Angels & Demons

May 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Angels & Demons
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Directed by: Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”)
Written by: David Koepp (“War of the Worlds”) and Akiva Goldsman (“I Am Legend”)

It might not ruffle as many miters as Bill Maher’s 2008 God-is-the-equivalent-of-an-imaginary-friend documentary Religulous, or even The Da Vinci Code, the first film based on author Dan Brown’s bestselling novels. When two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks dismisses faith in favor of science in Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, however, you know there’ll be a few extra Hail Marys uttered for the souls of the entire production.

Nevertheless, when it comes to all things religious, not even a talented director like Howard can enlighten everyone. Nor can he and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman manage to compress Brown’s text into an insightful narrative. Their version really should be renamed CSI: Vatican City.

In A&D, Hanks reprises his role as Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon, the protagonist pitted against an angry albino and a secret sect of the Catholic Church in 2006’s Da Vinci conspiracy. Here, the professor teams up with more God-fearing men to discover who is responsible for the disappearance of four Vatican cardinals and the theft of a top-secret science experiment that could annihilate Rome if it’s not found in time.

Clues point to the Illuminati, a centuries-old underground society made up of Catholic free thinkers for whom the fine line between religion and scientific truth is always smudged. Needless to say, this idea doesn’t jibe with the traditional Church’s contention that “ancient traditions [are] threatened by a modern world.” (Prayer chain emails, by extension, must be the root of all evil.) There is, however, never an authentic sense of conflict between these concepts beyond the film’s conspicuous amped-up tempo after the much-maligned sluggish pace of its predecessor. Science and technology may very well lead to the death of theology, but A&D’s preaching lacks any real conviction.

The Soloist

April 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jaime Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener
Directed by: Joe Wright (“Atonement”)
Written by: Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”)

Based on a series of articles by Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez, the story of a Julliard- music-virtuoso-turned-street-vagabond is simply fascinating on so many levels. There are, however, limitations as to how deep a story like this can run before its momentum staggers into a standard biopic. In the case of “The Soloist,” the narrative should have stayed inside its original newspaper columns.

Leading the way in this inspirational story is Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) as Nathaniel Ayers, the aforementioned homeless musician, whose mental illness forces him to quit his dream to play the cello and leads him to a life of meager means.

With no family to turn to, Nathaniel finds friendship and emotional comfort from reporter Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), who becomes intrigued with his latest subject after watching him perform on a two-stringed violin under a statue of Beethoven in L.A.’s Pershing Square. While Steve plays the observer for their first meetings for his piece, he soon becomes much more to Nathaniel as the everyday challenges he faces as a homeless schizophrenic become more and more life threatening.

While screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) has some great material about the passion for music one individual feels, most of that sentiment comes from Foxx himself as he falls into a tranquil daze every time a bow hits a stringed instrument. While this aspect of Nathaniel’s life is essential in completing his character arch, Grant fails to complete her end of the bargain when intertwining a message of mental illness and homelessness. Both topics are placed on the same pedestal as Nathaniel’s natural music ability, which poses a problem.

By the film’s third act Nathaniel doesn’t seem like a musician without a home who has mental issues. Instead, he is projected as a crazy homeless guy who knows a thing or two about classical music. More time needed to be devoted to the musical side of the story although in Lopez’s written word the other issues are just as significant. In “The Soloist,” however, they’re stylized more than they need to be and ultimately skimmed over. The way these views are presented also clash with the idea that Nathanial has been blessed with an effortless gift.

While Foxx does his best to keep Nathaniel from becoming a caricature, Downey Jr. has more of a challenge when he attempts mold his character into someone other than a crutch. It’s a very one-dimensional take that doesn’t quite lift off past his newsroom desk. Even when Grant introduces more for Downey Jr. to grasp (Catherine Keener is sort of in the background as his ex-wife), the story line goes dissonant and nothing else is said about Steve’s own parallels to the film’s focus.

Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) doesn’t seem to get his mind around the noteworthiness of the story. “The Soloist” might be soothing at times, but that’s what also makes it all the more aggravating once the music dies.

State of Play

April 15, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams
Directed by: Kevin McDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”)
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Lions for Lambs”), Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”), Billy Ray (“Breach”)

There will never be another newspaper film like “State of Play.”

While it might be a bit extreme to say Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams are on the same tier as Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford’s Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 media epic “All the President’s Men,” no one has ever come as close to capturing the true meaning of investigative journalism in the print media. Even with some sensationalism thrown in for flavor, “State of Play” is smartly done.

For the generation who like their news in short blurbs written by bloggers who use Wikipedia as their main source, this definitely won’t resonate with you. For those who still value the art of in-depth reporting and the way an actual newspaper still feels between your fingertips, “State of Play” is as tightly written as a front-page story grinded out on an unapologetic deadline by a veteran reporter.

Based on a 2003 British TV miniseries of the same name, “State of Play” follows old-school Washington D.C. scribe Cal McAffrey (Crowe) in the middle of a political scandal that slowly reels him personally and professionally. The mistress of his old college friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), has died of an apparent suicide, but with some exceptional fact digging, Cal uncovers other circumstances that could prove to be damaging to some governmental bigwigs and to himself on an ethical level.

There to pick up the slack as their scowling editor (Helen Mirren) keeps a sharp eye on her staff is internet reporter Della Frye (McAdams), whose blogging abilities are just impressive enough to provoke Cal’s traditional stance on his lifelong career. “I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix the next time you upchuck online.”

Still, a little new blood never hurt anyone especially with someone as hungry for a newsworthy story as Della. Crowe and McAdams’ chemistry blends well from the start and only strengthens as the political thriller dashes in and out of some sharp turns and detailed storytelling. It’s easily the best newspaper movie since 2003 “Shattered Glass” and the most intelligent film to be released in the first third of the year.