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. "Angels & Demons"

The miracle that has to be performed here is to change--through cinematic alchemy--dry pseudo-historical information into life-or-death drama. Therein lies the ancient scientist's pursuit of gold through a process of transformation from lead. Well, they didn't succeed any more than physicists Pons and Fleischmann really discovered room temp fusion, but what director Ron Howard and novelist Dan Brown facilely demonstrate, boxoffice gold can be made out of exhaustive exposition.

As long as all the dry information is buried within a pursuit of impending death, that is, like its affect on the outcome of a Vatican "conclave." This event occurs when all the Roman church's cardinals meet behind closed doors to vote on a new pope when the last one dies. Enhancing the problem with conclave taking place here is that the four "prefereti"--those who have the best chance of winning--have been kidnapped in order to be killed according to an assassin's timetable.

Spice that up behind with a a long-thought dead secret brotherhood called the "Illuminati" who have, through centuries, proclaimed the falsity of the church's doctrine and its denials of scientific fact. They have, fictionally speaking, become enough of a force against good to merit a blockbuster best seller and a correspondingly blockbuster movie. Dan Brown shows us the way; Ron Howard and his writing team David Koepp ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") and Akiva Goldsman ("The Da Vinci Code") show how its done; and Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (a Dan Brown innovation, methinks) and alluring Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as researcher Vittoria Vestra give it the necessary fleshing out with tense and efficient role playing.

Add in Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the man chosen by the pope to be his trustful aide who has some special powers in the period between his death and the appointment of the new pope. But, the extent of those powers can be put in a box by Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who, as presiding official during the conclave, gets to decide who can even be present.

Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas is the assassin whose body count could turn tides in Afghanistan, is an interesting choice whom we haven't seen this side of the Atlantic since the twisty and slightly unarrangeable "Reconstruction" in 2003.

The plot amounts to following the clues the assassin leaves as he methodically kills his cardinal hostages according to the timetable of the "Illuminati" who guide his bloodbath designed to be capped at midnight with the mighty explosion of a vial of anti-matter absconded from Vetra's lab. Aiding in the pursuit to head these disasters off is Commander of the Vatican Swiss Guards Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) and Inspector Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) representing the Vatican police. Jurisdictional territoriality mixes into the hair's breadth timing and tension.

Which is the pot of gold. Howard pulls off over two hours of tension that you don't feel until near the wrap-up, but not without leaving you refreshed by an engaging yarn. Another challenge this prequel to "The DaVinci Code" creates is the absence of any romantic interest between Langdon and whatever female expert he winds up with, however much Hanks expresses disappointment over the lack of intimacy with his co-star (according to the Thaindian News). But, as directorial guidance has it, the breathless tracking of the clues across old Rome is not to be compromised by emotional diversions.

Hanks shows that he's still very much on his game as he keeps us with him every second of his sometimes preposterous historical sleuthing. Zurer, interestingly, stays well in the picture while serving as the model of scientific collaboration without attitude or inclination to contest the symbologist as he interprets the clues--almost always correctly.

McGregor plays the political intrigue within Vatical walls cool and smooth, keeping the extent of his agenda internal throughout, while Skarsgard is annoyingly impassive as a stubborn disbeliever of Langdon's and Vetra's warnings, which functions to maximize the impact of the horrors that ensue.

Another big star of this pic is Rome, itself, and one could imagine Dan Brown walking the piazzi and wonderfully preserved cathedrals and statuary from ancient Roman history in devising the geography of his intricate plot full of religious ironies. The locations are legendary and well depicted by the all-pro production team.

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The Soundtrack

While the suppositions about Mary Magdalene and Jesus' bloodline of "The DaVinci Code" upset many a priest and other clergy, there is no such comparable heresy hereabouts. Sure, some may loudly dispute the condemnation of Vatican practices throughout its history that the film alludes to as key factors in the destiny the Illuminati are trying to pull off, but they don't go to the core of Christianity and fewer sensitivities are likely to be aroused by it.

Sadly, however, someone saw a need for a phony whitewash of story-suggested church culpabilities and shortcomings. A make-nice speech attempting to whitewash what the film "exposes" is off the pages of a Disney fantasy for 8-year olds. There's already too much implausibility, one hardly needs more of it in the form of political/religious spin. Besides, I prefer my Dan Brown unadulterated.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ayelet Zurer and Tom Hanks
Vittoria Vetra and Robert Langdon following the symbols and clues to thwart enemies of the churs.

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