Saturday, January 29, 2011

Angels & Demons (2009, Howard)

Rating: *1/2

Ever tried to imagine how would the script for The Big Sleep (1946) look like if the book itself was by Dan Brown, and the adaptation by Akiva Goldsman …? My guess is it would read something along these lines:

MARLOWE (to CARMEN): I can see you’re sucking your thumb, kid. I’ll tell you what that means. It’s a fixation. That’s a Freudian term for an exaggerated attachment to an object or a group of objects, animate or inanimate.
CARMEN: Let me sit on your lap. I know you are standing. But I’m planning to make a pass on you. You’re cute.
MARLOWE: My cuteness grows proportionally to the gradual passing of time.

Now, compared to what made it to the screen in Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons (2009), that passage reads like a steamy sex thriller. There is no sex in Angels…, and not only because one half of its cast wears habits, the other is too busy holding on to their rifles, and what’s left is being played by Tom Hanks. There is no sex, because there are no people. The few pitiful stabs at being funny are so misguided (“Read it for me, and I will buy you a pack of smokes”), that we don’t even welcome them. We just want the whole tiresome experience to be over.

As everyone knows, this is an adventure story, which basic mechanism is not unlike the one Spielberg used in his Indiana Jones movies. One clue leads to another; the links are being made possible by the protagonist’s knowledge of the Western civilization. Fair enough. But where doctor Jones was surrounded with clues, attacked by them, seduced by them, professor Robert Langdon merely registers them, and goes on with his business. His fingertips are magnetic; clues gravitate towards them (maybe it’s the gimmicky Mickey Mouse watch he wears, the only clue we are invited to follow freely). When he walks into a library, there’s no scholarly awe, no love of old volumes – nothing that made the library so magnetic in The Name of the Rose (1986). Langdon uses 16th Century manuscripts the way most of us use Wikipedia. He opens them on the right page, hits the right clue, and closes 
them down.

Listening to Langdon in this film is like listening to a voice-over, and not only because Howard doesn’t seem to care about how far away from the camera Tom Hanks is positioned at a given moment. The voice is there, same volume all the time, describing everything that happens and not doing much else. I’m not sure if what we hear in this movie even qualifies as dialogue. Feedback seems more accurate. Actually, when Langdon says to the Pope-to-be, Carmelengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor): “St. Peter. The first pope. He was crucified with his head upside down”, I wondered why doesn’t Carmelengo punch Langdon in the face for assuming he doesn't know that stuff.

But then, I have only myself to blame. The first clue pointing to the EXIT sign was to be found in the first few minutes of the film, literally staring in my face. What I mean is the torn-out, bloody eyeball one doctor Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) finds on the laboratory floor. It made me think of the cut-off ear in Blue Velvet (1986), and about how scary one can get with such a detail if one really wants to. Angels & Demons doesn’t care for “scary” any more than it does for “sexy”. It’s a machine. An uninspired machine. A corporate product.
How funny that it ends up being all the things it tried to pin on religion and science alike.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Best Movies of 2010

Whatever you make of it, the fact is that the best movies of 2010 focused on tiny, private and/or completely artificially constructed worlds that can be examined but are not easily ruptured. Be it the wacko-fundamentalist family unit in Dogtooth, its ultra-loose opposite in Daddy Longlegs, the enormous Catholic sanctuary in Lourdes, or the beach house in About Elly – not to mention the total confinement of one’s own computer screen in The Social Network – 201o was fascinated with insularity. (I haven't seen Tron: Legacy yet, but I'm guessing it would make another case in point.) Only one movie on the list that follows has a true epic scale and employs an international setting, thus not only defying fragmentation itself, but reaffirming the functional unity of our world as such. That the hero of the movie is a terrorist (Carlos), is another matter.

Here’s my Top 10 for the year 2010:

1. Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos)
Lanthimos’ small-scale homey prison-camp family fable is not only the most stunningly executed movie I’ve seen this year; it’s also the wittiest and most horrific variation on the perils of insularity since Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004). Emulating a number of seemingly contradictory influences – ranging from Pasolini to Rocky (1976) – Lanthimos created a haunting vision of human culture as a psychotic parlor game erupting in violence, that is both difficult to match and impossible to shrug off. (See my full review here).

2. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
Read my review here.

3. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
Read my review here.

4. Carlos (Olivier Assayas)
A movie that needs to be seen in its 330-minute version or not at all, Assayas’ mammoth yet slick actioner goes down like a shot of vodka (OK, a series of shots). In its multilingual and geographical grandeur, the movie achieves something that should be flaunted in the ads as Globe-O-Vision. In its intermittent employment of action movie kicks and analytical recoil, Assayas’s film offers an unparalleled glimpse into modern history without a hair of sermonizing, and with a good deal of excitement (and horror).

5. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
It wasn’t until the second viewing that I appreciated Baumbach’s quietly accomplished feat of throwing an über-jerk onto us and then pairing him with the most happily autistic screen presence this side of  Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton (courtesy of the indelible Greta Gerwig).

6. Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)
Read my review here.

7. Eyes Wide Open (Haim Tabakman)
Everything was set for a commonplace doomed-love story. By virtue of his precise (sometimes scarily so) direction, Tabakman eschewed the limitations of the material and gave us the most devastating account of desire warring with culture that hit the screen in 2010. I’d choose the scene in which a passing bus is suddenly revealing the crowd of hostile on-lookers as the single most potent shot I’ve seen this year.

8. The Social Network (David Fincher)
A virtual steamroller of energy and verbal zest, The Social Network has the distinction of surpassing its own perilous topicality and adding a great new character to the venerable lineage of American folk heroes, without stooping to making him cute or even likable.

9. Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed)
Read my review here.

10. Daddy Longlegs (Ben & Josh Safdie)
Read my review here.

Runners-up: Exit through the Gift Shop (Banksy); Amer (Cattet, Forzani); Boxing Gym (Wiseman); Father of My Children (Hansen-Løve); Let it Rain (Jaoui); Bluebeard (Breillat); Enter the Void (Noe).

Plus my annual personal awards:

Best Director: Olivier Assayas (Carlos)
Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Best Actress: Mirela Oprisor (Tuesday, After Christmas)