In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the SeaHerman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has become preoccupied with the story of the Essex, and, convinced that the only way to rid himself of his latest obsession is to commit it to the page, travels to Nantucket where he has arranged to speak with the only surviving crewmember. Reluctantly, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recalls his experiences as a cabin boy (Tom Holland) under novice captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his rather more experienced first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Fast foes, the pair are determined to be rid of one another as quickly as possible, and in their haste steer the Essex into unfamiliar waters after hearing tales of a bounty of sperm whales in the remote Offshore Grounds. In so doing, however, they ignore another rumour, of an enormous white whale intent on destroying any ship that crosses its pod.

Prior to the release of the first trailer, buzz for In the Heart of the Sea was relatively positive. Ron Howard had just made Rush with Chris Hemsworth, a compelling sports drama with a charismatic lead, and had put together an impressive cast for their next film together, the story behind one of the greatest American novels ever written. The trailer changed everything, however, as discussion soon turned to the famous white whale, and how poorly rendered it appeared in the various effects shots that dominated the footage. For while Melville’s novel might have been a treatise on race, religion and revenge, in which the whale is as much metaphor as monster, Howard’s adaptation seemed to be positioning itself as a disaster cum survival movie in the blockbuster, in which the whale attacks were the main draw. The only problem? It didn’t look as though anyone involved had ever seen a whale before. Had Moby Dick already sunk its own adaptation?

It might come as something of a surprise, then, but In the Heart of the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. It’s no classic — nor is it even another Rush — but there is more going on than anyone had any real reason to expect. For one, the narrative device employing Herman and Nickerson is not only a more substantial part of the movie, it is also one of the most memorable. There is never any threat that the story won’t be told — history tells us otherwise, as does the poster for the film — but it makes for engaging drama nonetheless. With Michelle Fairley providing support as Thomas’ wife, the trio quickly build an uncanny rapport that foregrounds their subplot against the rather more more straightforward main narrative. Hemsworth is compelling as ever, but his characterisation — and his conflict with Pollard — is so by the numbers and predictable as to nullify any perceptible dramatic tension. There is a slightly unreal aesthetic to the film, and whether or not the performances are meant to ape that quality, their rivalry does feel a little cartoonish at times.

In context, meanwhile, the whale doesn’t look any more realistic, nor do the pods of regular-sized sperm whales that feature throughout, but Howard finds other ways of provoking a visceral reaction. The film doesn’t shy away from the butchery and barbarism of the whaling industry, and there are a number of shots demonstrating both the hunting and harvesting of these animals that really gets beneath the skin, no pun intended, and leads to some pretty interesting places. (When it is revealled that oil can now be extracted straight from the planet, you really fear for our poor little world.) Tom Holland is exceptional throughout as the young Nickerson, but never better than when forced into the carcass of a freshly harpooned whale and told to extract the more hard to reach pockets of oil from its depths. It’s an upsetting scene, and Thomas’ own tumult is plain to see. That is to say, then, that the whale’s retribution feels perfectly justified, leaving the real horror to come from the survivors’ own treatment of one another. Life of Pi and Unbroken didn’t shy away from desperation, but even within the boundaries of its 12A rating In the Heart of the Sea really makes you question not just the value of survival, but the very essence of humanity.

Not swashbuckling enough to compete with Star Wars, and not substantial enough to convince as any sort of counterpoint, it’s unclear exactly which audience Howard is fishing for. Like Blackhat, another of Hemsworth’s 2015 efforts that suffered a similar issue, however, it might yet make its bounty back on DVD. By the power of Thor — and Spider-man, too — if nothing else.

3-Stars

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Rush (2013)

RushHaving first met in Formula Three at England’s Crystal Palace circuit, rival racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) once again find themselves in competition during the 1976 Formula One season, with Hunt replacing Emerson Fittipaldi at McLaren and Lauda — already an F1 World Champion — having bought a place at Ferrari. Despite winning the Spanish Grand Prix towards the beginning of the season, Hunt struggles to keep up with Lauda, his performance beset by issues with his car, his marriage to supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and his rock and roll lifestyle. When Lauda suffers his own setback at the infamous Nürburgring in Germany, however, Hunt finds himself very much back in the game.

From Ron Howard — of Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon, Rush adapts another true story for the big screen, and follows hot on the heals of 2011 racing documentaries Senna and TT3D: Closer to the Edge.  While undoubtedly a dramatic film, what is particularly remarkable about Rush is how true to life the movie manages to be; whether you already know the story or decide to look into it after the fact, it’s astonishing just how closely fiction imitates fact. That said, even though the races might closely represent the broadcasts of the time, Howard makes use of his modern cameras and special effects to make the circuits ever more tense and exciting.

Even the cast bear a striking resemblance to their real life counterparts, with Hemsworth and Brühl each doing a terrific job of capturing the essence of their respective namesakes. Admittedly, Hemsworth’s Hunt is not a hundred miles from his Thor, but it is still a brilliantly charismatic performance that couldn’t be more different from Brühl’s rather more unlikeable (but no less magnetic) turn as Lauda. You might expect each character to have been exaggerated for the big screen, but many of their exchanges are lifted straight from real life. They’re ably supported by some brilliant British talent, with Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay and Julian Rhind-Tutt cropping up just long enough to make an impression, while Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara also impress in relatively thankless roles.

For anyone less than interested in Formula One, it’s worth stating that many of the races are all but cut in an attempt to avoid repetition, and that those which are included are shot with verve and vigour (in addition to a “Racing For Dummies” commentary). Importantly, however, the most engaging action takes place off of the race track, with the clashing titans as interesting on their own as they are together. Nevertheless, the final race is one of the most thrilling set pieces of the year thus far. This is a film that deserves to be seen in the cinema.

4-Stars

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Jim Carrey plays the Grinch, a cynical misanthrope who has spent the majority of his life living in exile on the outskirts of Whoville. Bullied out of town as a child due to his green visage and general disregard for Christmas convention, the Grinch has turned his back on the occasion and declared war on merriment and cheer. When a local girl (Taylor Michel Momsen), similarly disenchanted by the season’s shameless commercialism, takes an interest in the history of the Grinch, and even goes so far as to nominate him for an award in the local practice of Whobillation, he decides to steal Christmas from the community in a final attempt to crush the town’s spirits once and for all.

Narrated by Anthony Hopkins and featuring a powerhouse performance from Carrey, Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas dominated the charts in 2000 and earned itself the enduring title of the second highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time. Largely dismissed by critics, it nevertheless went on to be considered a Christmas classic and ultimately lead the way for subsequent cinematic expeditions to Whoville.

While the dated aesthetic of How The Grinch Stole Christmas might now pale in comparison with the effects-laden Horton Hears A Who, the film remains immensely impressive even to this day, the filmmakers duly realising the book’s designs with invention and verve. Carrey is a revelation as the eponymous grouch, gurning and gumming his way through a series of apparently custom-made slapstick set-pieces with a commitment and abandon that proves utterly timeless. Unhindered by the extensive prosthetics (let’s face it, Jim Carrey’s features were pretty rubbery to begin with), the actor is such a delight in the role that you really must ask why he hasn’t done more in recent years.

The supporting players are similarly good-humoured in their portrayal of the Whovians, with the crowd scenes really selling the sets that they take place in and the community that they conspire to create. Jeffrey Tambor is suitably boo-hiss as they Machiavellian mayor, his self-important streak as wide as the snowflake upon which Whoville is based, while the ever-dependable Christine Baranski delivers a performance so breathtakingly breathless that it is impossible not to feel swept up in her charismatic charm. If newcomer Taylor Michel Momsen disappoints as the innocently tone-deaf Cindy Lou Who – and she does. She really, really does – it is to the film’s credit that it is so relentlessly enjoyable that her evident inexperience is all but forgiven the moment focus shifts back to Carrey.

The real star of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and the aspect which most stands up today, is its inspired script. Self-referential and wonderfully subversive, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s adapted screenplay is a joy from start to finish. Comprised largely of rhyming couplets, the playful revelry in rhetoric – both articulated by Hopkins and attacked by Carey – is high on quotability, the writers making the most of Dr. Seuss ear for dialogue and using it as a means to have their say on a number of topics. Perhaps the biggest success of Howard’s film is that it is as much an indictment of Christmas as it is a traditional celebration of it.

A Christmas movie which dares to conform but not necessarily concede, an adaptation which embraces its namesake while developing the story even further and a career-best performance from The Mask himself, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is nothing short of essential viewing this holiday season. Witty, fun and unafraid to have a quick pop at religion between consumerist critiques, I just wish the Grinch could steal Christmas every year.