(On Cable TV, September 2016) On some level, I’m nonplussed by the decision not only to make In the Heart of the Sea, but to spin it in-story as “the inspiration for Moby Dick”. If you want to sink a blockbuster budget into showing the miseries of eighteenth century whale hunting, why not be entirely fictional, or squarely remake Moby Dick and throw in as much CGI into it? But no. This is the story of the Essex, which inspired Moby Dick, and it’s based on a nonfiction book. Rather than be faithful to an adaptation, the filmmakers now have to limit themselves to a patchwork of testimonials describing a true story, and wrap it in a framing device about Herman Melville gathering research material for his upcoming book. The result seems almost an oddity in today’s made-for-teens blockbuster landscape, with lavish production means spent on a subject that approaches irrelevance—despite a too-cute wink at today’s oil industry. Still, as far as modern technology allows for a credible re-creation of the eighteenth-century whaling industry and perils, In the Heart of the Sea certainly has its high points: Beyond the cramped shipboard living conditions and terrible storms, chasing whales takes on an extra edge when confronted with a cetacean antagonist seemingly intent of destroying our pesky human characters. Interpersonal conflicts eventually turn into a terrible story of survival at sea, by which time we better understand why the story is definitely not that of Moby Dick. Liam Hemsworth brings his usual easy charisma to the lead role. Director Ron Howard adds another good movie to his eclectic repertoire, even though In the Heart of the Sea definitely lacks the extra oomph of his better efforts—it’s no Rush, for instance. While the result may not fascinate anyone except those lucky few keenly interested in historical naval dramas, In the Heart of the Sea isn’t a bad movie. It just lacks whatever is needed for a truly satisfying experience.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Here’s a philosophical question: If you’re bored enough by a film that you slide off in a pleasant slumber by the time the third act rolls, and rouse just before the end credit, and yet feel no need to go back to check what you’ve missed, can you be said to have watched the entire film? What about when your attention is distracted by a second screen? What about when you just go to the bathroom, or grab a bite from the kitchen without pausing? What about when you blink and miss a few frames of the film? At what point does “not watching” become relevant, and when does it turn into a review statement of its own? All of this to say that while I had reasonably high hopes for Empire State, the film quickly degenerated in an implausible snooze-fest. The opening moments of the film set up an intriguing early-eighties slice of life in New York’s Greek community. Then it’s off to a heist caper, but not just any heist caper: one of the least plausible heist capers imaginable, filled with coincidences, laziness and hard-to-accept arbitrariness. Events “just happen” and it’s hard for fiction to let its main character plan such a heist while warning signs about him all abound. After an hour, the verdict is clear: Empire State is dull, tired and with little grace in the way it uses either its historical setting or its actors. Liam Hemsworth isn’t developing as a compelling lead actor and this film does nothing to enhance his distinctiveness as anything more than “Chris Hemsworth’s brother.” Michael Angarano’s more distinctive, but his slimeball character is more annoying than striking. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the box-cover: While Dwayne Johnson is in the film, he’s only in there for a few minutes, and seems to belong in an entirely different film every time he’s on-screen. Little wonder that even with a moderately-high budget, Empire State went direct-to-video ($11 million isn’t much by blockbuster standards, but it’s higher than most film of this kind). There’s little here that make the film special in any fashion.
(On Cable TV, April 2014) There is very little that new, inspiring or even interesting about Paranoia, a completely average thriller. One young man, stuck between warring superiors in a corporate espionage thriller: we’ve seen nearly all of the bits and pieces in other better movies before, and director Robert Luketic can’t do much to save the end result from terminal mediocrity. Liam Hemsworth is blander than bland as the pretty-face protagonist, but the surprise here is to see Gary Oldman being so… dull even as a shaved-head Harrison Ford gets to chew some scenery as one of the two villains. For a thriller, Paranoia is almost refreshingly devoid of violence: There’s some running around and one solid car-on-pedestrian hit, but the rest of the film plays out in very civilized threats of economic turmoil and career setbacks. What is mildly interesting about the film is the contemporary wrapping around the plot: The hero makes an inspiring opening speech about his generation being robbed of a future by the financial downturn (hey, what about the rest of the 99%, all ages included?), has money problems due to medical costs for his ailing father, and spends much of the movie blathering about smart-phone technology. All are signs of the time, often more fascinating in bad-to-average movies than in innovative ones. Still, that doesn’t’ necessarily make Paranoia any more than a passable, calmer-than-usual thriller fit to entertain only if there are no other more compelling alternatives.