Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
This is perhaps the most exhaustive review of CONSTANTINE that we’ve gotten in yet, and I have to say... I’m really looking forward to the movie. I think it sounds cool as hell.
Hey all, thought I'd drop a note about a test screening in Pasadena last night for the new Keanu Reeves movie "Constantine". Just to provide a little background, I'm in the visual f/x biz, and was on the way to a Buena Vista screening on Monday night in Pasadena for "The Life Aquatic", when I happened to walk past a guy handing out fliers for the movie "Constantine". Which was a good thing as it turned out, because after 40 minutes the Disney folks couldn't get the sound and image synced up on "Life Aquatic" and had to cancel the screening. But I've seen the opening 5 times now, and I think I'm going to have those damn pink fish stuck in my head for weeks until I find out what happened to Steve Zissou and his crew.
Anyway, I'd heard a few bits and pieces about Constantine, mostly because I remembered they held a dog-and-pony talk at Comic-Con this year, which I didn't attend because I didn't feel like fighting the thousands of people in the auditorium waiting to get of glimpse of a celebrity. By the way, it cracked me up to watch the Wayan brother(s) stroll through the Con floor with bodyguards like someone was going to touch them or something. Is it me, or is Comic-Con becoming more Hollywood and less Comic every year? But I digress...
So, other than a vague kernel of knowledge that Constantine was a Big Budget Warner Brothers comic adaptation I was totally in the dark about the film. I hadn't read the comics, and I hadn't even seen the trailer. In fact I came to work yesterday morning (at an unnamed Studio, not Warner Brothers), and could only get one person interested in going to the screening with me. Suffice it to say that Warner's as some pr work to do to get this movie out in the public consciousness beyond the comic/Internet crowd.
We sat down in a packed theater, full of a random assortment of people, and I wasn't sure how the screening was going to play. A person behind us was eating something that smelled like bad fish, and the crowd was pretty rowdy. It didn't seem like a geek crowd with a lot of reverence for the source material, but more like they just pulled random people off the street. Which is what they did. The PR guy gave us the ypical intro about us being one of the first audiences in the world to see the film, and how the effects work was incomplete, yada yada yada...And the lights dimmed.
The first thing I should mention is the quality of the print we saw and what stage it was in. The print looked like some kind of digital intermediate, with minor pixelation and compression artifacts, but it wasn't awful. It had a very gritty look, which I think in part was due to the rough state it was in, but hopefully they'll retain that vibe in the final version. The cinematography is moody, and the look reminded me of the first "Blade" film, with a bit of the visual style of Michael Mann's Los Angeles from "Collateral" thrown in. There was a lot of incomplete and temp music as placeholders, but nothing really distracting. For once I was glad to see a test screening that didn't either use Hans Zimmer's Gladiator tracks or the Danny Elfman Scissorhands score as placeholder material. The effects work was surprisingly good and polished for an early screening, and I heard from a friend that Tippett has already finished a lot of their work on it. Thankfully there was no CG that was terribly distracting or obnoxious to pull you out of the story, ala "Blade 2". I have no idea what they're planning on adding as far as CG, but I hope it's not much more. What they had worked well. The Supernatural characters are generally played as non-effects driven, human characters, so hopefully they're not going to do something stupid like add horns or obnoxious glowing flames to any of them. Much like Pacino in Devil's Advocate, it's refreshing to see pure Evil played as a regular guy (or gal). By the way, there is a nice little bit part by Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of Bush, as the demon Balthazar. I didn't know who he was until I read the credits later, but he comes across well. There are subtle effects and some nice reveals of the Supernatural characters which let you see the world through Constantine's eyes, but it wasn't all in-your-face f/x work, like End of Days or the Mummy films. And the Hell stuff looked very promising, with a bit of a What Dreams May Come, painterly feeling. As someone who works on f/x for a living I can be overly critical, but I think they're taking a good approach with the balance between what you see explicitly and what is implied under the surface or in the visions the characters have. I can't wait to see the final, polished film just for the visuals.
I won't go into any major plot details or spoilers, and not having read the comics I have no idea how true it was to the original. I read somewhere that Constantine wasn't an American in the comics, and this film is firmly set in a dark, stylized Los Angeles, which looks like it exists outside of a specific period it time, much like the original "Blade". And it works. The nice thing about the original "Blade" and "Constantine" is that they play the world and the environment they're in as if they're 100% real. It's not a self-parody. It's not winking at itself in little homages to other films. And I love that the Director didn't feel the need to explain how and why they're in this world or what the rules are, but instead drops you straight into it at full speed. The beginning of the film plays out as if you stepped into the climax of the Exorcist, with very little exposition. Keanu shows up at an apartment building to exorcise a demon from a young girl, and mayhem ensues. The great thing is that it's all played straight. This is what Constantine does. This is who he is. Hey, watch out for that Soldier Demon over there. They don't lead the viewer by the nose and explain every aspect of the story up front. Slowly, over time, and through the interactions with other characters, you begin to piece things together and understand what's going on. But as with "Collateral", we're thrown into this guy's life during a short period, and we get to see and experience events as he does, almost as if it's in real time. Which brings me to the main character, Constantine.
I suppose a lot of how well this film does will come down to how you react to Keanu. Personally, I don't mind his acting in a lot of his films. I buy him in "Bill and Ted". I dug him in "The Matrix". I thought he kicked ass in "Speed". Yeah, his accent sucked in"Dracula" and pretty much ruined that movie for me, among other things. Here, he seems to be channeling Clint Eastwood through Neo. There is a lot of brooding and smoldering, with a sense of deep angst and turmoil. He usually looks like he just ate something really bad and is trying hard to digest it. But hey, I bought it. It seemed to work for the character. It's not an extremely dialogue-heavy film, but what exposition there was I thought he generally pulled off well. Your mileage may vary depending on how much Keanu baggage you bring to the table. And yeah, at times there are a bit too many similarities to the Matrix films, especially with some of the dialogue, thematic imagery and composition of the shots. Yes, he's playing another Christ-like martyr character. But if you look beyond all that I think there is much more to the film than a sort of shallow Matrix rip-off. The supporting cast was also good. I'll pay to see anything Rachel Weisz is in, and she doesn't dissapoint here. She plays twin sisters Angela and Isabel Dodson who hold a psychic connection to the spiritual world. She gives a believable, subtle performance which serves as a good counterbalance to the grim, brooding Constantine. Djimon Hounsou has a great role as Papa Midnite, the "Oracle" of this story. And Max Baker is also fun as Beeman, the "Whistler"/gadget guy in the film. Which brings up my only serious complaint in the film. They fell into a few too many cliched roles and story devices we've all seen a million times now. Did they have to use the same gun as Van Helsing? I'm sure it's probably from the comic, but it looks like they just took it and painted it gold. At some point these movies have to start getting away from the requisite Blockbuster Film cliches. At least in Constantine those moments were brief and somewhat underplayed, and the Bowling Alley set was a cool, original design for a Gadget Headquarters/Library of Knowledge. But there is no doubt that you're going to be recognizing some of the same characters and imagery you've seen many times before. Oh well, it's a postmodern world I guess, and there's not much we can do about that. At least in Constantine it was well done unlike some of the tripe Hollywood puts out like Van Helsing and Catwoman.
The other fantastic performance worth mentioning was Tilda Swinton as the Arch-Angel Gabriel. She was great, and brought a refined, underplayed nuance to the role. The only character I didn't really care for was Chaz Chandler, Constantine's disciple/trainee. He came off a bit flat and his storyline was a bit too cliched and calculated for my taste. It was like the writer threw him in as the obligatory sidekick but someone forgot to make us care about him. Funny sidekick dialogue. Check. Yearning to go out on his own that can only end in tragedy. Check. Keanu as subordinate father figure. Check. Lastly, I'm not sure who played the Devil, but my friend recognized him from other stuff he's been in and he was great. Not quite as over the top as Pacino in Devil's Advocate, but suitably creepy and loathsome. I hope they're going to keep most of his performance as is, and not replace it with some CG trickery.
The bottom line is that I think Warner's has a winner here. I don't know how it's going to play to the Comic crowd, but I had a great time. It's more thoughtful, suspenseful, and has better supporting characters than your typical big budget action film. The writing is good, and only crosses the line into camp/cheese a couple times, and that probably had more to do with Keanu's delivery than anything. There weren't any groan-inducing moments in the crowd I saw it with. It was actually pretty scary and everyone seemed to be digging it. All of the obnoxious people in the audience shut right up after the opening sequence and I didn't hear anyone cracking wise after that. I'd say if you liked the vibe and tone of the original Blade you'll probably like this. It's one of the better comic book adaptations I've seen, although that list is growing every year it seems. Constantine aims for the jugular and delivers a pretty good wallop while mixing in a thought provoking story about good and evil, angels and devils, and the price of salvation. I'll close with my favorite line from the film, when Constantine is talking to Angela about God's role in the world, and how he goes about doing things:
John Constantine - "God is like a kid with an ant farm. He doesn't really have a plan.
And we also got this letter from the film’s producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, about an unrelated matter. Sorry we didn’t get it up quicker, but it’s worth reading:
Dear Harry and Drew,
It's great to make movies but it's also great to give back. I have arranged an auction with E-bay, AOL and IN Style starting Nov. 15 for one week to benefit Hollygrove, a child-centered organization that serves abused and neglected children. Hollygrove houses abandoned children and also provides children at risk with psycological, educational and emotional support. It is an incredible organization that is in dire needs of funding. Therefore, I and many filmmakers have donated such items for sale such as :
The actual Wolverine CLAWSand case that Hugh Jackman wore in "X2" .
The 32 piece crystal chess set from "X2" - yes, the actual prop.
The "Daily Bugle" newspaper from "Spiderman" and Laura Ziskin.
A helmet from Tim Burton from "Planet of the Apes".
The bridal dress worn by Alysson Hannigan in "American Wedding".
The overcoat worn by Tom Hanks in "Road to Perdition" from Jeffery Katzenberg.
The 2 piece drum majors outfit from "Drum Line".
Ally Sheedy's ankle length black velvet skirt from "St. Elmo's Fire" .
A golden telescope used by Jim Carrey's charachter Count Olaf in "Lemony Snickett: A Series of Unfortunate Events".
"ELF" (sized ) costume from Toby Emmerich from the movie "ELF"
A life preserver from "Titanic"
A framed costume drawing from "Pirates of the Caribbean" donated by Jerry Bruckheimer.
And many many more items.
Please please I beg you print this letter and show the link to our auction and help these less fortunate children.
With gratititude - Lauren Shuler Donner
Thanks, Lauren. And thanks to our guest reviewer as well.