Critical Mass(ive)

(My apologies for not having posted in a couple of weeks. I’ve moved to Des Moines, IA, so I was a bit busy. I’m back to doing regular reviews now and will start with the behemoth that appeared between posts.)

With its far-flung Universe and interconnected bloodlines, the Marvel Superheroes are a geek’s version of another literary genre: the multi-generational drama. The books of Howard Fast, Jeffrey Archer and others have a commonality with Ironman, Thor, Captain America, et al. They tell big stories that can stretch over multiple volumes, or, in this case, movies. That’s not strange to those who read the early comic books where the plot arc would continue for five or six editions, similar to how Charles Dickens serialized his novels. That’s why AMC Theaters could offer a 27 hour binge viewing of the previous Marvel movies in the lead up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a concern, though, that eventually this could reach a critical mass with Marvel going into meltdown. When does it become too much of a good thing?

For this sequel to the billion dollar hit The Avengers, Writer/Director Joss Whedon throws the viewer into a huge battle right from the start with Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attacking a Hydra stronghold in eastern Europe. This follows the first tag at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though to see how the Avengers get to the secret base you’d have to watch the episode of “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” on the Tuesday before the movie’s release. With an assist from robotic sentinels run by Stark’s AI valet, JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), the Avengers make defeat the Hydra forces, but they run into two new characters with powers, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Scarlet Witch manages to give Ironman a major case of paranoia when he discovers the power source Hydra was using for experiments – Loki’s scepter.

Ironman’s fear-centered paranoia causes him to use the scepter to create a new version of the sentinels. But the power in the scepter has an intelligence of its own, and the result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who swiftly crushes JARVIS while he creates his own metal body. Tony Stark had envisioned Ultron as a way to protect earth’s population, but Ultron sees that most of the problems are created by people and the earth would be better off without them

The movie is almost overwhelmed by the first battle sequence. Watching it on a large-format screen with the Dolby Atmos sound system, it’s almost a physical attack on the audience. But Whedon then reins in the action and focuses on the story. Another challenge with the movie is incorporating all the sidereal characters who’ve shown up in other movies: James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in his War Machine mode, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. Falcon, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Even Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter gets a spin around the dancefloor. Somehow, though, Whedon manages to juggle a dozen balls at the same time and not miss a beat.

This time Whedon has chosen to go deeper and darker. As with Greek tragedy, the heroes – primarily Ironman/Tony Stark – have fatal flaws within them that set the story on the path to its destructive climax. While he doesn’t go as far as F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” Whedon does take it a step further than the first Avengers where some of the responsibility falls on SHIELD with the power weapons they’ve horded. Here, the responsibility for Ultron rests squarely on the shoulders of the Avengers – Tony Stark for instigating the creation and the others for not stopping him. Yet Whedon also incorporates an excellent sequence where he develops the character of Hawkeye, who was the least fleshed-out of all the characters. It’s a moment of humanity that underlines the stakes for which the Avengers are playing.

With most action flicks, the rule is the movie is as good as its villain. Ultron is part-Voldemort, part-Silva (from Skyfall): nearly invulnerable and definitely a psychopath, but one who carries his evil with panache. James Spader’s vocal talents are perfectly matched to the character.

There is one discordant note with a previous Marvel Universe movie, and it underlines why after farming out Spiderman and the X-men to other studios (Sony and Fox respectively), Marvel’s now keeping its characters in house. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character Quicksilver is the same one played by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But since Wolverine rewrote history in that movie, we’ll let it go.

Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have been a rollercoaster that ran off the rails in spectacular fashion, but Joss Whedon manages to keep things under control and deliver the audience to the station with smiles on their faces after a thrilling ride. It’s not the best Marvel movie yet – Captain America: The Winter Soldier retains that distinction – but it’s up there with the best.

As Time Goes By

Filming a romantic fantasy is like skipping a rope on a high wire: it’s not easy to do and most who try it fail, but when it works it’s impressive. An example of a failure in the genre, last year Winter’s Tale managed only a 13% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The good news is that the new release The Age of Adaline pulls off the balancing act, despite a couple of wobbles.

We’re introduced to Adaline (Blake Lively) on New Year’s Eve 2014 as she takes a cab from San Francisco to Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge. An omnipresent narrator intones that it’s this day will be the last day of her past life, and the first day of her new one, which sounds pompous until we discover she’s buying a new identity from a teenage forger. Adaline demonstrates a Sherlock Holmesian gift for observation that makes the forger fear she’s with the police, but she explains she’s just using her experience to help him.

She returns to San Francisco and her job at a historical preservation society. While cataloguing newsreel footage of the 1906 earthquake, Adaline drifts back through moments in her life starting with her birth, the first baby born on New Year’s Day in San Francisco in the year of the quake.  Her husband was an engineer who helped build the Golden Gate Bridge until an accident claimed his life and left Adaline a widowed young mother. Then, when she was 29, a freak accident freezes the aging process in her body.  (The narrator intones a pseudo-scientific explanation, which is one of the wobbles.) As her daughter grows to college-age in the 1950s, Adaline remains the same. When she comes to the attention of the authorities during the days of Red Scare paranoia, Adaline goes into hiding, regularly changing her identity.

At a New Year’s Eve party that night, Adaline meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), and even from across the room there’s an immediate attraction. But then it appears he’s with someone, so Adaline walks away. Ellis follows her as she leaves the party and tries to get her number – he felt the attraction as well – but she refuses to give it and leaves. The next day she meets her daughter Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) for a birthday lunch. Adaline mentions Ellis, but she dismisses the idea of romance and love; there’s no future in it if they can’t grow old together. Flemming knows how much her mother has sacrificed in her long life and hopes she’ll have a chance to be happy. Then the fates conspire to bring Ellis back into Adaline’s life.

The film has an unusual combination for its creative team. Director Lee Toland Krieger has mostly worked with independent films, following in the footsteps of his mentor Neil LaBute. The original story and screenplay were written by Salvator Paskowitz and J Mills Goodloe, neither of which who were known for this type of film. But the trifecta of producers – Sidney Kimmel, Gary Lucchesi, and Tom Rosenburg – have together or on their own produced some excellent films, such as Million Dollar Baby, Moneyball, and The Lincoln Lawyer. Paskowitz and Goodloe manage to juggle the plot so all  the aspects of it stay airborne, while Krieger gives the film a bit of an edge that serves it well. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg captures San Francisco beautifully on the screen. With its blend of old and new, it’s the perfect setting for this story. The score by Rob Simonsen is exceptional, both in its romantic themes as well as the wise use of period music to match the ages of Adaline shown on the screen.

But it would have been a wasted effort without an actress who can project an old soul within a youthful body. Blake Lively is known mostly for the TV series “Gossip Girl” and as the spouse of Ryan Reynolds, with who she starred in the unsuccessful superhero movie The Green Lantern. She gave a surprisingly effective performance in Ben Affleck’s caper movie The Town as an addicted young mother. Here, though, she steps to the center of the stage and casts a spell as Adaline with a gracious and nuanced performance. The camera captures each subtle reaction or flash of memory that whispers across Lively’s face.

She’s assisted by a strong supporting cast. Dutch actor Michiel Huisman has become a major presence on TV recently, with roles in Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, Nashville and Treme, as well as in the movies Wild and World War Z. He’s handsome enough you don’t question Adaline’s attraction, though he also projects a depth that allows the relationship to grow into love. Along with the previously mentioned Ellen Burstyn, the movie also stars Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker as Ellis’ parents.

If you are a romantic, I suggest you bring a supply of tissues with you when you view this film. If you’re not a romantic, bring along someone who is so that you can experience the emotional power of the story.

It’s The End of The World as We Know It (Part II)

In the summer of 2013, I’d contrasted two “End of the World” movies that could hardly have been more different: World War Z and This Is The End. The latter movie took the apocalypse genre and played it for laughs, and did it successfully overall. It isn’t alone, though, in handling the Final Days with a laugh track. Within comedy’s broad umbrella, there are three other recent movies that have dealt with this – one with broad humor, one with a mix of pathos and outrageousness, and one that cast a jaundiced eye at what the experience would be like.

The World’s End (2013) was the final film in the “Cornetto” series – named for an addictive English ice cream treat that’s like a “Drumstick” in the US, but on steroids. All the movies were directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and starred Pegg and Nick Frost. The first two films, Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz beautifully spoofed the horror and buddy cop genres, while World’s End takes on science fiction.

Pegg plays a ne’er-do-well who gathers his old band of mates to do an epic pub crawl. Twenty years earlier, as fresh school graduates, the group had tried and failed miserably to make it through the ten pubs in their home town. The others in the group, played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, are roped in by Pegg, whose time in school was his high water mark. Once back home, Pegg meets up with the love of his early life, played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl). The group’s plans are compromised when they discover most of the town’s current inhabitants have been replaced by robots.

The film owes much to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though Wright and Pegg put their own twist on it. Overall World’s End is the weakest film of the “Cornetto” series, but that’s in part because Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz set the bar so high.

Seeking a Friend for The End of The World (2012) pairs Steve Carell and Kiera Knightly as two neighbors who are thrust together as a 70 mile wide asteroid approaches the Earth. Think Armageddon without Bruce Willis or any hope of salvation.

The movie also fits into the road trip genre. As society breaks down, Carell and Knightly leave the city where they’ve lived in pursuit of two final goals. For Carell, it’s to find a girl he’d loved and lost years earlier, while Knightly wants to somehow make it back to the British Isles to say goodbye to her family. While they travel together, what’s important to them slowly changes.

Seeking a Friend is unusual in its hopelessness, which is not something one often sees portrayed in a film – usually with good reason, since it kills the box office. Even with Carell and Knightly, the film only grossed about six million in theaters. It’s leavened, though, by several outrageous scenes, including having dinner at a chain restaurant that promotes happiness a little too forcefully.

It’s A Disaster (2012) was made for a micro-budget by writer/director Todd Berger, and had a micro box office during its brief release, but it’s now available on HBO and streaming services. You don’t usually think indie film and disaster flick at the same time, but Berger pulls it off.

Four couples come together for a “couples brunch.” Tracey (Julia Stiles), a single doctor, brings the man she’s dating, Glen (David Cross) to the home of Emma and Pete (Errin Hayes, Blaise Miller). Also there are Lexi and Buck (Rachel Boston, Kevin Brennan) who are loosely married, and Hedy and Shane (America Ferrera, Jeff Grace) who’ve been engaged for half a decade. The dinner party becomes uncomfortable quickly, but then they’re forced to stay together when a series of dirty bombs are exploded in the city and they must seal up the house to survive.

Berger presents eight modern, self-centered people who are pretty much useless in a crisis. Part of the fun is to see how most of them stay true to form even when faced with their own mortality, while some take a quick dive off the deep end. Think of the film as On the Beach played by the cast of “Seinfeld.”

If the world ever does come to an end, you might want to pass the time until the end binge-watching these films. Go out with a smile on your face.

Driven to Succeed

No one expected The Fast and the Furious to develop into a billion dollar franchise. The original was a solid hit, earning $200 million plus worldwide, and the sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious had a similar box office, though it cost twice the original’s $38 million. Paul Walker, the lone holdover for the sequel, thought the idea had run its course and chose not to do the third installment. It looked like the series would go the way of most sequels, with new movies featuring unknowns trading on the original’s name before disappearing onto video. If you were to go back to 2005 and tell Universal executives that the seventh movie in the series, Furious 7, would obliterate the box office record for an April opening, beating out the fourth and fifth entries that also set records, they’d likely have laughed in your face. Funny what can happen in 10 years.

But it did, and there are two main reasons for it. The first was finding the perfect director to get the series on track. Justin Lin was born in Taiwan but was raised in Orange County in a working class neighborhood. He got his MFA in film down the road at UCLA. Lin’s first solo directing project caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival. Better Luck Tomorrow told the story of Asian-American kids caught up in a spiral of crime, and in the Q&A after its premiere Lin was asked if it was irresponsible to portray Asian-Americans in a negative light. Roger Ebert stood up and took the questioner to task, stating that the person “wouldn’t say that to a white filmmaker.” After a forgettable first studio film – Annapolis – Lin did the third entry in the series, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, and guided it to a respectable world-wide gross of $150 million. Lin was brought back for the fourth movie, and continued through the sixth installment. He’s currently in preproduction on Star Trek 3, and has also been tapped for the next Jeremy Renner Bourne picture.

The second reason was that in the fourth movie they return to the heist feature of the original with the first film’s cast. For Fast and Furious, the main characters returned: Vin Diesel (Dominic), Paul Walker (Brian), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), and Jordana Brewster (Mia). The movie recaptured the intensity of the first film right from the opening sequence where Dom’s team hijacks the load from a four-trailer gas truck while it’s driving. But what was more important was the group became a family, augmented by Tyrese Gibson (Roman) and Ludacris (Tej) who’d appeared in the second movie, Sung Kang (Han) who’d come to the series during Tokyo Drift, and Gal Gadot (Giselle) who started in the fourth film. Such a multi-ethnic cast is unusual for a Hollywood film, even though it reflects more families these days. When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joined the cast in the fifth film as Federal Agent Hobbs it cemented the series as the current pinnacle of the action universe.

But while families grow, they also suffer losses. Giselle died during the climactic sequence in Furious 6, and Han is killed after the credits. But no one was prepared for the death of Paul Walker during the filming of Furious 7. That a car accident took his life, after all his daring action behind the wheel in this series, was the bitterest of ironies.

Justin Lin had turned over the director’s chair for 7 to James Wan, more known for his horror pictures (Saw, The Conjouring) than for action movies. But the opening sequence eliminates any questions about Wan’s abilities. It was set up in the tag after the credits of 6 that Jason Statham would be gunning for Dom and his crew. Statham plays Deckard Shaw, the older brother of the bad guy in 6, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans). 7 begins with Deckard standing over the bed where his comatose and broken brother lays, and he vows his revenge. The camera then follows him out of the hospital, revealing the carnage that Deckard has wrought on his way inside.

Deckard takes out Han in Tokyo, as previously shown, and almost eliminates Dom, Brian and Mia. Then comes a match action aficionados have dreamed of when Deckard squares off against Hobbs, a battle that pretty much destroys a building. But Deckard’s vendetta is interrupted by a shadowy government operative who goes by the name Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell, in a wonderful piece of casting). He promises to give Deckard to Dom, but his price is for Dom, Brian, and the rest of the crew to rescue a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) from the terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and recover a surveillance program she created that can find anyone in the world.

The plot mostly gives excuses for the extended action sequences, and 7 has three chase and fight sections that match and exceed anything the series has done so far. The first, with cars parachuting from a transport plane, has been featured in the trailers. Much of that sequence was done the old school way, rather than with digital effects. There is also a sequence that involves jumping a super car between the towers of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. But those are just lead-ups to the climatic chase and battle, back on the streets of LA where everything began.

In the aftermath of Paul Walker’s death, it was clear that the fans of the series felt like they’d lost a family member as well. Director Wan rallied the cast and crew to finish the film. Walker had completed most of his scenes, and for shots that still needed to be filmed Wan used Walker’s younger brothers and computer graphics to overlay Walker’s face on them. But the original ending, which was meant to set up the next film, was thrown out. Instead, the film ends with a graceful and cathartic tribute to Walker.

See Furious 7 for the characters and the action, the two hallmarks of the entire series. But make sure you have a couple of tissues in your pocket for the end.

 

Happily Ever After

Last year Disney had two box office hits – Maleficent and Into the Woods – that took the fairy tales that have been the studio’s specialty for decades and turned the stories on their ear. Now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and released a faithful live-action version of the studio’s animated classic, Cinderella.

The story qualifies as a “tale as old as time,” as the song in Beauty and the Beast puts it. The European folk story existed long before it was committed to paper, and the classic version, Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” was written in 1697. The Grimm boys created their own version in the 1800s, but the classic feature of the story, the glass slipper, is only in Perrault’s take on the tale. On the surface, it seems an anachronistic story for today, with the paternalistic element of Cinderella being saved from servitude by the prince. One of the best film versions, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, threw that out and had Barrymore’s Danielle save herself before the prince arrives. But when you go back to Perrault’s tale, the two-part moral at the end makes it appropriate for almost any age. The first moral is that beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless – something to remember in this Internet age! Perrault’s second moral, though, gives the story a darker edge. “Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”

Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has followed the 1950 animated version closely, but has also expanded the story in strategic places, especially with the influence of the mother (Hayley Atwell, looking completely different from her Agent Carter role in the Marvel universe) and father (Ben Chaplin). It underlines the difference of the world once the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) takes over, as well as gives Ella (Lily James) strong motivation to remain kind and courageous in the face of it.

It would be easy to overdo the evil stepmother, especially in light of the shallowness of her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). The two girls are like the animated characters come alive, but Blanchett rises to a higher level. Her embodiment is as smooth as a snake and completely devoid of cartoonish attributes. She too easily could be someone you’ve met, if you were ever so unfortunate.

Just as fine a job is done by Lily James, who is best known as Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” It’s not easy to play a pure and courageous character without coming across as saccharin, but she manages it. She’s ably assisted by Richard Madden as the Prince. Another addition by Weitz has the Prince and Cinderella meeting before the ball. In fact, the meeting is the motivation for the Prince to open the ball to all the women of the kingdom, in the hopes of meeting Cinderella again. Madden’s prince is charming, but with so much more depth that the love story makes sense. (One does have to wonder, though, why Madden would take a role that includes a wedding scene after his experience as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones.”)

The supporting cast is first-rate, with Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.

But it is director Kenneth Branagh who deserves a great deal of praise for whipping up this confection and making it both tasty and pleasing to the eye. He brings to the film the feel of a Shakespearean play, like “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. The camerawork is gorgeous, while the pacing of the story is just right. There’s also a bit of the operatic element that made Thor such a success.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design by 3-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who has worked on Martin Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York and also did Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love. She uses a brighter color palate that fits beautifully with the fairy tale essence of the story and also provides a counterpoint to Cinderella’s blue ball gown. The CGI team works magic throughout the film, particularly with taking the mice of the animated feature and turning them into a realistic version. Even though they don’t burst out singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” they’re charming and they do save the day. The team gets to go wild with the Fairy Godmother’s preparations for the ball, as well as the stroke of twelve midnight, and both sequences are pure delights.

By going closer to the Perrault story from almost 320 years ago, Branagh and crew have created a fresh and refreshing version. That is a true accomplishment.

Belle of the Ball

With all the movies released each year, it’s impossible to see them all. Even established critics for media sources will miss some. And much of what slips by under the radar are the dregs that deserve to be missed. However, sometimes a gem gets flushed away with the silt that’s surrounding it. The premium channels and streaming services give us a second chance to uncover the missed diamonds. Currently HBO is featuring a British beauty that was only in limited release in the US last year: Belle.

The titular character is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Capt. (later Admiral) Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who saved her mother from a slave ship. After her mother’s death, Lindsay arranges the child’s passage to England where he places her in the home of his granduncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord High Magistrate of England. Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) had no children of their own, but along with Dido they raised their niece Elizabeth Murray following her mother’s death and her father disowning her in favor of his new wife and family. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) grow into beautiful women, but both are constrained by 18th Century society.

Elizabeth has no inheritance or land, which handicaps her when seeking a suitor. One who is interested is James Ashford (Tom Fenton), though he is offended by Dido’s existence, even though his brother Oliver (James Norton) finds her attractive. Dido’s not allowed to join the family for dinner when they have guests. Even though Sir John acknowledged her as his daughter and made her his heir, he wasn’t married to Dido’s mother. After dinner she’s allowed to join in by the rules of society, since it is a more casual time.

While she’s mostly been protected on Mansfield’s estate, the world starts to impose on her. Part of her awakening comes from John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar’s son who’s studying the law under Mansfield’s tutelage. He tells her of a case Mansfield is considering between the owners of the slave ship Zong and their insurers. The owners claim that the ship ran low on water so they had to throw their cargo – slaves – overboard so the crew could survive, but the insurers have refused to reimburse them for their loss. Davinier, an ardent abolitionist, believes there is more to the case, but his passion gets him dismissed by Mansfield. Still, it has begun an awakening in Dido.

The movie begins with the “based on a true story” notation, which for Hollywood is code for “most of this is made up.” However, English films usually stay very close to the actual events, and that is the case with Belle. Zong was a landmark case – it was also known as the Zong Massacre – and Mansfield was a major force in English government and jurisprudence. One of his friends and clients was Sarah Churchill, the wife of the first Duke of Marlborough. His decision in the Zong case and others had a profound effect on England. Some of the details of Dido and Davinier are more fanciful, but it does make for a wonderful love story.

I’d first noticed Gugu Mbatha-Raw when she played Martha Jones’ sister Tish during the third season of the new “Doctor Who.” She was the best part of the Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne, and she has three upcoming features in postproduction or filming where she stars with Matthew McConaughey, Will Smith, and Keanu Reeves, so her profile should definitely rise. The camera loves her and it reads every nuance on her face and in her body language. Her performance as Dido is seamless and beautiful to behold.

The rest of the cast is sterling, especially Wilkinson and Watson as Lord and Lady Mansfield. While showing characteristic English restraint, you also see the depth of their love for Dido. Rounding out the cast is Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford and Penelope Wilton as Mansfield’s spinster sister.

The movie was directed by Amma Asante, who began as a child actress but moved up to the hyphenate writer-director-producer. The Writer’s Guild of America gave credit for the screenplay solely to Misan Sagay, who also wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. There was a question, however, about multiple of rewrites that Asante did. Regardless, it is an effective screenplay that both presents the story and captures the era.

Look for this movie, and if you get the chance, watch it.

Detail from a painting of the actual Dido Belle and Elisabeth Murray

Suspension of Disbelief

I admit I like well-done disaster movies, though like effective or inventive horror films they are rare. The genre is the junk food of cinema – tasty at times but you have to limit your intake if you want to stay fit and healthy. Disaster flicks go back all the way to the silent era, and two of the best were from the 1930s: 1936’s San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and 1937’s The Hurricane, directed by John Ford. Neither could win a Special Effects Oscar, since that category wasn’t added until 1939, but San Francisco got 6 nominations and won for Sound Editing, and The Hurricane got 3 noms, also winning for Sound. The 1970s were the heyday of the genre, with The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc, but by the end of the decade their box office had fizzled. Movies like The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out (all produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen) were nails the genre’s coffin. But like zombies, the genre keeps coming back. Last year’s Into The Storm and this summer’s release, San Andreas, are the latest to keep it alive.

Often the premise of the impending disaster is repeated in multiple movies – sometimes in the same year. We’ve had dueling volcano (Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano) and killer asteroid (Armageddon vs. Deep Impact) pictures in the past. Occasionally, though, there can be an original – if hardly credible – idea that is done decently enough that you suspend your disbelief for two-plus hours and just enjoy the ride. It may even become the chocolate bar you enjoy when no one’s looking, even when you eat healthily the rest of the time. For me, that guilty pleasure is 2003’s The Core.

Let me grant from the outset that the premise is completely ludicrous: the core of the earth has stopped spinning, causing a breakdown of the electromagnetic field that leads to all manner of catastrophic events, and a team must travel to the center of the earth and use nuclear weapons to jumpstart the planet. It’s not quite as bad a premise as 2012’s overcooked continents, but it’s close. What separates The Core from schlock like 2012 is a good director, an unusually fine cast, a script that manages some wit and surprises, and decent special effects.

The movie was directed by Jon Amiel, who graduated from Cambridge and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He directed the classic “The Singing Detective” for the BBC, and did several good movies in the 1990s, among them Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, and Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since The Core he’s mostly worked in TV, with recent work on “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” and “Once Upon a Time.”

In the opening scene, he focuses on a hotshot businessman about to earn millions on a deal. The man’s expensive watch stops just before he enters the meeting, but he doesn’t think much of it. In the meeting, the businessman leads his team to the head of the glass conference table – then collapses on it, dead. Sounds of alarms filter into the room from outside, and the camera pans out the window to a fair in a square and the surrounding streets where other people have fallen dead at the same time. It’s one of the more effective opening sequences for a disaster flick.

The cast for the movie is not the usual suspects – no Bruce Willis or, for an earlier generation, Charleton Heston. Instead the cast is heavy with Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees who usually work in independent films. The main roles are played by Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood and Richard Jenkins. Among them they have 2 Academy Award wins plus 3 nominations, and 5 Golden Globe wins plus 5 nominations.

The disaster scenes are unusual and decently done. Along with the opening scene, you have two other set pieces early in the film. One features birds going amok in Trafalgar Square, and while it’s not the equal of Alfred Hitchcock’s attack on Bodega Bay, it’s effective. Part of the action is shot through the viewfinder of a video camera that’s been dropped during the mayhem. The other sequence is better, with the Space Shuttle having to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The filmmakers do move Dodger Stadium from Chavez Ravine in East LA to somewhere around Long Beach for the sake of a shot of the shuttle buzzing over the stadium. It would have made more sense geographically to use Angel Stadium, but The Core was produced by Paramount, and at that time the Angels were owned by the Walt Disney Company. Such is life in Hollywood. Later in the movie they do meet a major criteria for disaster films and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge, but not in the usual way. This time they melt it.

The screenplay was done by Cooper Layne and John Rogers. Layne was also a producer of the film, but his credits are thin according to IMDb. He’d acted three times, produced a documentary and The Emperor’s Club before The Core, and his only other screenwriter credit was the 2005 remake of The Fog. Rogers has more writing credits, particularly for the TNT shows “Leverage” and “The Librarians” which he also helped create, but he has a major blot on his record. He followed up The Core with the horrible Halle Berry Catwoman.  Somehow the script for The Core turned out better than anyone had a right to expect, unless there was an awful lot of ad libbing on the set.

While still conforming to the thriller format, the movie has plenty of sly humor. You have Eckhart as Dr. Josh Keyes, Karyo as Serge Leveque, and Tucci as Dr. Conrad Zimsky, all scientists, though Tucci is one of the rock star variety. When Keyes hands him a paper where he’s outlined his evidence that life on earth will end in a year, Zimsky’s first thought is he wants an autograph. When Keyes and Zimsky brief a Pentegon meeting on the threat, they give a demonstration of what will happen to the Earth when the electromagnetic field disappears – using an orange, a can of air freshener, and a lighter. Keyes drops the incinerated orange in a carafe of water and tells the group, “Feel free to throw up. I know I did.” It’s a welcome relief from the usual stoic heroism in disaster flicks.

Jenkins plays Thomas Percell, a 4-star General, while Swank and Greenwood are shuttle pilots and Woodard is a NASA mission controller. Lindo is Braz Brazzleton,a scientist who left academia to pursue creating an inner space ship. When Percell and the other scientists approach Braz, you have this exchange:

Serge Leveque: Dr. Brazzelton, when do you think the ship will be operational?

Brazzelton: When I get my fabrication methods perfected; twelve…no, ten years.

Percell: What would it take to get it done in six months?

Brazzelton: (laughing) Fifty billion dollars, I…

Percell: (deadpan face) Will you take a check?

Keyes: Why don’t you use a credit card? You get miles.

With his lanky body and unusual face, D.J. Qualls is perfect as “Rat” Finch, a hacker who’s recruited to keep any news about the Earth’s impending doom off of the internet. When Zimsky scoffs at his usefulness, Rat asks Zimsky how many languages he speaks. Zimsky says five, and Rat comes back with: “Well, I speak one…One Zero One Zero Zero. With that I could steal your money, your secrets, your sexual fantasies, your whole life. Any country, any place, anytime I want. We multitask like you breathe. I couldn’t think as slow as you if I tried.” Bam!

The Core didn’t light up the box office, and only made back about half of its production cost in its US release. You’ll likely find the DVD in the $5 bin at your local Wal-mart. The production did consult with scientists about the science of building a capsule to reach the Earth’s core, and it actually stimulated one to theorize a way for an unmanned probe to do it. He published his ideas in the prestigious journal Nature in 2003. The movie did find an audience at the University of British Columbia, near where it was filmed in Vancouver. The Earth and Ocean Science course uses it by showing the film and then having the students discuss the bad science in it.

But, if you do suspend that old disbelief, it is a bit of a fun ride.