The Matrix (5/30/12)

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A man who moonlights as a hacker finds out that “reality” is not always as it seems in The Matrix.

Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is an IT guy by day and a hacker by night under the name “Neo”. One day he finds strange references to “the matrix” on his computer and soon meets Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who tells Neo that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) wants to meet him to help him understand. After being pursued by agents of some sort (Agent Smith is played by Hugo Weaving), Neo and Morpheus meet where Neo is brought to the actual reality outside the Matrix. As we learn the secrets of the Matrix, we also learn Neo’s true role.

I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I fully grasp everything that happens in The Matrix. I have a broad idea of what is going on but there are certain sections of dialogue that, try as I might, simply can’t focus enough brain energy to really let it sink in. I could give a synopsis of what happens in the film, but anything beyond that would be a bit of a stretch. Luckily, The Matrix has enough eye candy to keep my brain from exploding.

When The Matrix came out in 1999, it was a special effects monster of a film, utilizing techniques never attempted before. I had been skeptical that, thirteen years later, The Matrix would hold up as well as I remembered and it has. The Blu-Ray shines on all fronts, sound more than anything else (I’m pretty sure my subwoofer was shaking our whole house for most of the second half of the film). If this was only a “special effects movie” it would not have stood the test of time as well as it has, thankfully.

The acting, on Reeves’ part especially, is wooden. Reeves spends most of the film looking absolutely stunned at everything around him and his surfer/stoner tone comes through more than a few times. With everything happening on screen at any moment, it’s easy to overlook the small things that tend to detract from pictures like this, namely plot holes. While the plot in The Matrix is good (if not confusing), it’s not perfect. Check out the goofs from IMDB. Still, The Matrix is a very good film. When the DVD came out, it was the most compelling reason to make the switch from VHS. Now the Blu-Ray is spectacular, but the film is not the stand-out it was over a decade ago. The Matrix will stand as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made and that is debatable, but it is certainly has a place for important films.

I give it 4 decoded matrices out of 5.

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Network (5/29/12)

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Network centers around the decisions of a TV network after a news anchor threatens to kill himself live on the air and the ratings spike.

After learning that his career as a news anchor will be coming to an end due to poor ratings, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) goes on the air and announces that he will kill himself live on the air. The network executives freak out, but eventually agree to let Beale get one more carefully scripted time on the air before being fired. Beale uses this time to rant about the state of the world and calls his life bullshit. Once the ratings see a noted spike, the executives, spurred by Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), decide to not only keep Beale on the air, but to highlight his now public meltdown.

It’s amazing how poignant and true to life Network is, even nearly 40 years later. I feel that the only satire that does everything better is Dr. Strangelove, which is saying a lot considering the amazingly high regard I hold that film. Since Network, we have been inundated with “reality” television and an increasing movement in a very similar brand of shock television that is cultivated in Network. While we haven’t reached the levels of mania depicted in this stunning Lumet film, it is not that far-fetched today.

While Network is a film that has a dark sense of humor, mostly due to the writing of Paddy Chayefsky, at times it is also very serious. I suppose that part of the humor is the absurdity happening, but also because it wants to be so ridiculous that there is an underlying humor there. Even when discussing alongside Dr. Strangelove, there really are no other films quite like Network. Sidney Lumet has directed yet another wonderful film that is absurd and thought-provoking. I’m not sure if I would recommend Network to everyone, but I’m sure almost everyone watching will have a slightly different takeaway from it.

I give it 4 “I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore”s out of 5.

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The Prestige (5/28/12)

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The Prestige is about two rival magicians each trying to outdo the other and learn the secrets of their greatest tricks.

The Prestige starts with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) standing trial for the murder of Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). We then find out what brought the two men to this point, as we see them as young assistants for a magician. One trick goes bad and results in the death of the magician’s assistant, who is Angier’s wife. The two men become rival and enemies continuously trying to one-up the other in terms of showmanship and difficulty of tricks. This ultimately causes Borden to lose two fingers and Angier hurting an audience member and damaging his reputation. This rivalry culminates over a trick called The Transported Man, where Angier travels to find Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to learn Borden’s secrets. At what cost will these men find out the truth?

Simply a masterful film by the Nolan brothers, once again. The Prestige not only keeps the audience guessing and even better, questioning what we are seeing. Since the film deals with magic tricks it is very easy to assume that everything we see may simply be a sleight of “hand” by the Nolans and even after multiple viewings the whole picture is not abundantly clear. The inclusion of Tesla as main character certainly makes me wonder how much of The Prestige is actually about Tesla and Edison’s feud using the guise of magic for the film.

While at the time of release, it might have been easy to miss The Prestige due to another film about magicians (The Illusionist, which is also fairly good). Now that both Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have secured themselves as powerhouses in cinema, The Prestige happens to be one of their best films. Not as outright confusing as Inception or Memento, it still packs a psychological wallop that will cause you do rethink everything you just viewed. The Prestige is a fantastic film that cannot be missed.

I give it 5 “There are three parts to a magic trick”s out of 5.

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My Week With Marilyn (5/26/12)

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In My Week With Marilyn young assistant on the set of a film starring Marilyn Monroe befriends her and provides each of them an escape from their own life.

Based on the true story by Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn is about Colin’s (played by Eddie Redmayne) foray into film by getting a position with Sir Lawrence Olivier’s (Kenneth Branagh) production company for the filming of The Prince and Showgirl. There he meets Marilyn herself (Michelle Williams) and the two become close friends / lovers? both on and off set.

There isn’t much to My Week With Marilyn from a plot perspective, the main conflict of the film is that Marilyn shouldn’t have further distractions on set and Colin is a distraction. The film plays up the futile romance portion of their relationship quite a bit, to the point where I had quite a hard time stomaching some of the details. Even though this actually happened, I find the finer points had to either embellished or totally fabricated. Could every single thing have happened? Sure, like they say, truth is stranger than fiction, but for the sake of judging only the film, I smell BS.

Some interesting things do come out about Marilyn’s acting ability and her work ethic, as well as those of Sir Olivier. I found those aspects of the film to be the most enjoyable, actually. Both Williams and Branagh give fantastic performances here but I thought Branagh’s performance as Olivier was actually the more impressive of the two. Overall, I enjoyed watching My Week With Marilyn but was bored by most of it. When it ended I didn’t care about what had happened and it’s such a small slice of time the film dictates that it’s fairly inconsequential. Watch My Week With Marilyn for the performances, not the story.

I give it 3 true to life Marilyn Monroe comparisons out of 5.

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Them [2006] (5/25/12)

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Them (Ils) is a film about a couple living in the secluded French mansion that gets terrorized one night by a group of unseen assailants.

Them begins with a mother and daughter driving along a dark country road when a figure appears in the road and the mother swerves to avoid hitting it. After crashing into a light post, she gets out and looks under the hood while the daughter remains inside. When the mother disappears, the daughter panics as she realizes she is not alone and is then strangled from behind. Cut to a woman who, on her way home from work, passes the car unknowingly. She then arrives home to her boyfriend and as the two settle in for the night, strange noises wake them. Soon they are terrorized by “them”.

I really wanted to love Them, perhaps I was expecting too much but even at a brisk 74 minute runtime the picture felt a bit long to me. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters and for a horror/thriller I was neither horrified nor particularly thrilled. However, in spite of all that, Them is a fairly enjoyable film, just not the masterpiece I was expecting. Finding out who “them” are was actually fairly satisfying and though it’s not the twistiest of twists in filmdom, it is realistic. Speaking of realistic, this is yet another film “based on true events” which is typically a flimsy excuse but in this case it is true, but glorified.

Them is a film that is worth seeing even though I was a bit harsh on it. At barely over an hour, it is a lean film that has little to no filler, but the downfall is that there is no meaningful character development. It is very similar to the US film, The Strangers, which I prefer over this. Still, Them is not a bad way to kill a bit of time and get some enjoyment.

I give it 3 the giant ants from Them! would have made this much more interesting out of 5.

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Tyrannosaur (5/25/12)

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Tyrannosaur is a film about a man with a hair trigger temper and a woman who struggles with her own issues at home as they become friends.

The opening scene of Tyrannosaur is Joseph (Peter Mullan) storming out of a bar, swearing up a storm, mad at something and takes his anger out on his best friend; his trusting dog. Visibly shaken by this, Joseph goes home to mourn his friend and buries him. Peter finds himself passed out in front of a thrift shop where the owner, Hannah (Olivia Colman), takes him in. Despite the kindness she shows him, Joseph lashes out at Hannah and we see a man that is mad at everything and cannot seem to control it. Hannah and Joseph form an unlikely friendship as we learn the secrets of their lives and understand why they connect.

A difficult movie to put into words, Tyrannosaur is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. I was unsure where the film would take me but I can safely say that I was not expecting where we ended up. Joseph is such an unlikable human being and yet there is such extreme sadness waiting just beneath his raging exterior. Peter Mullan does such a frightening and gentle portrayal that leaves you wondering if Joseph is someone you should be rooting for or not. Olivia Colman also gives a fantastic performance and her character surprises even more than Joseph.

When I found out the meaning behind the title of Tyrannosaur, I was floored. It is but one of the powerful moments in Tyrannosaur that will likely leave its imprint on you. I found myself completely engrossed in the film and several scenes were like sledgehammers to the chest. It’s hard to say I enjoyed watching it, but like Steve McQueen’s films Hunger and Shame, there is a beauty in all the ugly things happening on screen. I would be hard pressed to watch Tyrannosaur again anytime soon, but I would definitely recommend it.

I give it 4 sledgehammering sheds out of 5.

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RoboCop (5/24/12)

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When an Old Detroit police officer is brutally gunned down by a group of thugs, he is rebuilt as RoboCop.

Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and his partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen) are on patrol chasing down a group of criminals led by Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith). The gang lays an excessive amount of ammunition into Murphy and he is pronounced dead at the hospital. Omni Consumer Products sees an opportunity to take what is left of Murphy and use him as their product in an effort to turn Old Detroit into their own Delta City after their first project, ED-209, goes haywire and kills a young executive during a board meeting. Murphy, now as Robocop, sets out to bring justice to the streets of Old Detroit when he runs into one of his murderers. As his memory returns, with the help of his old partner, RoboCop vows to exact his revenge against Boddicker and OCP for taking his former life.

In a film that could easily be just another revenge flick, RoboCop is special because of its sense of humor and satire that is interspersed with the violence. Director Paul Verhoeven’s touch is apparent and RoboCop shares many similarities with another sci-fi favorite of mine, Starship Troopers. While parts of RoboCop are laughable, most of those parts are meant to be. That shouldn’t discount some of the deeper meanings in the film.

Revenge movies don’t have to be mindless to be fun and RoboCop excels when it isn’t mindless. For examples of mindless sci-fi revenge stories, see the abhorrent sequels. Actually, don’t see them. They are terrible. If for some reason you haven’t seen RoboCop, perhaps you had written it off before giving it a chance, go into it with an open mind and RoboCop may surprise you.

I give it 4 ED-209s in the boardroom out of 5 (violence warning for the video).

There are several version of RoboCop out there, make sure you get the NC-17 cut, the differences are relatively minor but it’s the way it should be seen. Also, the current (as of this writing) Blu-Ray version is atrocious, you are better off with the DVD version. The best way to view RoboCop is to track down the out of print Criterion version of the DVD. The picture and sound are impeccable and the extras are worthwhile.

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White Dog (5/21/12)

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White Dog is a film about racism  told through the story of a white German Shepard that has been trained to attack black people.

On her way home one night, Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a stray dog. She takes the dog to the vet and takes him home with her. The dog and Julie share a strong connection, one that grows even stronger when the dog attacks an intruder trying to rape Julie. When the dog gets out, it attacks a black street cleaner. When Julie realizes things are not all right with her new friend, she takes him to a seasoned trainer, who tells her to have the dog put down. Instead, a black trainer decides to help rehabilitate the animal to see if the dog is capable of unlearning this behavior.

The racial themes of White Dog are almost driven to the point of beating the viewer over the head with them but some interesting points are raised. Is racism purely a learned behavior? Can it be “fixed”? Do animals perceive race on their own or do they need to be trained? The film doesn’t give direct answers to these questions, allowing the viewer to form their own opinions. The ending of the film is striking, however, and without giving anything away, shows that racism may just be misplaced anger towards something else.

Samuel Fuller had long and varied film career as both a writer and director before he made White Dog and the backlash from the film all but ended his career. I find this terribly sad because the film itself isn’t racist, or at least I didn’t see it that way. It’s not a fantastic movie or anything, in fact, the first half hour seems incredibly low budget and even a bit cheesy, but the message is strong and will likely stay with you long after the credits roll. Oddly enough, the best actor in White Dog is the white dog (or white dogs, more likely). There are some scenes when I was genuinely afraid that the dog would kill the human actors. While White Dog is not a film I would outwardly recommend, there is a lot to like about it and it would be a great film for a roundtable discussion.

I give it 3 muzzled white dogs out of 5.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene (5/19/12)

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Martha Marcy May Marlene takes us through the life of a young girl who escapes a cult and tries to fit back into society and forget her past.

Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with Martha/Marcy May/Marlene (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from an isolated farm. She ends up at a diner where a man (Brady Corbet) from the farm finds her and she is very visibly shaken by his presence. Then she calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), to come get her. After staying with Lucy and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), it is clear that Marcy May (known to Lucy and Ted as Martha) has been sociologically damaged and has no bearing of how normal human interaction is. We learn through flashbacks and nightmares about the cult Martha escaped, led by Patrick (John Hawkes) as Martha struggles with running away from the only life she’s really known, despite how traumatic it was.

While the film itself is very slow and deliberate, it is also incredibly tense at times. While Martha’s paranoia ramps up, we are left to wonder what is happening as well as ponder her future. How can someone so visibly damaged ever normalize and function back in society? If nothing else, it should be readily agreeable that writer and director, Sean Durkin, took tremendous care in the subject matter and did his homework. While it would have been an easy topic to exploit, I found almost all of it to be entirely believable and realistic, which in turn makes Martha Marcy May Marlene that much more frightening.

I also must point out the tremendous acting force that is Elizabeth Olsen. While most of the world knows of her twin sisters, Elizabeth truly steps into her own for this role and plays it perfectly. Also worth mentioning is a favorite actor of mine, John Hawkes, a man who I am also pleased to watch on screen. Given the pacing and the vagueness of what is actually happening to the characters at times, I could see how some people would be turned off by Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I found it to be exciting to watch and was totally engrossed by it.

I give it 4 John Hawkes playing guitars out of 5.

Included on the DVD/Blu-Ray is a short film called Mary Last Seen, also by Durkin, that acts as a sort of prequel to Martha Marcy May Marlene that shows a young girl traveling with a young man (also played by Brady Corbet) and taken to the farm to be assimilated into the cult. I would recommend watching it after Martha Marcy May Marlene since there are a few sly nods to the film.

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Léon Morin, Priest (5/19/12)

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Léon Morin, Priest is the tale of a handsome, young priest living in Nazi-occupied France and his interactions with a non-practicing widow.

A young widow named Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) who lives with her half-Jewish daughter during Nazi occupation in France one day finds herself in a church. She convinces herself she is there to mock the Christian faith during confession and randomly chooses Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) as the priest. After seeing that Morin is not shaken by her confrontation and is, in fact, replying as if in an intelligent discussion, she slowly becomes taken with religion as the priest tries to mold her.

Through Léon Morin, Priest there is the constant question of whether Barny is truly practicing religion or if she is merely interested in Morin. At times, both seem plausible. Morin’s own intentions are not always entirely clear, despite remaining devout. The interactions between the characters are shown usually in brief scenes that build upon the story. While I found the characters in Léon Morin, Priest interesting, I was struggling to really care about them. Or perhaps I was having difficulty really understanding the conflict at hand. I never related to Barny or Morin on a personal level and since I’m not religious perhaps that caused the disconnect.

The writer/director, Jean-Pierre Melville, was quickly becoming one of my all-time favorites and this was the first time I’ve seen a film of his that was less than amazing. I enjoyed my time with Léon Morin, Priest, but was ultimately disappointed. While there was nothing technically wrong or missing from the film, ultimately I found myself not really caring about what happened to the characters. Perhaps that is no fault of the film’s but only the fault of the viewer.

I give it 3 confessions out of 5.

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