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.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

aka Sully

2017 #58
Clint Eastwood | 96 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson

You remember that time someone landed a passenger plane on New York City’s Hudson River, right? This is about that. At the time the pilot was widely hailed as a hero… or so we thought! Turns out that, behind closed doors, some investigators seemed keen to put the blame on his poor decision-making (or they did in movieland, anyway — the real world may’ve been a bit different). So rather than just an exciting drama about a guy landing a plane (which does sound like a thin story for an entire movie), Sully is almost a legal drama: was the heroic captain actually heroic, or did he make a stupid decision that lucked out? (I’m sure you can guess which wins.)

Tom Hanks is perfect for the lead role: he’s the exact right mix of everyman and hero; the unassuming guy who knows the right thing to do, and does it. He even doubts himself after the fact, just so we can be even more sure that he’s a genuinely good guy. The rest of the supporting cast fade into the background a little, with Aaron Eckhart solid as his supportive co-pilot (I assumed he’d turn on Sully, for some reason, so that was nice) and Laura Linney as his wife on the other end of the phone, in a subplot that I suppose is meant to help humanise the hero pilot but really goes nowhere. The same is true for a scattering of flashbacks to Sully’s previous adventures in flight. Even having expanded the film out to the post-landing investigation, it still struggles to find enough material to fill its short 96 minutes.

Landin', landin', landin' on the river

I liked Sully a lot while it was on. It’s well made (though sadly not available in its IMAX format for home viewing), Hanks is always watchable, the supporting cast are good too, and the headline incident is effectively staged, including the post-landing rescues. It’s a heartwarming story of real-life drama and heroism, with a punch-the-air-type moment when Sully is vindicated. But as that outcome never seems in doubt, and the film sometimes twiddles its thumbs in getting there, it’s not all it could be. Or, actually, maybe it is all it could be — and that’s fine.

3 out of 5

I could tenuously link this review to American Independence Day by talking about Sully being an American hero or somesuch, but… oh wait, I just did.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

2016 #135
Mike Nichols | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Germany / English & Russian | 15 / R

Charlie Wilson's WarUnlikely stories can make great movies, or at least fun ones, and if this isn’t the former then it’s largely the latter.

It’s about a hard-partying US congressman (Tom Hanks) who suddenly becomes interested in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, so increases support for the rebels by calling in the many favours he’s collected.

Boasting a typically witty script from Aaron Sorkin, and a cast (including Philip Seymour Hoffman) capable of delivering it, it makes a potentially grim topic surprisingly entertaining — which is presumably why acknowledgement of the aftereffects is reduced to one subtle, but chilling, nod to 9/11.

4 out of 5

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.

Road to Perdition (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #74

Pray for Michael Sullivan.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th July 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 20th September 2002
First Seen: DVD, March 2003

Stars
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies)
Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Daniel Craig (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Casino Royale)
Jude Law (Gattaca, Closer)
Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!!, Fifty Shades Darker)

Director
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall)

Screenwriter
David Self (Thirteen Days, The Wolfman)

Based on
Road to Perdition, a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.

The Story
1931: Michael Sullivan is an enforcer for mob boss John Rooney, who thinks of him like a son. When Sullivan escorts Rooney’s unstable real son, Connor, to a meeting, the guy snaps and the other side are murdered — an event witnessed by Sullivan’s own son, Michael Jr. In an attempt to cover it up, Connor kills Sullivan’s wife and other son, while Michaels Sr and Jr escape, and begin a journey to take revenge.

Our Heroes
Michael Sullivan Sr is, on paper, not much of a hero: a mob hitman, his trade is death. But when half his family is murdered, he’ll do what’s necessary to protect his surviving son and get justice — his kind of justice, anyway. In the process, he bonds with Michael Jr, finally developing the relationship they never had before. Perpetual nice guy Tom Hanks tones that way down to give what I think must be one of his best performances, which brings out the heart in Sullivan without tipping over into regular Hanks territory, in the process allowing the viewer to empathise with a man who in lesser hands would just be a cold-blooded murderer.

Our Villains
Connor Rooney is a liability, a deranged coward and crook who wishes he was a hard man. But he’s no threat — his father, mob boss John Rooney, is the one with the power and means. At heart he’s no villain to Michael Sullivan — he’s essentially his father — but after Connor murders Sullivan’s family, Rooney feels he must protect his own blood, despite caring for him less than Sullivan. With an actor of Paul Newman’s quality in the role, every nuance of Rooney’s complex emotional position is subtly explored.

Best Supporting Character
To try to stop Sullivan, the mob set hitman Maguire on his trail. He’s a crime scene photographer who uses his job to cover his crimes, and is a nasty, rat-like creep. Jude Law rejects his frequent pretty-boy-ness to really inhabit that part. (Basically, everyone is fantastic in this film.)

Memorable Quote
John Rooney: “This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
Michael Sullivan: “Michael could.”

Memorable Scene
Heavy rain falls as Rooney and his men cross an empty street to his car. When they reach it, the driver inside is dead, the door locked. They spread out across the street, guns ready, but there’s no one to be seen… Then a muzzle flashes and the men are slowly cut down — leaving only Rooney standing. As the shooter emerges from the shadows, the camera tracks in on Paul Newman, his posture and expression saying it all: he knows who it is, he knows his time has come, and he’s resigned to it. All of this set to just the sound of Thomas Newman’s mournful piano-and-strings soundtrack. Only when Rooney turns around does the rain begin to bleed onto the soundtrack, and we see the man is (of course) Michael Sullivan. “I’m glad it’s you.” With tears in his eyes, Sullivan finishes his job.

Technical Wizardry
There are several reasons the above scene works so well — the pace of the editing, the sparse sound design, the music, the performances — but one of the biggest is the cinematography. The work of Conrad L. Hall, this is just one of the most obviously beautiful sequences in a film full of gorgeous imagery. He won a well-deserved posthumous Oscar for his work, his third from a career that garnered ten nominations.

Making of
One of the locations found was considered physically perfect but the wrong way round, with room only to shoot from right to left and not vice versa. Rather than, say, find somewhere else, production designer Dennis Gassner and his team dressed the location to be flipped, not only reversing street signs and car number plates, but even changing the side of the steering wheels on all the vehicles.

Awards
1 Oscar (Cinematography)
5 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Tyler Hoechlin))

Despite some initial build-up, Road to Perdition wound up an awards season also-ran, losing out to that well-remembered classic Chicago and everyone’s desire to try to give Martin Scorsese an Oscar for Gangs of New York.

What the Critics Said
“The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.” — News of the World

“To call this the greatest gangster film since The Godfather would be an overstatement, though not by much. It is, however, the most brilliant work in this genre since the 1984 uncut version of Sergio Leone’s flawed but staggering Once Upon a Time in America. Road to Perdition, a less sprawlingly ambitious movie, is without major flaws.” — Eric Harrison, Las Vegas Sun

Score: 81%

What the Public Say
“In a film about the mob and hitmen, the violence is generally kept to a minimum. And when it is done, it’s either very quick, or it’s shown partially offscreen or via a reflection. […] Throughout the film, the violence is never glorified as something heroic. But instead, it’s something that’s done only when it is necessary, and the weight of it is always felt. During the first killing in the film, the first one that Michael sees through a crack in the wall, it’s done unexpectedly and the victim falls to the ground in slow motion. When Mike brings out his Tommy Gun, it’s not something he does with glee, it’s something very deliberate as he solemnly takes the pieces out of the briefcase to assemble it.” — Bubbawheat, Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights

Verdict

Road to Perdition feels like a film that didn’t get its due at the time, and has become almost something of a cult favourite since. Not “cult” in the traditional “gaudy fun B-movie” sense, but in that it has a dedicated following of people who realise its power. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller, replete with ’30s mob style and Tommy Gun massacres, but under that is a more emotive tale about masculinity as it pertains to the father/son dynamic. It’s all handled with sensitive artistry by director Sam Mendes, supported by first-rate technical merits across the board (the design and music are particularly noteworthy, in addition to the cinematography I already mentioned), and career-best-level performances from a strong cast. It lacks the sheer scale and scope to go toe-to-toe with The Godfathers as the definitive gangster movie, but as a smaller, personal tale, it’s exceptional.

#75 will be… Bayhem.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

2016 #60
Steven Spielberg | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & India / English, German & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Supporting Actor.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design.



Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who is tapped to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After Donovan insists on doing his job properly, he manages to spare Abel the death penalty — which comes in handy when the Soviets capture spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and a prisoner exchange is suggested, which the Russians want Donovan to negotiate.

The most striking aspect of Bridge of Spies is how much it’s a mature, equanimous work. It would be easy to take a tale like this, fraught with issues of patriotism and the threat of foreign agents operating on domestic soil (which therefore screams “topical relevance!”), and give in to the same histrionics that some of the supporting characters demonstrate. Indeed, a director like Spielberg — oft criticised for the vein of sentimentality that is ever-present, and sometimes dominating, in his movies — might be expected to err in that direction, even if it was only slightly. The film itself manages to maintain the same calm demeanour as its two headline performances, however.

Don’t misconstrue that as meaning it’s a boring watch, however. Far from it. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, Bridge of Spies actually rattles through events, at times to a surprising degree: Abel’s trial is practically glossed over. In some respects this is an intelligent decision — the verdict is a foregone conclusion, and there’s far more going on than the trial of one spy — but it is a little jarring to have it so abruptly skipped past. The same effect occurs when Donovan appeals to the Supreme Court, a process so rushed its inclusion feels merited only by it being an event that happened so has to be there, rather than because it was a part of the story that interested Spielberg or screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen.

If we’re talking storytelling oddities, another is the manner in which Powers’ backstory is integrated. As Donovan continues to defend Abel, the film suddenly becomes subjected to scattered interjections, in which we see pilots being selected and then trained to fly secret reconnaissance missions in a new kind of plane. Any viewer who has read the blurb will know where this is going, but it’s so disconnected to the rest of the narrative that it felt misplaced, at least to me. The same is true when we suddenly meet Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student in Berlin who’s mistaken for a spy and arrested by the East. It turns out we need to know about him because Donovan attempts to use his negotiations to get a two-for-one deal, exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. Knowing the stories of the men Donovan will be negotiating for is not a bad point, but I can’t help but feel there was a smoother way to integrate them into the film’s overall narrative.

These clunks aside, Bridge of Spies is certainly a quality film. Spielberg’s direction is restrained, with familiar directorial flourishes severely limited (one very Spielbergian moment in the film’s coda sticks out precisely because of its Spielbergianness after 130 minutes of that not happening). That’s not to say his work is characterless, merely unobtrusive. The same is certainly true of Rylance’s Oscar-winning performance as the Soviet spy, so much so that some have asserted he was doing nothing at all and didn’t deserve any awards for it. Well, anyone at all familiar with Rylance’s oeuvre knows that can’t be true. His Abel is unquestionably understated, a calm and quiet man who only hints at emotions under the surface rather than declaiming them. A lesser film would’ve made a point of this — would’ve had Hanks’ lawyer struggling to understand and relate to his client’s low-key nature — but, instead, Donovan is a man who can identify with this mode of being, at least to an extent. There’s a reason they talk a couple of times about the ‘stoikiy muzhik’.

If the first part of the narrative belongs to Rylance, Hanks is in charge for the second, when Donovan finds himself in a wintery Berlin as the wall is being constructed, flitting between East and West as the go-between for a Russian spy posing as a diplomat, a German lawyer, and the CIA, who could care less about retrieving a lowly student when a pilot who might spill secrets is at stake. Also without being showy, Hanks is able to navigate a story that may be about secret international diplomacy, but which requires comedy without blatant mugging, and clever legal negotiation without grandstanding. Throughout the film, he creates in Donovan an upstanding, honourable, kind-hearted, and admirable human being, without the movie needing to make a song and dance about showing us how wonderful he is.

I may, on reflection, or re-watching, consider Bridge of Spies an even better film than I do now. Hanks and Rylance both offer nuanced performances, while Spielberg’s mastery of technique allows the whole film to be equally as subtle, even as it remains gripping and entertaining. However, the storytelling quirks are a mixed success, the pace they sometimes lend offset by the almost non sequitur style of the captured Americans’ backstories. Nonetheless, this is a classy but still enjoyable dramatic thriller, which takes a seat among Spielberg’s better works.

4 out of 5

Bridge of Spies is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and the rest, in the UK 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.

Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)

2015 #26b
Steve Purcell | 21 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

Toy Story That Time ForgotThe second Toy Story TV special, and the fifth short adventure for the characters that perhaps should have had their last hurrah in the third feature film, is little more than a crushing disappointment.

When Woody, Buzz, and a selection of the now-extensive supporting cast are taken to a friend of Bonnie’s for a play date, they get lost in his toyroom and come across the Battlesaurs, a line of toys who — ignored by Bonnie’s friend, who does nought but play on a games console — have established a whole society, ignorant of the fact they’re plastic action figures.

Toy Story That Time Forgot manages the tricky feat of feeling both too rushed and too long. There’s no time for mystery or surprise as it hurtles through the plot — not that there’s too much of that, either. Half of it recycles Buzz’s arc from Toy Story 1 (he doesn’t know he’s a toy! Then he finds out, and he comes to love it!); the other half is a villain with what I think is an original idea (he’s delighted the kid doesn’t want to play with them because it means he can rule over the other toys), but isn’t given enough time to be developed.

It’s pretty obvious how all of this will play out, meaning that, even with a frantic pace, it feels like it takes too long to get through it. It doesn’t go anywhere much with the concept, so feels repetitive in the middle — Buzz and Woody are captured then set free three times. Three. If that time was spent building up the world or characters’ motivations, it’d be fine, but those elements are only seen in snatches, or raced past in single lines of exposition, with time instead devoted to adequate but uninspired action sequences.

Battlesaurs!The whole thing just feels undercooked. Apparently it took three years to make, with two of those dedicated to development. The Battlesaurs toy line was imagined in full, for example. There’s evidence of that on screen, but it’s just an impression that there’s a lot of background work we’re not getting to see. A TV special gives them limited time to explore the new world they’ve created, of course, but Toy Story of Terror used the time perfectly, almost feeling longer and more significant than it was. By contrast, Toy Story That Time Forgot feels short, wasteful, and insignificant.

3 out of 5

Tomorrow, Sky Movies Disney are airing the Toy Story trilogy and its two TV spin-offs on a loop from 6am until 2:40am.