Tag: Ron Howard

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Hunger, desperation, the sea and a very big whale in this Moby Dick origins story

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

Ransom (1996)

Ransom (1996)

Every parent’s nightmare gets tackled in this efficient, smart (but not quite smart enough) thriller from Ron Howard

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Mel Gibson (Tom Mullen), Rene Russo (Kate Mullen), Gary Sinise (Detective Jimmy Shaker), Delroy Lindo (FBI Special Agent Lonnie Hawkins), Lili Taylor (Maris Conner), Liev Schreiber (Clark Barnes), Donnie Wahlberg (‘Cubby’ Barnes), Evan Handler (Miles Roberts), Brawley Nolte (Sean Mullen), Paul Guilfoyle (FBI Director Stan Wallace), Dan Hedaya (Jackie Brown)

There is no greater fear for any parent than losing a child. Doesn’t matter if you are prince or pauper, the same heart-pounding dread is there. But sometimes the risks are greater if you a prince. Because the more money you have, the more likely a kidnapper might think you’d be willing to swop that money to get your kid back.

It’s what kidnappers decide when they take the son of Airline owner Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson). The kidnappers want $2million and no questions asked, in return for his son Sean (Brawley Nolte). Tom and his wife Kate Mullen (Rene Russo) are willing to pay – with the advice of FBI Agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo). But after the first bungled handover, Tom becomes convinced the kidnappers have no intention of returning his son alive. So, he takes a desperate gamble to try and turn the tables, much to the fury of secretive kidnapper (and police detective) Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise).

Ransom is a change of pace for Ron Howard, his first flat-out thriller. And it’s a very good one. Ransom has a compulsive energy to it, powered by sharp filming and cutting and some impressively emotional performances from the leads. It also takes a number of unexpected narrative twists and turns – before it reverts to a more conventional final act – and manages to keep the viewer on their toes.

Its main strength is an emotionally committed performance from Mel Gibson. Taking a leaf from Spencer Tracy’s book, this is Gibson at his best, very effectively letting us see him listen and consider everything that happens around him. Mullen is a determined man who plays the odds, and cuts corners only when he must – but is also convinced of his own certainty. He applies his own business learning – of negotiation and corporate deal-making – to this kidnapping, which is an intriguingly unique approach. Gibson’s performance is also raw, unnerved and vulnerable and he plays some scenes with a searing grief you won’t often see in a mainstream movie. Russo does some equally fine work – determined, scared, desperate – and their chemistry is superb.

Howard coaches, as he so often does, wonderful performances from his leads and from the rest of the cast. Gary Sinise turns what could have been a lip-smacking villain into someone chippy, over-confident and struggling with his own insecurities and genuine feelings for his girlfriend (a doe-eyed Lili Taylor, roped into kidnapping). Delroy Lindo is very good as the professional kidnap resolver and there are a host of interesting and engaging performances from Schreiber, Wahlberg, Handler and Hedaya. Ransom turns into a showpiece for some engagingly inventive performances.

Howard also triumphs with his control of the film’s set-pieces. The kidnapping sequence is highly unsettling in its slow build of the parent’s dread. The first attempted exchange is a masterclass in quick-quick-slow tension, with Gibson and Sinise very effective in a series of cryptic phone calls. The ransom phone calls are similarly feasts of good acting and careful cross-cutting, which throb like fight scenes. Howard understands that this is a head-to-head between two men struggling in a game of deadly one-up-manship, both of them constantly trying to figure out not only their next move, but the likely reaction of their opponent.

For much of the first two thirds of the film, Ransom is very effective in its unpredictability. There is a genuine sense of dread for how this might play out and the radical changes of plan both sides of the kidnap play out land events in a very different place than you might expect at the start. The more hero and villain try to out-think each other, the murkier the plot becomes.

It’s unfortunate that the final third devolves into a more traditional goody/baddy standoff with guns, punches and our hero reasserting his control (and the safety of his family) through the fist and the trigger. But then I guess in the 90s you couldn’t have a Gibson film without a bit of action. But when the film focuses on the thinking, talking, slow-burn tension and the sheer terror of parents who have lost a child, it’s a very effective and tense film that stands up to repeat viewings.

Apollo 13 (1995)

Bill Paxon, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks are stranded in space in Apollo 13

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), Bill Paxton (Fred Haise), Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly), Ed Harris (Gene Kranz), Kathleen Quinlan (Marilyn Lovell), Chris Ellis (Deke Slayton), Joe Spano (NASA Director) Xander Berkeley (Henry Hunt), Marc McClure (Glenn Lunney), Clint Howard (Sy Libergot), Ray McKinnon (Jerry Bostwick), David Andrews (Pete Conrad), Christian Clemenson (Dr Charles Berry), Brett Cullen (CAPCOM1)

“Houston we have a problem”. Those calmly spoken words coat an ocean of disaster in Ron Howard’s brilliant reconstruction of the disaster-that-very-nearly-was, Apollo 13. Without a shadow of a doubt Howard’s finest film, this is brilliantly tense and hugely engaging that builds an edge-of-the-seat tension around a true story. You can’t watch it without being filled with breathless admiration for the ingenuity of those in mission control and the courage of those in space as they worked together to bring the mission home. Truly “Failure is not an option”.

On a mission to the moon, Mission Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and crew Fred Haize (Bill Paxton) and late replacement Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) are left desperately trying to salvage their ship after an accident strikes. Meanwhile back in Houston, Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and replaced crewman Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) lead a dedicated team juggling every inch of mathematical, scientific and practical knowledge they have to bring the ship home.

Apollo 13 is a masterpiece of reconstruction. Every inch of the NASA space programme is reassembled in perfect detail. Every nut and bolt, from procedures to the interplay between the astronauts and Ground Control. There isn’t a single false note, and every single element of the production, photography and editing is carefully placed to support this total immersion in period. Howard’s technical direction is brilliantly done, intercutting with a fabulous sense of pacing between the crew in space and Ground Control back here on Earth. It becomes one of the most engrossing and involving true-life stories you can imagine.

I love this film. I love every second of it. Every single time I see it – and I must have watched it at least once a year since 1996 – I get wrapped up in the tension and, perhaps even more than that, the inventiveness needed to solve problems in space. The film throws conundrums at us time and time again. The command module needs to be restarted to land the ship – but only has enough power to keep a coffee machine running for a few hours. A vital course correction, that a computer could calculate and perform, needs to be carried out by hand. The weight of moon rocks needs to be replicated in the landing module. And, most brilliant of all, the NASA boffins need to work out literallyhow to fit a round peg into a square hole in order to replace a CO2 filter – using nothing but the pile of equipment on the spaceship.

These problems all need to be solved by people low on sleep, high on stress and – in three obvious cases – stranded, cold and alone in space, and each one is carefully explained by the film’s very natural but highly detailed script and then relayed into nail-biting efforts to solve them. (James Horner’s score also works wonders here, communicating the awe of space and our vulnerability in that black void expertly.) In no other film can the tearing of a plastic bag have you gasping at the impact it could have on life or death.

Added to the impact of this, is the engrossing excitement of watching brilliantly trained professionals tackle the sort of situations that would reduce you or I to sweaty panic. Other than a brief moment of recrimination between Haise and Swigert (authoritatively quashed by Lovell’s “Gentlemen, we are not doing this”), everyone stays more cool, calm and collected than you could possibly expect. This also means that flashes of urgency or emotion carry huge impact in communicating stress: when Libergot stresses powering down the ship is the only way for the crew to survive or Lovell is caught on radio ranting he is “well aware of the Goddamn gimbels” while trying to pilot a ship leaking oxygen through a barrage of debris to a soundtrack of alarms, the pressures they are trying to cope with come thundering home to us.

The extraordinary work of the actors also goes a long way towards the film’s success. If any film cemented Tom Hanks’ everyman quality, it was this one. His Jim Lovell is calm, controlled and extremely grounded, a professional with a realistic outlet, a devoted family man and overwhelmingly ordinary for all the extraordinary things he’s done. Hanks brings the role a huge authority and acres of empathy and relatability. He seems both vulnerable, human and professionally assured. I’d trade both his Oscar-winning performances for this one.

The whole cast follows his lead. Bacon and Paxton are very good as the rest of the crew, juggling moments of fear, frustration and black humour. Ed Harris became a star character actor overnight with his brilliant performance as Kranz, another committed professional who refuses to countenance failure and guides the ground team through super-human efforts, while keeping his own emotions carefully under control. Kathleen Quinlan is impressive as Lovell’s wife, keeping the morale of those left behind as high as she can while barely controlling her own fear. Gary Sinise’s Ken Mattingley channels his resentment at being benched from the mission into a Herculean commitment to bringing them home.

It’s that commitment on the ground that Howard’s film so brilliantly understands. A lesser film would have focused overwhelmingly on the courage of the astronauts alone, and heightened their struggles to pilot the spacecraft and survive. Apollo 13 understands above all that this was a team effort – and the casting and scripting feeds brilliantly into this. No one is the “hero”, no one “saves the day”. Every character focuses on their own small piece of the puzzle and has to trust all the others worked out. The film gives huge amounts of time over to the boffins and geniuses of Mission Control – all brilliantly played by a host of character actors – and its respect for these unsung heroes is as great as it is for Lovell and his crew.

Howard also understands exactly when to up the music, editing and effects and when to slow the film down and let events quietly play out. Moments in space where the actors have to quietly reflect, or when we check in on the fears and concerns of the families back home, contrast perfectly (and carry even more impact) when they sit alongside the scenes of failures and rushes to save lives. As for that re-entry scene… is there any more tense scene in a true story film than that long, long wait to see if Apollo 13 will return from space? There are certainly fewer moments that will get those specks of dust irritating your eyes – I get a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

Everything in Apollo 13 is spot on. I would go further and say I’m not sure there is a single wrong beat in it. It’s Howard’s masterpiece – his infamous snubbing for an Oscar nomination is inexplicable, his direction here is vastly superior to winner Mel Gibson’s work on Braveheart. It turns a true-life story into an impossibly tense, deeply involving, hugely emotional story. The actors – some of whom shot for weeks in a “vomit comet” plane to replicate weightlessness, an effect that works superbly – are outstanding. Every single technical aspect of the film is spot on. Its emotional impact is as absolute as the admiration and respect you’ll feel for the real NASA crews that guided this mission home. Apollo 13 is a classic. I can’t imagine anyone not finding something in it to like – not many films you can say that about.

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Russell Crowe struggles with reality as Math’s genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Russell Crowe (John Nash), Ed Harris (William Parcher), Jennifer Connelly (Alicia Nash), Christopher Plummer (Dr Rosen), Paul Bettany (Charles Herman), Adam Goldberg (Richard Sol), Josh Lucas (Martin Hansen), Anthony Rapp (Bender), Judd Hirsch (Professor Helinger)

There is nothing Hollywood likes more than a man overcoming adversity. Make him a troubled genius and that’s even better. Throw in a supportive wife who bends over backwards to help him and you’ve got the dream Hollywood scenario. You can bet Oscars will follow – and they certainly did for Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, which hoovered up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (it probably would have also nabbed Best Actor if Russell Crowe’s personal behaviour hadn’t turned him from idol to Hollywood’s most unpopular actor).

The film is a romantically repackaged biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a pioneering mathematician whose life was turned upside down by his diagnosis with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Even before then, Nash had become increasingly preoccupied by delusions and fantasies, many of them revolving around “secret government code-breaking work” for a bullying CIA Agent (Ed Harris). Slowly coming to terms with his diagnosis, with the help of his loving wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), Nash must learn to put aside the things he knows he are not real, while trying to rebuild his life.

Ron Howard’s film is assembled with his usual assured professionalism. It is never anything less than effective, what it never quite manages to be is inspired. Perhaps because it’s a very standard Hollywood biopic. It effectively presents the life of its troubled genius as something very easily digestible, hitting all the beats of suffering, determination and eventual triumph you could expect when the film starts.

This makes for exactly the sort of middle-brow filmmaking made with absolute professionalism that, if you turn your head and squint a bit, can be made to look like Oscar-winning art. That seems incredibly harsh on the film: but there is really nothing particularly “new” about anything here: in many ways, it could have been made almost exactly the same in the 1940s (and it would probably have won an Oscar then as well).

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Howard’s direction is sharp and exact, and he stages the film very well, drawing very good performances out of the cast. The film is good at immersing us in Nash’s delusions, particularly in the first hour of the film (it’s not until the hour mark that anyone overtly states there is anything wrong with Nash beyond eccentricity and social awkwardness). Howard shoots the fantasies totally straight: in fact if you had managed to avoid knowing what the film is about, you can totally imagine being tricked into thinking it’s a genuine spy thriller.

With that though, the film gives you just enough hints. Take a beat and look at Nash’s CIA actions and they don’t make much sense. A secret code that involves him tearing pages out of thousands of magazines and pinning them up around his office connected with bits of string (standard filmic language for the obsessive nutter)? The CIA injecting a number implant into his arm? A dead drop at a posh house which requires letters to be sealed with wax? The film gives us the hints that Nash is more troubled than just awkward around people, but doesn’t lay it on too thick. And at least one plot reveal that something we have seen was in fact a Nash-delusion the whole time is so skilfully presented that it surprised me (and I know surprised several other people).

The film is also strong on schizophrenia and delusion. Reworking Nash’s real-life auditory hallucinations into visual fantasies (including imagined buildings and people) works really effectively for film. It also really opens up for us the horror of how difficult living with something like this might be. How would you feel if you could never trust the world you saw around you? What if you discovered things that were central to your life turned out to be fantasies? That people you had built relationships with were not real? That’s a traumatic emotional burden, and the film is very strong at building your empathy with Nash.

It’s also helped by Crowe’s very effective performance in the lead. Shy, buttoned-up, physically awkward, his eyes always cast down, body slouched and voice an embarrassed mumble, Crowe brilliantly embodies a nervous outsider whose problems fitting in only magnify his growing dependence on fantasies that place him at the centre of the world. There is a touching vulnerability about Crowe here that so rarely gets seen. A big part of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Jennifer Connelly also makes a great deal of her very traditional role as the supportive wife, bringing just the right level of assurance, spark and warmth to the role. Connelly carefully shifts the character from flirtatious confidence to heartbroken but supportive wife. But she doesn’t lose track of Alicia’s own frustrations at living with a medicated, unresponsive husband – even if, of course, any regrets she may have about the way her life turned out are overcome swiftly.

Which of course is completely different from real life where, for all her support, the couple divorced. Nash also had a baby (which he didn’t acknowledge) with a nurse he had an affair with. But these are real life complexities that have no place in a crowd-pleasing biopic like this. Similarly gone are Nash’s possible flirtations with bisexuality, his experiments with drugs or his flashes of violence. Added in are an entirely invented “pen gifting” Princeton ceremony and Nash’s Nobel prize acceptance speech where he gives thanks to his loving wife (in real life no such speech happened and the couple were separated). But that’s not the story this film wants to tell, so truth can go hang.

Perhaps these, post-diagnosis, difficulties are why the final third of the story – which sees Nash casting aside the invasive treatments to overcome the power his delusions have over him through willpower alone – is the least involving part. After all, they had to drop most of the actual real-life events that happened (see above). But there simply isn’t as much drama in watching someone quietly adjust to rebuilding a career in maths as there is in seeing them struggle.

Perhaps as well, because maths is a pretty difficult to bring to the screen. The film falls back into many accepted visual tropes – you’ll see a lot of writing on windows – and explains Nash’s theory of co-operative dynamics with a bar-and-booze based conversation around pulling girls in bars. That’s about as far as engagement with maths and understanding his theories goes – but we take it as read that Nash is a genius because he acts like one, people tells he is and he writes lots of big equations on boards.

A Beautiful Mind offers few real surprises (except for one) and presents a story that Hollywood has basically been making for decades. Things from real-life that don’t fit the story have been cut out, to make this as conventional a film as possible: the troubled genius and the loving wife behind him. It’s very well played (as well as Crowe and Connelly, Paul Bettany is brilliantly charismatic as Nash’s eccentric college roommate) and directed with a professional skill. But it’s also a very safe and even conservative film that has skill but not inspiration.

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost Nixon header
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face-off in famous interviews in Frost/Nixon

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Frank Langella (Richard M Nixon), Michael Sheen (David Frost), Kevin Bacon (Jack Brennan), Rebecca Hall (Caroline Cushing), Toby Jones (Irving “Swifty” Lazar), Matthew MacFadyen (John Birt), Oliver Platt (Bob Zelnick), Sam Rockwell (James Reston Jnr), Clint Howard (Lloyd Davis)

If there is a bogeyman in American politics, it will always be disgraced President Richard Nixon. Because, however divisive Donald Trump is, Nixon will always be the king who was toppled, the man some consider a crook and a war criminal, others a gifted politician and negotiator. The truth is somewhere, as always, in the middle – but what seems inarguable is that Nixon was a man of deep personal flaws, which contributed considerably to his fall. Peter Morgan’s play explored the complexities of Nixon’s character through his famous TV interviews with British talk show host David Frost, a man with a few chips of his own. Ron Howard takes what was already a fairly cinematic script by Morgan, and produces a smoothly professional, entertaining and very well acted film.

After Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) has been forced into resigning, he is in the political wilderness. Watergate engrossed the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in to follow every detail. Who in television could resist those numbers? Certainly not David Frost (Michael Sheen), who believes if he can secure an exclusive interview with Nixon he could have a television package that could pull in millions of viewers, make Frost a fortune, and catapult him into the front ranks of TV interviewers. Slowly the project comes together. But both participants have a lot to prove: for Nixon this could be a chance of redemption; for Frost to prove he is more than a chat show host better suited to grilling the Bee Gees than the President. With both men underestimating each other, who will emerge on top in the interviews?

One of Ron Howard’s greatest strengths as a director is his ability to elicit fine performances from good actors. This is the real bonus he brings to this faithful adaptation of Morgan’s award-winning play. He presents it with a highly skilled professionalism and a refreshing lack of distraction that allows the audience to focus on the acting and the dialogue, its real strengths. Frost/Nixon is sharply written – with Peter Morgan’s expected mix of careful research and dramatic licence (most especially in a late-night phone call between the two men before the final day’s filming) – crammed with fine lines, well drawn characters and fascinating insights into both politics and television.

Perhaps Howard’s finest decision was to ensure the two stars of the play (in both the West End and Broadway) were retained for the film. Langella and Sheen’s performances – already brilliant in the stage version, which I was lucky enough to see – are outstanding here, both of them completely inhabiting their characters. The comfort and familiarity between the two performers are crucial – and ensure that the vital scenes between the two characters carry an electric charge.

Langella brilliantly captures the physicality and voice of Nixon, but also finds deep insights into the President’s tortured soul. He communicates Nixon’s sense of inadequacy and bitterness, his resentment at having to fight all his life for things others have been gifted. He balances this with Nixon’s pride and paranoia that constantly leads him to cheat others first. Langella’s Nixon, lost and bored in retirement, is desperate to regain his statue, but also tortured by a guilt and regret he can hardly bring himself to name. Under his robustness and confidence, lies deep shame and sorrow. It’s a brilliant capturing of perhaps the most psychologically complex leader America ever had.

Sheen is just as superb as Frost. As you would expect from an accomplished mimic, the voice is almost alarmingly accurate (he makes a better Frost than Frost did!). But just as insightful is his understanding of Frost’s psychology. Just like Nixon, Frost is a hard-working lad from a poorer background who has had to fight for everything he has. Sheen’s Frost is a phenomenal hard worker – producer, financier and star of his own career – who works hardest of all to appear an effortlessly confident dilettante. Sheen’s Frost balances immense pressures – facing personal and financial ruin – with an assured smile, keeping every plate spinning by never allowing a moment of doubt.

It leads into fascinatingly different attitudes to the interviews themselves. Nixon prepares in detail – and determines his best strategy is long winded answers that present his case and prevent attack. Frost is so focused on delivering the interviews that he sacrifices his actual interview preparation (certainly more so than he did in real life). Morgan uses the conventions of boxing dramas – corners, breaks between ‘rounds’, advice from their trainers – to capture a sense of gladiatorial combat.

However, the play is more complex than this. The reason why Frost struggles to land a glove on Nixon in earlier interviews on his domestic and foreign policies is that Nixon genuinely believes he is in the right – but (perhaps as Frost understood) the final interviews based on Watergate will see a more vulnerable Nixon as on that subject he knows he’s in the wrong. I suspect the real Frost knew that to get to Nixon on that final topic, he needed to be ‘softened up’ first to feel comfortable and produce a revelation.

Because the film is refreshingly positive in its view of television. A medium that films often attack for being trivial and boiling things down to soundbites and snippets, here acknowledges the strengths that can bring. A single snippet of an apologetic and crushed Nixon is worth thousands of words – and small moments can turn a TV programme from a failure to an event. Howard uses the power of the close-up at these moments to demonstrate how TV can zero in with a merciless gaze on a single moment. It’s a defence of the power of TV and its ability to reduce things down to moments.

Howard’s understanding of the strengths that lie at the heart of the play – and to tell the story simply – is what makes an already cinematic play translate wonderfully to the screen. With Langella and Sheen outstanding (with the supporting cast all equally excellent), the film entertainingly demonstrates the preparation and delivery of the interviews, while offering shrewd psychological insights into two men who had a lot more at a stake – and in common – than at first appeared. Professional, handsome and captivating, this is Hollywood movie making at its best.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Alden Ehrenreich tries his best in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Director: Ron Howard (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Emilia Clarke (Qi’ra), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), Erin Kellyman (Enfys Nest), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant)

Solo did the impossible. No not the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It showed you could release a Star Wars film that lost money. How could this happen? Well the easy solution is to point at the film’s disastrous shooting. Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were originally announced as its directors, making their live-action debuts. But Lord and Miller lacked experience, and a litany of complaints – poor direction, a demand for constant improvisation slowing shooting, failing to get enough angles to allow options in editing – led to them getting fired and replaced with Ron Howard. 

Unfortunately, even though large parts of the film had already been shot, Howard still needed to go back and reshoot large chunks (and recast, with Paul Bettany replacing the Michael K Williams as the film’s villain due to a scheduling clash). The budget ballooned to nearly $300million, a sum (with marketing costs) the film didn’t stand a chance of hitting with its poor initial buzz and mixed word of mouth. Not to mention the general (misguided) poor reaction from the core fanbase to Last Jedi, which had literally only just left theatres as this film prepared to launch.

If it seems a little unfair to open a review of the film with an anecdote about its making, that’s because the film’s tortuous journey to the screen is more interesting than most of the things that actually ended up in it. It’s an origins story for Han Solo (gamely played by a trying-his-best Alden Ehrenreich), which traces his early days towards becoming the smuggler we know, with the background given for virtually every aspect of the character: meeting Chewie, how he got his surname, where he found his blaster, how he did he win the Millennium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover, who with his charisma and cool is the only one who manages to reinterpret his character to feel both fresh and a natural predecessor of Billy Dee Williams’ interpretation) and just how did he do that Kessel Run in 12 parsecs? 

If that sounds a bit like the film is a series of nostalgic box ticks… that’s kind of because it is. The impact is made worse by the fact that nearly all its events – from Han meeting his “mentor” Beckett through to the end of the film as he jets off to do a job for Jabba the Hutt – seem to take place in a week. As so often, the modern Stars Wars films manage to make its universe as small as possible. The sense of wearying accumulation as every half reference ever made in the old films is given a backstory, makes you wonder how boring the rest of Han’s life must have been if everything he ever talks about is connected to this one job.

The telescoped timeline also has a serious impact on much of the film’s relationships. Han and Chewie get by fine because we’ve already invested in that friendship – and Ehlenreich and Suotamo do a good job of building the regard between these two, one of the best beats from Howard’s direction. But other relationships get short-changed, particularly Beckett. Played with a maverick gusto by Woody Harrelson, this character is meant to be a model of the sort of heartless mercenary Han Solo starts A New Hope as. But the relationship of the two characters never works, because there is no sense of bond – they’ve known each other a week or two at best, and the emotional trust between them doesn’t exist, so the inevitable betrayal (when it comes) means nothing.

The other principle relationship between Solo and his childhood sweetheart, the equally mercenary Qi’ra, similarly suffers from getting lost in the shuffle of ticking off iconic references. It’s not helped by the total lack of chemistry between Ehlenreich and Emilia Clarke. Clarke herself feels painfully miscast in a role that doesn’t use any of her brightness and wit, instead pushing her into the sort of fantasy-genre, fanboy’s-dream woman she might find herself trapped into playing. This links in strongly with a terminally uninteresting criminal gang plot in which a wasted Paul Bettany – playing someone who barely seems to manage to have a personality – is the mysterious crime lord manipulating everyone.

The film goes from set piece to set piece, but none of them really stand out, and all are shot and edited together with a sort of bland competence that perhaps you could expect from a master craftsman like Howard, who works better with actors than he does special effects. The film clearly wants to go for a Firefly vibe (with its heists, mismatched criminal gang, double crosses and damaged hero not wanting to get involved in the problems of others) – and there is something quite sad that this film about an iconic character feels the need to rip off a TV show that ripped off a lot of the vibe of that original iconic character.

But then that’s the problem perhaps. This is a wallowing in nostalgia that depends on your affection for Harrison Ford’s masterful Han Solo – but which will only serve to remind viewers that, for all his work, Ehlenreich is no Ford. It also doesn’t help that the film, by its very nature, can allow no development for Solo. This is a character that spends all of Star Wars as a cynical and selfish hired gun, who acts without thinking and has no interest in helping others if there is nothing in it for him. Since Solo basically starts this origins story like this, he therefore must end the film in the same way – so other than becoming a bit more competent and worldly-wise, he’s stuck not developing in any way. This makes for a film that feels even more like a slightly pointless exercise in nostalgia.

For all that, it has its moments and is fun enough – and certainly not the worst film in the franchise. But it’s the first sign, that Disney should have heeded, that nostalgia and retelling familiar stories over and over again was not a guaranteed box office smash any more. By rooting another film in things introduced in the first two Star Wars, it reminds us again that this is a small and incestuous universe, where we see the same faces over and over again. With a film where every scene is a homage and every possible piece of trivia is laboriously given a back story, that feeling grows even more.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou stumble through the dire The Da Vinci Code, possibly one of the dullest films ever made

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Audrey Tautou (Sophie Neveu), Ian McKellen (Sir Leigh Teabing), Jean Reno (Captain Bezu Fache), Paul Bettany (Silas), Alfred Molina (Bisoph Aringarosa), Jürgen Prochnow (André Vernet), Étienne Chicot (Lieutenant Jérôme Collet), Jean-Yves Berteloot (Remy Jean), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Jacques Saunière)

In 2003 the world went a little crazy. Maybe it was all the buzz of conspiracy that seemed to be everywhere. Maybe people wanted a bit of escapism from the misery of our post-9/11 world. Or maybe there is just no accounting for taste. But inexplicably, a staggeringly poorly written thriller by a hack author, peddling a tired old conspiracy, became one of the most popular books of all time. Yup, ladies and gentlemen, it was a time of silliness, paranoia and poor taste. It was the time of The Da Vinci Code.

When the curator of the Louvre (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is found dead in the museum, with his body covered with bizarre self-inflicted wounds and symbols, visiting Professor of Symbology from Harvard Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in to consult. Langdon quickly finds himself the main suspect and on the run, aided only by the victim’s granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou in a truly thankless part of continual question asking, devoid of any agency). Following a trail of bizarre clues, Langdon ends up investigating a conspiracy that leads to the heart of the Catholic Church – could the Church be founded on a lie? Could Jesus Christ have in fact been married to Mary Magdalene? Could she have been his intended heir? Did she have a child? Has a secret society run (at various times) by the Knights Templar, Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton worked since the dawn of time to protect the secret? Of course they haven’t, but that’s not going to stop the film.

Okay let’s get the main event out of the way. This is a terrible film. But it’s not terrible for the reason you might think. I mean, sure, it’s poorly scripted bobbins, with poorly developed ciphers for characters, and it peddles a conspiracy theory which is total, illogical nonsense from top to bottom. But that’s not the main reason. The main reason this film is terrible is that it is so unbelievably fucking boring.

The film is an utterly faithful, practically scene-by-scene reproduction of Dan Brown’s book. And it immediately reveals how little Brown knows about how to write a good thriller. The film has two or three action “set pieces” or moments of tension – at least, they would be tense, if only there were any stakes to the situation, or the characters’ motivations or the peril they’re in made the slightest bit of sense. They don’t. You’ll barely remember the car chase, or any of the moments where the heroes are held at gunpoint. None of the characters have any definable personalities, other than what they are invested with by the actors playing them. But then that’s no surprise from a novel where the lead character is defined solely by being brainy, having a Mickey Mouse watch (such a character!) and (film rights pleading ahoy) looking like Harrison Ford.

Just like Dan Brown’s turgid original, this film quickly turns into a series of scenes where characters fling exposition at each other to whizz us through a series of sub-par brainteasers and anagrams, which are only solvable with information the characters have but the audience doesn’t (hardly making it a fun thing to play along with). You’ll find yourself wishing for those anagrams back though, once they move on to spunking the novel’s bizarre conspiracy theory into our ears. The low point of this is when Ian McKellen’s polio-suffering billionaire historian (a billionaire historian! Who has a private plane! Of course he does…) tees up a handy PowerPoint presentation he just happened to have sitting around ready, and regurgitates all the mystic mumbo-jumbo that the film tries to pass off as fact.

I’m sure I don’t need to recap the nonsense of this film, but seeing it boiled down from the book is a real reminder that Brown clearly read widely but with no depth. For starters, most of his understanding of everything from the church, to the Templars, to the history of Europe is bogged down in inaccuracy and misinterpretation. By the time the film is claiming that Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity angered the church you’ll have lost all ability to take anything the film says seriously (for the record, the Catholic church didn’t have a problem with gravity, and even if they did, as an Anglican living in a Protestant country, Newton wouldn’t have given a damn anyway).

None of the film’s (or book’s) ideas are even that original – it was all spewed forth in a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail (several characters here have names that are anagrams of the writers and editors of these books) in 1982. The idea of Jesus having a whole line of secret descendants is arrant bollocks. The idea of a secret society working to protect this secret is even more stupid (it was revealed after the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to be a total hoax, swallowed whole by that book’s writers). There is not a shred of reality here – rather, it’s typical paranoia and anti-establishment bollocks repackaged as dark reveal.

This is before we even touch on the – heaven help us – “art analysis”. The dark hints of conspiracy in The Last Supper by Da Vinci boil down to: (a) there is no Grail in this painting, (b) the bloke to the left of Jesus looks a bit like a girl so must be Mary Magdelene (“a hint of bosom” McKellen tells us playfully), (c) there is an inverted triangle between Christ and this man/woman – so surely a sign of the female dominance! The fact that the painting shows only 12 disciples and Jesus – meaning that if Mary was there, it should show 14 people not 13 – isn’t considered worth mentioning. But then that’s par for the course for the film’s bullshit clues “discovered” in works of art to support the film’s bullshit, anti-Catholic agenda (the church being staffed in this film exclusively by shadowy, Bond-villain types, with a ruthless agenda for extremist Catholicism and murderous Albino hit-monks they dispatch at will). Give me a break.

But if the film had packaged this all up in a gleefully silly, high energy story, it could still have been an entertaining watch. Unfortunately, it’s completely and utterly boring. It goes on (and on) for almost two and a half hours, and in between unengaging lectures and tedious dialogue scenes it drags like you wouldn’t believe. It’s almost impossible to get engaged in anything at all, and it’s really not helped by the flat, dimly lit, for-the-money direction from Ron Howard. There is no zip or fun about the film whatsoever, as if the book’s massive popularity made the producers worried that if they treated the book like an action adventure yarn, or a fun bit of nonsense, then it might offend people. Instead they treat this nonsense with a deathly reverence usually reserved for Biblical epics that’s fatal for the viewing experience of the entire film. 

It’s supremely dull, very self-important, and for all the hard work of an interesting cast of actors (who do their very best) it’s a complete, yawn-filled, pile of stinking crap. As the man said: “Holy Blood? Holy shit.”

Parenthood (1989)

Steve Martin struggles with the demands of fatherhood, in the rather sweet Parenthood

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Steve Martin (Gil Buckman), Tom Hulce (Larry Buckman), Harley Kozak (Susan Huffner), Jason Robards (Frank Buckman), Rick Moranis (Nathan Huffner), Martha Plimpton (Julie Buckman), Keanu Reeves (Tod Higgins), Eileen Ryan (Marilyn Buckman), Helen Shaw (Grandma), Mary Steenburgen (Karen Buckman), Dianne Wiest (Helen Buckman), Joaquin Phoenix (Garry Buckman-Lampkin)

If there is one thing everyone knows, it’s that families can be complex. That’s why good films about family life resonate so well – everyone (and I mean everyone) can find something in it that echoes with their own experiences. Parenthood is very good at this sort of thing, an entertaining but also tender and rather sweet comedy-drama about an expansive family and their many triumphs and problems.

Frank Buckman (Jason Robards) is the patriarch, a distant father with four children all now raising families of their own. Gil (Steve Martin), married to Karen (Mary Steenburgen), desperately wants to be the perfect dad he feels his own never was, but is struggling with the increasingly apparent emotional problems in his oldest son, 12-year-old Kevin. Helen (Dianne Wiest) is divorced, her ex-husband wants nothing to do with their children. Her son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix) is a socially withdrawn teenager, while her elder daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) isn’t interested in education only in her relationship with gentle but useless Tod (Keanu Reeves). Susan (Harley Kozak) is married to Nathan (Rick Moranis) who is obsessed with turning their young daughter into a child prodigy. Frank’s favourite son is the feckless Larry (Tom Hulce), a wastrel sponger who turns up after years with an unexpected young son, Cool, in tow, in whom he shows little interest.

You can see just in that quick summary you’ve got a huge array of issues for the film to tackle, all of which it manages to do with sweetness, humour and also a certain amount of emotional truth. The film manages the ups and downs, the flat-out comedy and the heartbreak with real confidence, meaning you are moved smoothly from broad laughs to genuine “ahs” of sweetness. 

With the exception of the shallow and selfish Larry (every family has that black sheep), each of the characters has moments to demonstrate their depth and truth, showing sides of themselves you wouldn’t expect. In a large-cast film that delivers in a tight, well-structured two hours, that’s quite an accomplishment to be honest.

Ron Howard directs all this with fabulous control, a reminder that he’s actually quite a skilled director of comedy, with a good sense of timing and pacing. He’s also a superb director of actors, and there isn’t a weak link in the whole cast, from the youngest child actor to the most experienced Broadway veteran. 

Steve Martin is fabulous as the centre of the family saga, the dad desperate to be the best dad he can be, but who overly worries and obsesses about every detail to try and be as perfect as possible. Martin is ace at this sort of stuff, this gentle comedy grounded in reality, and totally understands how to make a character feel real and grounded. Combine that with his natural comic chops and willingness to embrace the absurd at moments – showcased here in a sequence where he desperately has to cover for a missing entertainer at his son’s birthday party – and he supplies many of the film’s stand out moments. 

Dianne Wiest (Oscar nominated) also manages a difficult balancing act in perhaps the film’s most interesting set of plotlines. Helen’s family covers the full range of teenage trauma, from a loving son who seems to turn overnight into a monosyllabic stranger to a daughter who rejects all her mother’s hopes for the future in order to spend time with a boy she doesn’t approve of. Wiest is not only extremely funny in some of her responses to these problems, but also heartrendingly real in her pain, confusion and frustration at not being able to help her children (or herself) as much as she wants, as well as the clear feeling that her life is somehow a failure compared to her two elder siblings. 

What’s also beautiful about the film is that none of these events or storylines work themselves out quite as you might expect. Young Garry (played excellently by an impossibly young Joaquin Phoenix, here billed as Leaf) has clear reasons for his feelings and is dealing with complete lack of interest his father shows in his life. Julie (Martha Plimpton, very good) isn’t the layabout teen you might expect, and has genuine feelings for Tod – who, under Keanu Reeves’ sweet, slacker style, is a man of far greater emotional depth than might be expected.

The other plotlines of the film are secondary to these, but are still wonderfully played and put together. The Moranis/Kozak plotline of “I’m an ignored wife who wants another baby” v “I’m trying to turn our daughter into a genius” is a bit more played for laughs, but the two actors know their stuff and deliver. Tom Hulce channels Mozart as the irredeemable Larry, but works very well with Jason Robards, who expertly portrays a man aware he was not the perfect dad. Again these scenes develop in ways you might not expect – particularly as regards Robard’s character.

The final sequence of the film, showing how the events and lessons of the film have changed the family but brought them together in different ways, and how they have changed and learned, should feel manipulative and pat, but because the whole film is done with generosity and warmth it actually brings a small tear to the eye with its sweetness and warmth. Parenthood isn’t perhaps remembered quite as well as it should be – but it’s a film that never fails to deliver and always leaves you feeling better about yourself. And you can’t ask more than that.