WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
After Robert Langdon cracked the Church’s most controversial code in the last film what could possibly make the Vatican come begging for his services again? Using Dan Brown’s lesser-known bestseller Angels & Demons as the basis director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks return with this crackerjack story revolving around the reemergence of the Illuminati an ancient secret and wickedly powerful brotherhood. Determined to make the Church pay for its sins against science they’ve planted a deadly ticking time bomb somewhere in the heart of the Vatican – just as a new Pope is set to be elected. Langdon joins up with beautiful Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra in a race against time through crypts catacombs cathedrals and hidden vaults as they follow the “Path of Illumination” to save Catholicism’s venerable headquarters from certain destruction.
WHO’S IN IT?
With a thankfully restrained hairstyle Hanks returns as celebrated Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. He might as well have worn running shoes because the action is ramped up to the max in Angels & Demons turning this colorful drama into something that could have been called The Pope Ultimatum. It’s THAT intense. This is Hanks’ most vivid turn as an action star and he delivers proving movies don’t get much more exciting than this. As his pretty cohort Vetra Ayelet Zurer is every bit his equal a much more effective female lead than the miscast Audrey Tautou was in the critically reviled 2006 blockbuster Da Vinci Code. Ewan McGregor offers a complex turn as the Camerlengo the Pope’s number two and acting head of the Vatican during this period while Stellan Skarsgard brings authority to his role as head of the Swiss Guard. And veteran Armin Mueller-Stahl is simply terrific as a wise and dignified Cardinal at the center of the papal conflict.
If the slow-moving and overlong Da Vinci Code was more cerebral and Hitchcockian in tone Angels & Demons is just the opposite: an exhilarating heart-stopping thriller that doesn’t let up for a minute. Howard’s entire production is a first-rate example of Hollywood craftsmanship delivering a summertime diversion that cooks on all burners. The backdrop of the mysteries and machinations behind the fiercely-guarded veil of the Catholic Church adds a layer of intrigue to the proceedings keeping us hooked throughout with cool twists and turns.
Brown’s novel is basically pulp fiction filled with expository dialogue which has been transferred in a clunky fashion to David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman’s otherwise tight screenplay. Hanks and Zurer come close to Hardy Boys-style delivery as they attempt to awkwardly lay out “clues” and mounds of technical mumbo-jumbo in a believable fashion – not an easy task for the best of actors. You’ll also have to suspend belief as the story is largely implausible. But hey this is a summer movie – the cinematic equivalent of a good beach read – and the filmmakers know exactly how to play it.
A sequence where one of the hostages is being burned at the stake in a cathedral will keep you on edge as director Howard’s experience with setting movie fires (Backdraft anyone?) really comes in handy. The big denouement is one for the ages as well but we won’t reveal anything more about it except to say that a helicopter is involved.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
The “cardinal” rule with blockbuster mysteries like this is to see it in a theater before someone tells you how it ends.
Inspired by the 1944 Sant Anna di Stazzema massacre perpetrated on an Italian town by the Nazis Miracle at St. Anna focuses on four members of the 92nd Infantry Division African Americans also known as Buffalo Soldiers who served in Italy during the final year of WWII. These four find themselves in compromising positions when they befriend a frightened young Italian boy in a remote village that is about to come under attack by the German SS. The fact that this village has likely never seen a black man before becomes the centerpiece of the story that seeks to highlight the color barriers that can separate us--and bring us together--especially under extraordinary pressure. As the town gets to know these individuals they find that they all must band together to fight the common terror associated with a horrible war. Spike Lee has assembled a first-rate cast of young African-American actors led by Derek Luke (Catch a Fire Antwone Fisher) as Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps the conflicted leader of the division whose confusion about his place in America drives his actions. Luke has emerged as one very promising actor and further cements his growing reputation with a complex portrayal of a black man in the midst of war. Michael Ealy as Sgt. Bishop Cummings captures all the bravado of a shoot-from-the-hip character out for himself using street smarts to survive a battle he doesn’t think he belongs in. As the reluctant radio operator Hector Negron Laz Alonso plays a Puerto Rican living in Harlem who finds himself sent to war with an all-black unit. Towering above all the rest though is Omar Benson Miller a dead ringer for Forest Whitaker who plays the “gentle giant” Sam Train the one who takes the boy under his wing. His relationship with the young man Angelo played beautifully by Matteo Sciabordi is what gives the film its heart and soul. Several name actors including John Turturro Joseph Gordon-Levitt Kerry Washington D.B. Sweeney and Robert John Burke have relatively brief screen time and there’s a very strange cameo early on from John Leguizamo that seems like it belongs in another film altogether. A host of fine Italian actors including Pierfrancesco Favino and Valentina Cervi add to the flavor and authenticity Lee is going for. Coming off his biggest box office hit ever Inside Man and his Emmy-winning documentary on the aftermath of Katrina When the Levees Broke Lee continues his streak with this very accomplished and humane WWII epic focusing on African Americans we don’t often see depicted in American war movies. Lee makes this point forcefully in the film’s present-day prologue where we meet one of the soldiers now an older man cynically commenting on the all-white cast of the 1962’s The Longest Day as he watches the movie on TV. There is no question Lee is a skilled and extremely talented filmmaker. The many battle sequences in the film are violent and expertly choreographed. Lee’s work with the large cast is also top-notch letting James McBride’s forceful script breathe with plenty of room for the human element missing in many films of this type. Although the picture running at 160 minutes could have benefited from some judicious editing (particularly in the opening and closing sequences) overall it’s a worthy effort from Spike further proof of his new maturity as a filmmaker at the peak of his talents.