Sunday, July 02, 2006

Do Da Da Vinci Dance

A while back I had planned to write a review of X-Men 3. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't BOSS, y'know? And the direction was okay, so I'm not blaming Brett 'scapegoat' Ratner. The man's a hired-gun, not an artist, and he does fine with what he's given. (Bottom line, look at Red Dragon. It's WAY better than Ridley Scott's Hannibal. But nowhere near Michael Mann's Manhunter. Thus Ratner has made a better film than Ridley Scott. Thus - not a complete waste of celluloid.)

Anyway, that Hannibal stuff is for another time. As is the X-stuff, as my opinions have been mostly ably summarised in Todd's review.

So we move on to the Worst Morning Of My Life. The morning I went to see The Da Vinci Code.

Where do you start with a train-wreck of a film like this?

Right up front I want to say that I really enjoyed the book. It's written the way a cat plays the piano, but it rolls along at a decent lick and keeps you guessing. Dan Brown's books may be idenitkit thrillers, but there is at least some thrill to them. And you do sit there trying to puzzle stuff out.

Well, except for that 'mirror writing' bit. While all the characters are saying stuff like 'hmm, I think it could be a language derived from the ancient Sumerian', the reader takes one look and thinks 'backwards'. (This is the only improvement the film makes over the book, by the way; Tom Hanks immediately demands a mirror. No faffing.)

So what's wrong with the film?

More or less everything, really. The tone is as solemn and reverential as a monk on Easter Sunday. This isn't a rollicking romp, it's a dour history lesson. The score treats every action like it's a Chuck Heston biblical epic. What's missing from the thriller is THRILLS.

To be fair, many of the issues come from adapting the book TOO closely, a phenomenon no longer limited to the Harry Potter saga. Yes the public loves the book, but if they want it that badly they can read it again. This is a FILM - screenwriters, show some backbone! Adapt the thing, don't just transcribe it.

I would have loved the Da Vinci Code adaptation job. The plot's all there for you, you just have to get rid of the novel's worst aspects - the prose and the dialogue. Dan Brown's text goes in the bin, his structure remains. It's ideal. You get to take a near-brilliant structure and wrap it in your own brilliant dialogue.

Well, you might...if you hadn't hired the screenwriter of Batman & Robin and Lost in Space. Seriously. (Yes, okay, Akiva Goldsman also has an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, but come on...)

So we get some of the same crappy dialogue, plus some all-new crappy dialogue. We also get a grafted-on back story for Tom Hanks. Presumably feeling left out because Paul Bettany gets a flashback history, and Audrey Tatou gets two, Hanks gets to be 'the kid who got claustrophobia by falling down a well'. Ugh.

To be clear, this phobia appears twice in the film. Once at the start, in a lift, just to establish it. Then, later, he gets a little sweaty in the back of a van.

Later in the film he will also hide in a Limo, travel in a small plane (and presumably use its bathroom) and hang out in an underground crypt. None of which will affect him in the slightest.

It's presumably supposed to lend the character some depth. It doesn't. Adding a characteristic does not amount to the same thing. It's no better than saying "Why doesn't he play the flute when he's nervous?' Characteristics are NOT character.

Worst of all, any screenwriter knows that these problems are created to be overcome. At the climax of the story, the claustrophobe is meant to overcome his problem as the villain traps him in a tight space. Or something. Doesn't happen.

Tom Hanks is, pretty much, lousy in this film. I can't REMEMBER when Hanks was ever bad in a movie. Oscars be damned, he's an incredibly watchable actor. If you didn't like the parts he got the nod for - Forrest Gump and Andy in Philadelphia - that's fine, but you surely liked him in Apollo 13, Big, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Toy Story...

The lousy performance, I've decided, is his attempt to fit in with the rest of the film. He plays dead-pan and flat because his character is flatly written. He's overly solemn because the direction is. It's an appropriate performance for the film.

Poor old Audrey Tatou, meanwhile, is scuppered with too much back story and, again, no discernible character. She's written, though, to be pro-active and hard-edged. So why cast the girl who was Amelie, the French Meg Ryan? Tatou does waifish and vulnerable better than anyone, but this part needed a Sophie Marceau.

The rest of the cast do what they do. The World's Coolest Frenchman, Jean Reno (erm, who was actually born in Morocco to Spanish parents and lived in Africa until his late teens) is given NOTHING cool to do, something even a mess like Godzilla managed to achieve. Alfred Molina is villainous...over the phone, mostly.

Paul Bettany comes off best. His albino make-up is shocking, the self-inflicted wounds more so, and his accent is pitched perfectly. But so what? Big deal. All he does is stalk and kill...and get caught. Oh, and then die miles away from the action having accidentally killed his mentor. (Another book-flaw made large here - two of the villains are dispatched miles away from the action by generic cops. Imagine if British Bobbys defeated the bad guy while James Bond was off somewhere else. Again, it's just poor writing.)

All the way through The Da Vinci Code I kept asking myself why it wasn't working. Other critics have pointed to the nature of the material - following clues and dishing out exposition isn't exactly cinematic.

Wrong. It's just not EASY.

When you figure it out, it's ideal cinema. They're making 66 episodes of CSI every year, and every one of them works. We follow the clues, the one-dimensional characters dish out exposition at the right times. It works - and it's the biggest-selling show in the world right now. (Which explains why Da Vinci tries to ape its CGI crash-zoom close-ups and ghostly flashbacks laid over the real word. Though it doesn't explain how it does them so badly and in the wrong places.)

Audiences who flocked to last year's Nic Cage movie National Treasure know that this stuff can be done. Sure, not a great flick by any stretch, but the clues were clear, we sat in the cinema and thought them over, and we watched as the character figured them out, following them along the trail of logic.

With Da Vinci, they blast past the clue-and-solution stuff so quickly, you barely notice it. And all the CGI anagrams in the world won't help the fact that, half the time, you're unsure what just got solved, or how. (The Fibonacci Sequence, for example, is named as such and never explained. Without the book I'd have no idea what they were talking about.)

Exposition CAN be cinematic. Moreover, it can be dramatic. Courtroom drama thrives on it - not just the revelation of information, but just what that revelation can mean. Da Vinci's secret could, apparently, change the world. Erm, okay - prove it.

Ghastly lip-service is paid to the controversial nature of the revelation that Christ had a child. In the final scene, Hanks goes off on one about how Christ's humanity doesn't contradict his divinity. (An argument that didn't work when Last Temptation came out, so probably won't this time, however reasonable.) Then Tatou, apparently Christ's heir, makes a jokey attempt to walk on water.

To coin an expletive - Jesus Christ. (This is tied in to an earlier scene where she stops a man in a park taking heroin so she can use his picnic table. Hey, maybe that was like a miracle cure! This is, actually, a vaguely interesting idea, but so at odds with the rest of film, because it's a new addition, it just feels ham-fisted and unrealistic.)

It's ironic, in fact, that the two best scenes in the film are the exposition sequences they otherwise work to avoid. At the start, Hanks gives a lecture showing the history of some icons. Watch for the swastika. Someone in the production office created a great piece of work while nobody was looking - how it made its way into the film is anyone's guess.

Then, later, the film's ONE GOOD THING shows up. Ian McKellen. In the book he's written as an English cliche. In the film he might be, too, but McKellen saves it. He's fast, funny (to be fair, some of this DOES come from the script. It's as if Goldsman got sick of writing histrionics so loaded up one character with all the irony) and - blimey Charlie - interesting to watch.

Mostly this happens in his first scenes, where he lectures us in grail history. It's great stuff - it's interesting, no matter how preposterous. And while director Ron Howard seems to think that this is the dullest part of the film, doing his best to avoid anything like it again, audiences will find themselves intrigued for the only time in two hours and twenty minutes.

You do feel that everyone - writer, director, cast - read a different book to the rest of us. Theirs was dull, ponderous, ruined by puzzles. Ours was fast-paced, lightweight and revelatory.

You can tell this by the fact that the few changes that ARE made, are made for the worse. Even to the point of making fundamental mistakes.

In the book, Hanks' character is woken in the middle of the night and taken to the Louvre, to the murder scene that kicks things off. The dead man was someone he had dinner plans with the following night.

In the film, Hanks is at a book signing after a lengthy lecture. The cops take him to the Louvre. The dead man was, apparently, someone Hanks had had dinner plans with THAT night, only he didn't show up. Y'know, cos he was dead.

Hang on, though...

So Hanks went to dinner, didn't find his guest, then gave a lecture, then signed books. That's three hours or so at least, right? Probably more like five, given that you plan a decent time for the meal.

The victim was shot after setting off an alarm in the gallery. Which means that the police must have been there within, say, 30 minutes. Then what? They waited hours before contacting Hanks? It never made the news - prominent guy, killed in famous location?

Don't start taking apart the toaster unless you know how to put it back together.

And don't waste you money on this film. Everyone here has done better work elsewhere. Rent National Treasure, or watch CSI. Hell, just read Brown's books.

I'm too late, of course. A sequel has already been greenlit, based on a huge box office intake.

Christ save us all.


Additional: The book has suffered no little controversy by, well, being about Jesus. Because Christian groups everywhere seem to believe that the power and influence of their One True Lord and Savior can be damaged by a fictional book. (Yes, shock horror, it's a NOVEL, not a legitimate historical tome.)

Seriously guys, the religion has a strangle-hold on the planet, your God is apparently all-powerful and eternal. Do you seriously think He gives a damn that some American academic has written a book about his kid, and that that book might bring the whole homophobic, judgmental, unforgiving house of cards down? Not likely.

More hilarious, though, is the fact that Brown was (unsuccessfully) sued by the writers of Holy Blood Holy Grail, an alleged history book that tells, more or less, the story that Brown's book also 'reveals' - Christ had a child, the holy grail is Mary Magdalene's body, secret societies, blah blah.

Brown obviously read their book - one character's name is an anagram of one of Holy Blood's authors, and the title is namechecked in the novel.

Thing is, if that book WAS a true history, can they sue? Can they really claim Brown ripped them off when all his characters do is believe what Holy Blood Holy Grail says? You can't copyright history. If what those writers claim was true, as suggested, then they can't sue. Nobody owns World War II. If I write about it as a history, I can't sue someone who sets a novel in the midst of the action.

Ah-ha, but...what if the whole thing is bunkum? What if Holy Blood is a made-up pile of tosh? Made up by the same kind of conspiracy-crazy authors that have ruined investigations into Jack the Ripper, concocting nonsense theories based entirely on supposition.

Well, now. If they DID make it up...yes, I suppose Brown nicked their fiction and used it in his. That is grounds for legal action.

Which, then, brings the whole thing down to this: you can claim it's true, and in which case have no legal case. Or you can admit it's balls and sue. Except you always claimed it to be true. Oops.


At Tue Jul 04, 09:30:00 am, Blogger China Blue said...

I really enjoyed that review! Never got around to seeing The DVC, as I have quite a short attention span and get fidgety 20 minutes into a movie, so anything longer than 2 hours is out of the question, Gone With The Wind being the only exception.

Can't wait to avoid the sequel... ;-)

At Tue Jul 04, 02:53:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Time limits?! On films?! Noooooooooooooo!

What about Pirates 2? Titanic? Anything else with a boat in?

*can't believe his eye*

At Tue Jul 04, 05:20:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

Hahaha - no, not time limits so much, it's just... I get kinda restless when watching a movie and want to do other stuff.

Hmmm - boats are ok.Titanic was good, but anything set on a plane is out - after seeing Aeroplane! and Alive I was disturbed for weeks :(

I liked Titanic. Tried watching King Kong, but took ill with severe boredom after the first hour. It just takes a lot to keep my attention, so the first 20 minutes are crucial!

At Tue Jul 04, 06:10:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

> Hahaha - no, not time limits so much, it's just... I get
> kinda restless when watching a movie and want to do
> other stuff.

Suddenly picturing the back row of the cinema. Can't think why...

> after seeing Aeroplane! and Alive I was disturbed for
> weeks :(

A lot of girls were. They heard 'a load of fit rugby players get stranded and end up eating each other' and got SO the wrong idea. :-)

>I like Titanic.

So much for your hard-edged persona. :-p

>Tried watching King Kong, but took ill with severe
>boredom after the first hour.

Shame. Top massive monkey action followed...

>It just takes a lot to keep my attention, so the first 20
>minutes are crucial!

I choose to take this out of context and make crude allusions to what it says about your sex life. ;-)

Wow - I just used up my smut AND smiley quotients for the day!

At Tue Jul 04, 07:44:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

LMAO - Well, I just left myself wide open to that, didn't I?

Another thing - when at the movies, I usually find having something to eat stops me getting too restless... well, anything that keeps my hands busy and stops me talking, really.

btw - you have a smut quotient? You can borrow some of mine - I have an endless supply ;-P

At Tue Jul 04, 08:16:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

> Well, I just left myself wide open to that, didn't I?

You're just saying things like this to get me to exceed my quotient, aren't you?

> I usually find having something to eat stops me getting too restless...

God love the popcorn fiend. All the addicitive qualities of cocaine without the weight loss.

> well, anything that keeps my hands busy and stops me
> talking, really.

Great - the smut siren has gone off! Oh, I'm trouble now...

> btw - you have a smut quotient? You can borrow some
> of mine - I have an endless supply ;-P

I wouldn't need to if you didn't keep making so much of your Half-Naked Thursdays...


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