Friday, May 15, 2009

"Angels and Demons" - REVIEW

Before I start, I must admit that I've fallen behind (roughly three weeks behind) on my movie watching. I still need to see "Star Trek" and "Wolverine", and I wanted to see them before "Angels", which opened today, but oh well...that's life. Hopefully I'll be able to see one or both of the above mentioned blockbusters and give you my views on those. For now, you'll just have to settle for the latest from Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, and Dan Brown.

I'm a bit fearful for "Angels and Demons". Despite being based on the arguably superior Dan-Brown-religious-thriller, "Angels" seems poised for smaller success than the money-machine that "The Da Vinci Code" (novel and film) were in 2003 and 2006 respectively. And that's a damn shame. Where "Da Vinci" was a plodding, controversy-steeped, inflamatory thriller burdened with turgid faux-historical monologues, "Angels" is lighter, saddled with fewer demons (they fixed Tom Hanks' hair!!!), and more enjoyable, despite being lighter on the controversy.In fact, it's easy to say that "Angels", despite nay-saying from that jerk Phil Donahue of The Catholic League (though not the Vatican itself, because they finally got some sense), paints quite a positive portrait of Catholicism, and of faith in general, particularly in some final speeches near the end. Opening in the Hadron Collider (nicely incorporated), we see a team of scientists including Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) and Fr. Silvano in the process of creating anti-matter (yup, the same stuff that powers Starship Enterprise), in hopes of discovering the origins of life. Minutes later, Vetra finds Fr. Silvano, a close friend, dead in the laboratory. One of the containers of anti-matter is also gone. DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN. At the same time, a beloved and progressive pope has just passed away, and the Conclave of the College of Cardinals is meeting to elect the next earthly leader for nearly 1 billion Catholic Christians. However, this is not the reason that the Vatican seeks out Prof. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). They want him because they've just received a threat to destroy all of Vatican City, from the Illuminati, a secret society dedicated entirely to science, and supposedly crushed by the Church when it did not agree with their teachings. So even though the Vatican is aware of Langdon's previous exploits (the events of "Angels" are set after "Da Vinci", even though the novel was a prequel), they feel that they need his help...because y'know...he's good with symbols and secret brotherhoods (and apparently there are no symbologists in all). Next thing you know, Langdon is interacting with a bunch of worried people, from the Camerlango (ie: pope's assisstant, played by Ewan McGregor), to the head of a Vatican security force (not the Swiss Guard), and Ms. Vetra herself. When they learn that four Cardinals favored for election have been kidnapped, with the threat to murder one each hour starting at 8:00 PM, the group sets out across Rome to try and follow the Path of Illumination, in order to find the Illuminati's secret meeting place, and get the anti-matter back into safe hands before it detonates. Toward the beginning, it's easy to assume that "Angels" is headed the same way as its predecessor. Either people just seem to "know" valuable pieces of information on the spot, or they act in bizarrely unhurried ways, or they resort to those longwinded faux-historical explanations. It's not a promising start, but around the time that Langdon and crew finally begin their search across Rome's countless churches, things continually build up steam. The controvery/"facts" give way to what made "Angels" so much better than "Da Vinci": a plot based on a race against time, that isn't about discovering a hidden secret as it is about simply averting a total disaster. Hanks, vastly improved here, finally learns to open his mouth instead of mumbling his way through the sometimes silly plot turns, Vetra is solid save for one limp accusation of "MURDERER", and Stellan Skarsgard plays his limited role as head of the Swiss Guard quiet enough to keep you guessing. But the two who really deserve credit are McGregor and Armin Muehller-Stahl as the Cardinal in charge of overseeing the papal election. Stahl's calm defiance of the pleas to evacuate the Cardinal, and his speech about religion and science near the end are nicely delivered, while McGregor as the Camerlango, despite a sometimes wavering accent, does a nice job with his character's conflict between obeying his church superiors and his sense of duty to keep everyone safe amidst unparalleled danger. Special mention should also go to Hans Zimmer, whose fantastic, lush orchestrations and dramatic choral sections help drive the story along even when it lags. Editing is also much tighter (although it still runs at close to 2.5 hours), actually giving one the sense that time is running out, as opposed to "Da Vinci"'s apparent years between monologues. Camera-work isn't anything mind-blowing, save for some nifty, swooping shots inside the Hadron Collider. The only other significant flaw aside from the story's silly parts, are the special effects. While the make-up is first-rate, the big special effects interior shots of St. Peter's Basillica and the Pantheon are often bordering on laughably awkward (crew wasn't allowed to shoot in quite a few places). So, despite these flaws, and there are flaws, "Angels and Demons" is definately the movie that "Da Vinci" should have been, and it certainly deserves its predecessor's success, which it unfortunately may not garner.  And all because it was higher in quality, but lacking in controversy. Irony at its finest.

Grade: B-

Number os 2009 films seen: 12

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