REVIEW: Inferno

30 10 2016

Dan Brown’s historically-inspired adventure tales have never felt more like a “National Treasure” movie than in Ron Howard’s adaptation of his most recent Robert Langdon tale, “Inferno.” What might pass as labyrinthine on the page proves laborious on the screen as the story runs in two opposite directions at once to cover 600 pages in 2 hours.

On the one hand, Langdon (Tom Hanks) tries to piece together two days he seems to have forgotten – during which time he went from Cambridge, MA to Florence, took a priceless artifact from the Uffizi and suffered massive head trauma. He lacks the luxury to sit down and calmly place all the puzzle pieces together, however, as a consortium of Italian police, World Health Organization officials, and corporate interests track him down. Langdon unwittingly possesses information from Ben Foster’s Bertrand Zobrist, a recently deceased billionaire who took Thomas Malthus a little too seriously and gives morbid TED Talk-style lectures about the grave dangers of overpopulation.

If it sounds like “Inferno” has one too many plates for Howard to keep spinning, that’s because it does. Screenwriter David Koepp ensures that none are ever dropped, which is a pretty remarkable feat, though plenty come close to breaking with all the character reversals upon which Brown insists. (Seriously, he makes the “Now You See Me” series look like a model of restraint in this regard.) There are worse things to watch than Hanks’ Langdon on the run with Felicity Jones’ Dr. Sienna Brooks, a child prodigy and early Langdon fan. Yet there are plenty better things as well, especially given the page-turning quality that Brown’s books possess. “Contagion,” but as a glorified chase movie, feels like settling for less. B-2stars

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REVIEW: In the Heart of the Sea

1 05 2016

“Do the stories only exist to make us respect the seas?” This utterance from Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) kicks off “In the Heart of the Sea,” a two-hour riff on the inspiration of Moby Dick by Ron Howard.  The film shot in the fall of 2013, began test screening in the summer of 2014 for a planned release in spring of 2015 – only to be pushed back for a late winter 2015 opening. In those two years to tinker with the raw materials, apparently no one thought it was worth saving the project from playing like a book report run through an Instagram filter.

These kind of high intensity, high prestige dramas are normally prime territory for Ron Howard, whom I affectionately dubbed the king of the “Sunday afternoon on TNT movie” upon the release of “Rush” in 2013. He has dabbled in bringing other decades and centuries to life before, each time bringing a sense of specificity and thematic relevance. “In the Heart of the Sea,” on the other hand, feels synthetic through and through. The effect of shooting on a backlot or in front of a green-screen seeps into every frame of the film, constantly highlighting the artifice underlining this human survival drama.

As if that were not enough, the film suffers from many other predictable flaws that have become a common refrain. The nearly 30 minutes of exposition – a full quarter of the film – bog down “In the Heart of the Sea” from the get-go. When it finally does leave the port, screenwriter Charles Leavitt never commits to making the journey primarily a visual effects spectacle about the hunt for the whale or a survival drama. The two coexist unsteadily in the finished film.

Chris Hemsworth, too, proves ill-equipped to correct the course with his performance. His stardom essentially stems from the hammer with which Marvel equips him and the magazine headlines that followed. As of yet, Hemsworth has yet to really pass muster as a serious leading man. Hopefully audiences will soon see acting chops the size of his biceps. C / 2stars





REVIEW: Rush

21 10 2013

Ron Howard is a pretty reliable director to deliver well-made movies that everyone in the family over the age of 11 can watch when it plays TNT on Sunday afternoons.  He really has come to hone the craft of making generally agreeable prestige pictures, from “Apollo 13” to “Cinderella Man” to “Frost/Nixon.”  At times, his movies can really hit the spot when I’m looking to be entertained somewhere in the range of mindfulness and mindlessness.

Rush,” though, fails to meet Howard’s normal lowest common denominator criterion.  While it’s thrillingly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, the DP who brought you “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” the film hardly runs like a well-oiled machine.  It’s leaking oil all over the place.  Thankfully, no one was around to light the fatal match.

Most of its problems begin at the script, so deeply rooted that there was probably very little Howard could do to direct his way out of its flaws.  Peter Morgan’s screenplay for “Rush” crashes and burns from the moment it begins – with clunky, obvious narration that he could have easily worked into subtext.  It proceeds unevenly and never really developing the rivalry between its two protagonists, the lothario James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth of “Thor“) and the weaselly Type A Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl of “Inglourious Basterds“).

Both give decent performances, particularly Brühl, who has several moments where he flirts with tremendous power.  But neither can transcend the clichés that mire “Rush.”  Perhaps Howard could have stepped in to add more gravitas to their head-bashing where Morgan made them inane schoolyard boys with clashing egos.

Alas, he did not, and “Rush” delivers little of what its title promises.  There are well-executed racing sequences that at least keep our attention, which is actually a fair accomplishment since I am not very invested in or knowledgeable about Formula 1.  But in a movie about racing, isn’t that the expectation?  In “Rush,” these sequences are coherent and interesting on a most basic level.  Beyond that, however, there isn’t an interesting or daring visual choice in the entire movie.  I saw every wheel in the film turning just as I saw every turn coming.

You could say I’m an expert driver behind the wheel of film criticism.   But really, I just fancy myself as just a normal moviegoer armed with the knowledge that one gets from seeing too many films.  And I’ve come to the point where I’ve taken so many laps around the movie theater that I really don’t want Ron Howard taking me for a spin anymore unless he can recapture a spark of ingenuity and adventure.  It doesn’t have to be experimental or even all that daring.  It just needs to be fresh enough to be agreeable.  C+ 2stars





REVIEW: The Dilemma

12 01 2011

The whole premise of deciding whether or not to tell a friend that their wife is cheating on them sounds like something that would make a good episode of “Full House” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.”  The whole thought process is something perfectly suited to sustain a 22-minute sitcom episode.  However, “The Dilemma” takes that setup and stretches it out to nearly two hours, and all it does is prolong the pain.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn) catches Geneva (Winona Ryder) two-timing her husband and his best friend Nick (Kevin James).  Unsure of whether to meddle or not, he weighs his options carefully but finds physical pain instead of answers and decisions.  The choice is harder to make since the two buddies are business partners under a great deal of stress to deliver big and Ronny is also wrestling with proposing to his girlfiend Beth (Jennifer Connelly).

The longer he delays, the harder it gets to make the decision.  It ultimately results in all four parties revealing and uncovering long-held secrets, which are of course nothing surprising or profound to viewers.  For this reason, “The Dilemma” is quite a bit darker and more solemn than most comedies hitting theaters nowadays.  Perhaps the strange tone is what attracted Ron Howard to direct the film, an Academy Award winner with a curious fascination at having a versatile resumé.  He’s much better at directing such unremarkable and controlled period pieces, where he’s actually capable of making a decent connection with the audience, than he is at directing comedy.

Both Vaughn and James bring a game face to the movie, but their physical and vocal humor is ultimately stifled by an artificial layer of dramatic importance and a poor script.  They get into it, sure, yet they are undermined by either poor dialogue or ridiculous situations.  It’s like these two dynamite comedic forces are trapped in sitcom reruns and aren’t sure whether to escape or adjust their acting style.  The duo desperately needs to return to the R-rated comedy genre which is perfectly able to harness their energy and turn it into side-splitting laughter.  (And, for that matter, Channing Tatum needs to leave acting altogether and just go back to modeling.)

It’s pretty sad for any movie when its legacy will ultimately be not what’s on film, but the fuss over an unsavory epithet for homosexuals in the trailer will likely be the only thing worth remembering about the movie in the years to come.  Ron Howard and Universal gave us a conversation topic in October 2010, yet in January 2011, they didn’t follow up by delivering a quality movie.  By the time you escape from the tepid grasp of “The Dilemma,” you’ll feel as if you’ve watched a highlight reel of failed jokes and cringe-worthy moments.  C-





Random Factoid #446

17 10 2010

Hollywood has an interesting dilemma on its hands.

It’s hardly news to anyone who follows film news that the trailer for Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma” has come under heavy fire for using a phrase that might be offensive to some.  For those who didn’t see the trailer attached to “The Social Network,” here it is:

“Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”

Within a week, the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) was demanding that the trailer be removed from theaters.  This came as a shock to the studio, according to The Los Angeles Times, who “not only tested the trailer with rank-and-file moviegoers but also submitted it to a number of gay rights watchdog groups. According to Universal, no one complained.”

I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to hear the word in a trailer at a PG-13 movie, but considering all the jokes I had heard in R-rated movies, I wasn’t shocked.  I’ve read plenty of satire and seen plenty of comedic movies and plays to know that writers have to have no mercy if they must resort to insulting.  Everyone is fair game, although sometimes there are some low blows.  Compared to the some of the pejoratives thrown around in R-rated movies nowadays, the joke from “The Dilemma” falls somewhere between a low blow and mild name-calling.

I guess the biggest thing about the whole dilemma here is the fact that this is a trailer, not a movie.  People who might be offended by the word could avoid a movie that used it if they were well-informed; they could get totally blindsided by it when the trailer just plays before another movie they want to see.  The fact that GLAAD is insisting that Universal take the joke out of the movie seems a little ridiculous.  It’s not just that I’m a huge proponent of free speech, but they are picking the wrong movie to go after if they want to make a serious change in the way writers toss around terms describing homosexuals.

If their long-term goal is to get the word out of the vernacular as a synonym for stupid, they should have gone full throttle on the offensive against “The Hangover.”  Yes, the word gay has come to take on a despicable meaning, but so has lame.  How many times do we use that word and not realize that it is making fun of mentally challenged people?  And there’s never any uproar when you hear lame used in a movie.

But the fact that Vaughn’s line acknowledges that they don’t mean to make homosexuals the butt of the joke should make this a little bit less of a hot-button issue.  It’s wrong that the other context exists, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just throwing the word out there and making fun of homosexuals.  Compared to “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the banter between Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen calling each other gay based on things that they like, this is child’s play.

Of course, I have to take into account the recent suicides linked to homophobic bullying.  This trailer could send the wrong message to those willing to interpret the nature of the joke in a certain way.  The suicides have lent the joke some very dark undertones, ones that weren’t intended to be there, but now they are very present.  Given the nature of the times, perhaps it is for the better that the line was removed.  The unfortunate events cannot be changed, but Universal may have played a part in preventing some further grief and distress.

Had these events not occurred, I would be in support of keeping the joke in the trailer and in the film because it would be hypocritical to grant one group immunity from comedic effects.

As Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times said, “Comedy is a lot like free speech — sometimes you have to hold your nose to support it. If you don’t stick up for the flimsiest kind of humor, then you can’t protect the most important kind either.”  This whole situation is a hard one to take a stance on, but there is a way to handle this that can preserve the integrity of all people and comedy.

I mean no disrespect towards GLAAD or Universal with this post, and I hope that I have treated this sensitive subject with the care and respect it is due.  I have nothing but sympathy towards all those affected by the suicides, and I sincerely regret any pain that the trailer for “The Dilemma” might have caused.  In these sensitive times, I hope I have provided a commentary based in reason and a response not heightened by the hysteria of the current events.