Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
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.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!