Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Matrix

Year: 1999 (Matrix), 2003 (Matrix Reloaded), (Matrix Revolutions)
Running time: 136 minutes (Matrix), 138 minutes (Matrix Reloaded), 129 minutes (Matrix Revolutions)
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Monica Bellucci, Helmut Bakaitis, Ian Bliss, Collin Chou, Randall Duk Kim, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nathaniel Lees, Harry Lennix, Harold Perrineau, Clayton Watson, Anthony Zerbe, Adrian Rayment, Neil Rayment, Mary Alice, Bruce Spence

Neo and Agent Smith go head to head.
The Matrix was a film that literally came out of nowhere in 1999.  Everyone was anticipating the first of the Star Wars prequels, and a month or two before The Phantom Menace landed, this film came out and blew everybody’s socks off.  More than ten years later, and everything from the concept, through the ground-breaking effects and cinematography, to the sound and music is still astonishing.

Keanu Reeves is Thomas Anderson, an entirely normal person, if a little empty.  Mr. Anderson is not empty simply because he is being played by Reeves, who is not known for his emoting (although I've never found him to be as dreadful as many others seem to), but because he has an alter-ego in the virtual world, where he goes by the name of Neo.  Neo has a feeling that something isn't quite right with the world, a feeling many people in our own real world share.  Neo is searching the online world for an answer, an answer which finds him and blows his mind, as well as ours.
Agents in green.

Neo's world, it turns out, isn't real.  Sometime in the past,  humanity has lost a war against machines, machines that now control us completely, using us as a source of power while placing us in a virtual reality to blind us to the desolate truth.  Neo is 'rescued' from this charade by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a kind of Yoda of the human resistance and made a member of his crew.  Morpheus informs Neo that he believes him to be the savior of humanity and trains him to be a digital superhero.  Neo must learn to defeat Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), an unstoppable man in black out to stamp out the humans wherever they hack into the Matrix.  Smith is one of the best things about the film, with Weaving's delivery of a speech which, possibly quite correctly, equates humans to a cancer infecting the planet, genuinely unsettling. 

The action set-pieces are amazing, culminating in both the shoot-out in the lobby set to the Propellerheads and the all-out punch-up in the underground train station, which has a bit of a spaghetti western feeling about it.  It is, however, the designing and creating of an entirely new effect, called ‘bullet-time’ that really raised the bar for visual effects.  Nowadays, the effect has been copied poorly by so many other things, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Deuce Bigalow and Shrek , that some of the shine has worn off, but the first time I saw the camera swoop around and underneath Neo as the bullets fly past in slow motion I, like everyone else in the cinema, was gobsmacked.
Bullet-time: gobsmacking.
The blending of a futuristic kung-fu movie with a deeply cerebral philosophical idea for the premise is something that makes The Matrix unique among its contemporaries.  There are a number of people I know who cannot stand the film because they are unable to grasp the ideas regarding the potentially unstable nature of reality which every individual may well perceive differently.  It can, however, still be enjoyed on a simpler level – a cracking action movie.

Then, of course, there are the sequels.  Anticipation for The Matrix Reloaded was at a fever pitch, which meant it would inevitably disappoint.  On my first watching, I must admit I fell for it and loved it utterly, declaring it to be better than the original.  Time and common sense has since caused me to re-evaluate that opinion.

The one.  Or one of them, at least.
 Neo is under pressure to get to grips with his new powers to enable him to save humanity from a machine horde advancing on the real world human stronghold of Zion.  Agent Smith is now a rogue virus replicating himself and infecting the Matrix.

All the ingredients are in the right place; the vamped-up special effects (the whole middle section, from the mega-brawl in which Neo takes on hundreds of Agent Smiths, through the fight against the Merovingian's (Lambert Wilson) henchman, to the phenomenal highway chase is action-movie heaven), the expanding of the universe, and the same blend of action and philosophy (although the philosophy is not half as profound as in the first film with the Merovingian prattling on about cause and effect while giving some woman an orgasm with a cake).  The fact that the finale is an extremely technical and complicated conversation with an old man doesn't really help matters, but even here, you need to respect the Wachowskis and their ballsy decision to go in this direction with their multi million dollar sequel, which although against all logical rules of big-budget film making, kind of fits, and the revelation that Neo is by no means the first 'one' is a cool twist.  The Wachowski Brothers (in truth a brother and sister team, 'Larry' Wachowski actually being Lana, at least according to IMDb) had told us that this was the story they had always wanted to tell, and that the first movie was just an origin story to help us understand what was going on, meaning this was no shameless cash-in.  Also, the idea of the rogue programs hiding out within the Matrix like outlaws, refusing to report for deletion, was a smart one.  The reason it crashed and burned is down to the difference between allegory and applicability, as J.R.R. Tolkien would well know.  Allow me to explain.
Trinity, blowing shit up.
In the introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring in recently published versions, there is a piece written by Tolkien denying that the War of the Ring in his epic story was about World War 2.  It is an obvious comparison to make; it was written at about the same time.  However, Tolkien argued that writing a story allegorically, so that it was actually about a specific thing, meant that it would soon be irrelevant.  Writing a story that is applicable, like The Lord of the Rings, means it will forever be in our hearts and minds.  Basically, everyone can relate to Frodo and his quest, because everyone has, at some time in their life felt like the young hobbit.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean we’ve taken a cursed ring to a volcano.  What it means is that we have all been daunted by something that we need to overcome.  We’ve all lost hope at some point, because whatever we are trying to do, wherever we are trying to get to is just so far away as to be impossible, but all we can do is continue, one step at a time.  Ask my wife about her 57-hour labour, and you might get some idea.  We are able to apply the way Frodo feels to our own experiences, and therefore, his quest has a meaning that is personal to all of us.  This, above all other things, is why The Lord of the Rings is so loved.

Neo and Agent Smith go head to head, again.
Now apply that theory to The Matrix trilogy.  Neo is a regular person, like anyone.  We have all experienced what Neo feels in The Matrix.  Again, not literally – the world isn’t a virtual version of itself run by machines (at least, I don’t think so, but really, how would we know if it was?) – but we have all had our perception of the world turned upside-down, forcing us to re-evaluate everything we thought was truth – in storytelling they call it paradigm shift.  When it happens in reality it is on a small scale, not like it happens to Neo, but some kind of awakening that makes us view the world in a new light; maybe having your first baby, or falling in love for the first time.  We can relate to Neo when he is struggling to adjust, to rewire his thinking, we can apply our own experiences to him and know how he feels.  Just like Frodo, Neo’s experience takes on a personal meaning to us.  When we come back for the sequel, we are unable to relate to Neo anymore.  We don’t know what it’s like to feel the pressure of being the saviour of the world, or to have super powers.  Neo has evolved beyond us and there is nothing in our own lives that we can apply to make Neo’s journey mean anything to us.  Yes, it is still cerebral and philosophical, yes, there are still amazing effects and lots of action, but without the deeper relatable undertone it will not feel the same to us.
Swarming sentinels.

So, taking The Matrix Reloaded on face value, forgetting about how the original made us feel, it’s really a pretty good kung-fu sci-fi movie, with added philosophical musings on the nature of the universe, humanity and love.  And action set-pieces that are among the most impressive ever put on film.  

The Matrix Revolutions, however, while not utterly dreadful, is certainly the most mediocre of the three.  Acting was never the strong point in these films, but the performances in the final part are downright diabolical.  Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) never did have much chemistry, but by the third film the lack of spark between the two ‘lovers’ is embarrassing.  Maybe no-one can understand the philosophy-heavy dialogue anymore, so they don’t know how to deliver their lines convincingly.

The good news is the effects are as astonishing as ever, and the scenes of the sentinels swarming throughout Zion are jaw-dropping.  The final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith is huge and Jesus (sorry, I mean Neo) is finally able to save his species by sacrificing himself to take out Smith, who is just as much a threat to the machines as he is to the humans.

Try to remember The Matrix as something really special, and try not to let the sequels, particularly the third movie, ruin that memory.

Score:

The Matrix: 9/10
The Matrix Reloaded: 6/10
The Matrix Revolutions: 5/10

There is a lot of mixed opinion about these films out there, for example Bob couldn't stand The Matrix, while Empire are more on my wavelength.  The Matrix Reloaded is actually better thought of than I expected, as illustrated by both Rodney's and Empire's reviews.  While the final part generally does less well, evidenced by Rodney again, it still has its fans.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fargo

Year: 1996
Running time: 98 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare


The Coen brothers are well known for their clouding of the truth (just look at the interviews they gave for A Serious Man, in particular the questions regarding it being somewhat autobiographical), so the fact that Fargo opens with ‘A true story’ should be taken with a truckload of salt. It almost certainly isn’t true. What it is, however, is fabulous, a trait shared with many Coen films.

Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a below-average car salesman who, desperate for cash, arranges for the kidnap of his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) in order to score some ransom money from her father Wade (Harve Presnell), a belligerent and successful businessman.  The two men Lundergaard hires are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and they are anything but competent and things begin to spiral badly out of control almost from the beginning.  Showalter and Grimsrud are not at all alike - one talks too much, the other hardly says anything, and it is clear from the outset their plan is doomed to failure.  Grimsrud commits a shocking and grisly murder on the road at night, scaring his partner in crime, leaving the bodies for the police to find the next morning.

It's then we meet the star of the show, heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).  She has such a sunny disposition despite the biting cold and ghastly murder trails she cleverly follows all the way back to Lundergaard, that you can't fail to love her.  The accents are distinctive but don't get annoying, being just another Coen peculiarity that adds to the appeal, like the bizarre character names.

It’s a joy to watch the great cast in every blackly comic scene, and everyone delivers – William H. Macy excels as usual as the bumbling Lundergaard, and also Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the nervous, angry Showalter and the quietly psychotic Grimsrud, but the standout is definitely the wonderful Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson.

As the plan unravels, things go from bad to worse as the desperate Showalter leaves a trail of bodies and buries his share of the money under the snow, before realising the landscape is so unchanging he's likely never to find it again. The Coens do enjoy killing off Buscemi's characters whenever he turns up in one of their films, and Showalter's end in Fargo is perhaps his most memorable Coens death yet.

It is also filmed exquisitely.  The bleak all-white scenery is striking, often leaving the screen bereft of detail – an effect which is strangely beautiful and illuminates how alone and removed from everyday reality these characters are.

Near perfect.

Score: 9/10

Most people, including Ebert and Christopher seem to agree regarding Fargo's brilliance.