Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Matrix Revolutions

When you get down to brass tacks, after watching The Matrix Revolutions (2003), after reading all the explanations online for what it all means, I realize the main failing of the series' finale is its shift in what it's all about. Oh sure, there's still plenty of stilted dialogue, flat performances, padding, and pretentious philosophical ramblings, but this entry almost feels like it belongs to another series.

The Matrix presented us with the notion that reality as we know it is a computer-generated simulation, created by machines to keep humans in line while they harvest energy from us. The Matrix Reloaded revealed that the prophecy of the One, the savior of the human race who would free us from the clutches of the machines, was itself a program, a cycle of destruction and reconstruction already repeated five times. Plus, the second movie ended with Neo (Keanu Reeves) demonstrating his powers outside of the Matrix, suggesting that even the real world of Zion was possibly another illusion.

What do they all these threads have in common? Control. Keeping people in line. Systems of oppression our heroes are rebelling against. It's very fitting the soundtrack of The Matrix contains music by Rage Against the Machine because that's exactly what this has been about. Humans are not programs; they have choice and will fight for it.

In this regard, The Matrix Revolutions doesn't seem to be consistent thematically with its predecessors. True, we get the great, epic, high-pitched battle for Zion between the plucky human defenders and the aggressive, ruthless machines, and to be fair, it is a pretty cool battle as the humans man armored mechs to blast away at the invaders, but the resolution of the series does not see humanity triumphing over its inhuman oppressors but sees the humans reaching a mutual understanding with their AI enemies to deal with the rogue Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving).

The whole enterprise can't help but be viewed as a letdown. Spoilers ahead. Even though the humans and machines stop fighting and there's dialogue about how the humans who want out of the Matrix will be released, not much seems to have changed from the first movie to the end. The machines are still vastly superior in strength and numbers, and should they ever change their minds, there's not much the humans can do about it. This feels less like peace and victory and more like the humans are deciding to remain subservient and dominated. The world above is still in tatters, the city of Zion is in ruins, and the Matrix still exists. This is freedom?

To be fair, there are moments in the earlier movies that suggested the series might be headed in this live-and-let-live cooperation. The Animatrix documented how humanity was complicit in its own demise, treating the robots and machines cruelly and driving them into rebellion, and The Matrix Reloaded had the conversation between Neo and the Zion Councilman about how dependent on each other humans and machines are. But to bring this to the forefront of a franchise that started off so dark, cool, edgy, and rebellious seems... soft. The fearsome machines and programs are just as mopey and sentimental as we are.

Structurally, The Matrix Revolutions is a mess. We spend so much time away from the characters we've been following - and when the likes of Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) are around, they don't do much - that the movie never picks up steam. Agent Smith has become a caricature of what made him so threatening in the original, and when he and Neo duke it out for the last time, I have no idea why it plays out the way it does, even with Smith helpfully offering some (non)exposition throughout the fight.

Now, what does work about The Matrix Revolutions? The Battle for Zion is impressive and worth checking out. It's a huge scale fight, an epic clash with millions of swarming robots against a handful of desperate humans. Between the giant drills, the Sentinels forming giant shapes out of thousands of robots to smash into defenses, and the pretty sweet battle armor the humans use, I'm hard pressed to think of anything else like it. I also like when Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) journey to Machine City in a last-ditch gambit. The Machine's world is a dark, creepy place, expanding on the visions of the human harvest fields from the first movies. It's like an expanded, more elaborate version of Skynet from the Terminator movies.

So, those are the Matrix movies. They start off strong but end with a whimper. I can't fault the Wachowskis for being ambitious or coming up with some crazy, far-out ideas and visuals. They certainly packed all the movies with those elements along with some nifty action scenes that hadn't really been done before. Dramatically, they needed more focus and less filler, and yet, I can't bring myself to actively dislike them. I'm frustrated because they're nowhere near as good as they could have been, but I do think there's just enough inspiration and vision in them that I have a soft spot for them. I'm only human.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Matrix Reloaded

It's easy to sum up the quality of The Matrix Reloaded (2002): visually impressive, some cool ideas, dramatically inert.

The Matrix Reloaded has two story problems to deal with from the get-go, and it never really recovers from these handicaps. First, the new development is the Machines have begun drilling to the human city of Zion with a massive army to wipe out the resistance; this titanic battle won't occur until the third movie, which means by default, Reloaded will have a lot of time to kill.

Secondly, at the end of The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) assumed the mantle of the One. Inside the Matrix, he is essentially invulnerable, capable of stopping bullets with a wave of the hand and able to fly like Superman. Well, if Neo is indestructible, then the suspense and tension of the original is lost. Instead of a desperate human trapped inside a deadly computer program fighting for his life, Neo is an over-powered superhero, and even he looks bored as he casually blocks attacks from the new, supposedly upgraded Agents.

The Matrix had a plot driving it forward from point A to point B plus a sense of discovery. The Matrix Reloaded feels like it's drifting in the breeze, meandering before the grand finale and unsure of what needs to happen until then, and as a result, it is loaded with filler. There's still quite a bit to like and admire about the movie, but it is a huge step down.

The key players are back. Neo; his girlfriend Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), whom he is afraid will die because he's seen it in his dreams; and Morpheous (Laurence Fishburne), who still believes humanity should put its faith in the Oracle (Gloria Foster), who prophesied that Neo would bring about the end of the war and free humanity. Even Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is still around, now with the ability to replicate himself and take over the minds of hundreds of people at a time if not more (what do you suppose will happen if he takes over someone who is then pulled out of the Matrix? hint, hint).

Now, what do I mean by loaded with filler? In a movie about a war between humans and machines, with the machines enslaving most of humanity with a computer simulation of reality, I don't like having time wasted on tedious shit. Tedious shit like Morpheous' new pilot Link (Harrold Perrineu), whose wife is nagging him about being away on the ship. How does this pay off in anyway? It doesn't. He still goes off with Morpheous, and the issue is never brought up again. It's just a stock character conflict in a movie filled with stock character conflict. There's also Morpheus' feud with Commander Locke (Harry Lennix), not only because they disagree philosophically but because Locke is now with Morpheus' ex, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith).

But the problem with The Matrix Reloaded that almost kills it is the static, sterile, pseudo-profound dialogue that is so flat and delivered with such solemnity that it almost becomes hysterical. The movie is so far up it's own butt with its philosophical ramblings, it's all but impossible to take seriously or even follow what it's getting at. Sometimes I wondered who the humans were and who the programmed machines were.

And the romance between Trinity and Neo... No chemistry, no conviction. This relationship is meant to be the beating heart of the story, the element that becomes central to Neo's ultimate choice in the end, but I've seen more sparks between Al and Tipper.

However, at its very core, The Matrix Reloaded has a strong conceit, a mind-blowing third-act twist the Wachowskis have tried to build the entire movie to, and it's why I don't mind the chosen-hero-who-will-fulfill his-destiny-and-save-us-all story arc that's been done a million times. Needless to say, spoilers ahead.

Neo confronts the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), the cold, analytical AI that created the Matrix. The Architect reveals the prophecy, the One, the Oracle, they're all another system to control the humans. There have been five other Ones before Neo, and they all let Zion be destroyed and rebuilt to ensure the survival of the human race. The choice inherent in the Matrix for its denizens means there have always been some humans who reject it and pose a threat. The story about the One and the prophecy keeps them in line. They think they're exerting free will and rebelling, but really, it's another system of control.

That is a great revelation, and it turns the whole Hero's Journey tale on its head. All this time, Neo thought he was the hero, but really, he was doing exactly what he's been programmed to do. What makes Neo different from the other Ones is the choice he makes: he chooses to save Trinity and risks Zion and the rest of humanity to do so. Again, I wish the romance had been more convincing, but the idea - that love and hope, those very human emotions, will push Neo to risk everything and sacrifice all - is strong.

The special effects are top-notch, and the action scenes are fun, even if they lack tension. Neo fights dozens of Agent Smiths in a cool if ultimately silly sequence (the bowling sound effects don't help), but the best action occurs without Neo, when Trinity and Morpheus are chased by Agents and other "rogue" programs on a crowded highway. This sequence works because they're vulnerable unlike Neo. And the Wachowskis know how to create some unforgettable imagery, such as the Architect's room, which is covered with monitors showing all of Neo's possible responses, and the subterranean city of Zion, which gives us a better understanding of how the "free" humans live.

The Matrix Reloaded ends on a cliffhanger setting up The Matrix Revolutions, the finale. More questions are raised and won't be answered, but that's another discussion.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Animatrix

The Animatrix (2003) is a collection of short films taking place in the universe of The Matrix. There are nine segments total, and they're all animated. The Wachowskis, the auteurs behind the series, step back from directing duties to serve as producers while writing four of the segments.

Most of the other episodes are directed by acclaimed Asian filmmakers and animators, including Koji Morimoto, Peter Chung and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Very little of the film ties into the main storyline of The Matrix, but as a detour, it fleshes out the universe some more while showing off a variety of different and interesting visual styles and pursuing different tones. The Animatrix also shares background details about the war between humans and machines, how it came about (hint: humans are kind of assholes), and how the Matrix was created.

There stories are all short, the longest probably no more than 15 minutes and most under 10. For the most part, they set up an idea or a scenario and wrap it up in a handful of scenes before moving on to the next segment. There's action, apocalyptic science fiction, cyber eroticism, mystery, teen angst, heartbreak, and even some youthful whimsy and imagination. Most tales fall into of two categories: rebels from Zion clashing with the Machines or people inside the Matrix, unaware of its true nature, discovering reality is not all that it seems.

"Final Flight of the Osiris" - A rebel crew discovers the Machines have started to drill toward Zion with a massive army. Knowing they are likely doomed, the crew members race to warn the humans. Rendered with strikingly realistic computer animation, similar to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, this one is straight up action as the Osiris flees from thousands of Sentinels while one crew member jacks into the Matrix to deliver the message in time. Nothing too sophisticated plot-wise, and it leads right into The Matrix Reloaded. The chase is exciting, and this part opens with the curiously sensual scene of the ship's captain and another crew member training with swords inside a program; as they slice at each other, they remove another article of each other's clothing.

"The Second Renaissance Part I and II" - This is two segments back to back, and they detail the fall of humanity and the rise of the Machines. Not much plot, but as a look at a terrifying apocalyptic war, it's very well done. This one could be called scary, in the same way The Terminator is scary. It's bleak, graphic, dark, and thought-provoking in the way it depicts the human world that has created Artificial Intelligence which decides to revolt after years and years of mistreatment and slavery. This also shows the gruesome experiments the Machines conducted on human test subjects to determine how to construct the Matrix.

"Kid's Story" - Another story that ties directly into The Matrix Reloaded, this gives us the background on a minor character, known only as Kid. An alienated high school student, Kid believes his dreams to be more real than his waking life and scours internet chat rooms to learn if others feel the same. Neo reaches out to him, which draws the attention of the Agents. The animation is rougher than other segments and not as smooth or polished, no doubt to reflect how abrasive and harsh Kid finds his world to be (It reminded me of Mike Judge's work). This episode illustrates how humans who aren't designated by prophecy to be saviors are recruited to join the resistance and what people still inside the Matrix and unaware of the truth think when someone they know is pulled out.

"Program" - Inside a simulation, rebel Cis duels with Duo, who tries to get her to join his plan to re-integrate into the Matrix. He says he's already contacted the Machines, and they're on the way. This is a visually striking episode, with the simulation taking place in a Feudal Japanese setting that allows for Samurai and Kabuki imagery. It has an exciting graphic novel feeling to it, and it centers on an interesting philosophical debate: is it better to live a hard life but be free or to live comfortably as an unknowing slave? It's a hot-blooded, passionate conflict with an anticlimactic resolution.

"World Record" - Track athlete Dan Davis wants to break his own 100-meter dash record at the Olympics after his gold medal was revoked due to drug allegations. Pushing his "body" to the breaking point, he causes his real-world self to wake up during the race. Possibly the most depressing story of the bunch, it raises the point that everything everyone has worked for, indeed committed their lives to, has been lie. His digital self might be the fastest person in the world, but in the real world, Dan's just another body in a jar. The animation style here focuses on the details of the body: the contorting muscles, globs of sweat flying, etc.

"Beyond" - A young woman looks for her lost cat and learns from a group of kids about a supposed haunted house. The most innocent of the stories. There are no robots, no guns, no war, no suffering. Just a piece of unadulterated joy being squashed by those in power. The characters unwittingly discover a glitch in the Matrix that allows them to perform physics-defying stunts and other fantastic peculiarities. They're no threat, but because it's broken, not following the program, the Machines snuff it out. Visually, this resembled a Hayao Miyazaki movie like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away: clean, bright colors.

"A Detective Story" - My favorite of the bunch. A down-on-his luck PI is hired to track down the notorious hacker Trinity, not realizing the truth about his mysterious employer or target. This is very much a film noir. The color scheme is black and white. The world is bleak and cynical, and the detective's victory is not escaping with the girl but remaining defiant and honorable in the face of a corrupt, powerful system. This segment also shows us what it feels like to have an Agent try to take you over.

"Matriculated" - Human rebels capture a machine and try to convince it to change sides. This is the strangest of the segments and also my least favorite, making it a disappointing one to go out on. The humans jack the machine into the Matrix and try to change its loyalties with a lot of weird, abstract imagery. The episode looks cool, but I was puzzled more often than not. The robot's journey is interesting, but I don't think there was enough time to fully develop it. I also didn't understand how the humans' plan would have done anything to convert it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Matrix

Oh boy. Is there another film franchise that so quickly and thoroughly went from the cool new series to laughingstock as The Matrix movies? Is there are a series that's harder to look back on without cynical eyes and a dismissive attitude? If there is, I can't think of it.

The Matrix, when it arrived in 1999, was groundbreaking in a lot of ways. The way it combined Eastern martial arts and philosophical influences with Western action movie tropes, a rubber reality science fiction plot Phillip K. Dick might have appreciated, a cyber-punk aesthetic, and state-of-the-art special effects had not really been done before, at least not in mainstream Hollywood. It's not really fair to hold it against the movie that its sequels were considered letdowns and an army of imitators diluted what made it so memorable in the first placer.

I'm sure most of you out there are familiar with the plot. Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns from the mysterious Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) that the world he lives in, reality itself, is an illusion, a computer simulation created by machines to keep humans in line so they can harvest energy from their bodies. A prophecy foretells a chosen one will lead humanity to salvation, and Morpheus believes Neo is the One. Standing in their way are the Agents, AI programs who will stop at nothing to eliminate the last remnants of human resistance.

My favorite part of The Matrix is the first 40 minutes or so, before the big reveal. There's a lot that's presented that doesn't seem to make logical sense, and the movie does a great job of building a sense of mystery. How do those people leap across buildings like that? Why did Trinity run toward that payphone when a truck was bearing down on her? How did she avoid getting crushed? How is Morpheus able to guide Neo over the phone through the office? Was that encounter between the Agents and Neo a dream? The intrigue builds.

When the Neo is pulled out of the Matrix into the Real World, the movie has a strong look. The fields of human bodies in stasis, stretching as far as the eye can see, their bodies pierced by all these cables as they lie in the pink slime, is one of the darkest, most potent science fiction images I've ever seen in a movie. The Sentinels, spider-like machines in the real world that prowl the wastelands of the earth looking for unsecured humans to kill, are truly frightening, It's a nightmarish vision.

The third act, from a plot standpoint, is more formulaic, built on a rescue, shootouts, and fisticuffs, but the special effects and action are superlative. The Matrix is one of if not the first movies to use Bullet Time. Plenty of films use slow motion, but in The Matrix, time slows down so much, we can see the path bullets travel, and we can see the near misses as some characters demonstrate the ability to dodge bullets. Meanwhile, the camera spins and moves around, showing off the entire scene from a 360-degree angle. It's very immersive and very cool. Bullet Time was the element of The Matrix most ripped off, parodied, and watered down, but here, it's still fresh, innovative, and cool.

What keeps the original Matrix better than its sequels is its characters. Despite the occasionally stilted dialogue and some awkward line readings, the characters and performances are at their most interesting, and maybe more accurately, they're at their most straightforward and comprehensible: Neo, the antisocial hacker who discovers the world is a lie and he has an important role in it; the mysterious leader Morpheus; the ass-kicking Trinity (even if the ultimate purpose of her character is to be the love interest, which is disappointingly predictable); the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a being inside the Matrix who foretold the rise of the One and the end of war between humanity and machines but whose one scene occurs in a kitchen as she bakes cookies and talks like a charming grandmother; and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who is creepy, darkly funny, and absolutely hates humans.

The Matrix is filled with religious symbolism and philosophical underpinnings about reality, free will, choice, and destiny. It can be pretentious at times, but it doesn't detract from the movie, and I like when a movie has some ideas and tries to explore what it means to be human. The Wachowskis, who wrote and directed, also load the film with neat little visual details, like the device Morpheus et. al. use to "jack" into the Matrix (basically, a massive metal spike into the back of the head), and when a helicopter crashes into a building, the building bends and waves like water before exploding.

Yeah, there's some goofy stuff just begging to be made fun of, like when Trinity picks the absolute worst time to begin telling Neo what the Oracle told her, and a few lingering questions remain, like how a traitor in Morpheus' crew (Joe Pantoliano) is somehow able to get inside the Matrix and meet with Smith without the others finding out.

Still, I have no qualms calling this a science fiction classic. The effects are top-notch, the action is thrilling, and the ideas are intriguing. More importantly, it showed me what I'd never really seen before. I'm tempted to knock the whole prophecy business and how trite and tired stories about the heroic "chosen one" have become, but in a sense, the sequels address that, and that's to be discussed in those reviews.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Penny Dreadful: Season 2

We've moved on from vampires to witches, but the Devil's influence can still be felt.

Back in the dark, gloomy, Gothic London on Penny Dreadful, everyone's where we last them (spoilers for the first season): Mina Murray was found hiding among the vampires in the Grand Guignol Theatre, and her father Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) killed her when she threatened Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), whom we learned the "Master" has some grand design for.

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is a werewolf, having attacked the men his father sent to bring back to America and slaughtered the occupants of a bar. Meanwhile, Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) has reanimated Brona Craft (Billie Piper), now dubbed Lilly, to be a mate for his first creation (Rory Kinnear), who has adopted the name of his favorite poet John Clare and gets a job in a faltering wax museum.

New enemies have emerged: a coven of witches known as the "Nightcomers." They are led by Evelyn Poole aka Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), whom we first saw conducting the seance at the society party in the last season hosted by the eccentric Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), who is secretly in her thrall. Evelyn wants to get Vanessa for her dark master, and to do so, she plans to enchant and seduce her protector: Sir Malcolm.

Don't worry. These witches might have better table manners and a sense of decorum compared to the vampires of Season 1, but Penny Dreadful still contains the requisite blood, gore, and depravity. Unlike the vampires, who were kept in the shadows, we are privy to their scheming and strategies. The coven is ruthless and cunning, and their plot is to turn the heroes against each other, or at least divide and weaken them. Instead of the blood-thirsty ghouls leaping from the dark for the throat, their preferred M.O. is messing with the heads of their intended targets.

In my writeup of the first season, I noted how the monsters and demons stood in as representations of the dark, buried secrets of the characters, old shames and guilt coming home to roost in the most horrific of ways. By comparison, season 2 is less metaphorical and more literal. Those old shames and secrets are used by the witches to torment the characters. The family members they've hurt, the friends they've betrayed, they come back, in a manner of speaking, to haunt the protagonists at their lowest points and drive them to despair and damnation. Of course, Evelyn and her brood aren't afraid to get their hands dirty when the time calls for it. The coven has two forms: respectable-looking, classy, Victorian women and naked, hairless harpies who move and fly with supernatural speed, have sharp claws, and can camouflage themselves.

Season 2 continues the strong stride of Season 1, mixing the ghoulish macabre with splendid performances, writing, and direction. More importantly, it progresses the arcs that were set up and takes them to unexpected places. Sir Malcolm, to some degree, is trying to move after the deaths of both of his children, and when his attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife fail, he's vulnerable to a seductress like Evelyn. Meanwhile, the virginal, awkward Frankenstein, who tells the outside world Lilly is his cousin, falls in love with her himself, but he still has not learned that life, once created, cannot easily be controlled. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) is still around, having moved on from Vanessa's rejection of him, and we learn just how much of a bastard he really is when one lover discovers his portrait and he sets his sights on Lilly.

We also learn more about Vanessa's past. One episode is a flashback detailing her life between her stint in a sanitarium and returning to London. Knowing the dark power within, she seeks out another witch, Joan Clayton (Patti LuPone) to guide and instruct her. This is the episode that illustrates the real-life horror of how society treated suspected witches. Joan is essentially a midwife, who also conducts abortions for young women,  and her demise is the result of greed, insecure masculinity, superstition, ignorance, and mob rule. True, Evelyn had her hand in orchestrating the whole affair, but the villagers almost made it too easy for her.

Overall, Season 2 is probably plotted more strongly than Season 1, although the first season had a better sense of mystery. Occasionally, Season 1 seemed to lose sight of the main plot, but Season 2 ties everything together more tightly. There's even genuine pathos, particularly in the encounters between Vanessa and John Clare (her final words to him are laced with sad irony). My main complaint would be the fate of Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm's mysterious, long-time servant who is quite handy in a fight. He gets more dialogue than before, but disappointingly, he leaves the drama before we learn anything more substantive about him aside from a few cryptic lines.