Teacher on a path to self-destruction

Brendan Fraser plays the reclusive Charlie in The Whale. (Photo courtesy of A24)

By Richard Ades

When Charlie leads an online English class with his own image blacked out, he tells his students it’s because his camera doesn’t work. But we intuitively know that’s a lie.

The teacher (Brendan Fraser), whose obesity confines him to his house and usually his couch, is ashamed of who he’s become. As the story unfolds, we learn that his shame is based on more than simply his 600-pound body.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) from the script Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his own stage play, The Whale is a maddening but sometimes compelling portrait of a man who refuses to slow his descent into death. His only friend, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau), pleads with him to go to the hospital to head off imminent heart failure, but Charlie refuses. His excuse is that he has no insurance and would only go into debt.

Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and only friend (Photo courtesy of A24)

The truth is that Charlie doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. All he really cares about is reconnecting with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), from whom he’s been estranged ever since his wife divorced him due to a gay affair. Yet when he somehow persuades the teenager to pay a visit, she turns out to be so angry at him—and, it seems, at the world in general—that he becomes convinced her life has been ruined by his absence. It’s one more reason to devalue his own existence.

Yet another reason comes to light thanks to an unexpected visit from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for a religious cult that believes the “end times” are imminent. Charlie knows all about the cult, as it was implicated in a tragedy for which he blames himself and that sent his life into its downward spiral.

Sadie Sink as Charlie’s angry daughter, Ellie (Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise)

It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive character than Charlie, which is one reason the film has garnered nearly as many critical detractors as admirers. On the other hand, Fraser has won praise for finding the humanity in the gentle and perversely optimistic Charlie and will likely be considered for an Oscar. Also worthy of notice are the supporting performances of Chau and Sink as Charlie’s friend and daughter, respectively.

Besides the fine acting, The Whale distinguishes itself by finding a slender reason for optimism amid all the gloom. The result is that those who stay until the end will likely be moved more than they ever expected to be.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Whale (rated R) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

Are Puss’s days of glory behind him?

Puss in Boots (right, voiced by Antonio Banderas) seeks to recover his squandered nine lives with help from Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak, left) and Perro (Harvey Guillen).

By Richard Ades

Shrek’s favorite feline swashbuckler comes face to face with his own mortality in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

It all starts when Puss (Antonio Banderas) realizes he’s carelessly, if heroically, used up eight of his nine lives. The Grim Reaper-like Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura) then shows up and threatens to finish him off for good, forcing him to play it safe for the very first time. Abandoning his trademark cape, boots and sword, he hides out in the home of crazy cat lady Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who unwittingly steals his last bit of self-respect by dubbing him “Pickles.”

The poor feline seems destined to spend the rest of his remaining life in this miserable place, but fate intervenes when the home is invaded by Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her adopted family of bears. Puss learns they’re in search of a magical star that can grant any wish, and he immediately decides to make that his quest as well. After all, he’s desperate to find a way to get his first eight lives back so he can return to his heroic ways.

Directed by Joel Crawford from a script by Paul Fisher, Tommy Swerdlow and Tom Wheeler, the animated flick brings back Puss’s one-time girlfriend, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak). Like other Shrek films and spinoffs, it also incorporates characters from classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though not always as we remember them. The chief villain, for example, is the former “Little” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who’s now grown into an oversized menace.

Accompanying Horner is Ethical Bug (Kevin McCann), an insect who bears some resemblance to Jiminy Cricket and sounds exactly (and hilariously) like the late Jimmy Stewart. Bug tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to serve as Horner’s conscience.

But the flick’s most effective lessons are imparted by its most adorable character: Perro (Harvey Guillen), a down-and-out Chihuahua whom Puss finds trying to pass himself off as just another cat in Mama Luna’s overpopulated home. Not that the humble Perro ever tries to lecture others. Instead, he teaches by example, living his life with gratitude for every pleasure and friend it sends his way.

With glorious animation and a first-rate cast voicing not only the funniest characters but the scariest ones, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish may be too intense for the youngest children. But for older kids, as well as us really old kids, it’s an amusing and warm-hearted romp with an inspirational message or two thrown in for good measure.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (rated PG) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

‘Avatar’ sequel is beautiful but plodding

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, left) and Jake (Sam Washington) confer during a fiery moment in Avatar: The Way of Water. (Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

By Richard Ades

If you plan to see Avatar: The Way of Water, make sure you’re prepared.

Most importantly, visit the restroom before it starts. That’s always a good idea for a movie that runs three hours and 12 minutes, but especially for one that has a whole lot of, you know, water in it.

Almost as important: Refresh your memory about the original Avatar, which opened in 2009. Director James Cameron obviously remembers it well, since he’s been working on this and future sequels for the past 13 years, so he assumes we all do. That’s why he jumps right into the action without explaining who all these people and avatars are, or even what an avatar is.

In brief: An avatar is a genetically engineered body that resembles the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall inhabitants of the world Pandora, but is remotely controlled by a human whose own body is in stasis. The new film’s main protagonist is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who turned into an avatar in the first outing and later became chief of the local Na’vi clan while starting a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the previous clan chief.

As Jake’s narration explains in the film’s early moments, the Na’vi have led a peaceful existence since repelling human invaders years earlier. However, that peace abruptly ends with the appearance of a new invasion force led by another holdover from the original Avatar, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Since Quaritch was killed during the first incursion, he and his soldiers return thanks to a new type of avatar called a “recombinant,” which is embedded with the memory of a specific human.

The immediate result of the attack is fire and destruction that are keenly seen, heard and even felt by us viewers thanks to 3-D images shot at 48 frames per second (twice the normal rate) and accompanied by sound technology that makes our very seats shake beneath us. If you were looking for a reason to return to the multiplex, this “you are there” experience is it.

A typically awe-inspiring scene from Avatar: The Way of Water

As an innovator and master of cutting-edge technology, Cameron is simply without equal. He uses motion-capture wizardry to not only create an exotic world that is beautiful and fully realized, but to place the viewer right in the middle of it.

Once there, unfortunately, the viewer soon realizes that Cameron is not without equal as a storyteller. He and his four co-scripters set up a bare-bones plot with a predictable progression: Jake becomes a Na’vi resistance leader, then is forced to flee with his family after Quaritch captures Spider (Jack Champion), a human teenager who knows all the rebellion’s secrets. The family seeks refuge among a remote ocean-going clan and hopes Quaritch won’t find them there.

But, of course, it’s only a matter of time before he will. Since there are more than three hours of that time to fill, the flick pads it out with a series of digressions that often come off as mere excuses to show off its impressive imagery while underlining its pro-environment and anti-war messages. Ironically, it all leads to a finale so destructive and drawn out that you eventually start wondering, “Isn’t everyone dead by now?”

Through it all, the movie is an odd combination of images that are gloriously unique and plot points that seem derivative of previous works of cinema, TV and even video gaming. Many have seen similarities to 1990’s Dances With Wolves, while I also saw reflections of Moby Dick, Platoon, Stranger Things and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. By the end, Cameron is even borrowing from his own 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.

At the very end, the movie reveals that it’s only paving the way for more episodes—not surprisingly, since the second sequel was shot concurrently with the first. So go see Avatar: The Way of Water if you can’t resist the chance to bask in its revolutionary technology and imagery. Just be aware that Cameron is in this for the long haul, and he expects you to be as well.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) opens Dec. 16 in cinemas nationwide.

Spielberg directs his own origin story

A young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is introduced to cinema by his parents, Bert and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). (Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

If you ever wondered how Steven Spielberg became a cinematic wizard, your curiosity should be partially satisfied by his new semiautobiographical film, The Fabelmans.

Assuming the tale is to be believed, Spielberg owes his fascination with movies to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 blockbuster, The Greatest Show on Earth. His fictitious stand-in, a boy named Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), sees the flick only after being dragged to the theater by his parents. Even so, he finds himself transfixed by the experience.

Sammy seems especially awed by the movie’s giant train crash—so much so that he asks for a model train set for Hannukah just so he can engineer a miniature crash of his own. The resulting damage to his expensive toy angers his father, Burt (Paul Dano).

On the other hand, his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), theorizes that Sammy had to recreate the chaos in order to feel it was under his control. Secretly, she urges him to borrow his father’s movie camera so that he can capture the crash on film and watch it over and over.

This sets up a pattern that continues throughout: Burt, a practical-minded computer scientist, doesn’t understand Sammy or his growing devotion to moviemaking, which he dismisses as a mere “hobby.” But Mitzi, a gifted pianist, has an innate appreciation for her artistically minded son.

Unfortunately, the incident also sets up the pattern of characters speaking in baldly descriptive and psychologically tinged terms. Even though Tony Kushner co-wrote the script with Spielberg, it lacks the finesse he brought to earlier Spielberg works such as Lincoln and last year’s West Side Story remake.

High school classmate Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) tries to convert Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) to Christianity.

Partially making up for the script’s heavy-handedness are committed performances by all involved, including Dano and Williams as the parents, Francis-DeFord as young Sammy, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenage Sammy in later scenes, and Seth Rogen as Paul’s best friend and co-worker. And the literary clunkiness all but disappears when Judd Hirsch breezes in for a cameo as a film aficionado who fully understands Sammy’s compulsion to make movies. Hirsch’s brief appearance is so memorable that Oscar buzz is inevitable.  

Sammy’s devotion to moviemaking grows amid a series of challenges, such as the antisemitism he faces after his father moves the family to a new home in northern California. This has painful consequences, but also amusing ones when an amorous classmate (Chloe East) takes it on herself to convert him to Christianity.

More devastating is the growing tension between his parents, leading to a painful discovery Sammy makes with the help of his beloved “hobby.” The experience nearly causes him to put his movie gear away for good.

But, of course, we know he won’t, because his real-life alter ego grew up to be one of the world’s most successful directors. For those who have long admired Spielberg’s work, The Fabelmans offers an interesting, if imperfect, glimpse at the forces that helped to shape him.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Fabelmans (PG-13) is available in theaters nationwide.