In the Heart of the Sea

By: Kevin Jordan

Modernizing classics so your kids never have to read them in school.

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Everybody past high school age can tell you their own personal horror story about trying to read a book written at least one hundred years ago.  For me, it was Charles Dickens.  I powered through A Tale of Two Cities, but it left a lasting mark on me as I played the worst third base of my life the week after finishing it.  But that was nothing compared to Great Expectations, a book that so thoroughly defeated me that, not only was I unable to finish it, but I was only able to read Goosebumps for the better part of a year.  It wasn’t until years later I had recovered enough to attempt reading another “classic,” this time The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.  While I found it mind-numbingly boring and overly descriptive of settings, I was able to finish it without wanting to drown myself in a bowl of Lucky Charms.  The point I’m trying to make is that if someone ever tries to convince you to read a Jane Austen novel, run away.  That person does not have your best interests in mind.

Lucky for us, it’s 2015 and we’ve gotten pretty good and taking those old “classics” and retelling them in a language that doesn’t have to be written in cursive.  In other words, kids – when your teacher assigns you to read Moby Dick, head to the theaters for In the Heart of the Sea and thank your ancestors for inventing the talkies.

In the Heart of the Sea is the story of Moby Dick.  Well, actually it’s the story of the story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.  Wait, scratch that.  It’s based on a book written in 2000 (In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick) about the sinking of a whaling ship called the Essex, and tells the story of a guy who survived the ordeal telling Melville the story so Melville can write his story.  Okay, here’s what really happens in the movie – Thor fights a whale.  Let’s move on.

Ben Whishaw plays Melville, who is looking for a complete accounting of the sinking of the Essex to use for his next novel.  He tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a survivor of the sinking and, with the help of Nickerson’s wife (Michelle Fairly) and a stack of money, coaxes the story out of Thomas.  As in Titanic, the film bounces us between the story and the storyteller and we get to watch each of them evolve simultaneously (Melville included).  As Thomas’ story unfolds, it becomes clear why he never wanted to talk about it and it’s not just because of the “demon whale” as one Spanish captain puts it.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, so let’s just say Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway had it easy in comparison to Thomas.

The cleverness of the film is that it tells us the story of Moby Dick without actually having to read to us Moby Dick.  Yes, it still takes place in the original time period, so it’s not like it’s subtle, and there is a giant white whale attacking a ship.  But the captain’s name isn’t Ahab, the first mate isn’t named Ishmael, and nobody is seeking revenge on a cetacean for taking their leg.  Instead, Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) hate each other and just want to fill their ship with whale oil so they get back home and not have to look at each other’s exceptionally non-ugly faces.  But many of the elements from Moby Dick are in this film, including the lessons to be learned.

In short, I enjoyed this film because the original story of Moby Dick is a very good story, but I didn’t have to slog through the writing style of the 1850’s.  That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the works of authors like Twain, Shelley, or Verne, but having to actually read them is sometimes just short of torture.  So, let’s stop torturing our kids and maybe even spring for some popcorn.  Class dismissed.

Rating: Worth more than just your money if you take your kids to it.  When they inevitably are forced to read Moby Dick, they’ll be able to skim it and you will have saved them from being scarred for life.

(Editor’s note: I’m not actually condoning kids ignore their school assignments, but you have to admit – the language in those books is nearly a foreign language to today’s youth.)

Spectre

By: Kevin Jordan

Harking back to earlier times.

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Ranking things has become a staple of American media and might be what they spend the most time and effort on.  From power rankings to best-of rankings to “which candidate was the least deplorable during last night’s (pick your party) debate” rankings, they have majorly impacted the way news is presented and consumed.  Heck, I do it myself every year in my annual Year in Review piece.  So, with the release of James Bond 24 – Spectre – it was predictable that nearly every entertainment outlet would rank all things James Bond.  From Bond Girls to villains to henchman to cars to gadgets to the movies themselves, those sites ranked everything short of Bond haircuts (and it wouldn’t surprise me if a search turned that up as well).  While these are fun exercises, they get old after the thousandth one written and are always biased depending (mostly) on the age of the writer (if you want to test that theory, find a baby boomer and tell him Pierce Brosnan was a better Bond than Sean Connery.  Then, duck the incoming punch).  I’m not going to rank anything here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least answer a similar question – how does Spectre compare with the other Daniel Craig Bond films?

Let’s just get this out of the way up front – Casino Royale was a nearly perfect film and none of the subsequent Bond films have come close to matching it (I didn’t write a full review of Skyfall, but I found it slightly overrated, as noted in my 2012 Year in Review).  Having said that, I enjoyed all of them because they are well-produced, Craig is fantastic, my wife will go see them with me, and they are better than nearly every other action movie out there.  Spectre is no different, delivering well on all three of those qualities.  However, some chinks in the armor are beginning to show.

Spectre is a bit of a throwback to pre-Craig iterations.  Remember all of the jokes in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me that ridicule the clichés of Bond flicks?  Well, pretty much every one of those clichés was on full display in Spectre and, disappointingly, the movie was only aware of one of them (I’ll get to them in a moment).  To me, the lack of these clichés is what made the previous Craig films so good and refreshing, so bringing them back was a head-scratcher.  So, let’s talk about them.

Opening Song

Adele set a very high standard with “Skyfall,” so following it up was going to be a tough chore for anyone.  Unfortunately, Sam Smith and the producers decided not to even try.  I’ve always wanted to use the word caterwauling and singer Sam Smith was caterwauling with the best of them in “Writing’s on the Wall,” one of the worst openers for any Bond movie.  Smith himself said it took half an hour to write the song and the demo version was used in the final cut of the film.  I’m guessing the folks who approved had listened to the demo shortly after firing guns without wearing ear protection.  Guys, that ringing in your ears wasn’t exploding gunpowder, it was Smith.

Gadgets

Previous Craig films wisely stayed away from the silly gadgets of yesteryear, but director Sam Mendes apparently thought it was time to bring them back.  Exploding watch?  Check.  60’s era toggle switches in Bond’s car to set off fire, bullets, and ejector seat?  Check.  Nanobots in Bond’s blood to track his vitals and location?  Check.  Headshakes from me every time one of these appeared?  Check.  To be fair, the film is mildly aware of this trope, adding a toggle switch in the car for pre-selected music (the car was intended for agent 009) and, upon receiving the watch from Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond asks “Does it do anything?” to which Q responds “It tells the time.”

Bond Car

Every Bond movie has a car chase (or four) and this one features an Aston Martin DB10 with the previously mentioned toggle switches.  Every Bond movie also wrecks Bond’s car, which I find tired.  I know it goes along with the recklessness of Bond’s character, but couldn’t we save the car just once?  Or at least, can’t Q give him a car that doesn’t cost three million pounds (Q actually tells us the cost, which also made me wonder why he used ten cent toggle switches.  Whatever).

Bond Girls

Some people think Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) counts as a Bond girl, but I don’t think so.  Bond girls are one of two things – the damsel in distress or part of the villain’s gang (or both).  Sleeping with Bond does not make a Bond girl, though all Bond girls sleep with him.  That leaves Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – damsel, and Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) – part of the gang (though only by marriage).  Nothing sets these two apart from most Bond girls, especially Bellucci, who serves no purpose in the film other than to have sex with Bond after Bond eliminates her assassin husband.  But, hey, they’re hot so…mission accomplished?

Henchmen

Did anybody miss the villain’s right hand man?  Me either.  But what true Bond villain doesn’t have a cartoon character henchman to execute his evil plans?  Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) fills out that role while almost over-filling out his suits.  His job is busting heads without asking questions and if he had any lines at all, I don’t remember them.  He doesn’t have metal teeth or razor-edged hats, but he does like to kill people by pushing his fingers through their eyes, so he achieves the same effect – ewww, gross.

Villain

The villains all tend to be the same – super intelligent sociopaths with ridiculously complex evil plots and some quirk.  Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) is the leader of the evil organization called Spectre, which contained Quantum, the previous evil organization thought to be THE evil organization.  Franz claims to be the one responsible for all of the bad things that happened in the last three movies and to that I say – really?  But he’s not done.  He’s also trying to get a system approved and online that connects national surveillance systems all into one system that he would control because…um…hmmmmm.  Actually, we never find out.  He’s actually pissed off at Bond for a completely unrelated reason – and had daddy issues – thus creating the wildly convoluted plot of Spectre.  And Franz has a cat, aka – his quirk.

The “Death Ray”

Invoking The Spy Who Shagged Me again, remember when the bad guys capture Powers and the villain decided to kill Powers with an elaborately designed device, but the villain’s son says “why don’t we just shoot him right now?  Here, I even have a gun” and the villain argues with his son?  Yeah, well, Franz has a remote controlled chair will drills on either side that he uses to drill holes into Bond’s head.  Egads.

The Lair

Every villain has to have an absurdly elaborate lair, right?  The villain in Quantum of Solace had a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, powered by hydrogen-fuel cells.  The villain in Skyfall had an abandoned village/island filled with computer servers.  Franz has an energy-independent compound inside a crater in Africa in which his surveillance system is housed.  Also, the drill chair is there.  I rest my case.

Political Content

Every Bond movie reflects current real-life politics.  In addition to mass surveillance, Spectre throws in drones, plus, another worn-out trope – the spy agency is obsolete, so must be dissolved.  If there’s one thing to truly dislike about this movie it’s the idea that MI6 needs to be dissolved because we have drones now.  I’m pretty sure a Predator drone is incapable of wearing a suit and dancing without someone noticing that it’s an airplane.

If you’re like me, you will be disappointed that this movie took several steps backward by bringing back many of the silly tropes and clichés that previous Craig movies had seemingly (and thankfully) moved beyond.  But, you will forgive that for the reasons mentioned earlier (production, etc., etc.), plus good performances from Ralph Fiennes (M) and Andrew Scott (C – you know him as Moriarty in Sherlock).  And if you still want to know where Spectre ranks, even in just the four Craig movies, I’d say Brosnan over Connery.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because there really should be a penalty for Mendes caving in to nostalgia.