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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Walker’

One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard’s latest is a genuinely weak movie.

heart-sea

Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney’s future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it’ll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).

With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can’t bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.

In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship’s final, doomed voyage.

The young Nickerson (played by Marvel’s new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he’s about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.

Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret…

So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who’s yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can’t dispute Hemsworth’s presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.

Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn’t going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn’t get a huge amount to do.

Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you’ll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I’m not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.

However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it’s all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge.

The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can’t have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It’s not so old-fashioned that it doesn’t find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.

This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it’s still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it’s just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.

 

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I was moved to ponder, not long ago, the somewhat vexed issue of whether it might not be a good idea to institute a licensing system whereby film-makers, etc, would not be permitted to use a really good title unless they could first prove they were capable of doing it justice. This idea may have first crept into my head in the summer of 2009, when I wandered into a branch of a well-known bookseller and happened upon Seth Grahame-Smith (‘and Jane Austen’)’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Another winning title, embodying a genuinely funny concept. Unfortunately the book itself was, possibly predictably, and certainly appropriately, rotten.

And so I approached Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter with a level of misgiving. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did well enough to prompt a slew of similarly improbable mash-ups, ranging from Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, to (good grief) Android Karenina. Grahame-Smith himself knocked out Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and has written and exec-produced the movie. So, cause for apprehension there. On the other hand, this film is a product of the same creative vision that gave us the rampantly insane excess of Wanted, an everyday tale of weaver-hitmen and their precognitive loom that did more than any other to epitomise the summer of 2008 for me. So this is a movie which looked like it might go either way.

Perhaps it takes a director of Kazakh origin, like Timur Bekmambetov, to cast such a new and original light on one of the most central and iconic figures in American history. But in this case I sort of doubt it. Semi-professional Liam Neeson lookee-likee Benjamin Walker plays the great man himself throughout most of his life (not the very early bits though), in a story which purports to reveal that Honest Abe actually had a few startling secrets in his hinterland. We first meet Abraham Lincoln as a lad, and even at this young age he is fiercely committed to justice, equality, fairness, etc, etc. You know the drill. Unfortunately this indirectly ends up putting his family on the wrong side of a shady character, who chooses to work his issues out by chowing down on Mrs Lincoln’s blood vessels. That’s right, he’s a vampire! Yowser! Who’d have seen that coming?

Naturally, when he grows up, Lincoln sets out to avenge his mum, only to discover he is not up to the task. He is taken in hand by the mysterious Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the forbidden lore of the undead and equips him for the battles to come. To be honest, Abraham Lincoln is a back-to-basics kind of vampire hunter and usually turns up packing only what is technically known as a damn great axe (with a silver edge, of course). When not thinning the ranks of the undead of Illinois, he dabbles in the law and with politics, and embarks on a rather sweet romance with a charming local girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as winsome as ever). However, as his battle with the forces of darkness and their leader (Rufus Sewell) intensifies, he begins to realise the full extent to which the injustices of slavery are intertwined with the vampire presence in the southern states. Could it be that he will have to take a more public role if he is to fully eradicate the menace he has dedicated his life to destroying?

Well, look, before we go any further, I’m English and the limit of my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln is basically: top hat, chinstrap beard, freed slaves, Gettysburg Address, ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’, Henry Fonda in Young Mr Lincoln, got speared to death in an episode of Star Trek. To any of our former-colonial friends reading this and feeling outraged, I would ask you to supply a brief essay on the life of Oliver Cromwell (not derived from Wikipedia) with your complaints, and we’ll take it from there. What I’m basically trying to say is that I know very little about Abraham Lincoln as a historical character, which some might consider a handicap when attempting to intelligently review a Lincoln biopic.

However, as you may have possibly surmised, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is not strictly a by-the-book biopic. In fact, I suspect that a few people would consider the depiction of Lincoln as an axe-twirling bad-ass warrior to be tasteless and/or monumentally absurd. I’m not convinced about the former but it is certainly the latter. This film is impossible to take seriously, but – and this is the key thing – Bekmambetov seems to be fully aware of this, which stops proceedings from becoming actually annoying. The main problem I had with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was that it took an idea which was an amusing concept in its own right, and felt the need to try and funny it up by actually playing it for laughs, inserting rather creaky old jokes. The great strength of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is that it’s played absolutely straight (or at least as straight as possible, given it features the President of the USA standing on top of a moving train hitting vampires with an axe) – one never gets a sense of the director or writer winking at you and going ‘Ho ho, isn’t this wacky?’

Most of the time this works really well, particularly in the opening part of the film, which deals with Lincoln’s years before he rose to prominence. For a while it even seems as if Bekmambetov is trying to handle the historical biography as painstakingly as the action-horror, because there are a few non-vampire-hunting scenes which go on for what feel like a surprisingly long time. Problems start to set in, however, when Lincoln actually becomes president and grows the beard (both of these happen off-screen, the latter not surprisingly) – and all of a sudden we’re into the historical events of the American Civil War. Now, it may possibly be that my lack of familiarity with US history is to blame, but it seemed to me that the film was taking my comprehension of what was happening for granted here. There’s also the more serious point that the film is dealing with the deaths of real people – real people from 150 years ago, admittedly, but even so. As a silly romp the film is enjoyable stuff, but attempts to hit genuine notes of pathos and human drama just feel very uncomfortable and misjudged when they occur. Thankfully the film returns to its previously nonsensical vein for an appropriately uproarious finale.

Ultimately this is a very silly film, but the actors hurl themselves into it with impressive gusto, and the CGI-slathered recreation of 19th century America looks appealing. Bekmambetov indulges himself in his usual visually-inventive but utterly implausible action-business – fun to look at but not remotely convincing – for example, a chase through the middle of a stampede, the train fight, and so on. This is not a great action film, not a great horror movie, and (you’ll be surprised to hear) not the greatest telling of the story of President No.16 ever made, and it has nothing like the breathtakingly in-your-face bonkersness of Wanted (nor even, it must be said, that film’s inventiveness of plot). But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, for the most part, a fun and amusing piece of work which just about earns its right to such a catchy title.

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