The Films of Ron Howard
Grand Theft Auto (April 27/11)
Ron Howard's directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto follows young lovers Sam (Howard) and Paula (Nancy Morgan) as they decide to elope after her parents demand that she marry a wealthy scion (Paul Linke's Collins Hedgeworth) - with the couple's decision to steal her father's Rolls Royce triggering a cross-country chase as they're subsequently pursued by dozens of oddball characters (including Rance Howard's Ned and Clint Howard's Ace). It's a thin premise that's employed to watchable yet far-from-engrossing effect by Howard, as the first-time filmmaker's ongoing emphasis on pursuit sequences inevitably lends the proceedings a decidedly monotonous quality - with the novelty of the over-the-top chases wearing off in as demonstrable and firm a manner as one might've feared. There's little doubt that Grand Theft Auto's affable atmosphere is, as a result, due primarily to the efforts of the film's stars, with Howard's effortlessly charismatic performance ensuring that the viewer can't help but root for Sam and Paula's success. (The palpable chemistry between Howard and Morgan certainly plays an instrumental role in perpetuating this feel.) By the time the frenetic and excessive demolition derby finale rolls around, however, Grand Theft Auto has cemented its place as a passable debut that runs out of steam long before it reaches its crowd-pleasing conclusion.
Through the Magic Pyramid
Splash (March 21/04)
Splash is probably the ultimate fish-out-of-water film, primarily because it literally features a fish out of water. With engaging performances from Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, the movie, which follows a workaholic (Hanks' Allen Bauer) as he falls for an honest-to-goodness mermaid (Hannah's Madison), is an agreeable enough romantic comedy that's deservedly become a classic of sorts. Splash marked Hanks' first attempt at a romantic leading man, and there's no denying that even at this early stage in his career he had screen presence to spare. Even in some of the more dramatic portions of the film, Hanks is surprisingly effective - a real feat considering he was, at the time, best known for playing the cross-dressing Kip on Bosom Buddies. Likewise, Hannah brings a real innocence to this role; the script requires the actress to approach common items with wide-eyed wonder, and Hannah does a nice job of holding her own opposite Hanks. Director Ron Howard brings his usual light touch to the proceedings, and manages to hold our interest even through the movie's oddly action-packed final third. Once the truth about Hannah's character is revealed, the film becomes more of a thriller than a cute little romantic comedy and there's even a chase sequence as the army attempts to capture the mermaid/woman. Such elements appear to have been included to force Hanks' Allen into choosing a life above or below sea level, but such a decision could've been made without the unnecessary action stuff - and in the process, the film likely would've clocked in at a much more reasonable 90 minutes (as it is, Splash runs close to two hours). Still, for most of its running time, Splash is awfully entertaining and features a wonderful early performance from Hanks. As a romantic comedy, the film contains all the requisite ingredients - including an appropriately sappy conclusion.
Far and Away
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A Beautiful Mind
The Missing (November 24/03)
The Missing marks a definite return to form for Ron Howard, whose last two films - the overwhelming How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the sappy A Beautiful Mind - felt more like products geared towards a large audience than anything else. They weren't necessarily bad movies, but they were certainly lacking in both the energy (ie Backdraft) or compelling characters (ie Parenthood) that have come to identify Howard pictures. The film stars Cate Blanchett as Maggie Gilkeson, a fiercely independent frontier woman living with her two daughters and boyfriend. Her estranged father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), arrives on her doorstep, hoping to make amends. After being promptly dismissed, Jones heads on his way - but when Maggie's daughter is kidnapped by a band of rogue Indians, she's forced to ask her long-absent father for help in finding her. Though Howard has worked in the thriller genre before (1996's Ransom), he's never before made a film that's felt this gritty and urgent. There's a definite sense of danger permeating almost every minute of The Missing, a feeling that's supported by Blanchett's fantastic lead performance. Though Maggie is easily the most rugged character she's ever tackled, Blanchett is entirely believable as this tough woman that's willing to do whatever it takes to get her daughter back. As was the case with Ransom, Howard has taken an actor known primarily for middle-of-the-road characterizations and managed to elicit a performance with undertones of ferociousness. That same kind of raw energy can also be felt in the film's visual look, as cinematographer Salvatore Totino brings an uneasy quality to the wide open spaces of the old west. There's a feeling of authenticity going on here; we're never under the impression that certain scenes have been shot on a sound stage somewhere. Howard does a nice job of turning the landscape into a supporting character, rather than just another threat to Maggie's mission. Though there are a lot of effective elements to be found within The Missing, the film is substantially overlong; at a running time of over two hours, the movie could've used some judicious editing. The sequences dealing with the Indian magic spells and potions proves to be the most superfluous aspect of the story and indeed often border on outright silliness. (There is, for example, a silly sequence revolving around in Indian exorcism that stops the movie dead in its tracks.) But even such instances of absurd spirituality can't mar the fact that The Missing is an exemplary thriller. It's been designed in such a way as to appeal to folks that ordinarily aren't a fan of this genre, since the relationship between Maggie and her father receives ample screentime. Though it's not quite a great Ron Howard film (somewhere along the lines of Apollo 13), it's certainly a darn good one.
The Da Vinci Code (May 18/06)
Though Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code will never be mistaken for high art, the novel was, at the very least, consistently interesting and generally entertaining. And while this adaptation - written by Akiva Goldsman - contains many of the same beats and plot twists as Brown's book, the film never quite becomes anything more than a sporadically engaging but mostly dull murder mystery. Tom Hanks stars as Robert Langdon, a top symbologist who is unwittingly recruited by a grizzled French cop (Jean Reno) to assist in the mysterious death of one of the Louvre's top curators. Along with said curators daughter, Sophie (Audrey Tautou), Robert soon finds himself caught up in a far-reaching conspiracy revolving around a religious coverup of epic proportions. The Da Vinci Code's been directed by Ron Howard, who imbues the movie with an almost maddeningly somber vibe - refusing to allow even a hint of levity to enter the proceedings, despite the fact that Brown's novel was actually rife with humorous asides and genuinely exciting action sequences. Howard - collaborating once again with Cinderella Man cinematographer Salvatore Totino - apes the austere look and feel of that Russell Crowe drama, which immediately proves to be an incongruous match with the source material (the movie sure looks nice, however). The film is, consequently, not nearly as engrossing as one might've expected, and primarily moves at a pace that can most accurately be referred to as deliberate. And although Howard and Goldsman waste absolutely no time in thrusting the viewer into the action, the almost complete lack of character development makes it virtually impossible to actually care about Robert and Sophie's quest. That Hanks delivers an atypically charmless performance doesn't help matters; while the actor certainly isn't bad in the role, he transforms Robert Langdon into a figure that's overly grave and far from engaging. Likewise, Tautou quickly proves to be the absolute wrong choice for the role of Sophie - as the actress is simply unable to convincingly infuse the character with an appropriate mix of confidence and seriousness (her ridiculously thick French accent doesn't do her any favors, either). The only performance that really works here is Paul Bettany's turn as Silas, the killer albino monk hot on Robert and Sophie's trail. Though he's not given a whole lot of screen time, Bettany dominates the proceedings and easily remains the most intriguing and effective aspect of the movie. In terms of the book's supposed "controversial" content, Goldsman has left most of it intact - although he does play it safe by turning Robert into something of a skeptic (an element that certainly wasn't contained within Brown's novel). And ultimately, it's that sort of refusal to take risks - combined with a distinct sense of blandness - that sinks The Da Vinci Code.
As slick as one might've expected, Frost/Nixon tells the true-life story of how British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) managed to land a series of interviews with disgrace ex-President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). The film, based on Peter Morgan's award-winning play, primarily details the build-up into the interviews among both sides, as Frost prepares by collaborating with a ragtag group of intellectuals (including Sam Rockwell's James Reston Jr and Oliver Platt's Bob Zelnick) and Nixon conspires with trusted aide Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) to turn the hyped conversations to their advantage. Although filmmaker Ron Howard generally does a superb job of satisfying both mainstream viewers and history buffs, there's ultimately little doubt that Frost/Nixon will have a more pronounced impact on the latter - as the movie suffers from a dramatically-inert midsection that often seems consumed with the minutia of Frost and Nixon's preparations. It's subsequently not surprising to note that the film suffers from an undeniable lack of tension as it builds towards the pair's series of encounters, with Howard's lighthearted approach effectively lending the proceedings an air of frivolity that often borders on cute. The entertaining-yet-middling atmosphere eventually does give way to an electrifying and downright moving third act, however, as the title pair's confrontations are fraught with a back-and-forth dynamic that inevitably proves irresistible. Langella and Sheen's stirring work certainly goes a long way towards cementing Frost/Nixon's mild success, while Howard surely deserves credit for infusing the production with a distinctly cinematic quality that generally belies its stage origins.
Angels & Demons
Though undoubtedly a minor improvement over its underwhelming predecessor, 2006's The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is nevertheless unable to replicate the propulsive, downright enthralling sensibilities of Dan Brown's first Robert Langdon adventure. And while it'd be easy to pin the blame for the movie's ineffectiveness on the almost unreasonable amount of changes made to Brown's novel, it's ultimately clear that Ron Howard's egregiously solemn directorial choices remain the most obvious deficiency within this ongoing series - as the filmmaker is either unable or unwilling to infuse the proceedings with the fun, fast-paced atmosphere demanded by the source material. The movie follows Tom Hanks' intrepid symbologist as he races to prevent the fabled Illuminati from executing four Cardinals and blowing up the Vatican, with his efforts aided by a fiery physicist (Ayelet Zurer's Vittoria Vetra) and a helpful papal official (Ewan McGregor's Patrick McKenna). It's an unapologetically over-the-top premise that, although employed to exceedingly entertaining effect within the book, inevitably results in a middling cinematic endeavor, as Howard - working from a script by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman - emphasizes a consistent tone of reverence that proves an incongruous match with the comparatively light-hearted nature of Brown's eponymous bestseller. The relentless stream of exposition that dominates Angels & Demons' opening half hour certainly contributes heavily to the stagnant vibe, with the baffling absence of several of the novel's most exciting sequences - ie Langdon's battle with an unnamed assassin within Rome's famed Fountain of the Four Rivers, Langdon's perilous efforts at rescuing Vittoria from the clutches of said assassin, etc, etc - undoubtedly exacerbating the pacing problems that persist virtually from start to finish. And although supporting players Zurer and McGregor ably step into their respective roles, Hanks' atypically charmless work as the central character remains an emblematic example of everything that's wrong with this series (ie the movie's resemblance to an Oscar-time prestige picture goes against the intent of Brown's books). The exhilarating third act does ensure that Angels & Demons ends on a positive note, admittedly, yet it remains abundantly clear that the film simply isn't as pervasively engrossing as one might've hoped.
True to its title, The Dilemma follows Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) as he struggles to tell his best friend Nick (Kevin James) that his wife (Winona Ryder's Geneva) is cheating on him - with problems ensuing as Ronny's increasingly convoluted web of lies begins to threaten his relationship with Jennifer Connelly's Beth. There's little doubt that The Dilemma fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Ron Howard, working from Allan Loeb's screenplay, does a nice job of initially establishing the various characters and their relationships with one another - which effectively ensures that the movie's leisurely pace is, at the outset, not as problematic as one might've feared. It's only as the film progresses into its increasingly uneven midsection that one's interest begins to wane, with the almost excessive familiarity of the storyline resulting in plot twists of a decidedly predictable variety (eg Connelly's character begins to suspect that gambling addict Ronny is up to his old tricks). Howard's curiously deliberate sensibilities inevitably wreak havoc on The Dilemma's momentum, as the director's difficulties in sustaining a consistent tone ultimately ensure that the movie works neither as a comedy nor as a drama (eg it's not funny enough for the former or emotional enough for the latter). The inclusion of a few admittedly energetic interludes - eg Ronny confronts Geneva's tattooed, high-on-oxycontin boyfriend (Channing Tatum's Zip) - goes a long way towards sustaining the film's watchable atmosphere, yet it's hard to deny that the whole thing is, in the final analysis, far too sedate and uneven to make a wholeheartedly positive impact on the viewer.
Inspired by true events, Rush details the rivalry between '70s Formula One drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) - with the film exploring the characters' exploits in both their professional and personal lives. Though the movie doesn't exactly open with a lot of promise - Hemsworth's character is, for example, first glimpsed seducing a nurse à la James Bond - Rush eventually settles to become a consistently engrossing drama that boasts a handful of genuinely exciting racing sequences (although, by that same token, it's hard not to wish that filmmaker Ron Howard had spent a little more time on the individual races). It's worth noting, too, that Rush fares quite well in its smaller, more low-key moments, with the movie's transformation from merely passable to thoroughly watchable triggered by an early interlude in which Lauda first encounters his future wife (Alexandra Maria Lara's Marlene). There's similarly little doubt that the film benefits substantially from the above-average efforts of its various stars, with Hemsworth and Brühl's stand-out work complemented by a supporting cast that includes, among others, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, and Olivia Wilde. And although the movie suffers from a rather anticlimactic final stretch - the narrative peaks with a fantastic crash sequence that leaves one of the protagonists badly injured - Rush ultimately stands as a satisfying biopic that gets the job done efficiently and without much fanfare (ie Howard clearly isn't looking to reinvent the wheel here, so to speak).