Sunday, October 30, 2016

CRITICS VS. AUDIENCES: WITH RON HOWARD'S TOWERING "INFERNO" THE AUDIENCE WINS! - by CEJ



  A "no spoilers" review and more 

GullCottage rating 
(**** on a scale of 1 - 5)

     Now running neck-and-neck with David Yates' THE LEGEND OF TARZAN and Antoine Fuqua's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, Ron Howard's INFERNO immediately shoots to the front of the pack as one of our favorite film-going experiences of 2016 ... thus far. Oh, and please keep in mind we said a "favorite" film, and not necessarily "best", "most important", "most artistically / brilliantly realized" or other fifty-five dollar "Oscar / Golden Globe wannabe" catch-bait phrase. That's important.

     Well, as 'ol Ferris Bueller once said, "That's it - why are you still hanging around?".

     Because from here on it's just us explaining why we feel that way. So, if you want you can skip the rest of this, save your time, and go back to social-media-dueling over Hillary and The Donald, emails, grabbin' pu**ies, and other infinitely more important things. Have at it. But if you wanna maybe step outside of yourself for a few minutes, lend an ear, light a smoke, and maybe even tip back a brewski or a glass of vino or whatever, we think by the end of this you may come away with a wee bit of a grin on your face, ... and maybe even (hopefully) a little more good 'ol fashioned healthy circumspection in regards to outside influences and opinions (in the form of critics) in general; and more confidence in one's own assessment ("gut response" or "educated opinion") of what constitutes the "good", "bad", "ugly", "important" or otherwise in particular. And hey, thinking for oneself, and making up one's own mind independent of the ever-swirling media and social media maelstrom, really isn't such a bad habit to get into during an election year anyway, is it? But that's entirely up to you.

INFERNO (2016): Official Trailer


     Hmmm? You still seem to be hanging around (and thanks for doing so, it means a lot!), so here goes ...

ANTON EGO AND COMPANY

RATATOUILLE's "lordly" food critic Anton Ego

     We don't get it. If you read reviews, or at least follow aggregate sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and others, you'll see a great many critics don't seem to dig INFERNO. And that's okay. I mean, many literary critics don't exactly dig Dan Brown's source material novels either. ANGELS & DEMONS, THE DA VINCI CODE, THE LOST SYMBOL and INFERNO have all been called "preposterous" and worse. They've been said to be too dependent on deliberate malapropisms: y'know, when the mispronunciation or reading of a word or phrase (like "flamingo" / "flamenco") leads to deliberate audience misdirection and interpretation. And Brown's prose style (though many don't feel he has any) has more than once been ridiculed. And, hey, while some of these digs at Mr. Brown may have merit, we say ... "So what?".

     The man's not trying to cure cancer here, or the common cold, or even come up with a logical explanation for the existence of cockroaches or the Anophthalus Hitleri (the Blind Cave Beetle of Slovenia - considered by many to be the world's most useless insect, ... and named after Adolf Hitler! - we kid you not!). No, he (and director Ron Howard) are just unspooling an ALADDIN-like magic carpet ride if you want to hop aboard is all.


(L to R): Dan Brown, Omar Sy, Felicity Jones, Tom Hanks, Ron Howard

     Now, while we're in no way championing mediocrity (there's far too much of that in every corner of the arts these days), let's remember that over the years the literary elite has often leveled a lot of the same Dan Brown-like criticisms against other popular (and populist) writers such as Irving Wallace, Michael Crichton and even F. Scott Fitzgerald - as if popularity or "commercial" automatically equates with "selling out" or being devoid of artistic merit. And that just isn't so. Hell, Fitzgerald's final completed novel, TENDER IS THE NIGHT, which he personally felt was his best work, received a considerable drubbing from the literary "arbiters of good taste" of his day. And, since we're a film blog, we can't get away from the fact that some now-considered-classic films weren't spoken of too kindly during their initial runs either.

1982's legendary critical and financial "disappointments" (top to bottom) BLADE RUNNER and THE THING

     The first two which personally come to mind for us are BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter's THE THING - both of which opened on the same day (June 25th, 1982), and which were so savaged by critics, and overlooked by audiences in a summer crowded with other cinematic options such as  E.T., POLTERGEIST, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, TRON, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, FIREFOX and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, they both tanked at the box office.

     Many at the time called BLADE RUNNER "dark and nilhistic" and an exercise in "style over substance", and THE THING "dark and nilhistic" and "style over substance, ... and needlessly gory". And word spread so quickly about both films (this long before the advent of social media), they financially crashed and burned so completely we were able to catch both a mere week later as a double feature for one price. Go figure! But long before there was also the critically lambasted, then later lauded, BRINGING UP BABY, as well as FANTASIA, David Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and most Kubrick films of the late 60s - early 80s. Yes, including 2001, BARRY LYNDON and THE SHINING. They're all considered classics now, but many critics didn't care for them back then. And the list goes on.

Pub. (clockwise) 2000, 2003, 2013, 2009

     Dan Brown's Robert Langdon novels (and Ron Howard's film adaptations of them) are essentially the literary and filmic versions of solving a puzzle with 1200 pieces on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Oh yeah, while simultaneously watching a two-part episode of the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE tv series, and trying not to get lost doing either. Which is to say on the one level they're great and entertaining mental exercises (you do end up talking to yourself, and find yourself pulling data from the personal mental rolodex of remembered high school history classes), but on another level, upon finishing the Langdon books and films, you kind of grin to yourself at how ultimately pointless it all was. And once again we say, ... "So what?".

     They're great fun - the admitted egghead's "We paid attention in English and History Class" version of a ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION serial or an afternoon watching RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Fun for it's own sake need not, and need not be equated, with "unintelligent", "selling out" or "devoid of artistic merit". If that's so then such films as KING KONG, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE STING, THE FUGITIVE, STAR WARS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and more must, when lined up against others like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, SCHINDLER'S LIST and MALCOLM X,  be jettisoned and tossed onto the ash heap of "dumb and preposterous cinematic crap".  All of this to say if you dig the "intelligent fun" kind of thing, or at the very least can approach things with such a mindset (something of which many critics seem perplexingly incapable), we think you'll dig INFERNO in particular, and the Langdon films in general - which we feel, not unlike George Miller's original MAD MAX series, are just getting better and better.



     For any series (in book, TV or filmic form) to continue to succeed, every now and then the latest installment must be a different kind of story from that to which we've become accustomed. You know, how within the hard sociopolitical sci fi parameters of STAR TREK, or the fear and paranoia of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or OUTER LIMITS, one was occasionally treated to an episode devoted to flat out comedy or romance, etc. And with the last two Langdon thrillers, THE LOST SYMBOL (not yet a film) and INFERNO, Brown has thematically made them a breed apart from the first two, ANGELS and DA VINCI, and their (for lack of a better term) "Let's beat up on the church" narratives. For while ANGELS and DA VINCI do bring to the fore, and cleverly addresses, some pertinent issues dealing with contemporary (and institutionalized) religion, dogma, and the battle between faith and science, ... as well as pondering the fascinating conundrum "Does there need to be a battle between the two?", that kind of thamatic territory can get really old (and really dead) really, really fast if beaten incessantly like a baby seal on the high tundra. Sorry for the image there. But you get the idea.



   
     THE LOST SYMBOL uses as it's "puzzle box" the history of the Freemasons in America, and INFERNO spins and aligns it's "Rubic's Cube" narrative from the life of Dante Alighieri and his DIVINE COMEDY - that legendary work not only later influencing Milton, Chaucer and Tennyson, but emblazoning upon the global consciousness the most generally accepted conception and depiction of biblical hell. So yes, with Dante and INFERNO there's a great deal of intriguing raw material to turn into a nifty high tech puzzle. And Howard and company do it up right like nobody's business.

OF PAINTERS & PLUMBERS: THE ART OF CRAFTING AN "INFERNO"


     The novels THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS & DEMONS come in at approx. 500 - 550 pages each, with their film versions clocking in at approx. 2 1/2 hrs. Howard brings INFERNO (the book exceeding 600 pages) in at a lean and mean / fast-and-furious-as-all-hell 121 mins. ... including end credits. And this is perhaps the film's greatest single asset among many. Film aficionados know how years ago Hitchock famously explained his "bomb theory" - differentiating cinematic shock from the more prolonged (and perhaps even more unbearable) suspense. And within the first seven minutes of INFERNO Howard tosses both into the audience's lap - wasting no time on voluminous verbal exposition, but rather starting things with a bang as an assassination attempt is made on Langdon (Tom Hanks)'s life while he lay in a hospital bed.



     Not long after the opening credits have finished rolling, and the audience is barely comfortable with their popcorn after watching 15 minutes of coming attraction trailers, bullet pings suddenly reverberate across the Dolby Surround Sound-theaterscape, tubes rip (Eccchh!) from Hanks' body, and he and Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones of THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and ROUGE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY) tear serious ass into a twisty-turvy cineamtic yarn which never lets up for the whole of the film's running time. As we said ... all of this beginning within the film's first seven minutes! Just like Hanks' character, unaware of what he's suddenly tumbled into, the audience too now has to just catch up (and keep up) with him - figuring things out from strategically placed "breadcrumb"-like clues as they go along for the ride.

     Interestingly however, while the story is indeed an appropriately rip-roaring yarn which would make Indiana Jones do a "WTF!!!" double-take, as film craft geeks since childhood we were particularly blown away by INFERNO's technical / artistic bravado.


(L to R) Cinematographer Salvatore Totino, Editor Dan Hanley, Editor Tom Elkins

     The cinematography of Salvatore Totino (ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, THE MISSING) is a visual wonder to behold. Yes, many films, maybe even too damned many films, have been shot on location in Europe, and look great. But Florence, Italy, and (especially) Venice and Istanbul, Turkey have never looked so gorgeous - especially on that sprawling IMAX screen. The sequences inside Hagia Sophia (formerly the St. Sophia Mosque, and now a museum), and within the subterranean Basilica Cistern (both a combination of actual locations and set reproductions) are particularly breathtaking. Editors Daniel Hanley (who has been Howard's cinema-artistic partner in crime since NIGHT SHIFT way back in 1982) and the young Tom Elkins (best known to date for horror films such as ANNABELLE and THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT) deserve an Oscar nomination, particularly for the film's climax - which differs considerably from the novel, by the way (we think the film's version of events makes more sense than that of the book, but you decide), and which plays (and feels) like a high tech bio-terror mash-up of Hitchcock's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (replete with a concert and orchestra) and THE DAY OF THE JACKAL.


(L to R) Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy, Irfan Khan, Ben Foster

     From a performance POV, Hanks and Jones are laudable. But the WWF belt this time around goes to the remarkable supporting cast. Ben Foster (X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, LONE SURVIVOR) is genuinely both enigmatic and creepy as the mysterious biotech oligarch Bertrand Zobrist. And Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is rock solid as WHO (World Health Organization) agent Elizabeth Sinskey. But the "steal the film" prize goes to both Omar Sy (THE INTOUCHABLES) and Irrfan Khan (LIFE OF PI) - both of whom were pretty much wasted in the silly yet enjoyable JURASSIC WORLD. Here they both slow-burn the screen with equal parts intelligence and old-fashioned bad-ass-ed-ness as two international operatives whose modus operandi (and motives) isn't / aren't always clear. And Khan deserves some kind of award simply by his delivery of what arguably might be the best filmic line of 2016, "Young people are disappointing; they don't become tolerable until 35". Though you may have to be over 35 yourself to appreciate the sentiment and humor of that one. Far and away however (Ha, ha! Howard fans will get that one) the biggest artistic surprise is the film's score by legendary composer Hans Zimmer (BLACK RAIN, THE LION KING, GLADIATOR).

COMPOSING AN "INFERNO" 

Composer Hans Zimmer

     Having established the musical "voice" for the world of Robert Langdon in Howard's THE DA VINCI CODE and ANGELS & DEMONS (our "wins by a chin" favorite score of the trilogy), Zimmer here refuses to merely regurgitate the thematic paradigm of the previous two films in but another "narrative octave" as it were. And we have to admit at first we were a little disappointed by the lack of this. Until, that is, we realized what (at least we believe) he was doing. INFERNO opens with a bloodied and terrified Langdon in a hospital, with a head wound and a degree of retrograde amnesia - he the apparent victim of an accident and / or kidnap attempt gone awry. His mind a jumbled mess, during the first third of the film he experiences horrific visions of an inner city hell (a modern urban rendition of Dante's "Inferno") were it's denizens go about daily life in excruciating pain, yet somehow also resigned to the fact that they're chopped in half, burning, and / or possess heads twisted violently backwards atop their torsos.



     These are images which would give THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE's Leatherface bad dreams. And during the first first third of INFERNO Zimmer's score in some respects sounds (and feels) like an electro-horrific something which might not seem out of place in a Rob Zombie directed horror outing like THE DEVIL'S REJECTS or HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES. Interestingly (and fascinating) however, there is still a (for lack of a better term) "mathematic organization" beneath, ... even "holding together" ... the "disjointed musical chaos". This (as far as we can ascertain) is because, even while his mind is a stir-fried mess, Langdon's very essence is that of an extremely organized thinker. He's very much like Sherlock Holmes in this regard. And Zimmer's score reminds us of this.


     As the story progresses, and Langdon's memory and full mental resources slowly return, and as he begins to unravel the "whys" and "wherefores" of the labyrinthine conspiracy with which he finds himself enmeshed, slowly, imperceptibly the score begins to morph into a more traditionally thematic structure, and the ever popular "Da Vinci Code" theme - which we've been pining for the entire film (and which over the course of three cinematic adventures has become Langdon's defacto theme) begins to resurface not unlike someone slowly emerging from the depths of the sea where they've been lost for far too long. Most tenderly and powerfully we return to full blooded thematic traditionalism in the scene where a piece of Langdon's personal (romantic) history is revisited. And, the power as such comes from a delicate reading for piano and (sampled?) woodwinds of the Langdon / DaVinci Code theme.

"Elizabeth"- INFERNO score (H. Zimmer)

     For those wishing to cue this up on the INFERNO soundtrack, the cut is #14 "Elizabeth" -  a heartachingly gorgeous and emotionally rich piece of musical yearning realized in the most minimalist of manners. It's surely a film score highlight of the entire year - for us at least. And from that point onward Zimmer then plunges us into full throttle mode with the energy and power of our still favorite Langdon score to date, ANGELS & DEMONS; and perhaps supersedes it with the near Herrmann-esque scope of the Basilica Cistern climax. This "atonal to tonal" bit of musical prestidigitation is an elusively tricky thing to accomplish because, if not executed properly, one runs the risk of emotionally distancing the audience from the characters and narrative earlier in the film. But when done well ..., "Oh mamma!".



     Take a look at, and give a listen to, Jerry Goldsmith's LOGAN'S RUN, Maurice Jarre's ENEMY MINE, David Arnold's CASINO ROYALE, and Alberto Iglesias' EXODUS: GODS & KINGS. LOGAN'S director Michael Anderson famously recalled how, until Goldsmith's score was added to his now legendary sci-fier, he was unaware that what he had filmed was an old fashioned love story. And think about it. The first half of LOGAN'S RUN takes place within the sterile confines of the domed city - where the population has lived since an unnamed worldwide catastrophe (war, disease, whatever) brought civilization to a near end. The music as such in this setting is electronic, at times cold, and very often atonal - with very faint vestiges of (what will eventually become) the "Love Theme" interpolated when Logan and Jessica meet for the first time. At the film's halfway point - after the couple escapes the domed city into the raw and untamed outside world, the music becomes fully orchestral acoustic, and the "Love Theme" becomes the dominate emotional anchor for the remainder of the narrative.


Evolving themes: (L to R) Goldsmith's LOGAN'S RUN (1975), Arnold's CASINO ROYALE (2006)

     Arnold does a similar thing with CASINO ROYALE - creating a "defacto Bond theme" (wittily titled "You Know My Name") to carry the entire film, and only using disguised and subtle snippets of the famous "James Bond Theme" here and there - this hinting to the audience as to what the "legendary spy in the making" will eventually evolve into. At the film's climax, when Daniel Craig finally utters the iconic words "The name's Bond, James Bond" - only then does a full rendition of the JB Theme explode in all it's big band and full orchestral splendor, because now and only now has Bond become the Bond we know and love. The same with INFERNO and the Langdon / Da Vinci theme. When Langdon has very much returned to his Sherlockian self, and Dr. Sienna Brooks finally says, "It's nice to have you back again, Professor", we feel the same way, and Zimmer's score echoes our sentiment. Composer Gary Chang once opined that to be a decent film composer one must equally be a good painter (encompassing the artistic) and a good plumber (with a mastery of technical and mechanical craft). And with his score to INFERNO maestro Zimmer continues to prove he's very much all of the above. It's a subtly stunning and impressive piece of cine-musical work every bit as masterfully woven (emotionally, intellectually and technically) as the entire film itself.



     In the end critics may say what they will (and we guess in some regards we're acting as such right now too). But ultimately it's the paying audience which determines the worth of a film, book, album, TV series or whatever over time, and not those critics who see movies for free, ... and even get paid to do so. Sweet gig, huh? In the end there's something unique and special and irreplaceable about gathering with a few hundred like-minded individuals from across the societal spectrum. There's something genuinely remarkable - unable to be duplicated at home, even with the damnedest 4K TV and sound system, or even in a theater with a chosen preview audience - about gathering with a mass of others with whom you may otherwise have absolutely nothing in common; and you all find yourselves laughing and cheering and gasping and cowering and crying all at the same exact times.




     While it may sound corny, preposterous and hopelessly old school, in the end isn't that what we go to the movies to experience - that group psychology where we all find it within us at the same time to hiss Michael Myers, scream when JAWS appears, cheer Rocky Balboa as he goes the distance, applaud Kirk when he slyly lowers Khan's shields, and shout like banshees when Han Solo returns during the Death Star battle, proving what we knew all along, that he was more than just a mercenary out for a quick buck? Yeah, baby! Git it, Han! You see, this is our purview here. And while the critics may not always dig 'em, we kinda think so far Dan Brown, Ron Howard, Tom Hanks and the rest of the gang have the right idea with INFERNO in particular, and the Langon adaptations in general.

     In the end, when it comes down to the audience vs. the critics, this weekend at least ...

     The audience wins!



                                                                                                                        CEJ

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