It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.
In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.
There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.
This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.
And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.
The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?
Nate’s Grade: C+
Given the uncertainty, cruelty, and division of recent news headlines, in many ways the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the kind of movie we need right now, a film that reminds the significance of vulnerability, empathy, and simple kindness. It’s also, in certain ways, a pretty shallow documentary afraid to go too far with its subject matter. From the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet From Stardom, this is another movie giving the spotlight to a reserved soul deserving of praise, and it hits you square in the feels. It’s hard not to have your heart warmed by the footage of Fred Rogers, he of the long-running and inspiring Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, impacting children and adults, seeing those smiling faces light up with pride and joy. There’s a woman at a commencement that thanks him for essentially providing her preschool education for her when her parents could not afford one. Rogers was not afraid to broach serious subjects, devoting episodes of his children’s series to divorce, death, assassination, and racial integration. It’s a neighborhood with a lot more daring messages than you might have recalled as a child. However, there are opportunities to push beyond the Mr. Rogers’ image (though he very much was what you saw) and the film shies away from going too far. The actor who played Officer Clemons was gay, but Rogers said if he came out he would have to regrettably kick him off the show because it would be too controversial. There’s a moment where the talking head interviews talk about Rogers transforming into his King Friday alter ego, but it’s over so quickly it seems odd even being mentioned. After the horror of 9/11, Rogers was brought out of retirement to speak, but he wondered if he still had any ability to really reach an audience in trauma any longer. I would have liked to have delved into these questions more, but that would detract, I suppose from the overall feel-good, glowing, crowd-pleasing and admittedly heart-warming portrayal.
Nate’s Grade: B
Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.
Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.
The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother! is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.
When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.
Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.
This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.
mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Just to be upfront, I am a big fan of action movies making use of Christian mythology (sorry if the use of the word “mythology” offends some). You tell me a tale about angels, demons, in a contemporary setting no less, and I’m hooked. You give those two sides weapons and have them fight over the fate of mankind, and I’m already revving my engines. So please know that no matter what the artistic achievements of Legion may be, I was predisposed to enjoying a movie that features the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) on the poster with a sword in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. The premise of Legion is that God has finally had it with mankind and is making good on his threat to “turn this thing around right now.” He’s sending a host of heavenly angels to … eliminate humanity. Michael rebelled, believing man was still capable of making good on its promise. So he fights alongside a handful of characters shacked up in Dennis Quaid’s greasy spoon diner in the middle of nowhere. The action isn’t really involving but the movies does have some cool moments, like when Michael goes mano-a-seraphim with Gabriel (a marble-mouthed Kevin Durand). Legion deals with an antagonist (God) that is so powerful that there have got to be arbitrary limits placed on that power. So the attacking angels don’t overwhelm the tiny diner with their superior numbers, nor does the Almighty just blink the troublemakers out of existence. The end doesn’t really give much in the way of clarity but I got what I wanted from a movie like Legion. Though, in retrospect, I really didn’t want sizzling acid popping from boils.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Where did the Hughes brothers go? Albert and Allen Hughes have four movies to their names, one of them a documentary about pimps, and their last flick was 2001’s From Hell. I know that Jack the Ripper thriller underperformed at the box office, starring a pre-Pirates Johnny Depp, but was it enough to throw these guys in movie jail for nine years? The Hughes brothers are talented filmmakers, first evidenced by their debut feature Menace II Society, which they wrote and directed when they were only twenty years old. I actually really liked From Hell. I get that it isn’t anywhere as complex as the source material from famous comics scribe Alan Moore, but the movie was slick, stylish, twisty and twisted and satisfying (although, Heather Graham has the worst accent in the history of movies). Where have these brothers been all this time? Nine years later, the Hughes brothers take a whack at the popular genre of the moment –Apocalyptic Cinema. The Book of Eli kind of comes across like a Hollywood version of The Road. It’s all about duplicating the look, without getting too bleak, and failing to replicate the sense of humanity in desperation. Why worry about that when you can have explosions?
It’s been 30 years since the sun scorched the Earth. Food is scarce. Gangs roam the highways. The law is a forgotten concept. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a loner heading westerly and trying to make out a meager existence. He takes the boots off a dead man, hunts emaciated cats for food, and looks for a safe shelter from the blistering sun. He struts into a dusty town looking for clean water. The town is under the rule of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man in search of a very specific book for his own purposes. It just so happens that Eli is in possession of this book. Eli refuses to hand over his property, speaking about his mission to transport the book to where it belongs. Carnegie sends his thugs out to kill Eli and retrieve the book. Helping Eli is Solara (Mila Kunis), a teenage prostitute who feels Eli has answers that nobody else has.
What we have here is a post-apocalyptic Western. Denzel is the lone drifter that comes into a town besieged by lawlessness or a corrupt agency of power. He even has a fight in a saloon that doubles as a whorehouse. He takes on an unlikely younger apprentice and enforces his own moral code through a series of shootouts. It just so happens that in Eli, he also has a giant machete and knows kung-fu. This is pretty strict genre stuff, mixing in apocalyptic elements for some extra flavor. The Hughes brothers give everything an ashy grimy gloss, making the most of desolate locations they shot in New Mexico (“When you need some place that looks like the end of the world, film New Mexico!”). The sparse locations and desaturated cinematography do well in establishing an unforgiving reality of the landscape.
The Hughes brothers certainly have a sense of style when it comes to the camera lens, yet they don’t approach being too self-conscious with their visuals. There’s an extended fight sequence that plays entirely in silhouette. There isn’t an overabundance of special effects in the film to clutter up the bangs and booms. There is one shootout outside a home (with Michael Gambon no less) that mimics some of the unblinking camerawork of Children of Men, swinging from side to side throughout the escalating firefight. It’s a fun visual motif that thrusts the viewer in the middle of the action. Otherwise, the action is all fairly standard stuff. It?s entertaining to watch Denzel take out a bushel of bad guys time and again, but what does that add up to with such a worn out story and half-hearted characterization? The script by Gary Whitta is heavy on apocalyptic mood and light on details. Cue more ass kicking.
Washington is stoic, almost Eastwood-like in his grit. He’s an easy antihero to root for, the reluctant avenger that manages to slice and dice his way through trouble. I won?t say this movie forces Washington to stretch his reserve of acting muscles, but it is undeniably pleasing to watch him perform his own fighting stunts. Oldman hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play a scenery-chewing villain in quite a while. Let’s face it; Evil Oldman will always overrule Good Oldman. This man was created to play sociopaths that have no ability to control the volume of their voice. This man needs a chance to bellow once every movie. Kunis proved she was a capable actress in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but her role is fairly limited here to sidekick. She stares with her dark eyes and gets to hold a gun. That’s about it. The Hughes brothers have populated their post-apocalyptic world with familiar faces. Tom Waits is a merchant, Ray Stevenson (HBO’s Rome) as the Number One Henchman, Jennifer Beals as the blind mother to Solaris, and Gambon as a well-armed homeowner with an appetite for human flesh. That?s a good stable of actors to fill out a bunch of stock roles. It certainly makes The Book of Eli more entertaining.
The religious element doesn’t dominate the film but it does serve as food for thought. You see the book of Eli’s in high demand is actually he King James Bible (my wife bemoans the prominence of the KJ, contending it is a poor translation). But you see, this isn’t any bible wrapped in leather with a metallic locked binding (all this for a Bible?); this is the LAST BIBLE ON EARTH. That is why Carnegie craves it. In the 30 years since the vague apocalyptic event, apparently mankind rounded up all the Bibles and burnt them, perhaps to express their displeasure with God. Eli operates on the premise that Denzel has the only Bible in the known world, which just seems downright silly. My wife is in seminary studying to be a pastor, so our position may be uncommon, but we have like 15 Bibles in various languages and translations from Greek to Hebrew to English to Latin. Did people search through every habitable dwelling, every library, and every hotel drawer? There have to be hidden Bibles out there. Even in this extreme setting, it seems to strain credibility to think that mankind is left with one copy of the most widely published book in the history of the world.
Ignoring this fact, the religious element remains nebulous even though the film chronicles the journey of the Christian text. God is referred briefly but mostly the talk steers around the ideas of “faith” and “fate” and “the right path.” Eli feels he has been chosen for a special mission, and so he trudges west with his eyes on the prize. Carnegie wants to use the Bible as a “weapon” to pervert people’s faith into giving him more power. He wants to abuse religion as a motivational force to expand the reach of his control. Here’s the thing though, Carnegie has control over a town already and rules by fear. This seems to be working fine for him. So he wants to rule by love instead, using the Bible to spread the Gospel of discipleship? It’s somewhat unclear what exactly Carnegie plans to use the text for especially considering that most of the remaining population is illiterate anyway. He could just as easily hold up any book (The Da Vinci Code is shown, why not that one? It even has “code” in the title) and proclaim it the Word of God. It’s not like these people, struggling just to eat and find water, are going to question the power structure.
Not content with being a competent genre film, The Book of Eli ends on one of those ghastly twist endings that forces you to rethink everything that came before it. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but this twist certainly leads a charge toward building a counterargument toward disproving it. I won?t get into particulars but it seems unlikely that Denzel would be as good a shot as he was if the twist holds up.
The Book of Eli has its share of thrills and some interesting visual style, but there isn’t anything here you haven?t seen in hundreds of other post-apocalyptic movies. The dusty landscapes, the biker gangs, the aviator goggles, the cryptic threats, the necessity for leather as a fashion statement. This isn’t a bad movie by any means; it’s just another entry in a cluttered genre that, with our renewed fascination of the end times, is only getting more cluttered. Washington and the assortment of actors put in fine work but it’s ultimately the story that lets them down. This is a by-the-books genre flick with a touch more style courtesy of the Hughes brothers and a touch more gravitas courtesy of Mr. Washington. My advice to the human race: stock up on Bibles. Apparently, in the post-apocalyptic future, they will be more valuable than gold. Invest now while you still can. I got 15 of them and will entertain all offers.
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is a slapdash comedy that?s too toothless to be satire and too dumb to be witty. Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of banished cavemen who stroll through various episodes from the Old Testament, like Cain and Abel and a circumcision-crazed Abraham, before settling in for a wild time at Sodom. This uninspired riff on the Bible rarely lands any laughs. The comedic aim of the film is extremely low; the scatological humor consists of farting peasants, bestiality, eating poop, urinating on your face, genital mutilation, and lots and lots of pedophilic jokes thanks to a grotesque, lispy Oliver Platt. Year One (of what exactly?) is a big step back for co-writer/director Harold Ramis and a general waste of everyone’s time and talent. Black and Cera do have an interesting and playful ying-yang chemistry but they have so little to do given the rambling, episodic nature of the plot. The characters make anachronistic pop culture references or talk in self-aware circles, the celebrity cameos do little, and the jokes lack any lasting momentum. Somewhere Ramis wants to make statements about religion and faith but the flick is too timid to do anything, so the movie limps to a finish with its lame “be your own chosen one” message. This is a prehistoric comedy with rocks in its head.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with a better haircut) is the world?s foremost expert on ancient symbols and texts, which is why the Vatican recruits him for a very important mission. The Pope has recently died and Vatican City is in the middle of the cardinals deliberating who will be the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Four of the cardinals, top candidates for the Pope position, have been kidnapped. The Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society, says that a cardinal will die every hour, from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then at midnight Vatican City will be destroyed. The Illuminati was made up of followers who felt the church was rejecting science, and so we?re told that in the 16th century the Catholic Church responded reasonably by branding the Illuminati followers and executing them. 400 years is a long time to wait for revenge. To make matters worse, antimatter was stolen from the CERN facility in Switzerland and placed somewhere within Vatican City. The battery holding the antimatter is scheduled to die about, conveniently, midnight, and the antimatter will result in a huge explosion (science note: antimatter is real but it is entirely harmless and not combustible). With the help of Carmenlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGreggor), acting church leader until there’s a new Pope, and particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon must race against time to save the Catholic Church.
The time element gives the movie a sense of urgency that was missing before, and a kidnapping plot provides a firm structure and supplies more chances for action than unraveling a 2000-year old church conspiracy on the divinity of Jesus. The plot of Angels & Demons works out like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, shuttling Langdon across the many sights of Rome to find the next clue. However, the narrow timeline of killing a cardinal on the hour every hour makes for some tight squeezes, both for Langdon and the cardinal-killing man. I never understand why the villains give themselves such a small window to work with. I know the whole “dead cardinal every hour” thing has a nice ring to it, but is it wholly practical? There’s all that driving around Rome and the Vatican, which has got to be crowded since millions are awaiting news about a new Pope. Beyond this, why must Langdon and crew always show up to a site with like five minutes before the cardinals will be murdered? Are they stopping to get subway sandwiches in between? The timeline and plot setup provide more action sequences that make the movie fleetingly entertaining in spurts.
What doomed the Da Vinci Code movie was not the endless blather, though that certainly bored me to tears, but the fact that the film wanted to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be a brainy thriller but get away with hokey thriller shortcomings. Angels & Demons suffers more or less the same killing blow. The flick 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. Angels & Demons introduces the idea of a ticking clock so it’s a far better paced affair than the previous film, but the movie still finds ways to get bogged down. Once again, Dan Brown’s novel has been adapted to a series of chases and sit-down chats, although this time Langdon does a lot of speed walking while he dishes out the minute history of church doctrine and architecture. To borrow from my own review of The Da Vinci Code: “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.”
These stories are just meant to work better on the page than on screen. Puzzles and word games work when the audience can take a moment to pause but film is a medium of images and cannot simply go dead waiting for the audience to posit a guess. Movies don’t have time for you to chew things over. So then the puzzles just devolve into waiting for Langdon to explain everything, which he will do at great length. This can get tedious at a rapid rate. Langdon is less a character in this movie and more a walking, talking encyclopedia of exposition. He is robbed of anything that could be charitably described as characterization. Symbol decoding just does not work on the big screen, and Langdon is an expert whose profession is limited in application. I can’t foresee too many instances where a top-notch symbologist will be needed at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s nice to get a history lesson and see plenty of those swell ancient churches, even if the filmmakers had to recreate them as sets because the Vatican refused them entry to film, but what point do these Dan Brown thrillers serve as movies? There is an intriguing discussion between science and the role of the church somewhere in this movie, but good luck finding much to stir your intellect. I confess never having read one of Brown’s tomes, including the super colossal mega-selling do-it-all Da Vinci Code, but surely the man deserves a better fate than to have his works die on the big screen as lamentably lame thrillers.
There are no characters in Angels & Demons, only stock roles and suspects. Langdon’s female sidekick (Zurer,Vantage Point) serves no other purpose but to translate Latin and Italian. Really, if Langdon is a scholar on the conspiracies revolving around the Catholic Church then perhaps he should put in the time and money to learn the language. The Vatican police are there as escorts and little else. Stellen Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!) serves as the chief of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s security team, and Armin-Mueller Stahl (Shine, Eastern Promises) is a German cardinal running the ongoing recounts for a new pontiff. Both men are presented as sly, untrustworthy suspects. Stahl’s character routinely dresses down McKenna as well, saying the young pup in the collar is not fit for church hierarchy. It?s not much to go on but the “characters” are just figures that occasionally get in the way of the film’s long-winded art history tour.
I think a lifetime of watching movies has just made my mind too analytical to be surprised by the twists in these kinds of dead weight thrillers. I?m already thinking ahead from the first minute and I don’t think I’m alone. When we are introduced to two characters, one gruff and unhelpful and one kindly and overly helpful, it is rather obvious which character will be revealed as being treacherous to provide the biggest jolt. Does anyone still suspect that Hollywood would produce a pointedly obvious evil suspect and then have it actually be that person? Not in today’s class of Hollywood thriller. You see kids, today’s Hollywood thriller is more concerned with piling on the twists than constructing a story that sticks together upon reflection, which is why many a Hollywood thriller simply falls apart as a jumbled mess by the time the end credits roll. Sometimes the endings sabotage everything logically that happened before. For an example of a textbook modern thriller, go rent the French film Tell No One and marvel at how the movie manages to be mysterious without being ludicrous. Angels & Demons doesn’t quite suffer from this screenwriting malady, but the essential evil plot by the eventually revealed evildoer is the most convoluted, ridiculously complicated scheme I have seen since that terminal 2005 thriller, Flightplan.
Director Ron Howard is able keep the film moving, almost distracting the audience away from the plot holes, but Angels & Demons is an adaptation that was doomed to fail from the start. The film plays like a lecture on tape with the fast forward button stuck. I might find more of the blitzkrieg of acts and anecdotes more intriguing if I could verify that they were all accurate. This is a thriller that wants to be seen as smart, so it empties exposition without haste, but it also wants to get away with narrative cheats common in your direct-to-DVD idiotic thrillers. You cannot simultaneously tell me to engage my brain and then a second later tell me to shut it off, sorry. Angels & Demons would have been better served without the Illuminati conspiracy and just plunged fully into the debate about bringing religion into the modern age, the friction between science and religion. Any substance the movie does present ends up being window dressing to an average potboiler mystery. This isn’t an awful movie but it never rises above “acceptable waste of time.” Hanks and Howard will probably be back in due time with the movie version of Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be released in September 2009. I just hope the duo, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith, have learned enough from their mistakes. I myself have little faith.
Nate’s Grade: C
You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.
Nate’s Grade: A
There is no topic in the world more volatile than religion. It dominates cultures, reshapes geography, inspires people to work with the poor, inspires people to attach bombs to their chest, and is as old as time itself. Most civilizations constructed a religion after they grew to a certain size. So who in the world would want to make a sacrilegious opinion-piece documentary that wants to open eyes as well as have a good laugh? Bill Maher is a comedian that respectfully never holds back his true feelings. He’s unflinching in his social commentary on his HBO TV talk show, and religion has often been a thorn in Maher’s side. He personally views it as a mental disorder. Religulous is his eviscerating and intriguing expose as he travels the holiest sites in the globe and asks, “Why?”
For the most part, Religulous doesn’t take a hammer to religion as it does the fundamentalist followers. There are several subjects that cry out for ridicule, like pastors living large and very un-Christ-like on the coffers of their congregations, egomaniacal televangelists that squeeze pennies out of lonely widows, those that babble in tongues, Joseph Smith, Scientologists, and people that celebrate scientific ignorance. Maher is attacking the hypocrisy of fundamentalism, but his condemnation isn’t only reserved for Christianity. He is an equal opportunity offender. In the most surprising venture, Maher takes a trip to the Holy Land and chats with Islamic practitioners about the double standard of its more ardent followers. I suppose repeatedly yelling “Death to Israel” is copacetic but an editorial cartoon that tweaks the religion over its extremist tendencies toward violence is an insult that cannot stand as freedom of speech? Maher really delves into un-PC territory and wants to know why he sees Islamic followers being so overly sensitive to criticism. I think given the fact that like 50 people died as a result of protests over cartoons, there may be room for discussion here. I credit Maher for not ducking away from provocative questions no matter the setting (he even got into the Dome of the Rock mosque!)
Maher and director Larry Charles follow the same documentary techniques Charles honed as he directed 2006’s Borat movie – a small shambling camera crew that ambushes rubes with tough questions and watches them sputter and squirm. This technique can be amusing when we feel that the harsh inquisition is deserved. Your regular Joe who believes that Jesus is his co-pilot is not deserving of Maher’s smug stares. There’s a moment where he asks a nice guy if he believes that he will reach heaven upon death. He believes he will. “Then why don’t you kill yourself?” Maher asks coldly. It’s uncalled for, and I say all this as a genuine fan of Maher. Still, the movie is regularly funny as it deconstructs religious traditions with quick-cuts to old Hollywood religious epics as cinematic rimshots. One of the better and more convincing moments is when the film compares the theological coincidences between the Egyptian god Horus and Jesus Christ, all set to the Bangles instructional song “Walk Like an Egyptian.”
I personally don’t believe that having faith in the unseen/unknown or being religious equals being stupid. Quite the contrary. However, it’s easy to gather a specious view of religion when all you talk to are ignorant yokels. Maher has perhaps one or two sit-down interviews with people educated in theology, but mostly he sticks to interview subjects that he can mock or those that share his opinion (his extended interview with the leader of Amsterdam’s pot-fueled “cantheism” is irritating). I think Maher is doing a disservice to his film’s target by not discussing theology with learned scholars, with people that can articulate lucid and complete thoughts, with people that have all their teeth. Did he seriously think he was going to able to find a defense for Biblical contradictions at the Holy Land amusement park or at the trucker church? I strongly doubt it. In many ways Religulous strictly sticks to the sideshow of Christianity, peering at the fringe elements. I’m all for grilling fundamentalists that cannot square science and God, but if Maher wants to expose all religious followers as wrong-headed, and not just the ones that think Jesus rode a dinosaur, then he needs to tackle more substantial figures in the field.
But then Maher fumbles his conclusion and loses me. It is in the closing five minutes that Maher attempts to string together his thesis statement, saying that in order for man to live that “religion must die.” Up until this point Maher has been irascible but committed to his ongoing ideology of “I don’t know.” He professes not to know what will occur after death and wants to press other people into a spirited discussion of the spiritual. But then comes the finish and Maher speaks with the same certainty that he castigated fundamentalists earlier. He is no longer preaching discussion but preaching immediate action to thwart belief. Maher becomes very agitated, his tone gets very sharp, and he steps on the soapbox to once and for all attest that religion of all shapes and measures is rubbish. It’s in these concluding moments that Maher sidesteps from his message of doubt and speaks in aggressive and alarmist hysterics. Maher spent most of [i]Religulous[/i]’ running time attacking hypocrisy but now he demonstrates his own.
I feel that Maher has many good points to make. Religion becomes extremely detrimental when it morphs into nationalism. The Founding Fathers did not envision the United States as a “Christian nation” and were mostly deists with little regard for traditional worship. Questioning and doubt are actually signs of a healthy relationship with faith, because it means that person is active with their faith. Maher showcases the well-known historical grievances caused by religion, or more accurately the followers of religion, but he brushes past the good of religion. It can be a unifying force that calls for people to love thy neighbor as thyself and to turn the other cheek (it’s amazing that the fire and brimstone Bible thumpers forget about the Be-attitudes). Religulous is an entertaining skewer of fundamentalism and close-mindedness, which is why it falls apart when it too turns close-minded.
Nate’s Grade: B-
This big-budget sequel goes heavier on slapstick and poop jokes but also crams in environmental messages. I was wondering how the filmmakers were going to angle the whole Noah flood thing without it being world destroying, because nothing says funny like everyone drowning to their deaths. Steve Carell tries hard to make the material work and I give him points for trying. This sentimental comedy has some moments of lively levity, mostly from Carell being bewildered at what is happening, but the film eventually succumbs to some weak, half-hearted messages about treasuring family and producing acts of kindness (I won’t bother spoiling the regrettably inane acronym of ARK). The supporting cast is wasted, none more than Lauren Graham as Carell’s underwritten wife. The Lord works in mysterious ways and so too do movie executives. Upping the budget doesn’t mean the laughs have been super-sized as well. Evan Almighty is passable entertainment thanks to Carell. It’s hard to be preachy when you have so many jokes about poop.
Nate’s Grade: C+