Thursday, January 31, 2013

corpus christi

It was still dark when the eighth grade boy walked up the three stone steps to the back door of the church, leading into the sacristy. The door was unlocked. Inside, his classmates Rick and Tom, the president and veep of the altar boys, were already in the black cassocks they wore for serving Mass. The two were rummaging in the cabinets that lined the narrow room behind the church’s main altar. The boy dumped his book bag in the corner by the door.

“Hi guys, what’re you doing?” he asked.
Ignoring the latecomer, Tom brought forth a cylindrical metal canister as big as a Cain’s potato chips can. “Here it is,” he said with the air of serious effort he gave all his undertakings.

“Dave, c’mon,” Rick said in a high-pitched voice, finally acknowledging the third boy, who served as secretary of the altar boys. Rick’s dark hair was slicked down, a cotton ball wedged into one ear against a chronic earache. “We found the hosts,” he squeaked.

Dave had taken off his jacket and was searching the cassocks hanging from a long rack against the outer wall for one big enough to cover his long legs.

“You ever eat the hosts?” Tom asked Dave as he pried the lid off the container.

“Are you crazy. Where’s Monsignor O'Connell?” Dave had perhaps a deeper respect for the grandfatherly priest. After all, had not the monsignor once taught him a law of the universe?

On that particular Saturday about a year earlier, Monsignor O'Connell had asked Dave to go with him into the school on some errand. The door was locked and the monsignor took a small key ring out of his pocket. There were two keys on the ring. As the priest slipped the first key into the lock he turned to the young boy and whispered it was a law of the universe that if you had two keys and one lock, and you didn’t know which key fit, the first key you put into the lock will always – always – be the wrong one. As if there could be any doubt about something Monsignor O'Connell said, sure enough on that afternoon the first key would not turn the lock on the school door and the priest had to use the second key to open it.

Dave also knew he had something in common with the elderly cleric. Both had slightly crooked lower front incisors, perhaps not pronounced enough back in the 1960s to warrant the expense of corrective braces, but crooked nonetheless and in precisely the same way. The monsignor’s lower teeth were noticeable to an altar boy kneeling close to the altar when the church leader prayed the Mass. The boy did not know what significance to attach to that shared orthodontic peculiarity but felt it conferred on him a kinship with the revered priest.

“Don’t worry,” Rick was chirping, “When I went to the rectory to get the key, Father Morgan told me Monsignor O'Connell wasn’t feeling too good and would be about 15 minutes late.”

“Mass is going to be late?” Dave said aloud, trying to imagine the consequences of such an unimaginable disaster.

Tom was already crunching away at the hosts, in his typical self-absorbed manner. He passed a handful to Rick. Dave approached them slowly. It was nearly half past six, the time Mass was scheduled to begin. Dave had walked half a mile to the church and hadn’t eaten anything that morning but any natural hunger the 13-year-old boy might have felt was suppressed by a sense of sacrilege. Meanwhile his peers were munching loudly.

Dave came close and looked into the canister. Thousands of the thin white wafers – like a pile of giant fish scales – glistened, eerily translucent. The smell reminded him of that part of the Mass when the hosts were distributed.
“Try some,” Tom urged.

Without warning, the door to the sacristy – the priests entrance – opened and shut, and scuffling footsteps headed toward them. Tom quickly shoved the can back into the cupboard, banging the doors closed while Rick walked swiftly past Dave toward the far end of the long room where the cassocks were hanging. Both Tom and Rick had mouthfuls of hosts they were desperately chewing and in a panic to swallow. But those dry wafers, which the boys had been taught became the actual body of Christ, tended to stick to the roof of your mouth. During the Mass you could kneel and pray for a good minute waiting for a single host to dissolve in your mouth – you were taught not to chew. It was clear an entire kisser full of those hosts was not going down without a struggle.

“Gosh, we’re late today.” It was Gary who had come in through the priests doorway. He was the fourth and final server to arrive for Mass. “Where is Monsignor O'Connell?”

“We all thought you were him,” Dave said. Tom concurred with his eyes as he turned to face his classmates, his bulging jaws still working on the hosts. Rick reappeared with his silly smile and with his black-framed glasses off center. He raised his hands chest high, palms out, to punctuate the scare Gary had given them. Tom went back to the cupboard, finally able to speak. “Look, we were eating the hosts.”

Gary trudged past them toward the cassocks. “I’ve done that,” he muttered. Gary was treasurer of the altar boys. He hung up his pea coat and grabbed a cassock. “It’s OK. They’re not blessed yet.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

that 'object' is outa here!

Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio, is the home of the Mud Hens.

Objects leaving the playing field...Hmmm, that would make a good "Family Feud" category: What did people say when asked to name 'objects' that might leave the playing field, specifically over the centerfield fence at a hint hint 'baseball' park?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cinema 2006: Satan made me wear Jimmy Chu

“The Devil Wears Prada” from 2006 entertains well enough, but leaves you thinking the book must be better. That book of course is Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef about the fashion magazine industry.

David Frankel’s movie version is strangely devoid of chemistry. Andrea (Anne Hathaway) or Andy, as she is called, lands a job working for the legendary fashion publisher Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy survives a rocky start with help from a compassionate associate at work, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who eventually transforms her from go-fer to geisha.

Despite the workplace abuse, Andy develops loyalty to her dragon lady boss, whose personal life is in crisis – although it is not clear what distresses Priestly more: her problems or reading about her problems on Page 6.

By film’s end, Priestly has brought Andy to Paris on business to teach her the dog eat dog nature of the fashion industry, a tough lesson for a sweet Midwestern kid. Despite being at Priestly’s beck and call at all hours, Andy finds time to have a fling – not even with an exotic Frenchman – just a New York writer with lousy pick-up lines (Simon Baker). That wine-fueled tryst works in the narrative because it shows us another stage in Andy’s evolution. She began as the “fat girl” from Ohio, hired by Priestly on a whim and a dare, and later morphed into a stylish size four with guidance from Nigel and by dint of her own ambition. Now flush with her own success in Priestly’s view, the only opinion that matters, Andy indulges in a traditional workplace perk of the powerful – in the politically incorrect, but hardly defunct, recent masculine paradigm: sexual conquest.

Ultimately our protagonist embraces the core values of loyalty and friendship. In the process she rejects the backstabbing career path she is on, nimbly landing on her feet by landing a new job in “real” journalism.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

O say can you see?

Beyond Beyoncé-Gate

Some Americans are unhappy with our national anthem. Those folks suggest we retire The Star-Spangled Banner in favor of a tune that is easier on the vocal cords.

The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key hangs in the Smithsonian Institution.

Anybody with cleaned-out headgear can recognize it takes more than an octave to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. But while performing it may be no easy job, there have always been talents who have nailed the song, notably, the late Whitney Houston, Idol alum Kelly Pickler, and most recently Beyoncé Knowles, whether in studio or on the Capitol steps. And why should the relative difficulty of the song be reason enough to yank it from its honored status anyway, especially when its lyric, based on the poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, has proved so transcendent.

Indeed, Scott Key’s lyric continues to deserve the praise and affection of true patriots, in particular, for its final couplet. For two centuries that couplet in fact has promoted the kind of self-reflection necessary to keep the grand experiment on track across the generations.

Regardless of whether a star sings or lip-synchs the song, it is that most poignant of questions at the end of our national anthem that squarely places on all Americans the responsibility for the preservation of this beloved republic and the essential freedoms it represents. It remains up to all of us who have ever sung along or listened to those words with fervor to make sure we can still answer that question with a resounding "Yes."

Yes, that flag still waves.

Now how can you mess with that?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cinema 2005: Hotter than a pepper sprout

Joachin Phoenix achieves a tour de force with his powerful portrayal of a young Johnny Cash in the 2005 biopic "Walk the Line."

While Phoenix's singing has been widely and deservedly praised, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter also holds up her half of the duets, and her buoyant performance helps save the film from wallowing in the lead role's personal troubles.

Also credit James Mangold's adept direction of his and Gill Dennis’s screenplay for ultimately advancing the narrative by the savvy use of songs that reinforce the tale. You will cry and smile during this emotionally charged and highly enjoyable film version of an authorized biography.

Mangold shows us the boy called J.R., suffering a drought of paternal affection in the shade-deprived cotton fields, but who learns from his mother how to tap into a spiritual strength by singing. We are brought into the boy’s dark night, where we sense his self-doubt which, fed by guilt, will later sap the spirit of the young singer and lead to the addiction that threatens to destroy him as he strives for success.

When Phoenix finally appears on stage as the veritable embodiment of the successful Man in Black, and leans into the microphone to give us that "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" in perfect Deep South baritone, there is no doubt – so flawless have been the cinematic exposition and the acting by Phoenix.

With superb attention to detail, the film captures a lost era in the life of our nation, just as it repeatedly shows Johnny Cash attempting to regain an idealized childhood. The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael II frames forlorn scenery with the reverence a true believer has for all God’s creation.

To illustrate the toll Cash's career takes on his first marriage, Mangold shows the couple arguing in a room filled with fan mail. At one of his concerts, Cash's family sits conspicuously in the audience, segregated from his onstage inner circle. Who could better share Cash's love than June Carter, his tour mate, the disembodied voice he idealized as a boy and the one woman who remains his true friend.

Cash spirals into the depths of drug addiction, and inevitably is arrested, but the scene of the singer alone in a jail cell is brief and does not serve as the image of a moment of truth. Indeed, Cash avoids confronting his demons. Released from custody he heads home instead to hang his head in self-pity at poolside.

Consistently the film shows how Cash is intimately affected by personal struggles and triumphs, whereas the man’s great commercial success and many number one songs are mostly referred to obliquely in montage. Finally, June Carter saves the literally drowning singer. She dries him off, then dries him out.

The happy ending works in this film, since Cash's reconciliation with his father has been prepared. After a lifetime of miscommunication, misdirected anger and guilt between father and son, it is the brutal honesty of the senior Cash that forces the crisis which brings about the singer's redemption. Johnny Cash goes from being a talent mired in addiction to the man who recaptures his artistic potential, symbolized by the live concert at Folsom Prison. Whereas the song “Folsom Prison Blues” was an early product of Cash’s chafing against authority, the actual live performance showcases a mature artist who celebrates in song the human condition and in so doing redeems himself.

The final credits roll to the voices of the real Johnny Cash and June Carter singing one of their signature duets. It makes you realize those two American icons were inimitable. But at the same time you are overwhelmed at how consummately that duo has been brought back to life by the acting and singing of Phoenix and Witherspoon.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fish ...

You wouldn't look any happier.

... It's what's for dinner.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Cinema 2006: A joyride for bullet junkies

It is common for filmmakers to add a subplot involving children in their “shoot ‘em up” projects. What is unusual is to incorporate the young ones so gratuitously into the violence. Unfortunately, that is the gist of “Running Scared” from 2006. And its happy ending does an absolute disservice to society.

There are a few nice cinematographic touches in this violent thriller, written and directed by Wayne Kramer, but the bulk of it is little more than a bullet junky’s joyride.

The film opens on the proverbial drug deal. The quality control guy assesses the dope laconically, “We’re happy.” That is the last time anyone in this film is happy until its insulting conclusion.

The deal goes bad and the shotguns and semi-autos take over. Everyone runs for cover, including the guy in charge of lighting. There are so many dark scenes here it looks like the movie was shot with the wrong film. Perhaps no one, not even Kramer, wants to shine any real light on the squalor and violence depicted here.

Forget the premise about a gun that can link a common New Jersey-variety mobster to the killing of a cop. Logic doesn’t loom large in “Running Scared.” This tale is a train off the tracks with more twists than a 60s sock-hop, and enough hot and cold-blooded violence to make the average citizen squirm and the hardcore videogamer sit still.

The film even reprises that decades-old sine qua non of the genre, the strip club scene, where the gangsters and/or cops meet to talk business, framed by the undulating bodies of the naked women who profit from the lust of these venal, violent men.

As the action piles up, you wonder why anyone would even root for the central character, Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker).

The final showdown at a local sports venue gives new meaning to the ice hockey term “goon,” but fails to distinguish itself in a long line of cinematic shoot outs. And when you see our hero at breakfast afterward, having cleaned himself up after taking three slap-shot pucks to the face, you wonder why our NHLers bother with bridgework.

Then there is Anzor (Karel Roden), a loser who has been sold a bill of goods on the American Dream. He is wearisome to watch as he tries to explain his adoration of John Wayne to his wife’s son Oleg (Cameron Bright). But the boy doesn’t care about cowboys or his father. And since Anzor came to New Jersey to be a mobster, I never found myself caring about him or his sob story anyway.

The movie doesn't gives us a reason to cheer until things begin to fall into place near the end. And no amount of Mom (Vera Farmiga) spooning with her son is going to atone for her own stint as a self-appointed executioner. It is as if such a film would make us believe murderous violence is the truest expression of love.

The films ends on an insult to any upstanding citizen, including the blue-collar contingent to which Kramer seems to be playing. Hollywood might consider it clever to brush off the parade of atrocities visited upon the kids in this movie with one scene in which Dad rough-houses with them while Mom looks on approvingly. But take a quick partial inventory of the parade of atrocities visited upon the kids in one day: kidnapping, pedophilia, attempted murder, murder.

In addition, Oleg is abused by a pimp named Lester, played with refreshing idiosyncrasy by David Warshofsky, who puts a switchblade to the boy’s face and threatens to disfigure him. Unfortunately for actor Warshofsky, his work amid this depraved human comedy can only come off as cartoonish.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cinema 2011: Chimp change

"Rise of The Planet of the Apes" from 2011 bases its narrative on the germination of higher intelligence among the apes, although Darwin has been taken out of the equation, presumably because evolution theory is slower than baseball.

It is man who develops a brain-repair medicine and tests it on chimps. One of those chimps is pregnant but none of the white-frocked science guys or burly chimp wranglers notices, of course. That overly cute baby chimp ends up as the lone survivor of a primate pogrom ordered by the laboratory director after a violent incident is interpreted as a side-effect of the wonder drug.

Named Caesar, the baby chimp is raised as a pet and soon as a son by the protagonist scientist (James Franco), who realizes the experimental medication has been passed in utero from pregnant mother, now deceased, to this baby.

Director Rupert Wyatt's buildup to the promise of the title is uneven, at times boring. Caesar runs around the good doctor’s house naked until the scientist starts dating a zoo vet (Freida Pinto). Eventually an adolescent Caesar (Andy Serkis) goes ape on a hapless neighbor. While both combatants appear to have anger management issues, no doubt rooted in the frustration of their suburban routines, the neighbor’s opposable thumb and other digits are no match for the dentition of the adolescent ape, who consequently is remanded to a shelter to await his day in court. The shelter is chock full of primates, including an orangutan who learned to sign in a circus, a backstory that inexplicably is never developed. Come on Wyatt, give us some scenes of the big orange orang chumming around with carnies in the shadow of the big top.

One laugh-out-loud scene occurs when the scientist visits Caesar in lockup and vows, “I’ll get you out of here.” Well, in the theater I was actually the only one who laughed but you really have to guffaw at this schlock, I mean, we haven’t abdicated our intelligence to another species quite yet, have we?

The jailbreak does come, but on Caesar’s terms. By now the chess-playing chimp is leader of a group of about 40 primates; Caesar springs them all and the apes go bouncing into Frisco to free their brethren who are being experimented on at the lab where Caesar was born. Now their ranks have swollen to some 100 or more chimps, orangs and gorillas, who can smash through plate glass and fall two stories onto concrete without a scratch or bruised tendon.

They wreak lethal havoc as they head for the Golden Gate Bridge and the redwoods beyond — in the film those trees are just beyond, say in place of Sausolito. No matter, it is still a “Eureka” moment for Caesar, who by now is standing upright and can manage limited speech.

In the woods, the good scientist catches up with the chimps and pleads for Caesar to come home. The mighty primate pulls the researcher close and, standing head to head with the man who raised him, whispers, “Caesar is home.” Check out the big brain on Caesar.

The public enemy chimp and leader of the smart apes turns his back on the scientist and walks upright to a giant tree and climbs it. Apparently, you can take the chimp out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the chimp, even if his IQ rivals man and he can speak, sign, and wipe his chimp ass.

The movie ends with the apes sitting in the top branches of the redwoods looking out on Frisco Bay, the city, and the country beyond. But this cinematically sweet image does not stand scrutiny. How will this planet of the apes ever rise if those hairy legions stay in the trees? If they are ever going to conquer Earth, Caesar’s cerebrating simians need to descend redux from the trees, and maybe get to work on making some weapons grade plutonium.

Cinema 2008: Sci-fi remake lacks punch, purity of original

On the day I saw Keanu Reeves in the remake of a 1951 science fiction classic, it was the audience that sat still. But I couldn’t tell if it was because they were depressed by the star’s atonal Chinese or stunned by cheesy CGI.

Scott Derrickson's 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” does have some things to recommend it. No. 1 is the screen presence of Jennifer Connelly, who carries every scene she is in. Connelly — as Helen Benson, a professor of astro-biology or something — will make you want to go back to college and sign up for a full load of science credits.

When the impersonal feds swoop down on Benson's warm hearth, the placid countenance and restraint of the lead government agent are at odds with the force he represents. But the resultant cinematic tension is squandered when the tweedy types are whisked away in big choppers in a scene that conveys no power, no G-force, but looks cribbed from some failed video game.

Still, we are treated to iconic New York City bathed in light from the strange alien spacecraft, which lands in Central Park. Our scientists wear hazmat suits that look like Dior as they approach the spacecraft. Derrickson gives us human beings who look like aliens, an apt image for the disconnect between mankind and his exploited planet.

In the original, spaceman Klaatu lands in D.C. In 2008, he sets it down in Central Park after overflying St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Empire State Building, but not Ground Zero. That last would have been an appropriate image had Keanu's Klaatu been on the same mission as his 1951 antecedent, namely, warning atomic-age mankind to end war or face annihilation from outer space. Perhaps Hollywood felt war was good in 2008, at least maybe the Global War on Terror. At any rate Klaatu's mission focuses on the imperiled environment, even though the starman could have easily found WMD. As it stands in the remake, Klaatu has come to save the earth — and is prepared to destroy mankind (and Giants stadium) if that's what it takes to do so.

Many special effects are unconvincing — from the fake snow on the fake beard of the Reeves' character in the clumsy pre-story, through to the swarm of space flies unleashed to devour homo polluter and his sports arenas.

And is Derrickson supporting the troops when he shows them busting our awe-inspired eggheads' Central Park intergalactic love-in? Why not humanize the guys on the front line? Instead, a trained trigger finger lights up Klaatu, and Benson is there to assume, blood spattered, the pietà pose. It is a stunning visual.

Kathy Bates' role as secretary of defense is well written, that is until the entire film derails in its denouement. Bates' character is a savvy politico, and limns the conflicts inherent when pure science and pragmatic government collide.

She decides, clever girl, that the extraterrestrial noncombatant can be held for having violated U.S. air space. Security is everywhere, except in the lie-detector room where a lone lackey administers a polygraph test to the man from outer space with no one at all watching (= weak page in script). Klaatu easily turns the tables on the agent and with a Terminator-like trope, obtains Men In Black threads in the bargain.

On the loose in Manhattan, Klaatu is at first content to observe the "fumble of humanity." But it's no fun to be single in the city, so Klaatu reunites with Benson. In what passes for irony in Hollywood, Klaatu meets a fellow alien, a sleeper cell of sorts, at a McDonald's in Jersey to decide the fate of the human race.

All in all, Keanu's Klaatu is a drag. He has one good line: Get in the car. Unfortunately, without an Austrian accent it never quite caught on.

When Klaatu finally meets with a Nobel laureate (John Cleese in too brief an appearance) there is a moment of pathos when the two species commune via the language of math. The professor senses all is lost and basically advises Benson to bat her eyelashes at the alien. And why not? Work it baby, the future of the whole race hangs in the balance.

Klaatu is finally convinced to call off Armageddon when he observes a mother's love for her son. The sentimental spaceman even puts himself at risk to halt the destruction unleashed by his "automaton," as it is called. Come on, we all know it is a robot.

The original film is much purer and its moral is delivered with a thought-provoking punch. In the remake, after Klaatu calls off annihilation, takes his robot and goes home, you just don’t feel rededicated to improving the world by anything you watched during the previous 103 minutes.

Gort, now he was a great robot, shown here on an updated poster for the 1951 original, directed by Robert Wise.

Monday, January 7, 2013

American Sisyphus

Life can be an uphill struggle. Keep rolling your boulder; it's all you can do.

Perhaps there are times when we can agree with Albert Camus, who wrote: La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d'homme. (The struggle itself toward the summit is enough to fill a man's heart.)

Just not every day.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cinema 2009: Leaving Pelham 1 2 3

The sounds of subway trains can be heard briefly during the opening credits in the 2009 remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," before rap music obliterates that poignant aural touch.

Similarly, the expressionism evident in the cinematography of the early scenes — lights reflected in a man's spectacles, defining him by the career he chose; confining scenes shot through the cloudy glass of a subway car's windows — cedes too quickly to run-of-the-mill images. It is as if director Tony Scott lost interest in the psychological study of greed, violence, and fear, and decided instead to coast on production values and the acting of Denzel Washington, as MTA employee Garber, and John Travolta, as the subway hijacking sociopath Ryder, performances that struggle to gain traction amid the nonsense and routine of an unremarkable so-called Hollywood thriller.

The script does include great detail, but it is the kind of stuff you would expect in a weekly TV show, including plenty of comic-relief one-liners. Writer Brian Helgeland includes a video-chat plotline, which is a good idea when updating a screenplay from 1974. Too bad he forgot to include a coherent middle and ending to his script.

The cops are portrayed as big kids with plenty of fancy toys but not much training. Indeed, what we find here is a hostage situation where vermin in a subway tunnel are calling the shots.

The working class stiffs get short shrift in this remake. They are the victims of ambush or personal failure. While Garber disingenuously refers to himself as "just a guy," we soon learn that he is dispatching only because he is under investigation for having accepted a bribe. In reality, Garber's a big shot — one that broke the rules and the law.

Ryder himself is a rotten apple from Wall Street. It is as good a place as any to find your criminal du jour. But in the 1973 novel, and the original film based on it, the bad guy is a former mercenary.

In Scott's remake there are many quick-cut close-ups. The same repetitive camera movement repeatedly introduces us to Garber at the microphone of his dispatch desk, and that repetition detracts from any dynamic effect.

Lame, too, is the use of Google Earth-type special effects to show the progress of police bringing the ransom money through the city. Call me old school but I want to watch a movie not a website.

A bloody shootout in the middle of midtown is gratuitous. I suggest it would have been more gratifying for the audience to see those perps prostrate on Park Avenue with New York's finest pinning them to the pavement as they slap on the cuffs. That image at least would have alluded to the triumph of the rule of law, something Americans used to claim pride in.

John Turturro is wasted here as the hostage negotiator who doesn't get to negotiate, although the script allows him human touches.

The climax of course pits Ryder against Garber, alone in New York City in the middle of rush hour, while the entire NYPD is looking for the bad guy. Scott draws out that final face-to-face as if something climactic is about to happen. It does not. A couple dialog lines overstuffed with pseudo-philosophy and bang. Heck, we don't even get a splashdown in the East River. That would have at least provided viewers with some well-deserved scenic beauty after more than an hour of cinematic claustrophobia.

As good as Washington is at portraying "just a guy," that portrayal suffers when the script, which has already unmasked Garber as a muckety-muck, later turns him into an action figure who runs down a murderous psychopath with no backup. Afterward, Garber is debriefed by the cops, stroked by the mayor, and turned loose to ride home alone on the subway — with not so much as a counselor, police escort, or hungry reporter in tow. Of course, that particular subway car is also devoid of commuters. It conveys "just a guy" (who occasionally travels to Japan on business), alone with his thoughts after one hell of day at the office.

Joe Sargent directed the original, released in 1974, back when they still spelled out words like "One Two Three."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cinema 2009: Angels & Demons — lacks wings

"Angels & Demons" from 2009 is the second film based on books by Dan Brown. Directed by Ron Howard, this movie marks an improvement over the 2006 release "The DaVinci Code,” but still leaves a lot to be desired.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Professor Langdon, the world's foremost authority on the arcane aspects of the history of the Roman Catholic Church and its secular empire, the Vatican. Langdon's conceit is that he considers himself a modern day Sherlock Holmes, without the white powder favored by the latter but with the same gimlet eye and tendency toward hubris.

These are both demonstrated when we first meet Langdon here. The discerning professor mistakes a Vatican emissary from the United Nations in New York City, a cop by trade, for a papal errand boy sent all the way from Rome. Perhaps it was the circles under Officer Vincenzi's eyes that threw Langdon off. As it turns out, those are due more to career fatigue than to any recent jet lag.

When we are introduced to Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer), the attractive physicist who becomes Langdon's science sidekick, we see her classic features hardened by flashes of ego and ambition.

Soon these buddies begin a sick tour of Rome's churches in an effort to save hostages and foil a plot to blow up the Vatican. Most of the action is set in the Eternal City and features some of its most popular tourist attractions, from St. Peter's Cathedral and a shadowy glimpse of that most famous chapel ceiling, to the pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Castel Sant'Angelo. But the cinematography by Salvatore Totino remains largely uninspiring, except for brief candids and architectural details.

When Langdon lectures his Vatican hosts on the serial emasculating of many church sculptures by an earlier pope, he is suspected of being anti-Catholic, whereas he is merely parading his erudition. Still, that reaction by the loyal churchmen reinforces the academic's own disdain for the blind faith of true believers.

The plot is set in the modern day interregnum between the death of a pope and the election of a successor. The plan to destroy the church would use a new scientific discovery — anti-matter — to blow Rome to smithereens.

Spoiler alert for the scientifically-challenged: this is not (yet) real science. But if those white labcoats ever do isolate enough anti-matter to blow up a world capital, I have a suggestion: Don't make a handy thermos for the darn stuff, like these movie physicists here have done. No sooner created in neighboring Switzerland, the anti-matter is taken on the road by the bad guy.

The special effects used to illustrate the creation of anti-matter and its inevitable destruction smack of leftovers from the infinity sequence of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Whereas Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece rocked moviegoers in 1968, more than 40 years later those kinds of effects come off as tediously psychedelic.

Still, kudos go to Tom Hanks, who carries the movie as the avuncular academic, careening through Rome, commandeering carabinieri, and cracking clues with enough alacrity to consternate a trivia king. En route, a stylish Vittoria lets her humanity show, perhaps motivated by the knowledge that it is her scientific work, hijacked for evil purposes, which has put so many innocents at risk. Along the way, Langdon, bespattered with blood and shot at, witnesses horrific violence and unbelievable deceit. Yet he never finds God in any of the foxhole situations he is thrust into by his quest.

To the end Langdon is wary of Cardinals bearing gifts. Or maybe he is simply following the advice given him by an assassin: "Be careful, these are men of God."

"Angels & Demons" gets good supporting acting from Ewan McGregor, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Stellan Skarsgård. Still the movie lacks punch despite plot twists in the final reel. For all the pretentious Church vs. Science rhetoric, there is little here that makes a lasting impression. And a final scene of violence is both gratuitous and redundant, and perhaps worse, not even visually interesting.