Category Archives: Director Series: Ron Howard

Far and Away (1992)

At some indiscriminate point in the ’90s movie producers everywhere decided to simply stop caring about trying to get actors to do passable Irish accents. Can’t we try, begged writers and moviegoers and people from Ireland, at least try to make this sound accurate? We know it’s more appealing to have a major American beefcake rather than, say, an actual Irish guy playing the role of “actual Irish guy”, but can’t we spend the extra time/money to ensure this film won’t become a laughingstock in ten years, or five, or instantaneously? Please? Please?

Far and Away (1992)

We’ve charted a course backwards through movie time and discovered Far and Away to be one of the earliest and most egregious offenders. If not patient zero per se, Far and Away is effectively worse than the index case for presenting itself on the largest possible stage and thus spreading the Awful Irish Accent disease much more quickly. Prior to Far and Away a shitty accent was a shitty accent. After Far and Away, a shitty accent became a perfectly acceptable feature of a major blockbuster because Ron Howard and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman couldn’t be bothered to do better. Why should anyone else?

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Backdraft (1991)

I’m thinking of a movie. It came out in 1991. In this movie, a young hotshot investigator is faced with a particularly gruesome series of crimes. Stumped, the investigator seeks the help of a criminal already incarcerated for similar but unrelated crimes. The criminal is clearly a devious maniac, and his help is contingent on a cat-and-mouse game of psychological cabaret. He helps solve things in a roundabout way, but only after the investigator gives up personal feelings about the crimes. This movie features Scott Glenn in a fairly major role.

If you hadn’t seen Backdraft as the header for this review, you might have said The Silence of the Lambs. Either way, you’d be right — all of the above criteria fits with both films, strange as it seems. There’s no shortage of suspiciously-timed blockbusters that have a great deal in common — see Illusionist/Prestige, Tombstone/Wyatt Earp, Truman Show/EdTV, Antz/Bug’s Life, etc. — or just operate on a similar premise or gimmick, like the one-man-in-one-location flicks Buried and 127 Hours. But while Backdraft and Silence of the Lambs operate in fairly different territory, the similarities are far more numerous than those of the kindred spirits listed above. This can only mean one thing: an unfathomable conspiracy, deadly and ancient, marshaled and brought to bear for the purpose of ending civilization as we know it.

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Parenthood (1989)

Parenthood might be the first time Ron Howard really showed his talent as a director. Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift were passable as Howard found his directorial voice, and Gung Ho and Willow were larger productions that achieved different levels of success as Howard matured. I’d entertain an argument for Cocoon as the first glimpse of the great director Howard would one day become, mostly for the subtle mix of fantasy, sentimentality, humor and drama. But Parenthood, although admittedly very different, is the better film. With a burgeoning cast that can only be described as an ensemble, Howard’s brilliance lies in making that ensemble feel more like — oh no, he’s going to say it — a family.

There are the young ones — Kevin, Taylor, Justin, Patty, “Cool” and Garry (a pipsqueak Joaquin Phoenix) — each content in their kid ways to run around with head-in-bucket (in Justin’s case) or figure out the square root of 8,649 (in Patty’s case [it’s 93]). There’s Garry’s older sister Julie and her boyfriend/husband Tod. There’s the next generation, the brunt of the Buckman clan led by Steve Martin’s Gil, and the spouses of each Buckman sibling. And then there’s the patriarchal generation, with Grandpa Frank played by the great Jason Robards, utterer of the greatest line in cinema history (from Once Upon a Time in the West — either ya knowhadimean or ya don’t).

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Willow (1988)

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 the primary news item was very definitely Star Wars and the announcement of a new expansion on the galaxy far, far away. The Force Awakens comes this December, but talk is already turning to Indiana Jones, another Lucasfilm franchise, and the possibility of continuing that as well (because distilling Raiders into Crystal Skull wasn’t enough). What’s next? THX 1138Howard the Duck? Radioland Murders? Perhaps even an original idea? Probably none of those for a few years, while Wars and Jones get the attention they deserve. Eventually, though, they’ll probably remake Willow.

Starring Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer, Willow is a fantasy epic set in what seems to be a mystical land of fairies, witches, warriors and little magicians. Willow Ufgood is our unlikely hero, tasked with the safe passage of a prophesied infant through the dangerous lands outside the borders of his home. He seems like a simpleton, a mere farmer, but there’s a lot more to Willow than meets the eye. Importantly, despite the evil tyranny he encounters in his quest, Willow remains one of the most endlessly optimistic characters in all of fantasy cinema. This made Ron Howard the perfect director at the time to handle Willow’s journey, as his previous Cocoon was similarly steeped in magic and optimism. Davis is instantly iconic as Willow. Meanwhile, Val Kilmer plays a drunk version of Aragorn.

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Gung Ho (1986)

So…is Gung Ho racist, or what? To be sure, far less sympathetic portraits of the Japanese have cropped up in American cinema over the years. This certainly isn’t the not-so-subtle Neimoidian race of The Phantom Menace or the not-even-attempting-to-be-subtle Mr. Yunioshi of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At the very least Gung Ho is free of that kind of blatant disregard for cultural sensitivity that makes one wonder, with no shortage of slaps to one’s forehead, how the hell some things get greenlighted at all.

But there is a sneaking suspicion that there’s a cultural illiteracy afoot in Gung Ho, if not a straight-up cultural disregard, and that might be just as bad. Director Ron Howard cast Michael Keaton as the actor rose to fame following Johnny Dangerously and Howard’s own Night Shift, and there’s little blame to place on Keaton here. He’s the lovable doofus that he usually is. Gung Ho sees Keaton’s everyman Hunt Stevenson fighting to save his little Rust Belt town after a Japanese automobile company takes over the local factory. An army of managerial types swoops in from Tokyo and sets about “correcting” the carefree business practices of the American worker. Culture clash certainly ensues — we’re just not sure it’s the kind of clash that Howard and Co. intended.

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Night Shift (1982)

The upgrade in quality from Ron Howard’s directorial debut Grand Theft Auto to his sophomore effort Night Shift is pretty remarkable. Howard did direct a string of TV movies in the interim (Cotton Candy, Skyward, and Through the Magic Pyramid) and had directed a few shorts prior to Auto, so it wasn’t like Night Shift was only the second time he touched a camera. He was also doing this really weird thing called “acting” on occasion.

Regardless of where it falls, Night Shift is a surprisingly hilarious addition to Howard’s early canon. Auto relied heavily on Happy Days cast members and members of the Howard Family to round out the cast and crew, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but could be a bit distracting at times. Speaking of distracting, Auto also had a funk-bass-porno soundtrack that served to bolster the overall feel of the thing as hastily-made. And most importantly, the character motives in Auto just didn’t make a whole lot of sense across the board.

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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

It’s easy to see how Ron Howard made Grand Theft Auto. He was 23 years old in 1977 and already had a few years of Happy Days under his belt, not to mention enough TV credits to satisfy the entire career of most actors. He had connections, and those connections included his family of actors as well. Grand Theft Auto, frankly, is nothing phenomenally special, at least not in terms of script or directing. The hasty editing and funky bow chicka wow wow soundtrack do, at times, make the thing seem like it’s about to throw the hyuk hyuk Days of Happy out the window and become a low-budget adult film. But it’s Howard’s first film! He was 23! We can give him a break on quality here, for sure, and in fact I’m surprised most debut features from eventually-famous directors don’t look more like Grand Theft Auto.

Howard plays Sam Freeman, nice young lad from a modest family woefully in love with the beautiful Paula Powers. Paula’s played by Nancy Morgan, and she’s a great reminder that every desirable teenage girl in the ’70s had alliterative given and surnames. Paula’s also rich, and so her proposed engagement to Sam is not received well by her parents. They call him a fortune hunter and kick him out of the house before locking the door and blasting Kanye’s “Gold Digger”. Love, however, is not so easily swayed. Paula steals her father’s Rolls Royce and picks up Sam, and they hit the road to Vegas to get married and inspire an inexplicable epidemic of carjacking in their wake.

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