Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Cosimo Fusco, Victor Alfieri, Franklin Amobi, Curt Lowens, Bob Yerkes, Marc Fiorini
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, David Koepp, based on the novel by Dan Brown
Directed by: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material
Running Time: 138
Date: 05/04/2009

Angels & Demons (2009)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Stallin' 'Angels'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The hype is already spreading, proclaiming that the sequel Angels & Demons is much better than its unbearably stupid predecessor The Da Vinci Code (2006), but like Public Enemy once warned, don't believe it.

Tom Hanks returns as symbologist Robert Langdon, who is once again called in to help solve a case. Apparently the "Illuminati" -- a powerful secret society hidden within the Catholic Church -- has returned and threatened to blow up the Vatican, as well as half of Rome. Their weapon is a stolen particle of anti-matter, which brings pretty physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) into the picture. Despite her knowledge and education, she apparently bought a cheap battery to stabilize the particle, one that only lasts until midnight. So the clock is ticking. To make matters more confusing, the pope has just died and a new pope has yet to be elected, so Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) is more or less in charge. The head of the Swiss Guard -- in charge of pope security -- is Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), and he seems generally perturbed by just about everything that's going on (I can't blame him).

OK, so the bad guy has kidnapped four cardinals and has left them at four secret locations; Robert has one hour to find each location, and each one has something to do with one of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. In the spirit of the last film, the characters repeat the four elements at least three times, so that even the dimmest audience member gets it. After that, Robert must find the anti-matter gizmo so that Vittoria can change her cheap battery.

Moreover, the Vatican has a live video feed of the anti-matter bomb, but it's a remote camera and they don't know where it is. So someone has the bright idea of turning off all the lights in the grid, one section at a time, hoping that the lights will go off in the video feed as well. Even though it should only take a few seconds to determine that the lights are off, the film instead uses this as a suspense stunt, waiting several long minutes while some idiot apparently sits there determining the difference between light and dark. Once again, the characters have to mention the light grid plan, out loud -- every time it happens -- just in case we forgot all about it. Sigh.

I knew it without even seeing the credits; it was the familiar stench of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the previous film, as well as the awful Batman & Robin (1997). He also inexplicably won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (2001), which is, frankly, just as awful as any of them. (The talented screenwriter David Koepp is also credited here, but I don't see much evidence of his work.) Goldsman's method is to show a scene, and then have some character describe what is happening in the scene. And then someone repeats everything again later. He seems to think we have an attention span of about six seconds.

Also, he has apparently never once heard or experienced a human conversation in real life, because not one written word sounds like it could have been spoken by live people. He seems to think there's all kinds of interesting, grown-up stuff going on, but he constantly lets little things slip through. For example, we learn that Robert has been trying for a decade to gain access to the Vatican archives for research purposes. They finally let him in -- you know, so that he can keep Rome from blowing up -- but they also let in newcomer Vittoria! Why? Apparently so Robert doesn't have to talk to himself while he's down there.

As for director Ron Howard, even though he made a genuinely good movie just a few months back, Frost/Nixon, he apparently learned nothing from the experience and has gone right back to his usual slick, empty, soulless direction; he uses the exact same approach to his light entertainments as his serious efforts. It's so flat and dull that you can identify the killer without much effort. (And, frankly, there's not much else to do.) First, you ignore the creepy, accented guy who actually does all the dirty work; he's obviously been hired. Then find the only two guys in the cast who don't look bored. One of them is very kind and reverent and the other is angry and annoyed. The movie wants you to think one of them is the bad guy. Guess which one it really is.

At least the movie's good for about 30 minutes of unintentional laughter, which doesn't say much for the other 90+ minutes. However, there's one thing I liked about it, and it's that Howard is not a camera shaker. His camerawork is mostly fluid and clear, and -- unfortunately -- with new Tony Scott, Stephen Sommers and Michael Bay films on the horizon -- I'd wager that Angels & Demons will be the only summer 2009 blockbuster with that clean quality.

Nevertheless, it's difficult today to come to terms with the fact that Howard and Goldsman are an Oscar-winning team. I did my best to warn voters against A Beautiful Mind back in 2001, especially in favor of much better films like Ghost World, Mulholland Drive and Waking Life. But once that hype gets going, it's hard to stop it.

DVD Details: How do you make a bad movie even worse? Make it longer! The new "extended" version runs 146 minutes! I couldn't bring myself to watch it again to find out what the difference was, but some reports indicate that some gory sequences that were cut to get a PG-13 rating have been re-installed. Otherwise, we get the usual collection of little featurettes, consisting largely of clips and talking heads. Disc Two includes just a few more of the same types of featurettes, and a bunch of trailers for better movies than this one.

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