Inferno (2016)

2017 #93
Ron Howard | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Hungary / English, French, Italian & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

Inferno

Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s symboligist-cum-crime-solver (that’s the main character from The Da Vinci Code, for everyone who’s forgotten in the decade-ish since that book was at the top of the cultural zeitgeist) for his third adventure (they made a second, remember?) based on the fourth novel, after the first film was based on the second novel and the second film was based on the first novel (not that that matters, it’s just kinda funny).

This time, Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence, with a gunshot wound to his temple that has caused him to both forget the last two days and have terrifying hallucinations of Hell. When an assassin turns up trying to kill him, he escapes with Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). Still unable to recall how he ended up in this predicament, Langdon discovers a small projector in his pocket, which contains what will be the first clue to another scavenger hunt of famous old artworks and the like. At the end of the trail: a man-made pathogen that could wipe out 95% of humanity. Pursued by several groups who want the virus for their own nefarious (or not) ends, Langdon and Sienna race against time to save the world.

If you haven’t guessed yet, Inferno is a bit silly. Not utterly silly, but silly in the kind of way the previous Dan Brown movies have been silly — pretending they’re taking place in a plausible real world, when they’re not. The kind of silly where a villain leaves a trail of clues for someone to follow and make sure his scheme is executed, rather than, I dunno, putting a timer on it. (Incidentally, this is a change from the novel, where (based on what I read on Wikipedia) his plan makes marginally more sense.) The kind of silly where apparently the World Health Organisation is some international enforcement agency with gun-toting special ops units and the power to override local police. (I don’t know much about the real WHO, but I find this version very hard to believe.)

Brooks and Langdon

On the bright side, Inferno is not nearly so po-faced as the previous Langdon movies. If you suspend your disbelief, it’s a reasonably compelling mystery (or set of mysteries), where for once the ultimate solution doesn’t feel obvious from the get-go. The same goes for the issue of who to trust. As you’d expect from a race-against-time thriller with an everyman hero, there are multiple different forces in pursuit of Langdon, and you know that one of those groups will turn out to actually be on his side, because that’s how these things always go — but which? Well, I thought it was less blatantly obvious than normal, anyway; though I did guess one other huge twist almost from the start (and I’m sure most viewers who are reasonably versed in this genre of movie will too).

That’s another point that’s been tweaked from the novel, it turns out. In spite of being a film that is considered pretty faithful to its source, they do seem to have shaved off any detail or plot development that was a little outside the norm of a Hollywood blockbuster thriller, which is rather disappointing in a way. It was the ghost of 82’s review that alerted me to these changes, through the fact that the novel even has a different ending. I looked it up and it sounds much better. It’s totally unHollywood, and I bet the studio vetoed it as soon as they heard it, but it’s more interesting and complex than the standard fight-over-the-MacGuffin climax used here.

A clue!

The whole style of the film is similarly standardised. The use of a 1.85:1 ratio and Ron Howard’s unremarkable direction make it all feel very televisual, the only giveaways to its big-screen budget being the stunning locations and the presence of Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, et al. There are also hand-holding flashbacks and intercuts to things we saw five minutes ago, just like you get on TV dramas that feel uncertain about whether you’re paying full attention or have perhaps tuned in halfway through. Langdon’s gory visions lend a bit of visual spice, but that’s also what they feel like — an attempt to liven things up.

For all these faults, I actually enjoyed Inferno a fair bit. It’s a decent, pacy thriller; completely implausible, both in its overwrought story and frequently leaden dialogue, but as a race-against-time mystery in beautiful locations, it’s an entertaining 120 minutes. I’d give it 3½, but I don’t do half-stars, so let’s be generous and round it up.

4 out of 5

Inferno is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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.

Willow (1988)

2015 #132
Ron Howard | 121 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

WillowWarwick Davis is the farmer who must return an abandoned baby, unaware it’s heir to a throne evil queen Jean Marsh doesn’t wish to relinquish. Intermittently aided by Val Kilmer’s Han Solo-ish vagabond, they must elude the queen’s forces, led by her daughter, Joanne Whalley.

A fantasy adventure with a tone and pace reminiscent of Indiana Jones — no surprise it was conceived by George Lucas — Willow somehow passed me by during my prime “watching ’80s genre movies” phase. It’s just a fun romp, but Howard’s direction is slick, everything’s glossy and exciting, and there’s a last hurrah for practical effects.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Rush (2013)

2015 #83
Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

4 out of 5

I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.

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 effects 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. ^

Angels & Demons: Extended Version (2009)

2010 #100b
Ron Howard | 146 mins | Blu-ray | 15

Back in this blog’s early days, I established the rule that where a different cut of a film was not significantly different to the original version it wouldn’t be counted towards my total (assuming I’d seen the original, that is — if it’s the first time I’ve seen any version of the film, it still counts). There’s no hard criteria for what counts as “significantly different” though. A couple of additional minutes? No. A lot of additional minutes? Yes. Where’s the line between “a couple” and “a lot”? No idea. Thus far, I’ve left it up to “a feeling”, perhaps not always correctly (the I Am Legend “alternate theatrical version”, for instance, makes quite an impact with its new ending, but I didn’t give it a new number).

Which more-or-less brings us to the extended cut of Angels & Demons, which I first saw in the cinema in May 2009. This version is 7½ minutes longer than the “theatrical version” also contained on the Blu-ray disc, though it’s worth noting that’s the US theatrical version — the UK one was trimmed for violence. That’s not a hugely increased running time, true, but it has potential to make a difference. As I expect you’ve guessed from the lack of new number, in practice it doesn’t.

There are changes, of course there are, and they’re outlined here (though I swear I saw some of those bits in the cinema), but as you can see, most are barely noticeable — that list memorably describes one bluntly as a “useless extension”. While watching I wondered if the violence had been extended (I was right), and there was one line I found particularly funny which I thought I’d’ve remembered (indeed, it’s new), Pierfrancesco Favino as Inspector Olivettibut other than that if you’d told me this was the cut I watched in cinemas I’d believe you. This longer cut doesn’t make the film better or worse, just less suitable for younger viewers.

My general thoughts on the film aren’t much different to last time. Though I must be sure to mention Pierfrancesco Favino as Inspector Olivetti, the Vatican policeman who is actually one of the film’s best characters, injecting a modicum of charm and humour into proceedings while snatching almost all the best lines (not that there are many).

The tale moves at a pretty rollicking pace without attempting to force a sense of speed. From my point of view, a good hour shot by in what felt like half the time. I don’t think the perceived speed is because this was a second viewing, because I did notice it the first time, I just didn’t have a handy timecode ticking away next to the screen then. The chase structure and constant deadlines help ensure the pace rarely lets up as characters dash from one set-piece to the next. It doesn’t make for a deep or thoughtful movie, despite some of the ideas and history that are tossed around, but it does make for a moderately exciting thriller.

In this respect — that it’s an action-based thriller rather than a lot of talky theorising — I think it translates better to the screen than The Da Vinci Code did. That said, I’ve still not read the novel, so can’t comment on faithfulness. Wikipedia suggests it’s very close, though with a few appropriate modifications that don’t impact on the plot a great deal.

It’s still riddled with flaws, mind. Some of the dialogue is fairly atrocious (but at least it’s only some); exposition is often blatant and repetitive (we’re told what the preferiti are three or four times in as many minutes); some of the deductive leaps are a bit much; and the whole antimatter bomb still seems scientifically suspect. It all depends how much you’re willing to forgive, really. In a similar vein, one of the most contentious issues of Dan Brown’s novels is his use of “truth”. He mixes well-researched fact with his own creation at will, often leaving you to wonder if what you’re hearing is pure truth, truth bent to the plot, or a total fabrication. But then this isn’t a history or art lesson, it’s a mystery thriller, and if one wants to know more I’m sure there are books to read and documentaries to watch.

In short, then, the Angels & Demons extended cut is basically the same as the theatrical version. If you enjoyed that then you might want to seek this out for your next viewing, just because why not? If you weren’t impressed before, however, there’s no special incentive to try again.

3 out of 5

My original review of Angels & Demons can be read here.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

2009 #40
David Sington | 96 mins | TV | U / PG

In the Shadow of the MoonIn the Shadow of the Moon tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions using only contemporary footage and the words of the men who actually walked on the Moon.

The telling is dominated by the words of the actual astronauts, describing their personal experiences and feelings. Rather than following a mission-by-mission chronology it mixes all their stories together, thereby telling the tale of a journey to the Moon and exploring its surface only once. It’s a neat way of editing it, albeit essentially borrowed from For All Mankind, because it avoids repetition while also covering a variety of perspectives. The typically reticent Neil Armstrong is conspicuous by his unsurprising absence, but this allows the personalities of some of the others to come out more (Buzz Aldrin features relatively little too, for example), perhaps none more so than Mike Collins, the man ‘left behind’ while Armstrong and Aldrin stepped into the history books. He comes across as thoroughly likable and it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on screen.

Narration is limited to a couple of brief intertitles and that contained on archive footage, culled not only from NASA archives but also newsreels, adverts, speeches and so forth. In this it manages to avoid using some of the more obvious and over-played clips, such as Kennedy’s famous “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech, while unearthing some interesting bits of its own, like Armstrong’s parents on a game show the day he became an astronaut, being asked how they’d feel should he happen to be the first man on the Moon. Such found footage is often used to put the missions in the context of wider events at appropriate junctures, such as Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement during the time Apollo 8 led the first men to orbit the Moon, or showing the whole world watching the TV broadcast of Armstrong stepping on to the Moon for the first time.

Although this external perspective is welcome, while being kept to an appropriate minimum, it’s difficult not to note that this is exactly what the HBO dramatisation, From the Earth to the Moon, did at these points. Other points of emphasis feel similarly culled, such as the way Apollo 13 is almost glossed over, but there are only so many ways of telling the significant elements of the same story and any accusations of plagiarism, from either HBO’s series or For All Mankind, aren’t seriously justified.

A closing perspective treads the fine line that leads toward sentiment and preachiness, but errs on the right side of awe and significance. Some have criticised the end for having too much religion and spirituality and not presenting a conflicting, ‘accurate’ scientific perspective. As a staunch atheist, I found no such problem: beliefs are there to an extent, but they’re not overpowering and there’s no apparent religious agenda, as some critics might have you believe.

In the Shadow of the Moon may not offer the plain facts and figures of how we went to the Moon and who did it when, but it does present the reflections of the men who risked their lives to further the knowledge and reach of our species. Their thoughts on this are invaluable.

4 out of 5