Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Movie Review: Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons * ½
Directed By:
Ron Howard.
Written By: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman based on the novel by Dan Brown.
Starring: Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon), Ewan McGregor (Camerlengo Patrick McKenna), Ayelet Zurer (Vittoria Vetra), Stellan Skarsgård (Commander Richter), Pierfrancesco Favino (Inspector Olivetti), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Assassin), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Cardinal Strauss), Thure Lindhardt (Chartrand), David Pasquesi (Claudio Vincenzi), Cosimo Fusco (Father Simeon).

I don’t care how many millions of books he sells; Dan Brown just is not a very good writer. I hated The DaVinci Code novel so much that I stopped reading it about ¾ of the way through. It was just so poorly written, it made my brain hurt. The movie version was a little bit better – not because director Ron Howard or any of the cast elevated the material, but simply because material that dumb works better as a movie then it does as a book – because it is easier to turn your brain off. But it still wasn’t what anyone would call a “good” movie. I will admit that I kind of enjoyed Angels and Demons in its book form – no it’s not high art, but I did not find as insultingly inane as The DaVinci Code. But the film version is a lumbering bore of a movie. I thought that with this much talent assembled for one movie, based on a decent, trashy thriller, that the film may at least be better than The DaVinci Code. I was wrong – it’s worse.

Tom Hanks is back as Harvard Professor of Symbology Robert Langdon. Someone has stolen some anti-matter from a lab in Switzerland and planted it somewhere in Vatican City on the night that Conclave – where Cardinals from all over the world gather to elect the new Pope – is set to begin. Because it looks like the ancient secret society of the Illuminati are behind the attack, The Vatican calls in Robert Langdon, although his actions during The DaVinci Code did not endear him to the church. The same man who planted the bomb has also kidnapped four Cardinals – the Prefetti – or the four frontrunners to become the new Pope. He tells them that he will kill one an hour starting at 8 pm and at midnight the bomb will go off, destroying Vatican City. Langdon teams up with Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), one of the scientists who created the anti-matter to try and assemble ancient clues which will lead them to church where the Cardinals will be killed, and hopefully, to the bomb at the end of the line.

The problem with Brown’s books, and the movies based on them, is that they are entirely plot centric. He doesn’t seem very interested in creating believable characters, so everyone in the books and movies are one dimensional, and given only the most perfunctory dialogue to deliver. Hanks, one of the most charming actors in cinema history, is stuck delivering some truly inane dialogue. This is a movie where they feel the need to stop – even though they are on a tight timeline – and explain everything they are doing and why every few minutes. I suppose that’s better than Zurer whose job, much like Audrey Tautou’s in The DaVinci Code, is to stand next to Hanks looking pretty while he explains what they have to do. Ewan McGregor has the film’s best role, as the Camerlengo (Pope’s assistant), a Priest whose has the power of the Pope until a new Pope is elected, and who has ulterior motives underneath everything he does. But McGregor cannot make him the least bit interesting. Stellan Skarsgaard, another talented actor, is wasted as the head of the Swiss Guard, as is Armin Mueller Stahl as the Cardinal in charge of running the election for a new Pope. None of these talented actors are given much of anything to do during the course of the movie.

It should be said that director Ron Howard knows how to make a movie. He’s no Scorsese or Spielberg, but he is competent behind the camera, and he does his best to keep the plot moving rapidly enough that the audience doesn’t stop to think about how stupid the proceedings in the movie are. He certainly makes Vatican City look beautiful throughout the night, and he probably does about as good of a job with the material he has as is possible. It’s just not very good material. Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsmith condense Brown’s novel, and cut out some of the stupider stuff (thankfully, Langdon does not jump out of a helicopter without a parachute in the movie), but never solve the problem of the characters or the dialogue. The plot just keeps chugging along on autopilot throughout.

Perhaps had I not read the book, I would have enjoyed the movie more. With a movie that is entirely focused on the plot, and its twists and turns, when you already know what’s going to happen, it becomes much less interesting or entertaining to watch. But great movies (or hell, even good movies) should function whether or not you know what’s going to happen in them. Angels and Demons does not.

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