ANGELS & DEMONS
You may not necessarily know character actor Armin Mueller-Stahl by name, but you likely know him by sight, and almost surely by voice. Familiar from such thrillers as Eastern Promises, The Game, and the recent The International - and Oscar-nominated as David Helfgott's über-strict father in Shine - the 78-year-old German, with his closely-cropped gray hair and wizened eye slits, doesn't look much different now from how he did playing Jessica Lange's is-he-a-Nazi-or-isn't-he? dad in 1989's Music Box. And he sounds exactly the same, with that heavily accented, hoarse whisper of his; by the time the performer reaches the end of a sentence, he always seems dangerously close to running out of breath.
Mueller-Stahl's voice is a tremendous actor's tool - at once benevolent and malevolent - and it makes sense that's he's often cast in inscrutable character roles; that paternally gruff timbre suggests a man who'll either hug you or kill you on sight. The problem, though, is that he's become so predictably cast as motivationally questionable shadow figures that there's no longer any real thrill in an Armin Mueller-Stahl performance. If his characters initially come off as secretive and mildly threatening, they'll commonly be revealed to be teddy bears, and if they start out saintly, they'll routinely wind up as bastards. (It turned out his Music Box pop was a Nazi.) I won't tell you which route he takes in Angels & Demons - director Ron Howard's film version of author Dan Brown's bestseller - but suffice it to say that the actor's track record remains unsullied, and that the movie itself is not unlike Mueller-Stahl's recent portrayals: admirably professional, fundamentally conventional, and, in the end, more than a little dull.
Thankfully, it's nowhere near as dull as Howard's The Da Vinci Code, Brown's Angels & Demons predecessor that set bookstores ablaze and, in movie form, somehow scared up more than $200 million in U.S. ticket sales. As talky, paranoid, ludicrous-to-the-point-of-nutball religious thrillers go, this new offering - another European adventure with Harvard symbologist and skeptic Robert Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks) - does have some drive, in the form of one of those (literal) ticking-time-bomb plotlines: A container of chemically unstable antimatter, stolen by a mysterious sect called the Illuminati, has been buried somewhere beneath the Vatican, and will detonate unless Langdon and his Italian posse find it before midnight.
There's more, of course, including the kidnapping and execution of possible successors to the Pope, clandestine meetings behind Vatican walls, and the expected, breathless scavenger hunts as Langdon races from one artfully lit torture site to the next. But unlike The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons doesn't give you much time to think about how inane it is. We're given a moderate reprieve from the endless, flatly staged religious- and art-history lessons that continually ground Howard's previous Brown adaptation to a halt - in what has to count as an improvement, the lectures here are at least delivered while characters are moving - and happily, the more ridiculous the movie gets, the more entertaining it gets. I didn't, for instance, buy the sequence that finds Langdon and a chain-smoking cop trapped in an oxygen-deprived library, but their escape attempts were certainly amusing, and if you ever wanted to experience the giggly rush of watching a priest make like Bruce Willis and commandeer a helicopter above Vatican City, this is definitely the movie for you.
So why, with all of the speeding cars and grisly deaths and men's choirs singing portents of doom, is Angels & Demons still so boring? Partly it's because the oppressively funereal color schemes give every scene a feeling of stagnant sameness, and partly because the drearily expository dialogue and Hanks' uninvolving, one-note performance constitute their own forms of oppression. (It's also partly due to Howard's tonal repetition and blandly serviceable staging, but with Angels & Demons arriving so soon after Frost/Nixon, I have no interest in detailing the director's mediocrity yet again.) Mostly, though, it's because the movie aims to shock (or at least goose) its audience with vaguely heretical church-baiting - Sinister Cardinals! Shifty-eyed priests! A plot to kill the Pope! - yet offers precious little surprise. Can anyone still be even moderately startled when seemingly devout movie characters turn out to have hidden, even murderous, agendas? (Wouldn't it be a bigger blow if they didn't?)
Hanks aside, there are at least a few enjoyable actors here to take your mind off things; Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård, despite both being as stereotypically cast as Mueller-Stahl, add some fun, and in the Audrey Tautou role, Ayelet Zurer brings an engaging sharpness to her underwritten role. One actor, though, is positively electrifying: The Danish performer Nikolaj Lie Kaas shows up in a few scenes as a vicious, bespectacled assassin and easily steals the film away from his better-known co-stars. Looking like a gruff younger brother to Guy Pearce, Kaas exudes incredible fierceness and charisma - he gives the kind of memorable performance that makes you sit through the end credits to find out "Who was that?" - and it's representative of Angels & Demons' mostly unsatisfying nature that the movie is done with him long before you are.
THE LAST LULLABY
Booked at Showcase 53 for a one-week run, The Last Lulluby - directed by Jeffrey Goodman, with a script by Peter Biegen and Muscatine author Max Allan Collins (based on his novel The Last Quarry) - is a dramatic thriller/mood piece in which hired killer Jack Price (Tom Sizemore) falls in love with his target (Sasha Alexander), and for an occasionally brutal outing with a liberal smattering of F-bombs, it's a lovely and haunting piece of work. You may feel you've seen this plot before, and you probably have, but Goodman lends the movie an easy, relaxed narrative flow and proves terrifically gifted with moments of unexpected violence (a gunshot in the tall grass delivers a sizable jolt), and given the beautifully modulated portrayals by his leads, the film's do-I-kill-her-or-date-her? dilemma is presented with unusual gravity and feeling.
At certain angles here, Sizemore looks uncannily like James Gandolfini, and his subtly powerful turn has some of the inner nuance and outer smolder of Tony Soprano; Sizemore's Price is a two-bit hood frightened that he's destined to remain a two-bit hood, and with no amount of grandstanding, the actor clues us in to a wealth of conflicting emotions. (It's been far too long since Sizemore was allowed to be this empathetic and multi-dimensional on-screen.) Alexander, meanwhile, is a true stunner. Her beleaguered librarian may seem a victim, yet the actress fills her role with radiant personality and warmth, and she pulls off her tricky climactic closeup with supreme skill; much of the film is a performance duet, and in their every shared scene, Sizemore and Alexander play beautiful music together. The Last Lullaby is a slight thing, but it's filled with sweet and lasting images - the shot of the leads sitting together in a doorway, their backs pressed against opposing walls, is gorgeously, unfussily romantic - and features just the right amount of juicy tough-guy banter. At one point, having rescued a kidnapped girl from her abductors, Price demands payment of his own before handing her over to her father. "Do you have any children, Mr. Price?" asks the snooty dad. Price shakes his head. "Just your daughter."