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|May 21-27, 2009
• Cracking the code
by Michael Phillips
• Stepping out
by Michael Phillips
Cracking the code
by Michael Phillips
What do you remember about the film version of The Da Vinci Code, exactly? I remember two things. One is Jean Reno’s surprising show of feeling when his character, the weaselly French police inspector, learned he had been betrayed. For a brief, shining moment all the plot mechanics mattered in human terms.
The other is the grim, tight-lipped face of Tom Hanks, a very fine actor and a bona fide movie star, struggling to humanize the role of Harvard symbologist and eternal gasbag Robert Langdon, as he cracked the riddle of the great-great-great-greatgreatgreat-granddaughter begotten by Christianity’s favorite son. Some secrets are destined to find the light.
The origins of the professor’s academia-mullet Da Vinci Code haircut, meanwhile, remain a mystery.
That haircut is gone in Angels & Demons, director Ron Howard’s second film adaptation of a Dan Brown best seller, but three years later the major players are back for more grandiloquent hackery. Hanks returns to the dullest role of his career, under the direction of Howard, who takes the material as seriously as a kidney stone on the way out. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino again adds heaps of holy light and unholy shadow. Composer Hans Zimmer fulminates like a maniac, whipping up music that would be considered too much for The Omen and Armageddon put together. The frenzied choirs wail, the kettle drums pound, and the skulkers and schemers lurk in the Vatican awaiting selection of a new pope.
Members of the secret Illuminati brotherhood have stolen a canister of explosive antimatter from a Geneva particle physics facility, leaving a murdered scientist behind. Somewhere in Vatican City, four cardinals have been kidnapped, and they’re to be killed, one per hour. The antimatter’s scheduled to go blooey all over Vatican City, thus representing a triumph of Illuminati over the Catholics (old grudge match there; long story), and Langdon must locate the secret Path of Illumination and protect the lives of millions.
Da Vinci was a $758 million global hit. I have yet to run into anyone who really liked it. How could the follow-up be the same sort of lumbering mediocrity? These people are professionals!
Astonishingly, Angels & Demons is the same sort of lumbering mediocrity. It’s more violent than Da Vinci, which is something, I guess, and its narrative structure ensures a regular string of cliffhangers. But what turns the pages in print (or on a Kindle) doesn’t necessarily propel a story onscreen. Once again Hanks has nothing to play except generic concern, as he and his latest comely but sexual-tension-free partner in sleuthing (an Italian particle physicist played by Ayelet Zurer) run around Rome hunting for bloodthirsty members of the Illuminati. Nobody goes to movies like this for the dialogue, but still: “It’s a passageway that leads to the Vatican!” Then, bam! Langdon enters a new church, and again stops dead for more background on whatever the hell is helping him play this game of “Where’s Cardinal?” Hanks does what he can to add a little spice to lines such as “The chapel is Raphael... but the statues are Bernini.”
But Howard is no help. He goes at Angels & Demons impersonally, which is depressing, because in his better movies — Apollo 13 or Frost/Nixon — he knows his populism and sells it, respectably.
The cast cannot be faulted, even if Hanks seems at odds with such a robotically functional leading role. The supporting ranks include Ewan McGregor as the late pontiff’s favorite acolyte, Stellan Skarsgard as the seething Swiss Guard security chief and Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays a cardinal right down the middle, so that we wonder if he’s a good cardinal or a bad cardinal. Even so, watching Angels & Demons was like being waterboarded by exposition. At one point Hanks can be glimpsed gasping for air, mid-endless-sentence. Has there ever been a flatter movie character played by a more innately likable star?
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by Michael Phillips
A Chorus Line celebrates the itch to perform and the exquisite, control-freaky showmanship that is the Broadway musical at its greatest.
You can’t judge A Chorus Line by its film version; it’s one of the lousiest movie musicals ever. But you can assess the stage original’s influence by the wonderful new documentary Every Little Step, which intercuts the story of how the original 1975 show came together with a step-by-step, fly-on-the-wall account of how the custodians of the recent 2006 Broadway revival came to cast whom they cast and why.
It’s a big ice cream sundae, this one — not great documentary filmmaking but tasty all the way. It works particularly (though not exclusively) if the show itself meant something to you at a young age. I first saw A Chorus Line two years into the original Broadway run, when I was 16, and I was never quite the same afterward.
The show will never exert that sort of pull again. In our endlessly exhibitionist culture, where everyone’s a star every second of their self-promoted lives, a Me Decade artifact — however glorious — doesn’t hit an audience with the same daring, the same drive. Still: What a show.
Most successful Broadway musical entertainments are manufactured; this one was the product of informal psychotherapy. One night in January 1974, armed with 12 hours of reel-to-reel tape waiting for some stories, director/choreographer Michael Bennett — a Svengali, an egomaniac, a manipulative shark, a hoofer, a genius — got together with 22 chorus gypsies and talked about their lives. The show grew out of those stories, and though it took a while (the various, gormless workshop editions prior to opening puzzled many of its own collaborators), the results, well, they worked.
Bennett is gone, as are others crucial to the making of the original Chorus Line, but Every Little Step finds longtime Bennett colleague Bob Avian in fine form, genial and sentimentally encouraging to most of the talent throughout the audition process (3,000 union and non-union dancers tried out for it). Baayork Lee, the original, 4-foot-10-inch Connie, has long been a custodian of this piece, and watching her somewhat fearsome mastery of each moment in the rehearsal room, you can smell the dedication on her as far away as Yonkers.
There are Cinderella stories afoot in co-directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo’s Every Little Step, and no little heartache. We get to know lots of starry-eyed hopefuls, many of whom will not make the cut.
The movie certainly makes the cut; it’s a showbiz wallow. It’s good to remember, by way of a guileless making-of account of a hit show’s successful revival, just how much A Chorus Line expanded the parameters of the Broadway musical, in such overwhelming emotional style.
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