Sunday, November 21, 2010

Angels & Demons

Movie Review                                                                                                                                  24/5/09


Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Directed by: Ron Howard
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
 Harvard professor and symbology super-sleuth Robert Langdon is back in this second adaptation of a Dan Brown novel. Besides the main character (played again by the unimitatable Tom Hanks), the Oscar-winning team of director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer have returned for the sequel. In the wake of 2006’s critically-derided The Da Vinci Code, how does its screen sequel fare?

            This time around, Howard and big-name screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp have made more of an effort to trim off the unwieldy excess from Brown’s narrative, and went for the ticking-bomb-thriller approach as opposed to the conspiracy theory 101 class we were forced to sit through the first time around. The filmmakers have wisely optimized the thriller material with which they were presented, so there is more running between churches than talking heads.

            The film begins with the death of the beloved Pope, and the cardinals of the world have gathered in Vatican City for the papal conclave, i.e. the election of a new Pope. However, in the midst of this, it appears that the Illuminati secret society, an old enemy of the Catholic Church, has resurfaced, kidnapping four of the favourites for the papacy and threatening retribution for the Church’s “crimes” against them some 400 years ago.

            The “ticking bomb” in this context is a canister of antimatter, a volatile experimental substance harvested by particle physicists at CERN (The European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland. The canister has been stolen by the Illuminati, who are now using it to hold the church hostage.

            And that’s where Robert Langdon comes in. He is roped in by Inspector Ernesto Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) of the Gendarme Corps of Vatican City State (otherwise known as the Vatican Police) and decipher cryptic symbols left as clues by the Illuminati and assist the Swiss Guard and the afore-mentioned Vatican Police in rescuing the four cardinals and finding the antimatter before it consumes the Vatican. Meanwhile, Commandante Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) of the Swiss Guard is largely dismissive of Langdon and is deliberately hostile to him.

            The Harvard Professor is given the blessing of the idealistic young priest Camerlengo Patrick MacKenna (McGregor), a favourite of the late Pope and his former right-hand man. The earnest Camerlengo seems the most desperate to end the madness. The beautiful CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) is also drawn into the fray, but even the combined expertise of both academics seems almost powerless to stop the looming Illuminati threat.

            Now, if the above synopsis sounds far-fetched, be warned that it is just the tip of this cinematic iceberg. Author Dan Brown is known for meddling fact and fiction and even passing off the former as the latter, achieving at-times laughable results. Plenty of plot points are downright ludicrious and there are enough contrivances to fill St Peter’s Square. The key prefix in this film is “psuedo” – the film is built on psuedo-science, psuedo-history, pretty much psuedo-everything. Stock characters and a fish market of red herrings also populate the picture. Therefore, suspension of disbelief is key. Thankfully though, the movie is paced well-enough, so much so that one eventually buys into the hodgepodge and goes along for the ride.

            We are treated to a wonderful tour of The Vatican City that is part The Amazing Race (but with dead bodies and shootouts instead of roadblocks and detours), part dramatic angel’s-eye-views of the world’s smallest country. The fortress-church Castel Sant’ Angelo, the famous Sistine Chapel, Santa Maria Del Popolo with its imposing obelisk and the former Roman temple of “all gods” the Pantheon all figure in this whirlwind romp. While some of Angels & Demons was shot on location, the filmmakers were not granted access to several sites within the Vatican Walls, as such set reconstructions and some digital magic was employed. The results are actually fairly impressive, one might even be fooled into thinking the computer-generated replicas are the real thing.

            This leads on to the cinematography of the film by Director of Photography Salvatore Totino. Totino excels in sweeping vistas of cavernous cathedrals, and many scenes are gorgeously lit, presenting the locales at their most mysterious and beautiful. The cinematography is ultimately one of the main strong points of the film. There is an enjoyable little sequence in which the main characters enter an abandoned church and Totino milks the location for all its horror-movie-style potential, even including a smart visual gag involving a pair of contractor’s boots.

            A quick mention must be made of the lush yet kinetic score from famed film composer Hans Zimmer, whose past credits include Batman Begins, the Pirates of the Caribbean films and even The Lion King (which gave him one of his seven Oscar wins). The violin solo by virtuoso Joshua Bell is also something of a masterpiece and even adds some depth to the film.

            Ron Howard and company are eminent forces in Hollywood today and exert that power by casting relatively big names. While this film boasts slightly less star power than its predecessor (The Da Vinci Code had actors such as Jean Reno and Ian McKellen among its cast), everyone puts in fairly credible performances here. Tom Hanks lends much credibility to the Langdon role, and gets plenty more to do in this than in the last film, from dodging bullets to saving a drowning man and from taking a dip in speedos to feverishly thumbing through ancient documents. Some of the time though, Hanks clearly has his tongue in his cheek, and especially excels in the rare humourous moments that do ease the cinematic tension. As the female lead, Israeli actress Zurer does barely as good a job as Hanks, relegated to tagging along in the mad dashes from church to church. However, she isn’t a bad actress per se and I look forward to seeing her in more Hollywood projects.

            After appearing in smaller films and adventuring around the world for the last several years, it is good to see Ewan “Obi-Wan” McGregor turning in his Jedi robes from the Star Wars prequel trilogy for the Camerlengo’s cossack and back in a blockbuster, and truth be told he does a mighty fine job. However, it is not exactly believable that the youngish McGregor plays a fairly high-ranking priest, especially when other characters have to call him “Father”, and McGregor also visibly stumbles through an unwieldly soliloquy. The character, originally Italian in the book, is now Irish to accommodate the Scottish actor, and as such the Camerlengo’s backstory seems largely implausible. Ultimately though, the Camerlengo is one of the most complex characters in the film, and McGregor is largely able to parse the finer nuances in his portrayal. The incredible Stellan Skarsgard (whom we’ve seen in such films as Good Will Hunting, The Hunt For the Red October and the Pirates of the Caribbean films) seems under-utilized as the prickly Commandante, despite this the actor still fleshes out the slight bitterness his character bears towards Langdon with much relish.

            The film’s small departures from the book seem to be a two-edged sword; on one hand the story has been streamlined and does work better for the screen, but on the other, interesting characters and other elements seem to have been sacrificed. For example, instead of the generic, bespectacled assassin-for-hire played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the book’s politically-incorrect but more interesting version was a brutish, imposing Middle-Eastern rapist. Also, the book came before The Da Vinci Code, but the timeline has been altered such that this functions as a sequel, and the romantic subplot has been jettisoned in favour of a strictly professional relationship between Langdon and Vetra. However, producer Brian Grazer did state that the filmmaking team was too "reverential" when adapting The Da Vinci Code, which resulted in it being "a little long and stagey". Therefore, the wiggle room this time around does more help than harm in the long run.
            The movie is enjoyable in spite of (or perhaps because of) its sheer absurdity, offering up legitimate thrills and even a couple of outstanding action sequences. Far from being offensive or overly-controversial, Angels & Demons ends up being more cotton candy fluff than a “lofty quest”. But have angels guided Howard and Co. in their mission nonetheless? Perhaps, though this film does have its fair share of demons to contend with as well.


Jedd Jong


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