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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of June 17



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. ***

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has more to offer than Matthew McConaughey's past rom-com dalliances; it's still formulaic, disposable nonsense, but at least it benefits from a stellar supporting cast to prop up its leading player and a reliable source – Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol – to steer it in the right direction. McConaughey plays Connor Mead, a fashion photographer who goes through women the way viewers of Titanic went through tissues. His boorish behavior threatens to ruin the wedding of his younger brother (Breckin Meyer), but his womanizing Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas) returns from the grave to show him there's more to life than just wooing the women. A more versatile actor would have sold this material more efficiently than McConaughey; as it stands, his tanned, aging-frat-boy routine allows his character to remain such an unrepentant, misogynistic creep for such a good chunk of the running time that almost all sympathy has been lost for this character by the time he finally begins to see the light. Luckily, co-star Jennifer Garner is a step (or 10) up from such vapid past co-stars as Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez, and she works hard to coax out his rakish charm. She succeeds more often than not, meaning a small measure of genuine warmth enters the frame during the latter portion of the film. While she (and Meyer) provide the emotion, others pick up McConaughey's slack by providing the laughs – especially indispensable are Robert Forster (as the father of the bride) and Douglas, both amusing as dissimilar examples of aging, curdled machismo. **1/2

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