Christmas With the Coopers/ Pawn Sacrifice/ In the Heart of the Sea

First up this month: Christmas with the Coopers (Dec 8) a by-the-numbers family “holiday” film, the likes of which Hollywood spews forth in abundance at this time of year.

The plot, if you can call it that, is the same as every other formulaic Xmas schmaltz-fest: members of the Cooper family reluctantly congregate for their annual Christmas celebration but – UH-OH! – a series of hilarious and not-at-all predictable events conspire to make them realise the importance of family, consumerism, turkey etc.

To be fair, Christmas with the Coopers does have a cast of solid pros in its favour (who themselves must have ungrateful extended families to subsidise thus necessitating their partaking in this tiresome schlock-fest): a relatively svelte John Goodman and Diane Keaton are Ma and Pa of the dynasty, with Alan Arkin, Marisa Tomei, Ed Helms, Olivia Wilde and taking the roles of their cheerfully dysfunctional relatives.

It’s not a terrible movie by Christmas movie standards (though it’s no Gremlins, which for some reason is considered a Christmas movie nowadays?) In fact, it’s sort of the cine-equivalent of eating an enormous bowl of buttery mashed potatoes; bland, familiar and comforting while you’re eating it but afterwards you realise you’ve wasted 90-odd minutes eating mashed potatoes.

Next up this month is Pawn Sacrifice (December 11), a biographical thriller about a real-life chess rivalry – stay with me – that captivated the whole of American during the Cold War (it was a simpler, internet-less time). The movie tells the true story of grandmaster Bobby Fischer (played with ethereal aplomb by Toby Maguire) and the events leading up to his much-publicised 1972 chess battle with fellow grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schriber).

Fischer’s early life – poverty, his unpredictable Communist mother, his discovery as a prodigious, precocious chess talent, etc – is all covered, but the bulk of the action surrounds his chess battle with cocky Communist Spassky and his tragic, A Beautiful Mind-esque slide into insanity. At no point is the viewer allowed to forget the political significance of the meeting: a poor kid from Brooklyn against the whole of the Soviet Union! It’s a little like Rocky V, where Stallone’s titular pugilist travels to Siberia to avenge the death of his friend while single-handedly ending the friction between the nations, except Fischer just wants to beat Spassky and embark on lots of paranoid, anti-Semitic rants (despite being Jewish himself).

Yes, it is dull and rather clichéd in parts (rollicking ’60s soundtrack, I’m looking at you) but Maguire and Schriber do their best to sustain the tension in their scenes. Sadly though, it’s not so much a checkmate as a cheque, please.

Finally this month is In the Heart of the Sea (December 26), which, according to the filmmakers, is based on the tale that inspired Moby Dick. Well, technically it’s based on the book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick upon which the events in Moby Dick are based; the sinking of the whaler Essex in 1820.

So, the story is thus: the Essex, under the command of Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) set off on a two-and-a-half year voyage to South America on a whaling mission. Suddenly the Essex is “stove” by an enormous whale, shattering the ship and leaving the survivors shipwrecked at sea with no food or water.  Oh, ship.

Though some elements of the original story have been changed, the most harrowing elements remain (rhymes with Hannibalism) and the story told is truly fascinating. Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and newly-cast Spiderman Tom Holland all put in solid performances, but certainly more could’ve been made of Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent material. Those wishing to learn more should, rig the stun’sls aloft and alow and set a course for your local bookshop sharpish!