O Brother, Where Art Thou?


O Brother, Where Art Thou?(2000) Comedy (Touchstone) George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Del Pentecost, Chris Thomas King, Stephen Root, Daniel von Bargen, Frank Collison, Wayne Duvall, Musetta Vander, Mia Tate, Christy Taylor. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen have become one of America’s finest filmmaking combos, and for good reason. Looking at their portfolio, you see a common theme of understanding the cadences, rhythms and twangs of American speech, and seeing the cracked side of American life. In films such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy and Blood Simple, the characters are basically good but not particularly moral — there’s a criminal side to the heroes (with the exception of the Frances McDormand police chief in Fargo) that makes them charming, flawed but still in a realm to which the audience can relate.

Loosely (make that very loosely) based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  begins with convict Ulysses Everett McGill (Clooney) escaping a Mississippi prison farm with his dim cohorts Pete (Turturro) and Delmar (Nelson). They are off to find the loot hidden by McGill from an armored car job before the valley it resides in is flooded by a WPA project. They almost immediately run into a blind seer (Duvall) who predicts that they will find great treasure, albeit not the one they are seeking.

Along the way, they run into a variety of characters, from a one-eyed Bible salesman (Goodman), to a corrupt Mississippi governor running for re-election (Durning) to a blind radio station owner (Root) who records the three convicts singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” which, unbeknownst to the three Soggy Bottom Boys (so dubbed because Delmar and Pete elect to be baptized, to the amusement of McGill) has become a huge hit.

Heck, you even get to meet the manic/depressive Baby Face Nelson (Badalucco). They also run into three larcenous sirens and McGill’s wife, who is preparing to marry a man she considers “bona fide,” which McGill is not. When McGill objects to his wife remarrying and takes issue with her new suitor, he gets soundly thrashed and tossed out of a Woolworth’s, to his humiliation. Indeed, the three Soggy Bottom Boys do find a treasure beyond price, although they don’t realize it at the time.

The Coens capture the period perfectly, and give all the characters enough eccentricities to make them interesting, without making them overbearing. Clooney, in particular — with his obsession about his hair — commands attention. He is not “bona fide,” but that’s mostly bad luck. We root for him throughout and for his two dim-witted sidekicks. This is ostensibly a comedy, but it is a dry wit despite the occasional soggy bottom. The Coens lavish the characters here with interesting eccentricities and the actors repay him with excellent performances.

Refreshingly original, O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains quintessential Coen and those who love their movies, as I do, will love this one. Da Queen and I were laughing till our faces were beet red, particularly during an early train sequence, and at the final performance of the Soggy Bottom Boys near the end of the film. Clooney won a Golden Globe for his performance here, and I think it’s basically from this point he got taken seriously as an actor, as well as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The humor isn’t for everyone – some find it a bit too quirky. Still, there are some pretty wonderful country-fried performances from Durning, Badalucco and Root and especially from Goodman, Hunter, Turturro and Nelson and of course Clooney steals the show. I’d never thought of him as a comic actor before this, but he is quite good at it as he has proven in several films since which you can always check out later. In the meantime, enjoy O Brother, Where Art Thou? and anticipate future celluloid from the Coen Brothers

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Great performance from Clooney. Among the best the Coens have ever done.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If the Coens’ quirkiness isn’t you’re style you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of violence and a few cursin’ words here and there.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a music video and a featurette that shows how the filmmakers obtained the golden hue that tones the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $71.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie was profitable although given the success of the soundtrack, probably more so than the box office receipts would indicate.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Raising Arizona

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Rashomon

The Matrix Revolutions


The Mtatrix Revolutions

I’m swinging for his brains…just swinging for his brains, what a gloriou feeling I’m happy again!

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau, Lambert Wilson, Daniel Bernhardt, Harry Lennix, Stuart Wells, Matt McColm, Collin Chou, Mary Alice, Ian Bliss. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

Early on in The Matrix Revolutions, the Oracle (Mary Alice, taking over for Gloria Foster, who died shortly after filming The Matrix Reloaded) tells Neo “Everything that has a beginning also has an end.” If that’s true (and the line is repeated at least once more, so the filmmakers must believe it), then perhaps it is a good thing that this trilogy of groundbreaking movies called it a day.

Picking up almost immediately where Reloaded ended, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Bane (Ian Bliss) are in coma-like conditions, although Neo’s brainwaves read like he’s jacked into the Matrix, though there are no signs of him in the computer construct. Where he is, actually, is an in-between place, a train station controlled by the Merovingian (Wilson), for moving illegal programs from the machine world into the Matrix.

Much of this is explained by a couple of low-level programs who want their daughter, the oh-too-cute Sati (Atwal) to survive in the Matrix because she would be deleted from her own world. You see, machines need love too.

Trinity (Moss) and Morpheus (Fishburne) are ordered by the Oracle to go rescue Neo (inasmuch as she orders anybody). She sends her personal bodyguard, Seraph (Chou) to accompany them. They confront the Merovingian and get him to release Neo in a most unsatisfying way; it seems like somebody got written into a corner and couldn’t quite figure a way out.

Neo knows that everything is coming to a head. The machines are hours away from breaching the walls of Zion and time is running out. The human city is preparing for a last stand, hoping to hold out in the dock (where the breach will come), but most know the odds are against them, including defense commander Lock (Lennix). Neo announces that he must go to the Machine City in order to save humanity. He and Trinity leave, with Morpheus and Niobe (Smith) piloting the craft back to Zion in a desperate race against time.

Meanwhile, Agent Smith (Weaving) has become more and more powerful, having taken over the Matrix, and is now threatening both the machine and human worlds in order to end an existence he believes to be pointless. It is Neo’s destiny to face Smith with all three worlds hanging in the balance.

If the plot summary above sounds confusing, consider that this is a condensed version of what goes on. Part of the main problem with The Matrix Revolutions is that the Wachowski brothers are trying to tell too many stories at once. Most of the subplots are unnecessary and get in the way of the main story. Sure, the effects are out of this world, and there are some fine performances (Fishburne is definitely one of those guys who highlights any film he’s in), but the overall effect is a bit overwhelming.

There are many good things about the movie. Trinity’s character goes in an unexpected direction, and Moss really nailed the role, even more so than in the first two movies. Mifune (Lees), the Trainman (Spence) and Link (Perrineau) turn out well in brief roles, and Seraph and Niobe are awesome. However, there are too many characters that just flit across the screen. Bellucci is barely evident (which is nothing less than disappointing), and did we really need the kid in this movie at all?

Things blow up, lots of things. The battle for Zion is as spectacular as you can imagine, even more so. The final fight between Smith and Neo is everything it was meant to be, but I spent a lot of time in the dark theater trying to will the story forward through the many interminable subplots.

The first Matrix was successful in large part due to the directness of its storytelling. Sometimes a director’s scope can exceed the grasp of the storyline, and this is one of those occasions. Initial critical reaction has been awfully harsh on The Matrix Revolutions and I suspect unduly so, but maybe the movie is so disappointing because it wouldn’t have taken much for it to be a hell of a lot better. There is some talk of the series continuing, although much of the Neo plotline is neatly wrapped up here. Still, there remain some loose ends. Frankly, I’m more ambivalent about the idea of a fourth Matrix installment than I was about the second two, and maybe that’s where the Wachowskis ultimately failed.

WHY RENT THIS: More amazing visuals. Final battle between Neo and Agent Smith is as advertised.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many subplots. Confusing storyline. Doesn’t really add anything to the mythos. Completely unsatisfying.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence and brief sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first film to premiere in the Walt Disney Concert Hall (brand spankin’ new at the time) in downtown Los Angeles.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The White Rabbit feature on the The Matrix Reloaded disc is also present here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Chronicles of Riddick

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Peep World

The Matrix Reloaded


The Matrix Reloaded

Definitely not “Singing in the Rain.”

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci, Daniel Bernhardt, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Anthony Zerbe, Harold Perrineau, Collin Chou, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Harry Lennix, Randall Duk Kim. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

Movies like this create a lot controversy by their very nature. A messianic figure, cutting-edge special effects and an overall hipper-than-thou feel. All of this and being the most eagerly-anticipated movie of the year, sure to be a box-office bonanza. No pressure here.

Those who saw the “Animatrix” episode that played before the theatrical version of Dreamcatcher (or downloaded it off the internet) know what is revealed early on in the picture. Some time has passed since the events of the first Matrix movie, and changes are coming to both the computer-generated world of the Matrix, as well as the bleak world of reality. Neo (Reeves) is responsible for the “awakening” of an unprecedented number of humans, swelling the population of Zion. However, one of the hoverships has discovered that the machines are drilling — directly above Zion — and hundreds of thousands of Sentinels follow the drills. Should the drills arrive at Zion, millions will die. Possibly the entire human race will be wiped out.

The Oracle (Foster in her final role; she died in 2001) has urgent information for Neo, but Agent Smith (Weaving) is close on Neo’s tail, and Smith has become a rogue program in the Matrix (a virus, maybe?), out of control and self-replicating, leading to a spectacular sequence in which Neo takes on hundreds of annoyed-looking Agent Smiths.

There are others who don’t want those questions answered, but Neo knows that the only way to save humankind is to access the machine world’s mainframe, source of the Matrix, and take it on. In order to do that he will have to rescue the Keymaker (Kim) and get a specific key from him. However, he must find the Keymaker first to do that and he’ll have to take on the Merovingian (Wilson) to get there. Once he finds the key, what’s behind the door it unlocks calls into question everything we knew, or thought we knew about the world of the Matrix.

The movie ends on a cliffhanger note, which leaves the viewer vaguely unsatisfied. Still, there’s a lot to digest, a very complex storyline and some of the most amazing visuals imaginable. As action movies go, this one may be the one that takes the cake – at least in terms of the first part of the decade.  The freeway chase scene which features lots of leaping onto and from moving vehicles is one of the most thrilling ever filled and is worth the price of buying the DVD or Blu-Ray all by it’s lonesome.

On the minus side, Reeves continues to be one of the most wooden actors ever. He’s unconvincing as a messiah, and his relationship with Trinity (Moss) generates no chemistry. Thankfully, the other players – Morpheus (Fishburne), Link (Perrineau), Niobe (Smith), Persephone (Bellucci), Seraph (Chou), the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), the Merovingian (Wilson) and Counselor Hamann (Zerbe) – more than make up for Reeve’s lack of emotions.

This is a great action movie that set the standard for that genre circa 2003. That said, it isn’t perfect, and go in knowing there are some fairly major flaws. However, after seeing it in theaters back in the day I was left anticipating the final chapter – The Matrix Revolutions – which came out later that same year and therefore the movie accomplished mostly what it needed to.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredible action sequences. Some great supporting performances. Visionary and unique.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t live up to the first film. Relationship between Neo and Trinity lacks heat. Reeves still curiously flat as Neo.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aaliyah was originally cast in the movie to play Zee but she died in a plane crash before filming began. Nona Gaye was cast in her place.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 22-minute featurette on the making of the freeway chase scene, one of the best in history. There’s a making-of featurette on two promo commercials for product tie-ins (yes, really) and a parody skit from the opening of the 2004 MTV Movie Awards. The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video from P.O.D. and a look at the making of Enter the Matrix, the videogame that served as a compliment to the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMNCE: $742.1M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lightkeepers

The Matrix


The Matrix

Keanu Reeves demontrates proper Bullet Time technique.

(1999) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Denni Gordon. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Reality can often be a four letter word; dull, vicious, cruel, lonely…reality sucks for most of us. However reality is a matter of perception and perception can be messed with. What we see, feel, experience is always – always – a product of our senses. What if those senses were wrong?

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle code writer by day and a hacker who goes by the handle Neo by night. His dual existence is dull and boring, but he is eager to discover the nature of something called the Matrix, cryptic references to which he’s found on his computer. A fellow hacker named Trinity (Moss) confirms that there are answers out there and guides him in the direction of a legendary hacker named Morpheus (Fishburne).

However, not everybody wants Neo and Morpheus to meet. Government agents, led by a man named Smith (Weaving) arrest Mr. Anderson and grill him on Morpheus and the Matrix, but Neo knows nothing. Undeterred, Neo meets with Morpheus who gives him the choice of a red pill and a white pill to take. The white pill will merely give him a good night’s rest; the red pill will show him the truth about the Matrix. Neo takes the red pill.

He wakes up in a nightmarish world, in a small pod filled with liquid. Morpheus rescues him and takes him aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a high-tech airship. Morpheus explains that the year isn’t 1999 but closer to 2199 and that mankind lost a war to sentient machines of their own making, who have made the surface nearly uninhabitable. Humans are used for their bioelectric energy which is harvested; the humans are kept docile by having their minds plugged into the Matrix, a computer-simulated world of 1999 that fools the human race into thinking that everything is okay. Morpheus and his group which includes Trinity, Cypher (Pantoliano), Tank (Chang), Mouse (Doran), Dozer (Parker), Switch (McClory) and Apoc (Arahanga) are part of a resistance movement fighting the machines. They are headquartered in Zion, a hidden underground city that the machines have as yet been unable to locate.

Within the Matrix, the resistance is able to act with superhuman abilities because of their knowledge of what the Matrix is. Neo is trained to do this as well. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One,” a messianic person who has been prophesized to end the war and put the humans back in control. Neo isn’t so sure but is willing to be examined by The Oracle (Foster) who is the one who made the prophecy to begin with.

They take Neo back into the Matrix to meet the Oracle who implies that Neo isn’t the one, but he will have to make a crucial decision that may result in the death of Morpheus. Shortly thereafter they are ambushed by Agents and Morpheus allows himself to be captured so that the others may get away. However, there is a traitor in their midst and not all of them will make it back. The future looks even more bleak for the humans now – unless Neo can realize his undiscovered potential.

This is one of those movies that is a game-changer. The Wachowskis, who had previously directed the critically-lauded Bound proved that they had an amazing cinematic vision. The look of movies, particularly action films, has been heavily influenced by this movie from their super slo-mo “bullet time” effects shots to the shades-and-dusters costuming. Turn of the millennium hip was largely defined by The Matrix.

Reeves will most likely be most identified with this role. Having achieved stardom with the Bill and Ted movies he became in every sense an A-list actor with this. His Neo was cool and hip, but also had doubts and fears. He’s heroic but someone people could relate to. I think most adolescent boys in 1999 wanted very much to be Neo.

But the acting is not what drew people to this movie. It’s the incredible visuals. How many computers in 1999 had screen savers with the “raining” numbers graphics that made up the Matrix? How many movies had the “bullet time” slow motion bullets with liquid contrails? Sure, there were plenty of antecedents for this movie – no movie exists in a vacuum – and the Wachowskis were almost certainly influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah, the art of H.R. Giger, anime, Hong Kong martial arts movies and the fiction of William Gibson, but they drew all those elements into a nice package that resonated with people all over the planet. The Matrix isn’t a perfect movie – the second half isn’t quite as good as the first – but it is a movie that almost 15 years later continues to influence the way movies are made and is just as entertaining now as it was the first time we all saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: Visuals that are just as dazzling now as they were back then. The ultimate cyberpunk movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sort of loses its way near the end.

FAMILY MATTERS: A whole lot of violence and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Neo is an anagram of One.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included a White Rabbit feature in which when activated a white rabbit would flash in the bottom right of the screen; if the enter button was pressed on the remote, a featurette would run explaining how that sequcnce was made. The Blu-Ray edition expands on this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.5M on a $63M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Johnny Mnemonic

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Rubber

300


300

Gerard Butler wonders why with the budget the film had they couldn't afford more than underwear and capes.

(2006) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender, Stephen McHattie, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Kelly Craig.  Directed by Zack Snyder

This is not like anything you’ve ever seen or are likely to see ever again. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that is a fanciful, highly stylized account of the legendary stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the movie starts with a narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the movie) who explains the rigors of life in Sparta. Starting from birth, where babies that are considered weak, inferior or deformed are killed, the children are born to a life of cruel discipline, constant fighting, strength, honor and respect.

Leonidas (Butler) is born to this world and he takes to it like a politician to a photo-op. Now the King of Sparta, he is visited by an emissary from Persia demanding Sparta’s submission to their rule. Persia, a vast sprawling empire that encompasses hundreds of nations and a slave-driven army of more than a million, is ruled by Xerxes (Santoro from TV’s “Lost”), a decadent, corrupt ruler who believes himself to be a God. Leonidas, enraged by the implied threats, executes the Persian contingent.

Knowing that this will provoke Persia into attacking Greece, he seeks the blessing of the Ephors, grotesque inbred priests who select the most beautiful young women in Sparta to act as Oracles (Craig), which involves a lot of writhing around while semi-nude and speaking in tongues. Leonidas is aware that the Persians will arrive during one of the most sacred religious festivals on the Spartan calendar, and he wants to be able to make an exception to the law and march his army to a narrow chasm called the Hot Portals, or Thermopylae. There, the overwhelming numeric advantage of the Persians will be rendered useless. The word from On High is that the Gods will protect the Spartans as long as they honor their religious commitments. That’s not the answer that Leonidas wanted to hear.

Powerless to bring the entire Spartan army to defend his people, he must settle for his own personal guard, which includes his Captain (Regan), the Captain’s son Astinos (Wisdom), the affable Stelios (Fassbender) and the taciturn Dilios (Wenham). They march off to battle, while members of the council, led by the politically savvy Theron (West) debate whether to send aid at all which boils the blood of their fierce Queen (Headey).

The Spartans are met by a vast host of the multi-cultural Persian Army and the over-the-top King Xerxes himself. No matter what the Persians throw at them, the hard-edged Spartans repel every attempt to defeat them. They are doing the impossible – holding the pass against an overwhelming force. However, those who know the story of the 300 know that the status quo will change and the stuff of legends will be born.

This is a gritty, ultraviolent movie that director Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) keeps remarkably faithful to Miller’s graphic novel vision. The movie is largely filmed with green screen, rendering epic vistas and impossible sights, while allowing them to mute the lighting so that the movie seems to be filmed entirely at dusk in a kind of sepia-toned veneer. He brings the grotesque creatures of the graphic novel to life in a way that makes them seem realistic while keeping with Miller’s vision, a very difficult line to walk (if you’ve seen any of Lynn Varley’s artwork, you’ll know what I mean). The visuals are spectacular throughout.

Butler, who had theretofore hinted at stardom with impressive turns in Phantom of the Opera and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life here does a star turn. His dialogue is delivered at full volume, and his face much of the time is contorted into a primal snarl (and for the ladies, he spends most of the movie wearing a black leather speedo), but he carries himself with a presence that commands your attention every moment he’s onscreen. Leonidas is king, yes, but he is also a man and his interactions with his wife and son give the movie it’s very few quiet moments. This is a starmaking turn and propelled Butler into the upper echelon of the Hollywood star hierarchy.

Headey makes a great foil for Butler, as strong and charismatic as he himself is. Her Queen Gorgo takes on Dominic West’s Theron without blinking an eyelash and shows herself to be as admirable a Spartan as any man. Santoro’s Xerxes is decadent, corrupt and a little bit fey. Regan, Wisdom, Fassbinder and Wenham do fine jobs as Leonidas’ inner circle – they’re Spartans all through and through. They go full bore and hold nothing back. In fact there are very few things that are anything less than the very highest volume. There are a few moments that are about the three quarter mark, particularly early on.

Otherwise this is a movie that was filmed at 11, and is meant to be played back at 11 (to use a Spinal Tap analogy). It is an overwhelming sensory experience that will release a surge of testosterone in all but the most non-masculine sorts and give women their opportunity to access their inner man. This isn’t the most historically accurate epic you’ll ever see, but think of it as a surreal dream version of history and that might salve the conscience of sticklers a little bit. So go, see the movie, and then go out and beat somebody up, preferably with a sword. If you’re wearing a leather speedo, so much the better. 

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning, innovative visuals and a star-making performance by Butler. Takes a graphic novel and cranks it up to “11.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The amount of testosterone flowing through this movie might be off-putting to someone who doesn’t like their movies quite so over-bearing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some really graphic battleground violence, a bit of nudity and a little sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The quote attributed to Stelios here “Then we shall fight in the shade” when warned that the rain of Persian arrows will blot out the sun was actually spoken historically by a Spartan soldier named Dionekes.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature examining the historical license taken by Miller and by the filmmakers, comparing the events of the movie to what actually happened at Thermopylae. There is also a featurette on Miller, his early years and the writing of the original graphic novel. On the Blu-Ray edition is the original test footage Snyder used to sell the Warners executives on the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Bridesmaids