Tag Archives: Francis Lawrence

Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend

There’s nothing quite like the sight of Will Smith armed with a high powered rifle, dog at his side, left completely and utterly alone in a deserted metropolis to scavenge, wander and roar down an empty main drag in abandoned super cars. This is an applicable film right now because that’s kind of how I’ve felt being downtown at work these days, minus the dog and super cars. Smith is Robert Neville, the last man alive on Manhattan Island, or so he thinks. By day he wanders around, searches for food and keeps himself occupied, by night he barricades himself inside a modest fortress while the rest of NYC comes crawling out, now turned into savage marauding zombies by a mysterious virus. Robert tried his best to contact anyone who might be out there by radio and tirelessly works in his lab searching for a cure. This is a strange rhythm that continues for the first half of the film or so until the inevitable progression of a Hollywood narrative interrupts it. I kind of have a love hate relationship with this film, in the sense that I love it for some aspects but not so much others. The first portion of the film is one of the most effective uses of immersive atmosphere and drawing the viewer in I’ve ever seen. Seeing this in iMax back in the day I really felt like I was there with Robert, felt that isolation, despair, restlessness end even blessed solitude at certain moments. It’s a sensational way to open your story, but then as soon as other human characters are added later on, the vacuum like aura is yanked away and it becomes kind of… I dunno, routine. You’ve gotta be a pretty special post apocalyptic film to trick your audience into not only believing the premise but imagining themselves in it, and at the outset they more than succeed. It’s just later on the illusion foibles and loses us a bit. That and the dodgy CGI used on the zombies who are scary no doubt but still a bit rough in the FX department, but hey this was 2007 and Weta was busy working on King Kong so what can you do. I nitpick here and that shouldn’t suggest I don’t love this film, because I do. I just believe a piece that leaps out of the gate so effectively, so convincingly should keep up that lightning in a bottle magic for the whole duration, but that’s just me. It does have one of the single most heartbreaking scenes cinema has to offer, acted flawlessly enough by Smith to leave any badass viewer bawling. Anyone reading this who’s seen the film will know. Oh, and there’s also a weird Batman Vs. Superman poster in Times Square, I’m not sure what the deal is with that but it seems odd for 2007 considering that film wasn’t even made until 2015, no? Maybe there’s some cool time travel trivia to the making of this one.

-Nate Hill

Francis Lawrence’s Constantine

So they chose a dark haired, American Keanu Reeves to play John Constantine instead of some sassy blonde British Sting doppelgänger, big whoop. I mean if that really cheeses you off as a fan of the comics to the point where you can’t enjoy this wonderful film then fair enough. This iteration of Constantine makes its decided departure from source material and opts to give us a gorgeous dark LA Noir fantasy full of striking imagery, genuinely frightening set pieces, intense character work from a host of cool actors and a slick, oily visual feel that accentuates the supernatural tone beautifully. Keanu is basically an icon of cool, between The Matrix and recently introducing John Wick to the world this guy is kind of a cultural talisman of epic genre films and for me this stands with the best. Constantine is an exorcist, detective, damned soul, chain smoker, extreme ghostbuster and all around cynical badass, here solving a mystery with biblical implications relating to an LAPD officer (Rachel Weisz), her ill fated clairvoyant twin sister (also Weisz) and a fearsome series of events that could spell the end of the world. John has allies in snarky cab driver Chaz (Shia Leboeuf in his ‘back in the day’ phase), mysterious club magnate and sorcerer Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou), eccentric entomologist Beeman (Max Baker), hard drinking clergyman Father Hennessy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and demonic concubine Ellie (Michelle Monaghan). He’s up against some gnarly foes of this world and others including nasty hellhound Balthazar (Gavin Rossdale channelling Harvey Dent), a possessed Mexican immigrant (Jesse Ramirez), the treacherous Angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton in mercurial androgynous mode) and big baddie Lucifer himself played by a kooky, darkly dapper Peter Stormare in what has to be one of the coolest and most captivating portrayals of the devil cinema has to offer. Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games) has big budget, flashy effects sensibilities and while there is a fair amount of visual sizzle and large scale spectacle here the tone is often one of suffocating darkness, unseen dread creeping down narrow hallways stifling both light and space, eerie close quarters settings and a claustrophobic aesthetic that refracts the hellish elements of this story into the forefront brilliantly. John’s trip to hell with assistance from a cat is one stunner of a sequence, as is his explosively violent, gory n’ gooey showdown with Balthazar and an opening exorcism that launches a full length mirror, demon trapped inside, onto an LA street in broad daylight. His flippant confrontation with Stormare’s Satan has to be my favourite scene though, it’s such a classy, stylish, well acted and creepy-funny bit that caps off this story not with a huge bombastic action sequence but rather a clipped, ironic and altogether biting exchange of dialogue between these two great actors, who would go on to have another priceless little Easter egg scene together in John Wick 2. So say what you will about this film and I hear ya with legitimate grievances regarding fealty to the comics but that don’t bother me, I love this dark, unique, creepy, baroque jewel of a film too much. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

CONSTANTINE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Constantine (2005) marked the feature film debut of music video director Francis Lawrence who, judging by the look of this movie, would like to follow in the footsteps of David Fincher. For his first time out, Lawrence takes on the daunting task of adapting the excellent comic book, Hellblazer. Its main character, John Constantine first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing, during an illustrious run by Alan Moore. Eventually, Constantine got his own series with the launch of DC Comics’ Vertigo line. Jamie Delano was the primary writer and fleshed out the character’s backstory, his friends (like Chas the cabbie) and family. These stories typified late 1980s comic book horror and provided a bridge between Moore and the next creative heavyweight to tackle the character, Garth Ennis. His run on Hellblazer is where the movie gets most of its material from. Constantine is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking guy suffering from terminal lung cancer. He becomes embroiled in a complex war between Heaven and Hell with humanity caught in the middle.

The movie moves the comic’s setting from London to Los Angeles with John Constantine no longer being a blond-haired Englishman who looks like Sting to a very un-British-looking Keanu Reeves. The opening sequence introduces Constantine as an expert demon hunter trying to get back in with the good graces of God and the way he figures it, buy his way back into Heaven, but it isn’t that easy. We meet him as he exorcises a nasty demon from a young girl (a snazzy CGI updated riff on The Exorcist) while his twentysomething sidekick, Chas (Shia LeBeouf) waits in the car and perfects his Travis Bickle routine. Despite these cliches, this introduction is quite impressively shot and Lawrence successfully establishes this supernatural world and wisely limits Reeves’ dialogue, conveying most of what we need to know through the visuals.

Angela (Rachel Weisz) is a police detective whose twin sister has just died, committing suicide in a psychiatric hospital. Angela suspects foul play and this leads her to Constantine. They learn that demons are finding a way to crossover into our world and it has something to do with the Spear of Destiny (the weapon used to kill Jesus) being instrumental in summoning the son of Satan. To make matters worse, Constantine is rapidly dying from lung cancer and this gives his mission a certain sense of urgency.

Fans of the comic book are probably not going to like this movie. Constantine is supposed to be world-weary, a sarcastic drunk and womanizer but Reeves doesn’t quite pull it off. He presents a more sanitized version of the comic book character and even that feels forced. Another major betrayal of the character is having him wield a gun (a cool-looking crucifix shotgun), something that the Constantine of the comic would never do. Guy Pearce or Clive Owen would have been a much better choice to play Constantine.

Rachel Weisz is also miscast as Constantine’s potential love interest. Her line delivery throughout the movie is flat and lacks passion. She has zero chemistry with Reeves (didn’t they learn anything from Chain Reaction?) and someone like Fairuza Balk or even Drea DeMatteo would have been much better in this pivotal role. On the plus side, alternative rocker Gavin Rossdale plays a very dapper Balthazar who looks like he stepped right out of a GQ photo shoot. He has a lot fun chewing up the scenery and his confrontation with Reeves is one of the highpoints of the movie.

Lawrence certainly knows how to establish atmosphere and does an excellent job of presenting a seedy, Los Angeles underworld populated by bars filled with demons, dilapidated apartments and grungy city streets slicked with rain. Thankfully, he doesn’t fall into the trap of shamelessly ripping off Blade Runner’s (1982) dystopic cityscape. If anything, his vision of Constantine’s world is like an episode of the television show Angel on big-budget CGI steroids. He also is able create an effectively creepy mood throughout. For example, there’s a nice, throwaway scene where Constantine and Angela are on a city street when all the lights systematically go out as a slew of nasty, winged demons swarm all over them.

constant2Despite the miscasting of Reeves and Weisz in the two main roles, Lawrence’s take on Constantine is actually quite entertaining, even more so if you haven’t read the comic book. However, fans of the series will have problems with the major liberties the filmmakers have taken with the characters – especially Constantine and Chas. Like most comic book adaptations, this film only sprinkles certain elements from the source material, just enough to vaguely resemble it while watering it down for mainstream consumption. It’s a shame because in the right hands, Constantine could have been more like Hellboy (2004) instead it’s closer to the flawed, missed opportunity of The Punisher (2004).