Film: Captains Courageous

Hell hath no fury like cinephiles who’ve just been informed that one of their favorite fact-based movies is filled with inaccuracies. “But, but, but I thought they’d done their research,” whimper some. “I don’t care,” counter others. “It still works as a movie, doesn’t it?”

Amen to that last part. Entertainment media has been all aflutter this week with damning reports indicating that Captain Phillips, a seafaring adventure based on a real 2009 hijacking of a Kenya-bound cargo ship off the coast of Somalia, takes certain liberties with the way things played out aboard the Maersk Alabama, as well as the reportedly less-then-heroic conduct of its main character, Capt. Richard Phillips.

To which I say, bite me. Phillips is the latest film by Paul Greengrass, a whiz with a shaky cam and a director with a gift for staging events – both real (Bloody Sunday) and make-believe (The Bourne Ultimatum) – with you-are-there immediacy. What’s often overlooked about the English journalist-turned-filmmaker is his attention to character development. His thrillers brim with naturalistic insight into ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter, but they never lose sight of the human-interest angle. He’s a socially conscious humanist recreating hard-news events on film, with heart.

Captain Phillips is not the jingoistic us-against-them yarn its eye-rolling marketing campaign would have you believe. It also features the best performance Tom Hanks has given since, by my count, Saving Private Ryan. His take on Richard Phillips commands your attention, not only because he conveys the man’s decency and resolve under unbearable duress, but because he also taps into the seaman’s less likable personality traits. The man runs a tight ship, in more ways than one. An opening scene shows him discussing his son’s rebellious behavior with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener in an all-too-brief role) as they drive to the dock. I can definitely see why living under the same roof as this anal-retentive hardass would cause someone to act out.

On board the Alabama, Hanks uses body language, as well as Shattered Glass screenwriter Billy Ray’s unadorned, absorbing dialogue, to convey Phillips’ relaxed-but-firm managerial style. Ray, who adapted Phillips’ own nonfiction account of the hijacking for the screen, also takes pains to introduce the Somali pirates who eventually take over the ship before the crew of the Alabama spot them zeroing in on them. With the exception of ringleader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the pirates don’t quite manage to make an impression, although Barkhad Abdirahman twirls his villain’s mustache with gusto as loose cannon Bilal.

Greengrass ratchets up the tension as he captures the crew’s valiant – but failed – efforts to prevent the money-hungry perps from boarding the ship. What ensues is a delicate cat-and-mouse game as the bulk of the crew hides below deck while Phillips does his best to stall the unwanted guests. The film also stalls in the midsection, as Phillips performs a selfless – and yes, quite idealized – act of gallantry before Navy SEALs attempt to nab the greedy baddies and save the day. Greengrass bounces back with a gripping finale that gives the audience a much-needed catharsis, and he ultimately lets Hanks do the heavy lifting. The two-time Oscar winner comes through in spades, in a harrowing, deeply affecting final scene that reminds you why he’s one of the best actors working in Hollywood today.

Greengrass is going for vérité realism in Captain Phillips. In Escape from Tomorrow, the much publicized Sundance entry surreptitiously shot inside Walt Disney parks and resorts in Orlando, first-time director Randy Moore uses real locations you usually see in home videos, squeaky-clean promo ads, or Travel Channel specials as the setting for a loopy, surreal satire of the theme-park culture that turns suburban families into consumerist cesspools of misery and ill will. The fairies at The Happiest Place on Earth use their magic wands to make the currency in your wallet disappear. It’s like magic, only in Moore’s universe, Disney’s Imagineers have more sinister motives.

Moore’s subversive black-and-white imagery chronicles a nuclear family’s final day of vacation, which starts on a sour note, one of many to come. Jim (Roy Abramsohn) is out on the balcony of his Contemporary Resort room, speaking on the phone with his boss, who tells him – in a cheery British accent, no less – that he’s been fired. His son Elliott (Jack Dalton) takes advantage of the situation to lock out his dad. (Such a darling boy.) As they make their way to the Monorail, it’s clear Jim’s marriage to Emily (Elena Schuber) is on the rocks … so his wandering eye fixates on two wayyyy-too-young-for-him French girls walking hand in hand in Daisy Dukes. With his young daughter Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) in tow, Jim keeps running into the Gallic nymphs as he tries to catch a whiff – however fleeting – of what he’s been missing as a corporate drone/unhappily married Yuppie. The problem is, Moore ogles the two teens so gratuitously that he blurs the line between dramatizing Jim’s lust and declaring his own objectification.

In between the unsavory displays of middle-age libido, Escape from Tomorrow is on to something. It’s a Small World – one of my favorite Magic Kingdom guilty pleasures – takes on ominous overtones as Jim starts hallucinating – or is he? – that the Animatronics are staring back at him with freaky black-pupil eyes. Moore hits the obvious, but still valid target of dwelling on the interminable lines at the attractions, and what begins as piquant depiction of male anxiety morphs into an increasingly bizarre sci-fi enigma that evokes Village of the Damned and the original Stepford Wives, with a techno-Orwellian twist. The Disney phenomenon is not trying to capture your imagination, Moore asserts. Those all-seeing Imagineers want to control it, and they’re winning the battle for your soul. (Cue the Wicked Witch’s cackle.)

What’s even more distressing than an upper middle class family with utter contempt for one another? Try the vapid world of online gambling, and the sleazy Gen-X tycoons pulling the strings and taking college kids for suckers. The subject seems like a slam dunk for Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the screenwriting duo behind Rounders, who know a thing or two about the Darwinian world of high-stakes poker. It also appears to be an ideal match for Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman’s hard-boiled sensibility. So why is Runner Runner such a wash?

Two words: Justin Timberlake. The pop sensation has given good performances in the past (his work on Black Snake Moan comes to mind), but he’s essentially miscast as Richie Furst, a Princeton student on probation for making some money on the side at the expense of trust-fund babies who like to gamble online. He doesn’t quite have all the moola he needs to pay for his Ivy League tuition, you see, so he puts his poker expertise to the test, and loses every penny. Furst figures out he’s been cheated out of a game he should have won, and travels to Costa Rica – Puerto Rico stands in for the Central American nation – to confront Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the website’s CEO.

Instead of rebuffing the dogged whippersnapper, Block takes him under his wing, and as the sharp-dressed tycoon’s henchman, Furst begins enjoying a glamorous life of lush opulence and curvaceous temptresses (that would be Rebecca Shafran, Block’s squeeze, played by Gemma Arterton). At a tight 91 minutes, Furst keeps things flowing at a fast clip. That doesn’t make Runner Runner any less silly, but at least this Devil Wears Prada for bros is fairly easy to take, even when Affleck, who appears to be having a blast playing a bad guy, allows his character to become more and more generic as this lackluster cat-and-mouse caper rushes to its thoroughly predictable gotcha moment.

The Sony folks hopes moviegoers place their bets on Runner Runner, now playing in wide release. Captain Phillips sets sail at area multiplexes – including IMAX screens – Oct. 11. The previous day, Escape from Tomorrow begins wishing upon a star it finds an appreciative audience at O Cinema in Wynwood (o-cinema.org). The movie also opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com) and Koubek Center (koubekcenter.org/artcinema.aspx).

About Ruben Rosario

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