Call me disappointed – Review of In the Heart of the Sea

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Bluntly, In the Heart of the Sea was such a disappointing movie that I can’t even come up with a metaphor about a man driven mad by a desire for revenge against a ghostly leviathan. And that statement is made all the sadder by director Ron Howard’s attempt to do just that with almost every character in the movie.

For the under-informed, In the Heart of the Sea is the story of the writing of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is also the story of the story that led to the writing of the novel Moby Dick. In short, the film occurs in two timelines that unto themselves cannot disguise the fact that neither plot line is satisfying.

Adding to this sense of disappointment is the fact that my friends and I saw the movie in 3-D IMAX, neither of which was needed to tell this narrative, which is surprising given the majestic concept of a whale attacking ships in the open ocean.

Even the actors couldn’t manage enough dimensions to be considered flat, let alone 3-D. Somehow, stalwarts like Brendan Gleeson, Ben Winshaw and Thor…I mean Chris Hemsworth…failed to bring life to this bilge water. Hell, even the great white sperm whale was unable to add excitement to this movie.

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If you want the experience I think Ron Howard was targeting, watch Apollo 13 and every time Tom Hanks appears on screen, imagine him in a cape with a Viking helmet. You’ll have a much more enjoyable experience.

As one of my friends suggested, it was as though Howard was going through a checklist of clichés.

Man vs. inner demons  √

Man vs. the elements  √

Man vs. society/class system  √

Man vs. nature/whale  √

Man vs. himself/his past  √

Unfortunately, Howard missed the most important one:

Man vs. coherent story with a point to make  X

Having read the novel Moby Dick and watched two film versions—Gregory Peck is a God—this version actually did damage to the franchise. It somehow took an exciting tale and examination of the destructive demons that possess us all, and turned it into a melodramatic soulless mess.

The only real positive that I can offer this film was that for all the time spent watching nothing happen, I never reached the bum-squirming phase where I positively itched to flee the theatre.

This was a Hollywood gimme, and yet somewhow they managed to blow it.

 

Other reviews:

Danny F. Santos (coming)

Less than a whale of a tale (Toronto Star)

It’s Man vs Leviathan (New York Times)

Chris Hemsworth Anchors a Whale of a Tale (Forbes)

Snow White more an off-grey (a review)

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I find it difficult to appreciate a movie in isolation (its, not mine). At the same time that I strive to enjoy the movie, I also try to break down its various elements, ideally without immediate comparison to everything else I have seen.

Some movies make this easier by being truly unique stories (The Voices, for example), whereas others are either so familiar or so derivative that I find it virtually impossible to see it in isolation. The latter situation was the case for Snow White and the Huntsman, the 2012 take of the very familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale by director Rupert Sanders.

This is not the Disney version, by a mile, but rather a much darker, more sinister take on the story of a young beauty (Kristen Stewart) condemned to death by her vainglorious step mother (Charlize Theron) who fights for her freedom in the dark woods where she meets all kinds of people and mystical creatures, including dwarves. Together, they reach a castle of renegades and Snow leads them into battle against her step mother.

So, we have the check list covered: evil step mother, check; mirror-mirror, check; bring me her heart, check; dwarves, check; poison apple, check; Prince Charming, sorta check.

Doing my best to isolate this movie from everything else, I give it a moderately passing grade. It is a fairy tale, so the dialogue hits the extremes of leaden cliché to screaming cliché.

There is no subtext to this movie…none, zero, nada, zilch. So don’t go looking for any. It is on-the-nose storytelling, which again, makes sense within the context of a fairy tale, but given that the film targets young adults to adults (much too dark for small children), I would have hoped for more.

The screenwriters offered a brief moment, where the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) begins to let us into why he is so tortured over the death of his wife. But as soon as the moment starts, it slams shut and we are excluded from understanding the character beyond his alcoholic ramblings and Thor-like simplicity. (PS If I hadn’t seen the movie Rush, I might just think this is who Hemsworth is.)

So, where the dialogue wanes, the visuals have to take over and here, the director earns his keep. Special effects do not overwhelm the story, but instead are woven nicely into live action sequences to augment the reality. There was only one scene where I felt the director fell asleep at the SFX wheel and allowed his art director to run amok.

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And perhaps my favourite part of the visual effects was how they took normal sized British actors and turned them into dwarves. Masterfully done. Imagine Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan all about a meter tall yet perfectly proportioned, standing next to or fighting alongside Hemsworth. Don’t know how they did it…don’t want to know.

Where I found the movie particularly weak, however, was in the development of Snow White. Rather than be the protagonist of the story, I felt she was the victim of the story, literally being dragged across the countryside to avoid capture. While she clearly wasn’t the “Oh my. Dear me” victim of the Disney version, she was also not the “Girl Power” version that I think the movie promised.

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When she wasn’t being rescued by one or more men, she was being rescued by a mystical inner force of which she was initially unaware and over which she had no control.

I was willing to let her be the victim over the first part of the story, but I needed her to turn around at the midpoint and attempt to kick some ass.

Now, to open the comparative flood gates, this movie has Tolkein written all over it. You’ll see dwarves walking across hill tops. Floating towns will burn. Dark forests will haunt you. Guys with swords and axes will be moody.

Now I appreciate that this is bound to happen, as there are certain pastiches that run rampant throughout fairy tales and epic sagas. I am speaking here more in terms of cinematography, however. In several parts of the journey sequence and the battle scenes, it looked like the director decided to save a few bucks by splicing in rejected footage left behind by Peter Jackson.

For what is it, Snow White and the Huntsman is not the worst 90 minutes I have ever spent watching a movie. It’s just a damned shame that the running time is 127 minutes.