The Rock (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #75

Alcatraz.
Only one man has ever broken out.
Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (uncut, 1996) | 15 (cut on video, 1996) | 15 (uncut on video, 2002)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th June 1996
UK Release: 21st June 1996
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona, National Treasure)
Sean Connery (You Only Live Twice, The Untouchables)
Ed Harris (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)

Director
Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers)

Screenwriters
David Weisberg (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)
Douglas S. Cook (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Mark Rosner (Blanco, Empire City)

Story by
David Weisberg (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Douglas S. Cook (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)

The Story
When a rogue US General and his team of Marines occupy Alcatraz, threatening to launch a gas attack on San Francisco unless their demands are met, a field-inexperienced chemical weapons specialist is paired with the only man to ever escape from the prison to break in and prevent the attack.

Our Heroes
Dr Stanley Goodspeed is a mild-mannered vinyl-loving FBI chemist, as unlikely an action movie leading man as… well, Nicolas Cage once was. His new partner is John Mason, a former SAS Captain who’s been imprisoned without charge by the US for decades. He’s also clearly more skilled than both an entire squad of mutinous Marines and, therefore, the entire team of Navy SEALs who initially fail to stop them. That’s the SAS for you.

Our Villain
Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, a covert ops commander who is seeking recompense for his men who were killed in action but have gone unacknowledged due to the secretive nature of their missions. Fundamentally a good man, driven to less good methods. A particularly effective villain because he’s relatively sympathetic to the audience. Not all the men on his team are so trustworthy, however…

Memorable Quote
Stanley: “You’ve been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?”
Mason: “What, the feet thing?”
Stanley: “Yeah, the feet thing.”
Mason: “Yeah, it happens.”
Stanley: “Well I’m having a hard time concentrating. Can you do something about it?”
Mason: “Like what, kill him again?”

Memorable Scene
Flarey goodBelieving the mission lost, the military has launched its back-up plan: an airstrike that will destroy the poison gas but also kill everyone on the island. Naturally our heroes manage to complete their mission nonetheless, and as the jets streak across San Francisco Bay, Stanley attempts to signal abort with two green flares. In slow motion, of course.

Making of
The final screenplay actually has many more authors than credited — not unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the uncredited ones are of considerably higher profile. David Weinberg and Douglas Cook penned the original spec script, but Jonathan Hensleigh worked closely with Michael Bay on the final shooting script. When Writers Guild arbitration awarded the credit elsewhere, Bay wrote an open letter calling the process a “sham” and a “travesty”. Others who worked on the screenplay included Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, with British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought in at Connery’s behest to rework his dialogue, though they ended up rewriting everyone else’s too.

Previously on…
There’s a theory that Connery’s character is actually an older James Bond, incarcerated under a pseudonym. Obviously that isn’t actually there in the text, but is kind of a fun idea.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)
1 MTV Movie Award (On-Screen Duo (Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Action Sequence (for the yellow Ferrari’s chase through San Francisco))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Music)

What the Critics Said
“the movie’s best asset is the old-fashioned, buddy-movie interplay between Cage and Connery — Cage as the frantic, white-collar lab technician who doesn’t like guns, Connery as the weathered, resourceful old pro who’s escaped from three maximum-security prisons and has a one-liner ready for every big, scary guy he kills.” — Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“The screenplay […] does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title. These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.” — Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

Verdict

Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke, thanks to his tendency to let his movies get distracted by explosions, special effects, and young women, while not paying enough attention to the screenplay. However, earlier in his career — and sometimes in later years, too — he’s produced enough quality work to suggest he does know what he’s doing… or maybe he’s just lucked out a couple of times. Either way, this is probably the pinnacle of his oeuvre. While it functions well in Bay’s familiar wheelhouse of adrenaline-pumping action-thriller, it’s elevated by a screenplay that offers dialogue which, at times, can be witty and/or intelligent; and, most importantly, which creates sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t many actioners where you can say “the writing’s the best bit”, are there?

#76 will be… just a jump to the left…

Apollo 13 (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #4

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th June 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd September 1995
First Seen: cinema, 1995

Stars
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan)
Bill Paxton (Tombstone, Twister)
Kevin Bacon (Footloose, The Woodsman)
Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes)
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Truman Show)

Director
Ron Howard (Willow, A Beautiful Mind)

Screenwriter
William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers)
Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within)

Based on
Lost Moon, a true-story book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger.

The Story
The third manned mission to land on the Moon launches to little public interest… but that all changes when an accident cripples the spacecraft. Not only will the three astronauts on board not be landing on the Moon, but they might not be able to make it back to Earth…

Our Hero
Everybody — from the three men who may die in space, to the spurned astronaut who locks himself in the simulator to find a solution, to the dozens of mission commanders and tech guys who work round the clock to keep the astronauts alive and bring them home.

Best Supporting Character
The whole cast are pretty great, but Ed Harris really earnt his Oscar nomination as the commander in Mission Control, Gene Kranz. (See also: memorable quote, below.)

Memorable Quote
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Memorable Scene
After surviving days in space on dwindling power, slingshotting the craft round the moon, and adjusting course last-minute to actually aim at Earth, the crippled remains of Apollo 13 enter the atmosphere. There will be three minutes of radio silence before they know if the astronauts have survived reentry. Everyone watches and waits. Silence. Three minutes is reached. Silence. Three minutes thirty seconds passes… In the command center, at the astronauts’ home, at Jay Lovell’s school, everyone waits. Four minutes passes… Goodness, it’s shamelessly manipulative filmmaking, but if your hair isn’t on end and you aren’t practically on your feet cheering with everyone else, you truly are immune.

Technical Wizardry
Gravity used a shedload of groundbreaking tech and computer graphics to simulate zero-G. 20 years earlier, Apollo 13 wasn’t so lucky, so how did they do it? In part, for real. Sets were built inside NASA’s (in)famous ‘Vomit Comet’, an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts an experience of zero-G, but only for 23 seconds at a time. With such a small window, shots to be achieved were carefully planned out, and cast and crew endured over 500 arcs in 13 days to film the necessary footage.

Truly Special Effect
The lift-off sequence, a combination of models and CGI without a single frame of stock footage, is iconic. For me, at least, the shot tracking down the side of the craft as the supports pull away is as indelible an image of an Apollo launch as any documentary footage.

Letting the Side Down
Two decades on, some of the CG effects (especially on Earth) are beginning to show their age. (The model work still looks grand, though.)

Making of
According to Ron Howard in a 20th anniversary interview, Tom Hanks was cast because they thought he was the actor the world would most want to save.

Next time…
The film was followed by 12-part HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the entire story of the US’s quest to put a man on the moon, from the creation of NASA to the end of the Apollo programme. It’s really good.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Film Editing)
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Original Score)
2 BAFTAs (Special Effects, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure Film)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“In the end, this failed mission seems like the most impressive achievement of the entire space program: a triumph not of planning but of inspired improvisation.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“filmmakers combined elements most go to the movies for — drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, and tug of the heart. After reading Lost Moon I’ve come to appreciate the William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert screenplay the more. Given the archival detail Lovell and Kluger documented, getting a good portion of it into a 140-minute movie was its own remarkable feat.” — le0pard13, It Rains… You Get Wet

Verdict

What could have been one of the US space program’s greatest tragedies turned out to be one of its greatest successes, a sensation that is conveyed by Ron Howard’s thrilling rendition of events. The film is too emotionally manipulative for some palates, but by and large it works magnificently for me. Bonus points are earnt for rejecting sycophancy in favour of depicting the people involved as human beings who endured and triumphed in extraordinary circumstances.

#5 will be… reached at 88mph.

Salvation Boulevard (2011)

2015 #101
George Ratliff | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Reuniting Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, stars of comedy-thriller The Matador (reportedly Brosnan was cast first and asked for Kinnear), comedy-drama Salvation Boulevard stars Brosnan as evangelical preacher Dan Day and Kinnear as a member of his flock, Carl, a recent convert thanks to his even-more-committed wife (Jennifer Connelly). When Dan accidentally shoots an atheist (Ed Harris) with Carl as the only witness, Dan tries to cover it up, but Carl isn’t so sure, soon finding himself on the run from other members of the church who’ll do whatever Dan tells them…

A soft-toothed satire of America’s fundamentalist mega-churches, Salvation Boulevard trailed very well, but they must’ve stuffed all the funny bits in, because in the final film such moments of hilarity are few and far between. The biggest problem is that the film doesn’t have the cojones to skewer organised religion as thoroughly as it could. It’s undoubtedly skeptical of the whole shebang, and I wouldn’t say it paints it in a positive light, but it comes up short of outright deconstructing it. Instead, we get an increasingly-complex run-around, including bringing in a Mexican drug cartel who want the land Dan is intending to build a new town on.

Intriguingly, it’s adapted from a novel that, based on the blurb, sounds nothing like the film. It appears to be a fully-fledged thriller, for one thing. It follows a detective, who is at least a born again Christian, but there’s a suspect in custody who’s a Muslim, and a Jewish defense attorney would seem to play a prominent role, and the plot description is full of language about “his most basic beliefs are tried” and “he can’t stop searching for the truth no matter what the personal cost”. This is not the Salvation Boulevard that has ended up on film. I tried to hunt down an explanation for why co-writer/director George Ratliff had deviated so, but the best I could unearth was this interview. Asked whether the characters are different from the book and how they went about translating the novel to the screen, Ratliff answers:

A lot of the names are the same. The book is very good and Larry Beinhart is a very good writer, but it’s just a different animal, and we went and did something completely different. […] definitely the spirit of Larry’s book is in the movie. A lot of the things that happen in the book happen in the movie. It’s just set up very differently. It is absolutely an adaptation of the book, but I need to be clear that we did change a lot.

Which… doesn’t really answer my question. But hey, it only really matters if you like the book.

Even more baffling is Brosnan’s accent. He seems to have decided to do each scene slightly different, evoking English, Irish, Australian, South African, southern US, and goodness knows what else along the way.

I shouldn’t have expected much given the poor reviews, but I like the cast (which also includes Ciarán Hinds and Marisa Tomei), I really enjoyed The Matador, and the trailer was suitably promising, all of which encouraged me to seek it out. I wouldn’t say Salvation Boulevard was an entire waste of time, but I couldn’t help but feel there was potential for a funnier, more cutting movie hidden in the material. Shame.

2 out of 5

Pain & Gain (2013)

2015 #47
Michael Bay | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Pain and GainFor his first non-sci-fi movie in a decade, divisive action director Michael Bay channels Tarantino (kinda) for this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Anthony “The Falcon” Mackie star as a gang of dimwitted Florida bodybuilders who come up with a ‘foolproof’ plan to rob a rich gym client.

That comparison to Tarantino is lifted from Now TV’s description of the film, and I don’t quite agree with it. Pain & Gain is certainly a comedic crime movie, the kind of thing Tarantino was known for before he got diverted into genre B-movie homage/parodies, but it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino movie — which, considering the innumerable films that do rip-off his ’90s style (even today), is only a good thing. I wouldn’t say Bay’s movie feels wholly unique or original, but I don’t think it’s Tarantino he’s riffing off.

Nonetheless, the film’s best asset is its humour, much of it derived from dialogue. Proceedings take a little while to warm up, with some character backstory flashbacks that aren’t always necessary and seem to befuddle the narrative, but once it settles down into the crime spree, it’s consistently hilarious. Bay has pitched the tone exactly right, playing it straight but with an OTT edge that betrays awareness of the ludicrousness of it all. Towards the end, when events have reached a point of total ridiculousness, he throws up an onscreen caption to announce, “This is still a true story.” That’s witty. (Though, ironically, it appears during one of the few bits the filmmakers did actually make up!)

Adept at comedyBay is aided by leads who are surprisingly adept at comedy. Johnson is the best thing in it, consistently hilarious as his conscience battles former addictions and newfound religious convictions. I noted down some of his best lines to quote in the review, but they lose something without his delivery.

I suppose there is a question of whether this tone really is appropriate: as these are real-life events, should we be finding them so funny? It is kind of tasteless. I suppose you could parlay that into a discussion about the comedic crime sub-genre on the whole: is it okay to laugh at this kind of behaviour so long as it’s been dreamt up in the mind of some (wannabe-)auteur, but as soon as someone actually did it for real, a film of those events has crossed the line. Is that a sound argument? If you’re going to find a fictionalised account of the real-life version abhorrent, shouldn’t we similarly find the wholly-fictional version similarly poor? It’s a moral quandary I don’t really have an answer for because, when all is said and done, what the real guys did was horrendous, but the way they went about it was ludicrous and is almost unavoidably darkly funny in the re-telling. I certainly laughed.

Gaining painAfter he’s become so sidetracked making the awful Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay was once a quality action filmmaker. His works may not have class, but they had style and panache befitting the genre — The Rock, in particular, is a ’90s action classic. Pain & Gain isn’t exactly a return to form because it’s not the same kind of movie, but it is the first Bay movie for at least a decade that’s really worth your time.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

2014 #39
Ron Howard | 135 mins | Blu-ray + download (HD)* | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Beautiful MindThe big winner at the 2002 Oscars (four gongs from eight nominations), A Beautiful Mind adapts the true story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a Cold War-era mathematics student at Princeton who hit upon a groundbreaking theory and ended up working covertly for the government…

Reviewing A Beautiful Mind is initially a choice between spoiling or not. There’s a Big Twist that they skilfully kept out of the advertising, and which many people have done a fair job of keeping quiet for the past 13 years; but, unlike most Big Twists, this one isn’t at the end of the film — in fact, it’s pretty early on, and the bulk of the movie is spent dealing with its fall-out. As with any movie that’s based on a true story, there has to be something that makes the tale remarkable and worth adapting into fiction. Here, it’s actually the post-twist portion that’s the draw; so it was a clever feat of marketing to have found another “this is why it was made” element to sell to the public. That’s not an instance of the much- (and justly-) criticised bait-and-switch style of marketing, but instead an effective rug-pull. So I’ll try to maintain that.

Both sides of the reveal lean on the central performance, and Russell Crowe is up to the task. His initially twitchy, uncomfortable representation gives way to a fragile, broken, confused shell of a man, and both sides of the character are convincingly depicted. They’re also both a world away from the grandstanding military leaders of Gladiator, Master and Commander, Robin Hood, Les Misérables, et al, Crowe’s best-known and most-frequented screen persona. He didn’t win Best Actor — losing to an equally atypical turn from Denzel Washington in Training DayJennifer Connelly is in this picturebut the display of range probably merited it; perhaps more so, in retrospect, than his win for Gladiator the year before.

As Nash’s wife, Jennifer Connelly did take home the Supporting Actress trophy. It’s a less (for want of a better word) showy role, but like so many secondary leads in films with large central performances, her well-judged support props up the more obvious Acting of the lead.

Ron Howard is a safe pair of hands in the director’s chair. Early on the visuals occasionally display the easy familiarity of Heritage cinema, and if the rest doesn’t exactly transcend that then it at least stops being too distracting. The same isn’t always true of James Horner’s plinky-plonky music, which chooses to do things like score a car chase as if it’s a romantic scene. Different, at least, but feels more like a “look how changing only the music affects the mood” demonstration rather than a solid artistic choice. In fairness, in many other places the score is perfectly effective or, at worst, unobtrusive; but those action beats… It doesn’t need to be Hans Zimmer, especially as this really isn’t an action movie; but it distracted me, and that means it didn’t work.

Highly suspiciousA Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in spite of being up against the incredibly more innovative, entertaining, and game-changing double-bill of Moulin Rouge and The Fellowship of the Ring, which certainly says more about the predilections of the American Academy than the quality of films released in 2001 (innovation, entertainment and game-changing-ness aren’t among their favourite attributes). Still, it’s an interesting tale, well told, and excellently performed.

4 out of 5

* Another one. ^

The Right Stuff (1983)

2009 #49
Philip Kaufman | 181 mins | TV | 15 / PG

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff ostensibly dramatises the story of the ‘Mercury 7’, America’s first group of astronauts, but in fact equally concerns itself with the tale of test pilot Chuck Yeager. But I’ll get to him.

I’ve recently steeped myself in dramas and documentaries relating to the US space program, from For All Mankind’s contemporary footage to In the Shadow of the Moon’s retrospective interviews, from Moonshot’s earnest docudrama account of Apollo 11 to From the Earth to the Moon’s thorough chronicling of events. But all of these have one thing in common: they cover the Apollo missions alone. Mercury came first, America’s initial attempts to put men into space before Apollo’s grand mission to the Moon.

In this context it’s nice to actually get some coverage of these earlier, vital missions, though such an in-depth knowledge of what was to follow has its problems for The Right Stuff’s narrative, just as knowing the facts always does for a historical movie. Equally, it gives the emotional resonance a helping hand — knowing Gus Grissom’s tragic fate lends the poor treatment he received following his unfortunate splashdown an extra poignancy; or when Alan Shepard asserts he’s going to the Moon you know he’ll make it (eventually).

Exposure to other such works makes quality comparisons inevitable too, though the only one of serious relevance here is From the Earth to the Moon. It’s an unfair one, of course: despite The Right Stuff’s epic running time, it’s nothing to the twelve hours afforded to an HBO miniseries. Conversely, where the miniseries is effectively twelve one-hour plays, shifting focus every episode, director Philip Kaufman’s film does follow a more linear — albeit wide-reaching — progression. While Yeager may disappear for long stretches, for example, his story is revisited and continued; while Gordon Cooper isn’t introduced until after we’ve had plenty of Yeager, the film closes on his first spaceflight. Flitting from character to character could make the film feel fragmented — and the brevity in dealing with many of the supporting characters, especially the wives, does suggest this — but the missions move ever on and take the narrative with them.

The other effect of having seen so much about the space program of late is that the trips to space lose some of their wonder. The handful of spaceflights actually depicted here are often praised, both for their special effects and their pure effect on the viewer, but having seen many others recently does tarnish the sense of wonder somewhat. The effects work is faultless however, as is the integration of footage of the real missions, and the unique qualities of John Glenn’s flight make it stand out regardless of how many other real spaceflights one’s seen recreated on screen.

A handful of these sequences aside, Kaufman leaves the technical aspect of proceedings alone. The various test flights and rocket launches we do see are undoubtedly important set pieces, but they’re not a thorough catalogue of events. Attention is only lavished on the scientific and engineering challenges when it has some direct impact on the characters, and just as often Kaufman is concerned with the family — specifically, the wife — behind the astronaut. These touches of family drama are well played, most affectingly with Glenn and his shy, stuttering wife, but each astronaut’s tale comes and goes, not even one relationship going through an arc that lasts more than two or three scenes. Even when powerfully portrayed, these are portraits not stories.

There are some injections of humour and symbolism too, but again in keeping with the piecemeal style. A pair of NASA recruitment officers, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, provide some comic relief early on for quite a sustained stretch, but then more or less disappear — excepting a recurring motif of Goldblum telling a room of Important Men news they already know. Similarly, the film opens with a fantastic image of Death, a black-clad preacher arriving to inform a wife and child of their husband/father’s fiery death. He crops up again, demonstrating his presence as symbol and not character, but is too often forgotten about. Plaudits are due for not overusing him, naturally, but a few more appearances wouldn’t have gone amiss.

And so what of Yeager? Why so much of a test pilot who was denied the chance to apply to be an astronaut, even if he’d wanted to? It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of screenwriter William Goldman, who left the project over disagreements with the director: it seems Kaufman, for whatever reason, is set in a belief that Yeager had ‘the right stuff’ pumping through his veins, while those chosen to be astronauts were just ordinary guys who got lucky; that Yeager was a pilot proper, brave and skilled, while the Mercury 7 were little more than living computers to perform a handful of tasks atop a huge rocket. If this is Kaufman’s belief it isn’t overbearing, but you can see where Goldman’s coming from. After all, if this is purely the story of the Mercury 7 and their trips into space, why is Yeager there at all, never mind so prominently?

By eschewing a straight trotting out of facts and incidents, even a dramatised one, for a selection of events and experiences, Kaufman made a film that is perhaps less about the real-life story and more thematic — that theme being, primarily, heroism. If he winds up uncertain whether or not the Mercury 7 were heroes, perhaps that’s the point: these were just ordinary men, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Except Yeager, of course, who is never anything less than the flawless embodiment of the titular virtue.

4 out of 5

The Right Stuff is on ITV4 tonight at 10:35pm.