The Da Vinci Code (2006) – Retrospective Borderland Review

This big-budget, Hollywood studio adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dan Brown turns out to be a murky, plodding affair, whose pompous aspirations toward being serious undermine most of the entertainment value of what is, underneath the gloss, a simple-minded hokey thriller. Although it is interesting enough to hold your attention, and even comes to life in places, it is ultimately too long, too stilted, and — occasionally — too ridiculous to be reckoned a success.


In case you haven’t heard, the film follows Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), an art historian and professor who is summoned to help the police investigate a murder at the Louvre museum in Paris. It turns out Langdon is actually a suspect. He hooks up with a policewoman (Audrey Tautou), who coincidentally happens to be the murdered man’s granddaughter. They follow a series of clues that leads them to seek the advice of an expert who has dedicated his life to studying the Holy Grail (Ian McKellen). Meanwhile, they are pursued by the real murderer, an albino monk (Paul Bettaney), who is working for a Bishop (Alfred Molina) of the conservative believe Catholic organization Opus Dei, which is seeking to find and destroy evidence that Jesus was really married to Mary Magdalene.
The convoluted plot is pretty much incredible and nonsensical, as it was in the novel. The difference is that Brown had a lot more space to rationalize his incidents and layer on heavy doses and psuedo-historical bullshit that made the whole story feel as if something important really was going on. The screenplay by Akiva Goldsman has to cut way down on the exposition but still leave in enough to leave some semblance of clarity. The result is the worst of both worlds: a storyline that feels both over-burdened with exposition and filled with gaps in logic.
Despite his obviously failings as a novelist (one-dimensional characters, lame dialogue, bad research presented as established fact), Brown’s redeeming strength was that he turned his book into a page-turner by filling it with clues and puzzles that kept the reader intrigued and wanting to know more. Apparently written for readers with attention deficit disorder, the book is filled with short chapters, almost every one of which ends with some kind of riddle or unanswered question that’s just interesting enough to make you read on to the next chapter.
The film loses a lot of this stretegy, but it does retain many of the clues and puzzles — just enough to make the plot an occasionally interesting mystery. Unfortunately, despite lavish production values, beautiful location shooting, and BEAUTIFUL MIND-style flashbacks superimposed over the expository passages, the film never brings the story to life in a cinematic way that stands on its own.


It is only a slight exaggeration to say there are none. Langdon is mostly passive and entirely colorless. His phobia about confined spaces is thrown in as if to humanize him with a character flaw, but it is an empty detail with no resonance. In fact, the part is so devoid of interest that even the usually reliable Hanks seems totally adrift, with no idea what to do but stand around looking at all the objects d’art, and frequently mouthing one of Brown’s many long-winded (if utterly unconvincing) lectures about the Divine Feminine.
Audrey Tautou fares equally poorly in a roll equally underwritten — a generic leading lady who, like Langdon, simply does what’s necessary to keep the plot going in the right direction.
Fortunately, Ian McKellen proves to be a lively scene-stealer in the film’s later half, expounding upon his character’s theories with a twinkle in his eye that tells us to enjoy that silliness without taking it seriously. Too bad no one else in the cast figured out that this was the way to play the material; in fact, it’s too bad Ron Howard didn’t figure out that the whole film should have affected this tongue-in-cheek tone.


The film has a suitably sinister atmosphere. With its historical underpinnings and use of ancient art and architecture, DA VINCI CODE almost feels like a Gothic horror film — an element underlined by Bettaney’s spooky performance as the murderous monk, known as the “Phantasm” because of his lack of skin coloring. That’s enough to hold interest for about a half-hour’s worth of screen time; unfortunately, the film is so in love with itself that it doesn’t bother to maintain a healthy pace, in spite of the thriller elements.
As a director, Ron Howard cut his teeth on cheap, action-packed drive-in movies produced by Roger Corman. Sadly, the verve and energy of that style of film-making is nowhere on display in THE DA VINCI CODE, which plays like a lame attempt to duplicate the Hitchcockian formula of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Howard lacks the wit and style to pull this off, and the attempt to treat the material reverentially only emphasizes its failings — whereas a more brash approach might have livened things up. Ultimately, the greatest mystery of THE DA VINCI CODE is why anyone would think it worth solving.


The DaVinci Code (2006). Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jurgen Prochnow.


Sense of Wonder: A Look Back at The Protocols of the Da Vinci Code

The films murderous monk
The film's murderous monk

Cinefantastique has a long tradition of inclusiveness when it comes to defining the genres it covers. Most recently, we reviewed the mystery-thriller ANGELS & DEMONS because its plot is built around an anti-matter bomb, which technically makes the film science fiction. Having opened the door on the universe of Dan Brown’s novels, and the films adapted from them, I thought I might as well re-post this rant that I composed upon viewing THE Da VINCI CODE in 2006. Maybe I over-stated the case back then, but I think my points are valid, so I left the prose untouched.

I saw THE DAVINCI CODE the other night, and I must say my reaction was one of continuing amazement that Hollywood would make such a piece of crap. Sure, it’s polished and slick — even entertaining at times — but it is also relentlessly stupid and even offensive.
Two things struck me:

  1. Although I don’t support calls to ban the film, Catholics are right to be offended. In fact, you could not get away with making a film that treated Judaism in a similar manner — it would be universally derided as anti-Semitic.
  2. I hate movies when I have only a very limited knowledge of the subject matter — and yet it is abundantly clear that I know more than the filmmakers.

On ther first point, I kept wondering why it was okay to slander Catholics with such impunity. It’s impossible to imagine a major Hollywood studio making a movie in which a Jewish secret society hired some hulking homicidal albino to kill off a bunch of innocent people in order to advance a religious agenda. But really, if you’re going to make a film like DAVINCI CODE, why not follow up with a film adaptation of THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, portraying a nefarious worldwide Jewish conspiracy? Sure, it would be offensive, slanderous, and stupd — but how much more so than DAVINCI CODE?
As to the other thing about the film that ticked me off, I’ll elaborate by saying that my Biblical knowledge consists of having grown up in a Catholic family where my parents stopped making us go to church after our first communion. Since then, I read the occasional article and watch a documentary now and again on the History channel. Yet I was rolling in the aisle with laughter when THE DAVINCI CODE had its characters expounding on the Council of Nicea and the alleged attempt to debase the reputation of Mary Magdalene.
If you do Google search for “Cracking the DaVinci Code,” you can probably find lots of scholarly rebuttals to the nonsense advanced in Dan Brown’s book and repeated in the film adaptation. I haven’t finished the book yet, my impression is that the film downplayed some of these elements or at least added some lip-service acknowledgement of contrary theories, in order to make a pretense of a “balanced” view. But that doesn’t negate the essential silliness of the whole idea.
We’re supposed to believe that Jesus, a Jewish prophet who was later embraced by his followers as the Messiah and the Son of God, actually wanted to found a pagan-influenced church that worshipped the Goddess (or the Divine Feminine, if you prefer), the worship consisting of (briefly glimpsed) sexual rituals.
We’re also supposed to believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelane and wanted her to carry on his church after his death. But Peter and the apostles apparently took over and edged her out of the operation, creating the Christian relgion we know today.
Except that’s not quite it, either. Actually, the film blames the Roman Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea for creating Christianity as we know it — hundreds of years later.
This is so absurd it barely warrants comment. Christianity was already established by this time, but it was made up of different factions that emphasized different interpretations. All the Council of Nicea really did was formalize a a sort of basic common ground shared by the different groups.
Thus, the New Testament has not one but four different gospels, which differ in some respects quite a bit from each other. This hardly are resembles the work of a group crushing dissent and sanctioning only one narrow view of Christianity.
The evidence for THE DAVINCI CODE’s dubious claims about Mary Magdalene, we are told, lies in the Gnostic gospels that were excluded from the Bible at the Council of Nicea. What we’re never told is why we should accept these Gnostic gospels as true. These are just alternate interpretations of the life of Jesus that were created by small cults trying to advance their version of Christianity — often decades after the Canonical gospels had been written. There is little reason to believe that they are a more accurate depiction of Jesus’ life or teachings.
But what’s most funny about this alleged conspiracy is what a lousy job it must have done. After all, despite all its best efforts, Mary Magdalene appears in all four gospesl of the New Testament, and in many ways she comes across better than the men. To cite the most obvious example, after the crucifixion, Peter denies Jesus three times and goes into hiding, along with the rest of the apostles.
It is Mary (and one or two other women, depending on which gospel you read) who goes to the tomb and finds it empty. It is Mary to whom one or two angels announce the news of the resurrection. And it is Mary to whom the risen Jesus first appears. And the men don’t believe her when she tells them about it!
Something about those cowering, fearful, faithless men, contrasted with Mary, just makes them look really bad and makes her look really good. I know if I were part of a conspiracy to rewrite history and downgrade the role of Mary Magdalene, I would never have let this episode — in four different versions, no less — make its way into the Bible.
Of course, the filmmakers are hiding behind the shiled of dramatic license, insisting that their movie is only fiction. But if that were true, no one would go see THE DA VINCI CODE. As a murder mystery, it is barely adequate hokum, bogged down by its scholarly pretensions. The only reason the subject matter has caught the imagination of the public is that author Dan Brown has cleverly convinced the public that his novel is based on historical fact. (The very first page begins with the boldfaced word FACT at the top, followed by a few paragraphs that allegedly lay the groundwork for the books historical veracity.)
I know people like conspiracy theories, and the Catholic Church has much to answer for. Even putting aside historical atrocities like the Spanish Inquisition, the Church of today has a lousy record on issues like birth control, abortion, and attitudes toward women and gay people. But that’s no reason to accept Dan Brown’s idiotic theory about goddess-worship as if it were gospel truth.

Copyright 2006 Steve Biodrowski


Angels & Demons is Filled with More Demons than Angels

Angels & Demons (2009)ANGELS & DEMONS is a film that we originally thought was meant to be a mystery tale, a who-done-it. However, the picture involves a science fiction aspect in the form of ‘antimatter’ experiments, thus opening the door to that which is Cinefantastique. So, we decided that we should give it a look-see. And having done so, we’d like you to consider it a public service, because just maybe we can help save you eight to thirteen bucks or so.
I think most of us can concede that the existence God can neither be completely proven nor disproven by the likes of man (even though people on both sides of the argument like to claim otherwise), hence the reason that we can only ultimately come to the conclusion of His existence through faith. But I’m here to tell you that accepting the plot of ANGELS & DEMONS takes at least as big a leap in faith.
ANGELS & DEMONS , like its predecessor, THE DA VINCI CODE, is a ludicrous story full of cheap gimmickry, manipulation, pontification, melodrama, and just plain nonsense. The simple outline puts it like this: The Catholic Church involves itself in experiments concerning the capture of antimatter particles because it believes that antimatter may be the link to the “God particle,” thereby bringing us closer to understanding something about the Creator. The scientists involved are more interested in learning more about our temporal universe, possibly revolutionizing energy needs and travel, etc. Nonetheless, a research marriage is born, and our team does manage to capture a small amount of the highly dangerous material.
Now, of course, you can’t have a discovery like this without someone wanting to steal it for some vile purpose. So, our storytellers interject a vengeful member of the Illuminati, which the Catholic Church drove underground generations ago via its philosophic—and literal—attacks. He breaks into a high security area of the research center with the retina of a kindly donor, if you please, and carries out part one of his nefarious plan. (Now, I have to admit that this part confused me because the, uh, donor appeared to have already been deep inside the high security area when the Illuminati affiliate used his body part to get in. It seemed rather like using a key to get in a safe when the key was already locked in the safe.)
Meanwhile, back at the Vatican the Pope has just died. This leads us to part two of the overall plan – kidnap the four cardinals who are most likely to be named Pope in the wake of the last Pope’s passing, demand millions, kill them one at a time via the four alters of the Path of Illumination—earth, wind, fire and water—and threaten to blow the Vatican to kingdom come (along with a big chunk of Rome) in a “burst of light” if all demands are not met. But between you and me, all is not just about demands and money.
Everything is being done according to symbolism too, so there is little to do other than to bring in the great Harvard religious expert & symbologist, Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), who was heavily involved in the experiments, to help solve this deadly mystery. What follows is an extremely forced and irritating engagement in puzzle solving. None of the tension is genuine; it’s shoved at you and you can feel it. And then there’s Hans Zimmer’s brow-beating score that seemed to scream, “You’re gonna swallow all this fast-paced mystery and tension, and you’re gonna like it!”
I’ve been a Hanks fan since SPLASH, but I didn’t take to him in THE DA VINCI CODE (because that film too was bad), and just like Zimmer, he actually frustrated the bejesus out of me in ANGELS & DEMONS. He went through the entire picture lecturing in an arrogant, pontificating manner, force-feeding the viewer information on everything from why Vatican statues were missing their procreative parts to why December 25 was chosen as the date to remember the birth of Christ. Listening to his stuffy character explain the reason for this and the origin of that while also explaining various symbols and clues over and over throughout the entire film felt very leading and snobbish. There was no real sense of exploration or interesting detective work in DEMONS; everything was laid out in a conscripted, connect-the-dots fashion which drained all the life out of the movie.
There are also other moments that should get under anyone’s skin, such as Tom Hanks’ smug lecture on being “against vandalism” (referring to what a past Pope had done to those Vatican owned, and therefore non-vandalized, statues in the name of modesty). Then, in a despicable (and what  I would call falsely motivated) moment after having been granted very-difficult-to-obtain access to the Vatican’s priceless—and seriously temperature controlled—library vault, Hank’s partner in crime (Zurer) defaces what is supposed to be an incredibly important journal written by none other than Galileo. Its main purpose was for humor and gets referred to a couple of times later on. But it’s cheap, flat and even insulting. Adding further insult is the fact that there is never any consequence to this selfish, destructive act, and Hanks is even granted access to the vault a second time.
We also have someone who is supposed to be staunchly Catholic taking the Lord’s name in vain in what I presume was supposed to be a mildly amusing gag; I simply found it eye-rolling and, again, false in its sentiment. These types of things occur several times throughout ANGELS & DEMONS, and they kept throwing me out of my concentration on the story.
Then there are little issues like the fact that what is being perpetrated is so unsettling to one perpetrator that he’s willing to consider burning himself alive rather than be caught, but clues are being left behind at every step in their symbolic actions and everyone who gets in the way is being killed except the one man who can figure everything out and endanger their plans to bring down their arch enemy, the Catholic Church. In fact, our killer even tells Langdon and Vetra, “I’m not going to kill you because I was not told to. But if you follow me, it is another matter.” This, after they’ve been dogging his efforts throughout the entire film. Knuckle-headed reasoning and plot devices like this are thrown in periodically as excuses for those viewers who might ask some logical questions.
I do wish to point out a positive point or two: Ewan McGregor did give an affective performance as the Vatican’s too-good-to-be-true Camerlengo (whose control in this film extends beyond true boundaries), and I was impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino (inspector Olivetti), but most everyone else seemed to be in on the audience-misleading that was supposed to be taking place. Their performances were not bad in the traditional sense, but they were toying.
I’d have to say, however, that this would be in keeping with the mentality of the rest of ANGELS & DEMONS. Dan Brown is fond of unnaturally setting up straw dogs and generating silly, unnatural twists and turns. If you thought Christopher Reeve’s priest in MONSIGNOR was over the top with his killing actions in war, love making and involvement with the black market, wait ‘till you get a load of some of the storytelling in this film. It generated as many questions in logic is it answered in its own desired fashion. And Father Patrick McKenna is something else. He’s even a skilled helicopter pilot from wartime and saves everyone from that antimatter device I mentioned earlier. And that’s just scratching the surface.
I admit that I had a few quibbles with STAR TREK, but after seeing several of the big summer offerings thus far, I have to tell you that at this point it’s the most genuinely energetic, action-packed and properly humorous film this season. None of these qualities were embedded within ANGELS & DEMONS. So if you want to see a film dealing with subjects like antimatter, I say beam aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise.  And if you want to see a much more interesting film involving religion rent DOUBT.
By the way, did you know that the great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was probably a secret Illuminati member whose real purpose in generating all the art he did for the Catholic Church was done in the name of infiltration? Neither did I. Sheesh!


ANGELS & DEMONS (Imagine Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, 2009; 138 min.) Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Dan Brown. Produced by John Calley, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Executive produced by Dan Brown, Todd Hallowell and Marco Valerio Pugini (Italy). Cinematography by Salvatore Totino. Production Design by Allan Cameron. Costumes by Daniel Orlandi. Special Effects Supervision by Daniel Acon (Italy), Clay Pinney, Dominic Tuohy. Visual Effects Supervision by Angus Bickerton, Mark Breakspear, Ryan Cook, Richard Higham, and Richard Stammers. Music by Hans Zimmer. Edited By Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill. Cast: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Thure Lindhardt, David Pasquesi, Cosimo Fusco, Victor Alfieri, Franklin Amobi, Curt Lowens, Bob Yerkes, Marco Fiorini, Carmen Argenziano, Howard Mungo, Rance Howard, Steve Franken, Gino Conforti, Elya Baskin, Richard Rosetti, Silvano Marchetto, and Thomas Morris. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.