Niagara Gazette

October 8, 2013

CALLERI: Will to survive and succeed are at the center of two new films

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Heroism is the focus of two movies that explore how determined men deal with roadblocks in their calm and ordered lives. Both films are based on actual events.

“Captain Phillips” is about a merchant marine captain who knows instinctively that flashy heroics won’t work during the hijacking of his massive cargo ship by teen-aged pirates in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. In “Still Mine,” a Canadian farmer becomes a hero by fighting a government bureaucracy eager to stop his mission to find a solution to problems created by the physical challenges faced by his beloved wife.

In the hostage drama, Tom Hanks plays Richard Phillips, the captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama. In April of 2009, it was seized by four pirates, all of them impossibly young and acting under orders by a warlord running his operations from the Somalian coast. Phillips was taken off the ship and placed in a small covered boat.

Over the course of a few days, as negotiations for the release of Phillips and the huge ocean-going vessel were being carried out, the U.S. Navy accessed the situation, and then acted with military precision. Even though we know what happened involving the sea-borne snipers, the movie works as well as it does because director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray not only concentrate on the tension surrounding the piracy, but also, by necessity, open up the film by trying to tell some human interest stories. Ray based his script on the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty.

We see Phillips and his wife, played by Catherine Keener, before he joins the Maesrk Alabama for its journey, giving us a sense of their close relationship. Mrs. Phillips has totems she believes in so that her veteran sea-going husband has safe trips. We also watch the youthful pirates on land and learn about their meager existence before they are ordered to take the ship, which was carrying almost 17,000 metric tons of cargo.

The chaos on the boat is extreme. Not every crew member was noticed by the hijackers. Some fought back.

Hanks is good as Phillips, a rigidly officious man who does everything by the book, a book he might as well have written. The pirates are played by Somali-Americans and the SEAL commander is acted by Max Martini, but this is primarily Hanks’s show.

Greengrass, who directed the second and third Matt Damon-Jason Bourne movies, is in love with hand-held cameras and quick edits. “Captain Phillips” loses some of its luster because of that obsession. Human dramas like this need depth, certainly something stronger than what we get. I wished the film had been opened-up even more. Greengrass worships superficialities. The faster the characters talk, and the more whipping around he can do with his camera, the happier he is.

Overall, “Captain Phillips” is engaging, although it falters a bit because the story doesn’t quite sustain its 134-minute length. The negotiations are mechanical. The pirates become shadows to a calculating Phillips. Watching him think isn’t gripping, as least not in the way Greengrass has chosen to deliver it.

“Still Mine” focuses on the loving relationship between an elderly couple in New Brunswick. While running their small farm, they’ve raised a family and have avoided becoming trapped and controlled by Big Agriculture.

The beautifully crafted and heartfelt movie is about the intensity of the connection Craig and Irene Morrison, both in their eighties, have to their land as well as to each other. There hasn’t been a film of this quality about a long-married couple since “Amour.”

One day, Irene has an accident, which slows her down and alters the serenity and security of her life. Craig decides to build a new house, one in which Irene can move around with ease. Independent to a fault, some say ridiculously stubborn, he will erect the home himself. This surprises only a few.

Problems arise when a government building official gets wind of the personal project, which he says violates innumerable laws. A quirky pastoral turns into something much more serious. Craig will fight any opposition in court as only a stoic curmudgeon can.

“Still Mine” is about one man’s determination to do what he believes is right. He may be 87, but he knows what he wants. To Craig, “age is just an abstraction, not a straitjacket.”

James Cromwell, as the cantankerous Craig, and Genevieve as the wonderful and supportive Irene, both deserve Academy Award consideration, giving performances you don’t want to miss.

The superb movie is written and directed by Michael McGowan, who knows exactly how to highlight the emotional core of his characters. Never maudlin or overbearing, “Still Mine” is about succeeding regardless of one’s age.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.