Movie review: “Tarzan” swings into action

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Legend of Tarzan promotional graphic

King Leopold dispatches Leon Rom to the Belgian Congo to exploit the colony by enslaving its locals and stealing the diamonds of Opar.  Chief Mbonga gives Rom the diamonds on the condition that he bring Tarzan back from England to the Congo.

Rom’s unseen hand is at work as Tarzan is misled twice to induce him back to Africa.  First by British business interests who want his presence in the Congo to calm the nerves of investors, then by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Dr. George Washington Williams, an envoy from America interested in exposing the slave trade and militarization of the Congo.

At first Tarzan refuses.  He’s John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke, a wealthy and sullenly dignified nobleman.  When a little girl asks him if it’s true that his mother is a gorilla, he pooh-poohs it, even though a gorilla nursed and raised him.  He doesn’t want to go home, but Dr. Williams talks him into it.

Fearing the effect her shirtless husband could have on female audiences, wife Jane insists on travelling with him.  Upon arrival, she is abducted by Rom, a prayer bead fondling creep.  He keeps plucky Jane in check by threatening to kill her native friends.

Abandoning every shred of doubt about going home, Greystoke immediately becomes Tarzan again, and is given a warmer welcome than Ali at the Rumble in the Jungle.  Greystoke reconnects with a friendly tribe, and warriors travel with him and Williams to head off Rom and Mbonga at the pass.  On the way is where most of the vine swinging takes place.  The good guys free slaves and hash out an old family feud within Tarzan’s gorilla family along the way.

The current day’s scenes are intercut with flashbacks to Tarzan’s youth and his first encounter with Jane.  Although the multiple flashbacks would be confusing in any other movie, they make sense here because we already understand Tarzan’s backstory.

Samuel L. Jackson provides comic relief along the way without profanity or silliness.  The story is adventurous but a tad on the serious side, so Jackson’s character is a welcome counterweight.  Alexander Skarsgard, who plays Tarzan, is the straight man making few jokes and smiling only a few times, mostly when among his tribesmen friends.  (That’s is why it’s perplexing that he was so reluctant to leave England.)

The big fight scenes—one during an escape effort by Jane, a two-round grudge match between Tarzan and his super-heavyweight gorilla brother Akut, and a battle against Mbonga, are all exciting.

But to me, the most exhilarating scenes are swinging into action from the treetops.  The Tarzan concept is a precursor mashup of Ewoks and Spiderman, with the freedom to swing around and serve justice under the jungle canopy instead of navigating New York’s skyscrapers.

It’s too bad that there aren’t more scenes in the jungle.  That’s where we normally think of Tarzan living.  In “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) most of the scenes are someplace else:  England, the port, the village, the railroad, the river, Opar, etc.  On that score, “The Jungle Book” that came out earlier this year outperformed this movie.  (Plus it was fun to see little Mowgli use his wits to outsmart the bad guys, unlike Tarzan who relies more on physical traits.)  Nevertheless, “The Legend of Tarzan” is a thrilling movie to watch on the big screen.

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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.