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Making a connection: (l-r) West and Savané in Goodbye Solo.

Quiet Journey

By John Brodeur

Goodbye Solo

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

You can’t always save a man who doesn’t want to be saved. In Goodbye Solo, the third film from Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, we meet just such a man. William (Red West) is an older man, probably around 70, with a face that shows his years in fine detail. He gets into a cab and hands the operator $1,000 to drive him, in 10 days, from Winston-Salem, N.C., to the peak of a mountain in Blowing Rock, a place where the wind legendarily blows upward. There is no mention of a return trip.

The driver, an immigrant from Senegal called Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), is understandably troubled by this mission. He begins to ask William about his life and his family, only to be told to mind his own business. But Solo persists—Solo invites William into his home when they are unable to find a motel; he introduces William to his ex-wife, Quiera (Carmen Leyva) and her daughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo); they go out drinking with Solo’s friends; and when he has a falling out with Quiera, Solo briefly becomes motelmates with William. But despite Solo’s attempts to break his fare’s gruff exterior, Oct. 20 is fast approaching and the old man shows no signs of changing course.

These two men couldn’t be more different. William is quiet and keeps to himself; while generally polite, he seems profoundly sad. Solo is animated, upbeat—he calls nearly everyone “big dog”—and he puts forth an infectious optimism. (He’s studying to be a flight attendant; when we meet him, he’s preparing to take the test for a third time.)

The “unlikely friendship” film is a tried and true—and tired—Hollywood tradition. So what makes Goodbye Solo such a winner? The answer lies in the film’s quiet nature. It’s a study of human nature, shot unobtrusively, with most of the film’s action taking place behind the eyes of the lead characters. There are clues given but they don’t necessarily lead to answers. Except for a few brief bursts, the only action takes place on the actors’ faces. There’s little to do with Hollywood here, which is why it clicks: Were this film set in, say, Manhattan, the bond between Solo and William, however hesitant, would be unbelievable; the scant bits of musical soundtrack are used as character points; the ending would be a massive disappointment for the happily-ever-after crowd. This is no spoiler: Much like William’s motivations, his outcome is almost frustratingly vague. Bahrani doesn’t spoon-feed, but rather invites curiosity. In doing so, he’s created a quiet wonder.

At Least There’s Some Pageantry

Angels & Demons

Directed by Ron Howard

Dan Brown wrote Angels & Demons before The Da Vinci Code, and it’s noticeable; the novel is a like a less-adept warm-up for the gazillion-selling, page-turning formula that took dusty arcana to new heights of pop-culture controversy. In 2006, The Da Vinci Code was made into a stodgy, miscast movie. Tweaking Angels & Demons into a sequel, director Ron Howard has heeded the legions of critics and disappointed Brown fans by boosting the action and picking up the pace (the streamlined script is by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp). But sheared of its labyrinthine plotting, character sketches, and trails of talismans, Angels & Demons becomes a more esoteric version of an Agatha Christie or National Treasure movie. Only with better backdrops: The film’s re-creation of hallowed Holy City locations gives an enjoyable, pseudo-seriousness to the film’s ludicrous twists and turns.

Once again, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is summoned unexpectedly by an enigmatic messenger, this time by an emissary from the Vatican. In Geneva, a brilliant scientist has been murdered, and his top-secret, mind-bending creation—a vial of anti-matter—has been stolen. In Rome, the Pope has died, and four cardinals have been kidnapped. The connection between these events is a single, obscure-but-dreaded word, “Illuminati,” representing an ancient secret organization of which Langdon is an expert. He teams with the scientist’s partner, fetching physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), to find the anti-matter vial before it blows up Rome, while simultaneously assisting the Vatican in trying to rescue the cardinals before the Illuminati carries out its threat to murder them. It’s up to Langdon, with the help of the pope’s personal assistant, Father McKenna (Ewan McGregor), and the reluctant cooperation of a Vatican security commander (Stellan Skarsgard), to save the papacy and its city.

Langdon is not quite as bland as was in Da Vinci Code; he’s given a few lines of mild humor, and a more appropriate haircut, though Hanks seems neutralized by Langdon’s dispassionate opinion on centuries of Catholic persecution of scientific free-thinkers like Galileo. The film’s narrative interest comes from McGregor as the young camerlengo who is thrust into power until the next pope is elected. McKenna is challenged on damage-control protocol by a traditionalist cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who serves as a mouthpiece for calm acceptance of god’s will. The film’s real star power, however, are its Eternal City locations (some of them reproduced by CGI), such as a chapel containing a sculpture of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Angels & Demons is a mediocre murder mystery, but as a travelogue on religious iconography, it lights up the screen.

—Ann Morrow

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