continued from previous page
Vaughn outing, and the hilarious bits are tempered by many that barely merit a wan smile. But the ladies are in good form, and post-Trainwreck Jon Cena is again on hand to unexpectedly flex his comedic side.
IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
JAN 6-12, 2015
/ Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 book, In the Heart of the Sea, told of the 1820 encounter that reportedly prompted Herman Melville to write that classic of American literature, the 1851 novel Moby-Dick. After heading out to sea from Nantucket, Massachusetts, the whaling ship the Essex was attacked and sunk by a rampaging sperm whale. Crew members then found themselves adrift in lifeboats for a span of several months, many eventually perishing from hunger and dehydration. This story is dutifully and dully told in the film version, with the bonus of seeing Melville (Ben Whishaw) himself interviewing one of the survivors (Brendan Gleeson) decades after the incident. While it’s always nice to see Gleeson no matter the role, these wraparound scenes add precious little to the narrative—instead, they merely serve as tedious interludes breaking up equally tedious flashbacks. Because the movie’s characters are exceedingly trite, Hemsworth, as first mate Owen Chase, has little to do but glower Fletcher Christian-style at inexperienced captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) before switching gears to suffer nobly in that lil lifeboat after the creature goes all Titanic-iceberg on the ship. And what about that whale? He merits little screen time, though he pops up every now and then to remind the survivors that he’s stalking them through the high seas. This notion of an oceanic animal acting like an avenging angel places this picture in the same class with such landmarks of cinema as 1977’s risible Orca, in which a killer whale tracks down the slayer of his pregnant mate, and 1987’s laughable Jaws: The Revenge, about which co-star Michael Caine famously (and honestly) stated, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” The former Opie’s big-screen opuses, even the more static ones, almost always benefit from crisp visuals (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), but that’s not the case here. The look of Howard’s film is distractingly dim and muddy—although even then not enough to hide the obviousness of the CGI, which looks artificial for great chunks of the grueling running time. As noted, the real-life events were potent enough to spur Melville to write his novel, and they have to have been more compelling than the snoozy tale here. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be blessed with a 30 masterpiece, as a bored Melville doubtless
would have put down his pen and gone fishing instead.
/// “No peace, no pussy.” “No pussy, no power.” Those are the defining lines of the hour, In Spike Lee’s riveting motion picture Chi-raq, A film already subjected to ridiculous flack. Based on Aristophanes’ ancient Lysistrata, It instead examines today’s social strata. Specifically, the poor in Chicago, Illinois, In a crime zone with no hope and even less joy. The entire movie is spoken in rhyme, A risky gamble, but it works all the time. Teyonah Parris is superb in the primary role, As a brainy, sexy woman with a definite goal. Hoping to stop the men from killing each other, She devises a plan to save every brother. No more sex from any female in the hood, If that doesn’t stop the deaths, nothing ever could. The angry gang members all shout, “Fuck that noise,” But they think of laying down their murderous toys. It’s a powder keg of a film from first frame to last, Anchored by Lee’s fury and a powerhouse cast. As a priest, John Cusack has a tremendous scene, Railing against killings both senseless and mean. Angela Bassett projects dignity as a local sage, While Nick Cannon impresses with his bottled-up rage. There’s Samuel L. Jackson, a favorite of Lee’s, Blaring “Wake Up!” among his omniscient pleas. Chi-raq is one of the best films of the year. Top 20, maybe Top 10, certainly near.
// Creed is certainly not bad—it’s the best entry since 1982’s Rocky III—but aside from the character shift, there’s nothing here that’s especially original, and one’s enjoyment depends entirely on how charitable one is feeling in the nostalgia department. Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Adonis Johnson, the result of an adulterous tryst by the late Apollo Creed (played in earlier pictures by Carl Weathers). Grown up, he
returns to Philly and asks Rocky Balboa (Stallone, of course), his father’s nemesiscum-friend, to take him under his wing. Stallone is never better than when he’s playing this role he nurtured from birth, and his relaxed and generous performance shows that he has no problem moving from series star to supporting sage. But too many beats are far too familiar: There’s even a Rocky-cribbed scene where Adonis is surrounded by fans and friends as he jogs down the Philly streets, and anyone who doesn’t know exactly how the climactic fight will turn out clearly isn’t paying attention.
/// The best movies are often the ones that educate as well as entertain, and with the magnificent Trumbo, we have a film that succeeds on both fronts. Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston is superb as Dalton Trumbo, the brilliant screenwriter whose work on such hits as Kitty Foyle and A Guy Named Joe made him one of the film capital’s most successful wordsmiths. But Trumbo was an acknowledged Communist, and once World War II ended and the Cold War began in earnest, Trumbo and those like him were soon targeted by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. What followed was a national disgrace, as any entertainer with leftist sentiments, even Democrats like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), were thrown to the zealous politicians. Some were jailed, others cracked and willingly gave names, and almost all found their careers derailed. But Trumbo fought to survive, writing scripts and placing others’ names on them—this necessary deception ended up winning him two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One), neither of which he could claim. Such an abbreviated synopsis provides but a mere peek at everything going on within the confines of this simultaneously weighty and breezy picture, which looks at his home life (Diane Lane plays his wife while Elle Fanning portrays his oldest child) almost as much as his professional one. Trumbo isn’t portrayed as a saint: His workaholic tendencies alienate him from his family, and, like most people who subscribe to any one ideology, he can be somewhat of a hypocrite (as a friend notes, he’s a share-the-wealth Commie whose private property includes a lake). But there’s never any doubt that he was needlessly persecuted, and while the reallife Trumbo eventually stated that there were no heroes or villains during this era of the blacklist, that’s not exactly true. Folks like actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger (respectively, and winningly, played by Dean O’Gorman and Christian Berkel), men who bravely helped
break the blacklist, could be counted among the heroes, while columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), politicians Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon (both seen in vintage footage) and, to a lesser degree, even actor John Wayne (a fine David James Elliott) could be numbered among the villains. Astutely written by John McNamara (from Bruce Cook’s book Dalton Trumbo) and zestfully directed by Jay Roach (the Emmy-winning helmer behind the HBO political flicks Game Change and Recount), Trumbo is alternately poignant, amusing (John Goodman provides most of the nyuks as garrulous B-movie producer Frank King), infuriating and always thought-provoking.
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
// It’s a situation worthy of an Alanis Morrisette song. Isn’t it ironic that in the same week I pen an article ranking all the previous Pixar movies and noting that all of them are recommended to some degree, along comes the first Pixar movie to score a negative review? That’s the case with The Good Dinosaur, a crushing disappointment from an outfit generally known for its exacting high standards. Pixar pictures have always been for adults as much as for children, yet this one marks the first time that grown-ups have been left out of the mix, with the studio fashioning a film designed to play only to the small fry. The film begins with a “what if?” scenario: What if the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the planet? The only reason for this supposition is so a human protagonist—a feral boy—can eventually be added to the story, since this opening act doesn’t impact the film in any other way. Mostly, the plot centers on a young dino named Arlo and how his life is irrevocably altered by a tragedy lifted straight out of The Lion King. And like another lion, the one taking the road to Oz, Arlo needs to finds his courage, and he only does so after getting lost and teaming up with the aforementioned boy, a lupine lad named Spot. The story is suffocating in its simplicity, and while the backgrounds are gorgeously rendered, the characters are a visually drab lot (as my wife accurately noted, Arlo and his family members look like animated cucumbers). Thankfully, The Good Dinosaur never indulges in the sort of scatological humor seen in other studios’ toon efforts. Still, that’s a consolation that only goes so far, given that innovation and imagination prove to be as extinct as pterodactyls in the modern world. CS