Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #13 - Ron Howard

photo by Marco

-Apollo 13
-A Beautiful Mind
-Cinderella Man

-The Paper
-Far and Away
-Gung Ho

-How the Grinch Stole Christmas
-The Dilemma

Ron Howard learned the art of making movies from the Roger Corman Studios.  There, movies were made fast and cheap.  A lot of his earlier movies have that feel, and it is only over time that we get the sense of maturity that we find in his later films.  But even in his earlier ones, he has moments of inspiration.

Take, for example, Backdraft.  The story is a bit convoluted, but he does a fantastic job of putting you in the place of the bravest firemen as they run into the inferno.  Or you can look at Cocoon, which also has a bunch of thematic problems (the old people are essentially vampires), but he captures the vigor and sadness very well.  Even in a movie like Splash, we find elements of maturity in a silly comedy.  Who wasn't a little moved and saddened by that ending?

His first really excellent movie is Willow.  It was a movie Lord of the Rings before there was a film version.  I remember being a child and getting taken in by the wonderful vistas and heart-bounding adventure.  Madmardigan's defense of Tir Asleen is one of my favorite action sequences in a movie.

His skills in visual storytelling took another leap with Far and Away.  Again, the story was a bit longer than it needed to be, but he infused it with a rich beauty that made it fun to watch.  And Ransom showed off his ability to create a smart, tense thriller.  You felt the stress of the characters so strongly, that I remember leaving the theater with a bit of a knot in my stomach.

But his first truly excellent movie did not happen until Apollo 13.  He captured the majesty and wonder of the lunar missions and all that they represent.  The sequence where Tom Hanks' Jim Lovell runs his fingers through the moon's thick soil is so potent that I can almost feel it.  It was also Howard's insight that led them to create the unique zero-gravity set.  Instead of having his actors dangle on wire or float through green screen, he had them build the set of the rocket inside of a plane that would do 30-second zero gravity dives.  So throughout the movie, you will find no clip on the spacecraft longer than 30-seconds.  This added a level of realism not simply as spectacle, but it drew the viewer into the reality of the astronauts on that fateful voyage.  And through all of the claustrophobia and crisis, he latched onto the human story of love and perseverance.

And that brings us to the movie for which he won his only Oscar: A Beautiful Mind.  A lot of the credit for that film goes not only to Russell Crowe's Amazing performance and Akiva Goldsmiths imaginative script.  But Howard did something very, very difficult: he showed you visually the thoughts of a broken genius.  As complex as the mathematics was, Howard knew that he needed to convey raw intelligence and emotional poverty.  He also fills the movie with plenty of visual clues as to the big twist so that you can be rewarded on further viewing.  A Beautiful Mind showcases all of Ron Howard's skills in taking us through Dr. Nash's journey and more importantly seeing the world through his eyes.  Every film-maker strives for that.  But when entering a mind so intellectually complex, Howard made us feel as if we took a step out of ourselves and into another.  That is the mark of a great storyteller.

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