Thursday, May 21, 2009

Angels and Demons, Taken

The Bad and the Blase
Yesterday I promised to write about the good, the bad, and the blase (to stretch the term a little), and I seem to have only gotten around to the good. I am ready to make good on my promise, save the need to decide which of today's films is bad and which one is "blase."

Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009) (The Oxford) I am going to have to start with the blase, a term for which I think that Angels and Demons is a poster child.

Based on Dan Brown's blockbuster novel of the same name and following the phenomenal success of The DaVinci Code, Angels chronicles a night in the life of Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a symbologist who has been summoned to Rome by the camerlengo (essentially the deputy pope, played by Ewan McGregor) to save Vatican city, the College of Cardinals assembled in papal conclave to select a new pope, and thousands of pious onlookers from annihilation at the hands of the resurgent order of the Illuminati.

In Angels, the Illuminati, which also figured prominently in The DaVinci Code, have stolen a particle of dark matter - considered by some to be the "god particle" due to its presumed role in the genesis of the universe - from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Bent on destroying the Catholic Church for its history of persecuting scientists and free-thinkers, the Illuminati have kidnapped the four top candidates for the papacy, and are planning to murder one each hour ahead of midnight, when the particle of dark matter will be unleashed with a force akin to a nuclear detonation of significant magnitude - incinerating Vatican City and its environs.

A Whole Lot of Nothing
It is no small feat to summarize the plot of Angels and Demons, as is evidenced by the number of Wikipedia links in the preceding paragraphs. Indeed, like The DaVinci Code, the action in Angels plays out against a rich tapestry of secret societies, conspiracy theories, the long-standing "feud" between religion and science (here typified by Galileo's execution for heresy), and the Vatican pageantry that plays out largely behind closed doors.

Add to this fertile ground the talents of a director who has contributed to notable projects ranging from the recent Frost/Nixon and Changeling to Inventing the Abbots, Apollo 13, and Willow, and respectable and generally reliable actors like Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor, and one would think that Angels has the stuff that magic is made of.

So why is the movie so mind-numbingly boring? Indeed, perhaps the best word to describe my reaction - even while ensconced in the cinema, surrounded by the soundtrack and warmed by its glow - is blase. I just didn't care. Not that the film isn't beautiful to look at. Indeed, no expense was spared in crafting an onscreen world that drips with the atmosphere of modern Rome, its ancient churches and sculptures, and the mystique of Vatican City.

Weakest Links
The film's key failings, I believe, are twofold. Firstly, as is evidenced by the aforementioned profusion of Wikipedia links, there is a lot of extremely interesting history underpinning the narrative, but this translates into a lot of screen time spent providing context - Dr. Langdon and his sidekick for the film, Vittoria Vetter (Ayelet Zurer), essentially give the audience numerous mini lectures. This is acceptable in Brown's ever-so-slightly more engaging novel, but does not make for scintillating cinema. Angels strikes a better balance between education and action than did its unwieldy predecessor, The DaVinci Code, but nonetheless left this viewer drumming his fingers at times.

The other weakness of this film arises from the action that is supposed to balance the education. There is lots of rushing through the dark, crowded streets and squares of Rome, there are shadowy villains and murders most foul, and there are the lives of thousands and a cultural trove of near matchless value (the Vatican library) at stake, but the film still failed to convey a sense of jeopardy. There was no sense of impending doom, no aura of evil, no hero to root for (the church? the mild-mannered professor?) and no villain to pillory (the amorphous society of the Illuminati? the shadowy villain who's face is revealed a few times but is never named? the ultimate kingpin shockingly revealed at the end to yawns and indifference?).

Yawn. Stay home and watch reality TV - it is probably more interesting for it anthropological implications if nothing else.

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) (Home) Or stay home and watch Taken, which represents the bad film in this triptych of reviews, but is nonetheless infinitely more engaging than the blase.

Brian Mills (Liam Neeson) is a former special forces member who has retired from the life in order to be close to his 16 or 17 year old daughter Amanda, who lives in LA with his ex-wife and her super-rich new husband. Mills feels pretty pathetic and appears pretty irrelevant to his daughter's life as the film opens, but becomes intimately involved and highly relevant when Amanda's summer trip to Europe lands her in the clutches of an Albanian ring that runs a network of sex slaves.

Cue look of internal anguish that is Neeson's trademark, and a murderous rampage through Paris in hope of finding his daughter within the 96-hour window that these abductions apparently present before the victim becomes statistically irretrievable. I am tempted to watch this film again just to count how many knee-capped, garroted, and otherwise dispatched bodies litter Mills' path across Paris - I would lay odds that it approaches 40.

Now sex slavery and human trafficking in general exacts a horrid toll on its victims across the globe, but in this film it is treated largely as a plot device. We are not being educated about the problem or enlightened about attempts to stem the tide. No, Taken is unabashedly an upscale Steven Segal film about kicking ass and not bothering to take names - i.e., its a bad film.

But if your choice is between suffering the more cerebral but entirely un-engaging Angels and Demons or indulging in the throw-away action hero antics of Taken, I recommend that you opt for the latter.


Colleen said...

You're on fire with the reviewing this week, Yuri! Good stuff. I have no doubt that what you say about these films is infinitely more interesting than the films themselves.

Yuri... said...

Thanks Colleen. It seems it is almost always easier to comment about bad or average films than it is to discuss great ones!