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Ron Howard says 'The Missing' compels with story, performances

Ron Howard has heard the criticism. His films are too commercial, sometimes bordering on schmaltzy and manipulative.

Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter to him, and apparently it doesn't matter to the audiences who flock to see his movies.

Count the hits: "A Beautiful Mind," "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Ransom," and "Apollo 13." Yes, there have been some disappointments, such as "EdTV," a film about a cable channel devoted to the life of an ordinary man, which seems remarkably prescient today; and "Far and Away," a film starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that explored Irish immigration at the turn of the 20th century.

"I want everybody to love everything I do, but by the same token, if you let that be your guiding principle, creatively you'd be paralyzed from the set," the 49-year-old director said during a recent phone interview.

"You do have to make choices which are personal. When I choose a subject, I think about the scene. I think about what the story communicates and the ideas it presents to an audience. And I think about its potential to entertain, whether that entertainment is laughter in a movie like `Parenthood' or in an edge-of-your-seat [movie] like I hope `The Missing' offers."

"The Missing," which opened Wednesday, is the follow-up to Howard's Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind." It stars Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett as an estranged father and daughter in the West in the late 19th century who must forge an uneasy alliance to get Blanchett's daughter back. In the meantime, they come to terms with their relationship.

Jones's character, Samuel, left his family, including daughter Magdalena (Blanchett), to live with the Apache tribe. Now, years later, she is raising her daughters with little desire to have a man help her.

When Sam returns to make amends with her, he's greeted with contempt. Still, in order to make peace with his God, he offers to help Magdalena find her daughter, a teenager who has been kidnapped and is going to be sold in Mexico.

With Jones and Blanchett aboard, "The Missing" was a no-brainer for Howard. "I thought Tommy Lee Jones was just the purest creative choice that we could make. He is really an ambitious actor when given the opportunity," Howard said. "And I know he'd grown up in the region. I thought he was fantastic in `Lonesome Dove,' and I just believed the combination of his intellect and his dramatic intensity would make him a good choice."

And, indeed, you can see that in this role Jones is reenergized. If you check out his turn in "The Hunted," a film from earlier in the year, he looks as if he'd rather be anywhere but in that movie. Here he's a blend of charm, danger, and empathy.

Jones is a formidable actor, but actors have to have collaborators on the set. It would be fallacious to assume that Howard's past efforts as a performer didn't help him when it comes to working with others on his films.

"[It helps] all the time, every day," he said of his experience. "I gain a lot of trust with actors, and now my work as a director speaks for itself on its own terms. [They] know that I grew up as an actor and know the things they are trying to accomplish. It's very easy for me to discuss scenes and trust. There's nothing to fear in a conversation with an actor and everything to gain."

Jones and Blanchett are good enough reasons for any director to work on a project, but Howard had his own as well.

"I felt there was a combination of an adult family story that was dramatic yet relatable on a contemporary level, an unusual and surprising suspense story, and it all existed in a world that was presented in an authentic way," he said. "There were twists, turns, and it worked against the conventions of the Western movie genre -- I found those qualities hard to come by and irresistible."

One of those qualities is that a woman occupies a place in a Western that she wouldn't otherwise. Magdalena represents a strong, independent woman, a rarity in the West. He considers Blanchett the perfect choice because of her diverse acting credentials on the stage and in films such as "Bandits," "The Gift," and "Elizabeth."

"It was very important to have strength, but also enough vulnerability that she didn't just become an action figure. She's a well-rounded, relatable woman."

After the emotional intensity of "A Beautiful Mind," which won him a best director Academy Award and the golden boy for best picture as well, no one could blame Howard if he elected to lighten up this time around, and the thought did cross his mind, he said. But it was much more important for him to choose the right project. "This was a movie I wanted to see, and I certainly didn't want to let it get away and let somebody else make it."

He did take a little time to bask in Oscar's golden glow. After all, he'd been passed over before in the annual awards derby.

"It [winning the Oscar] is a kind of validation. Although the greatest validation comes when you get films made that you want to make," he said. "Professionally I don't think it matters at all, but on a personal level it's a great tradition, and I loved being included."

During some of that time away he took the time to work to get other films and TV projects off the ground. "The Alamo" is set for an April release, and he and producing partner Brian Grazer have a hit TV series in "24" and a new series in "Arrested Development," both on the Fox network.

He's even found the time to walk the nostalgia road by taking a trip back to Mayberry, the fictional town where "The Andy Griffith Show" took place and where he was known as Opie Taylor. Given that "The Andy Griffith Show Reunion: Back to Mayberry" scored a major win in the weekly ratings, can a "Happy Days" reunion be far behind? On that show, he played all-American boy Richie Cunningham.

Potential producers of such a show shouldn't worry. When they call, Howard will have no problem answering.

"I can be objective enough about it to realize that it's unique [being part of two enormously popular TV shows], and I have enough humility to appreciate the value in that and in those experiences," he said.

"Definitely the experiences have helped shape me and teach me in ways that have really been valuable over the years. And it helped me to get going. It didn't help me sustain a career as a director, but it was very helpful."

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