Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

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Sully

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There’s a familiar mix of proficiency and predictability about Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking these days. The 86 year old has little time to waste on finesse and the subsequent ‘flatness’ of many of his films is a reminder of the shortcomings of his relentlessly economical approach to filming. Combined here with the re-telling of a remarkable real-life tale, Sully (2016) still proves to be one of his finer recent works, far superior to the drab Hereafter (2010) and, especially, the occasionally risible American Sniper (2014). Most of the thanks this time around must go to the reliable, unwavering presence of Tom Hanks who, though he might rightly be derided for never stepping out of his comfort zone, does here what he does best – playing a man of scruples and integrity and doing so with utter conviction and sincerity.

Pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s decision – based on split second calculations when faced with catastrophe – to attempt to land his US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009 rather than return to New York’s LaGuardia airport, seems foolhardy, desperate and, most likely, deadly. Somehow all 155 passengers and crew aboard survive, becoming part of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, but despite being afforded hero status by the public, Sully’s superiors are determined to bring him to account for what they perceive as a catastrophic error of judgement – one that only through cosmic fortune prevents carnage and a mass loss of life.

Much of the film concentrates on the internal and external conflicts that bear down on Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) in the wake of the drama. The public perception is of heroism in the shape of a man who calculatedly defied a seemingly horrible, inevitable fate. Simultaneously, we’re invited to despise the emotionless mechanism of officialdom, the multi-faced entity attempting to extol a contradictory tale that will bring this supposed hero to account for the liberties he took with so many lives resting in the palm of his hand.

Sully is naturally haunted by the scale of the near-disaster, though his convictions about the quick-fire series of decisions that led to the Hudson becoming the craft’s runway never wavers. In effect the film not only champions the man’s courage and integrity but sets up a battle between human and contrived responses to stressful, life-endangering scenarios that is at the heart of the film’s themes.

Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay is a strong one even though he’s almost duty bound to reduce elements of the accompanying stories down to their most generic constituent parts, such as pointless flashbacks to Sully’s earliest days as a pilot. Sully is sequestered in a hotel after the disaster as the inquiry nears and he attends to a brutal round of media duties. Because of this he’s unable to see his loyal wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and their subsequent phone conversions are painfully conventional back-and-forths. Other reductive scenes similarly reflect the ‘flatness’ of Eastwood’s modern style.

This style, for once, isn’t necessarily a major negative however, especially in the compelling, much anticipated final scenes as the validity of Sully’s judgment are put to the ultimate test. Here, we find out once and for all whether the fate of airborne lives is best entrusted to human instincts or flight simulator computations. These scenes are magnificently handled, playing out with an understated dignity that doesn’t detract from their intrinsic emotional power. Hanks, for all his adherence to playing saints who walk among us, is superb.

 

 

Bridge of Spies

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Thrust into the Cold war spotlight, a morally righteous American lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is handed the unenviable task of defending a recently nabbed Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Not one to shirk an issue even when told by his superiors to go through the motions with this one, creating the pretence of having given the evil Red a fair trial when anything but will be the case, Donavan can’t help but seek due process for his client. Neither the dubious assertions of his fearful wife (Amy Ryan) nor the evil eyes of his fellow train travellers can dissuade this man, morally bound as he is to serve Abel regardless of his political or other persuasions. Even after a verdict is predictably reached, Donovan’s duty doesn’t end as he’s used as a trump card by government agencies to procure a swap via negotiations with Russian and German factions after an American pilot is captured behind enemy lines.

Written by Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies (2015) is more involved with creating layers of texture as its sometimes unwieldy narrative unfolds. It’s mostly bereft of huge dramatic moments, with the payoffs, when they arrive, the ones we’ve most likely predicted anyway. Neither is there much in the way of suspense or even big set-pieces, and yet there’s such a strong sense of pure storytelling compelling things along that these absences amount to relatively minor shortcomings.

Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does a fine job of accentuating the superb production design of Adam Stockhausen, with his work in street scenes, full of interesting lower angles and jaunty movements, of particular note. The film’s visual aesthetic accurately reflects the retrospective sheen we expect of the era depicted. Another regular Spielberg collaborator is a notable absentee however. John Williams has scored all of Spielberg’s features since 1973, bar The Color Purple (1985). However, due to periods of ill-health and most recently, a scheduling clash with his work on the next Star Wars film due, the 83 year old had to hand over the reins on this occasion. The director lost nothing in opting for Thomas Newman, one of modern cinema’s finest and most distinctive musical voices. Though his compositional technique is very different to that of Williams, there’s no discordance in the way he builds the architecture of his score or treats key scenes, leading to a smooth and satisfying transition.

Though not fictional, Donovan feels like a thoroughly Spielbergian character, a man very familiar to American cinemagoers from almost any era; a man etched from a foundation of family values and validated by an unremitting decency and desire to passionately uphold the law. In some senses you could hardly imagine anyone but Hanks filling Donovan’s shoes, having long served, cinematically, this very same American ideal of possessing the characteristics his countrymen – steeping ever so briefly into the shoes of their better selves – would like to aspire to.

The rich supply of secondary players provide exemplary support, though Rylance gives a remarkably nuanced performance; so much of what he conveys emanates from what Abel doesn’t say. An accomplished and much-lauded stage actor, he’s rarely been seen on the big screen but physically he seems custom fit for this type of oddball, left-of-centre characterisation. Abel’s laconic demeanour and sparse, dry humour, it must be said, has the Coen brothers’ fingerprints all over it. Bridge of Spies (2015) is a long way from being classic Spielberg, however it’s certainly a notch above his recent endurance tests, the puerile War Horse (2011) and the monumentally dour history lesson, Lincoln (2012). What it lacks in dramatic high points and moral subtlety, it makes up for in a richly wrought world that is believably sustained for more than two hours.