Thursday, April 7, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015) and MOJAVE (2015)

(US/Spain - 2015)

Based on Nathanial Philbrick's 2000 book chronicling the whaleship Essex and its crew's 1820 ordeal that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Ron Howard's $100 million IN THE HEART OF THE SEA was a costly box office bomb for Warner Bros, grossing just $25 million domestically. The film was shot in late 2013 and originally set to be released in March 2015 but was delayed for nine months after a skittish Warner Bros. decided to piss away more money by converting it to 3-D. Considering they had all that extra time to get it right, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA often looks shockingly bad when it isn't on land, and that's not something you want in a nautical adventure. The greenscreen work and CGI are utterly and unacceptably atrocious for such an expensive production. The CGI waves and whales aren't the least bit convincing, and in any scene on the Essex, it never once looks like the actors are anywhere other than a giant soundstage with their surroundings to be filled in later. It looks about as believable as SIN CITY. There's no excuse for a major studio movie to look this shitty, and you know something's wrong when the best parts of the film are the framing device that Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (K-PAX, BLOOD DIAMOND, SEVENTH SON) completely made up. In 1850, Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits aging Essex survivor Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson; Tom Holland plays Nickerson in the 1820 scenes) on Nantucket Island to interview him about what happened. Whishaw and Gleeson are very good, as is Michelle Fairley (GAME OF THRONES) as Nickerson's devoted wife, but the trouble is, it's complete dramatic license: Melville never met Nickerson and never used his specific story as the basis for his novel--he read stories of the Essex and took it from there. So that leaves us with Chris Hemsworth (star of Howard's racing flop RUSH, which has found a minor cult following) as first mate Owen Chase, and Benjamin Walker (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) as Capt. George Pollard, butting heads and nearly coming to blows before a vengeful whale sinks their ship and leaves them and the crew lost at sea for 90 days, emaciated and forced to resort to cannibalizing their fallen shipmates--special appearance by Cillian Murphy as dinner--and drawing straws to see who should be killed to provide more sustenance to stay alive as the whale continues to relentlessly pursue them.

Its dismal box office further evidence that no one cares about Chris Hemsworth outside of a Marvel movie (and I'm someone who was a huge fan of BLACKHAT) or Benjamin Walker in anything (how did Jai Courtney or Sam Worthington not end up in this?), IN THE HEART OF THE SEA is a hot mess and probably Howard's worst film, though I'm not about to watch THE DILEMMA to say for certain. Nothing works except the framing story, and that's only because Gleeson, Whishaw, and Fairley manage to rise above the bullshit and give this thing some modicum of dignity. Chase and Pollard are such paper-thin characters--Chase is from a poor family, Pollard from a rich one, so of course they clash when Pollard throws his weight around and Chase is resentful since he was promised his own ship--that you never care about them, and every single moment on the Essex is bathed in such smudgy, smeary, bush-league CGI artifice that all you can focus on is how amateurishly shoddy the whole thing looks. Was Howard honestly happy with how this turned out?  I haven't even mentioned that he uses more obnoxious lens flare than in the entire filmography of J.J. Abrams. There are shots in this film that don't even look finished, and for something that was delayed for nine months, Warner Bros, Howard, and everyone else behind the scenes really have no excuse for why John Huston's 1956 film version of MOBY DICK looks better than something made nearly 60 years later. Ugly, uninvolving, unending, and at times unwatchable, the dumbfounding, embarrassing IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has to be one of the worst big-budget films to come from a major director in a long time. (PG-13, 122 mins)

(US - 2015)

William Monahan got an Oscar for his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's THE DEPARTED, and went on to script films like BODY OF LIES and the OK remake of THE GAMBLER, but misfired a bit with his directorial debut, the 2011 Scorsese-meets-Guy Ritchie knockoff LONDON BOULEVARD. Monahan's second effort as a director is the woefully self-indulgent MOJAVE, a gabby would-be thriller that constantly gets bogged down in pretentious, floridly overwritten conversations where capable actors play characters who say things like "I don't even know if you exist...as I understand existence," and somehow manage to keep a straight face. Monahan can't seem to decide if he wants to make a desert-set noir thriller or an industry-insider bitchfest about debauched Hollywood jagoffs, so he throws both ideas together to make a thoroughly miserable shit sandwich of a movie that could've easily been titled ZABRISKIE POINTLESS. Self-absorbed filmmaker Tom (Garrett Hedlund) heads out to the desert to clear his head, or whatever self-absorbed asshole filmmakers do in the desert. After crashing and abandoning his producer's Jeep, he sets up a small camp and encounters eccentric drifter Jack (Oscar Isaac). Jack is the "Mojave Murderer," a desert-dwelling serial killer who sees in Tom the perfect patsy on which to pin his crimes. Tom gets the upper hand, knocking Jack out cold and fleeing on foot. The next day, Tom accidentally kills a sheriff's deputy and Jack witnesses it. Getting to the nearest town, Tom arranges for a ride back to L.A. with all the incriminating evidence in tow, while Jack finds the abandoned Jeep and, from the vehicle registration, gets an address to make his way to L.A. to stalk Jack and finish whatever it is they started.

Once Jack gets to L.A. and starts trying to ingratiate himself into Tom's professional and personal circle, first allowing himself to get picked up by a gay producer and killing him and later showing up in the backyard of Tom's French actress mistress (Louise Bourgoin), MOJAVE has no idea what it's doing or where it's going. It never recovers from a terrible scene where Tom sulks in an empty bar and Jack finds him, and the final resolution is anything but final or a resolution. MOJAVE pretends to be a cat-and-mouse thriller but it's more of a bile-soaked screed by Monahan, who takes MAPS TO THE STARS-level cheap shots at easy targets like navel-gazing auteurs, bitchy starlets, indifferent agents, and coked-up, degenerate producers, the latter represented in a grating supporting turn by Mark Wahlberg, doing a favor for his buddy Monahan but drawing the line at having his name used in the advertising. Wahlberg is Norman, the producer of Tom's latest, troubled film and the owner of the crashed Jeep, though his biggest concern seems to be spending his days lounging in his bathrobe and getting hummers from on-call prostitutes. So edgy! Hedlund is a mumbling, catatonic bore, Wahlberg bloviates and overacts, and Walton Goggins is all impenetrable dime-store Zen bullshit as Tom's agent. Isaac actually seems to be having a good time, and he's the sole saving grace, but this is a big stumble in an otherwise impressive run with the likes of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, EX MACHINA, the HBO miniseries SHOW ME A HERO, and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS making him happen over the last year and a half or so. A24 also released A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and EX MACHINA, and Isaac is likely the only reason they picked this up, but it only got a token limited theatrical release after premiering on DirecTV. Little more than 90 minutes of tough-guy posturing, existential ennui, and tired doppelganger foreshadowing (you could make a drinking game out of how many times Tom and Jack refer to each other as "brother") that leads you to expect an inane FIGHT CLUB-derived twist that, like the point of MOJAVE, never comes, this film fails on almost every level. The only really good line is when Jack, perhaps representing Tom's conscience, tears into the opportunistic, fame-whoring filmmaker and wonders about all the old friends he's left behind, asking him "Are you in touch with anybody not useful?" Monahan is too head-over-heels in love with everything he wrote to effectively function as a director, which is strangely fitting since he has no one other than himself in mind for an audience. MOJAVE is an impossible film to like, though I'm sure it'll find a cult following because, well, what terrible movie doesn't these days? (R, 93 mins)

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