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Tuesday, December 12

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The Da Vinci Code

Have you heard the rumors recently that there are, in fact, human beings on this planet who have not read or even touched a copy of Dan Brown's super-mega-best-seller The Da Vinci Code? Yeah, that would be me. It's not that I have anything against the book's popularity or Brown's writing style (which I'm told is fairly cinematic), and I certainly don't resent him for challenging the foundations of Christian doctrine. I've actually seen several films and read books on just this subject over the years. I just never got around to it. And by the time I thought I might get to it, the movie was on the verge of being released and I thought it might be better simply to see the movie as a movie rather than an adaptation.

The biggest benefit of not reading a book before the film comes out is that you avoid any preconceived notions about a film, such as whether Tom Hanks is rightly cast as hero Robert Langdon, a symbols expert on a book tour in Paris who suddenly lands in the middle of a myriad of mysteries regarding religion, murder and centuries-old puzzles. I'm not going to dissect the plot of The Da Vinci Code, partly because most of you probably know it already and partly because I don't want to give away too much to those of you who haven't read it (if you truly exist). Langdon and police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) are framed early on for various murders throughout Paris, but one of the victims happens to be Sophie's grandfather (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has left clues in his own blood near the Mona Lisa and other Da Vinci paintings in the Louvre as to why he was killed.

Events in the beginning of the film are a bit scattered. Since Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, we know he's the good guy, but we never really learn that much about who Robert Langdon really is other than the fact that he's claustrophobic. I really had to strain my brain as to whether that fact would figure in later in the film. The film's first sin is that past collaborators director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman (who won Oscars for A Beautiful Mind) aren't exactly subtle when laying out their plot. There's also a murderous, albino monk named Silas (a genuinely creepy Paul Bettany), who self flagellates with alarming regularity and ferocity. We also have Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa, who heads up a secret society who is using Silas to retrieve…something very, very secret. It just so happens that Langdon and Sophie are after the same mystery object, and the race to unlock the many clues left through the years by some famous men of science and reason is on.

Despite the beautiful location settings and the clearly intelligent script, The Da Vinci Code feels like it's plodding along, barely taking a moment to do anything but solve one clue after another. Despite their being chased by everyone from the mad albino monk to the police (led by Jean Reno), I never really felt like Langdon and Neveu were in any real danger. But the bigger problem is Hanks' delivery. It isn't weighty enough. In fact, some of his lines will undoubtedly illicit unwanted laughter in theatres around the world. I would never in a million years believe there was a role that Tom Hanks could not handle, but he's out of his depth here, and I wasn't completely aware of it until Ian McKellen enters the picture as Sir Leigh Teabing, and old friend of Langdon's whose knowledge about all things related to the Holy Grail paves the way for our heroes to finish their quest. No one can deliver crap dialogue with more gravitas than Ian McKellen; he is the master. We believe every word that comes out of his mouth, and when he speaks of the greatest lie in human history, your spine will chill. And while I wouldn't take out a single scene with McKellen working his magic, the sequence in which we first meet Teabing feels like cheating. This is a film about using your mind and knowledge of the world's secrets to solve age-old riddles, but in Teabing's first scene he spills out so many secrets and answers that it feels like cheating. Langdon and Neveu haven't earned this information; it's just handed over to them. Granted, almost nothing Teabing says about the origins of the Christian religion hasn't been said before in the real world, but it's all just dumped in our laps rather than given to us a piece at a time as the heroes collect these facts themselves.

As strange as it may sound (spare me the hate mail on this point), seeing The Da Vinci Code made me appreciate Kevin Costner's acting a lot more, specifically in JFK. In that film, Costner plays a largely unremarkable man who is surrounded by a legion of far more interesting characters, but without Costner's ability to read lines and be a stable force in the film, the other characters would have nothing to revolve around. Tom Hanks doesn't have that power, at least not here. I don't know whether it's a flaw in his performance, in the writing, or in the direction, but he seems to fade into the woodwork too often in this film. He is strangely unremarkable (even with his long flowing man-locks) and ultimately the blame rests on his shoulders for sinking this film. And this might be the film's great revelation. Most of the remaining cast is solid, but when your support beam is weak, the whole structure comes crashing down.

I hope you folks are enjoying the hell out of your local art house because between Poseidon and The Da Vinci Code, there isn't much left to enjoy. Next week: X-Men: The Last Stand. Color me nervous.

Over the Hedge

Looking for a multiplex alternative to The Da Vinci Code lines? It's hardly a secret that many family-oriented films of late bite the big one, if for no other reason then they don't offer up enough entertainment value for the parents/adults who inevitably end up dragging the kiddies to go see these films. There are exceptions, including nearly every Pixar film, every feature from Aardman Animation (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run), the Shrek films, and now Over the Hedge. While this Dreamworks production doesn't skimp on the flashy visuals and fart jokes that preteens seem to adore (I kind of like them, too), there's another layer here I found so endearing and fun that I can't imagine people not enjoying the heck out of this little gem.

Bruce Willis voices RJ the raccoon, who is caught stealing food from a hibernating bear (a terrifyingly gravel-voiced Nick Nolte). He ends up losing the food and is given an ultimatum by the bear: replace the food in a short amount of time or die. In his search for a quick food supply, RJ stumbles upon a group of woodland creatures that are only just waking up from hibernation and realizing that during their long winter sleep, suburbia has cropped up on the outskirts of their forest. Suddenly their vast food supply, which they normally begin collecting as soon as they wake, has been threatened. Fortunately RJ knows a little something about what lies over the hedge that separates the forest from the homes on the other side and offers to assist the animals in collecting food (which he will ultimately swipe).

Willis has a commanding, swarthy presence as RJ, a natural leader and persuader of animals compared to the creatures' de facto leader Verne the turtle (Garry Shandling), who, through some freak of nature, is not attached to his shell, thus making it removable. Also on hand are Wanda Sykes as the Stella the skunk (who complains quite a bit about the lack of willing dates), William Shatner as the overacting possum Ozzie, the surprisingly effective Avril Lavigne as his daughter Heather, and long-time comedy partners Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara as some sort of hedgehog-type creatures. But hands-down the reason to slap down your hard-earned cash to see this film is an inspired, riotous, insane vocal performance by Steve Carell as Hammy the squirrel. I laughed at every word that came out of this guy's mouth. If Dreamworks doesn't include every minute of video footage of Carell's recording his lines on the DVD for Over the Hedge, there is no God. I'm not sure if Hammy is supposed to be retarded, slow or just in desperate need of medication, but he's a miracle of animation. Bless co-directors Tim Johnson (Antz) and Karey Kirkpatrick (co-writer of Chicken Run, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the upcoming Charlotte's Web remake) for selecting Carell (who was hired when he was just that guy from "The Daily Show") for this part. I should also mention that Thomas Haden Church voices Dwayne the Verminator, hired by a housewife (Allison Janney) to take care of the invading animals looking for food. I have a feeling Dwayne was supposed to be the real comic relief of this film, but Hammy steals all scenes from all comers.

As with most animated films, an army of writers contributed to the script, but one name caught my eye as being a part of the team: Len Blum. Blum has been around a long time in the comedy arena, as a screenwriter on Meatballs, Stripes, and more recently Howard Stern's Private Parts. I suspect a big part of my reason for falling for this film as hard as I did has to do with his participation in the writing. The CGI animation style of Over the Hedge is fairly realistic without being creepily photorealistic (as the recent The Wild is). There are loads of inventive action sequences, lots of well-earned laughs (I particularly liked Shatner poking fun as his own tendency to over-emote and gesture while acting), and nothing particularly offensive. Thankfully, the one thing missing from Over the Hedge are pages of pop culture references, the kind that date a film five years after its release. It's the more timeless quality of this film that I appreciate and applaud.

The bottom line is that Over the Hedge is note perfect on just about every level. It's not concerned with heavy-handed messages about protecting the forests or the animals that live there; it's not tackling the problem of urban sprawl. The mission here is pure entertainment, and with much thanks to a crazy squirrel, that mission is accomplished. I'll be the first in line to buy a Hammy the Squirrel plushy as long as Steve Carell's voice is coming out of it.

The Proposition

Hey now! In any given year, you can usually count on two to four films to really knock your socks off when you're not expecting them to at all. I'd noticed that a few of my Ain't It Cool brethren have been championing the Australian outback Western The Proposition, but I never really wanted to read the reviews. I've known for almost two months exactly when I was seeing this film and I wanted to walk in pure. It's a good thing I did because I walked out of the screening pretty filthy. Remember what I said last week about how much I'd been missing Australian films and how happy I was to see three new ones in the last month? The Proposition is the best example of why I've had a Jones for down-under cinema for so long. It's like there are no rules, or more specifically, it's like they don't know or care about the rules. And that's a positively wonderful prospect.

Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento) seers holes in the screen as grimy outlaw Charlie Burns, who, along with his brother, have been making life hell for folks in late 19th century outback Australia, a place in desperate need of taming. After one of the loudest gun battles in the history of film, Charlie and his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) are captured by a group of lawmen led by Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone of Sexy Beast), who offers Charlie a deal: he'll pardon Charlie and won't kill little brother Mike if Charlie locates and murders in nine days oldest brother and Burns Gang ringleader Arthur (played against type by one of my favorite character actors Danny Huston, son of director John and sister to Anjelica). The gang is believed to be responsible for raping and killing a pregnant woman, and Capt. Stanley believes Arthur is the primary offender. Charlie takes the deal.

The Proposition is two stories that intersect only at the beginning and end. We follow Charlie as he makes his way through the deserts and mountains of Australia searching for his brother and what's left of their gang. Along the way, he comes across a drunken bounty hunter played with much gusto by John Hurt, and not surprisingly their meeting is far from coincidental. When the brothers finally do meet again, we're not 100 percent clear what Charlie's intentions are. He tells his brother about the deal and Mike's imprisonment, and a small rescue team is thrown together to free the fragile lad.

The other half of the film centers on Capt. Stanley, who leads a fairly dignified life with a lovely wife (the always-reliable Emily Watson). But when the townspeople find out that he is holding one of the murderers in his jail (thanks to a wily politician played by David Wenham), they want instant justice and demand he be punished immediately with no trial. Now the film becomes a race to save Mike, and Capt. Stanley finds himself in the unenviable position of protecting a criminal he more than likely was going to let die very soon anyway. But keeping Mike alive is the only thing that keeps his deal with Charlie alive.

This entirely wicked and brutal affair is brought to you by two unlikely players. The sharp screenplay (and music) comes courtesy of maudlin musician Nick Cave, while director John Hillcoat hasn't made a feature film in about 10 years. But, boy, do they bring this mother home. Hillcoat paints his lovely landscapes with a gag-worthy amount of blood and guts. The last person who seemed to revel in making a Western this nasty and violent was Sam Peckinpah, but I'm still picking my brain trying to remember a film of his that was quite this blood-soaked. The tension in The Proposition is as thick as the dust in the Australian desert air, and I could never quite shake my justifiable fear that Capt. Stanley's pristine home life was just waiting to be blown to bits.

In case you can't tell, this is a rave review, although I will add that there are very few traditionally pleasant moments in this film. The acting is superb, and I absolutely could not get enough of Huston's deep baritone as he plots or fondly recalls the deaths of many. He is the most evil of the many unsavory characters in this film, yet he's also the one you can't wait to get back on the screen. Pearce plays Charlie as the contemplative, silent type who springs into action so suddenly, you almost don't see him move. He's the most deadly kind of snake, one with intelligence. The Proposition has a look, feel, and attitude about its story and violence that makes it seem it was made 30 years ago. It doesn't care who it offends. In fact, if some aspect of the film doesn't offend you, there may be something wrong with you. But I embrace and encourage this type of filmmaking so strongly. Bravo to Cave and Hillcoat for pulling this one together, making no compromises, and taking no prisoners. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Sisters

Aside from Shakespeare, the playwright whose work I enjoy seeing performed on the stage the most is probably Anton Chekhov. His plays aren't turned into films as often as the Bard's, and when they are they tend to feel staged and wordy. But valiant, innovative adaptations of his plays are attempted on occasion with priceless results, most notably in 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street. The Sisters is a modernized telling of The Three Sisters with a tremendous ensemble cast, and a fairly faithful rendition of the material. Remember what I said about feeling staged?

Not that Arthur Allan Seidelman, a noted theatre and television-movie director, doesn't make the effort. The venomous dialogue remains as painful to listen to as ever, nearly every character has secrets regarding addictions, fidelity, intentions, suicide, paranoia, or childhood abuse. This is a well-educated and acerbic clan that never misses an opportunity to argue insult, or pick apart; sometimes their rage is all they have to prove they exist. They maintain the illusion of Southern perfection, make references to history and classic literature at every gathering, but there is little difference between this family and the ones that show up on "Jerry Springer"; their vocabulary is just a little bigger.

The titular characters are played by Maria Bello, Mary Stuart Masterson and Erika Christensen (with their hapless brother Andrew played by Alessandro Nivola). Bello is the unhappily married (to Steven Culp) Marcia, who begins a doomed affair with the married Vincent (Tony Goldwin), a visiting old family friend. Masterson's Olga is a lesbian school teacher, who is not only afraid to bring her lovers home to meet the family, but terrified to even get involved in a relationship for fear of exposing her emotions. Christensen plays Irene, a closeted drug addict involved with doting David (Chris O'Donnell). Also hanging around the swank homestead is an old professor played by Rip Torn, a bitter teacher (Eric McCormack) insanely in love with Irene, and Andrew's bimbo fiancée, Nancy (Elizabeth Banks). As good as the cast is, the film is uncut by segmented direction by Seidelman. Characters exit and enter right on cue and every word of dialogue is precious, so everybody takes turn speaking even during the most heated arguments. Chekhov practically invented this type of vicious family drama, and it feels right on stage, but artificial on the screen.

Of these actors, Maria Bello probably fares best as the intensely unhappy Marcia, who took on the role of mother to the family (in more ways than one) when her mother died when she was a teen. There are times in this story where she appears the strongest and most able, but Bello chokes out a devastating look at her character's more unstable and neurotic elements. Since her role in Permanent Midnight and subsequent supporting parts in The Cooler, Thank You for Smoking and A History of Violence, Bello is clearly one of the most formidable actresses working today (and it certainly doesn't take much to get her to take her clothes off, as she does once again in The Sisters). She manages to rise out of the structured and formal feel of the film and exudes pain and torment with a level of believability that is uncomfortable to watch. The Sisters is hardly insufferable as a movie-going experience, but it may leave you cold. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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