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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of June 10

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ANGELS & DEMONS Angels & Demons, the follow-up to the international smash The Da Vinci Code, feels like nothing more than a cross between a Frommer's travel guide and a scavenger hunt, as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon hits all of Rome's holy hot spots gathering up clues as if they were empty Dr. Pepper bottles or grimy 1992 pennies. The events in author Dan Brown's Angels & Demons actually take place before those in Da Vinci, but for the sake of movie audiences, the pictures follow a chronological trail, so that the new film finds the Catholic Church putting aside its dislike of Langdon (Tom Hanks) based on his Da Vinci discoveries so that he may help the organization with its latest crisis. It appears that the ancient group the Illuminati, the Catholic Church's sworn enemy from way back (the film posits the warring factions as if they were the Hatfields and the McCoys), has been resurrected, and its new kids on the block have not only taken to assassinating the candidates for the post of Pope (couldn't they have gone after Miss USA contestants while they were at it?) but also planting a time bomb deep within the bowels of the Vatican. Naturally, it's up to Langdon and his beauteous Italian sidekick (Ayelet Zurer, as bland a companion as Audrey Tautou proved to be in Da Vinci) to save the Cardinals, the Vatican and Rome all in a single bound. Ron Howard's direction is about all this film has going for it, as his need for speed distracts audiences (to a point) from the fact that the script is a shambles, relying too heavily on absurd developments and lengthy explanations to move the action from Point A to Point B (or, more accurately, from one Italian landmark to another). And watching Hanks embody such a vanilla role as Robert Langdon is akin to watching a Nobel Laureate reduced to washing diner dishes for a living. **

DRAG ME TO HELL The face of horror in modern cinema is, sad to say, torture porn, where sadism is exhibited with alarming regularity and imagination is only employed when the scripter conjures up gruesome new ways for characters to die. Because of this lamentable trend, it's easy to sing the praises of this funhouse freak show that's more interested in delivering old-fashioned chills than in wallowing in misogyny, masochism and mutilation. The story is so thin that the entire screenplay could have been written on a bubble gum wrapper, yet the end result is so delirious in its desire to delight that moviegoers willing to be jerked around won't mind. Director Sam Raimi regains the playful prankster attitude he exhibited back in his Evil Dead days, crafting (with brother Ivan) this yarn about sweet-natured loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who, in an ill-advised attempt to show her boss (David Paymer) that she's able to make the "tough decisions," denies the elderly Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) a third extension on a loan, thus leaving her homeless. Angered, the gypsy woman places a curse on Christine, a jinx that will expose her to three days of supernatural hauntings before she's ultimately ... well, check out that title. Drag Me to Hell isn't exactly scary, and the climactic twist, straight out of vintage EC Comics, is telegraphed far too early in the narrative. But Lohman is ideally cast as a decent person who nevertheless must occasionally make some hard calls if she wants to survive, and the brothers Raimi get a lot of mileage out of Mrs. Ganush as a formidable adversary. Forget Jason and Freddy and Jigsaw – it's the thought of this old woman gumming me to death that might make it difficult to turn out the lights. ***

EARTH This feature-length spinoff of the BBC series Planet Earth has been playing Europe since the summer of 2007, yet it was only released in the U.S. on April 22, 2009 (Earth Day). Hmm, perhaps its British creators deemed it pointless to release such a pro-environment documentary in a country then ruled by a heinous Republican administration bent on the destruction of our natural resources? At any rate, the picture has finally been released stateside by Walt Disney Studios under its new Disneynature label, a welcome throwback to the days when Walt himself would personally supervise such Earth-friendly fare as The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie. And while it's hard to urge moviegoers to spend money on something they can basically catch on the Discovery Channel for free, there's no denying that the magnificence of the images on display is even more impressive when presented in a larger-than-life format. With his majestic voice, narrator James Earl Jones introduces us to the animal protagonists of this globe-spanning piece – among them polar bears, elephants, humpback whales and a particularly scary shark – and discusses the various challenges most of them face, whether from other animals or from global warming. Earth is an enjoyable experience, but it would be wrong to simply digest the picture as a complacent moviegoer. So here's my contribution to the cause: A frequent friend of big business, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar would have been right at home in the Bush Administration (what was Obama thinking when he picked him?), given his abysmal indifference to wildlife and specifically his approval of a Bush Administration plan to slaughter endangered wolves. Protest his actions at www.doi.gov/feedback.html or make a contribution at www.savewolves.org. ***

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