Sunday, November 12, 2017

So Did They All

Autumn 2016 will be remembered for many things in the years to come but the fact that we got two Tom Hanks movies during that time will probably be considered of only minor importance. Everybody had something else on their minds, I guess. The first of the two was Clint Eastwood’s SULLY which we were all ok with partly because it turned out to be surprisingly emotional and, even better, it was only around 90 minutes. The second came deeper into the season at the very end of October, right at that moment when all of our attention was focused elsewhere. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that Ron Howard’s INFERNO, the third film adapted from Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, didn’t do much business. As for the first two, THE DA VINCI CODE came out in 2006, a long time ago with the memory of the surrounding frenzy now feeling like some sort of Bush-Cheney era relic that no one needs to revisit. The follow-up ANGELS & DEMONS came in 2009 and it’s a film I can’t think of a single thing to say about. So if you’re going to make a third film in a series that no one thinks about anymore and wait seven years to do it there’s always the chance the audience will have long since scattered. Even the SNL hosted by Tom Hanks the week before which featured the instantly legendary David S. Pumpkins sketch couldn’t get anyone to go. Naturally, I was there opening weekend. You think I’ve got better things to do? Something about how the film seemed off in the present climate was appealing in a why-does-this-movie-exist way, a franchise aimed at an adult market that didn’t really seem to exist anymore. So that Saturday afternoon I walked over to the Vista where I correctly guessed there wouldn’t be much of a crowd, got some popcorn and sat down, ready to enjoy a bad movie. Sometimes you know what you want and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. But thinking back on that time now it feels like the film was somehow a portent of what was to come and even Tom Hanks, who we all like to think of as our dad, couldn’t prevent that.

With no memory of how he got there, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy and finds himself instantly in jeopardy. In between hallucinatory visions of a form of hell engulfing the earth, he finds himself almost immediately under siege but is rescued by attending doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) who informs Langdon of his condition and gets him out of the hospital with them being chased by an assassin dressed as a police officer (Ana Ularu) in pursuit. Hiding out in Sienna’s apartment the two begin to piece together what brought Langdon to the city in the first place, connecting it to the suicide of billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who had instigated a plan to use a virus to literally bring about Dante’s Inferno as a way to solve the planet’s growing population problem. On the run from both the assassin and members of the World Health Organization led by Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) with their own interest in Langdon, the path leads them to the recent theft of a Dante Death Mask on display in the Palazzo Vecchio and who is really behind the plot to unleash the virus.

It wasn’t necessary for me to look up the plot summary on Wikipedia to clarify a few plot points that I zoned out on but it didn’t hurt. I still have a few questions, to be honest, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m not going to make any great case for INFERNO but I’ve seen far worse and in some ways it’s more entertaining on its own mediocre level than the other two films in the series, or at least my memory of them. At the very least, it feels like there’s some sort of weight off its shoulders to live up to whatever the DA VINCI CODE phenomenon was so there’s not as much self-importance this time with maybe a little more pulpish fun. It’s a film that at least seems to know it’s designed to be watched on airplanes or via On Demand in hotel rooms and accomplish little more than just letting us know how it’s going to turn out. I’ve never read any of the Dan Brown books and I have no plans to revisit the earlier two films in the series but flipping by a few minutes of ANGELS & DEMONS on cable recently made it clear that INFERNO, screenplay by David Koepp based on the book by Dan Brown, is a little stripped down in comparison and the reported budget of 75 million vs 150 million back in ’09 makes that clear, with less of an emphasis on special effects and sets that were clearly digitally created as well as a cast of supporting actors this time out who while just as capable were clearly somewhat cheaper. Instead of figuring out a way to digitally swoop down on the characters as they enter some massive cathedral, the film instead has to concentrate on telling the story. Much of the first half hour is largely set in a single modestly sized apartment before the chase really begins and it’s even shot (digitally, unlike the others which were on film) in 1.85 unlike the Scope framings of the first two as if to further scale things down visually, but I’m not sure Ron Howard is a director who depends on 2.35 anyway. Even better it’s only a sliver over two hours so it even feels like it moves faster which alone makes it an improvement over the other Langdon films. The plot gimmick of partial amnesia is always good in a noir-ish way particularly here since it not only takes away part of the hero’s intellect, it means we don’t always know what the intentions are of people who claim they already know him. Plus I’m never going to be too unhappy about a film partly set in Florence anyway, even if it barely gets a chance to pay attention to the surroundings.

Much of Howard’s direction seems to consist of portentous close-ups of characters as they debate plot points with the occasional wide shot as they enter a new locale along with the expected action scenes where we can only partly tell what’s actually going on but he does keep it moving. You’d expect it to simply go through the paces but, if anything, the film is over-directed in an attempt to add more flash than the story requires, trying way too hard with CGI Dante-inspired visions of a world turned into hell that Langdon has which seem to be there mainly to make the whole thing acceptable for an IMAX release. They seem to disappear after the first hour and never amount to very much anyway. As it is, one of the most effective visions is also the simplest, when Langdon finds himself alone in a suddenly empty hall at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, the naturalism of the brief moment proving much more effective. The film does at least do a good job in portraying a world in strife amidst all this history, with Howard always keeping us aware of the teeming hordes streaming through these tourist spots as a reminder of the population problem the film dwells on plus it turns out that the date the virus is set to be released is my birthday so the villain’s apparently more of an asshole for trying to ruin that for me. There’s even a fairly decent twist in the second half that I didn’t see coming along with a plot device seemingly borrowed from John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM L.A., of all things, although I’ll give this film the benefit of the doubt that it’s not a direct lift. Hans Zimmer’s score serves as wallpaper much of the time as if it wants to maintain a semblance of seriousness by not being too bombastic but a little more energy wouldn’t have hurt.

Like the other two films, all the main action is crammed into basically one day and the way Howard films things it’s more about how the people in the frame relate to what’s around them, not so much on the epic sweep; really, the entire series tries to make actors shouting exposition while on the run into a new art form. But even though the film takes itself seriously every single second it still manages to feel somehow looser than the other two films and maybe all the location shooting gave it an extra shot of adrenaline. There’s nothing particularly notable about how the climax set in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is shot but at least the actual location has a unique look and the film even seems to know that it doesn’t need to bother spending too much time wrapping things up. For something so plot driven and centered around Tom Hanks running with a pained expression on his face, a few of the most interesting touches have very little to do with that plot, whether it’s a memory of a lost Mickey Mouse watch or visions of a woman that Langdon can’t quite recall. The subtext of INFERNO isn’t exactly deep, but it does contain tinges of regret in portraying someone so consumed by work that it’s become his life and in doing that asks himself what he’s waiting for and, really, what are any of us waiting for, whether we’re thinking about the world or the things we’ve missed out in our own lives, as if we just assume we’ll wake up one day and it’ll all be taken care of. One character references Dante’s Inferno and how it was written by him as a journey out of hell to reach the woman he loves, a parallel to what this particular INFERNO turns out to be for Langdon who seems to be preoccupied with how he’s single, maybe wondering about what he’s leaving behind at his age. It’s too bad the movie needs to explicitly state the parallel in dialogue as if we couldn’t pick it up on our own but at least it’s something.

There are a lot of serious matters to bring up about the state of the world today and what the problems of population are doing to it but ultimately INFERNO is a chase movie, one that wants to be hopeful and remind us how we need to strive for a better world. It’s trying really hard to believe that but I’m still not sure it does. But it knows that sometimes we need to retreat into those Mickey Mouse watches that represent where we once were while desperately hoping that the future hasn’t been too screwed up because of the past. One thing about this film, and I suppose the others in the series, is that at least it involves people from the world of academia with knowledge of art, religion, history, people who believe in intelligence and what that represents. As it turns out, not everyone in the film agrees with that and certainly not everyone in the world these days. It even feels somewhat conservative in its overall message of believing that institutions will save the day from the maverick youngsters (“Young people are disappointing. I find they become tolerable around 35,” someone says but Langdon’s silent reaction indicates even he won’t go that far) and even the diabolical private security firm that figures in turns out to only have the best interests of the world at heart. “Things fall apart if you don’t look after them,” goes one line which feels like a moral and a reminder to us for what may happen in the future. We like to think that Tom Hanks is supposed to save all of us since he’s our dad, after all. The bad guys of INFERNO are tyrants who attempt to destroy the world to turn it into what they want. A year after seeing the film in that nearly empty theater I’m starting to wonder if they actually pulled it off. But I guess we can’t blame Tom Hanks and Ron Howard for that.

Tom Hanks, his goofy hair from the first film long gone, definitely knows what is required here and, sure, this is basically the equivalent of Jack Lemmon starring in AIRPORT ’77 but he always seems fully committed to the moment and Langdon essentially trying to restart his brain adds to the tension; there’s a moment where, trying to hold back his impatience at someone telling him something, where you can see how well he engages with even the bit players. Felicity Jones, who I guess now will always be Jyn Erso, adds a refreshing sense of aggression in how she bounces off Hanks which goes against just being ‘the girl’ and, without getting into spoilers, plays things with just enough hesitation so we can’t always be sure what she’s thinking. All of the supporting actors are pros and do a good job in not revealing right off where their allegiances lie, particularly Irrfan Khan as the head of ‘The Consortium’ who more than anyone else in the film seems to be exploring all the possibilities in his dialogue. With the male lead spending a good amount of the running time in a daze it makes some of its strongest characters the women, particularly Sidse Babett Knudsen, also seen in WESTWORLD around this time, who offers authority as the World Health Organization head as well as Ana Ularu who as the assassin who unfortunately falls out of the story way too soon.

Plus Ida Darvish as helpful Palazzo Vecchio representative Marta Alvarez turns out to be the most likable character in the film, maybe all three of the films for that matter. For once there’s actually some refreshing intentional humor when she rolls her eyes at Langdon’s introduction of the much younger Sienna Brooks as his ‘niece’ and the brief exchange, along with an earlier bit where Langdon tries to ask for a cup of coffee, makes me wish the film could be that much more of a romp through European locales but soon enough it’s just back to the furrowed brows. Darvish is such a refreshing presence after all the Sturm and Drang of the plot that you wish they could knock off the chase for a while, go to a nice restaurant down the street for some pasta and good conversation. I mean, we’re in Florence after all, why do we have to run everywhere? Her character’s pregnancy not only provides an extra layer of confusion for Langdon when she first appears but in the end provides hope for the future which makes sense considering she gives the film more life than anyone else does.

And in case I need to mention it, this particular INFERNO has nothing to do with the Dario Argento film of the same name, which you should see if you haven’t, nor is it connected to the 1953 noir with the title directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Robert Ryan which I’ve never even seen but I’d like to. I also never saw the past few Ron Howard movies before this one but it was nothing personal. He still seems like a nice guy and I’m sure we’re all going to be seeing that Han Solo film when it comes out. Anyway, we all have pasts. Right now, a year later after all this, it feels like the past stopped at INFERNO and David S. Pumpkins. The YouTube page for the sketch even includes a comment reading, “I think David S. Pumpkins resonates because it was the last really pure thing we had before the whole world went to shit.” Which in some ways is true and, yes, it was a funny sketch but let’s all calm down for a few minutes. To go back to INFERNO, on opening weekend it came in second to BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN which already in its second week and while international numbers were fine, as much as people love Tom Hanks they obviously don’t care much about this anymore. To compare it to another sequel from a year ago, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK opened just a week earlier and was also DOA at the box office but at least INFERNO has more oomph, even if it never attained the cache of Film Twitter approval, maybe because Ron Howard’s approach actually gives the vibe that it’s a film he’d like to see. For now, INFERNO is a reminder of that brief moment in time even if I may not need to return to it very much after this. And if there’s actually going to be a future, the film is a reminder that I need to see Florence again one day although I may pass on the INFERNO experience. We should always remind ourselves that history never dies. History will be remembered. These days, I have to hope.

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