Mini Movie Reviews: More Based-on-True-Events Fare

As I mentioned in a previous post, many of this year’s award contenders are about real people and based on real events. After reviewing Trumbo, Steve Jobs, and The Danish Girl, here are my thoughts on the next batch of supposedly true stories.


In the Heart of the Sea

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book-award winner of the same title, this recounts the ordeals of the ship Essex and her crew in 1820 after the ship was demolished by a sperm whale. The crew drifted for over 90 days in separate boats, fighting (unsuccessfully for some) hunger, thirst, and nature before being rescued. The incident, and accounts by survivors, apparently inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The situations are harrowing for sure, but like many Ron Howard-directed films, Heart of the Sea veers toward sentimentalism toward the end. I prefer what Brooklyn‘s director, John Crowley, does—move audiences without being sentimental.

Chris Hemsworth solidifies his status as the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a big, strong dude who can act; Tom Holland continues to make me feel really bad for his unfortunate characters in water-logged tragedies (check him out in The Impossible; he’s also the new Spider-Man and will hopefully stay dry); and Brendan Gleeson is affecting as a traumatized man, though it’s ridiculous that the filmmakers want us to buy the 60-year-old actor as a 45-year-old.


Bridge of Spies



This Steven Spielberg-directed espionage thriller is solid entertainment and much better than you might think it is. That was my reaction, and I’ve heard a couple of other people say the same, probably because a movie more than two hours long about the Cold War and Russian spies sounds dense and dry. It’s actually suspenseful, well-paced, and has a definite supporting actor contender in Mark Rylance. Rylance remains still and quiet throughout the movie, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface.

Tom Hanks plays a lawyer named James Donovan who becomes the second most hated man in America as the defense lawyer for Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel, an accused Soviet spy. I don’t want to give away too much about the fascinating chess moves that occur, but Donovan ends up being recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of an American spy held captive in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about the real-life Donovan and the results of his actions, so the ensuing events had me riveted.

The script, by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, contains thought-provoking dialogue. When a CIA agent pressures Donovan to betray his client’s confidentiality, arguing that Abel is a foreigner and “there’s no rule book” that applies to him, Donovan points out that he himself is of Irish descent, the agent has German roots, and therefore following “the rule book” is the only thing that defines them as Americans.




Fox 2000

Teaming up yet again with director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and many more items. Joy goes from being a kid with bright ideas to a broke single mother with no business experience, then transforms into an entrepreneur and head of a multimillion-dollar empire.

The movie has an uneven tone and odd dream-like sequences; I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks showed up. Can’t fault the acting, though. As with anything she does, Lawrence is immensely watchable. She’s too young to play Mangano (the real Mangano was about 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop; Lawrence is 25), but she does convincingly traverse the character arc from novice to shrewd businesswoman.

The supporting cast is fine, with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad, Bradley Cooper as a QVC exec who gives Joy her first big break, and Diane Ladd as Joy’s grandmother. Unlike with the last three Russell movies, however, I don’t think any of the supporting players will get nominations.

While I have no beef with Elisabeth Röhm as a performer, I wonder why Russell keeps having the fair German-born actress portray Italian (or at least half Italian) characters. Yes, Italians can be fair, and in American Hustle Röhm wasn’t too jarring as Dolly Polito, but here, as Joy’s half sister, she’s distracting in olive face. I kept thinking there are qualified actresses of Italian descent—e.g. Jennifer Esposito, Drea de Matteo—who could’ve played the sister without having to darken their skin.



  • Reply
    December 9, 2015 at 7:23 am

    THANK YOU for these! I read so many reviews and overhyped buzz on films this time of year and am usually disappointed. It’s getting so that I can’t even trust Rotten Tomatoes anymore.

    I’m excitted about Bridge of Spies, but In the Heart of the Sea looked like a pass. I didn’t know what to expect from Joy.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 9, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      I’ve gotten into the habit of not expecting too much when I go to movies. It increases my chances of being pleasantly surprised.

      That said, STAR WARS had better be good!

  • Reply
    December 9, 2015 at 2:38 pm

    Great stuff. I’m often at sea when it comes to whether a movie is in my wheelhouse and you always help me cross the line one way or the other. Bridge looks like it’s going in the queue!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 9, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      You’re often at sea? I “sea” what you did there.

      Glad I can help you get off the fence and into the wheelhouse. 🙂

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