Tag: Ty Simpkins

The Whale (2022)

The Whale (2022)

Manipulative and sentimental, Aronofsky’s tear-jerker is dishonest and disingenuous

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Charlie), Sadie Sink (Ellie Sarsfield), Hong Chau (Liz), Ty Simpkins (Thomas), Samantha Morton (Mary), Sathya Sridharan (Dan)

The Whale is the sort of film that is either going to bring you out in tears or hives. Me? Let’s just say I felt incredibly itchy as I sat through this naïve, sentimental and manipulative film. I hated its dishonesty and its disingenuousness. The only thing I felt move was my stomach.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese, reclusive English professor who teaches online courses with the camera turned off. Nursed by Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his deceased partner, Charlie has never processed his depression and guilt at his partner’s suicide. Now, facing death from congestive heart failure, his last wish is to finally bond with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he has not seen in the eight years since he left her and her mother (Samantha Morton). Ellie is now an angry, high-school drop-out teenager. But Charlie is sure he can see the good in her.

So much has been made about the morbid obesity of the film’s lead. The prosthetics coating Fraser in layers of fat are impressive. An opening montage shows Charlie struggling to move around the house. Picking something up off the floor is impossible and he has to lever himself out of the bed or into the shower. But the film is hugely pleased with itself that it dares to see a fat person as “one of us”. Aronofsky initially films him like a freak show monster – already patting himself on the back about how “humanising” it will be when we learn that obese people are just as capable of being at the heart of maudlin, self-pitying films as thin ones.

The Whale is adapted from a stage play. Not only does it really feel like it (it’s all set within Charlie’s apartment, with characters announcing their arrival in a neat four-act structure), it also sounds like it. The dialogue is forced, artificial and clumsy, making on-the-nose emotional points. Characters feel like narrative constructs. Sadie Sink’s Ellie is the sort of precocious-but-angry tear-away genius brat you never find in real life. Ty Simpkins’ hipster-turned-missionary is more a collection of quirks than a person. The script leans heavily on clumsy metaphors – a walk on the beach, bible quotes, Ellie’s childhood essay on Moby Dick – milked for all they are worth.

Worst of all, a film that prides itself on being about the power of honesty feels like a big, walloping lie. It lies about its characters and it lies about the real issues that drive them. Firstly, it never once touches on issues of mental health and addiction that have led Charlie to this state. Sure, we get a scene of him compulsively eating. But Liz, his “caring” nurse, brings him medicine and huge piles of food (a massive bucket of fried chicken, enormous sub sandwiches…). It’s like caring for an alcoholic by bringing him chicken soup and a huge bottle of whisky. How is this helping someone recognise and deal with an addiction? Which is what this level of over-eating is.

Worst of all the film treats this as a “charming friendship between two eccentrics”. It eventually touches on the fact they are both hurting from the suicide of Charlie’s partner Alan. But never once is the film brave enough to link their behaviour now to this act. Charlie failed to get Alan help, keeping him away from the world and others, believing that the isolated love of a single person would solve his depression. Liz repeats the same mistakes. She isolates Charlie, encourages him to eat, never challenges him to seek help or process his grief, and creates a safe environment for him to destroy himself. If he was a drug addict, what would we say about a carer who draws the curtains and encourages him to shoot up? We’d be calling her the villain of the piece.

That’s before we even dive into the film’s lack of honesty about Charlie. It’s sad to think of a character being so depressed he’s eaten himself to death. That’s awful – even if the film never wants to reflect on the emotional and psychological reasons for this (because that would be depressing in a film as desperate to be upbeat as this one). But by showing us Charlie at the end, full of regret and self-pity, the film white-washes his mistakes and selfishness. There are clear flaws in Charlie that contributed to this state – however much the film wants to present it as a terrible accident.

Charlie abandoned his family and made no contact with his daughter for years (he complains it was too difficult and tries to blame her mother), leaving her traumatised. The film loves its sentimental device of Charlie reading to himself Ellie’s childhood essay (which he knows by heart). But this is, basically, a selfish fantasy: an idea for Charlie to cling to that he was a good Dad and Ellie a kid with a future, radically different from the actual reality. Just like he never addresses why guilt and depression drove him to destroy himself, so he refuses to deal with the issues Ellie is facing now by simply not acknowledging that she has changed from his idealised version of her as the sweet, sensitive girl who knew Moby Dick was really about Melville’s unhappiness.

Instead, the film suggests her mother is the one who really failed. Charlie – who has spent about an hour in her company in eight years – would have donebetter. Just like Liz passing him chicken buckets, Charlie’s solution to solving his daughter’s problems is to smother her with love rather than get her to ask herself why she does and says the cruel things she does. How can the film not see he is repeating the same ghastly cycle again, encouraging a depressed, vulnerable person to stick her head in the sand and hope for the best? Well, he’s wrong. And the fact that the film doesn’t see this means it’s lying to itself as much as he is.

By the end you’ll be stuffed by sentiment, greased by the insistent score. Every single frame is like being walloped over the head while Aronofsky shouts “cry damn you”. The dreadful script is well acted, even if no-one ever makes these device-like characters feel like real people (except maybe Morton). Fraser is committed, a lovely chap and I’m very pleased he’s having “a moment”. But this is a simplistic character, that requires little of him other than to wear a fat suit and cry. He never once really delves into any complexity. It’s also true of Hong Chau, a collection of quirk and tears.

The Whale is a dreadful film, manipulative, artificial and full of naïve and dishonest emotions that avoids dealing with any complex or meaningful issues. Instead, it thinks it’s achieved something by making you see a fat person as a real person. There is almost nothing I can recommend about it.

The Next Three Days (2010)

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe go on the run in workmanlike thriller The Next Three Days

Director:  Paul Haggis

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Brennan), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Brennan), Brian Dennehy (George Brennan), Lennie James (Lt Nabulsi), Olivia Wilde (Nicole), Ty Simpkins (Luke Brennan), Helen Carey (Grace Brennan), Liam Neeson (Damon Pennington), Daniel Stern (Meyer Fisk)

What would you do to protect the person you love? How far would you go to keep her safe? What would you sacrifice? What rules would you break? Paul Haggis’ serviceable thriller tries to answer these questions, but doesn’t really get much closer to the answers than I have here.

Russell Crowe is John Brennan, a teacher of English Literature at a mid-ranking college. One day, his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for the murder of her boss. Despite her pleas of innocence, before they know it she is sentenced to spend most of the rest of her life behind bars. When desperation at the thought of her fate – and missing the upbringing of their young son – leads her to attempt suicide, John decides to take the extreme step of breaking her out of prison. But where to begin with the planning? And what will he be prepared to do?

It’s the sort of film that early-on has the lead character meet a ruthless expert (in this case an ex-con with a history of prison breaks, played with a growling enjoyment by Liam Neeson in a one-scene cameo) who outlines a list of rules and terrible things that the hero will be forced to do. The hero looks askance – but sure enough each situation arises and doncha know it the hero is forced to bend his own morality to meet the needs of his mission. What a surprise.

Only of course the film doesn’t have the courage to force Crowe’s John to actually do things that bend his morality. There is always a get-out clause. When his actions lead to him taking a petty criminal’s life (while stealing money from a drug den), it’s self-defence. When he looks like he may be forced to put innocent people in harm’s way, he backs away. When he’s asked to sacrifice something major, he refuses. The film wants to be the sort of film where we see the lead character change inexorably as he becomes harder and more ruthless to achieve his mission. But it worries about losing our sympathy, so constantly gives the audience and the character get-out clauses to excuse his behaviour.

Not that Crowe gives a bad performance – he’s actually rather convincing as a humble, slightly timid man way out of his depth at the start – but the film fails completely to show these events really changing the man. It believes that it’s turning him into a darker, more ruthless person, but it isn’t. At heart, this film isn’t really a character-study at all but a dark caper movie. Obstacles are constantly thrown in the path of our hero, many of which bamboozle him: but then when we hit the prison break itself at last, suddenly he’s pulling carefully planned rabbits and double bluffs out of his hat like Danny Ocean. It’s a film that wants to have its cake and eat it: to show a hero bewildered by his task, in danger from this ruthless world he finds himself in – but also to have him become a sort of long-game con artist thinking three moves ahead of the police.

It just doesn’t quite tie up. It’s the film adapting to whatever it feels the requirements and desires of the audience might be at a particular moment rather than something that develops naturally. Enjoyable as it is to see these sort of games play out, you can’t help but feel a little bit cheated – there has been no indication before this that the character has this level of ingenuity in him.

He doesn’t even really need to pay a price beyond that which he had accepted from the start: at points major sacrifices are dangled before him but he never needs to make any of them. He never has to really bend his personal morality significantly. It’s the cleanest conversion to criminality that you are likely to see.

The film cracks along at a decent pace – even if it is a little too long – and shows its various twists and reveals fairly well. Elizabeth Banks is pretty good as Laura, even though she hardly seems the most sympathetic character from the start (the audience has to do a bit of work for why Crowe’s character seems so devoted to her). Most of the rest of the cast are basically slightly larger cameos but no one disgraces themselves.

The main problem with the film is its lack of depth and ambition. Mentioning Don Quixote several times in the narrative doesn’t magically grant a film depth and automatically create intelligent contrasts with the novel. Instead it just sounds like straining for depth rather than actually having it.

Jurassic World (2015)

Chris Pratt rides into action with a pack of velociraptors – it could only be Jurassic World

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Vincent D’Onofrio (Vic Hoskins), Ty Simpkins (Gray Mitchell), Nick Robinson (Zach Mitchell). Omar Sy (Barry), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Irrfan Khan (Simon Masrani), Jake Johnson (Lowery Cruthers), Lauren Lapkus (Vivian), Katie McGrath (Zara), Judy Greer (Karen Mitchell), Andy Buckley (Scott Mitchell)

When I was younger, the most exciting film ever was Jurassic Park. Imagine the thrill of a 12-year-old who loved dinosaurs, seeing these mighty beasts on the big screen. I collected all the stickers, and read the books (not the same as the movie – boo) and everything. In this (but nothing else) I seem to be quite similar to Chris Pratt, who described Jurassic Park as “his Star Wars”. So it’s nice to think I have a kindred spirit in this hugely entertaining, exciting and fun spin-off.

Set in the modern day, the old site of Jurassic Park has been turned into a hugely successful theme park, entertaining hundreds of thousands of guests a year. Two brothers, Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) visit the park, where their aunt Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the operations manager. The park has plans to launch its new attraction – a genetically engineered super dinosaur called Indominus Rex. Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a former Navy Seal who has been working on training the park’s velociraptors to obey commands, is called in to consult on the animal – only for it to escape and to begin to unleash bloody havoc on the island.

The sheer joy of Jurassic World is its familiarity and its freshness. The escape of the Indominus – and the rampage of chaos that follows – is of course completely expected, but the film tells all this with enough wit and wry tongue-in-cheekness that it completely works. It’s a film that wants to entertain and to give you a fun night out in the cinema, but is also happy to present its action and thrills with an honest, old-fashioned joy. It’s even willing to show a bit of restraint – the opening 20-30 minutes of the film largely set out what an amazing place to visit Jurassic World would be.

That’s the trick to the film – it reintroduces that sense of wonder. The film manages to feel very Spielbergian – the slow-build, the clash between the big corporations and the individualist who knows best, the kids as POV characters, the soaring visuals and delight in seeing these marvellous things brought to life – it’s all there. Trevorrow even thows in moments of genuine sadness (helped by the Williamesque score that riffs on the original theme) as the characters look out on a field of slaughtered dinosaurs from the Indominus. The film sets out to remind you why millions of people loved the first film, by letting the film-makers’ own love of that film shine through.

It’s also got quite a neat meta-twist on blockbuster films. The first 20 minutes has several conversations from the park’s suits about how just creating dinosaurs “isn’t exciting enough anymore” – the Indominus being created to make a dinosaur bigger, better, fiercer than ever before. Could this be any more blatant a comment on the arms race of blockbuster films? It’s also a neat continuation of ideas from the very first film: they were so pleased about being able to make something, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

But all this meta commentary (the park itself is an explosion of product placement, including actual Jurassic Park merchandise) doesn’t get in the way of a darn good yarn. And turning the Indominus into a deluxe killing machine – it’s so twisted by years in solitude it basically kills everything it sees – makes it the best villain the series may have had. Of course not only the Indominus chalks up kills – plenty of other dinos get a look in, and one character in particular gets a death scene so completely over-the-top you can’t help but laugh a little (if rather guiltily).

So you can see why rent-a-baddie Vic Hoskins from corporateville wants Owen Grady to send in his velociraptors to take it out. The series’ longstanding terror figures are reimagined here as hazy allies – and seeing Chris Pratt (respectfully) give them commands and pet them immediately establishes his cool credentials. Grady takes on the role of the man humble before nature – he stresses he doesn’t control the raptors, it’s a relationship of mutual respect – as well as being the sort of kick-ass alpha male that Harrison Ford would have played in his prime.

Pratt is pretty damn good in the film – the perfect guy to root for – and the velociraptor action is undeniably cool. Bryce Dallas Howard has a rather thankless part as his uptight love interest (and yes she wears those shoes for the whole film) but she does play the part with a certain wit. Simpkins and Robinson are very good as kids you end up rooting for rather than hating. Most of the rest of the cast fit neatly into deserving dino-fodder or otherwise (and by-and-large meet the expected fates), but Wong is good as a sinister Dr Wu, and Johnson and Lapkus give some good comic relief (including one laugh out loud moment) as technicians.

Jurassic World is such great fun from start to finish I can more or less overlook its flaws. Sure its dialogue is sometimes clunky. Sure logic often goes out of the window. Sure Iffran Khan’s character fluctuates so wildly (one minute he’s a “let’s just have fun” guy the next he’s a “bottom dollar is God” CEO) that you can tell it was probably changed in reshoots after feedback. D’Onofrio’s villain is so straight forward you’ve seen him dozens of times. The film is, at heart, an episodic series of clashes between Indominusand a range of adversaries.

But it doesn’t matter because it is a film that understands – and can speak – the language of movie magic. That can mix thrills with awe. That knows the key to your heart is not offering you bigger bangs, but in working hard to give you characters you care about. It’s a film made by people who loved the first movie but – and this is so rare – also understood what made the first film so good. And who can resist cheering the final few moments as a half-team of dinosaurs and humans take on the Indominus for final showdown? It’s a perfect Spielbergian rollercoaster ride and I’ve seen it dozens of times and I love it. It’s one of my ultimate guilty pleasures.