Killing Jesus (Matar a Jesús)

The gun lobby corrupts yet another innocent youth.

(2017) Crime (Latido/64A Films) Natasha Jaramillo, Giovanny Rodriguez, Camilo Escobar, Carmenza Cossio, Juan Pablo Trujillo, José David Medina, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Jhorvin Ospina. Directed by Laura Mora Ortega

Revenge is one of those things that tend to take on their own lives apart from those who are out to achieve it. They shape lives, become obsessions and often cost more to the one taking revenge than on the one they are getting revenge from.

Paula (Jaramillo) is a college student majoring in photography. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends, attending meetings of activist groups that are mainly all talk, and smoking way too much dope. Her father Jose Maria (Escobar) is where she gets her social activism from although he is wary; Medellin in Columbia is a rough place to live with violence around every corner. Still, he loves his daughter fiercely and from time to time gives her a lift home from school. That proves to be fatal as when opening the gate to his driveway while Paula is bending down in the front seat to make sure her camera bag has everything in it, a young man on a motorcycle guns down her father. Paula gets a glimpse of the killer’s face although he doesn’t see her.

The police prove to be unsurprisingly ineffective and corrupt, causing a great deal of frustration for Paula and her brother Santiago (Trujillo). Paula grows withdrawn, sullen while Santiago grows fearful for his sister who continues to go out with friends, although she is basically ignored. One evening, she catches the face of her father’s murderer in a nightclub and strikes up a conversation with him. His name is Jesus (Rodriguez) and even though he is drunk, he is clearly attracted to her.

Paula decides to take justice in her own hands, partnering with her dope dealer Gato (Cardenas) to buy herself a gun in order to do unto Jesus what he had done unto her father. However, that proves to be no easy task; stranger yet, she is beginning to see Jesus as a human being who in many ways is as much a victim of the violence and corruption in Medellin as her father was. In a somewhat surreal scene, he even teaches her how to shoot. Will she be able to complete her plan of revenge or will killing Jesus be too much for her?

This had the potential for being a very powerful movie on the nature of violence and how it pervades Colombian culture but Mora chose not to go that route. It also had the potential for being another crappy revenge thriller, but she chose not to go that route either. Rather, she chose to focus in on the relationship between Paula and Jesus and how it changed her…and how she changed Jesus. The thing that Paula expected the least is what happens – she starts to actually sympathize with Jesus but that pain of loss is still deep down and waiting for the opportunity to explode.

Most of the cast is non-professional which sometimes works out and sometimes doesn’t. Jaramillo is not adept at handling emotional scenes; when she cries for her father it doesn’t feel authentic at all. She’s pretty enough and she says her lines with conviction but she has a hard time getting across the emotional side of her character. Rodriguez on the other hand is a sizzling presence who captures your attention whenever he’s onscreen. Yes he’s a thug with a fatalistic view towards life; he’s fully aware that his life expectancy isn’t very long and yet he has the arrogance of machismo guiding his actions. He also is loving towards his family and towards the girl whom he is developing deep feelings for and might he persuaded to let in where nobody is allowed. The performance has an undercurrent of vulnerability that makes the charismatic thug on the surface all the more memorable and while his brooding thug is no Brando, there is enough there to believe he could become a big star.

There are a few instances of shaky cam abuse and from time to time Paula does things that defy rationality – the dumb teen syndrome which allows certain types of horror films to exist. This does feel like a very personal film to Mora (see Trivia below) and sometimes it can be a bit raw. Having not been to Medellin I can’t say if it accurately captures the reality of street life there but it feels authentic to a non-expert like myself.

The movie has a lot going for it – particularly the social and psychological aspects – although it doesn’t always fulfill its own promise. Still, Mora is a young director and she’ll only get better and this is good enough to recommend provisionally and certainly good enough to warrant keeping an eye out for future projects from the director as well as Rodriguez. If you want to catch them right now, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: The progression of Paula’s perceptual change is fascinating to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Jaramillo isn’t always convincing from an emotional standpoint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug use (mainly marijuana smoking), plenty of violence (some of which is graphic) and more than a little profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura Mora Ortega based some of the events in the film on her own life; her father, also a teacher, was gunned down by a hitman in front of her. She later met the man who murdered her father although not in the way depicted in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping With the Enemy


The Big Sick

Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani in happier times.

(2017) Romantic Dramedy (Amazon/Lionsgate) Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, Vella Lovell, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Jeremy Shamos, David Allen Grier, Ed Herbstman, Linda Emond, Shenaz Treasurywala, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Kuhoo Verma, Mitra Jourhari, Celeste Arias. Directed by Michael Showalter


The path to love is a rocky one. There is so much to overcome to make a relationship work. Sometimes there are situational things, other times cultural things and any other numbers of things that can conspire to keep two individual people from making that permanent connection.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a standup comic struggling to make it. He drives for Uber to make ends meet. He was born in Pakistan and came to Chicago as a boy. His parents, both conservative traditionalists, wish to arrange a marriage for their son and his mother (Shroff) in particular manages to arrange for young single Pakistani women to “drop by” whenever Kumail visits their suburban home. But it is a white woman, Emily Gardner (Kazan) that Kumail falls in love with.

Things go well for awhile until she realizes that he has avoided introducing her to his parents and in fact hasn’t even told them about her. He tries to explain to her that their relationship doesn’t have a future; if he did marry her, his parents would likely cut all ties to him. The two break up but shortly thereafter Emily gets very sick to such a degree that doctors put her into a medially induced coma in order to fight the infection that is ravaging her body.

Kumail calls her parents and they fly in to sit vigil on their comatose daughter; feisty Beth (Hunter) and low-key Terry (Romano). They are both aware that their daughter and Kumail have broken up and are frankly surprised when Kumail offers to stay with them, Beth downright hostile. Nonetheless Kumail comes every day to wait with them as the days stretch on and Emily comes no closer to being cured.  Kumail begins to bond with the parents as his own attitudes towards love and marriage begin to shift.

This is based on the actual courtship between Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon  who co-wrote the script with her husband. While some events are fictional (the real Emily and Kumail never broke up prior to her illness), the main points actually happened and thus there’s an air of authenticity to the relationship between the onscreen Kumail and Emily that is refreshing.

The movie strikes the perfect balance between pathos and humor without leaning overly much in either direction, so as the kids today put it, you get all the feels. The performances from Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano are all top notch; Kazan spends half of the movie in a coma (well, her character does anyway) but she lights up the screen in the time that she’s awake.

Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are the cultural differences. When Nanjiani talks about arranged marriage, he quips “Or as we call it in Pakistan, marriage” and it’s truly hard for an American to wrap one’s head around the concept. The family dynamic in Kumail’s onscreen family is fascinating and I wish they’d spent a little more time with them, but as it was I think the movie was just beginning to edge into the “a bit too long” category.

This is everything you’d want a romantic comedy to be and more. It is easily one of the best movies of the year and one well worth seeking out to stream or even buy. This is a couple you can root for, a movie that avoids clichés or at worst turns them on their heads. It is a movie that reminds us that even the most ingrained of cultural ideas can be overcome for the sake of love and that’s a very powerful message in a time when it feels like we’re divided so much by cultural differences.

REASONS TO GO: It’s a perfect mix between comedy and pathos. The performances by Romano, Nanjiani and Hunter are outstanding. The film captures the hyper-competitive camaraderie between stand-up comics nicely. This is a perfect conversation starter for cultural issues.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses a little bit of steam near the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nanjiani’s real life wife Emily Gordon (whom Emily Gardner is based on) can be seen in the final comedy club scene sitting near CJ and Mary.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: (500) Days of Summer
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Gold (2016)

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan


A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
NEXT: Live By Night


A bunch of knuckleheads...I mean, skinheads.

A bunch of knuckleheads…I mean, skinheads.

(2016) Drama (Grindstone/Lionsgate) Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nelson Carbonell, Chris Sullivan, Seth Numrich, Pawel Szajda, Devin Druid, Burn Gorman, Adam Meier, Roger Yawson, Linc Hand, Vanessa Ore, Jasson Finney, David Aranovich, Paul Chapman, David Meadows, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Asif Khan, Cora Metzfield. Directed by Daniel Ragussis


The underbelly of a nation – any nation – is often ugly. The white supremacist movement is part of our own underbelly, like it or not. It is a movement based on fear; fear of anything different, but also of inspiring fear in others. I can’t think of any ethnic American who would be happy to be cornered by a pack of white supremacists. This is a sub-strata of Americans in which violence is always lurking close to the surface.

When some chemicals that could be used in the making of a dirty bomb go missing, the initial thought at the FBI is that it is the usual suspects – Islamic extremists – who are behind it. However, gum-chewing agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) has an idea it might be something more homegrown – white supremacists – who might be behind the theft. She doesn’t really have the support of her superiors but she is just convincing enough to have an undercover operation authorized. To pull it off, she doesn’t get the usual veteran field agent but instead an analyst named Nate Foster (Radcliffe) who has no undercover experience whatsoever.

Going undercover with a backstory of being a Black Ops Marine who is tired of seeing his country overrun by the same sorts he was fighting in the Middle East, Foster infiltrates the various strata of white supremacist culture starting with the violent and impulsive skinheads (whom he cleverly stops from assaulting an interracial couple) to the more organized militia types who have camps set up in rural locations and have some big plans. But it is the big fish that Foster is after. He starts with radio host and author Dallas Wolf (Letts) who is on a book tour to promote his hate-filled opus Genocide: The Death of White America. In turn this leads to Gerry Conway (Trammell), a soft-spoken family man who hosts barbecues, is a vegetarian, adores classical music and almost reasonably espouses a race war that would lead to the whites taking back America. His is the most chilling villain of all; the true believer. But do the white supremacists have the chemical? And if so, what do they intend to do with it?

The film takes a little while to get going but once it does, it is a pretty strong crime drama. While the premise reeks of TV cop drama, the fact that it is based on true events lends authenticity generally absent on the small screen.

The elephant in the room needs to be tackled first of all. Radcliffe is not the most imposing physical specimen in the world and he’s cast as a kind of mousy FBI analyst, which works but when he gets a backstory of being a badass ex-Marine it kinda doesn’t. Some have snarked about Radcliffe’s Harry Potter past and how it could be construed that enterprising true life white supremacist groups could cut and paste a video in which kids could be indoctrinated into thinking that Radcliffe himself believes this garbage which is absolute malarkey. Just because, say, Pierce Brosnan has played some characters with repugnant personal beliefs does it mean that anyone believes that James Bond is repugnant even if you edit all of the footage together.

Still, as the film went on, I found myself drawn into Radcliffe’s performance and after seeing him this year as a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man and in the last few years in a variety of roles I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is he a versatile actor but also a fearless one. Nate gets out of situations not so much by physical means but more by his wits; which makes the character much more believable. While the story has essentially been done before, the way it is presented here is pretty much unique.

There are a lot of racial epithets strewn about here and that might make some viewers uncomfortable although after awhile you do become kind of numb to it. The thing about hate speech is that if you hear it long enough you begin to realize how pointless it really is and you just kind of tune it out. I wonder what that says about us as a society?

The FBI is portrayed as a bureaucratic mess here with low level management attempting to carve out their own little niche and taking out any who aren’t with their own program, even if it means ignoring an entire line of investigation. I suppose that there is some truth to that in some cases but it is hard to believe that a law enforcement agency that has really kept domestic terrorism to a bare minimum is quite that dysfunctional. Of course, that’s more my observation and is not based on anything empirical; I’m not familiar with the inner workings of the FBI and the writers had access to at least one person who was.

In any case, this is a disturbing, powerful movie that reminds us that some of the most dangerous terrorists in the country aren’t wearing burkas or quote the Quran. Those who are primed to think that all of our troubles come from without (and I’m looking at you Trump supporter) may be well-advised to look again. This isn’t a movie that will resonate with everyone, but it is a disquieting look at a strata of our society that is out there – and has plans.

REASONS TO GO: The last half of the movie is powerful and suspenseful. The soundtrack is terrific. Radcliffe delivers an unexpected performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes awhile to get going. The bureaucracy of the FBI portrayed here may be frustrating for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  A whole lot of swearing going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film is inspired by the real-life story of FBI agent Michael German who contributed to the writing of the script.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
NEXT: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

The Bank Job (2008)

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2008) True Crime Drama (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, David Suchet, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, Richard Lintern, Peter de Jersey, Keeley Hawes, Hattie Morahan, Craig Fairbrass, Gerard Moran, Colin Salmon, Georgia Taylor, Peter Bowles, Alastair Petrie, Julian Lewis Jones, Andrew Brooke, Sharon Maughan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

We’re all out to simply survive in a world that isn’t always conducive to survival. We occasionally take risks, hoping to better ourselves but sometimes those risks can be devastating simply because we don’t always know the whole story behind them.

Terry Leather (Statham) is a small-time crook who has been trying his damnedest to lead a life on the straight and narrow, but he just can’t get a break. He is in debt to the sort of people who send out big guys with small intellects and crowbars to make their collections at his used car dealership. Eddie (Jibson), one of his long-time mates and employees, is getting married and most of his close friends who have lived life on the dodgy side – Dave (Mays) and Kevin (Moore) – are there. So is his wife Wendy (Hawes) with whom Terry is deeply in love, and it’s for her he’s trying to tread the path of the righteous.

Enter Martine Love (Burrows), a former flame of Kevin’s and, as we find out later, of Terry’s as well, with an offer that sounds too good to be true. There’s a little neighborhood bank that is getting its security system upgrade, but during the upgrade apparently the vault alarm has been getting tripped by tremors caused by the nearby underground, so until things get squared away the alarm has been turned off. The safety deposit boxes are completely vulnerable, a little-known fact that she’d found out from her boyfriend, ostensibly the contractor doing the security upgrade. Naturally, she thought of her old pal Terry to do the job which could be the big score he and his circle have been dreaming about all their lives.

However, things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Love’s strings are being pulled by an ambitious MI-5 agent (Lintern) who is out to get some potentially catastrophic photos from one of the safety deposit boxes in the bank, this one owned by Michael X (de Jersey), a would-be Black Power revolutionary who is in fact a drug dealer and a criminal who is blackmailing the government with those photos. There is also a pornographer (Suchet) whose ledger of payoffs to crooked cops have not only the straight-and-narrow police looking for the thieves, but also every corrupt cop in London as well. Terry is entering waters infested by sharks in a leaky boat, and doesn’t know it. The action here is all the more incredible because it is based on actual events.

Ever since I saw Statham in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Italian Job I thought he was destined to be a big star. At this point in his career, he was more of a B-level star, making mainly European action films although a couple of American films like Crank were on his resume as well. He remains to this day one of the most sought-after action stars in the business but this movie gave us notice that he could be much more.

Most of the rest of the cast are for the most part not well known to Americans, although Burrows has starred in Boston Legal and Deep Blue Sea and Suchet has been seen as Hercule Poirot in the PBS series. I did love the characterizations here; there is guilelessness to most of the blokes in the gang that is charming. When contrasted with the sophistication of those in the government and in the underground. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Director Donaldson keeps the pace moving along; the nearly two hours of the movie went by very quickly for me. He doesn’t resort to using the fashionable hand-held camera or slo-mo action sequences which seem to dominate action movies these days, but prefers to allow the characters and their actions to tell the story, a very refreshing touch if you ask me.

Statham plays Terry as a devoted family man and far from a criminal mastermind, but street-smart, clever and tough enough to make it all work. As you watch events unfold, there is a certain inevitability that things are going to get very bad for the gang of thieves and that creates a good kind of tension as they spiral into an unavoidable morass that is not of their own making but are the unwitting catalysts for.

The villains here are absolutely hateful and are clearly not messing about; during an interrogation scene, there isn’t a lot of chit-chat or cliché, just a brutality that you would expect from desperate men. The story is compelling and keeps our interest throughout, and while the lines are clearly drawn, the motivations for everyone concerned are equally as clear, which makes this movie work as a rich tapestry. There is enough comedy here to give the movie a kind of light touch, but Donaldson never lets it get away from the action-driven tone. He understands what side of his bread is buttered.

Although the movie is set in the early 1970s, the filmmakers don’t really set the period as well as other movies have, so at times you’re almost fooled into thinking the movie is set in a modern time frame. Also, the coda is a little bit unfulfilling; you want to know what became of some of these characters you’ve been rooting for, as well as perhaps wanting to know more about the actual robbery itself but to be fair, much of the details of the actual crime have been suppressed by British authorities and while the filmmakers claim to have information detailing why that is (which is revealed here), their sources have never been revealed and as far as the truth goes this may merely be clever marketing on the part of the producers.

This is a well-made heist movie that moves at a comfortably quick pace without being so frenetic it makes you dizzy. The twists and turns are nicely done and Statham does a terrific job. You may wind up comparing it to The Italian Job or the Oceans movies, but I think you might rule favorably for this movie as opposed to the others I’ve mentioned.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham stakes his place as a big star. A real sense of impending tragedy. Nicely paced, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t set period as well as it might have. Ending is a bit unfulfilling.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a great deal of nudity, sexual innuendo and a gruesome and disturbing torture scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: If you look carefully, you can catch a cameo by Mick Jagger as a bank employee.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the actual 1971 Baker Street heist.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.8M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, M-Go
NEXT: Lamb

In the Heart of the Sea

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
NEXT: Youth

The Pursuit of Happyness

The ties that bind.

The ties that bind.

(2006) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton, Brian Howe, James Karen, Dan Castellaneta, Kurt Fuller, Takayo Fischer, Kevin West, George Cheung, Domenic Bove, Joyful Raven, Scott Klace, Maurice Sherbanee, Victor Raider-Wexler, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Erin Cahill, Stu Klitsner, Ming Lo, David Fine, Karen Kahn. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

It’s a tough old world out there. It takes perseverance and ability to make it and even if you have then if you don’t catch a few breaks – or worse, catch a few bad ones – you still might not make it anyway. Most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from the streets.

Chris Gardner (W. Smith) is one of those guys with the ability and work ethic to go far. He even has an excess of charm. What he also has is a cloud of bad luck following him around. His wife Linda (Newton) is burned out, working too hard and getting too little in return. Their son Christopher (J. Smith) is what keeps Chris going.

Chris is having a real hard time selling bone density scanners to the medical professionals of San Francisco, who are able to get more recent and less expensive models from reputable medical supply dealers. Dejected, Chris struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When Linda leaves, it’s a catastrophe. Suddenly he can’t afford the rent and he and his son are thrown into the street. Eating at soup kitchens and lining up for beds in one of the city’s shelters, he looks for some way of getting out of his situation which isn’t helped when he’s hit by a car and his scanner is stolen.

However, Chris spies some brokers for Dean Witter coming out of work and they appear to be happy. He chats with one of them and discovers that they have an internship program for people trying to start in the industry from the ground floor. The trouble is – it’s unpaid and most of the people in the program will not be retained with paid jobs. However, Chris knows he can do this. It’s just a matter of surviving until the paychecks start coming.

While Will Smith had already had an Oscar nomination by the time he made this (for which he would receive his second nomination), in many ways this is the movie that convinced many that Smith wasn’t just a charismatic personality but a serious actor who could, with the right material, give a compelling unforgettable performance. This was certainly the right material.

Based on a true story, the movie brings out elements that are right in his wheelhouse; a kind of street smarts, unflagging charm and the ability to express frustration and anger in a way that doesn’t make him seem unlikable or make audiences uncomfortable. Chris Gardner was a man trapped in a situation that was nearly impossible; he had few prospects and nothing but his own drive, determination and chutzpah to carry him through. And if any star in Hollywood carries those qualities, it’s Will Smith.

Casting his own son in the role of Gardner’s son made a lot of sense and Jaden’s performance here is unforced and doesn’t make you want to grind your teeth. He justifiably received acclaim for following in his daddy’s footsteps and some thought he might even end up being a better actor someday than his dad. That hasn’t happened yet and maybe it never will, but here he shows more maturity than a lot of actors his age don’t possess. Perhaps that comes with growing up with a dad as famous as the Fresh Prince.

Now, there are moments where the sentimentality threatens to take over and to Muccino’s credit he doesn’t let it trample all over the film but occasionally you can feel those instincts to manipulate the audience nagging at him. The center section of the movie also drags in a few places, although not enough to really disrupt the flow of the film overly much.

The movie is a compelling portrait of the working poor; people who have jobs but don’t make enough to make ends meet. There are people who work two and three jobs who can’t afford a place to live and go home to shelters or onto the streets. This problem has only gotten worse since this movie was made, given the economic crisis that followed a year after its release. One watches Chris Gardner’s struggles and can’t help but feel “There but for the grace of Whatever Deity (if any) I worship goes I.”

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best performances of Will Smith’s career to date. Good chemistry between him and his son. Unsentimental look at modern poverty.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally maudlin. Slow in the middle sections.
FAMILY VALUES:  The language is rough in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film employed actual homeless people from around the Bay Area and paid them a full day’s wages for often just a few hours of work, generally including a catered meal. For some, it was the first income  that they’d made in years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the father-son acting team and why they were cast as well as one on the humble Rubik’s Cube and also an interview with the real Chris Gardner. The Blu-Ray also includes a music video of the Dave Koz/Bebe Winans song “I Can.”
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $307.1M on a $55M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
NEXT: Kill the Messenger