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Posts Tagged ‘Ron Howard’

(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keeps coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

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Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

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One of the big casualties of the unstoppable Disney stellar conflict juggernaut appears to have been Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, a lavish epic aspiring to have all the traditional narrative virtues, yet a film which has clearly struggled to find an audience (and, more importantly, make its money back). One can speculate as to whether this is down solely to all the cinemas as far as the eye can see desperately putting on as many lucrative showings of The Force Wakes Up as they possibly can, thus depriving other films of opportunities to connect with an audience, or whether Howard’s latest is a genuinely weak movie.

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Everyone seems to have given up on it already, it would appear: less than two weeks after its UK debut, it has already vanished from the cinemas of central Oxford. One wonders whether the big studios will take note of this and simply not bother releasing any big films in the fortnight after Disney’s future stellar conflict brand extensions come out (I note that Columbia are still planning to release Passengers, another SF movie, late next December – it’ll be interesting to see whether they stick to their guns or just change the date).

With the film already having said farewell to the interior of most moviehouses, I suppose it seems a bit pointless to write about it now (greetings, visitors from the future), but I think the film deserves better than to be simply forgotten about out-of-hand. Plus, I can’t bring myself to pass up the opportunity to trot out some tired witticisms on the topic of angry sperm. So here we go.

In the Heart of the Sea is, as I said, a fairly old-fashioned movie, with the meat of the narrative occurring within a frame story set many years later: young writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) turns up at the house of old sea dog Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), last living survivor of the sunken whaling ship Essex. Eventually Melville persuades Nickerson to tell the tale of the ship’s final, doomed voyage.

The young Nickerson (played by Marvel’s new Spider-Man, Tom Holland) is but a lad on off on his first ocean trip, so most of the story revolves around two men. One of them is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), an experienced whaler from a humble background – tough, charismatic, a leader of men. (He also has a pregnant wife, which is of course movie code indicating he’s about to have many horrible experiences.) Much to his chagrin, Chase is passed over for the captaincy of the Essex, in favour of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man who owes his position solely to his family connections, with little real aptitude for command. Sparks inevitably fly.

Both men are thus determined to load up on whale oil and get back to Nantucket, where they are based, as quickly as possible – but the great beasts prove elusive, forcing the Essex deeper and deeper into the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the crippled ex-captain of a Spanish whaler lead them to offshore grounds where the whales have taken sanctuary from the hunters – but they ignore his warnings of a huge, ferocious white whale, given to attacking whaling ships, something they will live to regret…

So, as you can see, this is a big, stirring, briney tale, of men pitting themselves against nature at its most savage, very much in the tradition of macho nautical shenanigans like The Bounty and Master and Commander – but with Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe both being a shade long in the tooth for this sort of thing, the services of another Antipodean alpha-male have been retained, in the form of Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth is one of those actors who has an extremely impressive career box office take, but who’s yet to prove his ability to open a movie under his own name – does he have a career beyond just playing Thor, in other words? Well, he gives a very solid performance here – you can’t dispute Hemsworth’s presence or charisma, but I just wonder if he quite has the ability to suggest emotional depth to really make it as a star in his own right.

Then again, this movie is strong on the rollicking adventure front, but the characters are a little bit thin – you quickly get a handle on the fact that Pollard is a martinet, and Chase isn’t going to take any nonsense, and then not very much else happens. Cillian Murphy is also on board as the second mate, and while he is customarily good, he doesn’t get a huge amount to do.

Still, the movie remains solidly entertaining throughout the opening voyage and the set-piece whale attack which is, if you’ll permit me, at the heart of the film. The producers made the slightly odd decision to show this key sequence in isolation as an extended trailer for the film (I saw it before Bridge of Spies), which seems to have become a common tactic to advertise films about which a studio is getting nervous. Impressive though the scene is, I’m not sure seeing it out of context really does the film justice, and having already seen it, it inevitably loses some of its impact here.

However, once all the whaling and gnashing of teeth is over and done with, the film still has the best part of an hour left to run, and so it settles into a sort of stoical-metaphysical-existential mode which is slightly heavy going. The survivors of the Essex drift about in some open boats, occasionally stopping off at a desert island or engaging in a little light cannibalism to survive, and it’s all curiously unengaging. The slightly surprising decision to have the white whale occasionally show up to harass them really strains credulity as well: this happens very occasionally over a period of nearly three months (or so we are assured), and if nothing else the avenging sperm summons up the spectre of Jaws: The Revenge.

The film does its best to provide a strong climax, and Gleeson and Whishaw are strong in the frame story, but it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a film which starts strongly but then falls off a bit. It is a bit similar to other films in the all-at-sea genre, too, which can’t have helped it, and the fact it is so unreconstructedly blokey may have been a bit of an issue as well. (Charlotte Riley and Michelle Fairley have very subordinate roles as wives.) It’s not so old-fashioned that it doesn’t find time for a few moments of implied criticism of the whole enterprise of whaling, which almost feel all the more jarring for being the only concessions to a modern perspective.

This is by no means a bad film, but I doubt it was ever going to be a critical or popular smash, and releasing it when they did was almost certainly a gamble by Warner Brothers. Whatever else, it’s still a worthy, good-looking film with some impressive individual moments and sequences – it’s just not quite as epic or stirring or exciting as it really needs to be to completely succeed as a movie.

 

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In the past I’ve always been a bit wary of sports movies, partly because I’m largely indifferent to sport in general, but also because the nature of the movie industry means that any such film getting a decent UK release is either going to be something parochial and probably done on the cheap, or made with at least one eye on an American audience and therefore about baseball or American football or something else I don’t have the slightest familiarity with.

One of the very few sports I have occasionally followed is Formula One, which – rather to my surprise – is now the subject of a major movie, Rush, directed by Ron Howard. Quite how much the success of Senna a couple of years ago is responsible for Rush being produced I don’t know, but I’d be a little surprised if there wasn’t some connection.

RUSH UK Quad final

Anyway, Rush is the story of the epic rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, leading up to and during the 1976 Formula One world championship. Hunt is played by Chris Hemsworth (the 70s setting allows him to keep his Thor hairstyle), and depicted – quite accurately by all accounts – as a womanising hellraiser and general debauch, massively charismatic and ferocious behind the wheel of a car (his combative driving style leading to the nickname ‘Hunt the Shunt’). Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), on the other hand, is not blessed with great personal charm, but possesses phenomenal mechanical aptitude and the willingness to approach every aspect of racing with meticulous thoroughness.

On their first meeting in 1970, Hunt is victorious, and the film follows their careers and personal lives in parallel until 1976, when Lauda (driving for Ferrari) is defending his world title and Hunt (for Maclaren) is mounting a serious challenge. Central to the film is the race at the Nurburgring in August 1976, in which Lauda crashed and was horrifically burned – only to return to racing six weeks later and take on Hunt in the decisive final race of the season…

Despite all appearances to the contrary, F1 these days is relatively safe (to the extent that going round in circles at 200mph in something not especially structurally robust can be), and it’s startling to be reminded that in the 1970s, the annual casualty rate amongst drivers was running at somewhere between five and ten percent. The film doesn’t directly address the question of why on earth anyone would choose to participate in what was essentially a blood sport, but instead considers the characters of two men who did.

I’m not sure to what extent Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s family have been involved in the making of this film – Bruhl-as-Lauda provides a narration, but whether this consists of Lauda’s own words is unclear – but it is admirably honest in its presentation of the two men warts-and-all. Hunt is presented as a man who lives hard, a drinker and a rapacious womaniser: a driven man as well as a driver. Lauda’s own coldness and ruthlessness are also plainly depicted. And the film doesn’t attempt to evade the fact that this was a rivalry between two men who – to begin with at least – genuinely hated each other.

In the end, of course, what they realise is that their rivalry served to push them both to become someone better than they would otherwise have been, and an element of mutual respect and understanding enters their relationship. That Lauda’s rapid return to racing was largely motivated by his determination not to lose his title to Hunt is also made clear.

Lauda’s crash and its consequences are central to the final section of the film. There isn’t a correspondingly big story in Hunt’s racing career and so in order to balance the film, earlier on there’s a subplot about Hunt’s brief marriage to a model (played by Olivia Wilde). This serves okay to illuminate Hunt’s character, but I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this was just here to insert a well-known actress into the film and try to make the whole thing feel less relentlessly masculine.

This doesn’t really work. Rush is a film about men obsessed with doing manly things – but that doesn’t make it dumb and it doesn’t make it bad. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Rush is one of the more impressive films I’ve seen this year. The performances by the two leads are great (Hemsworth has never been better), the racing sequences are genuinely exciting, the look of the thing manages to subtly evoke the 70s without being too obvious, and the script is intelligent and accessible without overdoing the sports movie cliches. Quite how much all of this will translate into mainstream success, I’m not sure – obviously Rush should do well in the UK, and probably in other F1-friendly territories too – but I think it deserves to be seriously successful, both commercially and critically.

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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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I have, as diligent readers may have worked out, been at a bit of a loose end recently, and this has even extended to wandering the house rifling through the DVD collection of my landlady and her family. As I’ve mentioned, this occasionally results in me sitting down to watch things like Alien Tornado, but this time around I was able to stay on the mainstream Hollywood superfreeway and found myself in front of Ron Howard’s 2009 thriller Angels & Demons (it was a near thing, Jonah Hex and The Spirit were also on the shortlist).

Now, I must at this point disclaim that I have not properly read or in any way experienced anything else from the crayon pen of Dan Brown; I recall flicking idly through a copy of The Da Vinci Code (back when everyone seemed to be reading it) and then retreating hastily, as one would, but that’s it. He does seem terribly popular, and a friend of mine of no small intellect has confessed to being a big fan, but I have kept my distance. But you pick things up by a sort of cultural osmosis, don’t you, and just as I know that The Da Vinci Code is effectively a blockbuster thriller take on the Berenger Sauniere/Prieure de Sion conspiracy theory, so I know that Angels & Demons is a peculiar coming-together of Catholic theology and high-energy physics.

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Howard’s movie opens with the peoples of the world gripped with anticipation and breathless excitement: a great vacancy in global affairs has opened up, and everyone is wondering who the replacement will be (as, at the time of writing, the new Doctor Who has yet to be announced, I find it very easy to empathise). We get a lot of colourful, wide-angle shots of Rome and the Vatican, and cardinals in their frocks shuffling about (these are sort of motifs of the movie). A voice-over sonorously starts laying some serious latin jargon on us and filling in the minutiae of church procedure surrounding the election of a new Pope.

(Basically, we are straightaway in the realm of what I can only describe as Catholic porn: films which take an almost obsessive interest in the esoteric arcana of Catholic theology and praxis, in the apparent belief that they are inherently interesting. I remain to be convinced.)

Anyway, after a bit of this we are off to CERN for some cod science at the Large Hadron Collider. Stern looking people in white coats talk to each other about magnetic resonance and luminosity. For all I know this is actually good science, but the manner in which it is presented leaves one with the unshakeable impression that it is bad science, no matter what the truth is. To be honest, given that a comely physicist named Vittoria Vetra (is this in in-jokey reference to Victoria Vetri, star of When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth? Hmmm) is using the Collider to produce gobs of antimatter, I suspect this is not good science after all.

Dr Vetra (played, by the way, by Ayelet Zurer – no, me neither) is concerned when some of her antimatter is nicked and weaponised, apparently by an obscure sect of militant rationalists called the Illuminati. The Illuminati, not content with hiding an antimatter bomb somewhere in the Vatican, have also kidnapped the four hot favourites to become the new pontiff and are planning to ritualistically bump them off on an hourly basis in the run-up to the big firework. Furrowed brows all round at the Vatican – crikey! Who you gonna call?

The answer, of course, is a maverick symbologist (yes, another one of those): Professor Robert Langdon, played stoically by Tom Hanks. His job of figuring out where the Illuminati have stashed the bomb and the cardinals is made harder by the fact that everyone at the Vatican hates his guts. (Well, Dr Vetra, who’s also been called in, looks like she might be open to persuasion on this point, but quite properly they keep their minds on the job.) His only real ally in the Vatican seems to be the Pope’s understudy, the Camerlengo.

I know, I too would have said that a Camerlengo was either a Latin dance or a make of Fiat, but apparently not. Live and learn, as Kurt Vonnegut would have said. The Camerlengo is of mixed Irish-Italian upbringing, which basically just means that Ewan McGregor, who plays him, gets the chance to do two accents badly rather than just one. Anyway, can Langdon and Vetra discover the location of, etc etc, before, etc etc?

Well, look, let’s be clear about this. Angels & Demons is about an attempt to manipulate the result of a papal election by, essentially, detonating a photon torpedo under the Vatican. This is a movie which you really have to treat with a certain degree of latitude: gritty realism it is not. It is, essentially, a slightly highbrow Indiana Jones movie which has availed itself of a guide to art history, and, as such, it is rather good fun.

I was initially tempted to say that this movie belts along at such a breathless pace, and with such polished slickness, that you never actually notice how relentlessly silly it is. But this is not actually true. You are always fully aware that this is a relentlessly silly film, but such is its belting breathless pace and polished slickness that this doesn’t actually bother you. I don’t wish to spoil the climax of this film by detailing some of the more outrageous plot developments, but let’s just say they are pretty special, and never remotely plausible.

One can understand why the Vatican itself was not especially keen to be associated with this film and its succession of grisly slayings on holy ground, but – the odd eviscerated cardinal or immolated priest aside – the Catholic Church does come out of this film looking remarkably good, on the whole. The ex-pope at the start of the film is described as ‘beloved and progressive’ and there is not whiff one of anything to do with the allegations of institutionalised horror which generally beset the institution’s public image.

This is not the most demanding role for Tom Hanks, but he is a steady and relatively credible presence in the middle of the craziness, and he does make Langdon – who could easily have become a complete cypher – rather endearing, genuinely excited at the prospect of his first visit to the Vatican archives. He’s not a tedious old movie action hero, either: he’s very bad at death-defying escapes, and whenever an action sequence breaks out around him, his first impulse seems to be to run away and hide. A man after my own heart.

Most of the other acting is, if we’re honest, irrepressibly cheesy, but this is probably down to the script more than anything. (I am starting to suspect that Ewan McGregor could well be our generation’s answer to Michael Caine, in that it’s his sheer work-rate that keeps him a star rather than the fact he’s incapable of giving a poor performance.) One of the charming things about Angels & Demons is that the makers of the film appear to be under the impression that this is a film dealing with serious issues to do with science and its relationship with religion. It does explore the relationship between science and religion, but only in the same way and with the same degree of subtlety that a small child explores the nature of matter and the laws of motion by banging bricks together. This aside, the movie is basically a very long and utterly implausible episode of Treasure Hunt and best enjoyed as such – it is, at least, hugely enjoyable on those terms.

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