‘Code’ looks better than it reads 

'Confidential' gloriously absurd.

Hanks, Tatou and M.L.
  • Hanks, Tatou and M.L.

Despite the conventional wisdom about the book always being better than the movie, sometimes a really bad book can make for a really good movie. “The Color Purple” comes to mind, as does “Forrest Gump.”

And while the celluloid version of “The Da Vinci Code” doesn’t rise to the quality of either of those two films, it does end up being much more effective on screen than it is between the pages.

As you probably already know by now (the book was read by gajillions of people, and the movie’s opening week had it viewed by gajillions more), Tom Hanks plays symbology expert Robert Langdon. Summoned to the Louvre in Paris after a speaking engagement, Langdon is soon swept into a murder mystery that turns into something more: an intrigue and cloak-and-dagger-filled race to discover the final resting place (not to mention the true nature of) the Holy Grail.

On the run with beautiful cryptologist Sophie (Audrey Tatou) and pursued by a fanatical wing of the Catholic Church, a single-minded bulldog of a police detective (Jean Reno) and a killer albino monk (Paul Bettany), Langdon’s search eventually leads him to some of the great and not-so-great spots of Europe in pursuit of the world’s last great secret.

In turning “The Da Vinci Code” into something for the screen, director Ron Howard fills in a number of author Dan Brown’s plot holes, while creating new scenes to satisfy other lingering questions from the book. The first and foremost — and most welcome — of these is the assigning of motive to many of the characters involved. Here, Howard and his screenwriter do the hard work of giving us a reason why everyone does what they do — zealotry, guilt, duty or simple greed — and it makes the characters much more three-dimensional.

Still, “The Da Vinci Code” has its problems, mostly that the convoluted facets of its plot mean the film can’t go far in the thriller fast lane without frequently visiting the exposition rest stop. This can be maddening at times, especially when the movie picks up some speed near the end. Too, the plot is so thick that it negates almost any hope of character development, something that leaves most of the characters wooden; nothing more than cardboard props to stand against a scary backdrop.

While “The Da Vinci Code” is an interesting movie, it’s not a great movie by a long shot. Over-long, exposition heavy, and maybe even a bit full of itself, it promises earth-shaking revelations, but the most it can manage is a bit of a quiver.

Arty flick

On a college campus, you can usually spot the art majors a mile away. Not that I’ve got anything against artists, but they do tend to have a look about them — a spacey kind of gleam to their eyes; maybe even that give-up-your-worldly-goods-and-walk-with-me look that makes you want to run to the dean of the MBA program and beg your way in. And trying to talk to them about art and its value to humanity? Fuggedaboutit.

The art school atmosphere is captured in all its absurdist glory in the new film “Art School Confidential.” Funny and all-too-familiar to anyone who passed through the liberal arts wing of their local university, it’s a nice way to spend a couple hours at the movies, even if it does kind of fall apart in the end.

Max Manghella plays Jerome, a freshman at an inner-city New York art school. Still a virgin and having lived a largely sheltered life, Jerome comes to school with dreams of being a famous artist, and runs headlong into the school’s often-arbitrary system of hierarchy, which discounts talented folks like Max while rewarding obvious hacks for their “freshness” and “innocence.”

After falling in love with an artist’s model named Audrey (Sophia Miles), Max tries to juggle the demands of his classes, his vain-but-vapid instructor (John Malkovich, in a subtle but hilarious role), friends, rivals and roomies, all the while trying to fend off the hunky interloper for Audrey’s affections (Matt Keesler), and absorb the advice of a nihilist-but-wise art-school dropout and near-hermit (Jim Broadbent). Meanwhile, in one of those twists that seems to not matter but eventually does, a serial killer prowls the grounds at night.

Part “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and part “Clerks,” with a generous dose of “Fame” thrown in for good measure, “Art School Confidential” is a smart and solid little film, with a number of incredible actors on deck (Malkovich, of course, but also Anjelica Houston as an ethereal History of Art instructor, and Steve Buscemi as the caustic owner of a local gallery where many young artists get their first shot), and great performances from its cast of lesser-knowns. Though it wanes noticeably towards the end, the film still manages to keep its clever sense of humor, even when the drama gets a bit too heavy for such a light and flaky thing.

This one’s a clever little keeper. See it soon.



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