Tag Archives: Ben Whishaw

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

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I’ve never read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s one of those “on the list” classics), but that didn’t stop me from being intrigued by In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the award-winning non-fiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick (throw this book on the list too), the film tells the harrowing tale of the American whaling ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick in the first place.

The trailers certainly made the true story look very promising. Directed by Ron Howard, the film had the look and tone of a grand sea epic with that 1800s grit and a touch of the fantastical. It’s got a magnificent cast headed by Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Cillian Murphy,  Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Frank Dillane (Fear the Walking Dead). And for those who want to get to know the new Spiderman a little in advance of Captain America: Civil War, the film also stars Tom Holland as the youngest crew member of the Essex (sadly, he grows up to look like Brendan Gleeson…).

For some reason, however, the release of the film was pushed back from March to December, with Howard offering a vague explanation about the marketing people wanting to maximise the movie’s potential. Whether that’s legit or because execs were pessimistic about its performance or overly optimistic (it opens a week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the US and as December tends to be Oscar season) we’ll probably never know. In my humble opinion, the film probably would have done better in March because it was riding more hype at the time and simply because Star Wars is going to annihilate absolutely everything in its path. So don’t be surprised when In the Heart of the Sea turns out to be a box office flop.

That said, while I don’t think it’s an Oscar-worthy flick deserving of Howard’s pantheon of great movies, I do think In the Heart of the Sea is a very solid, well-made, occasionally breathtaking and sometimes heartbreaking film. It never quite reaches the epic status it aims for and falls short when delivering its most climatic moments, but it’s definitely still good enough to deserve your time, especially on the big screen (though I doubt the 3D — I watched it in 2D — is worth it). The special effects are spectacular, giving the film a sense of danger and tension a sense of groundedness it otherwise might not have had.

In adherence with my non-spoiler philosophy, here’s just a basic outline: Whishaw plays Moby Dick author Melville, who tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) in the mid-1800s and tries to entice the reluctant middle-aged man into telling him the “true story” of what happened to the Essex about 30 years ago. And so like Life of Pi, the majority of the film is told in flashback, with a 14-year-old Nickerson (Holland) recalling the experience of going out into the ocean to look for “whale oil” (I had no idea such an industry existed). The initial focus of the film is the uneasy relationship between the Essex’s experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and its green but privileged captain George Pollard Jr (Walker). Murphy plays Matthew Joy, Chase’s childhood friend and a crew member on the ship. All of these characters, by the way, are real people.

Now of course you know that the Essex encounters a whale, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say it’s just a “whale movie”. Yes, whales play a pivotal role, but they actually don’t occupy as much screen time as you might imagine. The story goes way beyond just whales, and for those who don’t know the fate of the Essex and its crew I’d recommend avoiding that knowledge to get the most out of the experience. A big part of why the movie is so compelling comes from not knowing what will happen next and who will survive.

As with all good films, In the Heart of the Sea is about the characters, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a good feel for each of them. I do think Captain Pollard’s character could have been a little stronger (he was a little one-dimensional), especially at the beginning, but by the end I did feel like I understood them all quite well.

Having said that, the movie never quite soars like I wanted it to. Despite the impeccable effects, it lacked the sense of awe I think it needed to elevate the emotional punch to the next level. One of the problems is that these men are all whalers, and whaling is freaking cruel and barbaric. There’s just no way around it. Granted, people back in those days saw things differently and we get that, but for modern audiences it can be hard to root for  characters who kind of deserve whatever is coming to them. As a result, it is hard to know how to feel toward the characters and the whale(s) they hunt.

This leads into the other issue I had with the film, which is that there is no clear moral to the story — at least not until the very end. And it’s the kind of movie that feels like it ought to have some deeper meaning because too much shit happens and it’s not obviously not just some fun popcorn adventure. Despite Howard not showing us the most agonising parts of the story, the film is undoubtedly a distressing experience, and because of that I felt there should have been a more profound message — the kind of message Moby Dick apparently has.

Notwithstanding the film’s flaws, Howard is too good of a filmmaker and storyteller for his film to suck. It’s perhaps not the memorable epic I had been hoping for, but In the Heart of the Sea still ticks enough boxes and has enough enjoyable, thrilling and dramatic moments to satisfy this viewer.

3.75 stars out of 5

Spectre (2015) (IMAX)

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Truth be told, I’ve never been that big a fan of the James Bond 007 franchise. It’s always kind of the same, no? A suave super spy who loves the sexy ladies and whom the sexy ladies love in return. Slick cars, cool gadgets, and a whole lot of style.

The reason Daniel Craig has been so loved as Bond is because he supposedly makes the character more vulnerable and more human. I really enjoyed Casino Royale, almost fell asleep during Quantum of Solace, and quite liked Skyfall (review here), though I still don’t think it lived up to the hype. Yeah, Sam Mendes made a very nice looking, very artistic film, but I didn’t think there was much substance behind the simple yet unnecessary convoluted plot.

The same can be said for, Spectre, which could very well be Craig’s final outing as James Bond (he’s signed on for one more, but the rights to the franchise are going up for auction and whoever wins it might decide to start afresh) — except it has more problems than just a lack of substance. I don’t want to say I disliked the movie — it was enjoyable on some levels — but it’s definitely weaker than both Skyfall and Casino Royale (can’t compare to Quantum of Solace because I can’t remember it). And for what is supposed to be the “climax” of the Daniel Craig franchise, that’s disappointing.

Spectre starts off with a bang in Mexico City, with Bond on pursuit of a mysterious criminal. I remember being blown away by the opening sequence of Skyfall on that moving train, and Spectre arguably tops that. I saw it in IMAX too, so it was even more spectacular.

The ensuing title sequence they have for all Bond films is also done very well through a catchy blend of artistic imagery and the soulful voice of Sam Smith. It also provides flashes of characters from the previous three films to jog our memories as Spectre ties it all together.

From there, however, the film struggles to keep up. Granted, there is more plot that Skyfall, and the surveillance technology premise is well-suited to the post-Snowden era. Further, the technical execution is still excellent. The action, from what I remember, is perhaps better than that from Skyfall, with a few explosive and eye-popping set pieces that keep the adrenaline pumping. A lot of guns and a lot of explosions, a few slick car chases and nicely choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes. And of course Sam Mendes ensures everything looks as pretty as ever and Craig remains as suave and unflustered — for the most part — as he possibly can be.

But amid all of this is a whole bunch of ham. Ham-fistedness, that is. The Bond cliches start pouring out, and they feel unnecessary and contrived. From the women and romances to the villains and their moronically elaborate tactics, so much of Spectre gravitates towards the tropes that Craig is supposed to be steering away from. I don’t want to divulge spoilers, of course, but ‘m not kidding when I say this film does the exact sort of things Austin Powers has made fun of.

I was disappointed in the female characters too. I absolutely love Monica Bellucci, but her role in this film is ridiculous and a complete waste of time. I also thought Naomi Harris, who didn’t get to do much in Skyfall, would play a bigger role this time. She does feature more prominently, though just barely, though her presence all but disappears in the second half of the movie. You almost forget about her. Of the Bond girls, only Lea Seydoux has a meaty role. She’s awesome and sassy, but if you think about it, her purpose is still quite conventional — to look sexy and to be rescued.

That brings me to the villain, played by dual Oscar winner Christoph Waltz. He’s supposed to be the baddie of all baddies. The ultimate nemesis. The guy who makes the villains from the previous three films look like pussies. He’s certainly built up to be that guy, and on paper Waltz is perfect for the role. And yet, he totally sucks. Every one of his appearances — every damn one — is preceded by a long, elaborate and over-the-top introduction. And it’s not like we don’t know who he is. Everyone knows it’s Christoph Waltz! And yet it seems he always feels the need to hide in the shadows for five minutes before unveiling his face. The amount of effort Mendes puts into setting Waltz up as the king of villains only ends up accentuating how inept he actually is.

I sound harsher than I mean to. Spectre is skilfully made, looks fantastic (especially in IMAX) and still has its moments, like the opening sequence and some of the scenes involving badass Dave Bautista. Ben Whishaw’s Q is also very likable and Ralph Fiennes does a solid job of stepping in for Judi Dench as M. It’s just that, after three films of making us feel that Daniel Craig represents a different and better kind of Bond, Spectre brings us right back to the formulaic version of the character and tropes that I never cared much for. There’s no other way to call it other than a step back.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Paddington (2014)

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If you had asked me to jot down the 10 major releases of 2014 that I had no interest in seeing, I’m fairly certain that Paddington would have been on that list, and near the top too.

Paddington bear is beloved in children’s literature, which usually means disaster when it comes to big screen adaptations. Besides, I don’t know much about the character myself, don’t care much for it, and I don’t particularly like family or children’s films. Throw in the typically overrated Nicole Kidman in the cast, and it’s no surprise Paddington barely registered a peep on my movie radar.

And yet, the 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating enticed me to give it a try when I had nothing else better to do. I still didn’t expect it to be good because I figured the positive reviews were judging it from the standpoint of a family/children’s film.

I was of course wrong. Even taking into account my low expectations, Paddington turned out to be one of my surprise hits of 2014. It’s not a groundbreaking family film by any means, but the humour and tone are so well-crafted that adults might end up enjoying it more than the kids.

The plot is formulaic: an English-speaking Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) somehow ends up in London and is adopted by a typical family who name him after the station where they found him. The mother (Sally Hawkins) and her two kids welcome Paddington with open arms, but the dad (Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey), a risk analyst, can’t wait to get rid of the troublesome bear.

As you would expect, there are fish-out-of-the-water experiences for Paddington as he tries to acclimatise himself to human life, baddies (led by Nicole Kidman) who want to stuff him, and opportunities for the dad to accept Paddington into his family and his heart.

None of this is mildly surprising. What is surprising is that Paddington is genuinely funny and filled with feel-good fun. Much of the brilliance stems from the decision to have everyone in the movie accept the existence of a talking bear with a non-chalant, “so what?” attitude. No one he comes in contact with is shocked, and the reaction is typically more one of disdain for his scruffy appearance. This durable gag is backed up by a plenty of deadpan humour, especially from Bonneville, who strangely reminded me of a likable version of Piers Morgan. He is absolutely fantastic.

It’s a shame the lovely Sally Hawkins doesn’t get to do much here, though other characters, such as Nicole Kidman’s villain and Peter Capaldi’s grumpy neighbour, manage to pick up the slack. Most of the laughs in this film are light, but they are mostly witty and come regularly. I never expected to laugh this much in a family film with a CGI bear.

At the end of the day, Paddington is still a formulaic family film with a bear whose cuteness has no influence on me. But despite not being my cup of tea on paper, I ended up having a blast because comedy does not discriminate. Funny is funny no matter what genre. I’m glad I gave Paddington a chance and I hope everyone will too.

4 stars out of 5