Review of “In the Heart of the Sea”

Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has travelled to visit former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to interview him about the last voyage of the whaling ship Essex. Nickerson is reluctant at first but is convinced by Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley) to talk to the writer. Nickerson recalls setting sail as a greenhorn (played as a teen by Tom Holland) on his maiden voyage with first-time captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase should have been captain but the company that owned the ship was run by Pollard’s father. Pollard and Owen didn’t get along but worked together as best they could to fill their hold with whale oil and return to port as quickly as possible. A scarcity of whales drives the men and ship into the middle of the Pacific where they encounter a massive white sperm whale. In protecting its herd the whale attacks the Essex, damaging her beyond repair and forcing the men to abandon ship. Setting off in small whaling boats the crew soon faces starvation and must do the unthinkable to survive.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is epic film making. It takes a fantastic tale of survival against all odds and narrows its focus down to a few common men. Despite the presence of Thor and Spider-Man, there are no great heroes that save the day. These are merely men doing what had to be done to get home. It’s the kind of movie that features incredible visuals and small emotional moments in equal measure. It also has a strong environmental message that becomes a bit overbearing at times. It is far from perfect but it still manages to be effective in producing an emotional response.

While the trailer for “In the Heart of the Sea” sells the story as more of a monster movie with a man fighting against an unnaturally intelligent and aggressive whale, the beast plays a fairly minor role. It is the struggle between the survivors and the elements that makes up the biggest part of the story. There is also a secondary story of clashing egos as Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase clash in an effort to establish who is in charge. Pollard has little experience and is the captain only because his father is a powerful businessman within the whaling industry. Chase is told by his bosses to make sure the crew respects Pollard but Chase quickly sees his new captain is in over his head. How can he make the crew respect Pollard if he doesn’t? It is a conflict that roughly mirrors the struggle the crew has to survive after the attack of the whale: The arrogance of Man believing he is ordained by God to control and use all the beasts of the sea is quickly and violently shown for what it is when a single whale destroys their boat and leaves them to die in the middle of the ocean.

The struggle for survival occupies about half of the film’s two hour running time and it gets bleak. Star Chris Hemsworth, best known of the physique he shows as Thor in the Marvel superhero movies, and the rest of the cast of survivors lost huge amounts of weight living on 500 to 600 calories a day. The gaunt faces, made even more so by makeup highlighting their cheekbones, are haunting. At one point, those left alive appear to barely have the energy to breathe. Director Ron Howard chooses to focus on the faces of those left alive, making it impossible not to feel a little guilty for sipping on the giant over-priced drink from the concessions stand while looking at the cracked lips, sun-bleached hair and burnt skin.

Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland are outstanding in their roles. Hemsworth plays the hardened whaler Chase with a tinge of playfulness that comes out around the greenhorn deckhand Nickerson played by Tom Holland. Chase acts as something of a father figure for Nickerson who is an orphan. Walker’s Captain Pollard is a man of privilege who knows he’s only captain because of his father. Seeing Chase scramble up the rigging to fix a problem, knowing he would be incapable to doing the same thing, makes Pollard embarrassed and jealous of his first officer. We see Pollard grow to respect and even like Chase as they struggle to survive. Cillian Murphy plays Second Mate Matthew Joy, a long-time friend of Chase. He seems to be playing both sides of the fence in his relationship to the two men, acting as a kind of peacekeeper and moderating influence on both. Tom Holland’s wide eyed wonder at seeing whales for the first time and then being introduced to the interior of one that’s been killed and in the process of being butchered gives him and the audience the introduction to both the beauty and the savagery of his job. Brendan Gleeson plays Tom Nickerson as an adult and gives a moving performance as a man being forced to remember all he had to do to survive over three months lost at sea. The pain and anguish play out over Gleeson’s face in a way that makes you worry for the sanity of the character.

Visually, “In the Heart of the Sea” is stunning. The TV commercials don’t do what the special effects team has accomplished justice. The scenes of whale hunting and when the sperm whale attacks the small whaling boats and the Essex are spectacular. We see the attempt at survival of a harpooned whale from the beast’s perspective, diving down deep in an effort to escape what is attacking it. We witness playful dolphins and huge whales gliding effortlessly through the water. We also see what happens when a whale is killed then brought alongside the ship to be butchered and its oil harvested. The beauty and savagery of nature and whaling are put on full display and in vivid detail.

The movie makes a point of stressing how wrong whaling is and that tends to bring the film to nearly a dead stop. At the time in the early 1800’s, whale oil was the best fuel to light lanterns and streetlamps. It made many people rich in the buying and selling of whale oil. With the discovery of petroleum products and the introduction of vegetable oils, the use of whale oil declined and was eventually outlawed by environmental laws. Despite all this history, the film makes a big deal about how wrong it was to hunt whales. The character of Pollard, who is usually shown on the wrong side of things, points out how God gave man dominion over the animals including the beasts in the sea and it is our duty to exert our control over them. Chase questions whether that’s the right thing to do. This happens, in one form or another, a couple of times in the film. While I agree we don’t need to hunt whales any more, it seems like a waste of time to include these scenes in the movie. We could have been shown Chase’s wife waiting and longing for her husband or the leaders of the whaling company lamenting the apparent loss of their ship and money. It feels like the time could have been better spent on the surrounding drama of their situation.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril, intense sequences of action, brief startling violence and thematic material. The attack of the whale on the smaller boats and the Essex leads to the death of some crewmen and the injury of others. There is a scene where one crewman is trying to escape the ship as it is sinking and on fire. One character is shown shooting himself in the head. What is done to survive at sea, while not shown, is discussed and described. Foul language is scattered.

“In the Heart of the Sea” tells a bleak and depressing story that doesn’t get much happier by the time the end credits roll. It shows men pushed to their limits and forced beyond them by nature and their circumstances. It wants to teach the viewer a lesson about how Man is a minor player on the stage of life and the elements don’t care if you live or die. The movie does a pretty good job pounding that into the consciousness of the audience but it continues that message to the point of assault. We get it: Whaling is unnecessary in the modern age. Perhaps those living in the most extreme polar regions need to harvest a few whales a year to survive but the rest of the world needs to leave these intelligent and majestic creatures alone. The aggressive environmental evangelizing degrades what is otherwise an impressive bit of film making. Despite the less than subtle preaching, “In the Heart of the Sea” is worth the time to watch.

“In the Heart of the Sea” gets four guitars out of five.

Animated animals, dissimilar siblings and a galaxy far, far away are on screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one (can you guess which one?).

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip—

Sisters—

Star Wars: The Force Awakens—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “Spectre”

For movie fans “sequels,” “prequels” and “reboots” are often looked at as dirty words.  The complaint usually goes something like, “Aren’t there any original ideas in Hollywood anymore?”  An exception to this criticism is the James Bond franchise.  After six actors and 24 movies, fans of the series wait for the next installment with nearly unbearable anticipation and the worldwide box office for these films continues to grow to record heights.  After the brilliant “Skyfall,” expectations were understandably high for “Spectre” considering the name of a classic Bond villain was the title of the film.  At the same time, is it possible to make a movie as enjoyable as its predecessor?  Let’s find out.

After creating chaos and destruction on an unauthorized trip to Mexico City, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is suspended by his MI6 boss M (Ralph Fiennes).  M is also facing a shake-up in British intelligence with a new boss, Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), overseeing a recently merged MI5 and MI6.  Denbigh thinks the double-0 program is a relic of the past and wants it discontinued.  He also is spearheading a new intelligence sharing initiative involving nine nations.  Enlisting the aid of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond continues his off-the-books investigation he started in Mexico into an organization that appears to be involved in numerous terrorist attacks around the world.  Along the way he meets the widow of a man he killed in Mexico (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of a man that has plagued him since he became 007 (Lea Seydoux) and Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a mountain of a man who doesn’t think twice about killing anyone in his way.

Comparing “Spectre” to “Skyfall” is a bit unfair as the previous film had an unexpected gooey center of emotion with the relationship between Judi Dench’s M and Bond.  “Spectre” lacks that humanizing element as this adventure is a more straight-ahead action picture.  While there is romance it is more of the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em variety we have grown to expect from Bond.  Also, “Spectre” is more of an effort to reboot the mythology of Bond as this is the first time in over four decades the filmmakers have been allowed to make reference to the criminal organization of the title after a long court battle.  Connecting events across three previous films that were not necessarily written to be connected might be seen as a stretch to some; however, the references to the previous films are handled mostly visually and it isn’t the kind of distraction it might have otherwise been.

As we’ve come to expect, Daniel Craig is the epitome of detached cool as James Bond.  The character is given a few more one-liners than in previous films and Craig is more than up to the challenge of being funny in the face of beautiful women and dangerous henchmen.  Craig has been the honest face of James Bond.  He looks world-weary, tired and suspecting of everyone he can see.  Craig is the Bond I will most miss when his run is over as he is to me the most believable in the role.  I know there are those that are fans of Connery or Moore and have been unhappy with every actor chosen to play the part since; however, the difference between those films and Craig’s is so striking they may as well have been about the Revolutionary War.

Now for my issues with “Spectre:” While both Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista are excellent as Franz Oberhauser and Mr. Hinx respectively, they are criminally underused in the film.  I understand keeping your main villains in the shadows of your trailers and TV spots but your antagonists should be front and center in the film.  The movie is nearly two and a half hours long and, while I didn’t have a stopwatch keeping track of their time, I believe both Waltz and Bautista are on screen less than most Bond baddies.  Bautista has one word in the script but he doesn’t need more as his physical presence speaks volumes.  Mr. Hinx has a fight on a train with Bond that seems to have some real danger to it.  Perhaps it was the close quarters or Hinx physical domination of Bond that made it seem so personal and perilous.  Hinx is a henchman I hope we get to see again.  Waltz is charismatic and intense in the role and should have had a greater chance to shine.  While he makes the most of his limited time I would have liked to see him more.

The underused villains are connected to my next issue with the movie:  The story seems to have been given less thought and in other films.  I can’t give too many details for this as I don’t want to spoil the movie; however, there are things I expected to see in the movie, things suggested by history and the plot, that don’t materialize and other aspects that spring from very little.  Some characters are dispatched in ways that suggest they may return but don’t.  Romances blossom in ways that aren’t supported by events.  Plot twists are telegraphed in less than subtle ways.  It sometimes feels like the locations and the stunts received a great deal more attention than the story.

As with all Bond films, the cinematography and locations are spectacular.  From a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City to the Spectre headquarters in the middle of the desert, the movie is a travelogue of beautiful scenery shot with remarkable care.  Even the interior of a train looks luxurious and inviting when it isn’t being torn apart by a fight between Bond and Hinx.  Despite what is likely the dull nature of actual spy work, the Bond films make it look like the ultimate worldwide vacation with the occasional fight to the death thrown in to make it interesting.

“Spectre” is rated PG-13 for language, intense sequences of action, sensuality, some disturbing images and violence.  From planes chasing SUV’s to two sports cars tearing through the streets of Rome, there are several action set pieces in the film that might upset the youngest and most sensitive viewers.  There are also several fights between Bond and various people.  The most intense is the one on the train with Mr. Hinx.  There is a scene of torture that isn’t graphic but is troubling.  A couple of people get pushed out of a helicopter to their deaths.  Bond has two sex scenes but, in traditional Bond style, there is very little nudity.  Foul language is scattered and mild.

I liked “Spectre” a great deal; but, it works for the most part as a fairly standard Bond adventure.  After the enormous success of “Skyfall” there was very little chance we wouldn’t be a little disappointed by the next installment of the franchise.  With all the promise of the title and the expectations of what we might get “Spectre” comes across as somewhat paint-by-numbers when we all wanted a Picasso.  All that said, it is still a very good action/adventure movie with some interesting concepts and the promise of another chapter of the story still to be told in what would likely be Daniel Craig’s last time in the tuxedo and sports car of Bond…James Bond.

“Spectre” gets five stars but not without a few reservations.

This week, it’s the end of a franchise, a possible new holiday tradition and a crime thriller all hoping to get your entertainment dollar. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2—

The Night Before—

The Secret in Their Eyes—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.