The Whale (Movie) written by Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink,
Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan.
Who knew that Brendan Fraser was capable of such a sensitive, touching performance? Until now, I’d thought of him as
a good-looking goof, not much more than a Ken doll with a bit of a knack for humour. But here he portrays a man who’s
facing very difficult circumstances with courage, hope, optimism and love. The character knows that some people see him as
disgusting (even some movie viewers may find his appearance off-putting). You can see in his face that he’s gone through
a lot of suffering even though he’s trying not to show it. In spite of his disastrous situation, he’s trying to
show kindness and good cheer.
As you probably know by now, Brendan Fraser’s character in this movie, Charlie, is an excessively obese man (a lot of
ingenuity on the part of the prosthetics department there), so obese that he can hardly move around his home without huge
effort. He earns his living by teaching college writing classes online – with his camera carefully turned off. He has
congestive heart failure and it appears that he’s close to dying.
Among the other people who feature in this one week in his life, there’s Liz (Hong Chau), a friend who is a nurse, In
her time off work, she comes to see if she can help him. She’s trying desperately to get him to go to hospital but he
claims he can’t afford it. Then there’s Ellie (Sadie Sink) , his seventeen-year-old daughter, who shows up to
have a reckoning with him. When she was eight years old, he abandoned her and her mother to live with a man partner. Thomas
(Ty Simpkins), a fresh-faced young evangelist, turns up at the door with his gospel message. In spite of Charlie’s resistance,
Thomas keeping coming back. And there’s Mary (Samantha Morton), Charlie’s ex-wife, who decides after all these
years, to see what’s happening with him.
You can clearly see the movie's origins as a stage play. There’s just one set: Charlie’s living room. Each character
arrives with a set of problems to be worked through. The dialogue is crafted and concise. Every line makes a point. In this
respect, a comparison to Shakespeare’s writing would not be amiss. The language may not be quite as lofty here but the
writer’s ability to capture an audience’s attention is keen. Some situations may be a bit contrived, though. For
instance Liz, the nurse, and her deceased brother, had a regrettable connection with the church that the young evangelist
is promoting. That seems a bit too coincidental but it makes for stirring drama.
Many ideas are thrown around . The evangelist’s involvement raises questions about God, religion, the bible, and whether
or not the world coming to an end. One theme that comes in for a lot of emphasis – this in Charlie’s advice to
his students – is the importance of writing what you really feel rather than bullshit. But I don’t think the point
is followed through sufficiently. Can’t you be writing what you truly feel but the writing can still be bullshit? Charlie
makes a big deal about an essay that somebody wrote on Moby Dick. We don’t know where the essay comes from but he keeps
asking people to read from it. To me, what we hear of it isn’t all that impressive.
In terms of the conflicts, I wasn’t sure if it ever came clear whether it was Charlie’s fault for not keeping
in touch with Ellie or whether it was because her mother wouldn’t let him. But never mind, all these issues flying around
make for engaging theatre. It’s one of those pieces that’s a bit stagey in that it’s all about big things.
There’s hardly any ordinary, everyday element in it. Except, maybe, for the guy (Sathya Sridharan) who calls out a greeting
when he delivers Charlie’s pizza every night.
One over-the-top aspect of the movie that’s hard to come to terms with is the character of Ellie, Charlie’s daughter.
Being angry, vituperative, wily and manipulative, she’s almost impossible to understand or sympathize with, Even her
mother deplores what has become of Ellie. Charlie keeps saying that she’s amazing. On what grounds, though? Is it just
that he’s so nice? There’s nothing wrong with Sadie Sink’s acting but it’s hard to imagine an actor
who could make this character more recognizable to an audience. Ms. Sink is beautiful, though. Maybe that’s to offset
The mother, appearing to be an alcoholic, veers from one emotional extreme to another. I’m not sure exactly why she
shows up or what she feels about Charlie, but she has one of the best scenes in the movie. There’s a hardness to her
that clearly shows how difficult is for her to show a bit of gentleness and compassion. In the process, she says some unforgettable
things you’ve never heard in a movie or on stage.
As for the other two characters, the boy’s sweetness and his invincible innocence are what first come across, but we
eventually learn he has a back story that makes him more interesting. (Here again the plotting seems a little hokey.) The
nurse friend –loyal, steadfast, dedicated – acts as a kind of anchor to all the turbulence, although she, too,
has her angry outbursts.
There’s so much going on that the piece threatens to fly off track at times, but Charlie’s ingenuous kindness
and his quiet dignity hold it together.
The Fabelmans (Movie) written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Gabriel LaBelle,
Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch,
The first part of this movie didn’t grab me much. So this kid is interested in making movies? So he likes to film crashes
of his toy trains? So what?
That’s the problem with a movie or a play that’s essentially autobiographical. In this one, the celebrated director,
Stephen Spielberg, tells us about how he got his start in movies. It’s interesting if you’re interested in him,
in his art, and you want to know about its origins, but it’s not what I call theatre or drama. Those art forms, it seems
to me, need to be about the conflicts among human interactions, how people deal with them, how they resolve them or don’t.
So this movie became more engaging for me when we started to find out about the problems with the hopeful movie-maker’s
parents, about the trouble that was simmering under the surface with them, about how it was going to come out, how they were
going to deal with it and how it was going to have an impact on their son. All of this made great movie fare, in my opinion.
But I did have a problem with Michelle Williams as the boy’s mother. Ms. Williams’ beauty is so striking that
she never seemed like an ordinary mother, rather than a movie star. She always seemed a bit too dazzling, too glamorous to
fit into the domestic scenario. Mind you, her character in the movie has aspirations of becoming a famed concert pianist,
and, in fact, she has already achieved some success on that career trajectory. But, for me, her artistic ambition never seemed
to fit into the story. It didn’t seem to have repercussions of much consequence. Maybe this is another case where a
writer feels a need to include autobiographical details whether or not they form an integral part of the drama.
For the role of the father, if you want a nice middle-aged man who hangs around as a bland, inoffensive, mild-mannered presence,
then you can’t do better than hire Paul Dano who started off in movies as a nice, bland, inoffensive, mild-mannered
teen. Which is not to under-estimate his contribution here. He offers the character with admirable dignity and reserve.
Seth Rogen deserves a special Oscar for not being Seth Rogen. Even if you know he’s in the movie, it takes a while before
you can convince yourself that this kindly, polite, decent man is Seth Rogen. None of the self-deprecating joking, none of
the chuckling at his own humour, none of the goofing off, none of the being a jerk. In one of his earlier movies, This Is
the End, one of the best lines in the movie is when one of his buddies begs him to stop doing his Seth Rogen thing –
the snuffling laugh and all that. Well, here he has finally stopped it, to marvellous effect.
Although the autobiographical stuff about the young man’s development as a film-maker didn’t interest me so much,
one scene that touched on that was fascinating. The young man (Gabriel LaBelle), as a high school student, has a private encounter
with a Type A student who’s been bullying him. Some amazing things are said, the dialogue takes a turn that you’d
never expect, and the bully reveals a vulnerable, emotional side to himself. Then he insists that this breakdown remain a
big secret between the two of them. Our young Spielberg alter ego, replies: “Yes, of course. Unless I make a movie about
it. But I never will.”
Nice irony there!
Everything Everywhere All at Once (Movie) written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert; starring Michelle Yeoh,
Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stephanie Hsu, James Hong and Tallie Medel.
I approached this movie knowing almost nothing about it, except that some people loathed it and others (the Academy Awards
voters for instance) loved it. So what you’re getting here is one person’s attempt to come to grips with a bewildering
movie without having had any preparatory explanation.
We start off conventionally enough, even if the goings on are pretty frenetic. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and Evelyn (Michelle
Yeoh), a Chinese American couple, live over the laundromat that they own. Things are going wrong with the machines; customers
are complaining. Meanwhile, Evelyn and Waymond are trying to plan a birthday party for Evelyn’s father (James Hong),
a demanding elder. Their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), wants to bring her girlfriend (Tallie Medel) to the party but Evelyn
isn’t sure how the cranky grandfather will take to that. Another major complication in their lives right now is that
they’re in trouble with the IRS. An agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) has summoned them to her office regarding questionable
business expenses that they’ve claimed, e.g. a karaoke system. Turns out that Evelyn has a bit of trouble separating
her hobbies from her business. Oh, by the way, one other thing: according to some papers Evelyn sees, it looks like Waymond
wants a divorce.
So far nothing incomprehensible. But then Waymond introduces a bit of new-fangled technology involving an earpiece and a little
screen like the one on a smart phone. You activate this device and it opens a portal to another universe that’s called
the Alphaverse. Almost anything can happen in this Alphaverse. Alternate paths and different possibilities appear. People
experience scenarios from their earlier lives. At times, people aren’t sure who they are; there seem to be different
identities inside them. They wonder about whether or not they should have made the choices they made. Would it have been better
if Waymond and Evelyn had never married?
All this is conveyed in a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic fast-paced blur: brilliant colours; bizarre costumes; elaborate, eye-popping
sets. Many scenes consist of nothing but violence and mayhem. Bodies hurtle through the air like leaves in a windstorm. Kung
fu is mentioned; it looks to me like jujitsu is in play too. At times we’re in an elegant ballroom where Evelyn’s
gussied up like a movie star. We even find ourselves, along with the other characters, in a movie theatre, watching the end
of a movie about them. There are times when peoples’ fingers turn into hot dogs. A chef gets help from a raccoon perched
on his head. The grandpa says it’s time for a family discussion and, to launch it, he brandishes a gun. Joy, Evelyn
and Waymond’s daughter, turns into a gaudy malevolent force who threatens everybody’s well being in a way that
has something to do with a giant bagel.
Probably all of this would be appreciated much more by people who are more familiar with sci-fi and fantasy than I am. The
movie likely includes a lot of satirical references to tropes found in those genres. But there are a few echoes of a culture
that I’m more familiar with. Someone sings a few phrases of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. Another person’s
toes on a piano keyboard play a few bars of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
People say things like: “The universe is so much bigger than you realize.” And “When nothing matters, the
guilt that you feel for not making anything of your life goes away.” And: “Everything is just a random arrangement
of particles.” But “This feels like it’s all my fault" is offset by “Regret is a tiny box invented
by people who are afraid.” Here’s one that would certainly be echoed by many viewers: “We’re just
going around in circles.”
All this falderol was quite a test of patience for somebody who prefers more realistic fare. But I hung in. Partly because
I liked the two main characters. Evelyn seemed like a good, warm person, trying her best to maintain some kind of sanity in
the midst of all the shenanigans. She says “I’m not good at anything,” but she clearly is good at being
human. Waymond tells us that someone once said he was too sweet; there’s a touch of naivete about him. I cared about
these two and wanted to see how they got through the maelstrom. Also, there was a hint of humour running through it all. You
were never quite sure whether you were supposed to be taking it all seriously. Evelyn and Waymond did, no question about that.
In doing so, maybe they were demonstrating the best approach to comedy: the actors have to take it seriously.
My favourite scene – unquestionably – was an oasis of tranquility in the midst of the chaos. Evelyn and Joy have
become two boulders perched on the top of an arid canyon in a universe that has no life. (Mars, maybe?) Their dialogue, appearing
in text on the screen, treats us to a bit of cosmology, with the observation: “We’re all small and stupid.”
If there were Oscars for bit parts, those two boulders would be major contenders in my view.
Eventually, I came to see the whole thing as a kind of nightmare in which the characters’ worst fears were being acted
out. Sort of a thought experiment along the lines of: how bad could things actually get??? And: could we survive it all???
I was reminded of W.H. Auden’s line: “a crack in the teacup opens a lane to the land of the dead.” Indeed,
there are tiny fissures in life that give us hints of quite other realities. Early on, Waymond says there were tiny portents
that something like this could happen: didn’t the coffee taste wrong? Somebody sums up all the turmoil in the statement:
“The only thing I do know is that we have to be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.”
And one of the most touching moments in the movie is a simple shot of two people from opposite sides of the conflict now holding
What you’ve got here, then, is a movie that reiterates one of the most venerable, most reliable dictums of all literature.
So the movie is worth all the fuss because it hands on such a well-known message in such an original, unconventional way.
Perhaps the only difference between my guarded appreciation of the movie and the rampant enthusiasm of those who really love
it is that they enjoy the fireworks, the battles, the catastrophes more than I do.