Film reviews: Ciphers cracked at a giddy pace

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Angels and Demons (★★★☆☆, Ron Howard)
Synecdoche, New York (★★☆☆☆, Charlie Kaufman)
Viva (★★★★☆, Anna Biller)
French Film ( ★★★☆☆, Jackie Oudney)
Fighting (★★☆☆☆, Dito Monti)

In the beginning were the words and the words were “box office”. Whatever would the world do triennially in mid-May without author Dan Brown? Three years on from The Da Vinci Code, we learn again in Angels and Demons what happens – conspiracy, bloodshed, thrills, spills, murder – when no one is running a tight church at the Vatican. A quartet of Papal candidates is kidnapped after the Pope’s sudden death. Harvard symbologist Tom Hanks is re-summoned when this event coincides with the theft of dangerous antimatter – stuff of the Big Bang – from the Hadron Collider. And the phrase “brand recognition” takes on new meaning when the first captive cardinal sees a piece of smouldering wrought iron moving in on his torture-threatened chest.

Ron Howard directs a pell-mell script (David Koepp, Akiva Goldman) with more agility than he showed in Code. Though the story suffers intermittent daftness – how is it that cipher-cracking theological expert Hanks (pictured, centre) cannot read basic Latin? – the pace is giddy enough to speed us past puzzlements. The supporting players are well chosen from thriller-category Central Casting (Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl), while Ewan McGregor as the saintly-seeming camerlengo (the Vatican’s acting head of state) will bring in the Star Wars crowd. And who would begrudge two hours in Rome, chasing crime clues that conduct us through major tourist sites from St Peter’s to the Pantheon?

I cannot reveal more without breaking the code of the secret verses that protects the story’s mystery. Suffice it to sign off with my own, no less runic and clue-rich stanza: “Where Ekberg splashed and Tosca fell, the road to Heaven is paved like Hell. But Peter’s rock is worth a crack when smoke turns white from inky black.”

There is an oppressive sense of magnum opus about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York – as if whatever else was intended by the praised scenarist of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, making his directing debut, the very least was a complete, stonking, toe-crushing statement about life, death and the universe. From the cumbrously ingenious title upwards or downwards – “synecdoche”, a figure of speech in which the part signifies the whole, rhymes with Schenectady, Kaufman and his hero’s home town, a part for the whole, presumably, of sentient America – the film is too much of everything and too little of anything.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured, right) plays authorial alter ego Caden Cotard (more symbolism, a first name connoting “fall” and a second name derived from a death-obsessed mental condition), a 40-year-old stage director meeting the menopause head-on. After wife Catherine Keener walks out with their daughter, his new love Hazel (Samantha Morton), a box-office receptionist living in a continuously burning home (Magrittian surrealism), soon joins the discard pack when he falls for actress Claire (Michelle Williams). She is one of the mummers playing the characters modelled on Caden and his friends, family and amatory flames as the film’s second half has everyone aging drastically, including the audience, while Caden’s autobiographical play goes into 17-year rehearsal in a giant hangar.

Doppelgangers multiply, the actors becoming their characters or vice versa. So do actual or fanciful psychosomatic disturbances, from Cotard’s disease to hallucination to a surreal variant-form eczema. So do the endless, exhausting Pirandellianisms about reality and illusion.

The controlled romantic madness of Kaufman’s best work – where Lewis Carroll humour meets and falls in love with Kafkaesque paranoia – becomes a world of symbolic and thematic promiscuity at once lifeless and inchoate. Too many ideas interbreed as wit goes to the wall; though before the worst there is one classic Kaufman moment, reminding us of the Wonderland wisdom and logic he can dispense. “I want to do something important while I’m alive,” the hero confides to his shrink Hope Davis. Comes the deadpan reply: “Yes, well, that would be the time to do it.”

Anna Biller’s Viva is an inspirationally loopy spoof of 1960s/70s sexploitation cinema, its best scenes comparable to that kitsch wonderwork Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Not content with directing and starring in the film – a babe’s progress through the permissive era, its pneumatic heroine rubbing up, in nearly all senses, against the lustful, the carnal and the venal – Biller was screenwriter, editor and designer.

That last designation covers the pitch-perfect sets and stitch-perfect costumes, a combined riot of pop art, op art and don’t-stop art. When in doubt, use every colour in the psychedelic rainbow. The acting is as subtly, drolly bad as it needs to be. The hairpieces and cheesy background muzak compete for the honour of perfect finishing touch. At two hours Viva is a mite too long. But summer is here: give genius its leash. NA

Other releases
One of the key lines in Synecdoche, New York is a fateful observation about relationships: “The end is built into the beginning.” This could serve as a gloomy tagline to French Film, the latest attempt to transpose the classic Woody Allen-style New York romantic comedy to London.

Jed (played by Hugh Bonneville) is a journalist whose 10-year relationship with magazine-editor girlfriend Cheryl (Victoria Hamilton) began in unpromising circumstances and is thrown into crisis by his unexpected, possibly half-hearted marriage proposal.

Romantic advice comes to them from various sources, most notably Alain (Jean Dell), a self-important French marriage guidance counsellor, and, more unwelcome still, from Thierry Grimandi (former Manchester United star Eric Cantona playing, rather well, a character presumably named in honour of two former Arsenal players), a pretentious, slightly past-it director of Gallic romantic dramas. Grimandi’s direct-to-camera contributions on the nature of love inevitably evoke the appearances of Bogart’s ghost in Play It Again, Sam as well as the faux-interview sequences in Zelig and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

There’s the kernel of a good film here – it’s no less distinguished than any of Allen’s own London-set films, and Anne-Marie Duff is on fine form as Jed’s potential secondary love interest – but there’s something fatally unresolved about the story and the characters. We’re clearly meant to root for Jed, but for all Bonneville’s trademark crumpled amiability, he never seems like a proper, rounded man. The treatment of French cinema is rather facile, and ultimately this is no more substantial than a half-decent television sitcom, or one of the slight, love-themed sketches in Scenes of a Sexual Nature, writer Aschlin Ditta’s previous credit.

Fighting is also a pretty good-looking film with a reasonably strong cast that has a script problem of its own – namely that there scarcely seems to have been one for the actors to work with. The story is engaging enough, if the stuff of dozens of other fight pictures, the particular milieu here being the underworld of unlicensed bouts held in colourful spots across New York City, from a dive in the Bronx to a Manhattan penthouse. It’s lively, relentlessly cliché-ridden and, for no good reason – this certainly doesn’t contribute to an air of authenticity – presented in a succession of apparently and often uncomfortably semi-improvisedscenes. KF

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