The 33 (2015)

332016.90: The 33 (Amazon VOD)

It is impossible to watch this film without listening with some sadness to James Horner’s soundtrack. While it wasn’t the last score he recorded, it was I believe the last film to be released with an original Horner score. It makes the film experience bittersweet. It isn’t his greatest score by any means, and it suffers from that tendency of his to ‘self-plagiarise’ that so annoyed many fans, myself included, over the years. You can hear his music from Where The River Runs Black in this films main theme and music from Glory during the films moments of valediction and rescue, and the moments when disaster strikes is just so much standard James Horner action music from so many films. Back when he was alive, yes, this over-familiarity was very annoying. Now, its almost actually endearing and sad that its now something all of the past.There won’t be anymore new films with new Horner music, no matter how familiar it might sound.

I watched this film on Sunday afternoon. I mention that only because, for good or ill, this film is ideal Sunday matinee material. Perhaps I’m damning it with faint praise. To be sure, the story of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident in which thirty-three miners were left buried alive beneath thousands of feet of rock under Chile’s Atacama Desert is an incredible one. If someone scripted something like this purely from fiction it would be laughingly dismissed, but I’m sure everyone reading this now will remember well how the international news networks riveted viewers for weeks with the nail-biting ordeal of the trapped miners and the against-all-odds efforts of engineers to save them. For once in this blighted world of bad-news stories, somehow everything turned out right and all 33 trapped men were returned to the surface and their families. The problem for this film, is how can it possibly measure up to such an incredible, dramatic true story?

Frankly, it can’t. In a way, this film suffers from a problem shared by In The Heart of the Sea and The Finest Hours, in that it is difficult to focus the narrative drama when it deals with a large ensemble. In Castaway, everything is focused on Tom Hank’s main character, he is the focus of everything, but in these other films it is difficult not to spread things too thin. Its inevitable that many of the characters slip into the background, and that the characters of those that are examined still only seem paper-thin. Part of the drama is lost with knowing how things turn out, but that never harmed Apollo 13– but at least that film had a smaller group of characters, and lead actors like Tom Hanks and Ed Harris with commanding and charismatic performances.

But it remains an entertaining film, even though it feels very formulaic (a miner expresses safety concerns prior to going down into the mine) and easy-going (there’s a surprising lack of conflict, or condemnation of those safety practices). We don’t really get under the skin of either the miners trapped down below or the politicians and engineers with so much at stake in rescuing them. The script is just trying to be fair to everyone and avoids any controversy, ultimately failing everyone in doing so.

Certainly as an afternoon matinee film its a fine way to spend a few hours, and its very life-affirming. I’m damning it with faint praise again, but I really quite liked it. The films final moments, when we see the real 33 meeting on a beach, is something joyous and humbling to witness, knowing what they went through, that somehow they survived against the odds. Each miner looks at the camera alongside their name in text. There is something revelatory in that sequence, I’m not certain what, but there is, and just those few minutes make everything beforehand worthwhile.

The Finest Hours (2016)

finest12016.66: The Finest Hours (Amazon VOD)

This one was a pleasant surprise. Sinking pretty dismally at the box-office (pardon the pun) to fairly lacklustre reviews, this Disney-produced period adventure is based on the true story of four coast guards who braved a terrifying storm of 60-foot waves in a small motor lifeboat to save the remaining crew of a 500ft oil tanker which had been split in two by a cataclysmic storm in 1952. It is a story of incredible bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, of man pitted against nature. The leads are pretty great, the effects spectacular and the stunts quite scary- it’s quite a good film that probably deserved better success (it is certainly superior to In The Heart of the Sea).

Maybe the problem is that it always feels very safe and familiar. Limited by being faithful to the true events perhaps, it seems to follow the pattern of films like The Perfect Storm, cutting from the perils of the sea to loved ones waiting for news back home. Its supposed to invest audience empathy but here it really only serves to distract from the dramatic events at sea. A sub-plot involving our hero’s girlfriend crashing her car in the snow may be true to historical events, I don’t know, but it only seems to dilute the tension and unnecessarily pad out the running time. Another problem is that the films nominal hero, coastguard Bernie Webber, is a modest and unassuming guy (a bit of a stretch for Chris Pine, you’d think) and the lead protagonist on the doomed tanker, engineer Ray Sybert ( a brilliant understated turn by Casey Affleck), is likewise a quiet outsider amongst his crew- these two characters are two unlikely leads to carry a big movie. Both have to rise above their own natures to survive, but it’s generally quiet heroics as opposed to the usual crowd-pleasing showboating we usually get in movies.

finest2There is always a sense though, whatever the films problems, that its heart is always in the right place as it tells its almost too-fantastic-to-be-true story, and that the story really is remarkable enough to ensure the viewer can likely forgive the film it’s odd pitfall. The first sudden revelation of what has happened to the tanker is a genuinely shocking moment and from then on the film is pretty gripping. Then again, I’m always a sucker for these true story flicks, so maybe people’s mileage may vary.

Period details seems fine; indeed at the close of the film the credits run over photographs of the characters and actual locations from 1952 to underline how faithful the film was. Perhaps that faithfulness is what ultimately undermines the film from breaking those familiar tropes that might irritate some viewers, but I’d rather put up with that than them invent stuff simply to artificially increase tension and spectacle. Yes it sometimes feels formulaic and the sequences back on land can irritate rather than elevate, but on the whole I’d say this film is well worth anyones time. Maybe more Sunday matinee material than it really needed to be, it remains a great story fairly well told, certainly not as bad as some reviews said. Yeah, a pleasant surprise.

In The Heart of the Sea (2015)

heart1.jpg2016.39: In The Heart of the Sea (Blu-ray)

Back when Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea was released at the cinema to lukewarm and often hostile reviews that turned me away from a planned cinema trip, I was intrigued enough by the premise to read the book by  Nathaniel Philbrick from which much of it is based. Philbrick’s excellent book examines the 19th-century Pacific whaling industry and the true story of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a monstrous sperm whale, an event which inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. The book is a great read- gripping and horrifying in its detail, whether it be the bloody mechanics of whaling at the time or the awful act of sucking the marrow from human bones in a desperate effort to survive a horrible ordeal. That it is based on true events makes it all the more incredible- I had to wonder how anyone could make a bad movie based on it.

Well, In The Heart of the Sea may not be a truly bad movie, but neither is it the film the book deserves. I have written before of my opinion that Ron Howard is at best a competent director, and never is that truer than here. This film is functional and nothing more. It tells its story with a stupefying indifference.

In The Heart of the Sea is a film that lacks any passion,  any genuine vision, point of view or commentary. Having been so enthralled by the book, I found this to be utterly perplexing but with Howard involved perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Technically the film is fairly impressive, albeit its visuals suffering from too much colour-correction labouring its period setting (whose idea was that? It looks horrible) and reliance on sub-par CGI effects (which will age horribly, I’m sure). It is the human story, the drama, that is utterly lost here. These were real people, and their nightmarish ordeal really happened. They deserved much more than this film.

Much like last years Everest, this is a film that tries to relate events concerning several characters and by trying to tell all their stories, ultimately fails to do any of them proper service. And also like Everest, it’s a film that tries to make the nightmarish almost palatable. Everything is kept at arms length, even the moments of cannibalism, which is treated in such a trite and PG-friendly way that I found it quite appalling. This is a film that should have been a tale of greed and a barbaric industry, and of a struggle against indomitable fate with humanity pitted against a giant beast and the whims of indifferent nature. It should have been quite terrifying. At the very least, it should have been as enthralling as ‘Gravity at sea’ might sound. Maybe that was the original pitch?

Unlike the book, the film is unnecessarily bookended by sequences involving Melville searching out and recording the story from one its survivors, Thomas Nickerson, who reluctantly tells the story for money. The framing device is clumsy (indeed, it looks like something tacked onto the film in desperate reshoots) and handicaps the film, a major misstep. And the meeting never happened, so there goes any historical ‘truth’ from the very start. Its an immediate indication of where the film is headed.

The over-the-top colour correction makes everything look artificial, particularly the CGI effects, almost like it’s some kind of adult fairytale, and some of the casting is… well, its all very competent but Chris Hemsworth really has too much cinematic baggage for his casting here to really work. The guy was Thor and The Huntsman  for crying out loud, both over the top, larger-than-life heroes but this needs something more nuanced and it’s also clearly a convenient  carry-over from Howard’s previous film, Rush (in which he played a charismatic James Hunt). He doesn’t strike me as being the ‘proper’ Owen Chase that I read of in the book- rather it’s blatantly convenient, mainstream casting.

Other things irritate. The sense of the passing of time (these whaling expeditions took years) isn’t handled very well, nor the sense of claustrophobic space of these men stuck for weeks/months together without setting foot on dry land. The film-makers can’t resist dropping historical exactness for drama, such as when The Essex is crippled and sunk by the whale. In truth the ship foundered for days and the crew had to force themselves away from it knowing their only course of action- setting out in their three whaling boats with limited provisions-  was likely suicidal. The film goes all Hollywood here, with the Essex exploding into flames and the survivors narrowly escaping the conflagration whilst getting the last supplies. It’s irritating, seeing stuff and knowing it didn’t happen like that. Likewise the whale here is transformed from the roguish reality to the nemesis of Melville’s Moby Dick- actually following and further threatening the survivors on their trek to salvation. Was Howard and the rest more interested in remaking/rebooting Moby Dick than actually telling the original true story of the Essex?

I have to wonder if I dislike the film partly because of my familiarity with the book. Probably. But the film surely seems rather broken to viewers who have not read it. There is something missing- the script feels perfunctory, it lacks any insight or real point of view, the casting is uninspired and leaves many ‘stars’ with little to do, and the box-office-minded censorship that tones down the real horrors ironically bleeds out any real drama. It’s a poor effort really and just a shadow of what it should have been.