Mike at the Movies

In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13) *****

This heart-thumping film of the sea is, as its narrator says at the start, less a story of a whale and more a story of two men under severe stress. The amazing part of the story is that it is mostly true!

The Essex, a made-over whaler, slightly smaller than the usual whaler, set out from Nantucket in 1820. After early success, it found very few whales. Then while in port in South America, they heard a fantastic story about a white whale of enormous size that destroyed the whalers. He was called “Moby Dick.” He was also the centerpiece of a huge pod that promised fortunes to the crews that could find them and slaughter them. This film tells the story of the Essex from the point of view of one of the few survivors, whaler Tom Nickerson played by Brian Gleeson, as told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) who hopes to follow up the success of his first novel, “Typee.” There is a secret that Nickerson is trying desperately to hide, but his wife (Michelle Fairley) urges him to get all the secrets out so he can live with himself.

Though Nickerson’s story was true and you can read about it in encyclopedias, I will leave it to you to discover in the film. Needless to say, it is the culmination of horrid experiences that made survival very much a likely failure. Two of the survivors are First Officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), son of one of the owners of the Essex.

In many ways this film is formulaic: A seasoned, talented whaler (Chase) is ordered to serve as first mate to Pollard, much to his dissatisfaction. A typical, under-trained corporate scion, Pollard makes errors in judgment, especially his decision to steer into a heavy squall to test his raw crew. The result is near-destruction of his ship and disgust from Chase and many others in the crew.

Chase is an expert harpooner and the scenes of his spearing the huge animals are epic in every way. Director Ron Howard handles the action scenes well, marred only by an over-reliance on close-ups that make the action sometimes hard to follow. Add the thunderous noise of the sea and the whales and a lot of the dialogue of this film is lost to the elements.

The film demands more and more of the cast as there becomes less and less of them. All lost scores of pounds in making the film. Oddly enough, as the film portrays them, when they returned home they were not regarded as heroes but as freaks who somehow survived the least survivable conditions they could imagine. That cannibalism was involved was almost assumed by the townspeople. It is no wonder that the story of the Essex served as the underpinning for “Moby Dick.” But it is Melville’s genius that saw through the simple plot lines to the eternal and very human conflicts underneath—conflicts that made the whale himself secondary to the conflicts between the humans that hunted him and ultimately destroyed themselves in the process.

The movie concludes with the ironic fact that, as some of the survivors readjusted to their lives on shore and even went back to whaling, the whale oil industry itself began dying away; oil was discovered in the ground in Pennsylvania in 1859—just a few years after the Essex crew came back home.

Young children will not understand the dynamics of the story, and the underwater scenes and destruction of humans by whales (Moby Dick wasn’t the only killer) will not set well with them. Perhaps a few of their parents will find it the same. Superb sea footage, a compelling story and one HUGE whale are worth the time it takes to take all this in.

Krampus (PG-13) *

There are two demanding questions about this film: 1) Why was it made? 2) Who is the intended audience? It is ostensibly a holiday comic fantasy but for “fantasy” read “horror show.” I am absolutely at a loss as to whom the producers aimed this horror at. The only logical answer is perverted, Christmas-hating, horror-loving teens, but that seems a narrow group. With such a strong cast: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner and Conchata Ferrell, I wondered why I had seen so few ads for this film. Now I know.

Starting as a holiday film featuring a mysterious Omi (Krista Sadler), Adam Scott’s mother, with comic set-up scenes for a typical dysfunctional family Christmas (the film opens with holiday music over Black Friday riots), it soon deteriorates into the most horrific of horror movies with mothers and babies and brothers and sisters disappearing, most likely eaten by monsters. We are soon in a world of constant snatches and grabs and monster feasts and all the rest of the horror movie genre scenes we have seen for years. Omi hints that it is because of mysterious causes beyond our understanding, but Max (Emjay Anthony) knows that it is his fault because he has lost faith in Christmas.

All the while the mayhem is going on (in the middle of a blizzard-caused blackout), the viewer is left to question again: What is the intended audience for this? Little ones would be horrified, even teens would be puzzled, adult audiences will be offended by the motivations and bored by the repetition and habitual horror addicts will be put off by the simplistic message of the film: Believe in Christmas and everything will work out. Many will simply find the film offensive. A horrific waste of talent and special effects and NOT a film for the holidays. (“Krampus” has been made before as an Alpine horror story but not to our knowledge as a holiday comedy.)