Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels & Demons

"Everything is Illuminati"

First things first: "Angels & Demons" does not suck as bad as "The DaVinci Code." Writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman (shudder) cut out the most eye-rolling aspects of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon prequel, including the author's propensity to insert Langdon into every situation, and to button up the story with questionable parentage. Ron Howard has chucked the annoying tendency to turn thinking into a special effect this go-'round.* Best of all, they cut Tom Hanks' hair. No. Really. That's as important as anything else.

The film-making is a bit more straight-forward,
with a diminished sense of "cramming it all in," but it still has that "run and gun" quality—Howard and company have not found a solution to the problem of casually throwing out exposition and making it sound like something that could be said as a matter of course, rather than (wink, wink) pointedly cluing the audience in. He also seems to have picked up a "Raimi-cam" for unnecessarily following pipe-lines. I mean, really, we didn't need to follow the full-length of the Hadron collider to determine how it might work—that's why God created display screens in control rooms, after all.

In fact, this story is such a whodunit that the only reason to throw in special effects is scale—you need to show the throng at
St. Peter's Square awaiting the election of a new Pope—even while the likely candidates—the usual suspects—are being eliminated "Ten Little Indians" style (and we all know the solution to that one). Oh, there's the depiction of anti-matter, but as convincing as it is (and it isn't--it's this vaguely swirly thing floating between electro-magnets) they needn't have bothered. They could have held up a black box and said "There's anti-matter inside" and it would be convincing until someone called "B.S" on it.

But that's the whole problem with "Angels & Demons"—
too much puffery of an ecumenical wafer-thin plot. A large amount of unnecessary padding is going on to keep it ticking along and planting subterfuges that point in different directions. ** For instance, it's little puzzle this time is ambigrams—messages that can be read backwards and forwards. But it's discarded nearly as quickly as its brought up, as it's merely a ruse. All the better to keep you from thinking too much. For example: there's the question of motive. I'm not giving away too much to say that the favorite Pope-candidates are being dispatched in gruesome ways in order to clear the deck for another Pope-wannabe. At which point you ask: why would you want and go to all that trouble to be Pope, anyway? Is it the Pope-mobile, the mitre you get to wear, the big be-jewelled cross you get to bear--it can't be getting to say Mass every week. It can't be about power, because the last I heard the Church was against divorce, pre-marital sex, birth control and the Iraq War. Power—not so much. More of an advisory position, really.

No, it's just another waste of fine European talent: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ewan McGregor, Stellan SkarsgÄrd all doing fine work for naught. And for Hanks and Howard, it's a stall to avoid committing to riskier projects.

"Angels & Demons" is a Rental, any way you look at it. Amen.

* Thinking is tough to convey in movies, let's face it. That "calm-before-the-storm" cliche of protagonists brooding over their decisions is 1) uncinematic and 2) dull, but one has to give Howard credit for finding a worse way to convey it—by super-imposing words and figures over the shot, making the thoughts both visible and undecipherable at the same time. He started it with "A Beautiful Mind," continued it with "DaVinci," but seems to have dropped it for this film (probably because everything the experts are talking about in A&D are right there on screen, as opposed to being in art books, as in "DaVinci"). Maybe I make too much a deal of it, but it always seemed to me to be a really cheesy alternative to a "thought balloon," which also looks cheesy in the movies. I wonder if he used it in "Cinderella Man?" — "Ouch! That really hurt!!"

** Brown does this all-too-often. In fact, in an act of terminal cuteness, he called one of his "DaVinci Code" characters "Arringarosa," which my French-speaking wife was only too delighted to point out translated to "Red Herring." Makes you wanna slap him.

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