Jay Baruchel is Hollywood’s affable geek du jour having plied his unique trade recently in the animated blockbuster How to Train Your Dragon and the considerably less successful rom-com She’s Out of My League. His gangly frame twitchy visage and nasal drone make him perfect for movies in which awkward self-effacing underdogs triumph against enormous odds to achieve great feats like saving a Viking tribe from certain destruction or getting laid by a really really hot blonde chick.
Movies like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a live-action CGI-fest directed by Jon Turteltaub (the National Treasure films) and inspired by a famous sequence from Fantasia Walt Disney’s groundbreaking collection of animated shorts. Fantasia debuted in 1940 long before Disney subleased its animation work to Pixar and "Fantasia" became more commonly known as a popular name among exotic dancers. My how things have changed.
Baruchel plays Dave a hapless NYU physics nerd unwittingly cast into the middle of a centuries-long good-versus-evil battle between powerful sorcerers who wield an infinite array of supernatural powers. Representing the good guys is Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) a wide-eyed eccentric whose all-black goth-pimp ensemble draws nary a suspicious glance on the eclectic streets of Manhattan. Dave it turns out is no ordinary college student but the Prime Merliner which sounds like an underwater number divisible by only one and itself but in actuality is a sort of wizard messiah destined to rid the world from the likes of the sinister Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his imprisoned overlord Morgana (Alice Krige). That is if he can take time off from his bumbling courtship of a pretty co-ed (Teresa Palmer) to actually learn the tricks of the sorcerer’s trade.
“Disposable” and “formulaic” are terms commonly applied to both of Turteltaub’s National Treasure collaborations with Cage but I submit that those films are at least fun if ultimately forgettable. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is far less fun and far more forgettable its formula followed so perfunctorily that it ultimately comes off as an elaborate exercise in corporate cynicism one unlikely to inspire the string of sequels it so transparently hopes to conjure. Which is a shame because the film shows intermittent signs of promise and Cage despite his distracting perm is oddly charming as a sort of desperate weirdo.
To those only vaguely familiar with The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about a murdered teen who observes her family — and tracks her killer — from beyond Peter Jackson might seem like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation. Why would the visual effects maestro who orchestrated such grand spectacle in films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy be attracted to Bones’ somber reflective subject matter wherein nary an orc or a goblin can be found?
Shortly after the film's opening moments Jackson’s definitive answer arrives in the form of the “in-between place ” a breathtaking limbo where our wide-eyed heroine 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) arrives after her life is cruelly cut short by a next-door neighbor and closet predator named ominously enough Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie’s experience of the afterlife as a sort of spiritual way-station featuring elements of both heaven and hell (but mostly heaven) is a veritable CGI playground for Jackson one in which he can employ all of the digital tools in his vast arsenal in the service of a powerful affecting story.
And what a gorgeous playground it is. As Susie journeys through her wondrous netherworld — sometimes alone sometimes accompanied by a perky young spirit guide named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) — Jackson serves up a succession of exquisitely rendered landscapes for her to explore from placid spring meadows to boundless Alpine slopes to lush green forests. Jackson knows all too well that the issue of life after death especially when considered in regards to those who left us too soon is fertile emotional ground. With the help of an irresistibly expressive Ronan he mines it shrewdly.
Back on Earth unfortunately The Lovely Bones takes the form of a poorly-constructed deeply unsatisfying police procedural. Frustrated by the authorities’ inability to find the killer Susie's anguished father (Mark Wahlberg) mounts an investigation of his own aided occasionally in Ghost-like fashion by his daughter’s unseen hand. Tension rises as the mystery unravels — Jackson having drawn us in with his shamelessly manipulative handiwork has us by the emotional short-hairs so much so that we’re willing to overlook the film’s gap-laden storyline redundant narration underdeveloped supporting characters and a generally underwhelming Wahlberg. We just want payback damnit.
But when The Lovely Bones’ moment of truth arrives Susie abruptly changes her mind effectively turning almost every preceding plot point into an infuriating red herring and depriving us of the emotional release Jackson so steadfastly prepared us for. What we’re left with ultimately is an experience akin to taking a shot of morphine and watching someone play the videogame Myst for two hours (a span that might very well be reduced to 45 minutes if the film’s copious slow-motion shots were all played at normal speed). And once the anodyne buzz wears off the comedown is agonizing.
Heaven. Hell. Us humans in the middle. It's all very complicated. But John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) seems to have a handle on it. Born with a gift he says no human should ever have he has the ability to see what he calls "half-breeds"--angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin (and apparently there are a lot of them). Of course the horror of it is too much to bear and Constantine tries to take his own life. But he fails. Now having been to hell and back again quite literally Constantine is marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life. He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell acting as an exorcist of sorts. Of course the guy isn't doing it because he feels empathy for the human race or anything. It's for purely selfish reasons. He hopes that if he sends the devil's foot soldiers back to the depths he'll gain some kind of redemption a free get-out-of-jail card so to speak. Constantine's attitude changes however when a skeptical police detective Angela (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved twin sister. They end up uncovering a twisted master plan brewing between the demons and angels which could bring about a catastrophic series of otherworldly events. Perfect.
John Constantine is a little like The Matrix's Neo--an ultra-cool but tormented man of little words with a sardonic fatalistic outlook on life who kicks a myriad of nasty-looking demons (instead of a myriad of nasty-looking machines) back from whence they came. Yes Reeves has done this before but that's because he's good at it. You can't blame him for sticking with something that works. Weisz also holds her own as the devoutly religious Angela who nonetheless has a hard time believing there are actual angels and demons running around among us. That is of course until she spends about 10 minutes with Constantine and sees just how real they are. As far as the rest of the humans in the film Shia LaBeouf (Holes) does a nice comical turn as Constantine's sidekick and protégé while Djimon Hounsou (In America) works his voodoo mojo as a witch doctor who has a long-standing if strained relationship with Constantine. The not-so-human counterparts are equally intriguing. Peter Stormare (Fargo) delivers a somewhat over-the-top but devilishly eccentric performance as Satan. Tilda Swinton (The Deep End) dons the wings of the arch-angel Gabriel to whom Constantine is always asking for a reprieve but who has got her own agenda.
Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo comic-book Hellblazer Constantine is demonic eye candy. Obviously inspired by the many music videos he's helmed in the past director Francis Lawrence making his feature film debut paints a pretty dark and moody world with shadowy wet rat-infested (or cockroach-infested) corners that hide the horrific demon half-breeds as well as all other kinds of terrible baddies. Then when we get into Hades itself where the demons and seplavites--a sub-genre of the damned who are sightless mindless soul eaters--prowl it's an apocalyptic landscape. Lovely place. Unfortunately the script isn't nearly as stimulating. It must be an arduous task adapting a series of comic books so to his credit screenwriter Kevin Brodbin does do a nice job introducing us to Constantine and his world. But Brodbin seems to have incorporated too much. As the action escalates more and more plot points and characters are thrown in complicating matters. By the time the long-winded climax is over you're exhausted.
Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) has one day and one day only to prove himself to his new partner Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) a 13-year vet of the LAPD narcotics division. Harris' years of hardcore experience on Los Angeles' meanest streets though have turned him into the same sort of criminal he's supposed to be putting away. At first it seems Harris intends to teach Hoyt his own brand of justice: that in order to catch the big fish sometimes officers must throw the smaller ones back. But as the hours slip away Hoyt learns just how bad his badass partner really is--Harris starts out as a taunting joker who just wants to give Hoyt a hard time but by nightfall he's turned into a full-blown monster bent on saving his own skin no matter what.
This two-man show is really a one-man show. It's Washington's game all the way as he bursts the almost priestly bubble of do-goodness that has surrounded him like a halo for most of his career with a sudden murderous burst of gunfire. In Day he is larger than life; clad in black leather and huge jewelry he towers both physically and psychologically over a scrawny goateed Hawke (looking like he just walked off the Reality Bites set) who tries valiantly to keep up with his Oscar-winning co-star. It's not that a perfectly wet-behind-the-ears Hawke doesn't adequately carry off the acting required for the situation he's in but really we're supposed to believe he hold his own in a fistfight-turned-deathmatch against guys more than twice his size? For his part Washington chews the scenery like it was his last meal as Alonzo goes from bad to worse but he sure makes it look fun.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Bait) used to direct music videos for artists like Coolio and it shows. Love the cool camera angles the warped POV shots the primary colors and raw soundtrack. And Fuqua's not afraid to show the L.A. streets at their worst. The first two-thirds are masterful work in character study as the line between good and evil becomes increasingly blurred. But by the final third the plot disintegrates getting hacky and waaayy contrived especially the "Hey! It just so happens..." coinky-dinks and a laughable ending that falls flat as a pancake and panders to an urban audience almost to the point of patronization. Most of this movie is so over-the-top it would be unwatchable were it not for its charismatic lead.