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Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Molina’

So, truth be told, I enjoyed Ron Howard’s 2009 movie Angels & Demons much more than I was expecting to, and on a greater number of levels – which is another way of saying this is an unironically fun movie as well as a crazed piece of unbelievable nonsense. Bearing this in mind, the sensible thing to do was obviously to check out the other film from the same team, The Da Vinci Code.

This was music to the ears of my landlady, who was very resistant to letting me view Angels & Demons anyway, complaining that ‘it’s the sequel, you should watch the other one first’. I riposted that the two books the films are based on take place in reverse order, so it wasn’t likely to make a lot of difference, and following an interesting and heated discussion resulting in only a small rent hike I settled down to watch the movie of The Da Vinci Code, from 2006.

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Tom Hanks again plays maverick symbologist Robert Langdon, who, in time-honoured movie style, proves his academic credentials by giving a thematically-relevant public lecture at the top of the film. One of the pitfalls of doing this kind of thing is that someone always turns up intent on sending you off on an adventure of some kind. In this case it is the French police (Hanks is visiting Paris, not that he seems much inclined to parley the old Fronsay), who are principally embodied by the marvellous Jean Reno (giving another masterclass in ambiguity).

The curator of the Louvre has turned up dead, his body arranged in the manner of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man and with a strange arcane sigil inscribed on his chest in his own blood. Hanks believes he has been summoned to lend his professional assistance, but passing police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tatou), who also happens to be the dead man’s grand-daughter (yup, we’re only just setting up the plot and already everything is creaking like hell), reveals he has actually been framed for the killing.

So, obviously Hanks and Tatou go on the run from the cops, trying to work out why the murder victim was trying to attract Hank’s attention and who actually did the dirty deed. The audience is several steps ahead at this point, as we already know who the killer is. I had hopes for The Da Vinci Code being just as uproariously daft as its sequel, and the early appearance of the ever-watchable Paul Bettany as a (deep breath) self-flagellating albino assassin monk named Silas promised great things in this department. Hanks has already figured out the death is connected to an heretical secret society known as the Prieure de Sion, and Bettany is attached to a militant chamber of the Catholic Church which is intent on wiping this group out and destroying their greatest secret: the Holy Grail itself…

Well, there’s a lot of running and driving and flying around to various places, not to mention the doing of lots of anagrams and other word puzzles. Alfred Molina pops up as a morally-compromised Cardinal, while the veteran Grail-hunter Hanks and Tatou turn to for help is played by Ian McKellen, who appears to be having a quite inordinate amount of fun. So the performances all round are actually pretty good.

And – and my antipathy towards the original book and scepticism towards its sources make this slightly tough to admit to – this seemed to me to be, in many ways, a much better and more classy film than Angels & Demons. (Not having antimatter bombs exploding in the Roman sky and free-falling pontiffs is always a help in the credibility department, I suppose.)

This is, of course, only my opinion, and it’s true that on one level this is every bit as implausible a movie, and equally as much an Indiana Jones pastiche with a very thin veneer of erudition brushed over the top of it. Indeed, the resemblance to the third Indiana Jones is very striking indeed, given both films concern a search for the Holy Grail, and both scripts talk about this mythic artefact using very similar language.

The two films’ takes as to what the Holy Grail actually is vary somewhat, of course, with The Da Vinci Code opting for a less traditional concept. This element of the film is famously derived from the blockbuster ‘conspiracy’-expose The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which proposed that… you know, I think that would probably constitute a spoiler. (By the way, you should not let your opinion of this theory be affected by the fact that one of its authors used to write scripts for Doctor Who.) One of the rather impressive things about this movie is the way in which it seizes upon this rather complex and convoluted theory and serves it up for mass consumption in an accessible and cinematic way.

On the other hand, you could equally argue that this is a rather strange Hollywood thriller, in that the spaces which would normally be filled by high-octane action sequences are here occupied by lengthy and lavish flashbacks – some of them to the personal lives of the characters, others to key moments in church history (whether real or apocryphal). Making these as interesting and engaging as they are is a bit of an achievement. Personally, I’m interested in philosophy, theology, and history, and so a big movie largely revolving around these things was always going to appeal to me on some level – if, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for car-chases, things going bang, and end-of-second-act whoh-ho-ho you may find this particular film more wearing.

But, as I say, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, and in a mostly non-ironic way. Bettany doesn’t really get a huge amount to do as the self-flagellating albino assassin monk, and in any case the whole action-thriller-innocents-on-the-run aspect of the plot gets resolved a surprisingly long time before the climax. At this point the film really does become more about ideas and philosophies, and ancient secrets being revealed – and on these terms it’s surprisingly effective. Given this is a film which is explicitly about symbols and symbolism, it seems to be working on an almost symbolic level itself, as the characters descend into ancient vaults, decode musty old manuscripts, and generally seek for truth in chaos and darkness. You could quite easily argue that the movie itself is heretical, or anti-Christian – especially anti-Catholic –  and I suppose this is to some extent quite true. Here, however, we find ourselves at one of those fault lines, or barriers, which is in a very real sense impermeable – either you treat the Bible as, er, Holy Scripture, or you don’t, and rational discussion isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about that. You will either be willing to consider the central thesis of The Da Vinci Code (and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail before it), even if just as a thought experiment, or you won’t. Personally I didn’t find this aspect of the movie risible or offensive – and the almost-subliminal fantasy elements it brought to the story just added to its appeal – but I’m well aware others may strongly disagree.

Here again, though, we’re in slightly odd territory in that this film, more than the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood output, treats the existence of God – or belief in this  – as an important fact in the world, and central to its story. And yet, arguably for this very same reason, the film has been criticised and boycotted by Christian groups worldwide. Sometimes the converted don’t want to be preached to, I suppose. It may well be that my own tendency to view the likes of The Da Vinci Code as not much more than barnstorming escapist entertainment, with perhaps a little intellectual meat to add flavour, is just another sign that I have an appointment in the Sixth Circle of Hell when I eventually shuffle off there. Fine, as long as they don’t show a non-stop series of Paul W.S. Anderson movies in that section of the afterlife. In the meantime, a movie like The Da Vinci Code eases the suspense until I find out very pleasantly: it’s slick and it’s fun and it’s just a bit silly, but it also has a surprising amount of soul and intelligence to it, too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 26th 2003:

The ‘all-star cast’ movie has become something of a rarity these days, what with the ballooning salaries our leading actors demand making it financially rather more of a challenge to put one together. Then again, the fragmentation of cinema itself has made the definition of stardom rather broader than once it was – performers like Donny Yen and Bruce Campbell are legendary figures within their own genres, but largely unknown in the mainstream. Even in the old days, though, the really impressive cast-lists were usually restricted to international co-productions normally based on classic novels. Which makes the relatively well-known cast attracted to James Mangold’s quirky new thriller Identity all the more impressive.

On a dark and stormy night, a disparate group of people find themselves stranded in a motel in the Nevada desert. Amongst them are a limo driver (John Cusack) and his diva-ish employer (Rebecca de Mornay), a call-girl who has ambitions to become a market-gardener (Amanda Peet), a cop (Ray Liotta) and the convict he’s transporting (Jake Busey), and some troubled newlyweds (Clea DuVall and William Lee Scott), none of whom are strictly what they appear to be. One of them has been badly injured in a road accident and needs medical attention, but all communication has been cut off with the outside world. And an already grotty situation gets positively foul when it becomes apparent that a murderer is on the loose, and more than willing to hack and slash his way through the cast list…

As seems increasingly common these days, Identity draws from a wide range of sources for its scenario. The script itself obliquely refers to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is the most obvious donor, but there are also references to Psycho and other slasher movies, the post-Tarantino school of plot structure, and even (although I admit this is probably just coincidence) the last series of Sapphire and Steel. But it welds these various influences together quite pleasingly, into an indie-ish style of its own. There’s a lot of frantic cutting back and forth in place and time between various plotlines at the start, which isn’t particularly involving, but with the reassuring appearance of John Cusack the film settles down and rapidly becomes very enjoyable.

Much of this is thanks to a series of impressive turns from the cast, nearly all of whom get their moment to shine. To be fair to them, Cusack and Liotta are largely trading on their stock personae (deadpan laconicism with a dash of sensitivity for Cusack, unstable bullishness for Liotta), but they spark well off each other. Peet is particularly good in a fairly off-beat role, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of de Mornay’s faintly OTT over-the-hill star (hmm, that’s possibly a spoiler…). But Mangold’s direction is assured and atmospheric, and the script – initially at least – builds cleverly and carefully.

However, Identity is flawed – in that it sometimes seems just a bit too keen to clue the audience in as to exactly what’s going on. Mostly this takes the form of a series of apparently unconnected scenes involving a psychologist (Doctor Octopus, or – as I believe he prefers to be known – Alfred Molina) at a legal hearing, but there are lots of other small, revelatory moments that make it clear that something rather peculiar is going on. And most of them come just a bit too early in the film. In the past I’ve complained about good movies ruined by useless twist endings (Frailty leaps to mind as a particular offender) – Identity is a movie with not one but two actually pretty decent plot twists, the second of which actually half-surprised me (and this from a man who guessed the ending of The Sixth Sense). It’s just a shame Mangold and scripter Michael Cooney couldn’t have arranged their story so the surprises weren’t so obviously foreshadowed. (And I have to say that while I found the main twist to be engagingly innovative and quirky, it may just seem annoyingly silly and implausible to those of a less forgiving bent.)

But anyway. This is a fun and well-made film, loaded with solid performances and with a plot that it’s actually moderately tricky to guess the truth about. And any film where somebody says ‘You know, that story’s so far-fetched it just might be true’ immediately gets some goodwill from me. Enjoyable, in a low-key don’t-worry-about-the-details way.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

[Following a review of Thunderbirds.]

Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed with the original when it came out just over two years ago – something not diminished in the slightest by this second instalment.

Two years on from the events of the first movie – which are helpfully recapped in another stylish title sequence – things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends. The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is now a suit at his dad’s old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?

Things don’t get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator – er – fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what the risks to the city. But he needs Harry’s co-operation to do this, and Harry’s price is the head of Spider-Man…

After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put Marvel Comics’ film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling, moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed cameo).

Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through, rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it’s a very human and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus duking it out on the sides of buildings – and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain impressively realised – this isn’t really at the heart of the story. Given this it’s a shame the climax boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus’ lair is, I’d love to hear from them.)

But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects. Normally in a superhero movie you’re glancing at your watch when the lead character’s in secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.

All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off: it’s not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It’s also not afraid to shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it’s fairly obvious who one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two others somewhere down the line.

It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly recommended.

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