for tea? (l-r) Hanks and Tautou in The Da Vinci Code.
a Dull Sermon
Da Vinci Code
by Ron Howard
hate it when somebody does a cover of a song, only to perform
it exactly the way the original singer did, like karaoke
only taken to a different level. I mean, what’s the point?
Where’s the stamp of individuality? I had the same reaction—disgust—when
watching The Da Vinci Code. Director Ron Howard and
screenwriter Akiva Goldsman breathe absolutely nothing new
into the cinematic adaptation of the Dan Brown megahit. The
end result is a careful (so as not to offend fans? the church?
academics?) staging that’s more Power Point presentation than
work of art or entertainment.
Let’s make one thing clear: The book was not great literature,
as clunky sentences and clichés abounded. What did work was
the sense of solving the story’s central mystery alongside
symbologist Robert Langdon (in the movie, Tom Hanks) and French
cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou). Clues, in the form
of anagrams and puzzles, were embedded within historical paintings.
It was a brilliant way to lure readers—that, and the conspiracy
theory of the central mystery. Without ruining it for the
uninitiated, let’s just say it involves the relationship of
Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. (Separately, but even more
shockingly, it refigures the very bedrock of Christianity.)
The story begins with the murder of museum curate Jacques
Sauniére (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who extends his last moments
on earth in a very impressive, Olympian quest to leave lots
of clues, in quasi-invisible ink, throughout the Louvre. (Didn’t
this guy have a cell phone?) His last words, written in his
own blood, lead to the questioning of Langdon, conveniently
in town for a lecture, and to Langdon’s teaming up with Sophie.
Obviously, Sauniére trusted that their respective talents
combined would lead to enlightenment, instead of the turgid
question and answer sessions that we get. “How can this be
possible?” asks Sophie, to which Robert intones, “It’s not
Howard and his crew treat all of this with kid gloves, fearful
apparently of imprinting anything original or interesting
onto it. They’re dogged in their perceived duty to spell it
all out for us, whether or not we’ve read the book; the filmmakers
seem bound to pause every few minutes or so to let the slower
ones catch up. Trouble is, we’re way ahead of the proceedings,
so watching Langdon and Neveu pause in the middle of a life-and-death
chase to spend long moments discussing key points in Religion
Lite Theory is agonizing.
For the first time, Hanks neither annoys or intrigues me.
Here, he is the object of my compassion, as he looks hopelessly
adrift, a man without a well-written part, an actor forced
to play teacher.
Pursuing our talky protagonists are police inspector Fache
(Jean Reno), himself a member of a conservative Catholic sect
called Opus Dei, and Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino killing
ma chine who just happens to be a self- flagellating monk.
Would that Howard could have treated Silas’ daily self-inflicted
penances with subtlety. But no, he goes the slasher-film route.
As a result, Silas’ murders for the good of the cause come
off as less deadly than his flagellation. This defangs him,
and he comes off as just creepy.
There’s also a determined bishop (Alfred Molina) and an English
grail seeker, Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan). The scenes
in which Teabing painstakingly explains the mystery of the
grail bring the proceedings to an utter standstill again.
Aren’t these people in grave danger? Why are they chatting
The haunting lack of urgency mummifies what should have been
a convincing game of cat and mouse. National Treasure,
an enjoyable yarn from 2004, dealt with another age-old mystery,
but did so with panache and respect for its audience. As its
trio of treasure hunters worked their way through that mystery,
we were in on the action. We bought that the protagonists
were in fear for their lives, and, surprisingly, we bought
into the central facts of the mystery. Whatever side you may
be on with respect to the “who done what with whom” of The
Da Vinci Code, the filmmakers do a disservice to all with
their tepid and plodding storytelling.
Tradition of Oppression
by Deepa Mehta
Director Deepa Mehta’s Water has been a long time in
the making. In 2000, original production was disrupted by
Hindu fundamentalists who, apparently, objected to the film’s
sympathetic portrayal of Hindu widows and to the movie’s implicit
call for reform. The protestors had the support of the Indian
authorities, and ultimately the shoot had to be relocated
to Sri Lanka. Filmmakers—including George Lucas, who took
out a full-page ad in Variety—rallied around Mehta,
spurring her on to complete the film. So, the film gets the
tags “brave” and “important” for its director’s dedication
to an ostensibly oppressed community of women. Fair enough.
But is it any good? Well . . .
is set in 1938 India, a country troubled both by the colonial
presence of the English and by a rigid traditional caste system.
Among those designated “untouchable” by that caste system
are widows, who by tradition must either kill themselves after
their husband’s death or seclude themselves and never remarry
(they may, we’re told, marry their husband’s youngest brother
with permission of the family, but that doesn’t come up in
this storyline). We follow one such widow, the 7-year-old
Chuyia (Sarala), into the ashram where she is intended to
live for the rest of her life with other Hindu women who have
outlived their spouses. There, the spirited girl meets a cast
of “aunties,” including the gruff and bullying Madhumati (Manorama),
the protective and motherly Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and
the sisterly and drop-dead gorgeous Kalyani (Lisa Ray).
As one might expect, Chuyia becomes a kind of agent provocateur
among the widows, her childish high spirits eliciting responses
and revelations from the women that illustrate the varied
ways individuals respond to oppression: opportunism, quiet
suffering, romantic longing, etc. The acting is subtle and
natural, though the characters are mostly merely convenient.
By the time the tragic love story kicks in, the viewer knows
pretty well how everyone will react and how things will end.
That predictability isn’t necessarily a fault in a tragedy
(Mehta even tips her hand knowingly with some overt Shakespearean
references). But once you’ve figured out where things are
going, you naturally look at the bigger picture to contextualize
the characters’ fates; and that’s where Water confounds.
On the one hand, Mehta seems to be presenting the story as
a poingnant flashback to the dark days just prior to liberation,
for both one of the widows and for India. (No spoiler here,
but Gandhi plays a role in both.) On the other, as she makes
clear with a some final text about the continuing plight of
Indian widows, she seems to intend it as a current call to
action or a public-service announcement. It’s a bit disorienting.
Like coming out of a production of Romeo & Juliet
to be given a pamphlet titled “The Dangers of Petting.”
by Tim Johnson and Karey Kirkpatrick
Most kids will probably enjoy this latest CGI animated
feature from DreamWorks (Shrek, Madagascar).
If you’re over 13, however, you should probably bring
something to help pass the time. Personally, I’d suggest getting
through the film’s 86 minutes by sawing your own head off
with a soft-bristled toothbrush. This would be more pleasant
(and useful) than enduring Over the Hedge.
The story is simple: A group of animals—a skunk, possums,
a turtle, porcupines and an extremely wired squirrel—awake
from their winter-long nap to discover that most of their
forest has been leveled and replaced with a cookie-cutter-bland
suburban development. Enter raccoon RJ (voiced by Bruce Willis),
who offers to be their guide to obtaining food from the plentiful
and pesky humans now in their midst. We already know, however,
that the nefarious RJ has an agenda that doesn’t include genuinely
helping his newfound pals.
Whatever. Over the Hedge just doesn’t make you care
about its critters. The animation is fine; as a colleague
pointed out, the hair texture and movement is particularly
impressive. But the characters, as written, are less than
clichés; most of the jokes are of the usual fart-based variety;
and the Brian Wilson-esque songs by Ben Folds (!) are barely
negligible. Even more jarring is the voice casting: You don’t
need to know that the role of RJ was written for Jim Carrey
to realize that the monotone-voiced Willis is horribly miscast.
(Only Eugene Levy and Steve Carell make an impression.)
The film limps from boring scene to tedious montage and back
again until the surprisingly entertaining climax, which involves
giving the hyper squirrel (a perfectly manic Carell) an energy
drink and turning him loose on the villains. Too little, too