As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
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.
The tagline reads "The wives of Stepford have a secret " and boy do they ever. Of course Joanna Eberhart (Nicole Kidman) a former tough-as-nails television network president doesn't know the secret. Not yet anyway. She just thinks she's moving to the peaceful upper-class suburbs of Stepford Connecticut with her attentive husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) and their two adorable children--to try to recover from a nervous breakdown after being summarily dismissed from her high-powered job. What Joanna finds instead is a group of eerie '50s-type perfect housewives lead by the ultra-coiffed Claire Wellington (Glenn Close) who tend to their beautiful spacious homes excel at crafts and cater to their geeky husbands' every whim. The women's behavior is more than a little odd to Joanna even if Walter thinks it's all very quaint as he rushes off to join the other men folk at the Stepford Men's Association lead by Claire's manly husband Mike (Christopher Walken). Luckily Joanne isn't entirely alone in her suspicions discovering allies in recent transplants Bobbie Markowitz (Bette Midler) a frumpy best-selling author and Roger Bannister (Roger Bart) a gay-and-proud-of-it architect. Together they try to unravel the mysterious of Stepford while also managing to learn how to make the perfect Christmas ornament from a pine cone.
Stepford Wives employs a stellar cast. The over-exposed Kidman finally gets to loosen up a bit after such downers as The Hours Cold Mountain and Dogville and has fun with Joanna. Her bitchy TV executive is particularly comical as it is realistic especially when she's spouting off ideas on how to turn a tragedy into "real" television. Honestly the Oscar-winning actress can do just about anything--but it may be time for her to take a vacation. As Joanna's husband Broderick is spot-on as the mousy Walter who eventually shows some backbone (of course he does). Close and Walken also have their roles down er perfectly as the masterminds of their own little version of heaven. But the real standouts are Midler as the caustic Bobbie and Broadway actor Bart as Roger who provokes the biggest laughs from the audience with his flare for the flamboyant. Yes it may be a tad stereotypical but he sells it girlfriend. Even country singer Faith Hill tries her hand at the whole acting thing making an appearance as one of the Stepford wives--come on she certainly looks the part doesn't she?
Trouble brewed on The Stepford Wives set. Director Frank Oz (In & Out) apparently had difficulties with producers over the direction of the film (which veers completely away from the suspenseful original) as well as run-ins with co-stars Midler and Walken--and the end product reflects it. Stepford is muddled and savvy moviegoers will no doubt scrutinize the film's glaring flaws especially the whole "robot" component (are they actual robots or what?) and the over-the-top maybe-you'll-guess-it twist at the end. But Stepford's intentional ribbing of social mores and quest for perfection comes shining through thanks to Paul Rudnick's campy script. There are more than a few hysterical scenes including one where Joanna Bobbie and Roger sneak into one of the Stepford houses and after hearing a particularly vigorous lovemaking session between perfect wife #34 and her husband Roger runs up the stairs because he's "got to get some of that" or the scene where Claire talks about the great things to make at Christmas while Bobbie throws out her own clever ideas on what to do with pine cones. The important thing is Stepford Wives doesn't take itself seriously--well not really--and neither should anyone else.