Hell on earth and in France

| February 16, 2005
Reaching for his paycheck: Keanu Reeves doesnt stop Constantine from succeeding.
Reaching for his paycheck: Keanu Reeves doesnt stop Constantine from succeeding.
- Warner Bros.

The absurd reality that Keanu Reeves has been able to get good jobs in Tinseltown for the last 20 years makes him the luckiest man alive. Mark Ruffalo has that brooding stoner doll thing down cold at this point and he can truly act - why not hire him instead?

            When Reeves' movies tank it's because of him, and when they're successful it's despite him. Joan Rivers could have starred in the Matrix trilogy and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. Luckily, his latest film, Constantine, a kind of sci-fi Catholic noir, is yet another in that string of happy accidents that even Keanu Reeves couldn't ruin. Unfortunately, its inevitable success will mean that Reeves will continue to roam Hollywood unchecked.

            Reeves plays John Constantine, a Los Angeleno who has been blessed-cursed with the ability to see the true nature of the demonic and angelic half-breeds who walk among us and do the bidding of their respective superiors. A botched teenage suicide attempt has all but ensured Constantine's eventual chthonic destiny, so he's trying to win the favor of the Man Upstairs and get into heaven by sending the Devil's minions back to hell in a variety of inventive ways. And the clock is ticking, thanks to the terminal cancer that's ravaging this chain smoker's body.

            Enter Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), a detective investigating the death of her twin sister Isabel. Apparently Angela and Isabel shared the same gift of otherworldly sight that Constantine possesses, which has made them targets in a plot to help the son of Satan cross over onto the earthly plane. This can only be accomplished with the Spear of Destiny (a blade that was used during the crucifixion), which has just been exhumed in Mexico and is en route to the City of Angels.

            Constantine is based on the Hellblazer graphic novels, but probably 80 percent of the audience won't know that. Or care, for that matter --- while a little background would no doubt aid in detangling the thick story, it shouldn't hinder anyone's possible enjoyment of the film. The gobsmacking art direction and special effects are perfectly captured by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Big Fish and the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and my chin still smarts from a scene near the beginning that caused my jaw to hit the floor.

            Reeves' laconic delivery may cause drowsiness, but the rest of the cast should keep your eyes open since it is such a treat to watch the talented overact. The normally aloof TildaSwinton completely hams it up with her portrayal of the seemingly genderless angel Gabriel. Peter Stormare (probably best known for feeding Steve Buscemi to the woodchipper in Fargo) lays it on even thicker to play Lucifer (but who wants to see a subtle Satan?). The super-sexy DjimonHounsou, as the impartial Papa Midnite, takes a break from playing the saintly to channel the heavenly, and Gavin Rossdale, on holiday from his day job as the lead singer of Bush, pops up to gnaw the scenery as half-breed fop Balthazar.

            Oh, hell. If I don't say something positive about Keanu Reeves, my sister will have my head on a stick. So I will admit that I thought he was really good as the abusive husband in The Gift. I could also point out that Reeves and I were both born on September 2, which is semi-cool. Most importantly, however, he starred in a movie that enabled me to finally trot out the word "chthonic."

If you'll indulge me for a second, I'm going to try to get a quote in an ad for Les Choristes, France's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film: "If you've never seen a movie before, you'll love Les Choristes!"

            That should do the job, but this one's just for insurance: "Like being manipulated and bashed over the head? Go see Les Choristes!"

            The tale unfolds in flashback as two older men peruse a journal and reflect on their relationship with an educator named Clement Mathieu (GérardJugnot). It's just after World War II when Mathieu accepts a job at a boarding school for troubled kids. Of course, he's not initially liked by the boys who populate his class, but he finds a way to relate to his charges by teaching them to sing. Just as predictably, the most rebellious one has an astounding voice. And a head-turning mom.

            The children all have their stock role to fill, whether it's bully, dope, or sad-eyed orphan. The headmaster lets us know he's not to be trusted by the way he trims the hair sprouting from his nose. But filmmaker ChristopheBarratier is the actual villain here, using nefarious trickery like cute kids and swelling music to get you reaching for the Kleenex.

            The names and places have changed, but this story has been told many times before in films like Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland's Opus, Dangerous Minds, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips: Teacher tries to make a difference and winds up learning a few things himself. Throw in a little humor, tragedy, and adversity, and you got yourself a movie... usually the same movie. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because it's French it's better. Go rent School of Rock instead.

            France bestowed a number of quality films upon the world last year. Les Choristes is the one they chose to submit to the Academy? It was a totally pandering move, and sadly, it totally worked.

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