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The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been a best selling novel for three years running. Continents of trees have been felled to produce the 50 million published copies worldwide. Brown’s novel details a centuries long cover-up of some crucial background on Jesus Christ, as well as certain omissions about the role of women in Jesus’ discipleship. The book has been condemned by Christian watchdog groups as heresy, never mind that it is clearly labeled “Fiction.” Debunking fiction is simply redundant. Now Hollywood has adapted The Da Vinci Code into a massive movie, directed by Ron Howard. I must be one of eight who have not read the book, so I entered the theater with little expectation and no idea where the story would take me. Is this a great threat to the Christian church, as some argue, or is it just another dime-store thriller that lucked into becoming a national phenomenon?

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a Harvard professor of symbolism lecturing in Paris. He’s called in by a police captain (Jean Reno) about a local murder. The curator for the famous Louvre museum has been killed and his death leads to a series of coded clues about a deeper conspiracy involving Leonardo Da Vinci. Sophie (Audrey Tautou) is an investigator, and the granddaughter of the museum curator. She helps Robert escape and the two of them set off on an adventure through France and England, finding clues that lead them closer to the location of the Holy Grail. They get help from Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an old friend of Roberts that has his own theories about what the Catholic Church may be so desperate to keep hush-hush. All the while Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk, is on the warpath to dispatch all who know too much, including Robert and Sophie.

There are just so many harebrained, hokey moments in The Da Vinci Code that can rip you right from the movie. Why does Sophie have to pay someone to leave a park bench when she and Robert can just walk out of earshot? Why does a bank teller, with his own devious intentions, drive Sophie and Robert to safety and then threaten them at gunpoint? Surely letting them be captured by the police would have served his needs better. Oh, the bank also has a payable escape clause, like it was a Scooby-Doo mansion. But the hokiest moment comes in the opening minutes. The museum curator, an old man who couldn’t hobble away from his attacker, gets shot in the gut, a quite painful place for a bullet to lodge itself. So he’s fatally shot in the stomach, but the man still has time to scribble coded messages on three separate paintings at different points in the museum, strip down, pose, write a message on the floor and a symbol on his chest. And remember, he’s an old man on top of all this. It’s like he had a checklist he pulled out in case he was ever mortally wounded at the Louvre.

The characters aren’t any better. There’s little to any depth to these people and most of them are irrational stock roles. The Jean Reno cop character is laughable in how doggedly he’s convinced Robert is his man. Apparently, a priest told the cop Robert confessed. Case closed? Perhaps the cop, in his furtive rush to judgment, should do some outside research. The museum curator?s time of death, something any crime scene tech could denote, would prove that Robert would be ruled out, given that the man was giving a lecture in front of hundreds of alibis. That’s verifiable science, but no matter. Would not a place as heavily trafficked as the Louvre, with so many priceless pieces of art, have security cameras? I think that alone would tell you who murdered the museum curator. These details make the Reno character stupid and unbelievable. The police work hasn’t been this sloppy since the Police Academy saga.

There’s a late scene where a character addresses another and more or less says, “No one will suspect us, my partner. Let us split our winnings together. I will take your identity to my grave. What? Yes I will take a drink from your flask you’re offering me but not drinking from yourself.” The film could not hit you over the head harder with what is to come. I’d expect these kinds of half-hearted character turns from a rote made-for-TV thriller, but The Da Vinci Code has too much intended intellectual prestige to wallow in this manner.

This is not a good film adaptation. This isn’t structured like a thriller, let alone a movie. There?s no sense of momentum and the story is really an ongoing series of mini-climaxes, sputtering out to no payoff. Puzzle-solving and word games can work on the page, with the reader feeling like they’re right along, but onscreen it cannot work in a story of images. Howard highlights certain letters a la A Beautiful Mind, but then it simply becomes less a puzzle and more just witnessing how a character’s mind breaks down the code, nothing more. As a thriller, Brown seems to do just enough to push his narrative further, but he frequently writes himself into a corner and relies on plot contrivances to save his ass. There’s a scene at Leigh Teabing’s mansion involving a gun standoff, and how does Brown get his characters out of it? By conveniently having a bird fly and distract the evil gun-bearing monk. Talk about a cheat. The Da Vinci Code‘s lame behavioral explanations and short cuts are expected in a rote thriller, but Da Vinci doesn’t want to be seen as one.

But that’s the fundamental error of The Da Vinci Code: it wants to have it both ways. The film, and I’d judge that the novel as well, wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. This flick was destined to fail at birth. You can’t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can’t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story. The Da Vinci Code is thusly pulled in two directions and grinds its gears to the very end.

This is not a very entertaining flick, in fact is nearly put me to sleep a half dozen times. The Da Vinci Code has tiny bursts of action, and most are easily swept away before the viewer can get a grip. These moments are then succeeded by lengthy, ponderous sessions of heavy exposition. It’s like characters will breathe a sigh of relief at another ludicrous escape and then say, “Well, now let’s discuss in detail some more convoluted theories.” The dialogue reeks, and characters spout plot points whenever they’re needed. The conspiracy doesn’t even make sense. Why would the Church protect a secret that could supposedly destroy its hierarchy? If Jesus was not divine then what difference does it make to go after relatives 2000 years removed? And if Jesus did have heirs would there not be thousands in 2000 years time, not one convenient individual? Even The Da Vinci Code‘s ending seems to soft peddle its “dangerous” message, where Robert, after learning all he has, says it’s all about what you believe.

If it wasn’t for Bettany and McKellen I really would have nodded off. Silas is by far the most interesting character in the whole film, and the only one with a penetrable personality. A deeply religious albino killer monk is a great character, and Bettany makes him scary but also frightfully sympathetic. I was rooting for Silas to knock off the film’s heroes and go on a better adventure of his own. McKellen is handed most of the monologues and he gives his character all the gravitas needed. Thank God for these two actors, because Hanks is miscast and Tautou isn’t nearly as endearing as her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a really good international cast assembled for The Da Vinci Code and the movie manages to mishandle most of them.

The Da Vinci Code played out on the big screen is ponderous, talky, boring, poorly adapted and poorly written. Some things work better on a page than onscreen, and I guess if this is the final product than the whole damn things works better on the page. The story is brimming with lame, hokey moments you’d see in a lazy TV thriller, but then the story also wants to talk you to death with its convoluted storyline. The action sequences are brief, the dialogue is smothered by lengthy exposition, and the plot just isn’t that entertaining. The cast is mostly wasted in thankless stock roles. So let me get this straight. After seeing The Da Vinci Code, the biggest threat the Christian church is facing is … bad movies? I think they’ll be alright.

Nate’s Grade: C-

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Deep in the heart of WWI trenches, we begin this sprawling tale by narrowing in on five French soldiers. Each man has been accused of self-inflicting a wound to escape service, and each man is sentenced to spend the rest of their likely short lives in No Man’s Land, the stretch of bare land between the two trenches. One of these men is Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), a young country boy engaged to the charming Mathilde (Audrey Tautou). When she learns his fated punishment and fails to hear word from Manech, she steps out to launch her own investigation into the possible whereabouts of Manech or the possible details of her fiancé’s demise. She enlists her family, solicits strangers, and puts ads in newspapers to unravel the truth. Along the way she hears various stories from all sorts of people and attempts to form them into a clear picture of what went on in that trench, good or bad.

A Very Long Engagement could be flippantly described as “Rashomon in a trench,” but from the get-go it grabs you by the lapels and will not let go. Once again, Jeunet tells his story in a criss-crossing narrative. Front and center we learn about each doomed man’s life in snapshot, and while the device has a slight eulogy feel, it’s a fantastic way to show the depth of characters in such brevity. A Very Long Engagement is an immeasurably rich film where each detail is threaded into the film to create a magnificent artistic tapestry beyond compare. The tiniest details in the film like Mathilde’s tuba playing (the only instrument whose sound mimics a distress call), to the mail carrier choosing to slide his bike over gravel just further enhance the vibrant, animated world of Jeunet.

Jeunet is quite possibly the most visually gifted director working today (he turned down Harry Potter 5). He couldn’t film an ugly shot composition if he tried with all his French might. As expected, A Very Long Engagement is gorgeous to look at. The production design is massively intricate, the cinematography, while computer assisted, has a shimmering radiance to it. This is simply the best looking film of all 2004, Hero be damned. You could pause any second in this film and use it as a glossy postcard. Jeunet has the technical credentials to fasten together complex and beautiful worlds. A Very Long Engagement is a technical marvel and gorgeous to experience.

Tautou, also as expected, is wonderful once more. She’s the anchor of the film and the audience feels every heartbreak and glimmer of hope this talented actress explores. The supporting cast is full of familiar Jeunet players and each performance adds to the richness of the film. They feel like characters and not stock roles or cliches.

There is some difficulty with following the storyline. There are so many subplots built upon other subplots that the film’s momentum takes a bit of a dive in the second act. A Very Long Engagement can also get very confusing when it comes to remembering so many names. There are maybe 30 characters to keep track of and as the subplots mount new characters are added to the pile, including a widow played by a surprisingly fluent Jodie Foster. It’s best to employ some kind of memory trick to keep the many colorful characters of Jeunet’s world straightened.

The focus of A Very Long Engagement is on Mathilde’s investigation into what really happened in that trench. She wants to know what happened to her beloved, and as her search picks up steam we get further glimpses of her relationship with Manech. One of my biggest problems I had with 2003’s Cold Mountain was that Jude Law was travailing through hell and back to get back to his beloved Nicole Kidman even though their relationship pre-war lasted as long as a Super Bowl commercial. It’s not that I disbelieve the overpowering nature of love, but I need more from my characters than shifty glances and a quick ejaculation of love (get your mind out of the gutter). Now, in A Very Long Engagement, Jeunet opens by showing the measures Manech will endure to return to his beloved, however, as the film goes on we also see enough peeks into the depths of their relationship beforehand, which dates all the way back to when they were children

A Very Long Engagement forges such a grand and sweeping love story that the audience gets just as immersed as Mathilde about the search for her man. There are so many lovely, intelligent moments between Mathilde and Manech, like their first sexual encounter. Every time Manech lights a new match Mathilde removes an article of clothing until, under the soft light of the newly lit match, she’s nude and blows the match out herself. The characters’ overriding love also taps into small truisms like when Mathilde makes arbitrary games for herself to ensure her love’s safety. (“If I can count to ten before that car passes, then he is alive.”) Mathilde’s faith and devotion are driving her investigation and the audience is behind her 100% of the way, fully invested in this mystery. When we reach our conclusion, I don’t mind telling you I was bawling like a baby.

The film has a merry whimsical tone during its origami-like narrative, but when it hits the trenches the film gets down and dirty. Jeunet shows a fascinating view into the hardships of everyday trench life as well as the machinery of death. Storming the other side’s trench, or “going over the top” as it was called, is seen in all its sordid features. There are hearty splashes of blood and gore that can be jarring.

There’s one terrifying scene in A Very Long Engagement involving the explosion of a makeshift hospital. The hospital is inside a hangar for zeppelins (hydrogen gas) and a missile has crashed into the roof with its nose sticking inside. One of the zeppelins becomes loose and slowly floats to the missile nose with unforgivable certainty. People are running around trying to shield themselves from the inevitable, but it does nothing. The moment is played so agonizingly slow that we become overwhelmed with terror. This was the life of WWI warfare.

Having said this, the stark war violence doesn’t exactly gel exceedingly well with the whimsical romantic elements. For some, A Very Long Engagement will seem like two very tonally different movies butting heads and intruding upon the other (perhaps Amelie Goes to War?). Sometimes it does take a while to adjust to one tone after spending time with the other. I feel that the emotional investment in the characters and the anticipation of unraveling the mystery serves as thematic glue over the disproportionate tones. Some will feel chaffed by the two stark tones, but I think the power of the love story will conquer most hearts into experiencing the bloodshed of war to earn the shedding of tears by the film’s romance.

Jeunet has re-teamed with Tautou and created another masterpiece. A Very Long Engagement took hold of me from the start and mesmerized me with its beauty, grace, cruelty, excitement, and warmth. This is a great mystery and a great love story with great visuals and great characters. The opposing tones (whimsy vs. violence) won’t work for everyone, and the film takes one too many divergent paths in the middle, but A Very Long Engagement is a film of such startling originality and feeling that it should be treasured. I was floored by what Jeunet had to offer and deeply moved by the time I had to leave the theater. They don’t make them like this much anymore. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.

Nate’s Grade: A

Dirty Pretty Things (2003)

Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) has shown an unflinching eye at the fringe elements of society. In the new thriller Dirty Pretty Things the focus is on the struggling lives of illegal immigrants in over their heads.

The London that Frears displays is the sordid underbelly, the type that hasn’’t seen the light in ages. These people are treated like they’re disposable. Those with whatever menial amount of power, even if it’s a single step higher, prey on these immigrants. “”How come I haven’’t seen you before?”” one character asks another. “”Because we are the people who are not seen,”” he replies.

The heart of the film (you’ll get the pun soon) follows the lives of two immigrants. Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from Nigeria and works days as a cab driver and nights as a front desk clerk at a hotel. Senay (Amelie’’s Audrey Tatou) is a Turkish housekeeper at the same sleazy hotel trying to stay one step ahead of immigration police. Okwe is instructed to ignore all the salient comings and goings of the hotel. “People come to us to do dirty things,” says the creepy hotel manager Mr. Sneaky (yes, that is his name). “It’s our job to make things pretty the next morning.” Things get more complicated when Okwe discovers a human heart clogging a room toilet. It seems that for some who check into the hotel, they don’t check out. Okwe and Senay become entangled in a bloody scheme that threatens their lives and their immigration status.

Dirty Pretty Things is never boring, sometimes compelling, and more thrilling than you would believe with a plot concerning immigration. The characters earn our attention and emotions with Senay’’s vulnerability to Okwe’’s tenderness and resolute integrity. They draw us in and we genuinely care what happens as they are snared into the creepy clutches of Mr. Sneaky.

It’’s here that I feel obliged to mention that Steven Knight, the writer of Dirty Pretty Things, is the co-creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Just consider the possibilities of future game show creators-turn-thriller screenwriters: Merv Griffin’’s hard hitting thriller on the lives of firemen, anyone? It could have the corny tagline, “”There’’s only one rule of firefighting –– never fall in love.”” Maybe this only fascinates me.

Frears’’ direction is rock solid. He plays to the best aspects of thrillers, like a suffocating feeling of paranoia but doesn’’t suffer the thriller flaws because of such resonant and buoyant characters. Frears is confidant to not overcompensate with his storytelling and lets the grimy locations create his stark mood for him. You can almost taste the stale air.

The acting is exceptional. Ejiofor is amazing. He gives a stellar performance rich in complexity, anxiety, uncertainty, and just plain goodness. He seems to be the last honest man in all of London. There are several scenes you can feel the debate of emotions raging inside him. Tatou, in her first English language role, gives a strong performance, though I’’m curious as to where her “Turkish” accent went. With her penetrating dark eyes and elfin smirk, Tatou is still one of the most adorable actresses on either side of the pond.

Dirty Pretty Things is a searing look at the faceless underprivileged seeking a new life, and those who would deviously prey upon them. The film is a smart, superbly directed, and wonderfully acted thriller. It’’s a thriller without weird kids who see ghosts, or lesbians with ice picks, but Dirty Pretty Things is a film that’ll stay with you long after the lights go up in the theater.

Nate’s Grade: A

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