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.

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