REVIEW: “In the Heart of the Sea”

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It has been a while since we’ve had a Moby Dick movie. There has been an interesting variety of cinematic iterations (my favorite being John Huston and Gregory Peck’s 1956 version). Now we have Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea”. Well actually “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t a Moby Dick movie. It is based on “the true encounter that inspired one of the greatest legends of all time” (aka it’s kind of a Moby Dick movie, but it really isn’t).

The Son of Odin and one time Sexiest Man Alive Chris Hemsworth stars in this nautical thriller which is more directly taken from Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book of the same name. It chronicles the fate of the whaleship Essex which in 1820 encountered a massive sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. There is no Captain Ahad driven mad with bloodlust towards a massive underwater leviathan. No, instead this is an open-sea survival story that may end up surprising people with the grim and darker paths it takes.

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The story is told to us through an interview between writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville is an ambitious young novelist who needs (both mentally and career-wise) a good story to tell. Nickerson served on the Essex as a young boy and since has been haunted by pent-up memories of survival.

 

Nickerson recalls his story through flashbacks. In them we meet a seasoned whaler named Owen Chase (Hemsworth). Although he had been promised the captaincy of his own ship, instead he is assigned to the Essex to serve as First Mate to an inexperienced and insecure Captain with a prominent last name (Benjamin Walker). The 21-man crew head out on a two and a half year voyage for highly coveted and profitable whale oil.

The crew-favorite First Mate Chase and the jealous Captain Pollard quickly butt heads. Pollard’s arrogant ineptitude nearly has them killed by a violent storm. But the first sighting of whales quickly mends the hostility. While restocking in Ecuador Pollard and Chase are told of an area of Pacific waters that is loaded with whales for the catching. They are also warned of a giant beast bigger than mind can fathom. They dismiss the warning and head towards the fishing grounds hoping to get their oil quota so they can head back home.

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I shouldn’t need to tell you they do encounter this massive sperm whale and the results aren’t good. Soon after the crew find themselves fighting to survive, not so much from the whale, but from starvation, the elements, and at times each other. The story ventures into some pretty dark areas and deals with some fairly complicated moral questions. It never fully dives into its darkness. In skirts around the edges of its PG-13 boundaries and it doesn’t spend as much time exploring the harsh survival aspect as it could have. Still, it definitely gets its points across.

The moments Melville has with Nickerson are fantastic and they have just as much going on dramatically. Gleeson is simply one of the best working actors. With an effortless poetry he allows us to see through the eyes of this scarred and emotionally fragile character. His scenes with Whishaw are fewer, but they are just as compelling as the high seas adventure. They are also inseparable. The story of the Essex is the cathartic release of a damaged psyche and since I bought into Nickerson, the story he was telling was made more important.

 

This is a big film for Hemsworth, an actor who needs a good meaty performance. He needs something to help him be seen as more than ‘Thor from the Marvel movies’. Other than some pretty solid work in “Rush” we haven’t seen it. Forgettable performances in forgettable films like “Red Dawn”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and “Blackhat” haven’t helped. Here he gives a much more seasoned and fitting performance. There are moments where he works a bit too hard, but overall he’s good. Hemsworth lost almost 50 pounds of that chiseled Asgardian physique for this one. He certainly went all in.

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Speaking of going all in, so does Ron Howard. “In the Heart” has no shortage a special effects most of which are strikingly effective particularly on the big screen. A lot of my pleasure came from how he and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (a Danny Boyle favorite) framed many of their shots. There are so many cool angles and unusual perspectives. Some are used to heighten our senses to certain situations while others simply ground us in what’s going on. Some may be just to show off how beautiful a shot is. There is such a high polish to many of the visuals and sometimes that makes the effects a tad too obvious, but as a whole Howard gives us plenty of fantastic things to look at.

People will undoubtedly compare this to “Moby Dick” and that’s unfortunate. In fact walking out of the theater I overheard a guy saying “I like Gregory Peck’s version better.” The trailers have certainly helped to fuel these expectations. But his isn’t a man-versus-whale story. This isn’t “Moby Dick”. There is an entirely different story being told and I found it to be pretty compelling. Popular critical sentiment is that “In the Heart of the Sea” falls short. I’ll admit Ron Howard submits to a pretty firm and unbending structure and perhaps the film doesn’t explore certain themes as deeply as I wanted. But there is so much I appreciate both narratively and visually, and the film is definitely more than high seas eye candy.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Rush”

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I’m not a racing fan so the story of Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda was new to me. Ron Howard’s biographical sports film “Rush” tells the story of these two men and the rivalry that grew between them. Filmed with flash and gusto, “Rush” mixes common sports movie techniques with its more serious dramatic focus. The result is a film centered around an intriguing relationship between two racers that generally plays out fairly well. Unfortunately there are some kinks and wrinkles which keep the movie from being as smooth as it should have been.

Folks in Europe will be much more familiar with the story of Hunt and Lauda. These two championship racers were as different as night and day. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a talented driver who is more interested in the excesses of alcohol and sex that accompany his fame. He flies by the seat of his pants both on and off the track. Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) has no interest in accolades or fame. He is a by-the-book fellow who takes a cold and calculated approach to everything he does from racing to relationships. According to the movie Hunt and Lauda get off on the wrong foot and their drastically different approaches to racing and life constantly clash.

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Interestingly neither of these characters are particularly likable. Peter Morgan’s script unveils their strong competitive wills which are inseparably tied to their inflated egos. They just show their haughtiness in different ways. But their rivalry takes a different turn during the 1976 Formula One season after Lauda is involved in a fiery crash. He is severely burned and faced with an excruciating rehabilitation. During this time Hunt is able to take the season points lead and looks to be on track for the championship. But only 42 days after his accident, Lauda attempts a comeback that defies all odds.

“Rush” offers a fascinating and personal story and we get hearty bites of it here and there. But there is a really odd structure to the film as a whole. A big hunk of the movie deals more with their individual rises to Formula One status. Sprinkled in are some brief run-ins they have and of course the races themselves. This does a good job of defining them and their vices but it also takes a lot of shortcuts. For example the two main female characters are shoehorned in and not given much to do at all. Olivia Wilde plays a supermodel who suddenly marries Hunt but later develops an off-screen romance with Richard Burton after being shunned by her husband. It’s a paper-thin side story. Equally underdeveloped is Lauda’s quick marriage to Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). The couple do get a few good moments but she is mostly reserved to standing at his races looking terribly concerned.

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Speaking of those races, they are some of the most exhilarating race sequences ever put on screen. Ron Howard’s energetic and pulse-pounding perspectives truly are amazing to watch. Also a ton of credit has to go to the editing team of Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill. Far too often race or car chase sequences are chopped up into pieces making it almost impossible to discern what is going on. Hanley and Hill never make that mistake. Howard’s vigorous touches and technical flare gels perfectly with his editors’ approach to create some truly intense racing action. Howard also has a ton of fun playing in the whole 1970s period whether it’s the hair, the wardrobes, or the atmosphere. It looks great and I loves all of that stuff.

But back to the film’s structure. Lauda’s wreck and attempted recovery (which features prominently in the trailer and in the real life story) feels under-served. It does play an important part in changing the direction of the plot but it felt like there was much more there to explore. There were also several sports movie gimmicks that are frequently used. For example most of the races are shown with the voiceover of a highly dramatic announcer. The amazing visuals reveal to us the immense danger, the sometimes terrible weather conditions, etc. But that doesn’t stop the announcer from ratcheting up ever ounce of drama.

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The real statement of the film comes from Chris Hemsworth. He more known for his role as the musclebound hammer-wielding Thor from the Marvel movies, but here he shows a definite range that may come as a surprise to some people. He jumps headfirst into Hunt’s life of overindulgence and he never oversells it. Brühl clearly is working hard but ultimately I think he is shortchanged by Peter Morgan’s script. He definitely has some strong moments but more often I found him to be a bit dull. It’s hard to put the bulk of the blame on him though.

Overall “Rush” is a sports biopic that doesn’t full utilize the intriguing story it is based on. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. The are some good dramatic moments and the race scenes are things of fuel-injected beauty. But there are some narative hiccups and I just can’t help but think the film could have better used its time. For example, maybe a few less music video-styled sex scenes and more time spent on the two main female characters. I just feel that there is more to this story that could have been told and ultimately that left me wanting.

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“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – 2 STARS

GRINCHAs audacious as filmmakers can sometimes be, their finished products don’t always match their ambition. Such is the case with the normally reliable Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. When I first saw this film, I left the theater with a pretty gnarly opinion of it. My dislike has eased up after a recent viewing, this time in the presence of my two children. They thoroughly enjoyed the picture and watching their pleasure naturally effected my experience. But while I have a slightly more favorable opinion of the film now, it can only go so far, and I still can’t call this a good movie.

Howard certainly had his work cut out for him. First, making a feature-length film out of a 26 minute animated short was a challenge. The script makes some required additions, some that work and more that don’t, and gives its star Jim Carrey many scenes by himself to just do his thing, this time in full green Grinch attire. When first seeing him, you’ll wonder how you’ll ever take the Grinch getup seriously, but the truth is it’s a pretty amazing transformation (Rick Baker and Gail Ryan won the Oscar for Best Makeup). But his shtick grows tiresome after a while and you almost feel like you’re watching a standup routine instead of a full-length movie. The film also creates storylines involving the Whos to try to stretch things out. But honestly, other than the expansion of the ‘cute as a button’ Cindy Lou character (played nicely by current hard rocker Taylor Momsen), the Whoville storylines are flat and utterly forgettable.

The second big challenge was visually capturing this unique world created by the pen of Dr. Suess in 1957 and the classic animation of Chuck Jones in 1966. I have to say the film looks pretty incredible. The scenery and background environments are nothing short of gorgeous and certainly capture the location created in the original material. Whoville is a busy and colorful assortment of visual splendor which makes watching these Christmas loving locals go about their frantic lives a bit easier in spite of Howard’s roughshod directing. On the other hand I didn’t remember the Whos looking quite so freakish. Their protruding front teeth, wolf-like noses, and peculiar hairdos more closely resembled small woodland rodents. To be honest, they were pretty silly looking and a bit distracting.

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But for me this movie’s biggest transgression lies in its overall lack of charm that made the original short so great. Now to be fair, Howard does try to inject some feeling into the storyline. He does try to give it some heart. But these few instances of emotion are smothered by the film’s overall dependency on in-your-face slapstick and bathroom humor which sometimes makes it feel more like a dark comedy than a spirited Christmas film. The main story of the original is still intact and there are several clever nods that fans of the original will appreciate. But unfortunately it’s missing too much of the key component that made 1966 short so special – heart and soul. Carrey gives it his all, but Howard pushes too far.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” would be tough for any filmmaker to transform into a feature-length film. But here Ron Howard shows us enough to know that it can be done. But he, along with a sometimes grinding script, undermine everything they get right. Yet I still have to say that my reaction to the film now isn’t as vitriolic as it initially was. In fact, I can appreciate what the film does well a lot more especially after watching it with my children. But even with all of its aspirations and risk-taking, it still falls short of being the really fun movie that it could have been. With a little more polish and a lot more restraint this could have been a holiday treat. Instead it’s a repetitive and sometimes laborious exercise that just doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should. That’s a shame.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – 2 STARS

GRINCHAs audacious as filmmakers can sometimes be, their finished products don’t always match their ambition. Such is the case with the normally reliable Ron Howard’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. When I first saw this film, I left the theater with a pretty gnarly opinion of it. My dislike has eased up after a recent viewing, this time in the presence of my two children. They thoroughly enjoyed the picture and watching their pleasure naturally effected my experience. But while I have a slightly more favorable opinion of the film now, it can only go so far, and I still can’t call this a good movie.

Howard certainly had his work cut out for him. First, making a feature-length film out of a 26 minute animated short was a challenge. The script makes some required additions, some that work and more that don’t, and gives its star Jim Carrey many scenes by himself to just do his thing, this time in full green Grinch attire. When first seeing him, you’ll wonder how you’ll ever take the Grinch getup seriously, but the truth is it’s a pretty amazing transformation (Rick Baker and Gail Ryan won the Oscar for Best Makeup). But his shtick grows tiresome after a while and you almost feel like you’re watching a standup routine instead of a full-length movie. The film also creates storylines involving the Whos to try to stretch things out. But honestly, other than the expansion of the ‘cute as a button’ Cindy Lou character (played nicely by current hard rocker Taylor Momsen), the Whoville storylines are flat and utterly forgettable.

The second big challenge was visually capturing this unique world created by the pen of Dr. Suess in 1957 and the classic animation of Chuck Jones in 1966. I have to say the film looks pretty incredible. The scenery and background environments are nothing short of gorgeous and certainly capture the location created in the original material. Whoville is a busy and colorful assortment of visual splendor which makes watching these Christmas loving locals go about their frantic lives a bit easier in spite of Howard’s roughshod directing. On the other hand I didn’t remember the Whos looking quite so freakish. Their protruding front teeth, wolf-like noses, and peculiar hairdos more closely resembled small woodland rodents. To be honest, they were pretty silly looking and a bit distracting.

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But for me this movie’s biggest transgression lies in its overall lack of charm that made the original short so great. Now to be fair, Howard does try to inject some feeling into the storyline. He does try to give it some heart. But these few instances of emotion are smothered by the film’s overall dependency on in-your-face slapstick and bathroom humor which sometimes makes it feel more like a dark comedy than a spirited Christmas film. The main story of the original is still intact and there are several clever nods that fans of the original will appreciate. But unfortunately it’s missing too much of the key component that made 1966 short so special – heart and soul. Carrey gives it his all, but Howard pushes too far.

“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” would be tough for any filmmaker to transform into a feature-length film. But here Ron Howard shows us enough to know that it can be done. But he, along with a sometimes grinding script, undermine everything they get right. Yet I still have to say that my reaction to the film now isn’t as vitriolic as it initially was. In fact, I can appreciate what the film does well a lot more especially after watching it with my children. But even with all of its aspirations and risk-taking, it still falls short of being the really fun movie that it could have been. With a little more polish and a lot more restraint this could have been a holiday treat. Instead it’s a repetitive and sometimes laborious exercise that just doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should. That’s a shame.