Movie review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

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Movie poster for In the Heart of the Sea with Chris Hemsworth over a sperm whale's tail

Some people have called “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015) an unofficial “prequel” to Moby Dick.  That’s not the right word.  Prequel makes it sound like it’s a story ending where “Call me Ishmael” begins.  It’s actually a depiction of Herman Melville and the true-life story he researched while writing his great American novel.

I wish “In the Heart of the Sea” had been released 20 years ago before I read Moby Dick.  The book is dense and challenging.  Moby Dick went straight into the lives of the characters then shifted to life on Captain Ahab’s ship.  I don’t remember it stopping to explore the wider economic motivations behind whale hunting.

“In the Heart of the Sea” provides that background and context.   It presents Nantucket as a thriving point of embarkation for the “oil business” (whale oil).  Think of it as J.R. Ewing and the Texas oilmen in “Dallas” transported to Massachusetts in the 1800s.  The nautical ways of the Old World still prevail with the privileged sons of wealthy men can essentially purchase their commissions as officers.  The diffident and inexperienced Pollard is given command of a ship with Chase as first mate even though Chase is God’s gift to whaling.

That’s where we see our first signs of trouble.  Not just for the crew, but for viewers.  Chase is too perfect.  He demonstrates again and again on deck that his knowledge and seamanship is superior to Pollard’s.  He’s bigger and stronger than anybody else aboard.  Chris Hemsworth, who plays Chase, speaks in a husky, artificially deep voice which is often difficult to understand.  It’s like listening to somebody speak through a cheerleader’s bullhorn.  There is volume and strength but the words are indistinct.  Chase’s main failing is depicted as arrogance, which is easy to understand since he is better than everybody else.

However, another of his failings, which probably was unintentional on part of the moviemakers, is that Chase is totally serious and unfunny all of the time.  That entire movie is guilty of that, too.  There are very few laughs and rarely a light moment aboard the Essex.  The story is presented as the most serious thing that has happened to anybody.

The story itself is a good one, and we can see why Melville thought it would make for a great book.  Pollard and Chase are trying to kill as many sperm whales as possible so they can be done with each other and go back home.  Despite warnings they get at port in Chile about an aggressive sperm whale, they pursue the whale.  The giant beast already has an antipathy toward human ships.  The whale eludes capture and retaliates later.  The whale is smart and recognizes the crew wherever they go from that point forward.

Like every other shark, whale, or sea monster story, matters worsen for the Essex’s crew.  The number of humans dwindle on a long a painful voyage home.  Thirty years later, a cabin boy who survived the ordeal reluctantly recounts the tale to Herman Melville, enabling him to finish writing his classic.  The witness’s wife, in a rare moment of comedy, is the only character to agree to accept Melville’s payment for consenting to an interview.

Overall, the revenge story and the man-versus-nature conflict make for gripping drama.  The special effects of the swelling sea and whale are well-done.  The movie has a good pace and doesn’t waste time on irrelevant side stories.  The film illuminates the context of the important period of American history that formed the basis of Melville’s book.  I’d give the movie an 8 or 9 out of 10 for being so well-made, but I ding it a point or so down to a 7 for being self-important and stodgy.

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Review of “Zoo” Season 1

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Zoo miniseries airs on Channel 46 in Atlanta

The CBS series “Zoo” is a harmless diversion for recreational TV viewing.  It’s a summer series about a global condition that affects a wide variety of animal species causing them to become aggressive toward humans.  It is loosely based on James Patterson’s book of the same name, which had the same basic premise.

The show also has the same main character as the book, Jackson Oz.  He’s an impetuous but perceptive man played by James Wolk who discovers early signs of the problem among lions in Botswana.  Jackson’s father studied the same phenomenon of interspecies animal aggression, but nobody believed him either.  Wolk is very telegenic and he may be one of the reasons that the show was renewed for a second season which debuts this week on June 28.

In Botswana, Jackson meets Chloe, a Frenchwoman played by Nora Arnezeder.  Unlike the book’s depiction of Chloe as a scientist who becomes a fawning doormat once she falls in love with Jackson, the TV series presents Chloe as a strong, independent woman who investigates the animal behavior for reasons of international security.

The other characters are mostly inventions of the TV show.  Abraham, a Kenyan safari guide played by Nonso Anozie, is “the muscle” of the group.  He also serves as a rational Spock to Jackson’s risk-taking Kirk.  Anozie has a commanding screen presence and makes for fun watching every week.  His stature and authoritative baritone would make him the perfect actor to play Professor Challenger in a modern version of Lost World.

Billy Burke and Kristen Connolly play the other two members of the team.  Burke is Mitch, a veterinary pathologist who serves as the geeky and irascible Jeff Goldblum of the group.  Connolly is Jamie, a crusading journalist cum blogger on a campaign to expose Raiden, a shadowy corporation with questionable products that have found their way into each link of the food chain.  As Jackson and Chloe pair off, so do Mitch and Jamie.

The quintet fights their way through at least one hostile species each week, rarely in the same location twice.  They take cover from swarming bats in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, dodge man-eating leopards in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and investigate bears on the prowl in Paris.  Their work is sponsored by the intelligence agency that employs Chloe, or so it seems, until the group finds out that Raiden is actually pulling the strings.  The group has to worry about the humans on their tail as much as they have to worry about the animals.

On occasion, the show slips into a pattern of scenes that are dark or serious.  Normally, the focus is on adventure and camaraderie within the team, and that’s where the show is at its best.  On paper the characters are a bit one-dimensional, but the actors do a great job of adding depth and conviction, especially when they probably have to do half of their acting in front of a blue screen.  The special effects are very good for a TV show—the animal attacks don’t seem computer generated.

You can catch up on Season 1 on Netflix and tune into CBS on Tuesday nights at 9 for Season 2.

Book review: dive into MEG for deep-sea thrills

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Cover shows blood at the bottom of the Mariana Trench

Even if you’re not going to the beach, you should read Steve Alten’s first book about a giant shark this summer.  The fifth book of Alten’s series came out just last week, so it’s time to start catching up.

Though MEG is similar to Jaws (giant shark goes on rampage) it is distinct and stands on its own.  The novel is about Carcharodon megalodon, not the great white shark of Jaws fame.  The premise is that extinct megalodons still exist.  They live so deep in the Mariana Trench that nobody knows.  They survive on the warmth of the thermal flows from the earth.  The water above them is too cold for them to swim in, so they are confined to the basement of the sea until an accident happens that unleashes one of them to the surface.  Mayhem ensues.

While the premise may sound far-fetched, each step toward the megalodon’s surfacing is presented in a believable fashion.  Even if somebody pooh-poohs the scientific plausibility of the anatomy and behavior of the meg, the idea of prehistoric mega-sharks among us is an imaginative and exhilarating concept.  The meg is so big that it poses a threat to ships and whale pods.  Its ability to destroy marine life and destabilize entire ecosystems of shallower waters is believable and scary.  This sets up the rationale for extreme measures by humans to stop the meg.

Jonas is the expert in the middle of all the action.  At first nobody believes him.  Then they begin to believe him but don’t see the threat as seriously as he takes it.  Will they catch up to his way of thinking in time?

MEG is fast-paced and somewhat short (my copy has large font and generous spacing but still falls under 300 pages).  The action, like the location of the meg swimming across the Pacific, keeps moving so there’s no threat of getting bored.  MEG is also satisfying because bad things happen to characters who are jerks.

The imaginative premise, high-octane plot, and characters you’ll enjoy rooting for or against earn this book five stars.

Review: Richard III leads sheep to the slaughter

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Recognizing the threat posed by Gloucester early on, Queen Elizabeth says, “I fear our happiness is at the height.”  Ten murders later with Gloucester crowned as Richard III, the former queen, Margaret, laments to his mother, “From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept a hellhound that doth hunt us all to death.”  Separately, Margaret sums up some of the recent changes in succession during the regicidal War of Roses saying “I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill’d him.”  The observations of the women in Richard III are among the keenest and most enjoyable elements of Shakespeare’s play.

The noblemen vacillate between opposing and supporting Richard.  Clarence, his brother and one of his first on-stage victims says, “The great King of kings hath in the table of his law commanded that though shalt do no murder: will you then spurn at his edict, and fulfil a man’s?”

Spurn it he does, deceiving and stabbing his way to the throne.  Richard demonstrates the traits that brought him to power through pointed, unrivaled language.  Ruthlessness:  “Conscience is but a word that cowards use.” Decisiveness:  “Off with his head.”  Self-aggrandizement while belittling others:  “To royalize his [Henry VI’s] blood I spilt my own” and “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace.”  And speed:  “Delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary.”

Richard’s lethal rise makes the audience scratch its collective head about why more of the characters don’t act sooner to stop him.  But we can ask ourselves the same questions about quiescence in the face of totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century and today.

But eventually Richard’s thirst for blood and paranoia (“my kingdom stands on brittle glass”) alienate even his most ardent toadies.  His denial of an earldom to Buckingham is enough to send him into the growing camp of rebellion.  Eventually the forces of Richard and Richmond, a nobleman descended from both the Lancaster and York families, meet on the battlefield.  Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims in dreams the night before the battle, which doesn’t bode well for him.  After being famously unhorsed and killed, Richmond promises, at long last, “We will unite the white rose and the red.”

The parade of Henrys, Edwards, and Richards in English history and Shakespeare’s histories can be challenging to follow.  The troops of uncles with place names and Christian names that don’t always match the character cues doesn’t help much either.  But a willingness to slog through those challenges is necessary to experience the grandeur of the language and to confront our own moral cowardice in the face of evil.

Mammoth calf on tour in Canada

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Mammoth calf, preserved

The surprisingly well-preserved body of a woolly mammoth calf is on loan from Siberia to Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum.  The infant mammoth is thought to have been one month old at the time that she drowned and froze to death 40,000 years ago.  Lyuba is named for the wife of the Siberian shepherd who discovered the mammoth.  I’m sure the wife was thrilled about that.  From CBC News:

New Royal BC Museum exhibit features Lyuba, a 40,000-year-old baby mammoth

Exhibit also features a dire wolf, made famous by Game of Thrones

By Liam Britten, CBC News Posted: May 29, 2016 6:00 AM PTLast Updated: May 29, 2016 1:33 PM PT

Dire wolves, mastodons and short-faced bears, oh my.

Those are just some of the creatures featured in a new exhibit at Victoria’s Royal BC Museum called Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age.

The exhibit includes a 40,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth as its centrepiece, which the museum calls the best-preserved specimen in existence.

The mammoth, on loan from the Shemanovskiy Yamal-Nenets District Museum and Exhibition Complex in Siberia, has been travelling the world since 2010.

The mammoth is named Lyuba, after the wife of the Siberian herder who discovered it, according to Evgeniya Khzyainov, deputy director and curator for the Shemonovskiy Museum.

Khzyainov told All Points West’s Sterling Eyford that the mammoth was about one or two months old when it died by drowning.

“When she died she wasn’t damaged by other animals, she was frozen, and when she froze it was [lucky] she wasn’t damaged again by animals,” said Khzyainov…

Book review: Fragment delivers ecological fun

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Fragment

A remote, tiny island in the Pacific teems with unique, aggressive species.  But they aren’t dinosaurs from The Land that Time Forgot; they are distant relatives of mantis shrimp that evolved on a separate track from the rest of the earth in Fragment, a 2009 eco-thriller that is more plausible than a living dinosaur book.  The new species are first discovered by the crew of a reality show called “SeaLife.”  The U.S. Navy takes over because of the risk that the dangerous species could leave the island and destroy continental ecosystems, or hostile regimes could exploit the island to develop biological weapons.

Some reviewers have been critical of the “pseudo-science” in Fragment.  But ask yourself, is the science in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein believable?  How about Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World?  Or Michael Crichton’s Congo?  Those books all stretch science as it was understood in the era of the authors to create a compelling story.

Fragment isn’t in the same league as those classic tales of scientific exploration, but it is an exciting, contemporary story.  The setting of the book, “Henders Island,” is an imaginative place.  The best element of the book is the characters’ struggle to survive in the ominous setting.  Thatcher Redmond, the villain of the book, is fun to hate, and his imperious voice was the highlight Robin Atkin Downes’s narration in the audiobook version.

The U.S. government has several possible ways to deal with the threat of the aggressive species on Henders Island.  Without spoiling the ending, I will just say that I was not a fan of the solution.  That is my number one complaint about the book, but it made for good drama.