performances by Hanks and Abdi as the adversaries.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too much shaky-cam for my comfort.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of substance abuse, a good deal of violence as well as a couple of bloody images, and sustained tension throughout. There are a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The shipboard filming was done aboard the Alexander Maersk, sister ship to the Maersk Alabama.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Argo

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Tomorrow, When the War Began

Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

A History of Violence


A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen is so hot that Ed Harris has to wear shades just to look at him.

(2005) Thriller (New Line) Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Peter MacNeill, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Kyle Schmid, Sumela Kay, Gerry Quigley, Deborah Drakeford, Heidi Hayes, Aidan Devine, Michelle McCree. Directed by David Cronenberg

Funny thing about the past; it has a tendency to catch up with you. Especially when you least expect it to – and where you least expect it to.

Tom Stall (Mortensen) lives a quiet life in a small Indiana town. He owns a popular diner, is married to a beautiful native named Edie (Bello) and has two kids including a teenager named Jack (Holmes) who has taken his mild-mannered father’s lessons to heart and has as a result been picked on by bullies who are frustrated by Jack’s refusal to fight.

One night, all that is shattered when a couple of small-time hoods (McHattie, Bryk) come into his diner. They terrorize his patrons and despite Tom’s pleas for them to leave peaceably, it appears they are going to kill a waitress when Tom suddenly reacts with decisive action, killing both of the crooks.

Unfortunately, Tom’s actions get noticed by the media and he is painted as a hero. This is, in turn, noticed by a very bad man named Carl Fogarty (Harris) who seems to think that Tom is someone named Joey Cusack. Tom doesn’t appear to know Fogarty, but doubts are cast in the mind of his wife and the town sheriff (MacNeill). The question becomes who is Tom Stall and why is he so good at killing people?

By far, this is Cronenberg’s most mainstream movie. Known for cult films (Naked Lunch, Videodrome) and horror classics (The Brood, Scanners), he has a gift for taking a normal, safe environment and turning it upon itself until it is virtually unrecognizable. Here, he does that in a literal way; the man we think we know (and the man Edie Stall thought she married) turns out to be someone so different as to be almost a different species. This is not an easy adjustment to make and some may find it too much for them.

On the other hand, the adjustment is made easier by bravura performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris and Holmes. Also worth noting is Hurt’s role as a man pivotal to Tom’s past. It is interesting that Hurt appears in only one scene, but his performance is so dynamic that he wound up being nominated for an Oscar for that one scene.

Violence is often used as the last refuge for survival, and Cronenberg seems to say it is justified in that case. However, is there a Joey Cusack lurking in every Tom Stall? Given the right circumstances, I think – and I have a feeling that Cronenberg agrees – there is.

WHY RENT THIS: Cronenberg’s most mainstream film. Terrific performances by Mortensen, Harris, Bello and Holmes – and an Oscar-nominated one by Hurt.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending isn’t what you might like it to be.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some brutal violence, a good deal of sexuality (as well as some nudity), a bit of drug use and foul language to boot.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the last major Hollywood film to be released in the VHS format.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a featurette on Scene 44, a dream sequence that was cut from the movie but was polished and added here as a special feature.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.7M on a $32M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Runaways