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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Hanks’

Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.

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Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.

 

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Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

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Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

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Demographers take note: we are living through days in which a Polish-language rom-com entitled Planeta Singli can find enough of an audience to hang on in mainstream UK cinemas for at least a fortnight, while an Anglophone movie, starring Tom Hanks – who is, lest we forget, one of the biggest movie stars of the modern age – barely manages a one-and-done residency. However, it seems this is no mere fluke of geography – Tom Tykwer’s A Hologram for the King has taken a bath in virtually every territory where it has been released, making less money than any other film in Hanks’ career. Adding to this the fact that this movie has hung around for a few years prior to being released, and the signs are there that a fairly spectacular disaster may well be on the cards.

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The sense of a film which has perhaps missed its moment is only compounded by the very-recent-past setting, although to be fair this is mostly left implicit – the source novel, by Dave Eggers, is apparently set in a post-financial crash, pre-Arab Spring 2010. Hanks plays Alan Clay, an IT executive and salesman looking to re-energise his career. To this end he exploits a rather tenuous connection and flies off to Saudi Arabia.

The King of the KSA is intent on conjuring a new city out of nowhere, rather in the same manner modern Dubai has been created, and Clay’s company is bidding to provide state-of-the-art IT and communications equipment to the project. However, all is not well as our man arrives – his tech team are not receiving the support they need from the locals, and there’s no sign of the King – who they will be presenting to – actually putting in an appearance at the site.

Matters are only compounded by Clay’s stressful family situation – he’s struggling to support his daughter through college – a few nagging medical issues, and his habit of sleeping through the alarm clock. This leads him to making a connection with a young driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), who shows him a slightly different side of the country…

Well, I have to say that ‘will our hero manage to successfully flog a holographic teleconferencing system to the House of Saud?’ is not the most naturally enticing of premises for a major movie, and there is definitely a sense in which Hanks is out of his natural territory – this isn’t an American studio picture, but a German co-production, and apart from the star and Black most of the significant roles are played by European performers. About the most famous of these is Ben Whishaw, who is in the movie for literally about thirty seconds yet has still managed to bag the coveted ‘and’ spot.

And the whole film has the slightly indy feel of a co-production – it rather reminded me of films like This Must Be The Place, good looking and made with polish, but rather stronger on character and atmosphere than on actual plot and incident. Hanks has various serio-comic escapades, inevitably meaning he misses the bus every morning and has to get to know Yousef a bit better, writes emails to his daughter (thus enabling some good voice-over stuff from Hanks), finds himself out of his depth at a surprisingly high-octane party at the Danish embassy, gets to know a female Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury), and so on.

It’s all rather bitty, and some of the bits are better than others – it kicks off with Hanks delivering a rendition of Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime, which he does with his customary gusto, but in the end it settles down to be about a romance between Hanks and Choudhury, which manages the neat trick of being both rather predictable and still somewhat implausible.

You wonder what made Tom Hanks take on a film like this. (You wonder how a film like this managed to land a megastar like Tom Hanks.) Well, you can perhaps see why this kind of project would appeal to an actor like Hanks – the central character is in virtually every second of the film and does demand a performance of great range and skill from the actor responsible. That’s an interesting challenge, and to be fair to Hanks it’s one which he rises to with consummate skill. Even when the film is at its least focused and most improbable, Hanks is there, giving it his considerable best, keeping it watchable and engaging.

I’ve heard it said that the mark of a great actor is that they can be good in a bad movie. I really wouldn’t call A Hologram for the King an outright bad movie, but the fact that it isn’t is almost solely due to Tom Hanks – it’s probably stretching a point to say that A Hologram for the King is basically just Tom Hanks’ performance and not much else, but at the same time it is the one and only element of the film which is inarguably accomplished, entertaining, and memorable. Nevertheless, this is still a very curious little film which I suspect will end up being very little remembered.

 

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Some people mark the turn of the year by observing the flight of birds, the passage of the seasons, and the signs to be drawn from the sky. I, on the other hand, prefer to keep track of what’s on at the local cinema and take it from there. Currently we are receiving a range of seasonal movies, plus what I can only describe as quality blockbusters. Christmas may be here soon, but – I am certain – film industry types are more concerned by the fact that awards season isn’t that far behind it.

It occurs to me that the kind of film which aspires to win Oscars isn’t anything like as certain a commercial bet as the typical big dumb derivative summer blockbuster. It’s a measure of how important critical respect is to the major studios that every year they sink millions of dollars into films like Foxcatcher – a true-life crime story about Olympic wrestling, not traditionally a commercially popular subgenre – and various other worthy and high-minded projects, when they could be doing more superhero movies and remakes with a more guaranteed profit margin. These films do constitute a gamble – the ones that win major awards will receive a push at the box office as a result, but the ones that don’t may struggle.

Then again, sensible studios invest wisely: which brings us to one of the first quality blockbusters off the blocks this year, Bridge of Spies. You can’t always judge a film based on the names of the key personnel, but any film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Steven Spielberg, and co-written by the Coen brothers must have something going for it, surely?

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The story opens in late 50s America, with the Cold War at its height and espionage enthusiastically pursued by both parties. One such Soviet agent, Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance), is captured by the FBI in New York, and put on trial for his activities. It is politically important that Abel is seen to be given a fair trial, and given the awkward and unpopular job of defending him is Jim Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer.

Donovan does his best but it quickly becomes clear that he has been retained simply for the purpose of keeping up appearances – and no matter how token a figure he is, it doesn’t stop his family from being on the receiving end of hostility from other American citizens who see him as a Communist sympathiser.

Going on in parallel with this is the story of the training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a US air force pilot being prepared to take a U2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over the USSR. When the mission takes place and Powers is shot down, an awkward international situation threatens – but with the US and the USSR each holding one of the other’s agents prisoner, there is the chance of engineering an unofficial exchange. An unofficial exchange requires an unofficial negotiator to broker it, of course, and Donovan finds himself flying off to a newly-partitioned Berlin, responsible for bringing about Powers’ safe retrieval…

There’s a magical experience which happens too rarely at the cinema – that moment when you suddenly become totally assured that you are watching a film made by people who completely understand what they’re doing, and that as a result you can just relax and sit back, safe in the knowledge that you’re in for a piece of superb entertainment. I am happy to say that I had one of those moments very early on in Bridge of Spies.

This is possibly even more noteworthy given that this is – in theory at least – a thriller, but one where many of the scenes concern middle-aged men having complicated discussions with each other in various offices. There are virtually no action sequences worthy of the name, and to anyone with a reasonable grasp of modern history the conclusion of the movie should hold few surprises. And yet Spielberg has managed to make a film which is both gripping and genuinely entertaining.

Early on in his career, Tom Hanks was whisked off to have his photo taken with an elderly James Stewart, which if nothing else displayed remarkable prescience on the part of the publicist involved: Hanks is the closest thing modern American cinema has to Stewart, no-one else can project that kind of everyman quality while still remaining a star, no-one else can do quiet decency in quite the same understated way. Hanks is on top form here – he is basically playing the conscience of America for most of the film, but he does it without once seeming hokey.

What’s also very special is the relationship between Donovan and Abel and the bond that develops between them. Rylance takes an incredibly introverted and phlegmatic man and turns him into a memorable character, and the scenes between him and Hanks are captivating: it’s deeply thrilling to see the great American movie star and the brilliant British stage actor bringing their different styles to the film, and watching them combine so flawlessly.

Then again, there’s barely a single dud performance in the entire film – the minor characters Hanks encounters on his mission are all wonderful little miniatures of writing and performance, each one memorable in their own way. Turn of the 60s America and Germany are both painstakingly recreated, and Spielberg eschews flashy look-at-me directing in favour of simply telling the story.

There is, I suppose, a sort of God-bless-America-aren’t-we-wonderfulness to some of the scenes in this film, which some viewers may find a bit difficult to stomach – in a less-accomplished film, it might not sit easily in a story which to some extent is concerned with the way in which American realities do not live up to American idealism. And, given the nature of the story, this is primarily a fairly talky film about middle-aged men discussing the politics of five and a half decades ago. Nevertheless, as far as this sort of film goes, Bridge of Spies does it superbly – it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better, to be honest. It’s a film that deserves to do very well at the box office, regardless of how many rewards it picks up, and I hope it gets the success it deserves.

 

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If you were of a sour, baleful, Daily Mail-ish disposition, you might well find something very disagreeable in the current trend towards films which are essentially historical accounts not of the lives of great people, nor of the details of significant events, but simply of the making of other films. And I suppose you might have a point – at the very least it smacks of creative conservatism, if not an outright dearth of ideas. Already this year we have had Hitchcock, which was essentially behind-the-scenes on Psycho, while making a solid pitch for the quality-Christmas-non-Elf-fixated box office is John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks, which is deeply concerned with the genesis of the movie version of Mary Poppins.

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Emma Thompson plays Mrs P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins stories. The main plot of the movie is set in the early 60s, by which point she has been fending off expressions of interest in the film rights to her work for decades. Now, however, bankruptcy looms, and rather than lose her home she is obliged to depart for California, to work on a script for a film with the creative guys at Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney himself is played by Tom Hanks. Disney is genial, avuncular, folksy and charming – Mrs Travers is prickly, particular, formal and demanding (she thinks Disney’s life’s work is vulgar and frivolous). Both of them are used to getting their own way, and so a titanic, if fairly good-mannered, clash of wills is in prospect.

Intercut with all this is another narrative concerning Mrs Travers’ own childhood in Australia five decades earlier. This focuses on her complex relationship with her father (played by Colin Farrell), an affectionate man, but also a somewhat irresponsible alcoholic. Inevitably it is this storyline which illuminates and to some extent explains the character of the adult Mrs Travers, though the manner in which this is handled is variable. Sometimes the film is quite subtle, at other points it is not – a scene with Mrs Travers objecting to Mr Banks (the father in the Poppins film) wearing a moustache is closely followed by one where we see Farrell explaining to his daughter why it is so important that he shaves.

It seems to me that there are two main approaches you can take to Saving Mr. Banks, and your choice here will largely dictate your response to the film. Either it is a touching biographical excavation of an often-overlooked literary figure, or a ghastly piece of self-regarding publicity for the Disney corporation.

Accusations that this film is basically a two-hour-plus promo for the Blu-ray of Mary Poppins, and indeed Disney enterprises in general, are not entirely without substance: the 1964 film informs the 2013 one to a considerable extent, to the point where excerpts from it are shown during the climax. Your enjoyment of most of the 1960s material will depend somewhat on your fondness for Mary Poppins – though I have to say that I’m indifferent to it at best, and still found these scenes to be enjoyable and frequently very funny indeed.

(I should say that I did emerge from this film with a heightened respect for the majesty of the Sherman brothers’ songs from Mary Poppins, which are regularly deployed throughout. The soundtrack listing even appears to promise a scene where Colin Farrell comes on and performs Chim-Chim-Cheree, which I was rather looking forward to as (potentially) this year’s Pierce-Brosnan-versus-ABBA moment, but unfortunately it never quite materialises.)

The makers of this film claim the Disney corporation made no stipulations regarding the depiction of the man who’s essentially their patron deity, which I find slightly hard to believe, and it’s still the case that while Mrs Travers comes across as often brittle, demanding, chilly, and contrary, Walt Disney is presented as unfailingly wise, kindly, decent and insightful. (Whatever one makes of the characterisations, one instinctively doubts the historical accuracy of any major Hollywood production these days as a matter of course.)

Even the most sceptical viewer would, I think, concede that this is a very polished and charming production, with considerable credit due to the writers and cast. Watching Thompson and Hanks spar is a real pleasure – Thompson gets perhaps the slightly better part, but you can see Hanks is revelling in the opportunity to play such an iconic figure when it comes to both Americana and global pop culture generally. Paul Giamatti plays Mrs Travers’ chauffeur, and Brad Whitford, Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak play Don DaGradi and the Sherman brothers: all of them get the tone of their performances pretty much exactly right. Colin Farrell gets the big role in the Australian sequences, but I was rather impressed by Ruth Wilson as Mrs Travers’ mother.

I can’t help thinking that, based on what we’re shown here, the real Mrs Travers would have been mortified to the point of horror by the thought of her life story being repurposed as the basis for a heart-warming comedy drama, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily grounds for dismissing Saving Mr. Banks. I liked it a lot, and indeed I think it’s a film you would have to make a real effort to actively dislike – but, much as the central story of how the parent-child relationship can influence a person throughout their life is sensitively and impressively handled, one can’t shake the impression that this particular version of it is only being told due to its proximity to a much-loved, much-garlanded, out-now-on-various-formats movie classic. This is a good film, but the charge that on some level it’s basically just the Disney company patting itself on the back in public for two hours is going to be a hard one to dodge.

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Despite all evidence to the contrary, not to mention (some might suggest) simple common sense, my favourite film of the year so far is still, probably, Cloud Atlas, simply for its utter courageous bonkersness. There’s one thing you can say about Tom Hanks, which is that he’s not afraid to go out on a limb once in a while and take on a less mainstream project than you might expect of someone who’s essentially one of the most respected mainstream movie actors on the planet. His latest film, Captain Phillips, is perhaps another example of this, being just a little more edgy and political than most.

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Then again, it’s directed by Paul Greengrass, maestro of the two best Bourne movies by far, and occupies the same sort of naturalistic geopolitical terrain. It is essentially an account of the true story of the coming together of two men, Richard Phillips (Hanks), master of a huge container ship with a crew of twenty, and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), chief of a rather fragile dinghy with a complement of four AK-47 toting pirates.

We first see Phillips driving to the airport from his Vermont home, having a very banal conversation with his wife en route. We first see Muse in a remote part of Somalia, recruiting men for his latest expedition – the pirates have to bribe their way into a spot on the dinghy – and the story continues along these parallel lines until the pair finally come to face to face. Phillips’ latest assignment is to take his vessel around the horn of Africa from Oman to Mombasa, into pirate-infested waters.

It seems barely credible that a huge ship like Phillips’ could be seriously threatened by a tiny launch carrying only a handful of men, and this is perhaps reflected in the captain’s shock and incredulity as the pirates first appear on his radar (needless to say, Hanks portrays this well). The outcome of the pirates’ assault is by no means a foregone conclusion and the battle of wits between the two commanders is grippingly depicted and extremely tense. This is all the more impressive given that the movie’s own publicity makes it very clear that the pirates eventually get on board!

What follows concerns Phillips’ attempts to safeguard his ship and crew while deflecting Muse, who is equally determined to get back to Somalia with a big payday. What’s striking is the way that, initially at least, Phillips consistently underestimates Muse’s intelligence and determination. Considering the assymmetrical nature of the conflict, it seems fairly clear that Greengrass is, on some level, framing the film as an allegory for terrorist attacks on America. This is never much more than a subtext, however, and given how it all plays out (no spoilers, but the might of the US navy goes into action) it’s not exactly subversively presented.

The first half of Captain Phillips is superb – Greengrass is a master of this kind of grown-up thriller, and Hanks and Abdi are both excellent. The cagey interaction between the two captains is consistently gripping throughout the sequences set on the container ship.

However, the second half of the movie mostly takes place on a lifeboat commandeered by the pirates, in which Phillips is being held hostage, and this I found rather less successful. There’s a lot of arguing amongst the pirates as to what they’re going to do, the doings of various forces of the US military moving into position around them are also documented, and Hanks himself gets relatively little to do: though still the central figure of the drama, he’s reduced to being a passive figure, even a victim – and while Hanks gives this his best shot, you still get a sense of a movie not making best use of its greatest resource.

This is a serious film, not a popcorn action movie, and a slightly tough watch in places as a result. Nevertheless, the central story is interesting enough, and certainly well-enough told, for it to be a rewarding experience, even if it isn’t particularly innovative or thought-provoking. Certainly there’s no kind of moral relativism going on here – Muse gets some dialogue explaining how the pirates are really only fishermen forced into a new line of work by the pressures of globalisation, and bemoaning the lack of opportunity available to Somalis as opposed to Americans, but this isn’t much more than lip-service. (Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass gamely showed up on a UK news programme to discuss the film with a Somali activist complaining that it demonised all Somalis, as opposed to just the pirates.)

Then again, there’s a limit to how much you can make people who take over boats at gunpoint sympathetic. To be fair, Barkhad Abdi does a very good job of making a ruthless, desperate man into a human being rather than a bogeyman, and he holds the screen against Hanks’ star charisma impressively well. One suspects he may be in the running for the annual ethnic-diversity Best Supporting Actor fig-leaf nomination, but equally one can legitimately wonder exactly what kind of mainstream movie career he can look forward to: it’s hard to conceive of him getting a supporting role in a popcorn blockbuster or rom-com.

Anyway, this is a very well-made movie with strong performances, even if the first half is rather more engaging than the second. As a result it is solid rather than actually outstanding, but it’s still a quality piece of film-making.

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So, truth be told, I enjoyed Ron Howard’s 2009 movie Angels & Demons much more than I was expecting to, and on a greater number of levels – which is another way of saying this is an unironically fun movie as well as a crazed piece of unbelievable nonsense. Bearing this in mind, the sensible thing to do was obviously to check out the other film from the same team, The Da Vinci Code.

This was music to the ears of my landlady, who was very resistant to letting me view Angels & Demons anyway, complaining that ‘it’s the sequel, you should watch the other one first’. I riposted that the two books the films are based on take place in reverse order, so it wasn’t likely to make a lot of difference, and following an interesting and heated discussion resulting in only a small rent hike I settled down to watch the movie of The Da Vinci Code, from 2006.

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Tom Hanks again plays maverick symbologist Robert Langdon, who, in time-honoured movie style, proves his academic credentials by giving a thematically-relevant public lecture at the top of the film. One of the pitfalls of doing this kind of thing is that someone always turns up intent on sending you off on an adventure of some kind. In this case it is the French police (Hanks is visiting Paris, not that he seems much inclined to parley the old Fronsay), who are principally embodied by the marvellous Jean Reno (giving another masterclass in ambiguity).

The curator of the Louvre has turned up dead, his body arranged in the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and with a strange arcane sigil inscribed on his chest in his own blood. Hanks believes he has been summoned to lend his professional assistance, but passing police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tatou), who also happens to be the dead man’s grand-daughter (yup, we’re only just setting up the plot and already everything is creaking like hell), reveals he has actually been framed for the killing.

So, obviously Hanks and Tatou go on the run from the cops, trying to work out why the murder victim was trying to attract Hank’s attention and who actually did the dirty deed. The audience is several steps ahead at this point, as we already know who the killer is. I had hopes for The Da Vinci Code being just as uproariously daft as its sequel, and the early appearance of the ever-watchable Paul Bettany as a (deep breath) self-flagellating albino assassin monk named Silas promised great things in this department. Hanks has already figured out the death is connected to an heretical secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, and Bettany is attached to a militant chamber of the Catholic Church which is intent on wiping this group out and destroying their greatest secret: the Holy Grail itself…

Well, there’s a lot of running and driving and flying around to various places, not to mention the doing of lots of anagrams and other word puzzles. Alfred Molina pops up as a morally-compromised Cardinal, while the veteran Grail-hunter Hanks and Tatou turn to for help is played by Ian McKellen, who appears to be having a quite inordinate amount of fun. So the performances all round are actually pretty good.

And – and my antipathy towards the original book and scepticism towards its sources make this slightly tough to admit to – this seemed to me to be, in many ways, a much better and more classy film than Angels & Demons. (Not having antimatter bombs exploding in the Roman sky and free-falling pontiffs is always a help in the credibility department, I suppose.)

This is, of course, only my opinion, and it’s true that on one level this is every bit as implausible a movie, and equally as much an Indiana Jones pastiche with a very thin veneer of erudition brushed over the top of it. Indeed, the resemblance to the third Indiana Jones is very striking indeed, given both films concern a search for the Holy Grail, and both scripts talk about this mythic artefact using very similar language.

The two films’ takes as to what the Holy Grail actually is vary somewhat, of course, with The Da Vinci Code opting for a less traditional concept. This element of the film is famously derived from the blockbuster ‘conspiracy’-expose The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which proposed that… you know, I think that would probably constitute a spoiler. (By the way, you should not let your opinion of this theory be affected by the fact that one of its authors used to write scripts for Doctor Who.) One of the rather impressive things about this movie is the way in which it seizes upon this rather complex and convoluted theory and serves it up for mass consumption in an accessible and cinematic way.

On the other hand, you could equally argue that this is a rather strange Hollywood thriller, in that the spaces which would normally be filled by high-octane action sequences are here occupied by lengthy and lavish flashbacks – some of them to the personal lives of the characters, others to key moments in church history (whether real or apocryphal). Making these as interesting and engaging as they are is a bit of an achievement. Personally, I’m interested in philosophy, theology, and history, and so a big movie largely revolving around these things was always going to appeal to me on some level – if, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for car-chases, things going bang, and end-of-second-act whoh-ho-ho you may find this particular film more wearing.

But, as I say, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and in a mostly non-ironic way. Bettany doesn’t really get a huge amount to do as the self-flagellating albino assassin monk, and in any case the whole action-thriller-innocents-on-the-run aspect of the plot gets resolved a surprisingly long time before the climax. At this point the film really does become more about ideas and philosophies, and ancient secrets being revealed – and on these terms it’s surprisingly effective. Given this is a film which is explicitly about symbols and symbolism, it seems to be working on an almost symbolic level itself, as the characters descend into ancient vaults, decode musty old manuscripts, and generally seek for truth in chaos and darkness. You could quite easily argue that the movie itself is heretical, or anti-Christian – especially anti-Catholic –  and I suppose this is to some extent quite true. Here, however, we find ourselves at one of those fault lines, or barriers, which is in a very real sense impermeable – either you treat the Bible as, er, Holy Scripture, or you don’t, and rational discussion isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about that. You will either be willing to consider the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail before it), even if just as a thought experiment, or you won’t. Personally I didn’t find this aspect of the movie risible or offensive – and the almost-subliminal fantasy elements it brought to the story just added to its appeal – but I’m well aware others may strongly disagree.

Here again, though, we’re in slightly odd territory in that this film, more than the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood output, treats the existence of God – or belief in this  – as an important fact in the world, and central to its story. And yet, arguably for this very same reason, the film has been criticised and boycotted by Christian groups worldwide. Sometimes the converted don’t want to be preached to, I suppose. It may well be that my own tendency to view the likes of The Da Vinci Code as not much more than barnstorming escapist entertainment, with perhaps a little intellectual meat to add flavour, is just another sign that I have an appointment in the Sixth Circle of Hell when I eventually shuffle off there. Fine, as long as they don’t show a non-stop series of Paul W.S. Anderson movies in that section of the afterlife. In the meantime, a movie like The Da Vinci Code eases the suspense until I find out very pleasantly: it’s slick and it’s fun and it’s just a bit silly, but it also has a surprising amount of soul and intelligence to it, too.

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