(On TV, November 2017) One of the problems of approaching a movie education by going backwards in time is that you see the end before the beginning. You end up watching the revisionism before the classics that are being revisited, and actors at the end of their career paying homage to themselves at their prime. It usually makes sense in the end, but the first impressions can be strange. So it is that while I’m impressed by The Shootist’s approach to the last few days of a legendary gunman (John Wayne, in his final role), I can’t help but feel that I would have gotten far more out of the movie had I seen it after watching the dozens of essential westerns and John Wayne movies. Not only is The Shootist about a gunslinger counting down the days until cancer kills him, it’s explicitly about the end of the Far West as a distinct period—it takes place in a city where automobiles are starting to displace horses, water and electricity are changing the nature of living, and where civilization doesn’t have much use for killers, even righteous ones. The film explicitly ties itself to Wayne’s legacy by using clips from his previous movies as introduction to his character, and there’s an admirable finality to this being Wayne’s last role. I found myself curiously sympathetic to his gruff character, and easily swept along the plot even through (or given) I’m firmly in favour of modernity over the western. Other small highlights can be found in the film—Ron Howard plays a callow youth who learn better, Lauren Bacall looks amazing and there’s even Scatman Crothers in a minor role. Under Don Siegel’s direction, the atmosphere of a city entering the modern age is well done, and there’s a genuine melancholy both to the film and to Wayne himself as they contemplate the end of eras both social and personal. I’m not quite so fond of the specific way the film chooses to conclude, or the various action highlights that seem perfunctory as a way to alleviate what is essentially a contemplative film. But even as I head deeper in the Western genre, I think I’ve found its epilogue in The Shootist.
(Second viewing, On DVD, September 2017) I remember standing in line to watch this film on opening week, and being energized by the result. Decades later, Apollo 13 is still as good as it ever was—as a triumphant look at the American effort to land on the moon, it remains unequalled, and while the then-astonishing special effects have aged, they still hold up reasonably well—that launch sequence is still awe-inspiring. They may never be a movie about Apollo 11 because it went so well, but the Apollo 13 mission was a different story, and it’s through that fateful flight that we get a look at the astonishing achievement of the American space program. The historical details are immediately credible, and there’s much to be said about a film made in the nineties to reflect events that were then barely more than twenty years past—trying to recreate 1973 today would be more difficult and probably less authentic, without mentioning all the people who have since died and wouldn’t be there to provide their advice. Reportedly free of major inaccuracies, Apollo 13 can’t quite escape some artistic licensing issues, whether it’s leaden explanatory dialogue, scenes set up to discuss a thematic concern or the vastly overwrought climax played up for all it’s worth. Still, these are small concerns compared to the entire film—it remains one of director Ron Howard’s most successful films, and it features a cast of a half-dozen great actors, from Tom Hanks’ immediately sympathetic commander Jim Lovell to Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and one of Ed Harris’s career-best iconic performance as no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz. Everything clicks together to make up that elusive movie magic, effective even when knowing exactly how everything will play out. It’s not meant to be subtle (the last-act passage in which NASA reflects that Apollo 13 will be remembered as one of their “finest moments” lays out what viewers are expected to take away from the film itself) but it’s remarkably effective. As a lapsed space buff, I can’t help but love Apollo 13, but I’m reasonably sure that it remains a great movie for everyone even today.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, September 2017) I recall seeing The Paper on its opening week, happy (as a former high-school paper editor) to see a film where newspapermen were heroes. I kept a good memory of the result, but I was curious to see if it held up two decades later. Fortunately, The Paper remains almost a definitive statement on 1990s city journalism. Tightly compressed in not much more than 24 hours of action, The Paper follows a hectic day in the life of a newspaper editor juggling work, family and citywide tensions. Directed with a lot of nervous energy by Ron Howard, The Paper can boast of an astonishing cast. Other than a top-form Michael Keaton as a harried news editor, there’s Robert Duvall as a grizzled senior editor, Glenn Close as something of an antagonist, Marisa Tomei as a pregnant journalist desperate for a last bit of newsroom action, Randy Quaid as a rough-and-tough journalist … and so on, all the way to two of my favourite character actresses, Roma Maffia and Siobhan Fallon, in small roles. The dense and taut script by the Koepp brothers offers a fascinating glimpse at the inner working of a nineties NYC newspaper, bolstered by astonishing set design: That newsroom is a thing of beauty as the camera flies by and catches glimpses of dozens of other subplots running along the edges of the screen. You may even be reminded of how things used to work before the rise of the 24-hour Internet-fuelled news cycle. (Of all the things that the Internet has killed, “Stop the presses!” is an under-appreciated loss.) The Paper is one of those solid, satisfying movies that don’t really revolutionize anything, but happen to execute their premise as well as they could, and ends up being a reference in time. I’m sad to report that by 2017, The Paper seems to have been largely forgotten—while I caught it on Cable TV, it rarely comes up in discussions, has a scant IMDB following, and is rarely mentioned while discussing the careers of the players involved. Too bad—with luck, it will endure as the kind of film you’re happy to discover by yourself.
(Video on Demand, February 2016) With Inferno, Tom Hanks is back for a third largely indifferent time as Robert Langdon, one of his career’s most undistinguished roles. One can’t fault Hank for teaming up with Ron Howard in adapting one of the most high-profile thriller series of the century so far … but the problem with Langdon is that he’s a character fully fleshed out by Hanks alone. There’s little on the page (either the book or the script) to make Langdon anything more than a fountain of information and a mannequin running through a convoluted plot. In the absence of such niceties, we’re left to rely on Tom Hanks, all-around American good guy, to give life to the series. To their credit, the filmmakers behind Inferno wisely dispensed with the most infuriating element of the novel’s conclusion, although they didn’t soften the moronic overpopulation rationale. The plot is ludicrous and the historical trivia is generally unremarkable, but the film does its best to wring a few honest moments of suspense from the result. I do believe that the film is an improvement over the borderline-unlikable book, but that’s not much of a baseline to begin with. (Inferno is the novel that finally made me give up on Dan Brown after being a bit of a contrarian cheerleader for him in post-The Da Vinci Code times.) You can argue that the story is more interesting than the previous two Langdon movies, but the freshness of the symbologist-as-hero premise has faded almost entirely. The result is average without dipping into mediocrity, which would have been a real danger at this point in the series. This being said, this is no call for a sequel. Let Hanks do something else.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) On some level, I’m nonplussed by the decision not only to make In the Heart of the Sea, but to spin it in-story as “the inspiration for Moby Dick”. If you want to sink a blockbuster budget into showing the miseries of eighteenth century whale hunting, why not be entirely fictional, or squarely remake Moby Dick and throw in as much CGI into it? But no. This is the story of the Essex, which inspired Moby Dick, and it’s based on a nonfiction book. Rather than be faithful to an adaptation, the filmmakers now have to limit themselves to a patchwork of testimonials describing a true story, and wrap it in a framing device about Herman Melville gathering research material for his upcoming book. The result seems almost an oddity in today’s made-for-teens blockbuster landscape, with lavish production means spent on a subject that approaches irrelevance—despite a too-cute wink at today’s oil industry. Still, as far as modern technology allows for a credible re-creation of the eighteenth-century whaling industry and perils, In the Heart of the Sea certainly has its high points: Beyond the cramped shipboard living conditions and terrible storms, chasing whales takes on an extra edge when confronted with a cetacean antagonist seemingly intent of destroying our pesky human characters. Interpersonal conflicts eventually turn into a terrible story of survival at sea, by which time we better understand why the story is definitely not that of Moby Dick. Liam Hemsworth brings his usual easy charisma to the lead role. Director Ron Howard adds another good movie to his eclectic repertoire, even though In the Heart of the Sea definitely lacks the extra oomph of his better efforts—it’s no Rush, for instance. While the result may not fascinate anyone except those lucky few keenly interested in historical naval dramas, In the Heart of the Sea isn’t a bad movie. It just lacks whatever is needed for a truly satisfying experience.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) Given the speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more movies about the sport. Considering Rush, though, the wait has been worth it: Easily eclipsing 2001’s Driven, this historical bio-drama has everything we’d wish for in a racing film, and strong historical accuracy as a bonus. Centered around the 1976 Formula 1 season in which British racer Daniel Hunt competed against Austrian legend Nikki Lauda, Rush is an actor’s showcase, a convincing period recreation, a virtuoso blend of special effects and crackling good drama. Expertly directed by Ron Howard, it’s gripping from the very first moments, pitting a charismatic playboy and a valorous technician against each other. Howard’s direction doesn’t stay still for long, and does a fine job at summarizing an eventful season’s worth of incidents into a striking whole. The atmosphere of the high-flying 1970s Formula 1 circuit is impressively conveyed, including impressive race sequences with period cars. (Was is done with CGI or practical? It doesn’t matter when the film is that good.) Much of Rush‘s effectiveness boils down to its two lead actors: Chris Hemsworth makes full use of his charisma as the seductive Hunt, his brashness clashing against the methodical Lauda very well-played by Daniel Bruhl. The two make for compelling rivals, and Rush makes maximum use of their conflict in allowing us a peek into the mind of top-notch race drivers. As exciting for its dialogue scenes than for its racing action, Rush may not look like much on paper, but becomes steadily engrossing without any effort from the viewer.