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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 27

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Current Releases

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. **

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. ***

FAST & FURIOUS The best part of Fast & Furious is its tagline – "New Model. Original Parts." – which means that the studio wonk who created it deserves the big bucks more than anybody who actually appears in the film. It's a catchy line because it advertises the fact that all four stars of 2001's The Fast and the Furious – Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster – have reunited for this fourth entry in the series. Unfortunately, this is one star vehicle that seems permanently stuck in "reverse." The best performer of the quartet, Rodriguez, disappears from the proceedings fairly early, as director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan apparently decided to make this even more of a Toys for Boys romp than its predecessors – Brewster's character is, as before, an utter stiff, while the other women (occasionally seen making out with each other) are merely decorative props. That leaves more time for Diesel (as outlaw hot-rodder Dominic Toretto) and Walker (as lawman hot-rodder Brian O'Conner) to engage in competitive bouts of piston envy, each trying to prove to the other that only he has a crankshaft large enough to take down the drug kingpin responsible for the murder of a close friend. The opening vehicular set-piece is a doozy, but subsequent racing sequences resemble nothing more than video game sessions. Diesel tries to recapture the brooding brand of charisma that made him a star, but he seems to be losing his grip on that elusive quality. As for Walker, he's more boring than ever: His acting is so somnambular that even his car's steering wheel stands a better chance at grabbing an Oscar nomination. **

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