Byline: Philip French
You could mount a National Film Theatre season of trashy movies about troubles at the Vatican following the death of a pope: The Shoes of the Fisherman, Godfather Part III, Saving Grace, The Pope Must Die and, now, Angels & Demons, a sequel to The Da Vinci Code, though it is, in fact, based on an earlier Dan Brown novel.
A worried-looking Tom Hanks reprises his role of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, who's called in by the Vatican police when four cardinals are abducted at the very moment they're about to be locked up in conclave to elect a new pope. It appears that the Illuminati, a secret society persecuted by the church in the 17th century for attempting to reconcile science and religion, is attempting a comeback. They intend to murder the cardinals at hourly intervals in bizarre ways in secret places all over Rome. At the climax, they'll release a canister of antimatter stolen from the Cern project in Switzerland, thus reducing the Holy See to dust.
Accompanied by beautiful Italian physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), Langdon works like Alan Turing on speed. Conducting a peripatetic seminar on iconography and symbology, he chases around Rome, gains access to the Vatican's secret archives and decrypts enigmatic clues that direct the local cops to concealed crypts where the cardinals are to be crucified in colourful conditions reminiscent of Theatre of Blood and Se7en
The movie progresses with the smooth patter and rapid movements of a conman gulling tourists with a three-card trick on Sixth Avenue or Oxford Street and there are fewer of those expository moments in The Da Vinci Code , when we couldn't be sure who'd laugh first, the actors or the audience.
The British production designer Allan Cameron has done an impressive job recreating Vatican interiors. Cops and clerics fall to their deaths with a regularity that reminds us that Michelangelo Antonioni once wrote a collection of essays called That Bowling Alley on the Tiber . Ewan McGregor (Ulster priest becomes papal right-hand man), Armin Mueller-Stahl (smooth cardinal) and Stellan Skarsgard (boss of the Swiss Guard) share and spread the suspicion. The movie has its sacramental wafer and swallows it, thus delivering a controversial story that offends no one.
Something odd occurs at the very end of David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman's slick script, which may be a private joke, an arcane clue or desperation. At the conclusion of Robert Anderson's 1953 play Tea and Sympathy and its 1956 film version, a self-sacrificial Deborah Kerr says (while preparing to provide therapeutic sex to a self-doubting teenage virgin): "Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."
After Langdon has saved the Vatican from a fate worse than Hades, a cardinal tells him, using the identical dramatic pauses: "When you write of us, and you will write of us, do so gently." Could the working title of Angels & Demons have been "See & Symbology"?
French Film (88 mins, 15) Directed by Jackie Oudney ; starring Hugh Bonneville, Anne-Marie Duff, Douglas Henshall, Victoria Hamilton, Eric Cantona
Jackie Oudney's immensely likable debut, which I wrote of with some enthusiasm from the Dinard Festival of British Films last October, brings together the best elements of Richard Curtis's London movies and Nora Ephron's romantic comedies, with a strong whiff of Woody Allen. It might well have been called "Sleepless in Barnsbury". Victoria Hamilton (magazine editor) and Hugh Bonneville (freelance writer) play a London professional couple who are seeing a French "couple counsellor" as their 10-year relationship collapses.
Meanwhile, the relationship of their best friends, Douglas Henshall and Anne-Marie Duff, is also in crisis. The roots and solutions to their problems reside in the films of suave French expert on love, movie director Thierry Grimandi (delightful performance by Eric Cantona), on whom Bonneville is writing a feature. The film is clever, funny and emotionally truthful and the parodies of Grimandi's films are deadly accurate.
Fighting (104 mins, 15) Directed by Dito Montiel ; starring Channing Tatum, Terrence Howard, Luis Guzman, Zulay Henao, Brian White
Dito Montiel made an assured debut two years ago, directing A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints , a version of his semi-autobiographical novel about growing up on the mean streets of the New York borough of Queens. With needle-sharp images of New York by Stefan Czapsky, his new film tells the story of the uneasy working friendship between Shawn (Channing Tatum), a tough, mumbling white kid from Alabama, and Harvey (Terrence Howard), a fast-talking black hustler from Chicago who introduces him to the underworld of illegal bare-knuckle boxing.
One is reminded of a far better film set in the same subculture, Walter Hill's classic Hard Times (aka The Streetfighter), in which James Coburn manages bare-knuckle scrapper Charles Bronson in depressed 1930s New Orleans. But while everything is highly predictable, the film is well designed and bone-crushingly violent fights are ably staged in Brooklyn (a grim community hall), the Bronx (an alleyway behind a convenience store), Queens (a baroque Chinese brothel) and Manhattan (a half-built apartment block near Wall Street).
Viva (120 mins, 18) Directed by Anna Biller ; starring Anna Biller, Jared Sanford, Bridget Brno, Chad England
This cinematic curiosity is produced, directed, scripted and edited by its star, Anna Biller, a Californian previously noted for short films and stage musicals, and it has been greeted with considerable warmth by a wide range of American publications ranging from the New York Times to Variety
Biller plays Barbie, a bored Los Angeles housewife. Neglected by her workaholic husband, she and her best friend enter the permissive world of southern California during the early 1970s. There, she meets a trendy assortment of drug-taking hippies, phoney gurus, pretentious photographers, stage directors and swingers and indulges in a wide range of sexual activities before returning to hubby.
A parody or pastiche of the softcore pornographic movies that were largely replaced around 1973-4 by the vogue for hardcore pictures such as Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones , it's deliberately badly made. The acting is appalling, the editing inept, the cinematography garish, the continuous muzak (some of it played by Ms Biller herself) mind-numbing.
However, making fun of third-rate art and artists is no easy task. Laurence Olivier found it difficult to be as sleazy as Archie Rice. Tim Burton found it impossible to make a film as bad as those by the hero of his biopic, Ed Wood. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman failed utterly to hold our attention as second-rate vaudevillians in Ishtar . Viva lasts a staggering two hours (the audience does the staggering) and it doesn't merely end up an embarrassing bore, it gets there within a couple of minutes of the opening.