Angels & Demons

Ron Howard’s film of Dan Brown’s best-seller The Da Vinci Code is one of the most profitable films of the decade so far, propelled by hype and expectation to genuine blockbuster status, although you would struggle to find anyone - even fans of the book – who actually enjoyed it. Angels & Demons is a better film than The Da Vinci Code, but then they all are.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, esteemed Professor of Symbology, for another far-fetched lesson in medieval conspiracies, this time set in the Vatican. As the film opens, the Pope has died and the College of Cardinals, led by the sinister Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stall) and Deputy Pope McKenna (Ewan McGregor), is gathered in conclave to elect a new church leader. Then, four eminent cardinals are kidnapped with the announcement that one will be killed each hour leading up to a bombing that will destroy St Peter’s Square.

The kidnappers identify themselves as the Illuminati, a mythical sect of apostates that, three hundred years before, tried to reconcile religion and science. Summoned to Rome, Landon is asked by the hierarchy to decipher a series of arcane clues scattered around the city’s churches. He is assisted by Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), an Italian scientist who discovered the combustible anti-matter, stolen to provide fuel for the Illuminati bomb.

The plot, which is far less elaborate than Howard would have you believe, is essentially the same collection of cod-history and pictorial rebuses as before, the difference being the biblical inventions of the first film are replaced by the dread spectre of contemporary terrorism. Hanks races through the inane dialogue with the same bemused expression as before, like a man working out a particularly fiendish sudoku, in pen, while being chased by rabid tigers. Opposite him, as the sexy scientist, Zurer has little to do beyond provide nodding confirmation for some of the story’s more elaborate fictions.

The relationship between the pair never develops into anything more than hero and sidekick, despite him being a mere symbologist (who can’t even read Latin) and her being a particle physicist with a white coat and a laboratory at Cern and all.

Perhaps recognising how flat and static the first film turned out, Howard and his returning cinematographer Salvatore Totino keep the camera in constant motion this time around, adding energy to Langdon’s incautious adventuring and keeping the viewer from realising that what they are watching is patent nonsense. The approach cannot, however, cover the fact that the film exists in an absurd and distracting time-frame which gives the characters mere minutes to discover the clues, figure out what to do next then negotiate their way through the damnable Roman traffic to the next location. The only joy in the join-the-dots narrative is seeing how Langdon distinguishes which of the ancient statues are pointing at vital clues and which are merely pointing.

Timing aside, screenwriters David Koep and Akiva Goldsman follow the ruts in the road laid down by Brown’s source book but arrive at a point where they must reveal the identity of their solitary hit-man far too soon; leaving the identity of the villain pulling the strings as the only mystery. Angels & Demons shares many of the same problems as its predecessor, being talkative, clumsy and po-faced but the biggest repeat offence is Howard’s plodding direction. The film, which leaves the door open for a third iteration, might make a lot of money but I cannot think of anyone who would want to watch it.

Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman, the writer of head-melting movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, makes his directorial debut with the curious and complex Synecdoche, New York, a film about creative life and death.

First, a word about the daunting title, a typically Kaufmanesque word-play that connects the New York town of Schenectady, where the film is set, with the similarly-sounding synecdoche, meaning a play on words in which a part may be used for the whole or the whole for a part, like saying “wheels” in place of “car”. In the film, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays theatre director Caden Cotard, who tires of adapting other people’s plays and sets about staging his own in a vast warehouse, a replica of his own life played out by a vast cast of actors, but one that can never end.

When we first meet Caden, his life is starting to unravel. Plagued by mysterious illnesses, he is suffocating in his own feelings of mortality and alienated from his artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener). Then, after a minor success in a regional theatre, Caden unexpectedly receives a grant from a wealthy arts body which allows him to stage a vast play of his own devising. As the fake world inside the theatre starts to consume his life on the outside, Caden stumbles through a series of personal crises. Adele leaves him, taking their daughter, and becomes a celebrated painter in Berlin. Alone at home, Caden has an unfulfilling flirtation with Hazel (Samantha Morton), who works at the theatre box office, before marrying Claire (Michelle Williams), an actress in his cast.

All of this happens in a fractured narrative that is as difficult to perceive as it is to explain. Time leaps forward sometimes in the course of a single scene or conversation, sometimes by months, sometimes by years. Characters age, marry and have children in moments, as do the actors in the play who are portraying them. Caden seems to exist in multiple worlds, as multiple people, awake and asleep. Kaufman and Hoffman construct the character from a combination of waking and dream states, realities and unrealties, blending the lot into an intricate dance across decades of time.

Later, when he hires an actor to play himself (Tom Noone), Caden discovers aspects of his true personality that he might prefer to keep hidden but are easily perceived by anyone who would care to look; his hypochondria, his vanity, his impotence. The endless play, about himself and the people around him, is Caden’s way of dealing with the difference between the man he thinks he is and the man he actually is. It’s an agonizing process of self-discovery, not helped by his depression and his constant struggle to be emotionally honest in his art. Caden is dying of women, as the poet puts it.

Synecdoche New York is, for better or worse, pure, undiluted Kaufman. Crammed with ideas about life and death, art and creativity, relationships and heartache, this is Kaufman’s 8 ½; a film about how hard it is to do much of anything at all, much less muster up the energy to make a film. If Fellini’s masterwork is a touchstone, Kaufman also pays homage to his literary heroes, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Philip K. Dick, generating the same sense of temporal instability, social paranoia and bodily discomfort.

But the strange spell doesn’t hold. As Caden cannot finish the play, Kaufman cannot finish the film. Synecdoche implodes in the third act as the director loses his grip on the story. Just at the point where he might have distilled his ideas about life and art into a grand unified theory, the film collapses into a mess of self-indulgent surrealism and non sequiturs. The complications and contemplations that had held such fascination are given a couple of twists too many and lose their elasticity becoming, if not tedious, then disappointingly slack. It ends on nothingness, a blank wall of white, like a canvas before the paint or a freshly opened notebook.

Star Trek

JJ Abrams’ comprehensive re-boot of the long-moribund Star Trek science-fiction franchise is nothing short of a cinematic miracle. With an all new cast, a punchy script and a determination to have fun, Abrams blazes his own trail through the dusty mythology of the 40 year old space opera franchise, boldly going where dozens have gone before. This is Star Trek, but not as we know it.

The film gets off to a thunderous start with a long prologue in which the USS Starship Kelvin is attacked by a gigantic, multi-pronged Romulan warship that emerges, suddenly, from a black hole. When the captain is lured to the enemy ship and assassinated by its commander Nero (Eric Bana), first officer George Kirk stays on board to ensure the escaping crew, including his pregnant wife, reach safety. While he dies, selflessly, she gives birth to their son James Tiberius, played as a twentysomething by Chris Pine.

Kirk grows up in a town beside a Federation training base, a rebellious young man who finds focus when he meets an older Starfleet officer (Bruce Greenwood), who knew his father. Meanwhile, on the planet Vulcan, Spock (Zachary Quinto) has endured his own difficult upbringing, his identity divided by his dual heritage, Vulcan and Human. Certain he will never be accepted as a true Vulcan, he joins Starfleet, leaving behind a privileged life as a government scientist to seek adventure. We are then introduced to the rest of the key cast in a series of quick-fire encounters; the beautiful language expert Uhura (Zoe Saldana), grumpy medical expert Bones (Karl Urban), Russian pilot Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and later, Caledonian engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg). The adventure proper begins when all the cadets are gathered on the bridge of the Enterprise, called out to answer a distress call from the planet Vulcan which bears eerie similarities to the attack that killed Kirk’s father twenty-five years previously.

Abrams’ warp speed storytelling balances the melodrama with invigorating shots of honest humour and eye-catching special effects. A standout sequence, inspired perhaps by Iain M Banks’ novel ‘Matter’, has Kirk, Lt Sulu (John Cho) and an ominously anonymous red-uniformed ensign, sky-dive down through the atmosphere to disable an enormous Romulan drill that is boring an apocalyptic hole through the planet Vulcan. Abrams peppers the shoot-outs and fist-fights with literal cliff-hangers, as characters repeatedly find themselves dangling over the edge of a steep precipice.

Abrams and his long-term writing collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman retell the story from the beginning; wiping clean the old cast’s incarnations of the characters and removing the stale crust of apathy that has built up over the decades. Unlike, say, Christopher Nolan’s re-imagining of Batman, Star Trek doesn’t contain any overt political allegories or moral conundrums; this is the straightforward story or how a group of people came together added to an age-old battle between good and evil. It redefines the characters without betraying them, or the fans who sustain them. Abrams remains true to the legacy of the franchise, taking the time to plant repeated references to key moments from the television series and subsequent films.

The flawless production design creates, from the opening frames, a familiar but far better looking environment. Visually, Abrams overuses his signature shaky-camera technique, further distorting the images with flares of fragmented light bouncing off every shiny surface that delight initially but become distracting. Later, the straightforward story runs slightly flat; having spent too much time establishing all of the good guys and not enough on making Bana’s time-travelling Nero as evil as he could have been.

Abrams’ brave new Star Trek is the first great blockbuster of the summer. It is sure to satisfy existing Trekkers while providing solid entertainment to the uninitiated, and with the promise of more to come.

The Uninvited

There’s a significant twist in The Uninvited, a mangled remake of South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon’s exemplary chiller A Tale of Two Sisters. The fundamentals of the last-act surprise (which I cannot, obviously, reveal) remain intact but there is a vast gulf in how the two films arrive at the same point.

In short, The Uninvited offers certain proof, if it were required, that Hollywood should leave Asian horror to the Asians. The teenage demographic this workmanlike effort is aimed at might never have heard of Kim’s original and likely couldn’t care less one way or the other but they should know they are being short changed.

After almost a year in a mental hospital, Anna (Emily Browning) returns to her unfeasibly beautiful waterfront home with scarred wrists and a faraway look in her eyes. Soon, her only sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) has filled her in on the new domestic set-up. Their novelist father (David Strathairn) has overcome the trauma of their late mother’s death in a mysterious fire by shacking up with the young blonde nurse (Elizabeth Banks) who was employed to look after her. So far, so Brothers Grimm, but Anna is plagued by visions of her dead mother and visitations from three spectral children. And that’s before her boyfriend starts pressing her for sex.

Browning has the open face and wide-eyed stare required to communicate her character’s innocence and shows some skills in communicating Anna’s mental fragility without resorting to hysterics. Beside her, Kebbel hasn’t the talent to keep up. Her cause is not helped by the script, credited to three screenwriters, which fails to develop the relationship between the two sisters. The original title might have been a clue.

Although stranded by his scant handful of scenes, Strathairn is a dud as the conflicted father, giving a performance that is casual to the point of invisibility. It falls to Banks as the sneaky step-mother to steal the show, for what it’s worth. Her deliberately ambiguous mix of public concern and private spite keeps the ground moving under what might otherwise have remained a character lifted from a fairytale.

The original film had a twist that came as a genuine surprise. Here, for the last twenty minutes, it’s all there is to think about, even if you don’t know its coming. This genre-mandated predictability suffocates the modicum of dread created by directing brothers Charles and Thomas Guard’s expensive-looking but unoriginal visual effects. Originator Kim, who went on to make the blistering mafia shoot-em-up A Bittersweet Life and the recent The Good The Bad The Weird, did more with far less.