Category Archives: Film

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

This doesn't even "look" like a Die Hard picture.

This doesn’t even “look” like a Die Hard picture.

Zero stars.

When a film inspires an audience to fall asleep, it usually is because of one of two reasons. One: that said audience is very tired and at a late show. Two: Because the film is so mundane that it induces sleep.

The supposed fifth film in the Die Hard franchise follows one of those two principles. It also has no reason for being. Produced a far too long six years after the relatively successful fourth entry that had infused some new blood into a previously thought dead franchise,  A Good Day is so unbelievably stupid that you wouldn’t even select it from amongst direct to video garbage.

The plot is forgettable and the film itself frequently does just this in order to have dozens of overly dense offerings to the holy lord of CGI. The cartoon aspect of John McClane’s continual survival becomes a cartoon in and of itself.

The villain is merely a plot mover, there is a pointless female role that only grates on the nerves due to knowing the exact character arc almost immediately, the pointless and endless forced father-son banter that never quite works, the uninspired locations sitting in for Russia, the horrid constant use of terrible incoherent camerawork amidst a CGI landscape and lastly the fact that you no longer give a damn about John McClane.

Bruce Willis made his career with the original film and his portrayal of the burned out reluctant cop has matured through the years to become an action legend. He can be at once brutish and charming as McClane but always in a believable way as to always maintain that sense of being an off-duty NYC cop. Not here. In A Good Day, McClane is ineffectual, unfocused, uncharming and generally uninteresting. Even the one liners are terrible.

What can you expect from a team most notably responsible for the insipid Omen remake and the absolute filth of Swordfish? The original Die Hard wasn’t the biggest production, but what it had was both quality and originality. This is what made the film stand out and become such an unexpected hit with audiences. It acknowledged reality while still being innovative as an action film by refusing to bow down to what the limited production indicated. And the crew made a remarkably assured film that only served to better support the action narrative. The sequel maintained this and the necessary gritty element of danger that is completely gone from the later films. The first two films occupy their own world, exactly as is the case with Lethal Weapon  1 and 2, and the sequels are always going to have that sense of being several generations removed from their original source.

But this is something else entirely. This is a film by numbers, by studio marketing, where any script can be manhandled into production and slapped with a coat of enticement to draw in audiences. They just so happened to choose the Die Hard moniker this time around, and people on both sides fell for it.

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Filed under Die Hard, Film, Film Review, Zero stars

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Striking artwork utilized for the DVD release.

 

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film, and truly an ingenious classic.

Without a doubt, this film is the sole reason for the horror film’s survival past the 1950’s. By this time, horror films had become nothing more than mere exploitation fodder for the lowest of double bills and had no critical or commercial interest whatsoever. Hence no major studio wanted to actively pursue anything in the genre.

And so after producing a string of moderately successful pictures, and the adaptations of the Quatermass serials, a small studio called Hammer decided to tackle Mary Shelley’s  classic novel of one man’s attempt to play at being God. The idea was sound, and it was certainly time for a fresh approach to the story, but there arose one small problem: they could use no element whatsoever from the Universal film cycle.

This along with an extremely limited production and budget provided the necessary spark for extreme creativity, which is something that abounds in this, a horror classic.

The Curse of Frankenstein, despite what the scathing reviews of the time would contest, is an intricate and eloquent horror film for the mind. It so richly detailed in characterization, direction, execution and screenplay that the experience is not one of supreme terror but moreover one of complete entertainment of both mind and spirit.

For 1957 audiences this combined with the Creature in lurid dripping color was almost too much too bear. The Eastman color usage by the early Hammer horrors is justly legendary, as it was the first time these horrors has ever appeared in color.  Terrence Fisher’s direction firmly established the Hammer mission, and with his expert hand the film’s execution is essentially effortless allowing the master shot to encase the ongoing drama and then moving in gradually to accentuate that particular dramatic moment to an almost fever pitch.

Jimmy Sangster’s screenplay is truly remarkable in both construction and execution. Taken on its own, the script is very literate despite deviating wildly from Shelley’s novel. But it is the reality inherent of Baron Frankenstein’s mad dream to create a man, that firmly wins the audience over and moves quickly past the realm of disbelief. You truly believe that the Baron must have a simple laboratory in his attic, that he is workmanlike in his approach to creating a man, right down to rolling up his own sleeves to get the job done no matter how dirty or bloody… The construction is absolutely ingenious, and once considered plays with the mind long after the film has ended. The opening shows the Baron (Peter Cushing) in prison under penalty of execution, where he begins to recount his tale to a priest in the hopes of convincing someone of his sanity despite sounding like a raving madman. This flashback forms the narrative, and begins with the young Victor just after his mother’s death.

Victor is now the Baron, and hires a new tutor to instruct him in advanced sciences. Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) performs this task admirably and they quickly become close friends and probe the unknown for years to come. As adults, their work quickly turns toward advanced medical sciences and eventually with the manipulation of conscious life. The first of these experiments shows a small scale version of the eventual apparatus and in a truly invigorating sequence, the experiment works and a small puppy is restored to life from the dead.

Paul wants to turn their knowledge into the medical convention as he feel it could be used in operating procedures as what we would eventually know as anesthesia. However, the Baron refuses to hear of it and proclaims that they have only opened the door of possibilities with this discovery. The manic gleam in Cushing’s eyes belays it all, now the Baron has seen his true goal of creating a being and nothing will stand in his way. And so it begins, with the abduction of a highwayman’s corpse, a new head, fresh eyes, the hands of a sculptor, the brain of a genius, and ends in unspeakable acts that provoke Paul to refuse further participation. However, Victor’s cousin and fiancée Elizabeth (Hazel Court) arrives to live in the estate which provokes Paul to remain for her protection.

Frankenstein is absolutely possessed by his mad dream to create life. This is no exaggeration as he ignores everything, even his own fiancée in pursuit of his self-destruction. Painstakingly everything is procured and finally it is time. The process works, and after an agonizingly built-up reveal, The Creature (Christopher Lee) breathes life for the first time. This Creature has nothing to do with Boris Karloff’s characterization, and is in fact extremely lifelike in both presentation and performance. This abomination is a mismatch of body parts and animalistic in that its actions are all confused primitive urges. It is truly a thing to be pitied instead of feared. The makeup is quite original and resembles more of deformity or accident than the classic Universal look.

The Creature slowly wreaks havoc on the Baron’s life unbeknownst to the glory-mad scientist. Paul’s repeated attempts to subdue this madness and destroy the Creature culminate in his shooting of the escaped creation and its burial. Now it is done and the film has nothing to go on with…but of course our Baron cannot give up so easily, and continues his work on his creation.

Cushing gives the performance of a lifetime and would go on to portray the increasingly mad Baron another five times. It is his intensity, his energy, his body language that make the Baron come to life before our eyes, and he absolutely makes the film what it is. He infuses the Baron with the necessary flaws of someone of power in that time period, right down to an elitist coldness to others not of his class as best seen in the deliciously evil treatment of his servant girl mistress.  It is this coldness that truly frightens when it surfaces and perfectly foreshadows the later atrocities he will perpetrate. And in the Hammer series, it is not the Monster that is to be feared, but the Baron himself. It is rightly so the scientist who is the monster and not the deformed creation, for despite the Baron’s cultured outer appearance he is actually a demonic monster far worse than anything even he could create.

The cinematography is exquisite in both detail and providing a glimpse into the more realistic version of Frankenstein and his experiments. The use of color is exploitative and subliminal, with vibrant red blood being very prominent yet always used in ways to complete the overall scene. The film is mostly comprised of deep browns, blacks, and ambers which perfectly compliment the story’s autumn setting. The skin tones are brilliantly rendered in that hauntingly plaid redness that goes with true Eastman color.

James Bernard’s score is strikingly effective, and helps to perfectly underline the conclusion of the film which returns to the Baron’s recount in prison. Because of the way the story is setup, this ending can be taken a number of ways. It may indeed be as the Baron recounts and that he did create a monster that ravaged, killed and caused incalculable harm. Or he may be truly insane and likely committed the murders himself. In either case Paul refuses to help and may have a set of motivations all his own. It is a strikingly multifaceted ending that can be taken however the audience wants to, and it fits with the studio’s later psychologically minded film thrillers, all spearheaded by Sangster.

The film was a runaway success, to the complete surprise of all involved. In the UK and distributed by Warner Brothers in the US, The Curse of Frankenstein singlehandedly revitalized the horror film and thrilled shocked audiences in countless packed theaters. Today it remains the clarion call that announced to the world that Hammer had arrived.

 

EDITIONS: primarily there are now two versions of note. The 2004 Warner DVD and the new Hammer Blu-ray. The DVD is grain reduced; edge enhanced a bit, lacks in color and is framed at 1.78:1 with no extras.  The new BD comes from a supposed “restoration” but was actually taken from a fresh 4K scan of the interpositive held by Warner. The results are mixed when they should have been exemplary. The image is richly colored, with most of the deep Eastman color look restored. The contrast has been unfortunately tweaked, which effects shadows and gives an overall impression of too many whites blown out. But the big problem is grain and detail. The transfer is horribly soft, and the grain reduction is so prevalent that is absolutely reprehensible. The included PAL DVD version actually has better contrast levels. And to compound these issues, the aspect ratio has become an issue. The film was obviously shot open matte with a widescreen image the intended result. There were still a large amount of theaters that were not widescreen equipped, and so the academy full frame could have been presented as such. Hammer has taken the position of the full frame being the intended ratio and the 1.66:1 matting as inferior. They have presented both as separate encodes (thus limiting the transfer’s space and space for further extras), but poorly framed the 1.66:1 version so there are numerous instances of heads being lopped off and important elements being cropped out of the frame by incompetent matting.

So one has a choice of a featureless DVD with tight cropping and over-sharpening, versus a BD which is riddled with noise reduction but has some better color, along with a lossless rendering of the original mono soundtrack, but with an incompetent rendering of the widescreen version. The BD is Region 2 locked, so one would need a Region free player to view it. Oh, and it does restore the censored eyeball shot, so that’s at least one point in its favor.

At some point I hope to review to letterbox laserdisc version.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Hammer Films, Immortal Films

The Invisible Man (1933)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. A stunning early sound era masterpiece from the genius of James Whale.

“We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction.”

Let’s make no bones about it. This is a James Whale film through and through. Produced at a time when he had complete autonomy at Universal courtesy of production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Whale chose to reject the stupid proposed drafts and merely enhance H. G. Well’s classic novel with his own trademark brand of black humor and chills.

The Invisible Man is the stepping stone between Whale’s earlier Frankenstein (1931) and the supreme masterpiece that unquestionably one of the greatest films of all time: Bride of Frankenstein (1935). While extraordinarily developed from Dracula (1931) and for being such an early sound film, Frankenstein does have its problems and pitfalls like any other production. All of these are primarily from a lack of hale being involved fully in every capacity and are thus gone in The Invisible Man. Man is not only a classic, a stunning early sound film, but a surprisingly British film made here on American shores.

It is also an absolute gem and along with The Mummy (1932) the most underrated of all the Universal horrors. Whale fills the film with his favored use of offbeat secondary characters including the wonderfully shrieking Una O’Connor and even a bit for Dwight Frye. This helps immensely to fill out to scope of the story’s universe and fills in the gaps that the more limited production values of the time could not. Of course these are all supplanted by the first American screen role of one of cinema’s finest actors, a man so good at his craft that he typically slips into the background as invisible as his character here. The genius of Whale in casting Claude Rains is that he sought a voice and not a performer since who would be seeing the performer as an invisible man?? This allowed the casting of someone thought to be terrible all due to a poor screentest. But Whale heard that one of a kind voice that projects such extreme vulnerability and mortality along with a underlying conviction that could be construed into strength. And that was all it took.

Rains is a wonder as the Invisible Man, running the gamut from weak and terrified to kind and loving to paranoiac and power-mad to vengeful and murderous to finally poetic and elegiac. It is truly a stupendous performance, proving the adage once again of the strength that can come only from the best of radio and voice acting performances. The other roles are filled out accordingly with some of Whale’s favorite actors as mention above along with Gloria Stuart from The Old Dark House (1932) and even a part for our favorite guardian angel Henry Travers.

The special effects still hold up today and despite having a few things visible actually are more effective with the passage of time due to their antique quality, much like King Kong (1933). They seem so archaic from today’s technology we are oversaturated with that they seem downright off-putting and creepy in places. By using black velvet coverings and separately filmed backgrounds, John P. Fulton painstakingly produced scenes that still to this day drive home the idea of an invisible man.

Instead of Frankenstein‘s Gothic atmosphere, Whale opts for a different atmosphere this time and presents snowy villages of England which to be perfectly honest allows for a much more varied and rich atmosphere than the simple trappings of Germany did two years earlier. The setting is so well implemented that one can almost feel the cold charm of the snowy taverns and the cozy atmosphere of an empty rocking chair in front of the fire rocking almost as if its own accord. The black humor maintained throughout enhances this to such a degree that the film becomes for many, myself included, an old and very cherished friend to revisit at least once every October.

Of course remove Whale and the entire thing would fall apart, as the four later sequels proved. Of these only the first has any semblance of the original’s charm due to the plotting of Curt Siodmak (much like the Mummy sequels, only The Mummy’s Hand (1940) is of any merit) and casts another charming actor invisible, Vincent Price. Fulton remained for all of these and only bettered his already outstanding work despite the increasing pointlessness of the films.

Whale abounds in using black humor to round out the story, and thus makes The Invisible Man an absolute delight to return to frequently. By using offbeat characters and enhanced plotting from the novel that makes this the most deadly of the Universal monsters it is a film that is simultaneously thrilling, suspenseful, comic and endearing nearly 70 years on. It betters the novel and Whale’s own Frankenstein, and points he way towards the pinnacle of the entire cycle. A wonderful movie to behold.

Put a warm rug in the car. It’s cold outside when you have to go about naked.”

EDITIONS: The initial DVD and the Legacy Collection version are largely identical. These are missing a music cue found on the Laserdisc, which has been substituted for legal clearance reasons. The film is the most worn of the films, with wear, tears, scratches running throughout the opening reels, but these largely clear up for the most part during the remainder of the feature. The image is an overall nice looking 1.33 Academy ratio SD transfer with good contrast levels and balance. The audio is relatively clear with less hiss than the earlier films, but of course not as well recorded as the later films were. The film has undergone an intensive restoration courtesy of Technicolor and the discovery of an almost complete dupe held at the British Film Institute. This was painstakingly redone to create a new HD master for theatrical exhibition and for the new Blu-ray found in the Universal box set. The BD has some DNR and edge enhancement and this processing while completely unnecessary does not detract terribly from the film and I hope it gains a greater audience in it’s sparkling new HD incarnation.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, James Whale, Universal Horror

The Old Dark House (1932)

4 stars out of 4. A timeless gem nearly lost to us.

 

Here is a film where five travelers wind up in the titular old dark house on a dark and stormy night. We can already see where this is going. Despite being the inspiration behind so many of these cliched old house plotlines, The Old Dark House is a charming delight of a film in no small thanks to its director, James Whale.

Whale’s films, especially his horrors for Universal, contain a trademark charm and black humor that permeate even the most serious of narratives. his fondness for oddball characters reaches a high point with this film as every single one is so full of vitality that the weirder that events become onscreen, the more we as an audience anticipates with absolute delight.

In this house we find the hulking mute of a butler known as Morgan (Boris Karloff), whose emre appearance should tell anyone daring to enter that it probably isn’t the best of ideas. We are then introduced to the masters of the house, the odd siblings Horace and Rebecca Femm. Rebecca is an old crone of a woman, driven by religious fervor and an endearing bad sense of hearing. Horace is played by Ernest Thesiger which should tell you everything about his character. All right I’ll admit it, I can only think of him as Dr. Pretorious so his appearance in this film as beyond welcome. They live in a semi state of fear of their surroundings and in a sort of power vacuum for some as yet unknown reason.

This quickly becomes resolved as the fact that they have a mad older brother who is kept locked away upstairs, and can only be controlled by Morgan who just happens to have hit the bottle. This quickly turns badly for all in the house, and I will say little to spoil the plot here because the real fun of the film is in the detail. The explicit reveal and pulling back of detail as if to tantalize the audience like a cat with a ball of string.

The cast is first rate, and with a notable early appearance of Charles Laughton, perfectly serves the swift little story so that everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of 72 minutes. In fact the relative briefness of the narrative is perhaps the film’s only flaw. We want it to last all night.

The Old Dark House never struck a chord with audiences and was quickly shelved by Universal as a failure. Whale had made a film that was partly a tribute to the great silent films that blended horror, suspense and a drawing room charm and not a runaway hit more along the lines of Frankenstein (1931). Because of this, it was another mark against the director and designated to sit on shelves until either junked or destroyed by time. Thanks to filmmaker and friend to Whale, Curtis Harrington, the negative was saved in the 1960’s despite having to replace one reel.

To understand the basic appeal of the horror film, one must go back to the beginning. The silent horrors have their power still, but once you reach the golden age of Universal horror and feel the power of their sheer imagination, you can never return to what is today considered a “horror film”.

EDITIONS: the only available edition of the film is Kino’s 1998 DVD, which appears to be mastered for the most part from the source used for their Laserdisc release. The source seems to be a battered reduction print, perhaps even 16mm. The image is extremely grainy, with some occasional compression artifacts. There is frame wobble and all sorts of wear and tear. Audio is set in the accurate format of 1.0 mono but in a lossy Dolby Digital track that is filled with hiss and pops. Damage is very prevalent throughout and overall is not worthy of the film. Without detailed intervention the negative would have been lost and as it was only one reel had to be salvaged elsewhere. The fact that the film has never been given the proper treatment is appalling, especially for such an important early American release. I recommend the film, but the disc is quite poor. Highly in need of a new transfer if not the full blown Criterion treatment. Keep in mind, this is like watching a video copy of a battered 16mm reduction copy of a great film. Oh wait, that’s what you’re doing.

 

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, James Whale, Universal Horror

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

 

Do we really have to do this?
-Contractual obligation.
Oh. I guess there is no severance pay.

Zero stars out of 4. Abysmal garbage.
It’s like a huge budget video game cinematic. Overlong, overcomplicated, overproduced and boring as hell.

After all of the hype, Reloaded failed to deliver on most every level. It confused, angered, and generally wore out everyone in the theater and we all left thinking: “just what are they going to do to end this thing?”

Essentially, this third Matrix film is nothing more than a feeble attempt to tie up some loose ends. The two major questions asked by the audience are: “Why?” and “What?” quickly followed by a defeated “Who even cares?”.   In a Return of the Jedi style conclusion, Revolutions gives us both the final battle and final confrontation between the hero and villain. Except ROTJ is both well made and pretty well plotted. This isn’t.

Filming back to back with Reloaded didn’t help matters. We pick up after the beyond cheesy cliffhanger from the previous film. Neo finds himself stuck in some abandoned train station inside the Matrix with some programs looking to get out. How he got there is unexplained, and we quickly realize that we couldn’t have cared less if they did. he is not allowed to leave because the controller is an agent of the Merovingian. Thus Morpheus and Trinity go in to convince the Frenchman to release Neo. This is basically a repeat of the same scene in Reloaded, but with a different goal.  After a brief dialogue, he gives in and Neo is rescued. Woo.

Neo then visits the Oracle (now played by a different actress due to the untimely death of Gloria Foster) who engages in yet another overlong conversation of sheer mumbo jumbo. Essentially Neo and Smith are a yin and yang, and the war will soon end. After Neo leaves, Smith appears and takes over both the Oracle and her protector.

Back in the real world, Neo requests he be given a ship to travel to the Machine City. He takes Niobe’s ship and goes off to his unknown destiny with Trinity. Niobe, Morpheus and the other crew members attempt to make it back to Zion despite the machine attack. They quickly realize that the other crew member who had been unconscious had killed a crew member and must be stowing aboard Neo’s  ship. He attacks and disarms Trinity. It takes Neo ages to realize this is actually Smith despite the man using all of Smith’s dialogue and mannerisms for several minutes. Finally he is killed after blinding Neo with a power cable. But don’t worry, he can still see. Magic! So they continue on with trinity at the helm. Wait, can’t Neo still see? Oh well.

The defense is being mounted inside Zion to ward off the oncoming hordes of machines. This consists of lots of guns, and giant cumbersome human-operated walkers to also shoot machines. This begins a stupidly contrived “battle” that consists of little more than CGI fakery. The first film showed that the human’s only weapon was an EMP to destroy all circuitry. Where did all the guns come from then? And if they already have beam and energy weaponry, why are they using projectile weapons?!?! This strategy of this effort is even more stupid as the humans are hopelessly outnumbered. But for some reason the machines never pour in more infantry and these idiots in suits are able to last far longer than they actually should. This mindless conflict goes on for far too long, eventually culminating in the arrival of the sip containing Morpheus and Niobe. They make it inside the gates and trigger an EMP to render the army useless. WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE??? In fact, why not ATTACK THE MACHINES BEFORE THEY ATTACK YOU WITH A GIANT EMP??? Then again we are talking about the people who face impending doom with techno raves…

This has knocked out all of Zion’s equipment and the humans retreat to further levels and wait for the final assault. Neo and Trinity reach the Machine City are are eventually attacked by numerous defenses. Neo is unable to hold all of them off and has Trinity fly upwards and through the clouds into the atmosphere. And here is perhaps the only genuinely emotional moment in the entire film, where Trinity sees actual sunlight for the first and only time. Here in a Matrix sequel is a genuine moment of humanity against the philosophical whimsy and badly overdone action gimmickry. And then it is suddenly over, with the ship crashing and Trinity dying.  This scene is glossed over, so that any shred of empathy we might have remaining for these increasingly inhuman characters doesn’t even have the chance to surface.

Neo makes his way inside the city until confronted by a floating thing that we are meant to take as the Machine leader. For some reason it forms a face and talks to Neo. In exchange for “peace”, Neo will go inside the Matrix and defeat Smith in one final battle. If he loses, he will be killed. So he enters once more, and finds Smith everywhere.

The final battle is on a rainy city street, with thousands of Smith copies just looking on. The battle itself is overdone and completely a non-entity. Both are equally matched and is becomes readily apparent that there will be no clear winner. Neo cannot defeat the odds against him, and it would take Smith a very long time to kill Neo. SO THEY KEEP ON FIGHTING. You could easily go to the bathrooom at this moment, check the phone, do the dishes, or simply fast forward because this entire end conflict has no tension or impact in any conceivable way. Finally, Neo realizes he cannot defeat Smith. He allows himself to die, and thus the Machine leader kills him. But because Neo is now Smith, Smith dies too. This makes sense, but yet doesn’t. Why would this actually work? Was Neo still present in some shape or form? Why would this kill all the Smiths? Why didn’t the leader kill Smith in the first place?

The machines pull back and stop attacking Zion. Peace has been made due to Neo’s sacrifice. The Oracle and Architect meet and agree to free all humans who want to be freed. Peace is declared to “last as long as it can”. The Oracle admits that they might see Neo again and that she didn’t know this would happen but that she believed.

And at this point no one really gives a damn. If you really look at it closely, none of this outcome makes any sense. Why would the Machine leader agree to any of this preposterous conclusion? Machines don’t want peace! They’re machines for Pete’s sake! How do humans already plugged into the Matrix decide if they want to be freed? They’re inside a fake world already! And is this ending supposed to mean that there will be an eventual breach of the peace and that war will break out again anew? Weren’t the machines ready to eliminate the human race if necessary? Why declare peace and give up their power supply of jacked-in humans? It. Doesn’t. Make. Any. Sense.

By the time you’ve made it through this second sequel, you almost deserve a medal. There is no reason for any of this to exist, as the story is mindless. The action is thrown at you and your sense s are so overwhelmed by CGI that it becomes cartoonish in every sense. Never is Revolutions engaging to any part of the audience, and you spend the entire two hours and nine minutes wishing for the big lumbering giant to end it’s reign of monotony.

There is supposedly a sequel in the works, with Keanu Reeves attached. I don’t know how it would work with the ending of this film, but revisiting this piece of junk makes it obvious that they left it open for a sequel. (Even though the character is supposedly dead) In all actuality, after the total abomination that is the Wachowski’s Speed Racer, I really don’t want to know.

There is no reason for this film to have been made, and it takes a supreme effort of will to even have a positive thought about The Matrix afterwards. I stayed away from the entire franchise for many years afterwards, trying to block the whole thing out of my mind. Reloaded was bad, but this was just mindlessly bad. The theater where Revolutions was screened was dead quiet. By the end credits the entire auditorium was in stunned silence. Or maybe they were just all asleep.

EDITIONS: Revolutions was released just like Reloaded. Great DVD with 2.35:1 16:9 anamorphic image, Dolby 5.1 and a second disc of extras. The Blu-ray is ported from the inferior HD-DVD format, with a Dolby True-HD 5.1 mix. Other than getting a great deal on one of the trilogy boxsets, there is no reason to own this garbage.

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Filed under Film, Film Review, The Matrix, Zero stars

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Whoa, I know how to write a screenplay now.

1.5 stars out of 4. Extremely Disappointing Godawful Mess That In Effect Gives Us The Finger.

Here is an sci-fi action film for the senses and not the mind. Unfortunately it isn’t really for the senses either. The Matrix pulled a Die Hard-like feat in making a smaller action film with no real fanfare become a worldwide phenomenon. This eagerly awaited sequel was filmed back to back with the third sequel, which was released six months later. What occurred over the four year gap between films is that the drive of the story evaporated.

I’ve found that the only way to accurately get across some of my extreme issues with this sequel is to go through the film chronologically, so that some of the frustration, confusion and sheer rising anger encountered can be adequately expressed. It shouldn’t be a bad film. The production value is high, and enough of a story is present in order to keep some semblance of a coherent narrative. However it is the indifference to this bare minimum necessary to maintain an audience’s attention span and other elements that makes Reloaded fail completely as both a movie to be enjoyed  and as a sequel to the first film. Instead of being along for the ride and a part of the action, we are left on the sidelines and told that we humans are just to stupid to understand the great events going on before our very mortal eyes.

Reloaded opens with the human resistance in deeper struggle with the machines. a secret meeting is held between crews inside the Matrix where it is revealed that a machine army is digging towards Zion, the last human city. The machines mean to end the war in one fell swoop and will reach the city in 72 hours. The crews must return to Zion, but Morpheus asks for one crew to stay behind so that they may have news of the Oracle. Neo, “The One” who was supposed to end the war and save humanity, still has no idea of what he is supposed to do. (How would anyone know?) One crew remains and the meeting is broken up by agents. Curiously this is preceded by Agent Smith giving Neo his earpiece and thanking him for setting Smith free. Wait, didn’t Smith get destroyed last time round?

The others return to Zion (giving no thought to the reappearance of Smith), giving us our first glimpse of the last human city in existence. A place that was only referred to briefly in the original film, the Zion that was built up in our imaginations of course does not exist. What we are presented is essentially just a giant cave with rooms connected to other caves. Oh, and there are some people around wearing rags and robes. At their home, everybody tries to get a little R&R, especially Neo & Trinity who seem to never be able to have their umm..conjugal visitations. This is because Neo is seen as a Christ-like figure who is besieged with request to bless and aid others in need.

Everyone continues talking about the impending machine attack and what the people should be told. This goes on for several scenes and no agreement is reached on whether to lie, water down the truth, or admit that an army is coming. We then focus on the secondary character of the new computer operator, Link, and his wife who is angry with him serving in the ship that killed her brothers and being in danger. Ooookay, was that really necessary to explore?

That night, a meeting is held to explain what is going to happen to Zion. Neo and Trinity sneak off to have that visit. Without any hesitation, Morpheus stands before everyone and brazenly shouts that the machines are coming to kill them all (in a highly but unintentionally funny over the top performance), and that things look bleak, but that they will make a lot of noise. Oh, I mean something more like: “WE ARE ALL GOING TO PROBABLY DIE, SO INSTEAD OF PREPARING OR GETTING READY FOR THE FINAL BATTLE OF OUR LIVES, LET’S HAVE A MASSIVE SLOW-MOTION RAVE AND GROPE EACH OTHER TO TECHNO!!!” This terrible and completely stupid scene lasts for a good four minutes and is inter-cut with Neo and Trinity’s lovemaking. After you’ve winced for this entire sequence, as we all did in the theater, the movie decides to finally continue with those still in the Matrix trying to get word back to Morpheus that the Oracle wants to meet. Unfortunately the last man is captured by Smith who uses his new-found power to copy himself so that Smith is then extracted into the real world via the telephone. Wait, how does that work?

Neo finds and has to fight the Oracle’s bodyguard, Seraph. Then he is led to his meeting with the Oracle, who engages in a completely nonsensical dialogue with Neo for about five minutes before finally relaying Neo’s new objective. He must retrieve the Keymaker from the Merovingian in order to reach the Source where the path of the One ends. (“Are you the keymaster?“) And of course this makes little to no sense, but at least it’s something for us to go on. The Oracle then leaves and Smith appears. He explains that when Neo destroyed him that he was supposed to go off to be destroyed like other dead programs. But he simply didn’t want to. Okay, if that’s true then why isn’t there a fail-safe in the Matrix to prevent this, and how does this make Smith seemingly invulnerable and able to copy himself? Smith essentially says has no purpose and tries to copy Neo. This does not work, and a fight ensues. It starts well, and continues. Starting to get a bit stale, more Smith clones appear. Getting more stale, more clones appear. Finally a small army of Smith clones appear, and Neo flies away. Throughout this fight, things turn into complete computer animation which absolutely destroys any and all sense of this being a real conflict. The addition of a computer animated Neo simply does not work and undoes the fight entirely. Not that it wasn’t getting stale anyway. (Oh, and isn’t it funny how some of the Smith clones have a different face in the longer shots?)

Two crews volunteer to aid Morpheus’s crew in the hopes of proving the prophecy of the One while the rest prepare for the machines’ assault. Morpheus, trinity and Neo then enter into the film’s only truly interesting scene where they meet with the Merovingian. The Frenchman is a dealer in information, an older program who lords over his power and underlings like a classic-era Warner Bros. villain. Here is a fully realized character who draws out every last syllable as if it were a fine wine. His actions are all meticulously plotted, even a tryst with an attractive woman is wonderfully overdone with a cleverly disguised dessert that triggers an overpowering orgasm.

He of course refuses to give them the Keymaker, and adds that they have nothing to give him in return. They are then led to the Keymaker by his frustrated wife who does this service in exchange for a kiss from Neo-a kiss that must be performed as if he were kissing Trinity. Ah, actual interest and development in a scene arises! She gives them the Keymaker, which royally pisses off her husband. (Hey look, Brides of Dracula! A much better movie!) He sends his goons to retrieve the Keymaker and Neo fends them off. He stops them after a fight that goes on far too long with an obvious conclusion, and the Merovingian escapes to sadly never again appear in this series, save for a essentially pointless cameo.

Trinity and Morpheus are pursued by the Merovingian’s twin ghost boys who are seemingly invulnerable. They are forced to take the only available exit. It happens to be located on the freeway. This is built up as a very bad idea, and thus we have an example of that almost obligatory part of an action film: the car chase.

This is the one section of the film people point to to explain away the film’s problems. As long as there’s a big long action sequence, it must be good right? The slow motion bullet time is used frequently which immediately ruins any and all of the tension that has been built up in the chase thus far. Agents join in the chase to further complicate matters. But for some odd reason “the exile is our primary target“. What? Why do they care about an old program? Shouldn’t they be going after the human resistance? Why does this make sense? Why do I keep asking all of these rhetorical questions? I’m never going to be answered by the movie.

This scene progresses as if the filmmakers had gone to the John Woo school of directing, but Woo’s deep connection to the emotional subtext and character is sorely lacking. You continually come to realization that this entire sequence is designed around a single idea: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” Cool. Cool is not a word with which one should design a film or storyline. Cool can be used in coming up with a situation or snake pit for action films. Cool should be used in conjunction with imagination in order to further enhance the impact of the story. The car chase fails miserably in maintaining story and tension. It becomes a lifeless video game level instead of a hair raising car chase where we are worried about these characters or what happens to the Keymaker. At this point, we still don’t even know who this little guy is!

Neo flies in to grab everyone and they adjourn to find out just what they need to do. The Keymaker tells them of a secret floor in a building that will give them access to Source entrance. They will need to shut down the power at two different locations in order to start a five minute window to get through the door to the Source. Neo must go alone into the unknown. One team goes in and completes their objective, with the other team’s ship destroyed by machines before their station can be destroyed. Thus, Trinity unbeknownst to Neo (who asked her to stay out of the Matrix because he has continual nightmares of her death) goes into destroy the station so that Neo can complete his mission. An Agent appears and they do battle.

Neo, Morpheus and the Keymaker are confronted by Smith in front of the door to the Source. (How did he get there?) he attacks with his clones and Neo manages to get the others into the doorway, but the Keymaker is fatally shot. He tells Neo which door to go through and tells Morpheus which door will lead him out of the Matrix. (So Morpheus was here for no reason. Good.) Neo goes through the doorway and gets to the point in the film and franchise where it all started to go completely downhill…

Neo meets a man sitting in an office chair in an empty room amidst dozens of TV screens plastered with his face. This is the Architect. The designer of the Matrix begins to spill the beans to Neo as to what is going on and what The One’s true objective is. There is much too much mumbo jumbo surrounding the few nuggets of truth, so the audience must again spend this time trying to slough through the crap to get to the meaning of what is being discussed. And the Architect begins by saying that Neo (and in reference, us as well) will only understand some of what is being said. That’s a great way to get us all off your backs, just say that we won’t understand what is going on!!!

Finally the Architect relays to Neo that the path of the One is really just another machine setup. It was found a necessary evil in order to keep all of the humans peaceable inside the Matrix and in subservience.  The One must put his special code inside the machine source and reset things. Zion will be destroyed along with all of its inhabitants, and the One will start a new Zion with a selected small group of humans. (Dr. Strangelove’s mine shaft anyone?) Neo is the sixth “One” thus far and Zion has already been destroyed five times. Neo is now presented with a “choice”. If he returns to the Matrix, then all those plugged into he Matrix will be killed and Zion destroyed.  If he goes to the source as directed, humanity will be saved from complete annihilation. Not much of a choice there is it?

The One is programmed with a deep connection to other humans and thus is supposed to be inclined towards performing his tasked duty. But Neo is primarily connected to Trinity, who is being killed by an Agent just as in his nightmares. So, Neo goes after her and dooms all humanity to destruction. A climax is quickly forced, where Trinity dies, Neo revives her, Neo only partially reveals the plot to the others, the ship is attacked and destroyed by Sentinels, they barely get away, and Neo suddenly realizes he has become awesome outside of the Matrix. He stops several Sentinels with his mind and promptly falls unconscious. The crew is picked up by another ship who has a crewman in the sickbay in a coma like Neo. Of course the crewman is the same one who was infected by Smith.

TO BE CONTINUED

Seriously, who ends a film with a silly “to be continued” card? This is not a TV episode or a cliffhanger of a serial. It’s a silly cliffhanger simply meant to bring people back in six months later. And the sequel is really the same film going on for 129 minutes longer. But with all of the really bad parts.

The ending of Reloaded makes little to no real sense. Neo has killed everyone already, so what is the use of Trinity surviving? Oh wait, the killing of everyone connected to the Matrix is never mentioned again, and absolutely no one is ever informed of what the Architect told Neo. So basically this has all become just a setup for the final assault on Zion. So much for leverage.

They had to bring things to a quick climax so how would you write the crew getting away on foot from the Sentinels? Oh yeah, Neo now has his magic powers in the real world! Wait, that makes ABSOLUTELY NO FREAKING SENSE IN ANY CONTEXT! (Sighs.) I still cannot tell if this is just lazy writing or if we were meant to take this seriously. Why would Neo be powerful outside the Matrix? The entire premise of this series was that the humans only could gain a partial semi-advantage via hacking into the system of the Matrix. To have him just as powerful outside ruins any dramatic context previously established and guts the film of any tension or interest that could possibly be left.

And then to have Neo in the same ship as the Smith-man, who just happens to also be in a coma is beyond coincidence. He’s not going to do something bad now is he?

The problem I have with this film, and its much inferior sequel is that all of the spunk present in the first film is completely gone. With the increased budget and success came a lifelessness to the Matrix universe. That spark that said, “screw it, let’s end the movie with Rage Against the Machine and Neo flying into the camera” is nowhere to be found. In addition the characters become one dimensional and over the course of Reloaded we cease to care a damn bit about them. Some fans of Star Wars have claimed that as soon as the sequels arrived the magic of a vast unknown universe was somewhat dissipated. That may be debatable, but it is absolutely true as far as the Matrix franchise is concerned. With each proceeding minute of this 4 1/2  hour snoozefest (both sequels put together) you feel all of the enjoyment and love you had for the first film get put through the wringer. If you have any love left for the franchise after sitting through both sequels, then hats off to you. I thought I didn’t and stayed away ever since the theatrical release.

This isn’t even going into the fact that the plot has no tension or definite meaning. Heck, there isn’t even a point to the mess. Reloadedis big, sprawling and unsteady. It’s as if this is a big lumbering ship lost at sea with no one at the helm to control the madness. For all those who claim this to be a decent movie, I challenge you: When was the last time you actually sat down and watched this mess? Especially right  after the first film, which is a first class operatic masterwork in every way compared to this junk. The first film has passion, energy, characters with definite motivations, a fully realized opposing force with impressive agents in its service, pacing, and an actual screenplay that combines all of these elements into a highly entertaining and more simply put it: a great movie.

I found myself becoming increasingly angry at Reloaded while reviewing the DVD after all this time. It must be constructed in a way as to provide the maximum amount of confusion and frustration to the viewer. Not only does the film contradict itself numerous times, but it does so in such a mindbogglingly uninteresting way that you cease to really care at all.

EDITIONS: The DVD issue was and still is quite impressive. 16:9 anamorphic 2.35:1 image that looks spotless for the format and age, involving 5.1 Dolby mix that resembles the theatrical presentation, and a bevy of extras on a second disc. This was pretty much reissued untouched for the Ultimate boxset, and a the HD master struck for that DVD box was rolled over to  HD-DVD with a Dolby True-HD 5.1 soundmix. This was simply ported over to Blu-ray. (All of this much like Warner’s practices, akin to their treatment of the Batman series on video.)

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Film Review, The Matrix, Uncategorized

The Matrix (1999)

Hiya fellas.

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

“There is no spoon…”

The degrees to which The Matrix changed our cinematic landscape are inescapable. This is one of those rare cultural landmarks that overcame it’s cult status and truly became a part of our shared existence. It helps that The Matrix is a bit of a whole bunch of sci-fi, cyberpunk and dystopic fiction blended together with classic Hong Kong action film elements. Not bad for a film that stole much of Dark City‘s thunder.

You can argue about it’s value and worth all day, but in the end the first film in the franchise is simply put, a giddy fun ride for both young and old. There’s enough for the mind to chew on to keep us interested in this world, and things have not yet fallen into near-parody. This way, we can jokingly say “I know kung-fu…” with a sense of endearment instead of revulsion.

The film focuses on a lowlife computer hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) who tries unsuccessful to balance his criminal activities with a mundane 9-5 daily grind as a software programmer. He feels lost, dejected and confronted by something which he cannot grasp. (All the elements necessary for the great Keanu performance 😉 What he cannot grasp is the secret behind the world he lives in. By now everyone knows the real purpose of the Matrix, so the reveal lacks the initial impact. Neo is shown the truth by a band of escaped humans led by the enigmatic Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, who has the time of his life in this role).

Neo is let out of the Matrix to live in the real world along with the rest of the surviving humans not under machine control. He is believed by some to be “the One” who was prophesied to end the war between man and machine and finally bring freedom to all humanity. “Whoa” indeed.

The film thrives on style and never does this dissipate. The scope is actually quite limited, and this is the real key in maintaining the quality of the story. As the sequels proved, when the scope of the Matrix is expanded the story suffers in relation. Here the characters seem like the scared renegade humans they are supposed to be, and their actions take on greater significance because of this. We even feel a greater connection in the  almost obligatory love relationship, not because it is expected but because it feels relatively natural.

This perception goes for the action as well which has a greater impact than all of the flashiness of the sequels. As soon as they came back for the second go-round, it was clear that no one knew what they were doing. There is more energy and focus in a single scene from this film than in the entirety of Reloaded or Revolutions. Here is one of the sad franchises where the sequels must be ignored so that the initial film’s enjoyment isn’t tainted by their stupidity.

Yes this is a sci-fi action film that was embraced rather unexpectedly by the masses. It isn’t that deep, and it isn’t as good as Dark City. It’s rare to be able to go back and enjoy a film that spawned a franchise, especially one such as this that is composed of many recycled elements from other sources. But I did, and The Matrix still holds up all these years later. It’s a great mix of films that I love, and works to such an extent on every level that it deserved its cult audience.

It may not be the greatest thing but dammit, it’s impossible not to crack a smile when Rage Against the Machine is cranked up on the soundtrack for the ending!

EDITIONS:The Matrix was originally issued on DVD and Laserdisc in 1999. The DVD was reference quality for quite a while with a 16:9 anamorphic image, Dual-layer transfer and shattering Dolby 5.1 surround mix. The LD was based off the same master but some have said that the LD 5.1 mix was more robust and the DVD mix was a bit toned back. They’re both at the same 384 kbp/s bitrate however.

In 2004, the films were revisited and reissued together in the Ultimate Matrix Collection boxset. New HD masters were struck for all three films, and the original film was improved in contrast and had grain toned down. But the decision was made to color correct the film to match the distinct color scheme of the two sequels. The original film is much more robust and lifelike, with a definite yellow and brown look amongst the green inside the Matrix. This same master was re-used for the HD-DVD and then the Blu-ray set, leaving the original theatrical version only available on the original DVD. I miss the color and grain on the new versions, and have stuck with my original disc. (Thank heavens for upscaling!!) The new Blu-ray Dolby True-HD 5.1 mix is quite good, but seems to be a bit different than the original.

What I’d like to see is the original film be rescanned at 4K and a new master struck that fully represented the original film with the different color scheme and grain structure. Then a lossless presentation of the theatrical 5.1 mix, which could show off the innovative mix that would resemble the theatrical DTS experience. (That would have been amazing!)

And talk about a cult movie that should be screened in arthouses at midnight…

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, The Matrix