Sunday, August 21, 2016

Real-life Adventures on Land and Sea

The Last Waltz (1978): directed by Martin Scorsese; starring The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson), Martin Scorsese (The Interviewer), and many other musicians and writers that include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, and others: Martin Scorsese's brilliant, occasionally problematic concert movie combines live footage of The Band's last performance with a whole lotta guests (including the jarring appearance of Neil Diamond) with interview sessions with the five members of The Band.

Scorsese clearly had a man-crush on guitarist Robbie Robertson, who dominates the interviews and seems to be in almost every shot of the concert, an impressive feat for someone who never sings lead vocals. The four non-Robertson members of The Band seem fed up with Robbie at times -- and they'd reunite as a foursome sans Robertson several years after The Last Waltz. Hmm. 

You can see why Scorsese fixated on Robertson -- he's the most conventionally handsome of the group, and he's also the most loquacious. In any case, the film itself is essential viewing because of the performances of The Band, the anecdotes, and the astonishing array of guest players and vocalists. And even Neil Diamond is fine and, in the context of the movie, a reasonable choice to represent a particular type of music (Tin Pan Alley and its songwriters) on the movie's journey through an almost comprehensive list of musical influences on The Band. 

Garth Hudson and Rick Danko don't speak much. Richard Manuel and Levon Helm do get some interview time, and both -- especially the charismatic, soft-spoken Helm (aka The Only American In The Band) -- are fascinating. Highly recommended.


In the Heart of the Sea (2015): based on the non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick; written by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver; directed by Ron Howard; starring Chris hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Brendan Gleason and Tom Holland (Old/Young Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), and Michelle Fairley (Mrs. Nickerson): Ron Howard turns the astonishing true story of the early 19th-century Nantucket whaleship Essex's losing confrontation with a pissed-off male sperm whale into an intermittently faithful, intermittently ridiculous movie. The performances are all solid but unspectacular, hampered by the often stilted and/or dogmatic dialogue that often seems shot through with jarring linguistic anachronisms.

A frame narrative set 30 years after the Essex lost a TKO to the whale is historically ridiculous. And the movie creates a false dramatic narrative in which the Nantucket powers-that-be want to hush up the whaley cause of the Essex's sinking (in reality, they didn't) and the cannibalism in the lifeboats necessitated by being adrift at sea without food for weeks (again, no cover-up -- cannibalism was pragmatically acknowledged by sailors as something that could very well happen because of the realities of life at sea). Oh, well. History sucks! 

This is the sort of movie in which a cargo hold that should be filled with empty barrels to carry home all the whale oil is instead shown as empty throughout the movie so as to visually demonstrate how unsuccessful the whaling expedition has been. I guess in the universe of the movie, the whales bring their own barrels.

The portion of the film stretching from the Essex's departure from Nantucket to its first encounter with the angry whale is really pretty good. Unfortunately, Howard and the screenwriter veer sharply away from history after the sinking of the Essex to turn the movie into a high-toned version of Jaws: The Revenge with a bit of Castaway thrown in. Oh, well. 

The filmmakers also conflate the whale that sunk the Essex with another story about a partially white sperm whale from about the same time period dubbed Mocha Dick by whalers. Ace reporter (well, information-starved novelist) Herman Melville eats this stuff up in the completely fictional frame narrative. We also get some anachronistic environmentalist discussions. In the world of the movie, oil is discovered in Pennsylvania nine years earlier than it was in our universe. Hey, it's an alternate history movie! Lightly recommended.


Invictus (2009): adapted by Anthony Peckham from the non-fiction book by John Carlin; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Peinaar): Engaging sports movie about newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela's attempts to forge unity in his country with the nation's Springboks national rugby team and South Africa's 1995 hosting of the Rugby World Cup. Morgan Freeman as Mandela is excellent and convincing, and Matt Damon is Matt Damon with an Afrikaaners accent as Springboks captain Francois Peinaar. 

The movie is quite faithful to actual events. Clint Eastwood's direction is unobtrusive, and the whole thing goes down pretty smoothly as the earnest Stanley Kramer movie it would have been if it had been made in 1955. A cast of mostly unknowns does solid work in the supporting roles. Traditional and traditionalistic South African songs war with goopy, gloppy, awful Western-muzak-sounding songs on the soundtrack, to an occasionally jarring comic effect. Mandela's favoured 1875 English poem which gave the movie its title was by William Ernest Henly, by the way, though most of us think it was by Rudyard Kipling. The more you know! Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I think Rick Danko in LAST WALTZ looks quite a bit like DeNiro's Johnny Boy from MEAN STREETS, and Levon Helms's performance of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is one of my most favorite things ever.

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