Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Constantine / ***½ ( R )

John Constantine: Keanu Reeves
Angela and Isabel Dodson: Rachel Weisz
Chas: Shia LeBeouf
Gabriel: Tilda Swinton
Father Hennessy: Pruitt Taylor Vince
Midnite: Djimon Hounsou
Balthazar: Gavin Rossdale
Lucifer: Peter Stromare

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures present a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, based on characters from the Hellblazer graphic novels. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for violence and demonic images).

As a former comic book collector I feel as if I’m experiencing a slight advantage over most filmgoers at the metroplex lately with all the comic book superhero and graphic novel adaptations that Hollywood is spewing out. If so many of them weren’t so good, I’d probably find myself getting rather sick of the comic book invasion of the silver screen.

To be sure Hellblazer was one of my top five favorite comic books back in the days when I consumed the graphic literatures in mass quantities, so I bring an already established appreciation to the material. Of course the expectations of a true fan can also work against a Hollywood adaptation. The title character of the new horror/superhero film Constantine is a dealer in the dark arts of magic and witchcraft who concentrates his energies mostly with putting demons and devils back in their place, Hell. The John Constantine of the comic book is a bloody British bastard with almost no friends and an exponentially growing list of enemies, on this mortal coil and in the seven planes of hell. He is the furthest thing from a hero to ever work for the side of good, and he is quintessentially British. His dialogue balloons in the comic often need translation for American readers. So the choice of Los Angeles as the setting for this adaptation and the casting of Keanu Reeves (The Matrix series) in the title role seemed more like Hollywood financial and marketing compromise than solid artistic choices. I still think they missed their opportunity of the perfect American equivalent of the character by not casting Kiefer Sutherland as Constantine. But despite the slightly softer Reeves interpretation of Constantine and the location and culture changes, the filmmakers have done an astonishing job of preserving the mood and atmosphere of the Hellblazer comic book for this film.

In the movie, Constantine describes the human race as pawns in a game played between Heaven and Hell. God and Satan have wagered the souls of all men in a childish bet as Constantine sees it. “The rules are no direct contact, only influence. … Angels and Demons can't cross over into our plane. So, instead we get what I call half-breeds. The influence peddlers. They can only whisper in our ears.” Constantine’s role in the balance between good and evil seems to be to police those who are over stepping their bounds of influence in the mortal realm. But as minions from Hell start appearing on Earth, it seems someone has changed the rules.

The rouge demons focus their brief appearances on an L.A. detective, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz, Enemy at the Gates), after the apparent suicide of her twin sister Isabel. Although she doesn’t believe in Constantine’s claims about God and Satan, Angela enlists his help because she also does not believe her sister is a suicide and events seem strange beyond explanation.

To fit in with Hollywood rules of structure, Constantine is surrounded by a supporting cast of magical helpers, including a sidekick/driver/apprentice, Chas (Shia LeBeouf, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), a supernatural bar tender who favors neither side, Midnite (Djimon Hounsou, In America), an arch rival, Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale, yes, the front man for the band Bush), and a clairvoyant priest, Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Identity). Although, in the comic book Constantine’s few friends were normal because most other supernatural warriors wanted nothing to do with him, this supporting cast strikes the right amount of relief for Constantine and is not overused or sentimentalized.

Constantine strikes up an intriguing relationship with the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, Adaptation) with his desire to buy his way into heaven by the deeds he does to keep the demons at bay. “It doesn’t work that way,” is Gabriel’s response. Some of the best material in the story is taken directly from “Dangerous Habits”, one of the early Hellblazer storylines in which Constantine tricks Lucifer into healing the lung cancer he has contracted from life long smoking. Peter Stromare (Fargo) chews some premier scenery as God’s fallen son Lucifer in the film’s final act.

First time feature director Francis Lawrence actions things up a bit for the film, outfitting Constantine with a cross-shaped automatic weapon. It isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds and, like the supporting cast, this weaponry is sparsely utilized. What is lavishly draped throughout this production is a searing landscape of production design. Production designer Naomi Shohan (Tears of the Sun) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) envision a sweltering Los Angeles to go along with a blistering Hell where the shimmering visuals nearly summon the stench of brimstone to the viewer’s nostrils. As in the Matrix movies Reeves finds himself swimming in a vibrant CGI world that proves the strengths of the technology, not the distraction of it.

As for how Constantine holds up to those without a previous initiation to this world where mortal men converse with the likes of Gabriel and Lucifer, I’m not really the one to say. The filmmakers provide a compelling story and Constantine himself remains, albeit not quite as intriguing as his comic book incarnation, a solid central figure who struggles with the meaning of his existence and is smart enough to outfox the forces of heaven and hell. Constantine is a dark, moody supernatural noir that remains true to its source material, providing a creepy story that sees mortal men co-existing in a twisted game with angels and devils. Now doesn’t that sound like a fun time at the cinema?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / ***½ (PG)

Willy Wonka: Johnny Depp
Charlie Bucket: Freddie Highmore
Grandpa Joe: David Kelly
Mrs. Bucket: Helena Bonham Carter
Mr. Bucket: Noah Taylor
Mrs. Beauregarde: Missi Pyle
Mr. Salt: James Fox
Oompa Loompa: Deep Roy
Veruca Salt: Julia Winter
Violet: Annasophia Robb
Mike Teavee: Jordan Fry
Augustus Gloop: Philip Wiegratz
Dr. Wonka: Christopher Lee

Warner Brothers Pictures presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Based on the book by Roald Dahl. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG (for quir! ky situations, action and mild language).

My almost 4 year-old son described the difference between the 70’s Gene Wilder starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the new Johnny Depp starring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as such, “In the (earlier) one Willy Wonka was a man, but in this one he was a girl.” However, I don’t think Depp would be disappointed by this perception of my son’s, since I believe I overheard him stating in an interview that he based his performance on a prepubescent girl.

Dueling Willy Wonkas aside, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extravagant exploration of the imaginations of both director Tim Burton and its creator Roald Dahl. This is not Burton’s first journey into Dahl’s likeminded imagination, he produced the underrated animated feature of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, and there doesn’t seem to be any better material on the planet suited to Burton’s unique cinematic imaginings. Theirs are a world of bright bold colors, bug-eyed children, little dancing and singing men, flying glass elevators, black and white social stature, the bridging of young an old, and the delightful love of candy.

Charlie is a boy filled with the wild-eyed wonder of a child embodied by the newest young talent Freddie Highmore, brought along from the film Finding Neverland by co-star Depp. Charlie comes from a poor family. The Buckets are the archetypal lower class family. Mr. Bucket (Noah Taylor, Vanilla Sky) is a factory worker whose job is eliminated by a machine. Mrs. Bucket (Helena Bonham Carter, Big Fish) struggles to make yet another night of cabbage stew bearable. All four grandparents roost in a single bed in the middle of the Bucket’s shack of a house; one has lost her marbles, one is hoarding his, and Grandpa Joe (David Kelly, Waking Ned Divine) dreams of better days when he worked with the oddball magician candy maker Willy Wonka.

Wonka had long ago shut the doors of his factory to both the public and his employees because of the vicious tactics of corporate spies stealing the secrets to his candies. He has somehow kept the factory running, and after years of seclusion Wonka suddenly announces a contest that will allow five children (and a guardian each) to see the inside of his mysterious chocolate factory. All a child has to do for this rare privilege is find one of five golden tickets hidden in the wrapper of a bar of Wonka chocolate. Charlie sees this contest as an opportunity to relive his Grandpa’s dreams of the past and realize the dreams of his own and his family to rise above the squalor of their poverty.

While the movie still focuses firmly on Charlie and his struggle to break the chains of his social standing, screenwriter John August (Charlie’s Angels) also adds a great deal of backstory on Wonka to bring another level of familial meaning to the tale. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) drives the mood of the film with another typically odd performance. Not content with just presenting Wonka’s world as merely a product of absurdity, Depp and Burton turn Wonka into an oddity of bundled repression, a child that refuses to face the scars of growing up. Throughout the course of the film Wonka is accosted by flashbacks from his childhood of his father (Christopher Lee, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones), a dentist who coldly allows his son none of the sweet nectars of candy, especially chocolate.

All of the elements of the book are here: the horrible cast of children who win the other four tickets and their equally deplorable parents, the many different worlds of creation that go on behind the door of the magnificent chocolate factory, and the singing little men -- the Oompa Loompas. Instead of the orange-faced little people of the previous Chocolate Factory, Burton makes the strange men quite human, but Hobbit-sized and the hundreds of them all played by one man, Deep Roy (whose credits up to this point consist primarily of Ewoks and the like mostly in films with the word “freak” in the title.)

Composer Danny Elfman (Spider-Man) deserves a big credit for composing the music to Dahl’s original Oompa Loompa lyrics, which tell the all too painful truths about each rotten child after they each meet their frightening fates for breaking the rules while inside the chocolate factory. Elfman breathes unique life into each song by adopting a different style to each that reflect the unique environments of the rooms in which the incidents occur in the factory. While Dahl’s Oompa Loompa lyrics follow a repeated pattern in each song, no two songs sound alike in Elfman’s hands.

The film’s greatest achievement is its realization of this visual feast the chocolate factory has to offer. The atrium set where the contest winners begin their journey on the river of chocolate is lavishly scrumptious. It looks good enough to eat, as it should. Even the outside world is rich with Burton’s fantastical sense of exaggeration and bold imagery. The Bucket’s ramshackle house, the town house of Dr. Wonka which up and relocates itself to a wintry plain, even the candy stores where the children buy their Wonka bars reflecting the basic natures of the cultures around the world all add to the sense of wonder that this tale of childhood inspires.

At one point one of the brats asks, “Why is everything so pointless here?” Charlie simply replies, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point, that’s what makes it candy.” It is good that the filmmakers do not extend this argument to the film itself. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not only isn’t pointless, it is poignant. It is dipped in a deep sense of family love and the heart of childhood. I was a bit disappointed that Burton chose to cut out the scene where Charlie and Grandpa Joe also break the rules of the factory, but in the end the innocence of childhood and its necessity in life top the peak of this delicious desert. Desert isn’t pointless; it gives us comfort and closure, but mostly it tastes good.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Be Cool / *½ (PG-13)

Chili Palmer: John Travolta
Edie Athens: Uma Thurman
Raji: Vince Vaughn
Elliot Wilhelm: The Rock
Nick Carr: Harvey Keitel
"Sin" LaSalle: Cedric the Entertainer
Martin Weir: Danny DeVito
Linda Moon: Christina Milian
Steven Tyler: Himself

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents a film directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by Peter Steinfeld. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Running time: 112 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence, sensuality and language, including sexual references).

Be Dull.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Jacket / **½ ( R )

Jack Starks: Adrien Brody
Jackie: Keira Knightley
Dr. Becker: Kris Kristofferson
Dr. Lorenson: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Dr. Morgan: Jake Broder
Jean: Kelly Lynch
Stranger: Brad Renfro
Nurse Harding: Mackenzie Phillips

Warner Independent Pictures presents a film directed by John Maybury. Written by Massy Tadjedin. Based on the story by Tom Bleecker and Marc Rocco. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated R (for violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity).

In my last review, for the film Hostage, I noted that it was a difficult film to review because it contained both admirable aspects and silly detractors. By the time I finished that review, although my ranting lacked my typical passion for the subject matter, the up and down quality of the work gave me plenty to say about it. The Jacket is difficult to review -- not because of an inconsistent nature, but merely because it sits in the heart of mediocrity. It is not a bad movie, nor does it contain anything exceptional about it that would inspire me to recommend it to anyone. I really have very little to say about it either way.

The plot revolves around Gulf War veteran Jack Starks, played by Academy Award winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist). Starks suffers from amnesia due to a head wound he received during the war. After helping a child and her spaced-out mother (Kelly Lynch, Drugstore Cowboy) get their truck running, Starks makes the mistake of hitching a ride from a psychopath (Brad Renfro, Bully). When the two are pulled over by a highway patrolman, the driver shoots the patrolman and Starks is left to take the rap for the crime.

Suddenly, I’m beginning to realize a lot of little small faults in the film. I’m not sure why Starks has lost his memory during the war. I expected this to play into the murder rap somehow, but in the court scene where he is found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a mental hospital the authorities are quite aware of who he is; and although he cannot clearly recall the man with which he hitched a ride, this has nothing to do with his Gulf War injury and could easily just have been due to the murder incident. There are a good deal of little details that are servants of the plot and the plot alone during this set up, such as why would a man who has trouble remembering his name give away his primary form of identification? A series of poor and unlikely decisions leads to Starks’s internment in the hospital.

With Stark in his proper place to begin his shocking journey we are introduced to two doctors who will play large parts in his fate. Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rush) is the sympathetic doctor that plays so close to the book she refuses to believe a patient she has been told is crazy. Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries) is the mad scientist who must break the laws of morality to reach his well-intentioned if not well-conceived goals. Revealing more of the plot would entail giving away too much of this story that wants to seem more complex than it is.

Brody is the perfect actor for this role. His ability to express pain and yet bring an everyday natural quality to all of his scenes make his character an intriguing hero. Circumstances lead Starks into a tremulous relationship with a waitress named Jackie. Keira Knightley (King Arthur) brings a good raw nature to her character making it plausible that her beauty could be overshadowed by her character’s scarred upbringing. The two make a good couple, and I’d like to see them together in a story with more bite.

The movie has a good pace and atmosphere to it, not too slow or dark. The content reminded me very much of Jacob’s Ladder. It is questionable as to whether Starks is imaging all of this; or possibly, like that other much more frightening film, he is already dead. The film opens with the phrase “The first time I died…” Perhaps it was the only time? Its conclusion takes a much lighter perspective than the dark Ladder.

I suppose the reviewing of such middle of the road films isn’t really the hard thing. This one is somewhat difficult because there is so little of the plot I can actually reveal without giving most of the film’s surprises away, but I know how I felt about it. Eh?! But a friend recently opened up a discussion with me about star ratings and this is what becomes really difficult with a film like this. Do I give it two and a half, or three? I enjoyed watching it. It wasn’t like I felt I had wasted two hours of my life, but I certainly couldn’t say to anyone, “You should see this movie.” Perhaps I should have only given Hostage two stars for its silliness. At least The Jacket isn’t silly. I don’t know about you, though. See it if you want. Now there’s an endorsement. Get that one in the newspaper ads!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Hostage / **½ ( R )

Jeff Talley: Bruce Willis
Walter Smith: Kevin Pollak
Dennis Kelly: Jonathan Tucker
Mars: Ben Foster
Tommy Smith: Jimmy Bennett
Jennifer Smith: Michelle Horn
Kevin Kelly: Marshall Allman
Jane ! Talley: Serena Scott Thomas

Miramax presents a film directed by Florent Emilio Siri. Written by Doug Richardson. Based on the novel by Robert Crais. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated R (for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use).

Hostage is one of those difficult to review movies that contains much to admire and yet doesn’t work in the end. It segues back and forth between standard action thriller storytelling techniques and original ideas which alter an otherwise overdone genre. Here you can get the best of what a Bruce Willis actioner has to offer and an overwrought melodrama that inspires a rolling of the eyes back into your head. While I knew exactly how events would turn out in the end, I was continually surprised by how it got there; and had the last act not dripped the melodrama from its frothing mouth, I would have been grateful for the experience of watching an original take on an old dog that still has some new tricks in him.

Bruce Willis (Sin City) is Jeff Talley, a former L.A. hostage negotiator who has moved on to a small town police chief’s job after a botched hostage situation results in the death of a young boy. Despite domestic problems due to the change in life style, the quite town agrees with Talley, who is happy to turn over a surprising crime situation over to the county sheriff’s office when three thieves force their way into a local millionaire’s mansion and take him and his two children hostage. Talley is pulled back into the fray when the shady organization that employs the services of the millionaire, Walter Smith (Kevin Pollock, The Usual Suspects), kidnaps Talley’s family in order to force him to retrieve an important computer disc from the mansion.

This brief synopsis hardly reflects the multiple dramatic levels on which this thriller operates. The Talleys and the Smiths both represent similar family dynamics. The Talley’s seem on the verge of divorce with a daughter in rebellion because of her fear that her parents’ relationship may be at an end. Walter Smith is a widowed father of a teenage daughter and a smart young boy. Jennifer Smith (Michelle Horn, Return to the Secret Garden) is also going through a rebellious stage, which is dealt with both firmly and reasonably by her father, who also seems to be involved in more dangerous business than he suggests to his children.

The three hostage takers are better conceived than they first appear. What they do by breaking into the Smith’s mansion is utterly stupid, but the film smartly realizes this and uses the knowledge to force these criminals into a corner where they become cornered beasts lashing out at anything and everything around. The leader is Dennis (Jonathan Tucker, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who finds himself being pulled between his own partners: his brother Kevin (Marshall Allman, Little Black Book), and the real threat of the trio, the deeply disturbed Mars (Ben Foster, The Punisher). Mars provides the film with a true visible threat as a counterpoint to the story’s unseen and unknown kidnappers of the Talley family. The depth of his psychopathic mind brings an edginess to the action that is unexpected.

But the film really belongs to Willis, who takes his performance, as people are finally beginning to realize, to emotional levels of which only Willis is capable. Willis takes a relaxed approach to his hostage negotiator in the film’s tragic opening sequence that informs the burden of guilt on his shoulders throughout the rest of his story. It is easy to believe Willis as a man who wants nothing to do with that type of high pressure responsibility again and when he initially passes the buck to the county sheriff’s office early on in the story the audience breathes a sigh of relief along with Willis’s character even though you know he will have to be pulled back into the game somehow.

Director Florent Emilio Siri’s only other American directing credits are for a couple of video games in the Splinter Cell covert-ops series and he certainly has a grasp on depicting organized military tactical action, as the police and SWAT units here look as if they are declaring all out war on this mansion with little regard taken for the actual victims of the crimes. Credit is due for the director’s willingness to put so much weight on the psychological end of both Willis’s police chief and Foster’s psychopath, but as the film climaxes the action and psychological drama begin to clash, with Siri depending far too much on the emotional impact of slow motion and close-ups of these two characters in their emotional strain. There comes a point where all this slow motion photography becomes almost silly and a distraction from both the action and emotions involved.

Siri does show some potential to become an effective action director but needs to learn to balance the video game pyrotechnics with the emotional content of the characters. He has some good ideas on both fronts, but in the end lets the melodrama get away from the film. I liked the complications of the plot which left me guessing at times, and on at least one occasion took me a minute to realize what had happened; but everything was built up to such a degree at the end I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at all the catharsis.

Note: Hostage sports one of the most unique looking opening title sequences I’ve seen in film recently, which certainly owes much to Siri’s video gaming background. Unfortunately, it seems more suited to comic book action, a la Sin City or Daredevil, than it does with this more reality based, emotionally charged material.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Elektra / *½ (PG-13)

Elektra: Jennifer Garner
Abby Miller: Kirsten Prout
Mark Miller: Goran Visnjic
Kirigi: Will Yun Lee
Roshi: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Stick: Terence Stamp

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Rob Bowman. Written by Zak Penn, Stuart Zicherman and Raven Metzner. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for action violence).

Elektra, one in the latest wave of comic book characters re-envisioned for film, is a victim of its own pretensions. It doesn’t want to be a comic book adventure; it would prefer to be a mystic Chinese swordplay flick in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, but it lacks both the intelligence and imagination to run in that sort of company. A spin-off of the Marvel comic book movie Daredevil, it leaves its viewers wishing it actually had the depth the filmmakers seem to think it does.

Jennifer Garner reprises her role as Elektra from the Daredevil movie. While she was killed at the end of that story, she is resurrected here by a spiritual and martial arts master known simply as Stick (Terence Stamp, The Limey). The only explanation for such an silly name for a martial arts sensei is a scene in which he plays pool very aptly for a blind man. Her death and renewed life has left Elektra somewhat unbalanced. Although her spirit longs to be good, the only thing that she seems to be any good at is killing. She is an assassin for hire, who has developed a reputation for being unstoppable, invisible, and coldly lethal.

The film opens with a hit on a man named DeMarco (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in an uncredited role) that seems to know he has no chance of survival with Elektra as his assassin; perhaps because he chooses to sit there and wait for her to come rather than do anything to get away. He narrates to his bodyguard how Elektra will get past all his security like a ghost and kill all who get in her way. Even with his boss’s encouraging words and being able to see each of his team taken out by the shadows on video monitors, the bodyguard foolishly tries to do his job to the end, but the end is quick. As Elektra prepares to finish DeMarco she whispers in his ear, her signature, about how she died once from across the room and right behind him at the same time. It is actually a fairly intense sequence and does a good job getting the idea of the Elektra character across. Alas, the idea of the Elektra character is about all the movie is successful at conveying.

As for the actual character of Elektra, rather than the idea of one, Garner spends most of the film looking pissed off at the world and cutting herself off from any human contact, including any sort of connection with the audience. She even spends long periods alone on the screen without letting her guard down for the audience. She is so good at sulking here that it is hard to believe she is so likable on Alias every week. I’m not saying it is a bad performance. She embodies it so well, this is either her real personality, or she has been misdirected.

Director Rob Bowman shows little of the skills here he developed as one of the most accomplished directors of The X-Files television series. Yes, it has his signature dark moodiness, but lacks the characterization and humor he used to make that series a success. There is a band of villains in this film that make Colin Farrell’s undeveloped performance as Bullseye in the Daredevil movie look like a masterwork in character study, and Typhoid and Tattoo could have really been interesting.

Anyway, Elektra is hired to off a guy named Mark Miller (Goran Visnjic, NBC’s ER) and his daughter (Kristen Prout, Once Upon a Christmas), but before she knows they are her targets she gets to know them and can’t find it in her to complete her mission. But there are many other people interested in killing them because of their secret, and therefore when Elektra decides to protect them, there are many people interested in killing her.

Considering the pedigree of the Elektra character as one of the grittiest action based in the Marvel compendium and the director’s slant to take the film in the direction of Chinese swordplay actioners, it is surprising how bad the action scenes are in the film. Most sequences seem only half realized, with each character only getting a chance to pose and swing before their role in the fight is done with. There is a scene in a forest where Elektra must take on four different supernaturally powered villains where each appears on screen and flexes their muscles before they are either defeated or pushed aside by other forces. Elektra never really fights any of them in that scene. There is another showdown between Elektra and the leader of these unsavories where there are sheets flying all throughout the room in which they are fighting. The sheets look cool, but only serve to provide places where the villain can pop up out of nowhere (but behind the sheet that is) and surprise! Elektra with an ambush.

I really expected better from this character that starred in one of Marvel’s first “for mature readers” books. This movie certainly isn’t for mature readers, I wonder if the makers even had a script from which to read; and it certainly isn’t for mature audiences. I suspect even a video game drone’s mind might wander while watching this movie’s uninspired action sequences, and they would be the only reason to see it anyway.