Round-Up: Popes, Phasers, Palookavilles
By Fernando F. Croce

Moving from Watergate to the Vatican, and making margarine out of both: The Ron Howard magic. If Angels & Demons hasn’t gotten as much heat as The Da Vinci Code, it’s probably because the Catholic Church knows by now that the director couldn’t turn out a trenchant film even if the plot involved Jesus blood coursing through Amélie’s arteries. In this glum adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel, the focus shifts from Last Supper to Creation itself, as antimatter (aka "the God particle") is condensed into a vial and hidden somewhere in Vatican City, ticking away like a Blofeld time-bomb. All fingers point to the Illuminati, the fabled group of intellectuals persecuted by the Church centuries back; their revenge plan seizes the death of the Pope to butcher one cardinal per hour, with a Big Bang special scheduled at midnight. So in flies Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), Harvard symbologist and professional agnostic, to help Italian authorities follow the breadcrumbs into chapels, libraries, and catacombs. Ewan McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl skulk this way and that in papal regalia, Ayelet Zurer is the obligatory sexless sidekick. Anxious to avoid Da Vinci’s molasses pacing, Howard has people rushing through exposition-caked dialogue like His Girl Friday newshounds -- things move fast, though not fast enough for the characters to prevent the camera from gloating over the baroque brandings, gougings, and burnings. There’s a good silly bit when the hero feels the need to describe "English, the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer" (Mr. Burns would have approved), but what’s missing is an Ian McKellen to take the piss out of this hooey. Celestial ascension, or fireworks display? Not wanting to spoil anybody’s evening, Howard has religion and science hold hands as "different languages telling the same story." But what’s the point of being God, if you can’t afford decent mise-en-scène?


While not exactly a Trekkie, I've always preferred Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic humanism to George Lucas’s puppet space-operas. Like the recent Batman epics (and minus their strained seriousness, thankfully), J.J. Abrams' Star Trek aims to revive the spirit that’s dissipated after decades of syndication, sequels, and parodies. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is born in the midst of an intergalactic skirmish that leaves him orphaned; his daddy hang-up lines up nicely with the mommy issues of Spock (Zachary Quinto), his half-Vulcan, half-human rival for command of the Starship Enterprise. The creatures include a Romulan renegade (Eric Bana) with a yen for drilling black holes into planets, a green-skinned hottie (Rachel Nichols), and a giant snow-crustacean quelled by the ravaged gravitas of the Original Cast Member Cameo. Part of me wants a Paul Verhoeven to tear this stuff to tatters, yet I’m heartened to see the wit and romance of the series treated lovingly, and with enough feisty confidence to have Kirk smack his head on the portal as he boards the vessel. Pine is blandly sensual and Quinto satisfactorily poised, but the rest of the Enterprise crew is piquant: Zoe Saldana is sexy and sharp as Uhura (glad somebody paid attention to The Terminal), Karl Urban is delectably splenetic as McCoy ("Ex-wife took the whole damn planet after the divorce"), John Cho is an inspired Sulu, and Simon Pegg (sputtering brogue) and Anton Yelchin (Russkie lilt) endear as Scotty and Chekov. The film’s most remarkable aspect, unfortunately, is its technical incompetence. Abrams doesn’t direct, he just whooshes the camera from side to side and flashes lights in your eyes -- Howard’s hack sprinting in Angels & Demons looks like an old master’s contemplative rhythms next to these toy-ad seizures. There's blood still left in Star Trek; next time get a filmmaker, not a film-shredder.


Reciting from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol while silhouetted against the sunset in a beachfront right out of a Cialis commercial, Mike Tyson irresistibly brings to mind Jake LaMotta quoting Tennessee Williams at the end of Raging Bull. Unlike Scorsese, however, James Toback isn’t questioning the aging palooka, so his film Tyson just takes at face value the words from what surely must be the least reliable narrator since the dude in the Caligari garden. The former world heavyweight champion faces the camera in medium close-up, wearing a white shirt and reclining on a leopard-print pillow. His dome is interestingly pointed, the encircling Maori tattoos on his face don’t so much suggest tigerish force as accentuate the wrinkles under his eyes -- he’s an arresting camera subject, simultaneously softer and more hardened than the 19-year-old cyclone that broke out in the mid-1980s. In his incongruously soft voice, Tyson recounts his troubled young years leading up to a Juvenal Hall stretch for drug-dealing, his professional and emotional apprenticeship with trainer Cus D’Amato, and the fear and rage that go into each bout (juiced-up footage of the early pummelings punctuate the musings). Less documentary than first-person therapy session, Tyson provokes without illuminating. As candid as it is, Tyson’s self-awareness is continually undercut by a maudlin, exculpatory streak. (Sample: "That was my downfall, I associated with so many leeches.") Neither does the opposite sex have much room in The Iron Mike Show: Tyson refers to Desiree Washington, the model who accused him of rape, as "that wretched swine of a woman" and leaves it at that, while Toback uses a vixenish clip from A Rage in Harlem to illustrate ex-wife Robin Givens. Tyson is indeed an intriguingly contradictory hulk, but he’s far from the troubling Caliban Toback’s own obsessions with athleticism and negritude make him out to be.


Speaking of long-in-the-tooth athletes... Rudo y Cursi reunites the stars of Y Tu Mamá También to reveal, depressingly, that they've chunked up into Mexico’s version of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna play dim half-brothers picking bananas and punting pelotas de fútbol around rural Jalisco. The soccer field is their arena: García Bernal’s Cursi is the dreaming striker, Luna’s Rudo the family-man goalie, and, when a big-city trickster (Guillermo Francella) comes a-scouting, it’s just a matter of time before they’re facing each other on opposite sides of a Mexico City stadium. The film takes its time getting there, filling the air with supposedly hilarious profane squabbling (it's "pendejo" this and "chingada" that) and supposedly revelatory voiceover koans ("The field and life are much the same..."). García Bernal becomes a clueless star-fucker and wannabe pop balladeer, Luna’s gambling addiction brings out the inevitable break-ya-fingas hoods -- it’s supposed to be about rustic naïfs succumbing to the corrupt Dream Factory of professional sports (imagine a screwball retelling of the recent Sugar) but all you can see are a pair of aging jocks laboring for condescending yuks. The director, Carlos Cuarón, plays Rudo to the Cursi of older brother Alfonso (Children of Men), who produces. Is García Bernal’s excruciating accordion cover of Cheap Trick’s "I Want You to Want Me" a gloved dig at Alfonso’s own tricked-up "music videos" since he's moved to El Norte? A far more interesting sibling-rivalry narrative, that.

Reviewed May 17, 2009.

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