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

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New Releases for the Week of October 11, 2013


Captain Phillips

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener, Barkhad Abdi, Max Martini, Yul Vazquez, Michael Chernus, Chris Mulkey, Angus MacInnes. Directed by Paul Greengrass

The captain of a cargo ship is on a routine run off the coast of Somalia when his radar picks up a couple of small boats headed towards his vessel at speed. Something about it feels wrong and he communicates his concerns to the authorities. They think it’s probably nothing more than a couple of Somali fishing boats but he’s still uneasy. His fears turn out to be real as his ship is boarded by armed pirates, beginning a real-life crisis that would grab world headlines.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday night)

Genre True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use)

Ghost Team One

(The Film Arcade) Carlos Santos, JR Villarreal, Fernanda Romero, Meghan Falcone. A couple of slacker roommates accidentally wake the dead during a party. What to do? Call in a paranormal investigator who turns out to be a mega-hottie. Both of the roomies are into her in a big way but someone else has his eye on her – the demon they’ve inadvertently summoned.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror Comedy

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, some drug use and violence)

 Machete Kills

(Reliance) Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Mel Gibson. The return of the ex-Mexican Federale from the Grindhouse trailer and his own feature film. This time he has been personally recruited by the President of the United States to take out a revolutionary and an arms dealer who have teamed up to start a reign of terror and war across the globe. One man against an army of thugs? When that one man is Machete, that’s all you need. When Machete takes out the trash, it stays took.

See the trailer, promos and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language and some sexual content)

Romeo and Juliet

(Relativity) Hailee Steinfeld, Douglas Booth, Stellan Skarsgaard, Paul Giamatti. The classic Shakespeare tragedy gets a new treatment. While the film is set in the traditional setting of the original play, it is meant to be geared towards young people who may not have experienced that play although may have heard of it. Perhaps they should show the title characters texting their dialogue to one another.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and thematic elements) 

Green Zone


Green Zone

Matt Damon gets medieval on some critic's ass.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, Said Faraj, Jerry Della Salla, Raad Rawi, Michael O’Neill, Nicoye Banks, Sean Huze, Paul Karsko. Directed by Paul Greengrass

Perhaps one of the most important questions of our time is why we invaded Iraq in 2003. It is the standard by which the United States will be judged as a nation as we move forward into the 21st century; our actions in invading a sovereign nation without true justification have tarnished our reputation forever.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is in charge of a team of soldiers whose mission is to locate and neutralize weapons of mass destruction the Iraqis have hidden in caches around Baghdad and the surrounding areas. It is early in the war, and the country is still waiting on definitive proof that the Saddam Hussein had been indeed manufacturing WMD.

He is sent to a location which is being peppered by a sniper in a nearby tower. Iraqi citizens are looting the industrial site like crazy and Miller is concerned that some of them may be getting away with dangerous material that could be used against Iraqi civilians or coalition soldiers. Despite the fact that the site isn’t secure, he orders his men to go in and take out the sniper, which they do in a professional, efficient manner. Once he gets into the site, however, he discovers nothing there – no weapons, nothing dangerous, only toilet parts and years worth of pigeon droppings.

This turns out to be the third straight supposed WMD site that the team has been to that has been completely devoid of anything resembling weapons. Miller knows that the intelligence they have been getting is faulty. While the military command is taking the position that the Iraqis had moved the weapons from these sites, Miller knows that there had never been weapons there. He questions the intelligence at a staff meeting attended by CIA analyst Martin Brown (Gleeson) who approaches Miller afterwards, completely in agreement with Miller that there is something fishy going on. He gives Miller his card with the request that he keep him in the loop as to what Miller’s team finds on their next mission, which Miller agrees to do.

In the meantime, Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), a high-ranking functionary in the White House with Pentagon connections, is escorting an Iraqi exile (Rawi) home to Baghdad. Poundstone is eager to install him as the new leader of Iraq. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Ryan) is covering the trip; it was her articles on government reports about WMD that helped turn the public towards invasion. She knows that most of the government intelligence came from a single source; a high-ranking Iraqi government official known only as “Magellan.” Because no WMD had turned up despite the Army’s best efforts to find them, she is concerned that her story asserting that they were there may turn out to be false. She wants to talk to Magellan directly but Poundstone demurs, stating that the debriefing process is ongoing.

While on his next assignment fruitlessly digging for a possible underground WMD site, Miller is approached by an Iraqi national named Freddie (Abdalla) who informs him of a meeting taking place in a nearby home of high-ranking Iraqi officials. Something about Freddie’s story rings true to Miller and he decides to go investigate, even though Wilkins (Della Salla), his second-in-command, worries that they are being led into an ambush.

The soldiers enter the house to find that such a meeting is indeed taking place and that one of the participants is none other than General Al-Rawi (Naor), Saddam’s highest-ranking military official and certainly the man who would have the most information about any WMD that might be hidden in Iraq. Although Al-Rawi escapes, he leaves behind a notebook which Miller is anxious to deliver to his CIA contact Brown. However, when the prisoners taken from the meeting are abducted by American Special Forces soldiers led by the arrogant Briggs (Isaacs), Miller knows that something is more than just terribly wrong.

This is ostensibly an action thriller and it is by no means meant to be a documentary about actual events in Iraq. The premise, however, is valid – to this day we have yet to locate any WMD in Iraq and the entire premise for invasion has been justifiably labeled a sham. Whether Greengrass’ theory is true or not, it is merely that – a theory – and certainly our government is guilty at the very least of incompetently not fact-checking to make sure that there were indeed WMD in Iraq.

Some of the events here happened as portrayed. The CIA was left out of the WMD loop and CIA sources reported at the time that there hadn’t been any WMD since the first Gulf War. President Bush did land on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “Mission Accomplished,” which was a premature pronouncement of historic proportions. Public opinion was turned towards a series of news articles and television reports that reported the presence of WMD in Iraq that later turned out to have been false. The American people were indeed lied to.

But that’s neither here nor there as far as this review should be concerned. What is important is that the movie is worth seeing, and it is indeed that. Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass had previously collaborated on the second two movies of the Bourne trilogy, and those are still regarded as some of the best action films of recent years. Green Zone does indeed meet those standards and Damon is one of the primary reasons why.

As Roy Miller, he is a professional soldier, assiduously trained but with a mind of his own. He sees bad information at every turn and no matter how many times his commanders tell him just to look the other way and do his job without question, he can’t bring himself to do it. Yeah, he’s a bit of a super-soldier in that he seems incapable of being stopped but quite frankly, that’s okay in an action film where we expect our heroes to be somewhat unstoppable.

Kinnear makes for a smarmy villain, a viper in weasel’s clothes that exploits political necessity and is willing to do whatever it takes to cover up his crimes. Kinnear, who of late has been playing lighter roles, excels here in a role that is a bit outside his comfort zone. Gleeson, who is one of the best character actors working today (see In Bruges if you don’t believe me), is solid here. He is gruff, grumpy and a grizzled veteran of the Middle East who sees through the bull pucky and understands the situation for what it is; a cover-up. He is jaded and worn down from years of being assigned to one of the most complex, volatile regions on Earth, but still maintains his own principles nonetheless.

Greengrass utilizes the hand-held camera quite a bit during the action sequences to convey the chaos of the scene, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the concept, I think he overuses it here. After awhile, I actually had to  turn my head from the screen in order to stave off the dizziness and queasiness that accompanies that kind of cinematography. A little bit of hand-held goes a long way, gentlemen.

What I like most about Green Zone is that it is a morality play disguised as an action movie. While the filmmaker’s leanings are quite easy to suss out, it does invite you to think also about what blindly accepting the word of any government. After all, even the best governments are made up of human beings, and those human beings often have agendas of their own, agendas that might not necessarily be in the best interest of their own country. That’s the scariest part of the movie.

REASONS TO GO: This is a morality play wrapped in an action movie framework. Damon is rock-solid as Miller.   

REASONS TO STAY: Greengrass uses the hand-held camera to such an extent that even audience members without vertigo issues were getting dizzy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, including some scenes of torture and foul language throughout. Only for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Lawrie Dayne is loosely based on Judith Miller of the New York Times.

HOME OR THEATER: As one of the first big action movies of the year you may be tempted to see it in the theater, but quite frankly, the overuse of shaky hand-held cam shots make this a better fit for the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: 12 Rounds

New Releases for the Week of March 12, 2010


March 12

Matt Damon finds out from his agent that he lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

THE GREEN ZONE

 

(Universal) Matt Damon, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Said Faraj. Directed by Paul Greengrass

It was the job of Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction during the early days of the occupation of Baghdad. It was also becoming increasingly frustrating and suspicious to him that he was coming up empty on every single occasion. He and his men are being sent to a variety of sites based on the intelligence gathered from a single source, the veracity of which Miller is coming to doubt. Needing answers as to why good men are dying for what appears to be no discernable gain, he stumbles upon a massive conspiracy and cover-up that could change the game for an entire nation.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for violence and language)

Our Family Wedding

(Fox Searchlight) Forrest Whitaker, America Ferrera, Carlos Mencia, Regina King. Two bright young people meet in college, fall in love, graduate and plan to get married. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Not when the two are from two different ethnic groups with egocentric, uber-competitive fathers who want to turn the wedding into personal statements. The old adage is that when you marry someone, you marry their family and this comedy plays into that. Can true love conquer all? Seeing as this was made in Hollywood, I strongly suspect the answer is yes.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief strong language)

Remember Me

(Summit) Robert Pattinson, Pierce Brosnan, Emilie de Ravin, Chris Cooper. A rebellious young New Yorker, estranged from his wealthy father finds himself falling in love unexpectedly with a young woman who has daddy issues of her own. Through their love they find healing where they least expected to find it. Charter members of Team Edward should flock to this one.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, sexual content, language and smoking)

She’s Out of My League

(DreamWorks) Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve, TJ Miller, Nate Torrence. A mild mannered airport security agent with fair to middling looks finds himself in a relationship with a successful and incredibly beautiful woman who has fallen hard for him. He has to figure out a way to make things work with an alpha male ex-boyfriend out to reclaim her and when everyone, including himself, believes she’s way above his pay grade.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and sexual content)                                                    

The Yellow Handkerchief

(Goldwyn) William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Maria Bello, Eddie Redmayne. A young girl impulsively accepts a ride from a young man and then the two of them pick up an older man who’s hitchhiking. All of them have something in their past that they are or have been running away from. As they take a road trip in post-Katrina Louisiana they find that the path to true freedom often comes at a heavy price.

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, some violence, language and thematic elements)

The Bourne Ultimatum


The Bourne Ultimatum

Matt Damon ponders how much cooler he would have looked if the production had sprung for a Harley.

(Universal) Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez, Trevor St John, Daniel Bruhl, Joey Anash, Tom Gallop, Corey Johnson, Colin Stinton . Directed by Paul Greengrass

The most recent installment of the hit film series based on the John Le Carre spy novels, The Bourne Ultimatum picks up pretty much where the last film, The Bourne Supremacy left off, in Moscow. We pick up with memory-challenged superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) being chased by the Moscow police through the back alleys of Moscow. An injured Bourne finally makes his way into a closed for the night medical clinic where he tries to effect crude repairs, but he is interrupted by a pair of clever cops. They aren’t quite clever enough and he escapes once again, disappearing from the CIA grid.

Back in the States, CIA director Ezra Kramer (Glenn) is very eager for Bourne to be caught. Deputy Director Noah Vosen (Strathairn) believes Bourne is a major threat to the agency, whereas Deputy Director Pamela Landy (Allen) thinks Bourne is not necessarily out to take down the agency, but instead to get answers. Landy is put in charge of the hunt for Jason Bourne.

In Turin, a newspaper columnist (Considine) meets with a CIA section chief (Stinton) who gives the columnist information about Blackbriar, the successor to the Treadstone program that created Bourne (and that Bourne essentially destroyed). The CIA, apparently monitoring every cell phone call on the planet, picks up a call from the columnist to his editor that contains the word “Blackbriar” and immediately he is put under surveillance. Bourne by chance reads the man’s column (apparently he’s a big fan of the Guardian newspaper, since he reads it in another country) and realizes that the columnist may have information that Bourne needs. Of course, this sets off all sorts of mayhem, including a chance meeting between Bourne and Nikki Parsons (Stiles), the Treadstone agent who helped Bourne previously. Chased by the CIA, Interpol and quite probably some irate Girl Scouts, Bourne makes his way to New York City with the intention of discovering the truth about himself and possibly bringing an end to the game he no longer wants to play.

In a terse spy thriller like this one, you have to take a few things on faith, and suspend disbelief to a certain extent. It’s hard to believe that an agency with the technical ability to pick out a single word in a phone conversation involving two men not under suspicion for anything are unable to suss out a man entering their country undisguised under a passport they themselves issued. I mean, don’t they have computers at the airport?

Plot holes aside, you come to a Bourne movie for the action sequences, and here the movie doesn’t disappoint. Chased by assassins (and chasing them), evading detection by legions of agents and police, director Greengrass sets up a massive body count (not to mention an auto body count, as the film might just be worse for automobiles than for stuntmen) and extended action sequences which, while breaking no new ground, do cover old ground expertly. He keeps the suspense ratcheted up to 11 throughout most of the movie, with very little breathing room and manages to move the plot along with expository sequences without breaking momentum created by the action scenes – the one in Tangiers, by the way, might be one of the best you’ll ever see. However, be warned many sequences appear to be filmed by hand-held cameras. While this delivers a kind of you-are-there feel to these sequences, in my opinion it’s used a little overly much and gives the movie a kind of jerky quality that I found jarring.

Damon continues to do the part of Jason Bourne with extraordinary aplomb, rarely displaying much emotion but allowing the feelings bubbling below the surface to see the light of day from time to time. Strathairn plays a worthy adversary who picks up after Chris Cooper and Brian Cox from the first two movies and acquits himself nicely. Stiles does some of her best work in the Bourne movies and as the only other actor besides Damon to appear in all three movies, providing some nice continuity.

The movie takes place in several European cities, including Moscow, Turin, Madrid and in Tangiers, Morocco as well as New York City. The movie uses actual locations to add a further air of realism, a nice touch (which created some difficulties for the filmmakers – if you look closely during the train station scene, there are people who notice the cameras and point to them). While many of the secrets of Jason Bourne are explained (including his actual identity), there is certainly enough room left at the end for a sequel if the filmmakers and actors choose to go there which for awhile, it appeared they did until Greengrass recently withdrew from the proposed fourth Bourne film, leaving the status of the movie very much up in the air – Damon’s participation without Greengrass is certainly less likely.

Like most of the third movies, this one is pretty flawed but you can take some solace in the fact that while it doesn’t arise above its own ambitions, the movie nevertheless fulfills those ambitions nicely. In other words, you get exactly what you came to see.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome action sequences as have become synonymous with this franchise. Exotic locations that bring to mind the cold war spy thrillers that the source material was contemporaneous with. The tension is unrelenting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot holes are hard to ignore. Too much hand-held camerawork which was cliche even before this was made.

FAMILY VALUES: While the action sequences are terrific, they may be a bit overwhelming for some, as the sudden and sometimes realistic violence will be.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Among the pictures of terminated agents that Landy faxes near the film’s conclusion are producer Frank Marshall and actor Richard Chamberlin, who portrayed Bourne in a 1988 TV mini-series.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince