Revisited: The Matrix

The Wachowski siblings’ “The Matrix” has held up not because it was groundbreaking for its time but because it’s a great entertainment.

TheMatrixPosterIn over 15 years, nothing has aged “The Matrix.” Not two increasingly ridiculous sequels, not a series of box office bombs from the Wachowski siblings, and not the fact that these guys still carry around flip cell phones and interact with the world through pay phones. Movies released just two years later like “Minority Report” look better and more accurate technology-wise than “The Matrix” does, and yet that has not lessened the impact and influence this film still holds.

The Wachowskis, then brothers, now siblings after Larry became Lana, did something groundbreaking but also remembered to make a really, really good movie. The extended, bullet time action sequences don’t have the novelty they do in an age of CGI, but they’re the most incredible moments to watch because the Wachowksis borrow heavily from noir and Hong Kong influences. They feel right, they feel exciting, and there’s a sheer moment of timeless catharsis as we see Keanu Reeves, donned all in black leather and midnight sunglasses finishing a swing kick and striking a pose.

You cast Keanu Reeves for this reason, because he cannot act. He’s proven himself in other roles as both a competent performer and one of the worst, but “The Matrix” is not his finest. When he makes the choice to enter back into The Matrix to save Morpheus, he simply cannot emote on the level of his co-stars, capable of taking the Wachowski’s dialogue and making it as clunky as it really sounds. But then no other star would fit; they would emanate too much of their own persona, and Reeves has that clueless, cheesy quality .

“The Matrix” also has something that the really strong classics all have: a great villain. Hugo Weaving is fantastic as Agent Smith, especially when most seem to talk up Morpheus as the film’s standout. His diction and his cool delivery makes him the perfect robot killer, but he’s not averse to displaying sheer rage and loathing. There’s something delicious about how Weaving licks Morpheus’s skull and speaks of humanity’s stink as a virus in the world. He wears sunglasses in the evening, and he scowls and spits out “Mr. Anderson” with such vehemence.


Because for all of “The Matrix’s” coded symbolism and ideology about a tech-fearing future, the paradox of reality and fate, and the nature of mankind, “The Matrix” is a movie of many surface level innovations and charms. There’s no good reason why you dress up one of your agents to look like a post-punk David Byrne or Laurie Anderson. When Neo fights Morpheus to test his kung-fu knowledge, the scene could easily have gone wild in special effects and fantastical, futuristic possibilities, but it is still a grounded martial arts fight because we’d rather watch a campy, Bruce Lee inspired, realistic(ish) fight scene than something that feels fake. It’s obvious that Neo is going through a rebirth, specifically as we see him disconnect an umbilical cord and emerge from a pod of gelatinous fluid. Even Neo’s name is an anagram for “One”, so it’s not a stretch to see where this film is going.

And yet “The Matrix” is more than a little cynical. The Wachowski’s didn’t quite make an inspirational movie, even as thrilling and cathartic as it is. “Ignorance is Bliss”, Cypher says to Agent Smith, and we tend to believe him. The human race is a virus, and everyone could potentially be an Agent within the system, so who is really worth saving? We were the ones to torch the sky and herald this new age ruled by machines. It’s not that the human race has the power to defeat the machines by defying the rules and believing, only The One can. And when we start to ponder the nature of why there is pain and suffering in “The Matrix”, Agent Smith has an answer for us there as well. We reject that Utopia. We’re always looking for something more, because “to embrace our impulses makes us human.” We’re as hard wired as the machines are to know only misery.

Will The Wachowskis make another film as good as “The Matrix”? I doubt it. But they don’t have to unplug and realize a whole new world or reality again in order to do so.

Revisited: Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s third film reflects how he has evolved into the filmmaker he is today, for better or worse.

Up in the Air PosterFew directors other than perhaps M. Night Shyamalan (and even he still has some admirers) have experienced such a dramatic shift from critical acclaim to cinematic whipping boy than Jason Reitman.

Once considered an indie darling with thought provoking films like “Thank You For Smoking” and charming affectations of the high school experience like “Juno”, Reitman took a rapid nosedive in respect with his last two films, both unseen by me, that any mention of his name seems to illicit furrowed brows. Like Bono and U2 in 2014, Reitman’s past marvels have been marginalized and erased by their current transgressions to be made into the most hated in America.

The first misstep was “Labor Day”, an uncharacteristic melodrama and romance known for a pie-making scene that’s just about the worst metaphor for sex and romance ever captured on film. His most recent, 2014’s “Men, Women and Children”, was seen as Reitman sinking even further out of touch with humanity than ever before. It’s an unsettling portrait of suburbia that uses grave self-importance to treat the Internet, smartphones and all modern technology as the roots of all evil. Lambasting the film was like critics taking revenge on the fact that “American Beauty” ever won Best Picture.

Up in the Air” however, Reitman’s third film, was once considered his crowning achievement, and released at the tail end of the first decade of the 21st Century, felt like a brilliant, touching, satirical portrait of the Way We Live Now. How did this guy fall out of touch so quickly? What caused critics to turn against him so fast?

The truth is that “Up in the Air” is not as out of line with the themes of “Men, Women and Children” as you might expect. In fact you might even say that “Up in the Air” reflects a natural progression of a young independent director evolving as an artist and storyteller.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man whose job it is to fire people for a living, brought in by other companies as a way of easing the transition by means of placement services and George Clooney’s charming, calming reassurance. Reitman earns points by turning the story into a documentary on a crumbling economy, with companies being downsized and people losing their jobs left and right. Reitman interviews non-actors and has them react to their termination in a way that reflects a semi-documentary style that Richard Linklater would recreate later in “Bernie“.

But Reitman is more interested in making Bingham into a charming louse, preaching the idea of ditching all the belongings we shove into our metaphorical “backpack” in order to live a more efficient and productive life. He relishes the little touches of customer loyalty that keep his life in orbit, he’s casually racist and stereotypical when selecting security lines to wait in, and he scoffs at the idea of marriage or anything else as an institution. He and his alter-ego “with a vagina” Alex (Vera Farmiga) both get off on comparing the weights in their rewards cards and on how many collective miles they’ve racked up over time.


Clooney and Farmiga have steamy chemistry, and Reitman’s dialogue allows them to zip along like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” or some other classical screwball comedy. Separated from that context however, Reitman makes Clooney and Farmiga come across as frustratingly smug, condescending to people with bulky suitcases, collapsable strollers and those who rent from that awful new car rental place with terrible kiosk placement.

The idea that most people don’t talk the way Clooney and Farmiga do is something that first rubbed people the wrong way with Juno McGuff, as though her early 2000s slang and wit made her appear pretentious. Reitman there however had the crutch of Diablo Cody’s wickedly ridiculous and infectious script. Here they’re likable but difficult; they’re the kind of people you want to hate, and Reitman doesn’t seem to mind.

Ryan however is gradually revealed to be a shockingly unhealthy person. Without emotional connections of a meaningful sort, he’s without real ambition or direction in his life, and in the film’s final shot, he can be seen standing in front of an immense departures board completely lost as to where to go or what to do with the tiny backpack of belongings he has to his name. As a storytelling device, it works gangbusters, turning this business professional into an actual human with grace and humor over time.


But as a philosophical statement, it’s a plea for the more traditional American Dream. The one thing Ryan does take seriously is when his younger self Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick in her breakout role) seeks to digitally disrupt his industry, firing people via video technology and saving her company a whole lot of time, money and awkward, face to face encounters with disgruntled employees. Knowing how people react in this situation, he’s appropriately wary of the rise of new technology and change. But of course this isn’t just about break-ups through text message or firing through Skype; it’s about America, and how technology gets us further away from the human interactions and precision that allow Ryan to do his fastidious job so well.

It all comes to a head when Ryan travels to Milwaukee to attend his sister’s wedding. Ryan’s family is as quick as Natalie at calling his BS about throwing away attachments, and the images of love and marriage provide a gooey change of heart for Ryan that maybe love and a normal life on the ground would be for him.

Natalie even has an interesting scene with Alex and Ryan shortly after her boyfriend has broken up with her that subtly reflects Reitman’s conservative values. “I don’t want to say anything that’s anti-feminist,” she says, “but sometimes it feels like, no matter how much success I have, it’s not gonna matter until I find the right guy.” There’s nuance to this exchange for sure, but how might this line go over in 2015?

Reitman has spent the whole of two hours subtly picking away at the technological institutions that can transform business and people’s lives, opting instead for the nuclear family in the Middle America that is Milwaukee. Is this so different than starting “Men, Women and Children” in “outer freaking space” as a scary metaphor for the rise of the Internet? Most would agree that “Up in the Air” is a much better film, and that even if Reitman shares some different values, this is an emotional, compelling, competently told story by a filmmaker with his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds. At the very least though, revisiting “Up in the Air” has been a revealing experience as to just how this promising director at the top of the world started to lose his footing.

Revisited: Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western still rubs somewhat the wrong way watching it two years later.

This review is a quick smattering of thoughts that was first shared in my Letterboxd review

There’s no questioning Tarantino’s mastery and control behind the camera. Rewatching Django Unchained, the film bursts to life instantly with a just about perfectly gritty and homage of a title sequence and grandly sweeping title song. The film’s opening scene inside a completely dark forest almost looks patently on a set, but Tarantino is doing that intentionally and makes the bleakness and distinct lighting of the scene beautiful. You watch it and its hard to imagine that this will be anything but another of Tarantino’s masterpieces.

I had felt lukewarm about the film on Christmas Day 2012. My somewhat embarrassing review questioned if it was entirely complete as the film was bold, but messy and disjointed, full of set pieces that existed only on their own terms and a revenge plot that felt secondary whenever Tarantino trotted out the flourishes, bloodshed and rap tracks.

And in the first hour of “Django,” those feelings had completely vanished, only to return once Leonardo Dicaprio’s utterly chilling and compelling character showed up. That’s because the first hour is a straight Western, and Tarantino nails it. He could’ve easily drawn out the vigilante hunt for the Brittle brothers to Leone length and made a damn fine film, but he had different ambitions. Continue reading “Revisited: Django Unchained”

Revisited: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” one of the worst movies ever made? I play fair and revisit it.


Recently, a fellow blogger started a blogathon and posed a challenge: write a bad review of a good movie or a good review of a bad movie.

To be mean to something good is more commonly known as trolling, which isn’t difficult at all. To write something good about a bad movie on the other hand did not mean to lie, but to play fair. If I was going to do so, I thought how great it would be to pick something not just bad, but monumentally awful. And if I picked the worst movie I’d ever seen, what could be a greater challenge?

So, with that said, is “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” the worst movie I’ve ever seen?

I used to think so. More than many other film experiences, seeing the second “Transformers” was a watershed moment for me as a critic. Rarely had I seen a film that had such a strong disconnect between critics and fans, a 35 on Metacritic and yet $400 million domestically at the box office, the second highest of 2009. I had arguments with friends and family and got in trouble at work for ranting. I began using the expression “action extravaganza” liberally to describe it, a term I borrowed from a video game critic who used it to describe games like “Call of Duty” that were so intense and heavy handed in gritty, modern warfare that people foamed at the mouth.

Roger Ebert famously wrote that the film was so bloated that film classes would look back on it fondly as the end of an era, but hindsight has shown that CGI heavy blockbusters such as this have not disappeared.

Skids and Mudflap Transformers 2

In fact, the third movie, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” is possibly as bad, if not worse, despite a mild uptick in reviews. The plot became more convoluted, it takes more liberties with historical moments and landmarks, it turns Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) into an egotistical prick, the fight scenes got even louder and bigger, and it even adds four minutes to its run time.

The only distinct difference is the lack of “ROTF”’s embarrassingly racist robot twins, two souped-up spitfires who slung hip hop epithets, fought constantly and could not read. But “DOTM” includes everything but the “black” robot, resorting to British and white-trash stereotypes instead.

“Revenge of the Fallen” has the place in history because it surprised us all. The action blockbusters of the 2000s seemed to grow to this point, a film that really was louder, busier and heavier than any that had come before. Only the previous year with “The Dark Knight,” it had felt as though the comic book genre really could be grandiose and brilliant at the same time, but “Transformers” sent the genre the other way in titanic fashion. Continue reading “Revisited: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”

The Tree of Life Revisited

“The Tree of Life” deserved a second viewing to fully appreciate it. It’s a masterpiece after all.

“That’s where God lives!”

If there was any film in 2011 that deserved revisiting, it was “The Tree of Life.” It may have been polarizing, but in a year of some great and some mediocre films, it stood as far and away the most important film of the year.

And what’s more, it took watching it twice to realize it’s a masterpiece.

When I originally reviewed the film, I was caught in a state of perplexed awe. I called the film a purely cinematic ode to life itself, but remained unclear of the symbolism and without a feeling of emotional levity.

And yet “The Tree of Life” is so much more than just an ode to life. Watching “The Tree of Life” resembles the feeling one might experience after a rough mid-life crisis: a feeling of peace, acceptance and embracement of life’s beauty.

Terrence Malick’s film is averse to the bitterness, negativity and cynicism that motivate us to search for unanswerable questions in life. Instead, it is a constantly beautiful film that views the color and frivolity of life existing all around us. Continue reading “The Tree of Life Revisited”