Tag Archives: Ron Howard

Inferno (2016)

inferno_ver4

Let’s be honest: No one was really looking forward to Inferno, the latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s “Robert Langdon” adventure series starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. Well, maybe except me.

For whatever reason, the Langdon books have not translated well to the big screen. The Da Vinci Code was a relative disappointment given the hype, though I thought—if you could take the preposterousness seriously—Angels and Demons was an improvement and even occasionally exciting. But I knew Inferno was facing an uphill battle because any remaining Da Vinci Code hype had likely evaporated, and the book, which came out 3 years ago (review here), was not as good as its predecessors.

That said, I really wanted to like Inferno. I am still a sucker for adventure thrillers that wove in real history and puzzle-solving, shady government organisations and operatives, and plots that feature intriguing twists and turns.

And Inferno certainly had potential, starting off with a bang by getting right into the heart of the film’s core issue—the overpopulation of the Earth—with snippets of a presentation from Bertrand Zobrist (Best Foster), an extremist billionaire who believes the human race is heading to extinction because population growth is spiralling out of control. Before long, we’re getting horrific images of hell as described by Dante’s epic poem, Inferno, and a Tom Hanks—with normal hair too—who appears to be in the most pain he’s been in since he had urinary tract infection in The Green Mile.

So far so good. In terms of basic elements, Inferno has it all: An attractive woman who decides to help Langdon out (this time it’s the lovely Felicity Jones), a dangerous assassin (Ana Ularu), government operatives you don’t know if you can trust (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a shady underground organisation (headed by Irrfan Khan).

As you would expect, Tom Hanks spends much of the movie running around Europe with Felicity Jones, solving riddles and piecing together puzzles while dodging bullets and trying to shake their pursuers. Having learned from the mistakes of Da Vinci Code, much of the exposition (the historical facts and stuff about Dante, in particular) is summarised and explained on the go, so that the momentum isn’t slowed.

And yet, it still feels like there’s a whole lot of expository dialogue all throughout the film. It’s one of those situations where you have two leading experts on Dante who keep telling each other facts they already know about Dante. It’s for the benefit of the audience, of course, but it feels awfully clumsy and trite. Perhaps that’s the fatal problem in adapting all of these Langdon movies—there’s just no way of explaining the most interesting parts of the books in a way that’s doesn’t come across as either boring or stupid in the films.

Furthermore, while some elements from the book have already been streamlined for the film (including the ending), the story is still so outrageously preposterous and filled with plot holes that it becomes hard to take seriously. I was more forgiving in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons about these sorts of things, but in this film it got to the extent where I couldn’t simply ignore it. The plot was far too silly for the film to take itself so seriously, and that’s why I’ve tended to enjoy the National Treasure films more.

Look, the cast is good, the performances are decent, the production values are solid, and you’ll always get a certain level of quality whenever Hanks and Howard are involved. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to like Inferno. While I didn’t dislike the film, it just felt like they were just going through the motions because they were contracted to do the movie. Having been intrigued by The Da Vinci Code and surprisingly thrilled by Angels and DemonsInferno came out as easily the tamest and least inspiring of the trilogy.

2.75 stars out of 5

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-poster

I’ve never read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (it’s one of those “on the list” classics), but that didn’t stop me from being intrigued by In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the award-winning non-fiction book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick (throw this book on the list too), the film tells the harrowing tale of the American whaling ship Essex, which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick in the first place.

The trailers certainly made the true story look very promising. Directed by Ron Howard, the film had the look and tone of a grand sea epic with that 1800s grit and a touch of the fantastical. It’s got a magnificent cast headed by Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), Cillian Murphy,  Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) and Frank Dillane (Fear the Walking Dead). And for those who want to get to know the new Spiderman a little in advance of Captain America: Civil War, the film also stars Tom Holland as the youngest crew member of the Essex (sadly, he grows up to look like Brendan Gleeson…).

For some reason, however, the release of the film was pushed back from March to December, with Howard offering a vague explanation about the marketing people wanting to maximise the movie’s potential. Whether that’s legit or because execs were pessimistic about its performance or overly optimistic (it opens a week before Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the US and as December tends to be Oscar season) we’ll probably never know. In my humble opinion, the film probably would have done better in March because it was riding more hype at the time and simply because Star Wars is going to annihilate absolutely everything in its path. So don’t be surprised when In the Heart of the Sea turns out to be a box office flop.

That said, while I don’t think it’s an Oscar-worthy flick deserving of Howard’s pantheon of great movies, I do think In the Heart of the Sea is a very solid, well-made, occasionally breathtaking and sometimes heartbreaking film. It never quite reaches the epic status it aims for and falls short when delivering its most climatic moments, but it’s definitely still good enough to deserve your time, especially on the big screen (though I doubt the 3D — I watched it in 2D — is worth it). The special effects are spectacular, giving the film a sense of danger and tension a sense of groundedness it otherwise might not have had.

In adherence with my non-spoiler philosophy, here’s just a basic outline: Whishaw plays Moby Dick author Melville, who tracks down Thomas Nickerson (Gleeson) in the mid-1800s and tries to entice the reluctant middle-aged man into telling him the “true story” of what happened to the Essex about 30 years ago. And so like Life of Pi, the majority of the film is told in flashback, with a 14-year-old Nickerson (Holland) recalling the experience of going out into the ocean to look for “whale oil” (I had no idea such an industry existed). The initial focus of the film is the uneasy relationship between the Essex’s experienced first mate, Owen Chase (Hemsworth) and its green but privileged captain George Pollard Jr (Walker). Murphy plays Matthew Joy, Chase’s childhood friend and a crew member on the ship. All of these characters, by the way, are real people.

Now of course you know that the Essex encounters a whale, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say it’s just a “whale movie”. Yes, whales play a pivotal role, but they actually don’t occupy as much screen time as you might imagine. The story goes way beyond just whales, and for those who don’t know the fate of the Essex and its crew I’d recommend avoiding that knowledge to get the most out of the experience. A big part of why the movie is so compelling comes from not knowing what will happen next and who will survive.

As with all good films, In the Heart of the Sea is about the characters, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a good feel for each of them. I do think Captain Pollard’s character could have been a little stronger (he was a little one-dimensional), especially at the beginning, but by the end I did feel like I understood them all quite well.

Having said that, the movie never quite soars like I wanted it to. Despite the impeccable effects, it lacked the sense of awe I think it needed to elevate the emotional punch to the next level. One of the problems is that these men are all whalers, and whaling is freaking cruel and barbaric. There’s just no way around it. Granted, people back in those days saw things differently and we get that, but for modern audiences it can be hard to root for  characters who kind of deserve whatever is coming to them. As a result, it is hard to know how to feel toward the characters and the whale(s) they hunt.

This leads into the other issue I had with the film, which is that there is no clear moral to the story — at least not until the very end. And it’s the kind of movie that feels like it ought to have some deeper meaning because too much shit happens and it’s not obviously not just some fun popcorn adventure. Despite Howard not showing us the most agonising parts of the story, the film is undoubtedly a distressing experience, and because of that I felt there should have been a more profound message — the kind of message Moby Dick apparently has.

Notwithstanding the film’s flaws, Howard is too good of a filmmaker and storyteller for his film to suck. It’s perhaps not the memorable epic I had been hoping for, but In the Heart of the Sea still ticks enough boxes and has enough enjoyable, thrilling and dramatic moments to satisfy this viewer.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Rush (2013)

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I don’t get or know anything about Formula One or car racing, or even cars for that matter – which is why I am surprised to say that Rush, based on the real life rivalry between F1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, is one of my favourite movies of 2013.

This sports biopic follows the careers of the British prodigy Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) and the Austrian genius Lauda (played by Daniel Bruhl from the time they were lowly Formula Three drivers until their meteoric rises to the F1 circuit, with the majority of the focus placed on their epic 1976 season.

I always say know as little about the plot as possible when seeing a movie, and in this case I would implore you to avoid all spoilers. Even though it is a true story (one which Lauda says is very accurate), Rush is full of dramatic turns (no pun intended), and knowing as little as possible will significantly improve the experience. I’m still stunned that some of the things in this film actually happened in real life.

Intentionally filmed by director Ron Howard with a gritty 70s feel, Rush offers intense racing sequences that don’t feel like they’ve been aided by special effects at all. I used to always scoff at F1 racing whenever it came up on TV because to me it was just a bunch of people driving cars around in circles. The presence of a live crowd was even more baffling considering the cars speed by so fast that you can’t really see anything, not to mention that it can be pretty dangerous too. But Rush has given me an appreciation for racing and an understanding of how much skill, discipline and risk-taking is involved at the top of the sport.

In some ways, the film’s drama away from the racing is even more thrilling. Hunt and Lauda are polar opposites who push each other to the limit. Each live by their own rules – Hunt is the wild, arrogant and charismatic playboy who thrives on natural talent and instincts, while Lauda is the disciplined, mechanical and calculating engineer who is afraid to let emotion affect his driving. There is a mutual dislike but also a deep respect and complicated sense of envy between the two, and their clash of personalities is what makes the movie so compelling from start to finish.

I’ve always considered Chris Hemsworth an average actor at best, but in Rush he is absolutely magnetic – it’s by far the best performance of his career. Daniel Burhl (who has received a Golden Globe nomination) is more understated and the lesser known name, but he is in every way Hemsworth’s equal, both in terms of screen time and performance. Both characters, despite their obvious flaws, are likable due to the crafty script and the performances, and because of that, you feel like you are rooting for both them despite the fact that there can only be one winner.

In all, Rush is my surprise hit of the year, and even without the surprise it’s still one of the best movies of the 2013.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone
The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!