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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Hanks’

Cultural hegemony can take many forms, not all of them obviously malevolent: it’s there in singers affecting the accent of the hegemon rather than their own, in the hope of getting more air-play on hegemonic radio; it’s there in TV series casting foreign actors, again to improve their chances of sales in lucrative markets abroad. It’s there in the language that we use: I’m sure many British people talk casually of ‘taking the Fifth’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ even though they have virtually no idea what these expressions originally referred to.

Doesn’t work the other way, of course: if I talked about being on a sticky wicket in Lowman, Idaho, I imagine I would just get stared at, and if I had the presumption to try and release a film about the life of John Noakes or Johnny Morris in the USA I would probably be referred for psychiatric examination. But hegemony is hegemony, which is why UK cinemas are currently screening Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. (The analogy in the middle of this paragraph almost breaks down when you consider that many stalwart British children’s TV presenters from years ago are now disgraced to the point of being outright pariahs. But I digress.)

The movie is set in 1998 and concerns Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a brilliant investigative journalist working for Esquire magazine, whose talents are increasingly failing to the mask the fact that he is contending with his own bitterness and cynicism – almost to the point of misanthropy. Lloyd doesn’t really see the problem, but his wife (Susan Kelechi Watson) certainly does, especially after a trip to a family wedding goes very badly – this is probably an understatement, considering the occasion concludes with Vogel getting into a fistfight with his own father (Chris Cooper) and being thrown out.

Lloyd is less than thrilled, all things considered, to be given the assignment of writing for an issue on contemporary American heroes – especially given that he is told to go and interview Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), a children’s TV presenter based in Pittsburgh.

(Here, of course, we come across one of those cultural and national faultlines which almost seem invisible until they become important. Fred Rogers is virtually unknown outside of the United States: his programme, Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, was never shown over here, and prior to this movie I was only dimly aware of him, mainly because the show did a set visit to The Incredible Hulk in 1979 and that segment is up on YouTube. In short, Fred Rogers is a beloved icon to generations of Americans who remember him fondly from childhood; there isn’t really a comparable figure in British culture – only adult entertainers like Ronnie Barker or Eric Morecambe come close, I would imagine.)

Well, Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh to interview Fred, and finds himself nonplussed by the sheer sweetness, gentle kindness, and utter decency of his subject. Can this guy really be genuine? Every instinct tells him that it can’t be the case, and his mission becomes to uncover the truth about Fred Rogers. But what if the truth is what it seems to be? All this time, as well, Lloyd is still contending with his fraught relationship with his father and his feelings of resentment towards him after he walked out on the family. But the benign influence of Fred Rogers seems to be having an effect on him…

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood has only secured a relatively minor release in the UK, probably because it will prove somewhat baffling to the average British viewer: the film is initially staged as an episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, as Hanks comes on, delivers the opening routine, and then introduces Lloyd and his situation as if it’s an item on the programme (one made for very young children, I should mention). If you or your children grew up watching Fred Rogers, I imagine this is terribly resonant, funny and charming; the same can be said for the way that some of the transitions in the movie are executed using models in the style of those on the show. For anyone else it is just a bit weird and slightly Charlie Kaufman-esque: like a joke you’re not quite in on. This never quite stops being an issue with the movie.

Of course, the main reason this film isn’t just playing in art-houses is that it does feature one of Hollywood’s finest actors and biggest stars in a key role. Tom Hanks, if we’re honest, doesn’t look much like Fred Rogers, even with the wig and so on he’s been issued with, and obviously my own ability to judge how well he’s captured Rogers’ demeanour is very limited. However, given that one of the premises of the movie is that Fred Rogers was – and the word is used – a kind of saint, then he is hugely successful. There is obviously a thin line between radiating the kind of decency, sincerity and compassion which Rogers apparently did and just coming across as absurdly cheesy, but Hanks mostly stays on the right side of it. (The modern world being what it is, there have been complaints that while Rogers’ achievements as a host, educator, puppeteer, and author of books such as Going to the Potty are made clear, the fact he was also a minister and a man of deep religious faith is rather understated.)

I should also say that Matthew Rhys is very good in what’s a much less showy part. His character arc for the movie is not the most original, but Rhys’ performance and a charming script do make this a very satisfying and enjoyable drama, even if you disregard the fact it is largely framed in the context of a children’s TV show you may or may not have any awareness of. Hollywood’s fondness for doing stories about people contending with father issues has become a bit of a standing joke – one wonders what this says about the pathology of the place – but this is a superior one.

The only slightly disappointing thing is that this is billed at the start as being (all together now) ‘Inspired by true events’, but at the end it is revealed that the magazine article on Fred Rogers was written by Tom Junod: it would seem that Lloyd Vogel, his family, and his story are all essentially fictitious, created for the purposes of a film about what a great man Fred Rogers was. I’ve written about this kind of thing before recently: once you start mixing ‘real’ people and fictional characters together in this way, the question of what exactly it is you’re doing becomes a pressing one. You’re either telling a true story or you’re not. I’m sure Fred Rogers was every bit as inspirational a figure as he is presented here: but if so, why not just stick to the facts? If he wasn’t, then why fictionalise the story?

But this is a more general point about the whole genre of films to which this belongs. I thought this was a very warm, charming and satisfying drama, rather more to my taste than Heller’s last film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? The performances and structure are more than good enough to make up for the fact that the film seems to be presuming a familiarity with Mr Rogers and his neighbourhood which simply won’t exist for many viewers. Certainly one of the better films of the year so far.

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(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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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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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.

sully

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?

inferno

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.

hologram

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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