Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Angels & Demons

The better angels of our nature

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Angels & Demons

Inferno, the third installment in Ron Howard’s series of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters this weekend. Like Jack Reacher, it’s a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an enthusiastic following, and it seems to exist largely as a strategic component in the careers of its star and director. (This sequel, at least, appears to have a realistic view of its prospects: its budget is half that of its predecessor.) I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here if it weren’t for an embarrassing personal confession. I’m not a fan of the Robert Langdon books. If anything, I’m inclined to dislike them more than many readers, because I genuinely enjoy the idea of the conspiracy thriller. I even wrote an entire novel, The Icon Thief, in part to tell precisely that kind of story in the way I thought it deserved to be told. Even after the letdown of The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic enough to buy The Lost Symbol, on the reasoning that a sequel released under high pressure by a major publisher would be a slick, tightly edited product—which didn’t turn out to be the case. I haven’t read any of the others. But here’s my confession: Angels & Demons, the film based on the first novel in the series, might be one of my stealth favorite movies. Even as I type this, I know how ridiculous it sounds. This isn’t a film that anyone remembers fondly. You don’t see video boxes proclaiming: “The best thriller since Angels & Demons.”

Why do I love it so much? Maybe it’s because it came out only seven years ago, but it already feels like a relic of another era, in which a studio could spend $150 million on a ridiculous summer movie aimed squarely at viewers over thirty. I’ve written here before that what I want from Hollywood, more than just about anything else, is slick, entertaining junk for grownups. These days, the industry has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with superhero movies giving way in the winter to prestige pictures that feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine. Yet the most exciting periods in movie history were in decades when you could often see a reasonably clever director and screenwriter doing diverting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive stars. Aside from the occasional Bond or Ethan Hunt vehicle, this sort of thing has become dishearteningly rare, to the point where I’ve actually found myself looking forward to movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Oddly enough, we’re currently in the middle of a fairly good stretch for mainstream adult thrillers: along with Inferno, the last few weeks have given us The Girl on the Train, The Accountant, and a second Jack Reacher movie. I haven’t managed to see any of them, of course—which may be the real reason why adults in their late thirties aren’t seen as a desirable demographic.) And while Angels & Demons is far from a masterpiece, it feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, in which a lot of money and talent could be gloriously squandered by a film that couldn’t possibly interest a twelve year old.

Angels & Demons

But I don’t want to downplay its legitimate strengths, either. To say that the money is all there on the screen may not seem like heartfelt praise, but it is. There’s plenty of digital imagery, but it’s unobtrusive, and at a time when the climax of every comic book movie makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon about two robots having a fistfight, it’s nice to see an expensive production set in something like the real world. It’s equally refreshing to watch a movie that takes pleasure in the locations, simulated or otherwise, of a single beautiful city. Its Rome is a nocturnal metropolis of golden lights against water, glossy marble churches, and fast cars winding through narrow streets, and it reminds us of how films like the Bourne movies flit so quickly from one landmark to another that we never have a chance to enjoy our surroundings. It helps, too, that the movie is populated by so many appealing players. There’s Hanks, of course, who I suspect secretly relishes playing Robert Langdon as kind of a smug asshole, and Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgårdwho are here only for the paycheck. But we also have the tough, beautiful Ayelet Zurer; Armin Mueller-Stahl, very good in the thankless role of a red herring in a cassock; and character actors with great faces like Pierfrancesco Favino and Nikolaj Lie Kass. The script by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp keeps all the wheels turning nicely, and it clearly learned the lessons of The Da Vinci Code—the action is clean and rapid without being relentless, and you’re left feeling refreshed, rather than pummeled.

It all adds up to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, right up there with the first season of The Hills, and for many of the same reasons. There are sequences of high camp that make me grin like an idiot whenever I think about them: Langdon’s unsolicited lecture about Pius IX and “the great castration,” which makes him seem even more pompous than usual, or the priceless moment when the Camerlengo points a finger at his assailant and shouts: “Illuminatus!” This kind of thing pleases me enormously. I also like how the villain’s master plan hinges entirely on Langdon’s ability to figure out the plot with split-second precision, and how the whole conspiracy would be foiled if the timing were off by a few minutes in either direction. And unlike so many thrillers, it knows how to give a worthy death scene to its bad guy, who, after being exposed and pursued through St. Peter’s Church, burns himself to death at the altar, and for no particular reason. The result slips invisibly over the borderline from being a great bad movie to one that I can almost recommend on its own merits. Although it’s ravishingly pretty, it’s probably best experienced at home, on a disc bought from a cutout bin at Best Buy, which makes its immense technical resources—a little overwhelming or oppressive in the theater—seem like an act of unsolicited generosity. And it sticks in your head. A few months ago, I was watching Spectre, which was filmed on many of the same locations, when I found myself thinking: “I’d rather be watching Angels & Demons.” I’m probably the only person in the world who said this to himself. But I did. I’d be happy to put it on again tonight. And maybe I will.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2016 at 8:58 am

Birdemic and the lure of awful movies

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Over the weekend, on the recommendation of the AV Club’s New Cult Canon, my wife and I finally watched the film that has become the darling of the midnight movie circuit: Birdemic: Shock and Terror. I’d already heard of Birdemic, which was shot around Half Moon Bay in California—one of my favorite places in the world—for something like $10,000, but had managed to avoid seeing it until now. And reader, I loved it, so much that I watched it twice, first on its own, second with the Rifftrax commentary. Somewhat to my surprise, I preferred the original version, which lets you savor the lengthy driving scenes and incomparable dialogue as they were meant to be experienced. (My favorite exchange comes after the hero asks if he can accompany his love interest back to her apartment. She: “I’m not that kind of girl.” He: “Ok.”)

My sudden affection for Birdemic has taken even me off guard, because I’m not someone who normally goes in for ironic appreciation. Yet there’s something so charming about Birdemic’s ineptitude that I can’t help but love it. The director, James Nguyen, obviously adores movies—his first two films are both homages to Hitchcock—and every hopeless frame of Birdemic is filled with his obvious enthusiasm. As Scott Tobias points out, the underlying premise (an environmental remake of The Birds by way of An Inconvenient Truth) isn’t even half bad. And there’s something appealingly innocent about the proceedings, from the film’s earnest discussion of environmental issues to its PG-level nods toward its exploitation roots (mostly consisting of a few shots of Whitney Moore, very fetching, in her underwear).

And the result is much closer to the urgency of genuine bad cinema than the endless self-aware variations on grindhouse films that we’ve seen over the past few years. Birdemic is nothing less than the natural, more likable successor to Manos: The Hands of Fate, with its long, pointless conversations and interminable driving sequences. (Umberto Eco once pointed out that only in pornography do you see a main character get into his car, pull out of the driveway, and head for the location of the next scene, with the film showing every red light along the way. If Eco ever saw Manos and Birdemic, he might be inspired to expand his definition.) And watching it reminded me of my adolescent love of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which I once saw as the ultimate television show, a pop cultural laboratory in which the tropes and vocabulary of an entire civilization could come out to play.

In a way, that’s the real virtue of bad cinema: it puts a spotlight on a culture to an extent that great filmmaking rarely can. Birdemic is the bad movie we all deserve: achingly well-intentioned, squeaky clean, and seduced by the false promises of CGI. And your enthusiastic response to a bad movie can tell you more about yourself than your reactions to a masterpiece. To name just two of my own favorites: Beyond the Sea is jawdroppingly misguided, but there’s something seductive about Kevin Spacey’s vision of himself as the ultimate pop crooner, greater even than Bobby Darin, that cuts to the heart of what stardom and show business is all about. And Angels & Demons is a travesty, but also a summation of the overproduced blockbuster thriller, sumptuous, gorgeous, and without a thought in its pretty head. Birdemic is much more modest, but it tells us more about the underlying dream of all filmmaking, which is that a man with $10,000 and a movie camera can make a masterpiece. Or, failing that, at least Birdemic.

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