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.
The story itself seems to span a wide range of places and times but it’s basically an odyssey of one man and his eternal struggle to save the woman he loves. The primary focus is on modern-day scientist Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) who is desperate to find a cure for the cancer killing his beloved wife Isabel (Rachel Weisz). She however is ready to accept her fate even researching and writing a fictional treatise on the Tree of Life an ancient Mayan myth as it relates to a 16th-century Spanish conquistador Tomas who goes on a quest to find it in order to save Spain’s Queen Isabella. Then we jump ahead and see Tommy as a 26th-century astronaut traveling through deep space in a giant bubble the Tree of Life enclosed with him (which would explain why he has lived this long). Tommy is still grappling with the mysteries that have consumed him for a millennium but finally The Fountain converges into one truth as the Thomas of all periods--warrior scientist and explorer--comes to terms with life love death and rebirth. Light fluffy stuff right? The Fountain’s plot line is almost too disjointed but the performances especially from Jackman sell it. The Wolverine we’ve come to know and love hasn’t had much of a chance to show his acting skills in feature films. On the Broadway stage perhaps but certainly Van Helsing and Kate & Leopold do not in any way do Jackman justice. This year however he’s had two rather excellent turns in The Prestige and now in The Fountain and suddenly there’s a newfound respect for the actor. As Tommy Jackman’s desperation never goes into maudlin overdrive as these roles often do and he handles grief in a very powerful—and realistic—way. Well as realistic as The Fountain lets you get anyway. The Oscar-winning Weisz is also quite stunning as the varying Isabels and makes her presence known even when she’s not on screen. But still playing a dying woman in a hospital bed has some limitations. There are some nice supporting turns as well especially from Ellen Burstyn now an Aronofsky regular (she starred in his Requiem for a Dream) as a fellow scientist trying to get Tommy to face the inevitable. The other person who sells The Fountain is writer/director Darren Aronofsky a guy who definitely listens to the beat of a different drummer—and doesn’t really give a damn if you get his movies or not. Take his film Pi for example...definitely WAY out there. And then there’s Requiem for a Dream a film which left you feeling pretty darn glad you weren’t a drug addict. Still it’s obvious putting aside all his weird tastes the man knows how to craft a film. The Fountain is by far Aronofsky’s most ambitious film to date in which he skillfully incorporates not only 16th-century Spanish costumes but special effects as well. It is also in essence a love letter to his real-life companion and mother of his child Rachel Weisz as he frames the movie around her in the most visually striking yet so serene ways. Her illuminated face alone will take your breath away but the images in the future are particularly mesmerizing as Tommy is floating through a cluster of dying yellow stars in a bubble with a gnarled tree towards some kind of rebirth reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While some may not appreciate this beautiful albeit slow-moving romantic film The Fountain will probably get a huge Buddhist following.