The Whale (2022)
Much has been written about Brendan Fraser’s comeback role and the mountain of prosthetics he was buried under to portray a self-loathing 600-pound man in director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The concern was that the movie would stigmatize overweight people as disgusting and treat fatness like a moral indictment, condemning their lifestyles as slovenly and doomed to misery. I watched the film ready to cringe at a moment’s notice with the hyped portrayal that earned such livid and divisive reactions. I found The Whale to be deeply empathetic but I’m uncertain about whether or not it was fully compassionate, and it’s that artistic distinction that I’m trying to square as I analyze Aronofsky’s melodramatic yet flawed character study.
Charlie (Fraser) is a morbidly obese English teacher who keeps his camera off during his online classes. The closest relationships he has is with his nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), who checks on him regularly with alarm and concern, as she’s also the sister of Charlie’s deceased partner. The movie chronicles one eventful week in Charlie’s life as he tries to make the most of his dwindling time and reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
For me, Charlie is less a clinical case of what being morbidly obese can do to a person and he’s more a case study of self-destruction. In 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage won an Oscar playing a man determined to drink himself to death over the course of one eventful weekend in Vegas, and I saw more parallels with his character and Charlie, a man who turned to eating as his source of grief that then became his vehicle for self-destruction. The movie is not casting judgment that all fat people, even those approaching the size of Charlie, are destined for eternal loneliness or crying out for help. However, this specific man is using his increasing weight as a form of suicide. This facet makes Charlie interesting but also increasingly confounding as well. He seems genuinely remorseful about the time he’s missed from his now-teen daughter’s life. He’s saved up his life’s money and plans to give it to her, but I kept wondering why, exactly, he had to die for this? He won’t take care of himself because any medical cost could take away from the handsome sum he plans to leave, in full, to Ellie. He apologizes for being absent but seems unable to see an alternative where he can be present. After so many years apart, maybe she would actually prefer having her dad back in her life? Charlie stubbornly holds to an all-or-nothing ideal, like some kind of fumbling romantic gesture, but he doesn’t have to die for his daughter to live her best life. She doesn’t even get a say. It’s his inability to see through this false choice he’s determined is the best outcome that makes the character frustrating. He only views his death, and I’m sure the insurance to go with it, as his biggest reward that he can offer his estranged daughter, and that makes it even more frustrating at the very end, where he’s trying to prove something to her but is also likely traumatizing her for life. That love he proclaims so readily for his daughter seems questionable when he prefers a misguidedly noble demise to getting to know her and allowing her to choose for herself. The character seems so frustratingly myopic about his own life and its value only being its end.
Complicating this matter is the reality that Ellie is, quite clearly, a horrible person. She’s angry at the world and trained her ire on her absentee father, who she believes left her and her mom to pursue an illicit affair with one of his male students (the reality is a bit more complicated). She is well and truly awful. Ellie insults her father repeatedly. She yells that she wants him to die and that she would be better off. She agrees to spend time with him for a hefty price. She even takes pictures of him and posts them online for social media derision. She’s detestable, and yet the screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter (Baskets), adapted from his play, wants me to yearn for a hopeful father/daughter reconciliation. There isn’t a hidden pool of depth with this character, a brilliance that we know just needs to be nurtured and that Ellie can tap back into. She’s just the unrepentant worst. I think The Whale errs by placing so much of its dramatic foundation on this pairing. It made me question why this man is literally killing himself for this bratty teen. The late reveal for Charlie’s essay that he often quotes like a religious mantra is obvious and still doesn’t open up Ellie as a character. There’s a brief tear-stricken moment at the end that I guess is meant to represent Ellie with her guard down, but I didn’t buy it, and I found her to be a thinly written archetype that is unwinnable. She’s more of a plot device to motivate a redemption arc. Maybe the point is she’s undeserving of her father’s graceful overtures but I guess that’s parenting, folks.
Charlie says he’s always been a bigger guy but his weight got away from him after the loss of his partner, and it’s this unfathomable grief that caused Charlie to go on feeding binges. He sought comfort in the immediate appeal of food, and plenty of people can relate to stress eating or eating their feelings when times are turbulent. I don’t think the movie is setting Charlie up as a cautionary tale to avoid. Charlie’s grief is tied to religious intolerance and its own trauma. He opened himself to another person and then had his new sliver of happiness dashed away directly related to a religious intolerant mindset that his partner was unable to break free from. He’s a victim who saw no way out including a heavenly reward supposedly denied to him. It’s not this dead man’s fault that he was raised in a diseased environment that viewed his own identity as an illness, and it’s not worth blaming this man for being unable to break free from this mentality. It’s the intolerance that has contributed to Charlie’s weight gain and his fatalistic sense of self. Heartbroken, Charlie has retreated from the world, and it’s the guise of spiritual salvation that proves alluring to the determined young missionary, Thomas (Ty Simpkins, Jurassic World). He sees the flesh as the prison for the soul, and he tries to sell Charlie on a salvation that asserts itself as liberation from his body, which the young man views with horror. Charlie doesn’t want the spiritual guidance, especially from the same community that poisoned the mind of his late partner. Like the Ellie character, I don’t think we gain much with this storyline and the amount of time that the screenplay gives Thomas. I guess we’re meant to see him as another wayward soul trying to live authentically, but he’s another underwritten archetype given misplaced emphasis.
The best reason to sit through The Whale are the performances from Fraser and Chau. We’ve never seen Fraser in a movie quite like this, a man best known for broad slapstick comedies (George of the Jungle, Furry Vengeance) or dashing action-adventure movies (The Mummy films), and he’s great. His performance is less mannered than you would assume for an actor undergoing such a physical transformation. In fact, his vocal range makes Charlie often sound anesthetized, like he’s already given up moving out of a comfortable yet limited range of emotional output. It’s kind of heartbreaking but he’s also got a gentle heart that chooses to see the best in people, even when they might not be there. Fraser is compelling in every moment and disappears into the role of Charlie. His best scene partner is Chau (The Menu), and the movie is at its best when they’re sharing the screen. Liz is the closest friend Charlie has, and they have a shared special kind of pain relating to the loss of Liz’s brother. She’s also enabling his self-destructive impulses and is devastated that Charlie is accepting a doomed fate rather than letting her take him to a costly hospital. Chau is heartbreaking as you feel her fear and guilt, afraid of losing another person so dear to her but also severing another connection to her brother.
The Whale is an experience that makes me wonder about its best artistic intentions. Even the title of the movie feels like a glancing blow; what other analogy are you supposed to make other than Charlie as our very own Moby Dick? The critical essay he keeps reciting takes a sympathetic view of the marine animal and posits the fruitless efforts of those who wish to cruelly hunt it down and how this will not provide personal fulfillment (it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who represents who in this dramatic dynamic). It’s also the least distinguishable Aronofsky film of his provocative career, confined to a single location and devoid of the director’s usual vision and verve. It feels like a challenge in restraint for Aronofsky, almost like he’s approaching theater and just wanting to get transfixed by the dramatic surges of the actor’s interactions. I found the central character to be interesting but confounding, not that human beings are ever so clearly understandable in every facet of their being. I don’t think the supporting characters really added much, with the exception of Hong Chau, and I wish the daughter plot had been scrapped. But if you’re sitting down to watch The Whale, you’re doing so to experience Fraser’s career-best performance where he reveals layers to his acting that you never knew were possible. He can still lean into his innate generous spirit and charm to get you to root for Charlie to find some peace. For Fraser alone, The Whale is worth watching and might open some hearts.
Nate’s Grade: B-
No Sudden Move (2021)
A star-studded collaboration between director Steven Soderbergh (Logan Lucky) and screenwriter Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted Face the Music), No Sudden Move is a class in how to effectively use tension and confusion to a movie’s benefit. Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play a pair of low-level criminals struggling to make ends meet. They accept a quick job “babysitting” a family while the husband (David Harbour) retrieves a very valuable document that certain higher-ups are after. Very early on, you feel like something is wrong and something will quickly go wrong, and this feeling persists throughout the film’s two hours. Our two protagonists sense they’re being set up, take action, and from there the movie becomes them trying to cash out with this valuable document while constantly looking over their shoulders. There are many different parties that are willing to do whatever it takes to obtain this document. In all honesty, the screenplay by Solomon is a little too over-plotted. There are several betrayals and schemers and acrimonious relationships built upon past betrayals and mistakes that it can all be a little hard to follow at times. The dread I felt was palpable. You don’t expect these guys to get away with this, not against the forces they’re going against, and so it becomes a nerve-wracking game of assessing every moment and whether this is when disaster will strike. Soderbergh’s dashes of style don’t always jibe with the 1954 Detroit setting, like his penchant for fish-eyed lenses communicating the distortion of this murky world of shadow brokers. It feels like Soderbergh has to resort to some new gimmick to get himself excited about movie projects (at least is wasn’t filmed on an iPhone). The acting is strong throughout, though Cheadle can be hard to hear at times from his guttural, frog-in-throat speaking voice. The movie kept me guessing, with some surprise cameos, and it left me dreading what would happen next. A modest success for glamorous discomfort.
Nate’s Grade: B
Furry Vengeance (2010)
The title alone alerts you that this will not be a pleasant journey. It’s 92 abusive minutes of watching a doughy Brendan Fraser act like he is being tortured by a conspiracy of woodland wildlife. Fraser is a land developer who wants to raze a forest to make way for houses, and nature doesn’t take too kindly. Raccoons, squirrels, birds, bears, and even wild turkeys all take their turn tormenting Fraser. The slapstick is at Looney Tune levels of manic absurdity. Even worse is the ham-fisted environmental message that still manages to be cloying, preachy, and completely naive. This lame eco message may actually encourage people to chop down trees out of sheer spite. After an hour of animals trying to kill him, suddenly Fraser realizes that the forest is their home too. For their furry families. Everyone has the same facial expression of barely concealed embarrassment. Even Fraser deserves better than this family film purgatory he seems to be stuck in while he waits for a phone call confirming another dumb Mummy movie. Furry Vengeance has the rank odor of failure from every frame, and yet the movie hits a new low when the end credits come around. Just when you think you’ve been given your freedom back, the cast breaks out into an end credit rap with snippets of movie parodies from “Furry TV.” It makes no sense except to add one last moment to hold your head in shame.
Nate’s Grade: D
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior (2008)
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third film in the once popular Mummy franchise, is facing an uphill battle. It’s been a long seven years in between films and some, like myself, would argue that the franchise is already creatively exhausted. This stuff is the brainchild of writer/director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing), who decided he would rather make a movie based upon an action hero than rehash mummies (see you this summer, G.I. Joe: The Movie). In comes director Rob Cohen who has given the world such cinematic abominations like XXX, Stealth, and The Fast and the Furious. Surely this was the proper artist to re-energize a semi-dormant franchise. The results are about as unexceptional as you’d expect.
In 1947, Rich O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evie (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) are in retirement from adventure seeking. They live at a palatial estate. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) is in college except they do not know that Alex is really surveying ancient tombs in China. The lad has stumbled across the massive tomb of Han (Jet Li), China’s first united emperor. Han was a ruthless warlord that conquered all. He punished Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) for falling in love with one of his generals and not the mighty emperor. Zi Juan managed to cast a spell on the evil emperor that trapped him in metal. And he sat undisturbed in his tomb for 2,000 years until Alex came along. Eventually the spirit of Han is released and some Chinese military officials wish to serve their departed emperor. Han is seeking the location to Shangri-La to bathe in the pool of immortality, and then he will awaken his army and continue his quest for world domination. The Far Eastern exploits bring the O’Connell family unit together to save the world yet again.
The first film was a cheesy, campy tongue-in-cheek adventure that managed to be consistently entertaining. The second film retained the same fun and humorous atmosphere, though it subscribed to the “bigger is better” theory of sequels and ramped up all the action to a cartoonish degree. Seven years later, the third Mummy movie is a complete bore. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels like two movies sewn together; ancient Chinese warlords and treasure-hunting archeologists do not come across as a good fit. The terracotta warriors are a great source for an imaginative tale, but this is not it. So Emperor Han has mastered the elements of fire, water, earth, metal and wood (when did wood become an element? I don’t see that one on the periodic table) and the guy can also turn into giant monsters like a three-headed dragon. The writers of this Mummy entry have goofed by making the villain too powerful. Yeah he can be slain by a magic sword (there’s always something magic-y) but this is a foe that can control oceans, water vapor, clouds, rain and snowstorms, ice shards, and that’s just with one element. I must confess that I cannot fathom Han getting too much use from the wood element. On top of that, he can transform at will into ferocious creatures, so what is the point of turning back into a tiny human? Why would anyone fight hand-to-hand when you could fight as a 30-foot monster of your own design? The problem with making the villain too powerful is that when they do not take advantage of their clear advantage, then the villains just look stupid. “The Dragon Emperor” looks stupid for fighting as a 5′ 6″-sized man instead of a killer dragon. Which would you fight as? At least the Mummy from the other films had limitations.
Even worse than being incomprehensible and dumb, none of the action sequences are thrilling or exciting. The action sequences are fairly sub par, resorting to shootouts and the occasional car chase. At least a car chase through the streets of Shanghai during Chinese New Year takes advantage of the location, allowing Rick and Evie to use firecrackers like missiles. The martial arts work is poorly choreographed and poorly presented thanks to some butchered editing. This is one of the worst edited big-budget films of recent memory. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seems to be making it up as it goes. There are moments where characters will state where they need to travel to and then in the next second they’re preposterously there. Someone talks about the path to the hidden land of Shangri-La and then the next moment, hey, there they are. How did these places remain hidden for centuries? Very little makes sense in this movie. I’m not asking for complete believability in a film involving immortal bad guys and ancient spells, but at least let me able to follow along. I felt like I could tag along with the first two Mummy films and I had fun to a certain degree, but this time I felt like I was being dragged. I won’t even go into great depth about the appearance of yetis except to reveal that there is a moment where one yeti dropkicks a Chinese soldier over a gated wall and another yeti raises his arms straight in the air, signaling in football terms that it is indeed “good.”
Once again it all comes down to an all-out CGI battle between Han’s CGI army and the CGI zombie opponents buried under the Great Wall of China. The second Mummy movie ended in a similar fashion, and frankly I’ve become bored with the CGI armies clashing en masse unless I’m emotionally invested in the story. The effects work isn’t too fancy either. Most of the CGI creatures look flimsy and there’s nary a sense of wonder for a movie dealing with awesome supernatural forces.
The cleverest moment in the entire film involves the departure of Rachel Weisz. The Oscar-winning actress decided that she had had enough rumbles with the undead and bowed out of reprising her character of Evie. Smart move, lady. The film opens with Evie reading to an audience from her adventure novel based upon her encounters with a certain mummy. A woman asks her if the book’s female heroine is based upon the real-life Evie. She closes the book, smiles, and says in Bello’s first close-up that, “No. I can honestly say that she is a completely different person.” It’s all downhill from there for Bello, whose terrible British accent veers wildly to the point that she sounds like eight different kinds of Brits inhabiting one mouth.
The Mummy franchise is not where I go looking for parental drama. I understand that the 2001 Mummy sequel introduced Rick’s son, but why did this movie need to be set so far ahead in the future? The only reason this movie is set in 1947 is so that Alex can be like a twenty-something adventurer. The Mummy Returns was set in 1933 and Alex was eight years old, so by use of basic math he is now 22. There is no other prominent plot point, character revelation, or action set piece that relies on the date being 1947. Okay, so we’ve arbitrarily aged the kid, so surely the film will present some parental dilemma. Nope. The closest the movie gets to capitalize on Alex’s advanced age is pushing Rick to acknowledge his son’s accomplishments. The film’s idea of exploring family dynamics is a passing statement about making sure to express your love. Nothing is really gained by inserting the familial connection between Rick and Alex, who just as easily could have been a non-blood related character.
The inherent issue with an older Alex is that Fraser and his son look about the same age. Fraser has remarkably aged very little over the course of nine years since the first Mummy movie; sure there’s a few facial lines and a hardness that wasn’t there, but this man clearly looks like he is in his late 30s. Alex looks like he’s in his mid-twenties and the actor, Ford, is actually only 13 years younger than Fraser. It just doesn’t work at all. It looks like Rick and his younger kid brother, not his son. But lo, I think I have figured out the true reason behind position Alex as a younger, dashing version of Rick O’Connell, dispatcher of mummies. Fraser’s three-picture deal was fulfilled by this mediocre movie. If the producers want to have further mummy and non-mummy escapades, they have targeted Alex as their leading man of derring-do.
I like Fraser, I like him in these kinds of movies, but even he feels like he’s running out of gas with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The location switch from Egypt to China fails to give the franchise a new kick. The Chinese martial arts material bookends the movie and seems out of place, let alone poorly designed. Jet Li must have had a great time cashing his check because the kung-fu master appears for like 15 total minutes as himself. The lackluster action, questionable plotting, cardboard characters, and dearth of enjoyment make this a sequel a potential franchise killer. The tongue-in-cheek energy and cheesy fun of the other movies is completely absent. You can forgive stupid when it’s fun, but stupid and boring is a deadly combination for a huge effects-laden action movie. Hopefully The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will serve as proof that bad jokes, bad visuals, bad editing, bad plotting, and bad accents do not somehow go vanish because of lingering goodwill from previous films. This is one movie that should have stayed buried.
Nate’s Grade: C-
A searing look at race relations and a powerful human drama at that. This flick has some of the sharpest memories I’ve had from any movie all year, particularly the relationship between a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena) and his daughter and a special invisible cloak. Their first scene, where he talks her out of hiding under her bed, is one of the most beautifully written short scenes I have ever witnessed. A late scene involving the two of them knocked the wind out of me completely and is the most vivid moviegoing moment of all 2005 for me. Every character has at least one great moment, though time is not spaced equally amongst this large ensemble. Crash has the intriguing practice of introducing near every character spouting some kind of racist diatribe, and then the movie spend the rest of its running time opening you up to these characters and getting to like them. Writer/director Paul Haggis has such a natural ear for terse, realistic dialogue that can really define characters with such brevity. A fine movie, despite the overarching coincidences.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The Mummy Returns (2001)
Does this mean the following sequels will be called The Mummy Forever and The Mummy and Robin? Our tale takes place ten years after the first. Our archeological heroes in Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are now married and the proud parents of a blonde English boy (Freddie Boath) – who of course, gets into as much trouble as his parents do. Supposedly there’s this buried army of dog warriors from an Egyptian God. The trick is, you have to defeat their leader The Scorpion King to gain control over their ranks. So our good guys stumble upon setting things in motion accidentally, while our bad guys raise Imhotep (our mummy from the first one) with plans of him toppling The Insect Marvel.
The story of Mummy redux deals a lot with past lives and destinies. It seems miraculously everyone in our story is related to one another be it past or present (and we ain’t talking inbreeding). They fulfill their destinies – or whatever, mainly just fight with pointy things.
Many of the same characters return from the first one, almost like an ongoing serial. There’s the cowardly bumbling brother-in-law (John Hannah), the Arabic prince sworn to protect society form the evils of mummy-ness (Oded Fehr), and hell, even the damn mummy himself (Arnold Vosloo). We even get more of Vosloo’s dead girlfriend from the first picture. She has the honor of sharing a grotesque screen lip-lock with the decaying mummy. Talk about commitment.
Somehow pro wrestler The Rock (Is he in the phone book as “Rock, The”?) got into this film. His role is The Scorpion King, a cursed uber warrior of ancient Egypt. As you would expect from someone so elegantly named after a large, un-moving, mineral – The Rock’s acting is largely un-moving. He has one line in a different language, poorly delivered as well, then has five minutes of screen time battling people two feet smaller than him with the pearliest whites this side of the Nile. He shows up again later as a scorpion/human hybrid but is replaced with (say it with me class) CGI.
The acting is pure cornball, but to some degrees pleasantly so. We can’t have people taking themselves too seriously while being chased by little dead pygmy babies. Fraser seems to be leading the way for the next generation of action stars. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje appears in a small role as one of the big bad’s henchmen. After watching him for years on Oz it was a personal pleasure to see him on screen. Boath is the real surprise. If he were grating (like some lil’ Star Wars kid) I’d root for any undead creature to suck his nine year-old bones dry. He is fun to watch and acts like a kid, not a child actor acting like a kid.
The Mummy Returns will enchant you if you were enchanted by the first one. My stance on the mummy’s predecessor was that it was a tongue-in-cheek dose of cheese and adventure. It was nothing to write home about but it was a fun popcorn flick. However, The Mummy Returns throws the gauntlet down with the “bigger is better” rule of thumb almost tripling everything the first tried. It practically throws everything at you in its onslaught including a CGI kitchen sink. You’ll get computer everything. It’s almost like the producers are having a mummy wholesale – “everything must go!” As in reference to there is so much computer generated images in this film that it could be classified as the first living cartoon.
The action in The Mummy Returns is relentless. The pacing is fast and must be the bane to all those people who must squirm in their chair afraid they will miss something – you will. Most movies move through plot points, like from A to B. With The Mummy Returns, on the other hand, everything just bleeds together in a linear mess. It’s rather exhausting to watch.
The Mummy Returns continues to have its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Except with its onslaught it almost resembles a scene from Species with said tongue going in cheek then outside of brain cavity. If you’re hungry for an all-you-can-eat version of a movie, then The Mummy Returns might whet your appetite.
Nate’s Grade: C+
You must be logged in to post a comment.