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Review: Constantine

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“I need to eat,” croaks professional demonslayer John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), puffs of smoke still drifting from his clothes. He’s just been to hell and back — literally — and provided tortured police detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) with tangible evidence that her identical twin sister Isobel (guess who?) is not exactly resting in peace. What’s more, the cosmic balance between the forces of good and evil seems to be fatally out of whack, with potentially dire consequences for all humankind. But right now, Constantine needs to hit a diner. Dude be famished.

    Movies involving angels and demons, all-powerful relics and arcane incantations are almost invariably pretty stupid. My own tolerance for apocalyptic balderdash, therefore, depends largely on whether it comes equipped with a sense of humor. Constantine, adapted from the DC comics series Hellblazer, knows perfectly well that it’s ridiculous, and that wry self-awareness is its saving grace. Ironically, the film’s recurrent stab at broad comic relief — Shia LaBeouf as Keanu’s over-eager apprentice — falls utterly flat; the kid seems to have wandered in from a neighboring Nickelodeon special. But it’s hard not to be mildly tickled by Constantine‘s agreeably mordant tone, exemplified by the fact that its hero’s greatest nemesis is not the hellspawn he battles but his three-pack-a-day nicotine habit.

    A graduate of music videos, like virtually every other novice these days, director Francis Lawrence keeps the visual pyrotechnics to a relative minimum, allowing the creepiest imagery — a demon trapped in a mirror; herds of cattle collapsing as the “Spear of Destiny” (which pierced Christ on the cross) passes by — to insinuate rather than assault. Granted, a genuinely good movie would not feature something called the “Spear of Destiny.” (I dare you to keep a straight face during the opening caption.) But if it’s dumb, hokey fun you seek during this most barren of cinematic seasons, you could do a hell of a lot worse. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Downfall
  As the most iconic figure of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler represents an almost insurmountable acting challenge. How to make him credibly human without seeming to trivialize his genocidal, um, furor? In Downfall, a meticulous German docudrama detailing the final days of the Third Reich, Bruno Ganz (best known in the U.S. as one of the doleful angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire) perfectly captures Hitler’s manic-depressive vocal cadence, which today seems weirdly reminiscent of a Nirvana single: sullen muttering in the verses, hoarse shrieks in the chorus. But apart from a few banal courtesies, the man remains defined almost entirely by his mania. Like the film itself, Ganz’s performance lacks purpose; it’s consistently remarkable without ever threatening to become meaningful.

    Shot almost entirely in the führer’s underground bunker, Downfall sets out to demonstrate not the absurdity of war in general but the sheer, suicidal senselessness of the German “exit strategy” in particular. To that end, it offers a few queasy moments of near-comic horror, most memorably in an anecdote involving a military officer who, summoned to the bunker and assigned the task of defending Berlin from the Soviet onslaught, declares that he’d much rather have been shot, as he’d expected. At two-and-a-half hours, though, the Nazis’ downward spiral, replete with frantic fin-de-siècle partying and solemn infanticide, becomes numbingly repetitive. It doesn’t help that director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment) possesses a ludicrously coarse sensibility, favoring DRAMATIC! CLOSEUPS! of violent actions — a phone slammed into its cradle, broken halves of a pencil angrily thrown onto a map. Be thankful he never goes near the death camps.

    Just how do we know what happened down there, anyway? Much of the eyewitness testimony comes from Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, played in the film by Alexandra Maria Lara; she’s less a character here than a wide-eyed audience surrogate. The real Junge, however, was the subject of a 2002 documentary called Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, in which she describes the events depicted in Downfall in minute detail. That these events seem more gripping when spoken by an eighty-one-year-old woman than they do when dramatized only goes to show that the imagination is far more powerful than mediocre, literal-minded filmmaking. — Mike D’Angelo
Date DVD #20: Robot Stories
 
Saw is dumb and gruesome and Taxi is just dumb, but half a dozen other releases can help you get laid this week. If you need to loosen up a stiff date, try Chappelle’s Show: Season 2, and cue the episode in which housewife-friendly comic-crooner Wayne Brady goes gangsta and commits a drive-by. If your emo-loving lover is obsessed with Richard Kelly’s cult classic Donnie Darko, grab the extended Donnie Darko Director’s Cut. If your date’s a design nerd, go for the most gossipy architecture documentary ever filmed: Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, which details how Kahn’s famous father Louis kept two families and managed to keep them hidden from one another until his funeral (yes, there’s stuff about buildings, too). And if your date’s into cutting-edge Asian cinema, you’ll score with either of these festival hits: Tsai-Ming-Liang’s romantic ode to filmgoing, Goodbye Dragon Inn, or Thai auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, a strange and beautifully shot drama about a meticulous Japanese businessman who escapes gangsters and falls in with a pot-smoking wastrel.

    But I’d take a chance on Greg Pak’s micro-budget indie Robot Stories, a valentine from the future. Broken into a quartet of subtle science-fiction fables, each is more Ray Bradbury than Keanu Reeves — and romantic in its own strange way: A sculptor becomes obsessed with the digitized memories of his wife; a worried couple tries to love an android baby; a mother reconstructs her dying son’s vintage robot-toy collection; and an android office-drone (played by Pak) falls in love. Somehow the cast (largely composed of underutilized Asian-American actors like Tamlyn Tomita) underplays the gizmos and hits the emotional beats dead-on, heating up a genre that so often looks stylish, but feels dead-cold. — Logan Hill



 
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