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Pondering Satan’s minion: Reeves in Constantine.

God’s Gumshoe
By Ann Morrow

Constantine
Directed by Francis Lawrence

John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has been to hell and back. Literally. The premise of Constantine, adapted from the comic book Hellblazer and directed with heedless gusto by music-video auteur Francis Lawrence, is that John spent a couple of minutes in hell during a near-death experience while committing suicide. That was 15 years ago, and ever since, he’s been trying to work his way into God’s good graces by battling the legions of demi-demons that plague this mortal plane. The City of Angels, where John operates as a spiritual border guard, sending wayward evil spirits back to the underworld from whence they sprang, has lately become infested with a higher order of miscreants. And since only John and few other psychics can perceive these entities, his mission is a lonely, soul-sucking sort of endeavor.

Summoned by his colleague, the alcoholic Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince), John performs an especially grueling exorcism in Mexico. While researching the expurgated demon, he crosses paths with Angela (Rachel Weisz), an LAPD detective who is investigating the apparent suicide of her mentally ill twin sister. Without the success of The Passion of the Christ, Constantine might’ve had a very different tone than the religiously cheeky and creepy ambience cooked up by Lawrence and a talented production team. Though that might be a strange statement to make about a comic-book movie whose hero is a Spillane-style gumshoe with occultist powers, the film has a confident swagger to its harshly moralistic plotting that could only have come from knowing that the envelope has already been pushed.

Playing fast and loose with graphic death, Constantine is more inventive and entertaining than the 1995 horror flick The Prophecy (whose cult status has been solidified by the stardom of Viggo Mortensen, who made his acting debut as the film’s chillingly seductive Satan) but trods much the same turf: a war between the minions of Satan and the angels of Heaven, fought on Earth with human casualties. Instead of Christopher Walken as a psycho-killer Gabriel, Constantine has Tilda Swinton as an androgynous, flirty, and lethally mischievous Gabriel. Gavin Rossdale from Bush shows up as dandyish, sadistic Balthazar, but he’s just witty window dressing. The conflict is between Gabriel and John, and it’s waged through theological banter on the more outlandish tenets of Christian redemption, enlivened by the marvelous Swinton. The film’s soul, so to speak, is provided by John’s regret and Angela’s guilt.

Constantine also has similarities to The Matrix (Reeves was cast for a reason) in that it creates an alternate metaphysical universe, by way of Catholic orthodoxy rather than virtual reality. Integral to its Gnostic visions is the flamboyant art direction: Hell is a postnuclear-apocalypse landscape inhabited by gruesome, Gollum-like creatures writhing in Boschian debauchery. A voodoo nightclub presided over by a witch doctor (a vivid Djimon Hounsou) stands in for purgatory, and John relies on his vial of Holy Water like a gunfighter does his Colt 45. Reeves, ever the style icon, evokes a noirish dark night of the soul while deftly riffing on his benumbed Neo persona—this is his most enjoyable and effective performance, Hellblazer fan boys be damned. Constantine also has a nifty subtext on addiction—a chain smoker, John is dying from lung cancer—that ties in neatly with its kicky, upbeat ending. Who’d have thought that salvation could be such a blast.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Because of Winn-Dixie
Directed by Wayne Wang

I’m always wondering why more movies aren’t adapted from the riches of children’s and “young adult” lit out there. Be careful what you wish for, readers, or you might get stuck with something like Because of Winn-Dixie. As scripted by Joan Singleton and directed by Wayne Wang, the enchanting novel by Kate DiCamillo loses something in translation—namely, anything enchanting.

It’s the typical kid-meets-dog story, wherein the kid in question, 10-year-old Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) is a lonely, motherless transplant (with her preacher father Jeff Daniels) to the depressing town of Naomi, Fla. The old candy factory having gone out of business, there’s nothing much left to Naomi, and the kids are bereft of the high-tech gizmos so prevalent in most kid-centered movies. Instead, they ride bikes, play ball and read. Or, in Opal’s case, get discovered by a raggy looking mutt, soon named Winn-Dixie. In no time at all, with Winn at her side, Opal discovers a world of new people of all ages who become her friend. By the end of the summer, while still mourning the abandonment of her alcoholic mother, Opal realizes that sorrow can coexist with sweetness, and it’s all because of . . . well, you get the point.

Wang’s direction is sturdy yet artless. The acting is good—even by Dave Matthews, as former convict and musician Otis—and the grime and loneliness of Naomi seem real enough, but it’s as if Wang can’t decide if he’s filming a comedy or a drama. And so, at times we have what passes for hardy-har humor, boys fighting or kids calling each other names or innumerable scenes in which Winn, who looks as if he must smell really, really bad, destroys everything in his path. And then we have more somber moments, in which Opal blames her father for everything wrong in her life, or learns that even her new friends have problems, too. Threading throughout the unevenness is a feeling of claustrophobia—for the audience, that is, who can’t get out of this dismal failure fast enough. It’s all been said and done so many times before, and this time, nothing remotely new or interesting is brought to the forefront. This is definitely an instance where the book is so much better than its cinematic translation.

—Laura Leon


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