Monthly Archives: March 2007

The M8rix Revaluations

Eight years ago today was a Wednesday, and opening day for a relatively low profile movie called The Matrix. I was living in a suburb of Seattle and my afternoon was free so I found someone with a car (Josh W.) and talked him into going with me. I didn’t know anything about the movie other than seeing a few 15-second TV spots and thinking, I guess that looks pretty cool.

Fortunately the ads didn’t give anything away so a half hour into the film, when Keanu Reeves opened his eyes to find himself in a vat of red amniotic fluid and surrounded by skyscrapers with thousands of artificial uteri protruding from them, I was taken completely by surprise.

That Matrix is so ubiquitous now, so deeply ingrained in the collective cultural consciousness, that it’s difficult to remember what seeing the movie for the first time, completely free of external association, felt like. In the opening sequence, when Trinity jumped up and the “camera” swung around her suspended in midair, my friend and I looked at each other with an expression of joy at the realization that the next two hours were going to be something completely different.

When we left the theater, stunned, I prophesied to my friend that it might take 20 years but someday people are going to look back at this movie and regard it as a sci-fi classic, sort of the Blade Runner of the 90s. Boy was I wrong. Instead, The Matrix was imitated so quickly and universally that anything resembling its style soon became parodic. By the time the sequels finally came around four years later, the franchise had already become cliched and they withered in the light of the original’s unrepeatable innovations.

Sure, it raised the bar for special effects, invented bullet-time and all that, but The Matrix’s most significant impact on Hollywood was the wide-angle fistfights between characters. They simply made it unacceptable for subsequent movies to use doubles for fight scenes with only closeup inserts of unidentifiable fists and legs. Post-Matrix, actors in practically any action movie were expected to train for their own fight scenes, paving the way for more athletic stars like Jason Statham and even Matt Damon.

Unfortunately, this new paradigm established by The Matrix was undermined in its first sequel, when halfway through Keanu Reeve’s courtyard fight with the Agent Smiths, he is suddenly replaced by a digital stunt double. At that point the spectacle aspect of the franchise, achieved so well in the first movie with its many “I can’t believe I just saw that” moments, immediately gave way to “I can see that in any computer game.” Say what you like about the convoluted story, but it’s primarily an action trilogy and it was simply unforgivable for the franchise responsible for a paradigm shift in Hollywood to break its own rules and fail by the standard it had itself set of what makes a credible on-screen fight.

Okay, they had lots of other problems. Morpheus was too fat and Trinity was too skinny, to name a couple of them. And I’ve never be able to see the Architect without thinking of Will Farrell’s spot-on parody for the MTV Movie Awards. Ergo. Vis a vis. Concordantly.

*Apologies for the license-plate title of this post but ever since Se7en and the completely unacceptable Thir13en Ghosts, I can’t resist an opportunity for numeric gratuity.

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Query for historians of cinema and, er, history

Are there any instances on film of the Armed Bank Robbery set in an era before the Wild West? And if so, is it/are they anachronistic or historical?

In other words, did bank robberies ever happen before the 19th century? Modern bank robberies don’t seem very common in real life despite their frequency on film, making me think that heist movies are for the most part a transposition of what is essentially a Western subgenre.

And for that matter, how common were bank robberies in other countries even during the same era? I can’t even visualize a Victorian bank robbery in London.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS

I got free tickets to a sneak preview of Das Leben der Anderen this week and all I can say is, thank goodness it won Best Foreign Film and not Pan’s Labyrinth. It was worthy of Best Motion Picture all told if you ask me. I could talk about this film for hours but I just don’t have time. It was the movie Red Road wanted to be. In some ways its thoughts on text were more interesting than Stranger than Fiction. I think I’m going to take away Cache‘s distinction as the “best film about cinema since Rear Window” and give it to The Lives of Others. It joins Brick as another astonishing rookie effort in 2006.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention Kevin Spacey-lookalike Ulrich Mühe’s wonderfully understated yet intense performance, a delightful glimpse of what a non-hammy Spacey might be like.

Beware the Ides of March

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The Death of Caesar (1867)
by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Godfellas

The first thing one feels compelled to do when reading coverage about the prospective film adaptation of Paradise Lost (thanks, PRT) is to get the corrections out of the way:

[Producer Vincent] Newman also knows that some might see this project as a fool’s errand. “It’s a 400-some-odd-page poem written in Old English,” he said, laughing. “How do you find the movie in that?”

Paradise Lost is not Old English (that’s Beowulf). It’s not even Middle English (that’s Chaucer). It’s not even anachronistically archaic (that’s Spenser). Shakespeare’s language was Modern English (indeed along with the KJV he practically invented it), and Milton wrote his epic a half century after Shakespeare’s death.

Not to worry, though, the Newspaper of Record checks its facts and reports the truth (albeit with a non sequitor that will make your head spin):

But he speaks of the project with unflagging enthusiasm, though it may seem his passion is more for the idea of the poem than for the poem itself. (It’s in blank verse, not Old English.)

Wh- Wha- What? It’s not Old English: it’s blank verse! Ooooh, okay! Most of Shakespeare’s drama was in blank verse; how is that comparably extraordinary to Old English?

Non sequitor or not, at least it’s factually correct. Seventeen months ago The Times of London said the poem was “published in ten volumes” apparently because its ten chapters were called “books.” No, the Times of New York fact-checks the 340-year-old news; what it mixes up are the last couple years:

Newman bought the script and arranged co-financing with Legendary Pictures, which, with Warner Brothers, produced “Superman Begins” and “Batman Returns.”

They weren’t exactly under the radar films, but the York New Times can’t get Batman Begins and Superman Returns straight. Coincidentally, “Batman Returns” does happen to be the name of a real movie (to which the NYT links), but Legendary Pictures didn’t produce it.

Hey, I’m just glad they’re covering the production so some quotes could be procured from the screenwriters, producer, and a couple academics. Stuart Hazeldine, who wrote the second draft of the screenplay, offers this amusing analogy:

“Milton was trying to achieve with ‘Paradise Lost’ what Scorsese was trying to achieve with Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas.’ You can’t understand the nature of the fall until you’ve tasted some of the exhilaration of sin and crime. Scorsese makes you feel the rush of being in the Mafia — what it’s like to be special, get the best table at a restaurant, kill anyone and get away with it. Milton was after something like that, and that’s what we’re trying to convey.”

Though I love Milton’s poem, I’m not a sentimentalist when it comes to screen adaptations of literature. Eleven months ago I suggested “the only way to make it cinematically interesting is to make the human plot secondary and focus on the angels and the War in Heaven” and it seems the producer agrees with me 100 percent:

As with any Hollywood development project, things are changing along the way. The original script hewed a bit too closely to Milton for the producer’s taste, for instance. Mr. Newman, by his own account, told the writers he wanted “less Adam and Eve and more about what’s happening with the archangels,” the battle in Heaven between God’s and Satan’s armies.

I think that’s the way forward, despite Legendary chairman Thomas Tull’s extremely backhand compliment that “if you get past the Milton of it all, and think about the greatest war that’s ever been fought, the story itself is pretty compelling.” He’s worried about making “older folks relive bad college experiences,” but it would probably be a guaranteed hit if they just dropped “Paradise” from the title.

A Spicy ThaiWestern

I’d never heard of it before, but I think this movie just might make Ryan‘s head explode. (For my LA readers it’s showing at the Nuart.)

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