Archive for March 1999

The Matrix

March 31, 1999

Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne get top billing, but the real stars of The Matrix are John Gaeta, Yuen Woo-Ping, and Bill Pope. Who, who, and who? Well, these three guys — Gaeta supervising the eye-popping visual effects, Yuen coordinating the whiplash stunts and fighting, and cinematographer Pope showing the flair for kinetic action he displayed in his movies for Sam Raimi (Darkman, Army of Darkness) — are the heart and soul of The Matrix, which otherwise would lack both, plus a brain.

The Matrix is one of those headache-inducing sci-fi movies some of us need to have explained to us out in the parking lot; once we figure it all out, we realize there’s not much there to figure out. This is the first of a string of similar films (preceding The 13th Floor and eXistenZ, which was far better) dealing with virtual reality; is anyone really that nostalgic for The Lawnmower Man?

Here, for instance, we learn that reality as we know it is actually a computer-generated construct (the Matrix), that we all reside in gooey wombs while thinking that we’re leading our lives (that means you, reading this review, and me, writing it), and that the machines of the world have set it up this way to siphon off our energy to use to keep themselves going. Are you reaching for the Excedrin yet? Movies like this toss in a lot of complicated mumbo-jumbo so we won’t realize we’re watching yet another expensive good-vs.-evil comic book. There are two realities at war in The Matrix: the deep movie it pretends to be vs. the shallow popcorn flick it really is.

Keanu Reeves, in monosyllabic superhero mode, is a hacker nicknamed Neo, who is recruited by a band of rebels to aid them in their fight against the tyrannical critters (who manifest themselves mostly as Secret-Service-type agents). Trained by Obi-Wan — uh, I mean Morpheus (Fishburne), Neo becomes a black-clad hipster warrior out of a Hong Kong actioner, aided by ass-kicking partner Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) as he shoots, kicks, punches, and cartwheels his way through a seemingly limitless supply of faceless enemies.

I enjoyed a few of the FX/stuntwork conflagrations, which come close to putting the thrill and spirit of the best adventure comic books on the big screen. But The Matrix goes on far too long, and writers-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, who wrote the comatose Assassins and made a splash with their spectacularly overrated debut Bound, don’t seem to have anything on their hard drive except cleverness. The paranoid details of the premise are thoroughly worked out; the characters and motives, much less so. Of the actors, Fishburne gets by on sheer presence, while Hugo Weaving, one of the queens from The Adventures of Priscilla, keeps himself amused in the role of the head bad-guy agent by working 1,001 variations on a threatening monotone.

Too bad the filmmakers don’t have as much variety. The Wachowski brothers are skipping from genre to genre, but unlike other brother duos like the Hugheses and the Coens, they don’t transcend genre; they just wallow around in it, whether it’s kinky noir or apocalyptic sci-fi, and overload it with so much stuff that some people will no doubt be impressed. The Matrix, I fear, may reach the same sci-fi fans who embraced Dark City — people so hungry for thoughtful science fiction that they’ll project deep meaning onto anything that seems weird enough to be deep. The marketing whizzes at Warner have constructed their own reality around this hollow eye-candy, and if the fans fall for it, they’ll think they’re seeing a classic, when in reality they’ll be in wombs of wishful thinking, deep inside a Matrix created by a studio desperate for a hit.

EdTV

March 26, 1999

What did I want from EdTV? Well, let’s see. I wanted it to be The Truman Show‘s scrappier, funnier little brother. I wanted Matthew McConaughey to redeem himself after a string of bland roles (tick, tick, Matt … you’re on your fourteenth minute). I wanted Jenna Elfman to break out as a movie actress by being as charismatic and goofily endearing as she often is on Dharma & Greg. Most of all, I wanted Ron Howard to take a vacation from his usual hard-breathing Important Films and get back to his disreputable roots — remember that guy, the one who gave us Michael Keaton in Night Shift and kick-started Tom Hanks’ career in Splash?

With the exception of Elfman, who is the movie’s saving grace, every item on my wish list remains unchecked. EdTV isn’t bad enough to get angry about, but it’s a mundane and toothless satire — a satire whose target, as I’ve said before, is so full of holes by now that it whistles in a strong wind. The media consumes everything! Privacy is dead! You’re nobody unless you’re on TV! This was flat beer even back in 1995, when To Die For told us the same things while congratulating us for being hip to the media. If we’re hip to it, why do we need a movie to underline it?

Ed Pekurny (McConaughey), a 31-year-old video-store clerk, is chosen by the faltering NorthWest Broadcasting Channel to be the star of their new concept, “TrueTV” — a 24-hour live feed of Ed’s everyday activities (except bathroom stuff). The producers of EdTV, a remake of the 1994 French-Canadian film Louis 19, le Roi des Ondes, have sworn their story is worlds apart from The Truman Show, but the only real difference is that Ed is on the air, aware. I’m not an admirer of Truman, but at least it had a streak of spooky paranoia. EdTV has nothing except the predictable ways in which Ed’s privacy is invaded and his life is trashed.

In brief, Truman appeared to be trying a metaphor for the uncertainty of life, whereas EdTV seems to be all about the pains and problems of being a celebrity. Is that why Ron Howard and Matthew McConaughey were attracted to the project? Neither of them brings much to the party. McConaughey is a grinning blank, giving Ed hardly any personality or temperament; he’s just a nice guy, and Ron Howard is in nice-guy mode here, too. Everything points to the banal humanistic message that love and family are more important than fame. They are. Right. Got it. Didn’t need a movie to hammer it home. Howard even backs off from the logical extension of a fully televised life — Ed having sex, which could’ve scored points off of the many live-feed sex web sites out there. Ron Howard seems like a smart and good-hearted man, but will he ever make a movie that truly matters?

Jenna Elfman keeps her head; her Shari, a UPS driver who goes out with Ed’s oafish brother Ray (Woody Harrelson) before falling in love with Ed, is the center of sanity in this vortex. The writers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, give her almost nothing to do, so Elfman has to pull a warm and funny character out of thin air. And Ellen DeGeneres, as a deadpan exec at the station, does wonders with what amounts to a series of reaction shots. There are many other reaction shots in the movie, of Ed’s faithful fans, who are meant to be us; but we see them laughing hysterically at things we don’t find funny, and the movie begins to feel like a lame sitcom in which the laughtrack echoes depressingly in a vacuum.

EdTV also has the same false ending as The Truman Show — the TV viewers (and we) are tweaked for being voyeurs, but then everyone applauds when Ed gains his freedom. (And no, that isn’t a spoiler. If Ed didn’t get his freedom, it would be a surprise.) Wouldn’t the audience turn on Ed for rejecting them? Or get sick of him long before he left the airwaves? These media-evil movies coddle the audience, as if nothing exploitative would appear on TV if not for those immoral network execs. Ron Howard must know it’s more complex than that — a chicken-egg scenario, the public’s need for sensation and the media’s financial need to fill the public’s need — but he has made yet another satire that pretends the enemy isn’t us.

Ravenous

March 19, 1999

Now here’s a true oddity, destined to be dismissed or overlooked. And no, I’m not tuning up for one of my misunderstood-masterpiece reviews. Ravenous is no masterpiece, but it’s a sturdy and fascinating union of two subgenres that usually aren’t in the same room: the frontier movie and the cannibal movie. I mean, how the fuck did they pitch this to the studio — “It’s Alive meets Almost Heroes“? That a major studio (20th Century-Fox) gave this a wide release, despite its gonzo premise and lack of stars, is heartening; that this noble experiment has tanked on arrival is discouraging. Still, I’m glad it actually got the green light, actually got made, and actually got released, because it has stayed with me longer than any other movie I’ve seen so far this year.

We’re in the mid-19th century, during the Mexican-American war. That right there is enough to raise a red flag of political comment — it was an ugly and unpopular war. Frederick Douglass called it a “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous war with our sister republic. Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.” The war was about America gobbling up California; in 1848, that state and New Mexico joined the other morsels in America’s swelling stomach. Ravenous draws a direct parallel between the United States’ insatiable hunger for territory and a cannibal’s obsessive craving for flesh. And if you’re a soldier trained to kill fellow human beings, why not eat them too?

Guy Pearce, longer of hair and furrier of face than he was in L.A. Confidential, is the closest thing to a hero — Captain John Boyd, promoted for inadvertent heroism in action (i.e., playing dead to save his skin and getting dragged behind enemy lines, where he captured the Mexican commanders). Boyd’s superior sees Boyd for the “coward” he is and transfers him to the remote Fort Spencer, a mountainous and stark place worthy of an Anthony Mann western. Boyd’s new friends at Spencer include the cynical Hart (Jeffrey Jones, eyes twinkling with sarcastic wit), the “overly medicated” chef Cleates (a giggling David Arquette), the gung-ho soldier Reich (nail-tough Neil McDonough), and the devout young minister Toffler (Jeremy Davies, as recessive as ever).

When the tedium of life at Spencer is broken by the arrival of the mysterious Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle), the real meat is served. I won’t reveal any more — the ads have spoiled enough as it is — but suffice to say that much flesh is eaten and more blood is spilled; the MPAA must really be getting laid-back lately. Director Antonia Bird (Priest), working from a sharp script by Ted Griffin, sustains an antic yet eerie mood, out there in the snowy boondocks where no one can hear you eat. A scene in a cannibal’s underground lair just about matches the art-decorative creepiness of the flesh-eating family’s crib in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Bird’s direction is straightforward and clean, helping us buy into grisly events that just might have happened.

Pearce and Carlyle make fine doppelgangers, and the movie overall is nimble twisted entertainment; it seems to be stopping briefly in multiplexes on its way to a second life as a cult film on video and at midnight shows. I liked its courage in pursuing its dark view of colonialism to the last, bitter drop; it might make a good double-bill with George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which likewise used cannibalism as a symbol of America’s unquenchable hunger and unfillable spiritual void. You find these unhappy but accurate insights in the least likely movies. Ravenous even throws in the Wendigo, the Indian myth about the beast who gains the strength and spirit of the people it consumes. Did the Indians come up with the Wendigo in response to, or in anticipation of, the white soldiers who would consume their land and people? A movie that leaves such idle thoughts bouncing around in your head deserves better than to be called a sick black comedy. Though, of course, it’s that too.

I Stand Alone

March 17, 1999

If there’s one theme the notorious French director Gaspar Noé loves to fixate on, it’s that a single brutish, unthinking act can change a life forever. Every movie he’s made could have been called Irréversible — the title of his battering-ram film from 2003, which opened with an irreversible action and then reversed itself — literally, with a backwards narrative. Irréversible was preceded by two other Noé excursions into darkness: 1991’s 40-minute Carne, and Noé’s 1999 feature-length debut Seul Contre Nous (or, in English-speaking countries, I Stand Alone). Both of those films are really interlocking: I Stand Alone is a sequel to Carne (and helpfully sums up the prior film at its beginning) and has the same characters played by the same actors, though I suppose Noé doesn’t care that the actors in I Stand Alone are — and look — eight years older.

Taken together or watched back to back, Carne and I Stand Alone form a two-hour-and-thirteen-minute slog through the mind of Philippe Chevalier (Phillippe Nahon), an embittered butcher with a mute daughter by way of a girlfriend who dumped him. In Carne, the butcher wrongly assumes his daughter has been raped, and compounds the error by sticking a knife in the face of a man he takes to be the rapist. One might excuse this violent rage if one didn’t suspect that it was there all along, just waiting to be let loose by some infuriating event that could justify it. At the end of Carne, the butcher has done his time in prison (his victim survived) and finds himself in a loveless, opportunistic match with a bar owner (Frankye Pain) he’s gotten pregnant. She offers to sell her bar and move with the butcher to a place where they can open their own butcher shop, and there Carne ends, with Noé already having established the butcher’s instability and his general sour outlook on life. (Also established are Noé’s love of shock — the first images are of a horse being slaughtered for horsemeat — and a motif equating menstrual blood, or lack thereof, with trouble.)

I Stand Alone supposedly takes place only a few months later, but, as noted above, the cast looks so much older now that it’s as if the ravages of suppressed bitterness and lowered expectations have aged them a few years. The extra lines and gray hairs work for Philippe Nahon, a burly man with startling ice-blue eyes sunk in a fleshy, impassive face, like marbles pushed into a blob of dough that’s been left to harden. Through most of the film, the butcher has one expression, or, rather, one non-expression. (The closest Noé comes to conventional comedy here is when the butcher applies for a job at a supermarket deli and his pimply-faced manager tells him to smile; the butcher just stares at him, face frozen in his usual scowl.)

Which is fine, because the butcher’s narration picks up the slack; he goes on and on about how much everything sucks, how it’s pointless to have kids, how we come into the world alone and go out of it the same way. There’s a scene frightening in its desolate bleakness when the butcher, who has found temporary work as a night watchman at a nursing home, stands with a nurse at the bedside of a dying old woman, who croaks out, “Daddy, don’t leave me alone….It’s black all over.” The butcher’s response to this? He walks the nurse home, hoping to get some pussy. When he doesn’t, he goes off to a porno film (which is shown explicitly). Then he returns to his screaming, still-pregnant girlfriend and her elderly mother; the girlfriend thinks he’s been sleeping around. Harsh words are exchanged, and the butcher falls victim to that rage again — he punches the girlfriend around, including several savage blows to her baby-fattened stomach. He grabs a gun, which has three bullets in it, and goes on the run.

How, at this point, can we identify with such a man? We don’t, but Noé forces us into it anyway, by putting us in the same boat with him. The butcher’s existence becomes solely about day-to-day survival and the goal of seeing his institutionalized daughter (Blandine Lenoir). The daughter softens him; it’s the only time his ranting inner monologue shuts up for a second. But we also begin to wonder what he has in mind for her. The butcher brings his daughter back to his squalid hotel room, and Noé puts up a huge red ATTENTION on the screen, followed by a clock counting off thirty seconds — the time Noé is allowing for those who want to leave the theater before the shocking finale. (Has anyone ever actually left? I tend to doubt it.) Time’s up, and Noé proceeds to give us two endings, one grotesque and disturbing, one peaceful and disturbing. Noé lays out the two options available to this particular man we’ve been suffering with for eighty minutes (or longer, if you count Carne). They’re both depressing, though one of them offers at least some faint hope.

Who wants to sit through this? Well, Noé makes it not only possible but oddly pleasurable; he keeps his films short, and he uses all manners of Kubrick-style tricks to lure us in. Carne and I Stand Alone are stylistically linked in two major ways: In both, Noé has a sort of editing tic wherein he does a quick black-out to the accompaniment of a single deep chord; after a while you begin predicting when one is coming, and it gets kind of funny. Then there’s the much-remarked-upon gimmick of puncturing the soundtrack (usually during a quiet scene, so that it’s all the more jarring) with a sudden gunshot, accompanied by a lurching zoom or pan. Noé uses this exactly once in Carne, but peppers it liberally throughout I Stand Alone. The effect keeps you rattled and attentive, and serves as a visceral reminder of just how close the butcher is to going off.

Gaspar Noé is a sort of ironic showman; he likes to fill the screen with big blocky letters that warn you about the scenes you’re about to see, or announce “You have been watching Carne.” What’s strange is that these gimmicks don’t take you out of the movie; they suck you in deeper. It’s as if Noé dispensed with anything that doesn’t move the film along, and if he has to layer a second narration on top of the first or pause to tell you exactly what time it is, he’ll do it. For all the static bleakness of his movies, Noé does have a sinful sense of play — most of it directed at his audience (some of whom had seizures during Irréversible, with its opening sonic assault — which employs a nausea-inducing frequency used by French police to disperse riots, for Christ’s sake — and its closing orgasm of flashing lights). Noé is both serious and not serious: Rimbaud writing for the Weekly World News, and having a grand time doing it.

Cruel Intentions

March 5, 1999

A slick and rancid update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, not nearly trashy enough to be more than mildly amusing. This came out back when Sarah Michelle Gellar could still be billed above Reese Witherspoon; it made a lot of money. The scheming manipulators are now moneyed teenagers: step-siblings Gellar and Ryan Phillippe wager on whether he can sleep with devout virgin Witherspoon. Along the way, others (like Selma Blair as an awkward girl and Sean Patrick Thomas as the music teacher she has a crush on) get hurt and corrupted too. Some nasty bits of dialogue are hampered by Phillippe’s and especially Gellar’s self-conscious “look how nasty I can be” line readings. Gellar is a decent actress who’s good at toughness, vulnerability and sarcasm as seen on Buffy; she’s just miscast here — the performance is a novelty. The movie is perhaps best known for the kissing scene between Gellar and Blair, which won an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Phillippe and Witherspoon later married (and divorced); writer-director Roger Kumble tried to work this material into a TV series (Manchester Prep), which was rejected, so he turned the pilot into a “sequel.” Kumble also directed The Sweetest Thing, also with Selma Blair.

Analyze This

March 5, 1999

When Robert De Niro has a good time (which isn’t nearly often enough), he spreads the fun around. In Analyze This, the belly-laugh comedy directed by Harold Ramis, De Niro looks as relaxed as he does in any Martin Scorsese film. De Niro’s character here — Paul Vitti, an anxiety-stricken mobster in need of therapy — is a synthesis of several of his other characters; he knows that, and we know that, and we’re all in on the joke, yet De Niro’s genius is that he doesn’t let on that he knows. He plays Paul more or less straight; he’s funny in the same way he’s funny in isolated moments in most Scorsese movies (some of us still quote from his great Casino blueberry muffin tirade), yet here he also has an ordinary nebbish to bounce off of. In all, it’s De Niro’s freshest work since a similar turn in Midnight Run.

Analyze This is fluff, and probably inconceivable without De Niro, but it’s been delivered by people who know what they’re doing. Harold Ramis has become a solid actor’s director — he got four great performances out of Michael Keaton in Multiplicity — and he hasn’t lost the scrappy comedic instinct that distinguished his debut, Caddyshack. The script, which is credited to Ramis, Ken Lonegan and Peter Tolan, isn’t especially original; recent projects with the same premise include the National Lampoon cable movie The Don’s Analyst and the HBO series The Sopranos — both of which explore the absurdity of a mobster in therapy. What Analyze This has is De Niro as a mobster in therapy, and Billy Crystal as his shrink. It’s a one-joke movie, but it’s an awfully good joke, told here by experts.

As the neurotic shrink terrified of his patient, Woody Allen might have been more on-the-nose, or even De Niro’s Midnight Run costar Charles Grodin. But Crystal is an old hand at scoring meek laughs off of hardened icons — his rapport with Jack Palance was the only reason to see City Slickers — and he stays in character as Dr. Ben Sobol, bearded and soft in the middle, worried about his impending marriage (to Lisa Kudrow) and secretly resentful of his famous shrink dad. As the shrink’s and the patient’s lives intersect, they both fall apart and put each other back together, each doing things he never imagined doing. Crystal is at his funniest when bluffing at a climactic meeting of the families; introduced as Paul’s consigliere, Ben draws on the same gangster-movie mythology that everyone else in the room (including Paul’s scowling rival, played by Chazz Palminteri) follows to the letter.

There’s sterling support throughout — Kudrow, with her distinctive wobbly timing; Joe Viterelli as Paul’s seen-it-all right-hand-man; Palminteri, playing his role even straighter than De Niro and getting his laughs from our Bronx Tale associations. But you can’t really talk about Analyze This without talking about De Niro, who’s not only funnier but also more moving than he’s been in a while. Paul’s first crying-jag scene is hilarious; in a later tearful scene with more serious undertones, I was afraid people in the audience would be conditioned to laugh at Paul’s tears anyway. Nobody did. It’s a fully rounded performance, not a novelty.

Harold Ramis is a good idea man and good with actors, but he usually lets things slip in the last act; Analyze This sort of sputters to its pat conclusion, leaving some things unresolved. It could be that Ramis has so much fun with his movies that he doesn’t want them to end; he should take a page from Palminteri’s character and have someone look up “closure” in the dictionary for him. But if he can’t sustain his inventiveness to the end, at least he has more going on in the bulk of his movies than your average Ivan Reitman comedy or teen comedy. At its best, this is a gangster comedy to put alongside Wise Guys and Married to the Mob (and light years ahead of Mafia!) — a comedy, like the best gangster dramas, that’s more about attitude and temperament than about whacking people.

See also: Analyze That


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