Summer holidays were defined by Happy Days in my house. We started our day watching The Fonz, Mrs. C and Richie before the freedom of the day unfolded. I probably didn’t realise until Far & Away came out that Richie Cunningham now directed movies… and one of them… Willow was also on constant repeat in my house.
He is a director who often transcends genre and a definable visual style. As comfortable in fantasy as he is grit. He has made both blockbusters and Oscar Sweepers nearly all of which feature a reassuringly welcome small speaking part for his brother Clint and a guaranteed slickness. But for me his starry ensembles are his strength. He seems to flourish with family dynamics and worlds of work. While he has made as many prosperous stinkers ( The Da Vinci Code series, A Beautiful Mind) as great entertainments (Ransom, Solo) , I’ll always have a soft spot for the child star who became a dependable cap wearing journeyman.
Ron Howard directs Steve Martin, Dianne Wiest and Jason Robards in this comedy drama that follows an extended families’ ups and downs raising their kids.
The sprawling cast here also contains Rick Moranis, Keanu Reeves and a pre-fame Joaquin Phoenix. Spinning a lot of narrative plates, you can never get bored as we spend no more than two consecutive scenes stuck in one household. There’s a surprising amount of raunch but it is the drama that works better than the zany comedy. You care about the sensitive arcs of Wiest’s single mom, Martin’s over anxious son and Robards blinkered patriarch a lot more than the innuendo and the off the wall kids parties. The wrap up is a little pat and the normally scene stealing Moranis feels a little wasted in a one note role.
An almost insanely busy plotline manages to fit in plenty of blazes and bravery. It could be a Top Gun inspired two hour recruitment advert for the Fire Department? Is it an East Of Eden style battle of the siblings drama? Or a The Silence of the Lambs crime thriller with arson as the M.O.? There’s romances, corrupt officials, bunkhouse comedy and training montages… even some Irish dancing. And with all this spilling fuel lying around Backdraft ignites! A hit that delivers thrills and soap in spades. The roaring fire FX work is still blisteringly suffocating. You can feel the heat, believe the peril. An early Hans Zimmer score rouses and hustles you along over the junkyard narrative. So pretty boy Billy Baldwin isn’t the finest actor for us to be focussed on, everyone around him screams quality. DeNiro is subdued and intelligent, Jennifer Jason Leigh is cute and resourceful in a rare straight romantic support role and Donald Sutherland has mischievous larks as a firebug rip-off of Hannibal Lector. Star of the show is Kurt Russell… not for the first or last time… channeling his inner John Wayne as the blowhard legend who is right goddamn it. All little boys want to be firemen and the rescue sequences where we get to ride the engine or run by Russel’s side as he dashes head first into danger are wish fulfilment of the highest order. Howard has a keen eye for the mechanics and details of the everyday life of the firehouse and this feels very much like the start of an unofficial trilogy where he deep drills into a workplace subculture over an intense life or death period. There’s an admiration and respect for the graft and teamwork needed to save lives on a daily basis and that celebration of people being dedicated to their jobs (a rarity for Hollywood) carries over into The Paper and Apollo 13.
The Paper (1994)
Ron Howard directs Michael Keaton, Glenn Close and Marissa Tomei in this comedy drama following a day in the life of a New York tabloid where all the editorial staff are reaching definitive crossroads in their careers.
A personal favourite. I really don’t know why this has such a lukewarm reputation. It outzips and outzings His Girl Friday, moves at a relentless pace and features Keaton’s best performance. Some contemporary middling reviews quibble that the black youths the breaking story is about receive minimal screentime but that misses the point. The film is not about the people in the news, it is about the people who investigate, write and gatekeep the news. Their search for the truth within a deadline, for a story within the financial pressure of a struggling service. The hustle and workplace banter and seething conflicts to get a sellable paper out everyday is captivating. A loud cacophony that turns into a symphony. People may love their All The President’s Mens and Spotlights with their grinding conspiracies slowly dragged out over months of dead ends and dogged research but what about the journalists who have to land the exclusive every day, any day… with no idea of where the public’s shifting attention or appetite will be in 10 hours time when the presses roll. For a mainly office bound film, the chase is absolutely thrilling. We watch the imperfect machinations grind against each other. Keaton gets a fair few grandstanding rants, Close is baleful and resplendent as the ice queen bean counter and Duvall again adds a phlegmy glow as the old hand in charge of all the warring personalities. As the day tightens into night and we see various newshounds risk their outside lives to get the job done, their own personal dramas begin to echo each other. If Keaton stays at the New York Sun he could easily become estranged from his young family like Duvall’s mournful Bernie long ago has, if he moves into a more 9-5 corporate role, as Close’s Alicia has, will he be able to look himself in the mirror as he puts budgets ahead of honest reporting. These echoes the concerns of the work / life balance Howard explored in subplots involving Robards, Martin and Russell in Parenthood and Backdraft respectively. Howard keeps lots of plate spinning with the light touch of someone who spent his formative years on TV sets. The Paper proves his finest multistrand composition
and clearest hymn to the everyday professional.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Critically acclaimed and a massive summer hit, Apollo 13 should probably be higher in my rankings. It has the same focus on “getting the job done right” and team dynamics as The Paper and Backdraft, but married to a true story. The film has loads of unfussy strengths… believable model work augmented with CGI, the magisterial Tom Hanks in one of his first serious adventure leads and a James Horner score that fills the low key problem solving action with a persuasive zeal. Yet I find it a little dry… outwith the genuinely thrilling set pieces, the drama in the claustrophobic cockpit and middle-aged white man populated control room becomes quite repetitive and predictable. Because this is a tribute to the ingenuity of heroes under pressure we get very little personal conflict. Tempers fray slightly but you’d struggle to say that Paxton, Kevin Bacon or even Hanks imbue their real life astronauts with much of their own natural star personalities. This version is a little too faithful and respectful. Always fun when you click on a movie’s Wikipedia page and someone lists the historical inaccuracies, none of which will hamper your enjoyment of this gentle disaster movie. They might niggle if you were a NASA obsessive but I came for a manly tale of stoic survival and ingenuity, not minutiae. There’s very little that jars or takes you out of the story. And maybe that’s why Apollo 13 only satisfies me rather than seduces me. It is a bit too academic, a bit too worthily procedural to survive repeated viewings.
Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
Ron Howard directs Amy Adams, Glenn Close and Gabriel Basso in this adaptation of a bestselling memoir following an Ohio boy’s tribulations growing up in a low income, mentally unstable family.
Holy Shit! What a bin fire! Laughable poverty cosplay where horrible people destroy each other’s lives and we are supposed to glean some dignity from their selfish, unhinged behaviour. Cut these fuckers loose. The central lad is a bit of a lunk… difficult to see why we should care about his job prospects or his personal life (which seem on course to be pretty decent) considering he seems to be so emotionally formless and inept at social interactions. Amy Adams gets lost in a “poor me” maelstrom of half tragedies. She is my favourite actress and even I just wished her character would overdose and stop being such a blight on everyone’s life by the midway point. There are hints that her Bev was abused by her own father and maybe the kids are the product of incest but the film shies away from doing little more than teasing that unfulfilled revelation for the hyper observant. Meanwhile Close is lost under Bo Selecta prosthetics trying to turn a racist old birdie into a firebrand hero. We are supposed to marvel at the sacrifices she makes; begging for extra Meals On Wheels to feed her starving overweight grandchild. Two minutes later, she is casually stocking up a pantry full to the rafters with tins and boxes. There’s at least three moments when you wish this alleged force of nature would knock her wayward daughter around the head or let the kids be taken into care. Instead she stares stoically and that silence and inaction is supposed to be seen as heroic. This is a gallingly bad piece of Oscar bait that never settles down long enough for us to even get a baring on who we should be rooting for. While there is nothing wrong with unlikable characters or movies that spotlights the struggles of poor people – you just need to do more than wallow in their distress. I chuckled so often at the pinball of fate that bounced callously around this generation hopping story that I wondered whether Howard should have approached it as a light comedy… a la Parenthood. Howard the director’s tastes have been off since the turn of the century. I know Cinderella Man, Frost / Nixon and Rush have their fans but for me only his fumbled epics like In the Heart of the Sea and Solo have shown any of the old promise and skill. The sad fact is, in spite of being a consistent moneymaker for the studios for over four decades now, Howard seemingly doesn’t have the creative control, power or inclination to launch projects like Backdraft or Ransom anymore. Which is a shame as some of us crave blockbusters set in the real world, certainly over indulgent dramas with no workable grip on reality.
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/