The Films of Francis Lawrence
Constantine (February 17/05)
Constantine is just about the best-looking mediocre movie to come around in a long while. Director Francis Lawrence (along with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot) imbues the film with a slick, Fincheresque sense of style that's far more intriguing than anything the screenplay has to offer. The storyline, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, just isn't engaging, primarily because it's so ludicrous (unreasonably so). Generally speaking, movies that involve the Devil's efforts to cross over into our world fare best when there's some basis in reality (ie The Omen and Reeves' The Devil's Advocate). But Constantine, which follows Keanu Reeves title character as he teams up with Rachel Weisz's Angela to prevent Satan's arrival on Earth, takes a leap out the plausibility window early on, something presumably dictated by the comic book that the film is based on. As a result, it's impossible to connect with the storyline or the plight of the film's human characters (one would think that this premise worked a whole lot better on the page). There's no real sense of momentum at work here; Constantine feels more like a series of vignettes loosely strung together (some far more effective than others) than a linear, cohesive film. Having said that, the movie never quite becomes a disaster of Catwoman-like proportions thanks to Lawrence's intriguing directorial choices and the uniformly superb performances - starting with, of course, Reeves. Reeves does a nice job of distancing himself from The Matrix trilogy by playing Constantine as an exceedingly grizzled figure (smart choice, given that the man can literally see demons), while the supporting cast is peppered with a host of familiar faces (Peter Stormare even pops up as Satan, delivering a flamboyant performance that's easily the highlight of the film). Constantine's not necessarily a bad movie; aside from some surprisingly shoddy computer effects, the film is well made and kind of entertaining. But in this age of stellar comic book adaptations (ie the X-Men and Spider-Man series), that's just not enough.
I Am Legend
Water for Elephants (April 22/11)
Based on the book by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants follows Depression-era veterinarian Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) as he impulsively decides to join a traveling circus - with problems ensuing as Jacob begins to fall for the wife (Reese Witherspoon's Marlena) of owner/animal trainer August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). There's little doubt that Water for Elephants gets off to an exceedingly promising start, as filmmaker Francis Lawrence, working from Richard LaGravenese's screennplay, opens the proceedings with a modern-day sequence revolving around an older Jacob's (Hal Holbrook) arrival at a contemporary circus. It's a stirring sequence that's heightened by Holbrook's engaging, downright poignant performance, with the film's compulsively watchable atmosphere perpetuated by the initial scenes set within the past - as Lawrence does a nice job of infusing such moments with a melodramatic and suitably old-fashioned feel that proves impossible to resist. It's only as the novelty of the movie's off-kilter locale wears off that its deficiencies start to become clear, with the three leads' ill-fated efforts at stepping into the shoes of their respective characters certainly standing as the most obvious example of this. (Waltz fares especially poorly, as the actor delivers an unreasonably broad turn that sucks the energy out of the movie on an all-too-frequent basis.) The episodic nature of LaGravenese's screenplay ensures that Water for Elephants is subsequently only enthralling in spurts, with the number of talky, pointless sequences generally (and increasingly) outweighing moments of an organic and wholeheartedly gripping variety (eg August takes out his considerable rage on an elephant). The absence of chemistry between Jacob and Marlena cements Water for Elephants' place as a fairly misbegotten adaptation, which is a shame, really, given the strength of the source material and the talent both in front of and behind the camera.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire & Mockingjay
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Red Sparrow (March 8/18)
Based on a book by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows follows Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) as she's essentially forced to become a spy by her ambitious uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts' Vanya Egorov) - with Dominika's first mission, after completing a stint at a "sparrow" school for spies, requiring her to win the trust of a C.I.A. agent named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Director Francis Lawrence, along with scripter Justin Haythe, delivers a striking opening stretch detailing Dominika's fall from grace as a ballerina and her initial exploits at the aforementioned school, with the undeniably watchable atmosphere perpetuated by star Lawrence's solid work and the ongoing inclusion of compelling sequences. (And this is to say nothing of the top-notch efforts of the movie's stellar supporting cast, which counts Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, and Charlotte Rampling among its ranks.) It's only as Red Sparrow progresses into its increasingly meandering midsection that one's interest begins to flag, with the movie's ludicrous 140 minute running time (!) paving the way for a wheel-spinning second act that's rife with meaningless, uninteresting spy chatter. The far-from-engrossing vibe is compounded by a quizzical dearth of action or suspense oriented interludes, and it does, as a result, become more and more difficult to work up any real interest in or sympathy for the central character's exploits (which proves especially problematic by the time the twist-laden finale rolls around). A climactic interrogation sequence, which boasts an intensity and brutality that's sorely absent from the rest of the proceedings, arrives far too late to compensate for a mostly dull middle hour, and it's finally impossible to label Red Sparrow as anything more than an overlong, underwhelming thriller that's predominantly, incongruously devoid of thriller attributes.