(Video on Demand, June 2015) I usually try to write my capsule reviews without references to whatever elusive “critical consensus” exists about a film. With Jupiter Ascending, though, it’s difficult to avoid noticing that the film has earned a surprising number of scathing reviews. I think I understand why, but even that understanding can’t take away my annoyance at what I’m seeing as an unfair critical drubbing. To put it simply: Jupiter Ascending is a big quirky space opera and that’s such a specialized sub-genre that I’m not surprised that a lot of people would simply bounce off of it. Not that I’m overly pleased with an umpteenth “chosen one” rags-to-riches story –even less so from the Wachowskis, who pretty much did that storyline to quasi-perfection in The Matrix. Also not terribly cool: how wanton destruction is waved away, the caricatured characters, the brain-dead way a supposedly advanced alien society behaves, and other assorted shortcuts from reality. (The mad-bureaucracy sequence also feels out-of-place with the rest of the film, but seeing Brazil’s Terry Gilliam at the middle of it is almost an acceptable excuse) Strangely, it’s the weird wackiness of Jupiter Ascending that’s the best thing about it: bees domesticated by the queen of the universe, real-estate deals powering the entire plot; a dog-hybrid warrior with a gun that goes “woof!”; immortals back-stabbing each other for profit. That’s pure far-future Science Fiction stuff, too rarely seen on the big screen. If nothing else, I have a soft spot for such flights of fancy. Here, the Chicago nighttime action sequence works pretty well (although I feel that it’s been over-edited, runs too long and is almost instantly trivialized come morning), and the visuals once the action moves to space are nothing short of spectacular: The Wachowksis may have trouble with plot, but their eye for spectacle remains just as effective. Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum are unspectacular in the lead roles, but Sean Bean gets a nice turn as a character who (spoilers!) survives until the end of the film, and Eddie Redmayne gets a chance to ham it up as a spoiled aristocrat. While Jupiter Ascending has significant holes and annoyances, it’s also a film with the advantage of its eccentricities. I’d like to see more movies like that take chances and fall flat on their face rather that play it safe like most blockbusters today.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) At a time where big-budget filmmaking seems to retreat in familiar narrative structures and a complete lack of daring, Cloud Atlas comes as a welcome break from the usual. Clocking in at nearly three hours, it features six loosely-linked narratives spanning centuries and several known actors playing different roles in each story. Heralding the return of the Wachowskis siblings to the big screen after a few quiet years (they co-direct three of the six stories, with Tom Tykwer directing the remainder of the film), Cloud Atlas is big, ambitious and offers things that cinema doesn’t often get to showcase. It is, in many ways, a singular movie experience, and one that deserves to be contemplated rather than simply liked or disliked. As an adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel, it’s an excellent, even audacious re-working: the film’s structure works in ways that the novel couldn’t, and still ends up a fiercely cinematic work. Most of the actors playing multiple roles seem to have a lot of fun, with particular notice to Tom Hanks (who gets to tweak his usual good-guy persona), Halle Berry (who gets one of her best roles yet as a 1970s journalist), an often-unrecognizable Hugh Grant, as well as gleefully multifaceted Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving –who even gets to play both assassin and nurse. (Some roles don’t work as well, such as when actors get to play outside their ethnicity or gender, but that happens.) The six stories interlock in subtle ways, suggesting both reincarnation of personalities and malleability of interpretation once truth becomes fiction. For all of the good things about Cloud Atlas, it’s almost too easy to forget that this is not an easy or even completely successful film: You have to give it at least 30 minutes for the six stories to earn narrative interest, and there’s a sense that the film is definitely not tight or focused: it often appears to run off on tangents and forced similarities, and certainly will not please anyone looking for solid links between all elements of the picture. Still, for jaded moviegoers, Cloud Atlas is as close as it gets to a truly new experience within the big-budget framework: it tries many new things, succeeds spectacularly well at some of them and leaves hungry for a bit more. I could go on, but the film is too big to be adequately described within the constraints of a capsule review.
(In theaters, May 2008) The Wachowski’s post-The Matrix return to the big screen as writers/directors may not be profound (it is an adaptation of a kid’s Japanese TV animation show), but it clearly shows their gift for pedal-to-the-metal visual storytelling. Big, bright and colorful like few other live-action film, Speed Racer sticks close to its source material and feels like a trip to a surreal parallel universe where gravity is a suggestion and eye-popping architecture is the norm. Few frames in this film aren’t green-screened, color-corrected and CGI-enhanced. For moviegoers interested in the state of the cinematographic art, this is it. It’s a shame, then, that it’s slaved to such a simple story geared to the younger set, a story that missteps by mixing up cute monkey sidekicks alongside corporate machination and a family-friendly message: There doesn’t seem to a be coherent audience for what Speed Racer has to say. But even with that handicap, there’s something fascinating in the way the Wachowskis choose to structure their story: It’s not rare for the film to play with storytelling by featuring flashbacks-within flashback, flash-forwards, inter-cut segments and all sorts of neat storytelling tricks that are wasted on the material, but manage to make the film far more interesting that it would have been if told in a more straightforward fashion. The dizzying structural tricks blend with the flashy visuals for a pure cinema experience that may not make much sense afterward, but certainly feel cool enough in the theater as long as anyone’s brain can sustain the assault. As with other Wachowski films so far, the details are often more interesting that the main film itself: beyond the bland Caucasian nature of the Racer family, the other characters are pleasantly multicultural, if not counter-cultural (a black viking?!), and there are tons of small jokes hidden in the corners of the screen. The images can be breathtaking even as their meaning is bland. Sure, Speed Racer could have been better, but it’s already a remarkable achievement despite its flaws.
(In theaters, March 2006) It may be too early in the year to talk about 2006’s best films, but it’s certainly not too early to say that this is the first good movie of the year. I’m always a sucker for tales of insurrection against totalitarian government, and this one is slicker than most. Somewhat faithfully adapted from the graphic novel, V For Vendetta remains faithful to the spirit of the original, and delivers a tighter, more cohesive take on the basic story: the film is likely to become my preferred version. (Alan Moore may pout and fume about Hollywood betrayal, but this one’s really not that bad.) From a cinematographic standpoint, the film is gorgeously designed and directed with a great deal of self-confidence: James McTeigue may be overshadowed by the Wachowski producers, but his work is crisp and clean. Blessed with capable lead actors, V For Vendetta showcases some fantastic mask work by Hugo Weaving and one of Natalie Portman’s best role yet. Despite the lack of action set-pieces (don’t believe the trailers), the film has considerable forward momentum and only falters slightly late in the film. Politically, it’s a loud scream against the dangers of totalitarianism, and successfully manages to integrate the Thatcher-era fears of the original with current-day concerns over the so-called War on Terrorism: If it touches a nerve, it’s only because there is something to be concerned about right now. Otherwise, unfortunately (and there’s my biggest problem with the film), it remains quite literally a comic-book fable that tackles ideas in a stylized fashion, but falters on the follow-up: Totalitarian regimes never spring up completely without popular roots, and are seldom defeated by a grandiose gesture. V For Vendetta, hobbled by the necessities of a feature film’s running length and the low bandwidth of cinema, does not seriously engage with the demands of political thought, or the solutions required by real-world trade-offs. It’s all well and good to scream revolution, but it’s not going to do much good unless there are solid alternatives behind the reform. (And it’s what distinguishes comic-book-reading teenagers from adults used to the real world). But I’m being overly harsh: After all, I didn’t say such things after Equilibrium, right? But if V For Vendetta is going to propose itself as a bold political thinking piece, it better withstand the scrutiny it invites. That rabid political point aside, there’s little doubt that V For Vendetta is going to be one of 2006’s good films. Now let’s see the competition before deciding if it’s one of the best.
(In theaters, November 2003) Sometimes, it’s best to take one’s inner fanboy and temporarily lock it in a cage. Otherwise, said fanboy would rant on and on about how, even with its problems, The Matrix Revolutions is one of the year’s most enjoyable film just because it so happens to be one of the very few hard-core SF films of 2003. Well, stuff the fanboy and let slip the vitriol of betrayed expectations. By far the most infuriating thing about this third episode in the series is how it doesn’t even answer the dozens of questions raised by the second film. It lets all the balls drop, one by one, until the juggler is left saying “sucker!” But the film’s flaws certainly don’t stop there: The elegant focus of the first film was diminished in the second and finds itself crudely forgotten here: all is chaos and confusion, whether you’re talking about the dialogue, the themes, the visuals or the direction. In the process, all of what made the first volume so worthwhile has been ignored. The characters are emotionless parodies of themselves. The dialogues are painfully predictable. The special effects aren’t half as spectacular as Tharini Mudaliar in her all-too-brief appearance. Then the conclusion sinks into the woo-woo morass that has afflicted so much anime in the past; a pointless fight which only concludes when the screenwriter simply decides so, and in which the viewer has to perform all of the intellectual justifying work. Ay, yay-yay, what an ignominious end for a trilogy that had started so well. The Wachowski brothers pretty much blew up all accumulated credentials with this misguided effort, and effortlessly proved the law of diminishing returns: However much money and chaos you put on screen, sometimes it’s just not worth the effort. It’s fitting, in so many ways, that even the Rage Against The Machine-less soundtrack is the lesser of all three films.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Nope, still haven’t changed my mind about the film: It’s a lousy end to a trilogy that had started so well, but there’s still enough pure Science Fiction content and images to make me happy. This initial DVD edition, however, has a lot of good stuff in reserve: Plenty of special-effects supplements (you won’t believe some of the stuff they had to use for the final fight!), some useless background material (including a badly-designed collection of stills and “historical” information) and an intriguing look at a on-line game that will probably look quite silly in two or three years. Die-hard The Matrix fans ought to get this, if only for the sake of completing the series.
(Third viewing, On DVD, May 2005) I suppose that only the most ardent fans of the film will have the patience to watch both sets of commentary tracks on The Matrix Ultimate Edition trilogy. Those brave few who do, however, will get much out of “The Philosophers” commentary: Ken Wilbur and Cornell West each bring a perspective on the meaning of The Matrix trilogy that does much to add depth to the second and especially third segments. Don’t get me wrong: I still thing that this third volume is over-indulgent, long and falsely profound, but Wilbur’s idea about the trilogy being the story of the re-unification of disparate realms (body, mind and soul; blue green and gold; Zion, Matrix and Source) in a new trinity (a Neo/Trinity, one might say) brings a different light to it. Not bad, but still not recommended to anyone who’s not already a freakishly obsessive fan.
(On DVD, June 2003) Yes, this is a ploy to get even more money out of The Matrix fans. But when it’s such an interesting money-grab, one can even be enthusiastic about the attempt. A collection of nine anime shorts set in the world of The Matrix, this is a fun little collection showcasing the strengths of “Japanese-style animation” along with the possibilities of the Wachowski Brothers’ creation. Styles vary enormously, from the hyper-CGI photorealism of “The Last Flight of the Osiris” to the stylized hand-drawings of “Kid’s Story”. The tone is uniformly dour, though, with death to the protagonists being a recurring motif; few happy endings here, and even one piece that can be seen as an apology for teen suicide. But it’s pretty good stuff, and the interest level remains constant despite stories hindered both by length and by the constraints of operating in another person’s universe. The DVD is stuffed with supplements, from an introduction to anime to making-of featurettes that are almost longer than the pieces themselves. It’s an essential stop for all anime fans, and an interesting curio for others that are at least familiar with either anime or The Matrix.
(In theaters, May 2003) Yes, this film has flaws. Deep, serious flaws that show the self-indulgence in which the Wachowski Brothers were allowed to wallow. Falsely profound dialogue, pretentious pontificating, overlong fights, flaccid editing, ordinary writing and lopsided structural beats. Those would be enough to give pause to anyone not already plugged into the Matrix. But that’s my case, and as a fan boy, I’m pleased as punch with this second volume. The Matrix was an accident: A nerd-triumphant story that touched a mainstream nerve thanks to a few conceptual kicks and an impeccable sense of style. Matrix Reloaded is all geek no mainstream: I would be bold as to suggest that if you don’t understand why there’s a Giant Robot scene in this film, you don’t deserve to watch it: The Wachowskis now have all the means in the world to put on-screen every single little geeky obsession they’ve dreamt about for years, and they’re going to do it. While the result can be exasperating (some oh-so-profound dialogues are really meaningless –or worse, trite!) they are as often exhilarating: The “gratuitous” Seraph-Neo fight is straight out of kung-fu clichés, the equally-motivated Neo/Smith fight is an anthology sequence and that fourteen-minute car chase scene, well, it redefines the standard for action goodness. The conceptual punch of The Matrix Reloaded is equally as strong, though unfortunately back-loaded in the last five minutes, leading to a badly-paced film that could have used some tightening. Ditto with the editing, though fortunately the Wachowskis still have an impressive flair for fantastic camera work. (Best example: the gorgeous rave scene, which runs too long, diluting the strong images into something approaching self-parody.) But enough with the unkind comparisons to the original, or to our own long-idealized sequel: The Matrix Reloaded is a heady SF/action blockbuster, a perfect blend of geeky stuff I’m actually content to pay to see. The Matrix Revolutions can’t come soon enough.
(Second viewing, In theaters, June 2003) Yikes; I was afraid that a second viewing might lead me to this unpleasant conclusion: No, The Matrix Reloaded isn’t as good as its prequel. The editing is loose, the dialogues are average, the pacing is slow, especially when you measure it against the ideal set by the Wachowski Brothers in their previous effort. Oh, I don’t regret paying to see it again; even on a second viewing, the film still holds up better than most other first-run viewings. The action sequences are deeply impressive, especially considering the flawless integration of most CGI. (Unlike the first film, there are only two obvious “bullet time” moments, and they flow a lot better than previously) The images are strong, and so is the direction. A lot of the plot doesn’t make much sense (and threatens to make even less less sense the more I think about it), but I’d like to maintain reservations on that topic until I see the sequel. At this point, five months away from the concluding chapter of the trilogy, it’s difficult to get a proper grip on The Matrix Reloaded. Well, except for one thing: It could have been much better. Closer to what we wanted to see, that is.
(On TV, November 1999) A triumphant revision of noir thrillers, with the assorted background of mafia, greed, smouldering sexual tension and pervasive gritty atmosphere. This is the Wachowski Brothers’ first feature (their second would be The Matrix) and it already shows the mixture of mesmerizing direction, borrowed influences and comic-book plotting that made their follow-up features so successful. This is a film that isn’t really complex, but looks so damn polished that it’s impossible to avoid being favorably impressed. Cool scenes, cooler visuals, focused script and femmes fatales (Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon! Woo-hoo!)… I don’t need much more to recommend this one.
(In theaters, March 1999) Oh! That’s probably one of the few things left to say right after seeing this film. Oh cool; a mixture of Hong Kong-style action, far-out existentialist Science-Fiction, straight-out over-the-top theatrics and pure imagination. Oh sharp; the direction is simply wonderful, bringing stylistic excess to mesh with the carefree hyperkinetic action. Oh yeah; this is the best action movie since Face/Off, the best SF film since Dark City and the best comic book visualization since The Fifth Element. Whatever your “Oh!” means, The Matrix is one heck of a ride. Despite the numerous logical flaws in the script (don’t get me started on that…), some juvenile pop-philosophy and uneven pacing (not to mention the criminal underusage of Carrie-Anne Moss), The Matrix gets top marks as a superlatively put-together blockbuster. See it on the biggest screen you can.
(Second viewing, In theaters, April 1999) I very seldom go twice to the same movie, but The Matrix is definitely cool enough to make me do so. (Okay, granted, I was going with someone else, but still…) Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s as good the second time around, it’s still so technically well-done that even another viewing is worthwhile. The Wachowski brother’s direction is very visually exciting and makes even the slow moments (of which there are quite a few, all things reconsidered) interesting. The stoopid science, plot holes and juvenile philosophy are still sore spots, though. Now a surefire choice for my top-ten list of 1999, The Matrix almost compensate for all the other awful SF movies released by Hollywood lately. Almost.
(Third viewing, On DVD, September 1999) At a time where most SF films tend to be brief flash-in-the-pan visual delights, it’s a relief to see that The Matrix still holds up pretty well to a third viewing. The special effects are still as good, the pop philosophy is still as unsubtle and the bad science still as grating, but the direction, art design and acting each do a lot to maintain interest. The DVD is exceedingly well-done, packed with a “Making of…” feature, two short special effects documentaries and a rather tepid commentary track by Carrie-Anne “Trinity” Moss, Special Effects supervisor John Geta and Editor Zach Straenberg. (Unfortunately, the commentary is badly edited, often redundant and with lengthy pauses.) The DVD-ROM content is promising, but will have to wait until I get an adequate player.
(Fourth viewing, On DVD, May 2003) Four years later, I’m still jazzed up about this film, which holds up admirably well to yet another repeat viewing. The direction is still as good as ever and shores up a film that suffers a lot from structural problems both in the first half (where all is explained and nothing happens) and the second (where a lot of stuff blows up but nothing is explained). It’s a shame, in retrospect, that the heavy noir influence of the first five minutes is seldom seen afterwards. Well worth another look in light of the last two volumes of the trilogy, as the meanly focused nature of the story expands into something much bigger later on, and given that two or three throw-away images of this original film end up taking quite another significance after even only The Matrix Reloaded…