Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday's Featured Film - 5/29/09

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

The DaVinci Code

About two years ago, everyone was talking about this little book called The DaVinci Code. It seemed like everyone you met was either hailing it as the greatest book ever or railing against it as the tome of antichrist himself. So, with a movie based on the book about to come out, I decided that if I was going to have an opinion about it, I probably ought to read it and see what all the fuss was about. It was a great novel, an engaging read full of twists and turns that kept me gripped until I’d finished it in just a few days. As for the controversy, well, let’s just say that as good as the book was from a narrative standpoint, it was just as bad from a historical standpoint. In the end, though, it left my wife and I interested in seeing the film, especially with Tom Hanks, Ian McKellen, and director Ron Howard attached. Our interest waned when the movie opened to surprisingly subpar reviews, but with the prequel/sequel film Angels & Demons opening this month, we finally decided to give DaVinci a whirl last night. What we found was a movie that, while not ultimately a bad film, just didn’t capture everything that worked about the book.

Tom Hanks stars as Dr. Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology at Harvard. While in Paris giving a speech, Langdon is approached by the police. The curator at The Louvre, an acquaintance whom he was supposed to meet for lunch that afternoon, had turned up mysteriously murdered in the museum itself. As Langdon arrives at the scene, he quickly realizes, thanks to the curator’s granddaughter, officer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), that he is not being called in as a consultant, but as a suspect. Believing that her grandfather gave her his name to help crack the puzzle and find his killer, Sophie helps Langdon escape custody and the two begin a quest that will eventually lead them on a hunt for the fabled Holy Grail. However, (and I’m going to assume here that the cat’s out of the bag for just about everyone, so spoiler warning) after a conversation with one of Langdon’s old colleagues (Ian McKellen), they discover a shocking secret – the grail is not a cup, but the body of Mary Magdalene, who was actually Jesus’ wife and bore his daughter, starting a royal bloodline that continues to this day, protected by a secret society called the Priory of Sion and hunted ruthlessly by the Vatican.

Obviously, one can understand why that plotline would irk those of us who have placed our faith and trust in the Jesus of Scripture. Let me assure you, you’ve got nothing to fear here. The history cobbled together to form this conspiracy theory is at times laughable, a mishmash of exposed fraud, half-truth, fantastical interpretation of classical art, and just plain false details of church history. For one who claims a very factual backdrop for his novel, Brown is seriously lacking credibility as a historian. So really, the novel and the movie work on the fantasy-quest level of something like an Indiana Jones or National Treasure film, though unfortunately it doesn’t seem its own creator fully realizes that. So, taking it for the work of fiction that it is, it’s a well-crafted story, full of interesting characters, a solid pace, and a host of twists that will keep you guessing to the end. The problem with the film is that the story just isn’t as engaging visually as it is on the page. This isn’t an action-driven tale, but one where most of the “action” takes place in conversation and conspiracy, and it just doesn’t entirely work here. Though the adaptation is thus limited in its potential, Howard does a pretty good job at getting what he can out of it. I was never bored over the film’s nearly 2 ½ hour running time, a decent accomplishment considering that I already knew everything that was going to happen (and as best as I can recall, the film stuck to the book pretty faithfully). The story is well staged and paced, and it’s a testament to Brown’s narrative that his story remains engaging even in a medium it’s not entirely suited for. There are problems aplenty, though, none of them are too major. While McKellen turns in a great performance, Hanks just doesn’t really work in the title role. This is one of the first times I can ever recall him as coming off as wooden and stiff, but he does, and some key moments suffer for it. Some of the conversations that are heavy on the exposition side (I’m thinking in particular about the revelation at Teabing’s château of the big conspiracy) feel a bit forced and stilted, and they don’t flow quite as naturally as they did on the page. However, the story’s big plot twist in its final third is handled very well, and when the final credits rolled the film’s merits slightly outweighed its many problems for me. Its riding the strength of Brown’s narrative, but in the end that’s enough for a mildly compelling film. If you’re interested in checking out what the DaVinci fuss is all about, or want a pre-Angels & Demons primer, I’d suggest the book first – but if you’d rather spend a couple hours than a few days, the movie is serviceable and worth a rental. - *** (out of 4)

The DaVinci Code is rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.

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