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Posts Tagged ‘Ed Harris’

(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keeps coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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As a person who has been looking at and listening to things with my eyes and ears for quite a while now, I am no stranger to the concept of absurd hyperbole. That said, absurd hyperbole is not what it used to be – the revelation that Jonathan Ross’s review of Batman Forever described it as ‘one of the greatest films ever made’ solely in order to win a bet arguably debased the whole notion of saying something ridiculously overblown about a film simply to make yourself noticed. In other words, it takes a bit to get my attention these days.

But here comes the New York Observer (a reasonably well-established and respectable news source, even if it did used to be published by one of the Trump clan), proudly announcing that Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is ‘the worst film of the century’. Crikey, now that’s a bold claim, even if you accept they’re not actually making predictions about the next 83 years. Let us not forget that this is the same century which has given the world Sex Lives of the Potato Men, Paul Anderson’s butchery of The Three Musketeers, A Good Day to Die Hard, After Earth, and many other really poor films. One might even say that it would take something quite unusual to beat Hampstead to the position of Worst Film of 2017, before even starting to look further afield.

Well, anyway, such a claim had to be investigated, and as a colleague is a confirmed Aronofsky fan (‘He is incapable of making a bad movie,’ he declared, which just prompted me to ask ‘Have you seen Noah?’), off we trotted to the very small cinema which was showing mother! (regular readers can have fun imagining the intonation I used on the title when asking for our tickets).

It’s not just the Observer, by the way: the reputable market-research firm CinemaScore has given mother! its rare and very (not) coveted F rating, indicating a film which audiences are likely to react violently against – other recipients include the remakes of Solaris, which isn’t that bad, and The Wicker Man, which most certainly is. So what’s going on with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!?

Hmmm. Well. Popular and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living in a beautiful house in the countryside, along with her husband (played by Javier Bardem). She is slowly renovating the house, he is a writer contending with a bout of the dreaded block, and all initially seems very nearly idyllic.

But then an older man (Ed Harris) turns up, claiming to have been sent there in the erroneous belief they run a hotel, and Lawrence is just a little irked when he invites the vaguely sinister Harris to spend the night without checking with her. Soon he is joined by his wife (Michelle Pfieffer), who is rather given to inappropriate behaviour. Is there something going on between Bardem and this couple? Or is Lawrence simply overreacting and being a bit paranoid?

While all this is unfolding, various other oddities and enigmas are floating around at the edge of the story – why does the structure of the house seem to dissolve when blood is spilled on it? (Don’t ask.) What is the obscurely disgusting object Lawrence finds clogging up the toilet? What is in the mysterious potion she finds herself compelled to glug when the stress all gets a bit too much for her? Will any of these things be explained before the closing credits finally roll?

Um, well, probably not. Watching mother! really brought it home to me that the two kinds of people with the greatest creative freedom in the movie industry are completely unknown directors, whose films are made on micro-budgets and so whom no-one really cares about, and those who have a strong track record of both popular and critical success, who as a result are granted a certain degree of latitude to do something a bit different on a lavish scale (though this only lasts as long as their films continue to turn a profit, as a quick look at the careers of M Night Shyamalan and the Wachowski siblings will attest to).

Darren Aronofsky currently seems to be in this state of grace, making distinctive, generally well-received films. I went to see Black Swan (‘unlike anything else I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time’) and Noah (‘engrossingly strange’), both films which ended up making over $300 million. A similar achievement for mother! does not appear to be on the cards, however, not that this is especially surprising when you consider that this is an example of the historically-unpopular ‘surreal bat’s-ass-insane psychological art-house horror’ genre.

I suspect this is why many people have taken against what is, by any standards, a superbly crafted film – it is unafraid to go rather a long way out there. In fact, just as a thought experiment, imagine yourself going really quite a long way out, to the very fringes of your comfort zone. Now imagine a faint speck on the horizon, even further out. This speck is a house equipped with a very strong telescope, and through this you would just about be able to make out mother!, hurling itself about and howling at the sky. This is how way-out-there Aronofsky’s film is, especially in its closing stages.

Luckily, I figured out very early on that we were not in the realm of a traditionally naturalistic narrative here, which probably helped – there’s almost a sense in which the fractured dream-logic of mother!, in which events pile up wildly on top of one another in a totally irrational way, reminded me of some of the weirder short stories of H.P. Lovecraft, although that would require Lovecraft to have been capable of writing for a female protagonist. There is certainly a touch of Terry Gilliam in the film’s various conjuring tricks, and perhaps also a little of Peter Greenaway in its more gleefully gory excesses.

Aronofsky has gone on record and attempted to explain what mother! is actually supposed to be about – I won’t trouble you with that here, not least because it’s really a spoiler. I can’t help suspecting that this was a movie where the surreal, nightmarish style and tone came first, anyway, and it was just a question of coming up with a premise that would justify them.

Why, somebody asked me, would an actress like Jennifer Lawrence choose to appear in a film as strange as this one? The prosaic answer would have something to do with the (presumably significant) portion of the $30 million budget going home with her, but at the same time you can see why this film would appeal, if only as a technical challenge – it largely fails or succeeds by her performance, for she is on-screen virtually non-stop throughout, frequently in close-up. She is, needless to say, very good, but then so is everyone else – Bardem’s Iberian inscrutability is well-employed, and in addition to Harris and Pfieffer, there are somewhat unexpected cameos by the likes of the Gleeson brothers and Kristen Wiig.

Mainly, however, the film is a triumph of direction and editing, with the pace and mood of the film always expertly controlled. It is obviously the case that some of the subject matter will repel many people from this film – there are some nauseatingly nasty moments, none of them really suggested by the film’s (arguably misleading) advertising. Others will not be able to get on board with the peculiar stream-of-consciousness flow of the narrative, its lack of conventional story or characterisation. And this is fair enough – but I have to say I hugely enjoyed the film’s sheer audacity and willingness to do something unusual and different. This did mean I was laughing in some rather inappropriate places (my colleague feared I was laughing out of scorn rather than appreciation), but my enjoyment of the skill and innovation that clearly went into this movie was genuine.

The chances are that mother! is a movie which will not appeal to you. There’s quite a good chance its excesses will actively appal or disgust you. I suspect it may prove to be the cinematic equivalent of Marmite (a proverbially-divisive, rather foul yeast-based spread, in case you’re wondering). I can’t imagine anyone not having some kind of strong response to it, but the minority that get it, will probably really, really like it. Certainly not the worst film of the century, anyway, even if it’s highly unlikely to make much of a profit. Pretty much a dead cert to become a cult favourite for decades to come.

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Ah, what a great, iconic tale: victims of an oppressive, totalitarian regime, a motley band of dissidents and criminals escape from imprisonment in a bleak wasteland and set out to strike a blow for individual freedom. Fantastic material for a film there, especially if you’re multi-Award nominated film-maker Peter Weir. Unfortunately, the film rights for Blake’s 7 are already under option and so Weir has been obliged to search elsewhere for material for his new film, which he has nevertheless decided to call The Way Back.

(What an odd way to start a review, you may be thinking: it isn’t even that good a joke. Well, you may be right, but what the hell – some people may appreciate it. Let me know if you’re one of them!)

Anyway, this is an epic drama based on a supposedly true story (the events apparently happened, it’s just that nobody seems to be quite sure who they actually happened to). Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young Pole banished to the Siberian gulag at the height of the Second World War. There he befriends a mixed bag of other prisoners, mostly other political dissidents, and together they decide to make a break for freedom – no small thing, given the lethal hostility of the Siberian wilderness and the immense distances separating them from safety.

Amongst Janusz’s new companions are a grizzled American (Ed Harris) and a brutal Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), while in the course of their journey southward they meet another young Polish refugee, Irina (Saoirse Ronan). Their initial plan to follow the shore of Lake Baikal and cross the border into Mongolia runs into trouble and it becomes clear their only hope of freedom is to try to cross the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, with India as their ultimate goal.

Given the scope of the story and Weir’s track record when it comes to epic, yet engrossing dramas, I went to see The Way Back with high expectations. And it scores in a number of departments – the scenery and photography throughout is stunning, and the performances are honest and convincing.

However, while the scope of the story is stunning, the actual detail of it isn’t that involving. Fatally, some of the members of the escaping group remain rather anonymous until the journey is well underway, and they’re not that well delineated even then. Not a huge amount happens, either in terms of the group’s internal interactions or the things they encounter on the way. (For some reason, the actual escape itself takes place off-screen.) The film devolves into the characters wandering along, worrying about getting lost and finding things to eat and drink, with only the landscape going through any significant change.

None of the pictures from the film were that interesting or funny, so here's a photo of Blake's 7 instead. Hurrah!

That said, the movie isn’t cliched and I suspect most people will be surprised at the identities of the characters who fall by the wayside in the course of the trek. It does, however, jump through some startling narrative hoops when it comes to language – initially it’s all in subtitled Russian (fine by me, as it allowed me to check in on the deterioration of my rooski yazik), but abruptly switches to accented English a few minutes in. Fair enough, thought your reviewer, it’s a translation convention… but no! It’s made clear that for some reason the Poles and Russians and other eastern Europeans are all choosing to speak in English throughout most of their journey, which is considerate of them and fortunate for Harris’s character (and the audience). I’m being disingenuous, of course – there are very sound commercial reasons why this film isn’t in a foreign language. Personally I don’t worry that much about verisimilitude, though – but then again I’m not the National Geographic people, who produced this film…

I suspect that may be a bit of a metaphor for the problems with The Way Back – it frets a bit too much about mundane details and in doing so forgets about being appropriately sweeping and epic and moving. This is by no means a bad film, but I didn’t emerge particularly thrilled or uplifted or caring about the characters (though I did emerge with a few ideas for possible future holiday destinations). Not inappropriately given the subject matter, The Way Back is really a bit of a plodder.

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