15 May 2009

The Reel Deal: Illumination and Animation

After the last three big bumper updates, it's satisfying to return to the format of a double bill of reviews. Shamefully however, I still haven't seen State of Play, so I will try to get around to that one afternoon next week- Monday hopefully. Today's reviews cover Angels & Demons and Coraline, the former always being good value because it's got Tom Hanks (who is more or less the modern James Stewart) in it, and the latter being presented in glorious Real-D-a-ma-vision.

Reviews, as ever, shall contain minor spoilers, but not so far as to ruin your enjoyment of the films in question if you haven't seen them yet.


Starring: Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), Ayelet Zurer (Vantage Point) and Ewan McGregor (Deception).

What's it all about?
Following the events of The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon (Hanks) is surprised to have the Vatican ask him for help on the day that a papal conclave is due to begin. All becomes clear when the involvement of the Illuminati, a society dedicated to scientific truth, becomes apparent. The now more-radicalised society has planted a deadly explosive underneath Vatican City and kidnapped the four cardinals who are the favourites to succeed the late Pope. The device is set to detonate just before midnight and eradicate the Catholic Church.

Any good? As far as Dan Brown goes, I'm a fan of the book Angels & Demons. On the other hand, I found The Da Vinci Code to be vastly overrated, and thus there was only so much that director Ron Howard could do with his 2006 film version of the book, even with its superb cast. Factoring into my equations that Akiva Goldsman, surely the worst and yet oddly prolific screenwriter in Hollywood today, was writing the adaptation, The Da Vinci Code was always on the back foot. Nevertheless, it was watchable enough to make me cautiously anticipate this film based on the superior of the two Robert Langdon books to date. And in deviating from some of Brown's more convoluted plot elements, my anticipation paid off.

Howard's line on this sequel has always been that while Tom Hanks was forced to stand still and reel off historical exposition in the first film, he can actually be doing things while he explains in this one- Angels & Demons is in all respects a more action-packed story. On the page however, it could be given to exposition and back-story dumps that slowed down the pace. Not to mention that this book was written before The Da Vinci Code, which had more or less the exact same set-up as this- a beautiful woman teams up with Robert Langdon to battle a secret society who've murdered one of her closest relatives. And by totally throwing out various parts of the book, Angels & Demons manages to shake off the monotonous reverence for the source material that its predecessor had.

The inverse effect that this has divorces the aforementioned beautiful woman, ably played by Ayelet Zurer, from the action by removing a lot of her motivation. Likewise, the character Robert Langdon remains as he always has been- Indiana Jones without the personality. But as its outside of Tom Hanks' capabilities to give a bad performance, he remains inherently watchable. Ewan McGregor plays a refitted character from the book, his harrowing childhood relocated from Italy to Ireland and his name being changed to Patrick McKenna. Like Hanks, McGregor just doesn't give bad performances, and thus his rendition of the Pope's chamberlain is just as compelling as it was at its best on the page.

For every well-advised omission by Howard (I refer of course to the scene where Langdon survives a two mile fall from a helicopter with no parachute), there is a slightly inexplicable change. The Illuminati assassin on the page was formidable- described as well-built and trained with the skills to kill a man with little more than an imperious look and a pot plant. However exaggerated Brown's view of the assassin was, it's preferable to the slightly rubbish one we get on-screen- bespectacled and with a moral code that prevents him from killing Langdon despite his multiple chances to do so. Not to mention how Langdon and Vittoria, our two protagonists, are totally removed from the climactic revelation of the Illuminati collaborator inside the Vatican.

Nevertheless, Angels & Demons has much more to offer cinemagoers than its over-long and pretentious predecessor did- it's worth watching for Hanks and McGregor alone, but I also enjoyed the action and general pace afforded to this one. Even Catholics might enjoy this more than the original- Langdon is very much on the side of the church here, and the tone is almost apologist compared to the controversy that was openly courted by The Da Vinci Code. However, where I've ranked other films with a star less than fans of the related features would give it, you might subtract a star from this one if you're not a fan. All the same, give it a look if you have two and a half hours to spare.


Who's in it?
It's animated, so there's the voice talents of Dakota Fanning (Push), Teri Hatcher (Resurrecting the Champ) and Keith David (Superhero Movie).

What's it all about? A neglected young girl called Coraline Jones (Fanning) moves with her family into a new apartment. Every night, a secret passage opens up into a world that is just too good to be true. Things soon sour and Coraline is locked in a battle of wits with the sinister Other Mother (Hatcher), who lures children into her domain only to keep them there forever...

Any good? Neil Gaiman is a terrific writer whose works only seem to be adapted for the screen in recent years, starting with MirrorMask and Stardust and continuing here. Paired with Henry Selick, who's previously directed stop-motion features such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Coraline is a wonderfully disturbing and entertaining family film. Like all the best family films, it's not afraid to absolutely scare the shit out of younger viewers, and what separates the film out from the rest of its animated and more populist ilk is its sense of gothic horror.

What's mind-boggling is why this particular film was chosen to be presented in 3D. It's in instances like this that the industry's use of 3D to combat piracy becomes considerably more transparent, because this presentation of the film doesn't make it any better than it is. Although Coraline is visually exciting and innovative, that's nothing to do with the 3D, and I'm sure it'd be just as interesting to look at if digitally projected sans 3D. That aside, the narrative and writing stands up to the visuals, elevating the film beyond any accusation of style over substance that some have labelled Selick's previous works with. It's with some trepidation that I'd call the film inventive, because it's based on a book and so it's all inventions that have been taken from the page. But in a time where the film industry suffers from something of a deficit of originality, it's refreshing to see texts like Coraline being adapted for the screen rather than another by-the-numbers Harry Potter wannabe, that sets up a franchise without ever continuing it.

On the whole, Coraline is a visually astonishing film that doesn't lose anything to those visuals, but nor does it gain anything from the 3D presentation. I was pleased that it avoided the trap of casting ridiculously big names in the voice cast, in favour of actual vocal talent, and coupled with everything else, this has all the makings of a classic family film. Younger kids might be a bit scared, but isn't that what makes the kind of film they will remember all their lives?

Right, so State of Play will definitely get a look-in next week, and the next review update will probably have Fighting and Night at the Museum 2 thrown in for good measure. In the meantime, I'm still working at that vampire thing, so that'll likely be the next thing you see posted on here. To go into a little more detail, I'll be looking at and reviewing Let the Right One In and Twilight, as well as talking about the two recent TV series that deal with vampires, Being Human and Demons. As you can see, it's going to be exploring how it can go one way or the other in terms of quality when it comes to vampires in the media...

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch!

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