Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angels & Demons **1/2

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Stellan Skarsgård, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl,
Pierfrancesco Favino, Thure Lindhart, David Pasquesi

"Angels & Demons" is like being served a historical conspiracy with your Big Mac.
It knows it doesn't have the background and facts to sustain the implications of the things it has to say about the Catholic church and science.
But it also knows that its real purpose was exclusively to be entertaining. And how it succeeds in that.
Unlike its 2006 predecessor, "The DaVinci Code", this adaptation of Dan Brown's eponymous novel doesn't take itself so seriously. Instead it squeezes every drop out of Brown's pseudo-erudite theories, the Indiana Jones qualities of its hero and the exquisite production values at the director's hands. Call it Catho-exploitation if you like.
Hanks repirses his role as Professor Robert Langdon, Harvard's expert in symbology, who is asked by the Vatican to assist them after four cardinals are kidnapped in the middle of a papal conclave.
The kidnappers have identified themselves as members of the Illuminati, a secret society once persecuted by the church, who have come back to take revenge for crimes committed against their group by the Vatican.
They announce they will kill one cardinal every hour up until midnight in one of the altars of science spread through Rome.
Added to this, the Illuminati have also stolen a vial of antimatter which they plan to use as an explosive device to eradicate the entire Vatican city.
Langdon teams up with sexy scientist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) to stop them before it's too late. Why the Illuminati don't just nuke the thing to begin with is never fully explained, nor questioned, because it would leave us without any dramatic situations, and no popcorn movie, to begin with.
This is one of the many things you will have to forgive "Angels & Demons" for in advance, otherwise you won't be able to delight in its excesses.
Those not willing to leave their "brains" at the door will see this as an insufferable attempt to feed previously digested intellectual material to the masses.
However, those who fully comprehend the grasp of Ron Howard's successes at achieving any sort of intellectual stimulation in the past, will know that this time obviously won't be any different and are propense to enjoy it while munching on their snacks.
They will however be surprised to see that Howard doesn't completely screw up this time. He obviously has a talent for creating suspenseful situations (even if he reccurs too much to quick cuts and flashy editing as if to hide any possible errors) and there isn't a single sequence in the film that doesn't at least get your heart pulse racing.
Sadly the film works mostly as a series of thrilling individual sequences that never come together as a whole. It feels as if every scene was directed by a different person, but you'll be immersed into the plot before you even begin to notice this.
If there is something Howard still fails to achieve is subtlety and the first half hour of the film represents this perfectly. Langdon is often made to state the obvious ("Illuminati" means enlightened, "sede vacante" means empty seat, which paired with the image of an empty chair feels just plain insulting) and his character sometimes becomes obnoxious in his need to teach.
It doesn't help that he's played by Hanks with a disturbing smugness he tries to pass off as charming cockiness.
But despite Langdon's didactism, Howard actually puts less of himself into this film than he did in "The DaVinci Code" (which arguably had one of the worst finales in memory as it tried to please everyone), therefore we have one of his only films where the ending doesn't suck!
It certainly helps that his ensemble is grounded by some fantastic actors including McGregor who plays the late Pope's Camerlengo and who somehow makes his preachy discourses work.
Skarsgård who is always a joy to watch, here playing the Swiss Guard's commander and does some satisfying job playing someone whose faith is committed to his job.
Mueller-Stahl brings gravitas to his role as an elderly Cardinal who we immediately suspect as a villain (those who haven't read the book will have a fine time trying to solve the mystery) if only because of his strict dedication.
And it's pleasing to see that the film belongs to several less famous actors who make every scene worthy, including Lindhart as a reluctant Vatican officer, Favino as a police detective and the fantastic Kaas who creates a Hassassin you can't take your eyes away from. It would have been interesting to see him portrayed as the sexual beast of the book, but the screenplay completely removes that element, as if Howard was trying to keep away from more controversy. The actor however brings this lust to life with his movements and eyes.
As usual, any sort of controversy spiked by the film is merely an exaggeration. One that should be expected from anything that brings religion and science face to face.
Howard tries his best to balance the two of them and avoid trouble and it's true that audience members will decide on their own on which "team" they belong. This is highlighted splendidly in the very last scene of the film that sends everyone with a smile on their face.
Howard however forgot that film being above all a visual medium, plot machinations sometimes come to mean less than what we see and most definitely the story sometimes becomes obsolete under the weight of images.
Therefore "Angels & Demons" might have chosen a position without even trying to as it features some breathtaking work in order to recreate the Vatican (Howard was denied permission to shoot there for obvious reasons).
The art direction is stunning, but what results more haunting is the work of CGI which sometimes makes your jaw drop in terms of its precision, realness and beauty.
If computers can easily reproduce spiritual temples who needs to actually go to the Vatican? And what does this say about religion in the face of technology? Without meaning to, Howard's film gives a nod to the power of evolution and technological advancement, which pardon the pun, are nothing short of miraculous.

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