When in Rome...

Ron Howard and Dan Brown have a lot in common. Both are good at distorting the truth for the sake of entertainment. Howard distorted the truths in A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which were supposedly true stories, and Brown’s novels are the target of much skepticism and sensationalism. It’s no wonder that Howard and Brown go so well together, and add Tom Hanks to the picture and you’ve got yourself a bona fide blockbuster.

That was the case of Da Vinci Code, which was the first venture for Brown, Howard and Hanks. It proved to be a controversial hit (both as a book and a movie), enabling the production of Angels & Demons, the book set before Da Vinci Code.

Director Ron Howard has taken a different path for Angels & Demons. He treats the movie as a sequel rather than a prequel, establishing that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) had become a more confident character after the adventure in Da Vinci Code. Just like Brown distorts historical facts and history itself, Howard distorts the work of Brown. There are more liberties taken this time around simply because Angels & Demons is not as well known as its prequel. Speaking about the adapting the book, Howard said, “it's very much about modernity clashing with antiquity and technology vs. faith, so these themes, these ideas are much more active whereas the other one lived so much in the past. The tones are just innately so different between the two stories.”

Indeed, whereas the two stories share a theme of mystery and intrigue, Angels & Demons is totally about the now; the newest technologies with often futuristic overtones. Though at times, with mentions of things like Dark Matter, CERN and The Large Hadron Collider, you’d think you need a science degree to understand exactly what the story is on about, but the writing and directing seamlessly integrate jargon and make the movie enjoyable and not a drone of incomprehensible jargon.

The story begins in Rome, where the Vatican mourns the passing of the Pope. During this time of mourning, it is Patrick Mackenna (Ewan McGregor) who assumes day-to-day control of the Vatican as the Camerlengo. And while the world waits for the signal from the Conclave that a new Pope has been chosen, the Illuminati, a 400-year old underground secret society run by mad scientists, kidnap the most likely candidates. The Illuminati threaten to murder the candidates as vengeance for ‘La Purga’, an ancient ritual where members of the society were executed by the Church. Being the crazy cult / mad scientists they are, they demand a ransom which if the Vatican fails to pay will result in the destruction of the city itself.

This is where the Vatican does the obvious (when a city is held by a group of cultists) and summons Langdon (Tom Hanks) and a specialist from CERN, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Langdon immediately realizes, after much clever deduction, that clues to finding the Illuminati are found not only in history but also the entire city as well. Tom Hanks portrays Robert Langdon in a very highly minimalist mode, not because he acts very little but because he acts with ease. This time around he’s more comfortable and long expositions of his historic heavy dialogue sounds less like a monotonous speech and more like convincing dialogue.

Hanks is joined by an international actress, this time it is Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer portraying a scientist from CERN, the large European laboratory which holds the Large Haledon Collider. Zurer’s job is often very superficial with sharp reactions to Langdon’s discoveries. Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor, all bring their A-games to the table and have captivating—often scene stealing—moments in the film. The three of them are players in a Vatican power struggle that takes shape after the death of a beloved pope and the shadow of the Illuminati threat looming over the Vatican.

Skarsgard is the commander of the Swiss Guards, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl, a powerful cardinal, they are obvious heavies on the screen wheras McGregor enjoys playing a wide-eyed character with a messiah complex.

The flaw with this movie is that sometimes the plot tethers on the verge of utter silliness. Plots involving antimatter and the Vatican are hardly your average thriller stories but at its heart it is a serial killer story, with Langdon on the hunt of the mastermind behind the plot.

The movie itself suffered two major setbacks; first the Hollywood Writer’s Guild strike pushed the film back from a December 2008 release to a May 2009 one. The second setback forced the filmmakers to shoot the film in the United States, rather than the original Rome and Vatican areas. Reports indicated that the Vatican did not want any of its churches to be associated with a murder scene. However, unlike last time, this time the Vatican had no problems with the story matter. The official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called the film "harmless entertainment", giving it a positive review. It also acknowledged, "the theme is always the same: a sect versus the church, [but] this time, the church is on the side of the good guys."

Overall Angels & Demons probably has no giant transformers and no robots from the future, which means very little explosions, if any. On the other hand, the movie itself is a guided tour of Rome, the Vatican and other prestigious locations. It is filled with fun historical (slightly distorted) facts and has its thrilling moments. So if you like travel and always wanted to see the Vatican, Angel & Demons is for you. Plus you get to see Tom Hanks rescue the city from a bunch of fanatical cultists.

Not your average tourist story.

Amanat Ali: Kohram

From being a successful participant of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Middle East — Pakistan Challenge 2007 and a finalist on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007, where he placed third in the competition, Amanat Ali has come a long way.

He has garnered a lot of respect and praise, especially from across the Wagah border and notably from choreographer Farah Khan and ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. He has contributed to Bollywood productions by singing Khabar nahin for Dostana, for the film Bal Ganesh (with music director Bappi Lahiri) and also the title song for K.C. Bokadia’s Junoon.

After all this hype, it is his debut album, Kohram, which will reveal his true talent.

Albums by music contest winners can have a lot of preconceived notions attached to them; one-hit wonder being the most prominent. While Amanat Ali bagged votes from fans across the Middle East and the subcontinent, will these voters now purchase his Kohram?

The title track is loud but not in a good way. The catchy groovy rhythm dies amidst an avalanche of instrumentation frenzy. Clearly this was a bad decision since Amanat has a tremendous singing voice and it’s a pity to hear it drown amidst the ruckus. Teriyaan and Raha Jaye Na are pleasant listens, particularly the former. The ballad works because it puts the most important thing first: Amanat Ali’s voice. His vocals here make one realise why he was a part of the competition and why Bollywood is taking serious notice of this singer.

Rab Jaane is obliterated by the DJ whose overeager ministration distracts the listener from Amanat’s voice and the song quickly becomes monotonous. Thumri is yet again another example of Amanat’s talent, but the result here is different from Raha Jaye Na. Ultimately the song showcases his versatility.

Berung is a song that again suffers from too much tinkering. It starts off very moody and melancholy, but just when one sinks into the mood he’s jolted by the introduction of Spanish guitars in the first interlude. After listening to the first minute of Anymore I just couldn’t take it anymore. Like before, there is an abundance of flair but hardly any substance —Amanat’s voice constantly drowns amidst the tinkering.

Halka Halka and Roye Teri Yaad Mein are near misses. Whereas the former is slightly better — again because Amanat’s vocals are left on their own — it’s the latter where things fall apart. It sounds more like a Sonu Nigam track than it does Amanat Ali’s. Granted he’s just discovering his voice, but mimicking others will get him nowhere.

A techno addition that succeeds where all others fail is Wari Wari Jawaan. Although it has a catchy loop, listeners might get bored with the repetitiveness on the track. Tum Se He (Maa), another hidden gem in the album but not as mellow as the previous songs, is an enjoyable number nonetheless. The cover of Tujhse Naraz Nahin (a 1983 classic by Panchamda) was one of Amanat’s staples on the show. And it’s great to hear him finally perfect this track right down to a T. Thankfully, the instrumentation and production is at a minimum so that one can truly appreciate the talent that is Amanat’s.

Too many cooks spoil the broth and the same could be said for the amount of lyricists on this record: Asim Raza, Mubashar Hassan, Amanat Ali, Saaji Ali, Shahbaz Khan and Faisal Sheikh. With each writer pulling in different directions, its obvious Amanat would have had a difficult time focusing in one direction. And what’s sad is that most of his songs lack actual poetry and meaning. Most of it is just filled with clichés and film clichés at that.

The problem with this album is that he relies too much on a Bollywood-type approach to music and heavy input from techno DJs.

While Kohram is better than any other debut from Amanat’s league, it doesn’t match his potential. He simply spreads himself too thin all over the album. Trying desperately to be the Jack of all musical trades just isn’t cutting it for him, at least not yet. The kind of music here is probably best used to introduced artistes in India (or particularly to Indian film producers) but it won’t stand with the other great Pakistani acts that Indian music followers have grown to admire and respect.

The album falls short on many levels mainly because Amanat tries too hard to grab our attention. Some would say that this is Amanat’s leap towards the big league, when in fact it probably is the first step of a journey of a thousand steps. With careful guidance and attention Amanat can complete the journey in swift strides and with relative ease.

In short, Kohram is a disappointment. However, knowing Amanat Ali this is just a stumble in the journey of the young singer that will ultimately take him and his vocal talent round the world.