Friday, December 11, 2015

WHALE TALE, HOLY GRAIL, HITCHCOCK HAIL

Opening this weekend:


In the Heart of the SeaIn 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific, thousands of miles west of South America. It sank, and the crew went through hell and resorted to extreme measures to stay alive. Ron Howard has tried to turn Nathaniel Philbrick’s acclaimed 2000 account of this awful trip, one of the inspirations for Moby-Dick, into a psychologically and spiritually fraught adventure in its own right.

As usual with Howard, it’s a well-made movie with many rousing scenes. The whale effects are mostly very good and convincing, and the actors do solid, respectable work. But the movie doesn’t come off, overall.

Chris Hemsworth plays Chase, the first mate, at Melvillian odds with the haughty novice Captain, Pollard (Benjamin Walker, nicely restrained in a thankless role). The product of a venerable whaling family, Pollard resents the effortless seamanship of Chase, the son of a “landsman.”

This conflict becomes moot when a huge, patchy-white sperm whale decides to go Zidane on the hull of the Essex. I must confess that I enjoyed the leviathan’s vengeance more than anything else in ITHOTS. I felt good for the beast, much the way one might feel good for Charles Bronson in a Death Wish movie.

I found it hard to sympathize with whalers, not because they weren’t courageous and skillful but because I brought a 21st-Century sense of their enterprise as an environmental atrocity into the movie with me. I realize that this response is pious hindsight, and that our age doesn’t have any real right to feel superior about how we light our cities, that indeed in the grand scheme of things it’s probably a far greater blight on the planet than hunting a few sea mammals to the brink of extinction. It may come down to Orwell’s observation in “Shooting an Elephant”: “Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.”

But whatever the reason, it interfered with my enjoyment of ITHOTS. I think Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt anticipated it too. They’ve toned down the horror wrought by the Essex crew, omitting, for instance, their ecologically disastrous visit to the Galapagos, and giving Chase’s final encounter with the whale an ambiguity that falls flat as drama. Melville turned this story into an astonishing, exasperating myth, an allegory that transcends and almost reproaches the very idea of allegory. But ITHOTS is just one more story about The One That Got Away.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe:


Don VerdeanSam Rockwell plays the title character, an evangelical archaeologist who claims to have unearthed such relics as the shears used to cut Samson’s hair. Bankrolled by a preacher (Danny McBride) anxious over his dwindling flock, Don travels to Israel in search of the skull of Goliath. Under pressure from his patron, and abetted by his unscrupulous local digger Boaz (Jermaine Clement), Don, who sincerely wants to save souls, gradually succumbs to the temptation to fake this discovery. Of course, things only get wackier and worse from there, as Don and Boaz eventually agree to provide a buyer with the “Holy Grail of Biblical artifacts,” which is, of course, the Holy Grail.

This is the latest from Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite, again from a script co-written with his wife Jerusha. As with their other post-Napoleon films, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, it’s seriously uneven. The Hess touch, so to speak, is all about awkward pauses and fitful, off-kilter bursts of slapstick action, and when it works it’s punishingly funny, and when it doesn’t, it just hangs there on the screen, not working.

The acting is terrific, however. McBride and Will Forte ham it up a bit more than they have to as the rival preachers, but Clement takes the opportunity, as he did in Gentlemen Broncos, to deploy another shamelessly silly accent. Amy Ryan gives us so much subtext as Don’s adoring assistant that she’s almost too touching for the farcical tone.

And as usual, Rockwell is a marvel. His Don hides his poker face behind a thick beard, speaking in a firm, sober drawl—he sounds like George W. Bush mixed with Johnny Cash—and authoritatively puts everyone at ease. In their ridiculous way, Rockwell and Hess offer a plausible, even somewhat affectionate portrait of how a decently-intentioned person could allow himself to be corrupted.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:


Hitchcock/TruffautThis documentary is both a film version of and a tribute to the famous 1966 book-length interview of Alfred Hitchcock by the young Francois Truffaut. Familiar to just about every film geek of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the tome is credited with helping to change the perception of Hitchcock as a talented craftsman and entertainer to that of an artist.

Thus the movie, directed by Kent Jones, features talking heads ranging from Wes Anderson to Richard Linklater to Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Martin Scorcese, talking not only about how much they love Hitchcock and Truffaut but also about how much they loved the book. We get clips from the movies, and audio clips of the interviews, and a little narration, by Bob Balaban.

So what’s not to like? Nothing, it’s a fine way to spend 80 minutes. But as with the best documentaries about cinema, it’s an appetizer—it leaves you hungry for whole movies.

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