A bitter blue pill

matrixr1The Matrix Resurrections, 2021, 148 mins, 4K UHD

Cor blimey, where do I start? Well, this is a strange one. It doesn’t look like a Matrix film (it has a vastly different colour palette and lighting style), doesn’t sound like a Matrix film (composer Don Davis not invited to this project) and lacks both the iconic fight choreography (the fight sequences are shockingly badly shot and edited) and ground-breaking effects sequences that the Matrix films are so famous for (the sheer crazy ambition of the earlier films trying stuff that the technology could barely manage is entirely missing here). So is it really a Matrix film?

Well, its certainly not the Matrix film many fans were possibly looking forward to- but then again, the same could be said regards the original sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. So perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by this strange beast.

I could almost describe this films as a $60 million arthouse film cleverly deconstructing the Matrix films with a narrative that is almost entirely Meta. Except that this thing cost $190 million and is clearly a tentpole, blockbuster movie- perhaps one of the oddest and most confounding blockbusters of all. Its almost like the whole thing’s existence is some kind of commentary (or ironic joke) on sequels, reboots, remakes and how they seem to dominate studio thinking and the industry as a whole. In a strange way its almost the perfect Matrix film- what is real, what is narrative, what is art and what is product? Its clever and incredibly stupid at the same time, utterly bizarre. I enjoyed it and I was infuriated by it. On the one hand it feels like a cynical cash-grab, and yet, on the other, if it was a cash-grab it simply wouldn’t be this movie, it’d instead be more what the fans wanted/expected.

We saw characters die in Revolutions. They are back in Resurrections, hence the title, but they don’t ‘know’ they are back (essentially, stuck in a ‘new’ Matrix, they don’t know who they really are and the main narrative is, similarly to the first film, revealing the ‘lie’ of their lives). But how exactly are they back? Are we expected to believe that renegade machines found Trinity’s dead body and brought her back from the dead? Surely her intellect is a simulacra even if they could reconstruct/repair her body? And did they similarly bring Neo back from the dead and create a copy of his personality too? Resurrections shows us this being done, but… I’m expected to just accept this Frankenstein nonsense? I almost feel like clapping to applaud the bare-arsed cheek of it. The Matrix films purport to being so smart and they try to pull this smoke and mirrors on me?

Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed this anyway, but then again, I’m possibly in the minority -well, I know I am- when I say I enjoy all three Matrix films that came before it, yes, even those derided sequels. So I guess I enjoy all the philosophising and counter-intuitive twists, the self-important writing that in its sheer audacity tries to outdo the crazy stunts and effects that wows audiences. The most disappointing thing about this film really is the clumsy fight and stunt choreography, and how mundane the visual spectacle/effects work really is -it seldom looks like a $190 million movie. This entry in the franchise is really the one where that pompous writing takes centre-stage over what really ‘makes’ a Matrix film. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe what its really telling us is to never trust your analyst.

It doesn’t feel ground-breaking. We’ve seen too many Christopher Nolan films since Revolutions. Maybe The Matrix films are suffering a generational gap in a similar way to how the Disney Star Wars have; or even the Bond films; all these franchises really belong to another generation, their time is really done, but nobody in the film industry knows what to do instead (what? Avatar?).

Having only seen it once, I’m cautious about writing much more here. I really need to watch the film again. When I watched it last night, other than having seen a trailer several months back, I really didn’t know what to expect, managing to stay spoiler-free up to now. So I’m especially curious how a second viewing plays. Does it improve, knowing what’s going on and why, or does it just seem dumber and lazier second time around? Well, another post will likely reveal all.

I will just say that the 4K UHD looks fantastic; it really is a beautiful film in 4K watched on an OLED screen. Utterly different to how the other Matrix films look, I guess, which reinforces how odd the experience watching it feels but then again, I really need to watch that 4K boxset of the earlier films that has been gathering dust on my shelf for far too long now. I had idly considered a watching the first three films prior to this one being released but life is getting in the way of watching much of anything these days, but maybe, if I can, I should watch them before getting to this one again…

The Matrix Reboot?

Is it just me, or does the recently-released trailer for the upcoming Matrix 4 look like its less a sequel and more a reboot? The vibe I get is that its actually retelling the story of the first film and at the same time (if it is a continuation) rather pretending that Reloaded and Revolutions never happened. Feels like what a trailer for Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 would have looked/felt like, being a continuation from Aliens pretending that Alien 3 etc never happened. On the one hand, The Matrix franchise seems eminently well-suited to this kind of thing (Neo in the fist three films being the “sixth anomaly” according to the architect when confronted at the close of Reloaded, suggesting that this Neo is some different iteration). But this doesn’t explain why its Neo and Trinity, i.e. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprising their roles here after they died in Revolutions, except that when we saw the previous five anomalies reacting to the architect (on the tv screens), it was still Neo we saw reacting in different ways (“You can’t control me!/Fuck you!/I’m going to kill you!/You can’t make me do anything!”) which rather puzzled me back then, unless the machines are genetically-engineering the humans in the farms and it really is Neo playing the anomaly each time.

I’m probably over-thinking it. 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie

bet1What? I didn’t. Please tell me I didn’t watch this. Its a bad dream, surely.

Sometimes, sometimes I’m my own worst enemy. And I’m clearly the worst person to have watched (and then moved to review) this show, because I’m totally unfamiliar with Zach Galifianakis’ long-running “Funny or Die” web series, whatever it is. So shoot me, I’ve been living under a rock or something. I gather its some kind of irreverent comedy series posing as a chat show in which celebs get sent-up or something, a comedy insult-trap thing. Anyway, somebody decided that they should make it into a movie. And Netflix of course is just there for the taking these days, hey, easy money. Maybe they should have written a movie about entertaiment peeps taking a media giant for a ride, and hey, gotten that same media giant to finance it; it’d be some kind of meta-joke.

So Will Farrell. Somebody out there thinks he’s funny, and he’s undoubtably one of the two of them, but I digress. I don’t get it. Watching paint dry or waiting for a kettle to boil is funnier than him. He features in this movie… well, I say ‘movie’ but thats a fairly loose use of the term. Its not like how they titled Superman: The Movie a movie because that was a movie and this really isn’t, but anyway, I digress again. Back to Will Farrell, if I must. He plays an internet media channel magnate or something, always after extra clicks like some demented blogger or YouTube savant. So one of his ‘stars’ is Zach Galifianakis whose Between The Ferns talk show is popular for unintentional reasons- Galifianakis is a totally inept host who insults his guests with truly inane questions and who is frequently undermined by his lack of research (often unable to pronounce guests names). After a disastrous interview in which Matthew McConaughey is nearly drowned when the studio is flooded, Farrell puts Galifianakis on the road looking for celebs, tasked to create ten futher episodes whilst the studio is repaired- his reward being a ‘proper’ late-night talk show for a bonafide network (Galifianakis’ dream).

So there’s a few jokes worth a titter, and loads of celebs in for the ride- Keanu Reeves, Benedict Cumberwatch, Brie Larson, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hamm and a load of others who I honestly didn’t know. Maybe thats why this film isn’t for me, I’m too far south of the cultural zeitgeist. The best bits are clearly the interview clips which are what the original web series are all about, but a lot of even that fell short for me. It was a little sour seeing that the celebs are clearly in on the joke now.

Celebs love to send themselves them up. It promotes the myth that they are self-effacing normal joes and makes them feel better about jumping into their private jets and screwing up the environment. And I don’t like talk shows anyway. They are just media junkets with carefully sanctioned questions and adulatory gushing (“You have a new movie out. I loved it, I think its great. Tell me a story you are so funny”), just perpretuating the celebrity nonsense that is the Western worlds new religon.

Hey, really, I’m the last person who should be reviewing this ‘movie’, let alone watching it. But I did, so here we are. Anyway, I’ll stop now. Lets agree to forget that I ever watched this, and forget that I posted this review, and that you read it. I’m sure we’ll all feel much better.

John Wick Ch.3: Parabellum (2019)

wick3This third entry in the John Wick franchise knows what it is doing from the start- pleasing John Wick fans and lovers of action movies. In that sense, the film is some kind of relentless machine, delivering elaborate fights, bloody headshots and pretty breathtaking stunts in spades, right from the opening. When I exited the cinema I wondered how long it’s going to be until somebody does a bodycount and reveals just how many dead bodies Wick and his freinds leave in their wake (I’m guessing something like two hundred, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually higher).

There is something almost cathartic in that cartoon violence, a ballet of death that is almost glorious- this series of films remains an action-movie fan’s wet dream, stripping down all plot and characterisation to something like a videogame level. I remember there was a game several years ago, I forget the name, but it put the player in several first-person levels/scenarios of killing and rewarded the player by scoring for headshots/stringing deaths together etc – this is that videogame as a movie.  The problem is, it gets a little wearing at times, the endless action, the relentless death and destruction lacking any depth or perspective that, say, a proper script with proper characters would have. I may be missing something, but towards the end of the film a group of bad guys in a busy concourse of the train station are suddenly wiped out through some surprise intervention (that makes little sense really when I think about it, except that the big bad guy doesn’t want the other bad guys spoiling his fun- that’s about as complex as this stuff gets) and none of the public commuters react – I even looked for the bodies in the background as the camera started to move away and I couldn’t see any. Did I blink and miss the corpses getting ‘cleaned up’? Shouldn’t hundreds of panicked commuters have been fleeing the scene?

Should I really be enjoying this silly movie so much?

Its hard to believe that it was back in 2014 that the first John Wick came out of nowhere like a breath of fresh air. Stripping the usual action movie tropes to the barest minimum, its retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a mystery, barely a character outline- described as ‘Baba Yaga’ , a shadowy legend whispered about by fearing criminals, he was suddenly unleashed like a bloody force of nature when the grieving mans car was stolen and his dog killed. It was simple, and the bad guys deserved everything they got (never mess with a mans car or his dog). As action films go, the brevity of the plot and characterisation makes the film pretty much perfect.

John Wick 2 delved deeper into the mysterious mythology only hinted at in the original, and Parabellum (its funny how sophisticated/complex a title it is for a film so simple) opens things much further, actually breaking out of the city and into the outside world, as far as the deserts of Africa (in a sequence which is, ironically, the weakest of the movie, which may be telling).  Each John Wick film has added more characters in the supporting cast, more back-story, ever more elaborate myth-building. At this point with the third film, we’re pretty much at the level of the first Matrix film, the defined world having its own weird logic – assassins everywhere, a payment system of unique gold coins/tokens, administrative clerks, adjudicators, sacred codes of conduct, John Wick even practically holding status of ‘the One,’ the status of unkillable, with all the other assassins trying to prove themselves by doing the impossible. Oh, and if the moral of the first film was ‘never mess with a man and his dog’, this one offers the adage ‘never mess with a woman and her dogs’ – Halle Berry and her deadly dogs being one of the highpoints of the film (although I maintain that this section of the film away from the city is its weakest section) and it’s pretty damn certain she’ll be joining Wick in Chapter Four’s carnage.

At this point it’s pretty clear that there is a danger these films will collapse in on themselves by adding too many layers to its mythology, becoming too complex to support the inherent daftness and joy of its fairly chaotic cartoon violence. Fans always want more, and will gleefully greet John Wick 4 or even John Wick 5 (probably as inevitable as Thanos, at this point). I have to wonder though when the inevitable happens and all that violence, and Wick’s own increasingly hilarious invincibility,  just becomes wearisome. I’d much prefer the Wick films to go out on a high and not become too diluted by too many sequels or its stunts etc just get too insane in the pursuit of being better than before.

Parabellum is still a pretty damn cool action movie and cements the reputation of the series as whole, although it’s clear that there are worrying indications of the point of diminishing returns rearing its head before long. Roll on Chapter Four anyway.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomicClearly an example of style over substance, I nonetheless really enjoyed this one- no doubt partly because I enjoyed the John Wick films so much and this has a distinct whiff of being John Wick from a female perspective (oddly timely, I guess, if you can look past the sexual objectifying thats going on throughout). Certainly, from where I’m looking, Charlize Theron is far easier on the eye than Keanu Reeves (can I get away with mentioning that in this day and age without offending someone?), and she handles the physicality of the role very well indeed- she looks gorgeous and you rather believe she’s deadly too the way she carries herself in a fight Those fights are well choreographed and pack a real punch (sic), and the film succeeds, in just the same way as the first John Wick  did, to revitalise the action flick genre. Seems the era of Bruce, Arnie and Sly is well and truly over, and there’s a new boy and girl in town. Indeed, recalling Theron’s film-stealing turn in the recent Mad Max reboot, she’s scored again here in spite of originally seeming more of a serious actress than an action girl. Ridley perhaps miscast her in Prometheus, I think she’d have carried that film better as Dr Elizabeth Shaw on the evidence of her physicality here.

Atomic Blonde looks and sounds quite gorgeous, shot on digital with an ultra-stylized look (neon-drenched one minute, dreary grey the next) that will be familiar to most- when it ‘pops’ it ‘POPS’, and the 1980s setting allows lots of music from the period to be liberally applied to every scene. As might be expected, the plot is fairly thin -it is set mostly in East Germany of 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both sides of the Iron curtain are after a list of agents that threatens to extend the Cold War if it gets in the wrong hands. To be honest, the plots almost a macguffin in the best Hitchcock fashion, as it didn’t really matter,  and to be honest I didn’t quite understand the logic of the films twists and turns at all.  Its a Russian list which a Russian is selling to the West, but the West doesn’t want the Russians to get it because it could cause the deaths of lots of Western assets. But surely its Russian spies on a Russian list, not a list of Western assets that the Russians need to get hold of, and there’s a double-agent on the list who wants to derail the whole deal in the most long-winded way and there’s a French female operative who doesn’t really fit in but she’s just there for Charlize to enjoy some lesbian sex thrills with… I don’t know. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter, it just sets up lots of fights and stunts and double-crosses. There’s a last epilogue twist that is perhaps one twist too far (actually there’s two twists there -first she’s a double agent working for the Russians and then she’s a double agent working for Langley, and neither makes sense).  Its no classic spy flick, anyway. but I suppose it’s really just an action flick posing as a spy flick, so maybe it gets a pass.

Besides, the cast, while somewhat wasted, is pretty great- John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy all ably support Theron who is, yes, great in the main role. Its hardly demanding stuff but it is what it is. Complaining about it would be like bitching about a Star Wars film being all effects and wasted actors…. oh, wait…

I expect this film was designed, as so many are these days, to launch a franchise and I certainly wouldn’t mind another outing for Charlize in another one of these.  I suppose that depends on its box office, so we’ll see. A better script that develops her character beyond the ‘beautiful-but-deadly’ protagonist demonstrated here would be nice to see.

John Wick (2014)

jwickJohn Wick. Hell of an action movie. Don’t know what the body-count in this one is but it’s got to be up there. If you want a high-octane action flick with some astonishingly well-choreographed stunts/fight sequences, this one fits the bell admirably.Its this years Taken (although a better film than Taken, to be sure), John Wick also reminds me a great deal of Payback, Brian Helgeland’s noir thriller that starred Mel Gibson as a bitter criminal seeking revenge on his back-stabbing partners in crime (indeed it shares a similar plot and modern-noir swagger- if you liked Payback you’ll likely love John Wick).

Sure, one could take issues with some of the twists of the plot, and how realistic it is for one guy to take on a Russian crime-bosses army of thugs in a city seemingly bereft of a police force, but that’s not the point with films like this. Its an action romp with a plot that simply serves to pile on the mayhem. And what mayhem it is, a welcome antidote to the toy-town violence of something like The Expendables 3, here its an adult violence, brutal and graphic and with consequences, more like that of The Raid films (indeed it could be said that with The Raid films, Dredd, Mad Max:Fury Road and John Wick the modern action film is enjoying something of a resurgence of late). Thankfully like those films, the film is brisk and doesn’t over-complicate things. Keeping it simple seems to be the modern action film, and it doesn’t hurt to hark back to the golden age of the 1970s in style and sensibility.

Keanu Reeves does well as the titular character. In truth the part suits him well; he doesn’t have to emote very much but he does have a sympathetic streak and shows some vulnerability to his character that helps the audience empathise with what might otherwise have been a heartless one-dimensional cold-bloodied killer. Reeves handles the physicality of the role -its stunts etc- very well indeed, as might be expected from his Matrix films. It took me most of the film to finally recognise Michael Nyqvist from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films- you know how it is when you recognise the face but can’t quite place it (although he has aged some to be fair)- well, Nyqvist bugged me for most of the film. He’s very, very good here as the mafia boss whose son has wronged his ex-hitman John Wick, so good he nearly steals the show. Alfie Allen is great as the bad-to-the-bone son Iosef whose over-confidence threatens to bring down his fathers empire, and there are also lovely turns by Willem Dafoe and Lance Reddick (a favourite from the good old Fringe tv-series days)- it’s a great cast.

Beyond all the violence and the blood, there is a lovely mythology to this film, a shared history between the characters, almost as if we are watching film two of a trilogy- sly references and reminiscences between them slipped into the dialogue. Nothing is over-explained, just threads left hanging there- background characters like a cop that knows Wick and turns a blind eye to some bodies,or the leader of a clean-up squad always keen on more business, or Ian McShane’s excellent cameo as the proprietor of a hotel whose guests, assassins all, are strictly under pains to behave (or else). There is a lovely sense of logic to it and humour. I’d prefer the film to be left as it is, but I’m sadly confident that its success will gestate inferior sequels that will dilute it (seems to be how the film industry works these days); I’d prefer to have it left as it is and for the threads to just stay open to the imagination. Why spoil it with more movies?

It is what it is. Leave your brain at the door and enjoy one of the better action films of the last few years. Some people will be horrified by John Wick and question its violence, its politics and gender-roles but that’s not the point of films like this (at least until it is ripped apart by film theorists in twenty years time). Its just a cool action movie. Expect no more and you’ll be pleasantly entertained.