Ron Howard

The Dark Tower (2017, Nikolaj Arcel)

The Dark Tower is the story of unremarkable white kid Tom Taylor–wait, he’s supposed to be eleven? No way. Anyway, it’s the story of unremarkable white teenager Tom Taylor who discovers, no, his visions are real and he is a wizard and he’s going to travel to another dimension and bring a legendary hero back to modern New York City. Once back they will battle to save the universe itself, thanks to the hero’s gunfighting abilities and the kid’s vague magical magicking.

Okay, well, it’s not actually vague magicking. Taylor’s got the Shining. You know, like in The Shining. When they tell him he’s got the Shining, you have to wonder how he got to be fifteen without seeing The Shining. Maybe because he’s supposed to be eleven.

Taylor’s dad died at some point before the movie starts so mom Katheryn Winnick has remarried. She went with astounding tool Nicholas Pauling, who wants Taylor out of there because papa lion? Maybe it’s because Taylor’s got problems–he draws visions of a mythic fantasy world, Idris Elba’s gunfighting hero, and Matthew McConaughey’s creepy man in black. Maybe they sent Taylor to the shrink for drawing pictures of Christopher Walken. At the start, it seems like McConaughey’s going to just do a Christopher Walken impression, which would be a lot better than what he ends up doing. The Walken impression would at least be amusing. Dark Tower is short on amusing.

Because Dark Tower is serious. Director Arcel plays it straight. The screenplay plays it straight. Taylor lives in a New York City infested with disguised demons but it’s still safe enough gun shops have zero security. And no one has cell phones. If Arcel had any personality in his direction, there’d be a possibility for this New York City. The sad thing about Dark Tower is all the missed opportunities. Because, even if it’s short on amusing and McConaughey isn’t as amusing as if he were aping Christopher Walken, none of the principal cast half-asses it. They’re just in an under-budgeted production. They hold together admirably.

Though it gets depressing watching Elba try to do acting while the film’s got no need for him to do any. The script’s got no need for him to do any. All the characters exist entirely through exposition, usually exposing about themselves to others. It’s a weak script. As pragmatic and unenthusiastic as Arcel’s direction gets, it’s nothing compared to the script. Junkie XL’s score does most of the heavy dramatic lifting, just because the script doesn’t have time for it. Of course, the script doesn’t have time for anything while it ought to be doing character development either. Sure, once Taylor gets to Fantasia, he immediately becomes fetching to the opposite sex and finds out he’s a wizard, but it’s not character development. It’s just setup for the finale. Sure, the film’s uninspired and disappointing, but it’s pragmatic as heck.

Taylor’s fine as the Boy Who Lived-lite. Elba’s… potentially good. He’s never near bad, but the part’s crap and Arcel’s got no time for acting. Arcel doesn’t even have time for McConaughey’s ostensible excesses as his evil, magical, maybe Satanic character. It might help if Elba and McConaughey–who have been nemeses for untold ages–had some chemistry. Elba can do lack of enthusiasm, but McConaughey phones it in during their handful of scenes together. Spellbinding acting it ain’t.

Dennis Haysbert and Jackie Earle Haley have glorified cameos. Haysbert is overly portentous but not embarrassing. Haley’s is embarrassing.

Technically, there’s nothing terrible. Rasmus Videbæk’s photography is fine. The special effects are all right. There’s not enough of them–either the budget limitations held back establishing shots or Arcel just doesn’t like them. Given his bland competence as a director, it seems more likely they’re budgetary omissions. There are a lot of budgetary omissions. They’re kind of Dark Tower’s thing–frequent, unexplained, inexcusable absences.

Because with what they had, the filmmakers should’ve been able to turn out a much better ninety-five minutes. The script’s the big problem. And Arcel does nothing to transcend it.

The worst thing about Tower is it actually does end up disappointing. The first half is riddled with problems and always seems absurdly unaware of itself in terms of being a knock-off Neverending Story, Princess Bride, and, I don’t know, Star Wars, but Taylor is sympathetic and compelling. Elba always seems like he’s eventually going to get some great scene. It’s just around the corner.

Only it’s not. A perfunctory ending is around the corner. Because the script, despite being low on ideas from the start, manages to run out of them as things move along.

It’s also–almost–too technically competent to be such narrative slop. Competencies aside, The Dark Tower is poorly written and badly produced. Those lacking qualities sink the picture further than it ought to sink.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nikolaj Arcel; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Arcel, based on characters created by Stephen King; director of photography, Rasmus Videbæk; edited by Alan Edward Bell and Dan Zimmerman; music by Junkie XL; production designers, Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl; produced by Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Erica Huggins; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Taylor (Jake), Idris Elba (Roland), Matthew McConaughey (Walter), Katheryn Winnick (Laurie), Nicholas Pauling (Lon), Claudia Kim (Arra), Dennis Haysbert (Steven), Jackie Earle Haley (Sayre), Fran Kranz (Pimli), Abbey Lee (Tirana), and José Zúñiga (Dr. Hotchkiss).


Splash (1984, Ron Howard)

Splash has a strange narrative structure. The front’s heavy, likely because the filmmakers make a real effort to establish Tom Hanks as a listless young (well, youngish) man. Of course, Hanks is a listless man with an apparently great job as a produce whole seller, an amazing Manhattan apartment and limitless funds. Then the end’s light, which is probably because Atlantis wasn’t in Splash‘s budget.

Strong writing from Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman–not to mention great direction from Howard and a mostly outstanding performance from Hanks–makes the first act sail through. Some of it’s so good, it takes Splash a while to recover from not pursuing those story threads.

The film’s often a slapstick comedy, especially when it follows Eugene Levy around. He’s in pursuit of Daryl Hannah, who’s the mermaid Hanks is unknowingly dating. Well, he knows he’s dating her but not the other bit.

Hannah’s got the most important role in the film. She doesn’t just have to be the ideal combination of sexy and sweet, she’s also got to be able to pull off being a genius. Apparently mermaids are all geniuses. Mer-people. It’s never explained; Howard and company offer just enough to make it passable without raising too many questions.

Levy’s okay–his role in the script is the weakest–but John Candy’s supporting turn more than makes up for him.

Howard expertly handles the film’s various tones, with excellent photography from Donald Peterman.

Lee Holdridge’s score is nice too.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman, based on a screen story by Friedman and a story by Brian Grazer; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by Grazer; released by Touchstone Films.

Starring Tom Hanks (Allen Bauer), Daryl Hannah (Madison), Eugene Levy (Walter Kornbluth), John Candy (Freddie Bauer), Dody Goodman (Mrs. Stimler), Shecky Greene (Mr. Buyrite), Richard B. Shull (Dr. Ross), Bobby Di Cicco (Jerry), Howard Morris (Dr. Zidell), Tony DiBenedetto (Tim, The Doorman), Patrick Cronin (Michaelson), Charles Walker (Michaelson’s Partner), David Knell (Claude), Jeff Doucette (Junior), Royce D. Applegate (Buckwalter), Tony Longo (Augie), Nora Denney (Ms. Stein), Charles Macaulay (The President), Ronald F. Hoiseck (Dr. Johannsen), Lou Tiano (Bartender), Joe Grifasi (Manny) and Rance Howard (McCullough).


Cowboys & Aliens (2011, Jon Favreau), the extended version

Five screenwriters get credit on Cowboys & Aliens. I wonder which one (or ones) are responsible for the stupider “twists” in the plot. Cowboys is stupid the entire time, of course, but it gets even dumber as it progresses.

The movie’s big problem is director Favreau. He isn’t just incapable of directing actors (Olivia Wilde’s performance is atrocious beyond belief), he can’t keep track of a big cast. He’s constantly losing track of the characters, usually in action scenes when he needs to be paying attention.

I assume he’s also responsible for telling cinematographer Matthew Libatique to shoot the film through a muddy lens and he okayed Harry Gregson-Williams’s lame score too. In short, Favreau’s a disastrous director for this movie. It doesn’t even feel like he’s seen a Western before.

For example, Daniel Craig’s supposed to be playing a “Man With No Name” type. Except he’s kind to dogs so the viewer knows he’s really all right. While Craig’s lack of personality is partially his own fault (the script and Favreau do no favors), he’s visibly contemptuous of the material. It’s obvious he thinks it’s stupid.

And it is stupid. It’s terribly stupid. But Harrison Ford manages to give an all right performance, even with a dumber character arc than Craig’s got.

There’s some outstanding supporting work from, no surprise, Sam Rockwell and also Paul Dano and Keith Carradine. Walton Goggins shows up in way too small a part and is great.

Cowboys & Aliens‘s imbecility, surprisingly, overpowers its incompetence.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Favreau; screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on a story by Fergus, Ostby and Steve Oedekerk and a graphic novel by Fred Van Lente, Andrew Foley, Dennis Calero, Luciano Lima, Luciano Kars, Silvio Spotti and Jeremy Wilson; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Dan Lebental and Jim May; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Johnny Dodge, Kurtzman, Lindelof, Orci and Scott Mitchell Rosenberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Daniel Craig (Jake Lonergan), Harrison Ford (Woodrow Dolarhyde), Olivia Wilde (Ella Swenson), Sam Rockwell (Doc), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado), Paul Dano (Percy Dolarhyde), Keith Carradine (Sheriff John Taggart), Clancy Brown (Meacham), Noah Ringer (Emmett Taggart), Ana de la Reguera (Maria) and Walton Goggins (Hunt).


Apollo 13 (1995, Ron Howard)

While Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon’s characters are the only ones in danger in Apollo 13, they remain calm for almost the entire runtime. There’s no point to panicking, something Hanks points out in dialogue. Instead, director Howard focuses on an exceptional assortment of character actors–as the NASA Mission Control–for the dramatic parts. Even Kathleen Quinlan, as Hanks’s wife, has to keep it together for the most part.

Otherwise, regardless of how it actually happened, the film’s dramatics wouldn’t work. Apollo 13 isn’t a disaster movie, it’s a science and engineering drama. Howard creates a genre with the film; I don’t think anyone has attempted to follow in his footsteps.

There’s no history synopsis at the start, so unless an unknowing viewer paid attention to the opening titles, the finish might be a surprise. Howard has to keep up the tension for both kinds of viewers, informed and not. He and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill probably had a hell of a time putting the film together; they make it appear seamless and organically flowing

Wondrous photography from Dean Cundey and fine music from James Horner assist.

Hanks and Bacon have the most to do, with Paxton and the earthbound Gary Sinise providing sturdy support. Great work from Quinlan. Ed Harris binds the Mission Control scenes.

Of the outstanding character actors, Loren Dean, Clint Howard, Gabriel Jarret and Christian Clemenson stand out.

Apollo 13 is assured, masterful work all around… but especially from Howard.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, based on a book by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Bill Paxton (Fred Haise), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly), Ed Harris (Gene Kranz), Kathleen Quinlan (Marilyn Lovell), Jean Speegle Howard (Blanch Lovell), Tracy Reiner (Mary Haise), David Andrews (Pete Conrad), Chris Ellis (Deke Slayton), Joe Spano (NASA Director), Xander Berkeley (Henry Hurt), Marc McClure (Glynn Lunney), Ben Marley (John Young), Clint Howard (EECOM White), Loren Dean (EECOM Arthur), Tom Wood (EECOM Gold), Googy Gress (RETRO White), Patrick Mickler (RETRO Gold), Ray McKinnon (FIDO White), Max Grodénchik (FIDO Gold), Christian Clemenson (Dr. Chuck), Brett Cullen (CAPCOM 1), Ned Vaughn (CAPCOM 2), Andy Milder (GUIDO White), Geoffrey Blake (GUIDO Gold), Wayne Duvall (LEM Controller White), Jim Meskimen (TELMU White), Joseph Culp (TELMU Gold), John Short (INCO White), Ben Bode (INCO Gold), Todd Louiso (FAO White), Gabriel Jarret (GNC White), Christopher John Fields (Booster White), Kenneth White (Grumman Rep), James Ritz (Ted) and Andrew Lipschultz (Launch Director).


Willow (1988, Ron Howard)

I wonder if Willow’s lack of popularity has anything to do with the protagonist not fitting the regular sci-fi and fantasy and magic standard. Not because Warwick Davis is a dwarf, but because his character is so non-traditional. He’s not an idealistic youth, or a hidden prince… he’s a farmer with a wife, two kids and money problems. He’s some normal guy. It (along with the physical characteristics) block some of the idealizing.

Unrelated, Willow’s not very good. There’s a lot of blame to go around and, if the film weren’t from George Lucas’s conception, the responsibility would fall on screenwriter Bob Dolman. The dialogue is bad and he doesn’t have many good characters (only three, in fact). He doesn’t have any good villains—actually, they’re all quiet bad—and the action is poorly spread out. The biggest action sequence comes before the finale.

However, it’s a Lucas production (and he’s credited with the story), so I imagine many of those problems are Lucas’s fault.

But director Ron Howard isn’t without reproach. His composition is okay, but his direction of actors is terrible. He’s lucky to have Val Kilmer (in the Han Solo part) because Kilmer’s at least able to have fun without direction. Joanne Whalley is good (before she disappears) and Jean Marsh is an effective villain. But the acting’s otherwise mediocre or lame.

Another problem is the special effects. They’re too ambitious for composite shots, even with masterful stop motion.

Still, Willow’s not an abject failure.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Bob Dolman, based on a story by George Lucas; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill and Richard Hiscott; music by James Horner; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Nigel Wooll; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Warwick Davis (Willow Ufgood), Val Kilmer (Madmartigan), Joanne Whalley (Sorsha), Jean Marsh (Queen Bavmorda), Patricia Hayes (Fin Raziel), Billy Barty (High Aldwin), Pat Roach (Gen. Kael), Gavan O’Herlihy (Airk Thaughbaer), Kevin Pollak (Rool), Rick Overton (Franjean), David Steinberg (Meegosh), Mark Northover (Burglekutt), Phil Fondacaro (Vohnkar) and Julie Peters (Kiaya Ufgood).


Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)

Once upon a time (in Hollywood), there was a bald director (who always wore a cap) who first got famous on television as an actor, then as a director of comedies, who then started making excellent mainstream Hollywood pictures. Then he started making mainstream crap and then it got worse.

The question of Frost/Nixon is the question of Ron Howard’s (mainstream) artistic solvency. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t quite so simple–oh, Howard does a fantastic job and would certainly be on the road to a new artistic period if it weren’t for a couple things. First, the trailer of his Da Vinci Code 2 played before this film. Second, if Howard could always turn off the crap-production–if he could recognize good material for the screen (he and writer Peter Morgan were on NPR talking about how Howard jetted to London for the play’s opening and snapped up the rights immediately), if he could not use scripts from Akiva Goldman–why hasn’t he done it before now? Did the critical drubbing of Da Vinci force him to prove he was competent? These are all valid questions, but they do distract from the film. So enough.

Frost/Nixon finds Richard Milhous Nixon, as usual, to be a fantastic character for examination. During the film’s third act, with Nixon laid bare–Frank Langella’s performance is so utterly captivating, talking about it in depth might get boring–creates one of cinema’s greatest antiheroes. His humanity–his recognition of his shortcomings and his bottomless regret–it makes Frost/Nixon a significant achievement. There’s a great argument scene–between Michael Sheen, Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen and Oliver Platt–early on about the goal of the interview–to make Nixon look sympathetic or to make him accept responsibility for Watergate. The beauty of the film, which I suppose anyone familiar with the interviews would already know, is Nixon is never more sympathetic than when acknowledging his criminal culpability. And that early scene never foreshadows that possibility. Howard keeps the film surprising from each scene to next, even though–until the coda–the direction is muted.

As Frost, Sheen oscillates between being the film’s protagonist and a passenger. This transition happens at odd times too–the film is never, after the first fifteen minutes, about David Frost… it just takes the film a while to recognize it. But that condition is one Sheen works with beautifully. He can be the lead, he can be supporting, he can be off-screen. He’s fantastic. The most stunning part of Sheen’s performance is when the film gets to the interviews, watching his on-camera persona and trying to reconcile it with the off.

Rockwell, Macfadyen and Platt are all excellent. Rockwell’s got the most to do–and the film’s most difficult task of turning a boring character into an engaging one throughout. Rebecca Hall, who has a thankless female role–she’s only in it so Diane Sawyer isn’t the only female character–is so great, she makes it seem like an essential facet. Kevin Bacon’s good. Toby Jones has a fine small part.

I can’t ignore Langella any longer. His performance is heartbreaking. The complexities he achieves, in a role rife with laughter-producing dialogue (I don’t think anyone’s ever portrayed Nixon with more self-aware humor… in fact, he’s usually portrayed without it), are amazing. See, I told you it’d be boring.

I left Frost/Nixon elated. It’s great mainstream Hollywood cinema, something it seems this century has been, so far, lacking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on his stage play; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Brian Grazer, Howard, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Frank Langella (Richard Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jr.), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Matthew Macfadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing) and Toby Jones (Swifty Lazar).


Changeling (2008, Clint Eastwood)

During the lousiest parts of Changeling–easily identifiable by Jeffrey Donovan’s increased presence–there should be a disclaimer running across the bottom of the screen: “It doesn’t stay this bad… promise.”

Changeling is the worst film Clint Eastwood’s made in years. It’s easily the worst of his serious films–afterwards, I realized his last film before this one was Letters from Iwo Jima, which is stunning. One film’s an artistic expression, the other is the most over-produced Oscar bait I’ve sat through in a long time.

Eastwood’s never been a director-for-hire, but maybe Changeling signals some kind of a change. There’s absolutely no personality to this film. Eastwood’s direction, his composition, is impeccable. His musical score, fantastic. It looks great. But it’s empty. True stories aren’t good because they’re true–and true stories meant to win Angelina Jolie her coveted Best Actress statuette–vehicles for highly paid actresses who don’t necessarily bring in the box office dollars… they’re the worst kind of true stories.

Eastwood does find material in Changeling he’s interested in, but none of it features Jolie. Once he gets done with the fetishistic approach to daily life in 1928, he’s done with her. There are occasional moments of interest, like when John Malkovich shows up, but there are also terrible stretches. The film’s interesting moments are the discovery of a crime, when Michael Kelly’s the protagonist. Kelly’s great in the film, one of the best performances, and he gets the entirely un-Academy part of enabling the discovery of truth. The Oscar desperate moments feature–really–Amy Ryan as a hooker with a heart of gold who gets ECT just to show off her twenty-four karats.

I don’t fault Ryan for taking the role–I’m sure it came with assurances of a Best Supporting campaign and all–but Clint Eastwood making a film so desperate to win Oscars it brings in a ringer? It’s painful to watch.

Jolie’s fine in the lead. She’s never great and never terrible. Her despair is believable (because it’s Angelina Jolie and we know she’s a mother), which is about all the role calls for. The most interesting parts of her character–going back to work while her son is missing, digging a little on her bald boss–are never explored. They wouldn’t look good in that Best Actress reel.

Malkovich is utterly solid in a role with nothing for him to do. It’s technically the second biggest role and I guess they needed another name for the poster. Jason Butler Harner and Eddie Alderson are both great, so is Geoffrey Pierson.

When I heard about Changeling, I thought the biggest problem would be J. Michael Straczynski’s script and I was right. The dialogue’s fine–never particularly good–and the plotting is okay. It’s boring, but okay. But Straczynski’s approach to characters might actually be Changeling‘s place in cinematic history (in addition to being a blot on Eastwood’s filmography). Straczynski’s characters are entirely one-note–every last one of them–and it exemplifies the difference between one-dimensional bad guys and one-dimensional good guys. The bad guys are unbelievable. The good guys… it’s sort of assumed they’re not always being white knights. But the bad guys? Donovan’s performance is atrocious–it’s one of the worst I can remember seeing in a film from such a good director–but his character is idiotic too. The guy’s always bad. Compared to Donovan’s cop, Milton treated the serpent like Mickey Mouse. It makes the film excruciating for long stretches.

I can’t figure out why Clint Eastwood would have made this movie. Sure, he got a bigger budget than usual and an interesting setting, but it’s crap. It’s well-made crap, but I felt embarrassed watching it. Worse, I felt bad for Eastwood… Changeling is the kind of malarky Ron Howard makes now, not Clint Eastwood.

And look who produced it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by J. Michael Straczynski; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Eastwood; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Robert Lorenz; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Angelina Jolie (Christine Collins), John Malkovich (Reverand Briegleb), Jeffrey Donovan (Captain J.J. Jones), Michael Kelly (Detective Ybarra), Colm Feore (Chief Davis), Jason Butler Harner (Gordon Stewart Northcott), Amy Ryan (Carol Dexter), Geoff Pierson (Hahn), Denis O’Hare (Dr. Steele), Frank Wood (Ben Harris), Peter Gerety (Dr. Tarr), Gattlin Griffith (Walter Collins) and Devon Conti (Arthur Hutchins).


The Da Vinci Code (2006, Ron Howard)

Hans Zimmer did the score for The Da Vinci Code? I hope he apologized to James Horner for all the plagiarisms (particularly from Horner’s two Star Trek scores and then Aliens).

I don’t know where to start with The Da Vinci Code, except maybe to say it’s the finest film of its kind. It’s actually amazing–even to me, someone who tried to watch Bloodsport–but The Da Vinci Code is the most soulless film I’ve ever seen. It’s not even in a bad way. It’s just perfectly clear absolutely no one involved with the film, from Ron Howard cashing his paycheck to Tom Hanks cashing his, cares at all about the motion picture they are making. The cinematographer–Salvatore Totino (whose work I am unfamiliar with)–doesn’t even care if the lighting in an interior (shot on set) scene matches. At the start, I at least thought–as Howard needlessly spun the camera around–the photography would be professional. It is not.

My degree in fiction writing is only at the master’s level; studying the fine work of Dan Brown is, I believe, a select post-doctoral program–possibly involving lots of French actors speaking English (Jean Reno and Audrey Tautou) and British actors doing poor Spanish accents (Paul Bettany and Alfred Molina). In other words, I have no idea if the most interesting aspects of The Da Vinci Code are from the source novel or from Akiva Goldsman’s magic quill. For example, Hanks’s apparent superpowers. He can do some weird thing where letters flash white and rearrange themselves. He can also conjure up holographic representations of the past or faraway objects. Tautou has a similar power, but she can interact with these conjured apparitions. Her powers are different, because she’s the descendent of Jesus. The movie never makes clear where Hanks gets his powers from, but it might have something to do with his hair looking really stupid.

If I were Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–and could pay someone to read the novel to make sure the elements aren’t in there first–I would sue Howard and company. The Da Vinci Code not only borrows full scenes from the third Indiana Jones and lines from the first, Howard and Goldsman go so far as to steal the Force. They steal the Force and give it to Tom Hanks and his bad hair. There’s something wrong about that one.

The film’s notoriety–and the Vatican’s denunciation of it–is misplaced. It’s such an absurdly terrible film, I can’t believe the Vatican didn’t get behind it all the way. Besides it being sacrilegious and all, it’s so stupidly handled, it’s not going to convince anyone of its credulousness.

The film is not, however, intentionally incompetent. It’s just such a giant paycheck for everyone involved (except maybe Goldsman, who did better writing work on his first great epic, Batman & Robin). Ian McKellen, so terrible in all the films he can’t stop lauding, is actually kind of funny here. Almost every delivery is mocking the film and the dialogue–one could really study the dialogue Goldman writes for Hanks… it’s particularly stylized and recognizable and atrocious; McKellen even goes so far as to mock Hanks, whose performance might be the film’s worst (except for Bettany, Tautou, Reno and Molina). Jürgen Prochnow, who has done the made-for-cable tripe Da Vinci belongs with, brings some humor to his performance as well.

I’m not exactly sure how Howard and Hanks, who made Apollo 13 for you know who’s sake, rationalized making this project. They didn’t demand it be good or even attempt to be good. The film moves well-enough, the frequent stupidity and the short scenes keeping up a decent pace, and surely some good screenwriter could have come in and tried to make something enthusiastic out of the material. With all the special effects and the terrible music (Zimmer sets a car chase to some classical movement in an astoundingly incompetent sequence), with Hanks summoning a miniature solar system, it’s bewildering. There’s a lengthy scene with Tautou and Hanks trying to find some hidden secret–the clues are all written in sweat, only visible under black light, all encrypted so only Hanks can decode them. Just to stretch this asinine scene out, there are three different messages. If only Hanks can read them, why not just one? Howard doesn’t even try to disguise the pointless material.

The whole film–given the competency of everyone involved (except Goldsman, who’s always awful)–is something of a mystery. It’s a fine example of the sad state of Hollywood filmmaking. But at least it’s really, really funny. I’ve never had a movie so vehemently refuse to engage my brain–I’m even considering writing a monograph about it, examining the film scene-by-scene.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Brian Grazer and John Calley; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jürgen Prochnow (Vernet), Paul Bettany (Silas), Jean Reno (Bezu Fache), Alfred Molina (Bishop Aringarosa), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean) and Etienne Chicot (Collet).


American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas)

I don’t know where to start. The most flippant place to start–the most colloquial–is with George Lucas… specifically, what happened to the George Lucas who made American Graffiti. But it’s not just Lucas. Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck didn’t go on to write anything close to Graffiti–the conversations in the film, the dialogue, is exceptional, some of the finest I can think of. But Lucas’s composition is exalted with itself. The scene at the hop with Ron Howard and Cindy Williams arguing, Lucas’s delight at getting the other couple next to them into the shot is clear. The scenes with the cars it’s obvious, but Lucas is enthralled with filmmaking all throughout American Graffiti. It’s Lucas playing with that big electric train set, something almost no filmmaker ever does.

For a film with the cinematographers listed in the end credits, American Graffiti is beautifully lighted. I first saw the film when I was in my early teens and to this day, all my memories of teenage late nights are in the film’s day-for-night lighting. The street scenes are amazing. The scene with the police car is fantastic, but Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips’s entire ride is probably the best. It’s all just so perfectly executed–and only made better by the exceptional editing.

Starting the film this time, I tried to remember who got to be the de facto protagonist. Narratively speaking, it’s Richard Dreyfuss, but only because of the conclusion. During, it kind of roams. It’s never Charles Martin Smith, which is fine, since he and Candy Clark’s arc is probably the most amusing of the film. The Ron Howard arc is the most serious, with the Le Mat and Dreyfuss arcs sort of alternating in between. The most affecting arc has to be the Le Mat and Phillips one, just because their acting is so great. And Le Mat giving Phillips the tour of the hot rod graveyard–and of his own psyche–is one of the film’s defining scenes. Lucas, Katz and Huyck manage to do so much muted, so much in just two lines of dialogue.

With the postscripts, American Graffiti reveals its biggest surprise–the reality outside the one night of the film’s present action. Seeing it as a twelve year-old, I understood a bit of the Vietnam presence, but not for Dreyfuss’s character. With the soundtrack, the music going on the radio, American Graffiti cocoons itself. The postscripts, which come a few seconds later each viewing–with each viewing, the subjective takes over the clock’s ticking and I always hope this time they won’t fade in.

The acting’s all excellent, with Dreyfuss, Le Mat, Clark and Phillips the best. Bo Hopkins is also an essential component, just because he makes Dreyfuss’s adventures seem both threatening and, well, fun. Some of Dreyfuss being the protagonist is intentional, but a lot of it is just Dreyfuss’s command of the screen. The scene with Wolfman Jack, for example, is not a supporting character scene. To some degree, Howard gets left at the drive-in, but he kind of needs to be, since he’s the least likable character. As for Harrison Ford’s small role… he’s good, but it’s kind of unbelievable he eventually became a leading man (as he defers to Le Mat in all their exchanges).

I could waste time–on the last paragraph–speculating on what went wrong–because something certainly did–with George Lucas following this film, but I don’t want to. I don’t even want to make it in as a parenthetical. The best thing about American Graffiti is how it truly does get better with each viewing.

Choo-choo.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Lucas; written by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck; directors of photography, Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage; edited by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas; produced by Francis Ford Coppola; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Curt Henderson), Ron Howard (Steve Bolander), Paul Le Mat (John Milner), Charles Martin Smith (Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields), Cindy Williams (Laurie Henderson), Candy Clark (Debbie Dunham), Mackenzie Phillips (Carol), Wolfman Jack (XERB Disc Jockey), Bo Hopkins (Joe Young), Manuel Padilla Jr. (Carlos), Beau Gentry (Ants), Harrison Ford (Bob Falfa), Jim Bohan (Officer Holstein) and Jana Bellan (Budda).


Parenthood (1989, Ron Howard)

I’m trying to find a synonym for genial… excuse me a moment. I like the look of gregarious, but the definition doesn’t fit. Convivial is going to be the compromise word. Parenthood is convivial. Somehow, Howard and company manage to convince the viewer to be touched by the movie’s events, but not to give them enough thought to realize how contrived and unrealistic the situations get. It’s kind of brilliant in a way–Ganz and Mandel don’t exactly mature their humor of the early 1980s, but they add parental responsibility to it. To some degree it works. Parenthood is a pleasant, if too long and too saccharine, experience.

But it fails in some special ways. For instance, I think I remembered, while watching, Keanu Reeves’s character’s name and only because Dianne Wiest says it so many times. The rest of the characters, the names sound kind of familiar, but I could never do a lineup. It’s the Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen family or the Dianne Wiest family or the Rick Moranis. Howard cast very recognizable people. The two least recognizable main cast members–Tom Hulce and Harley Jane Kozak, are the only ones recognizable because of their characters. Even so, a lot of the acting is excellent. Wiest, Martin, Steenburgen… actually almost everyone is good. Except Hulce. Hulce is terrible. So’s Joaquin Phoenix, showing youth and a different name do not a better actor make. Hulce and Phoenix’s scenes get painful at times, taking the onus off Reeves, who isn’t good, but at least has a few solid moments. Jason Robards has some great scenes, but the movie–the problem with it–is there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough scenes with Robards and Martin together, since the movie blames Robards for all of Martin’s problems. There aren’t enough–really any, the funny grandmother (Helen Shaw is a lot of fun), gets more scenes–with Eileen Ryan. She’s mother to main cast, wife to Robards, but takes a backseat to everything. At best, she gets a few extra seconds of screen time being mortified at having an interracial grandkid. At best. There’s literally nothing for her to do in the movie, which probably speaks volumes if anyone wants to stop and listen.

Howard’s direction is only distinctive in tone–look, he’s found a way to make a very special episode of a sitcom into a two hour movie–not in composition, certainly not in direction of actors. Hulce and Phoenix strain the suspension of disbelief, particularly Hulce. Phoenix, though atrocious, at least has the excuse of playing the weakest character in the script. It’s cheap and obvious, but passable.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, based on a story by Ganz, Mandel and Howard; director of photography, Donald McAlpine; edited by Mike Hill and Daniel P. Hanley; music by Randy Newman; production designer, Todd Hallowell; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Harley Jane Kozak (Susan Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman) and Helen Shaw (Grandma).


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