Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In Theaters: Superman Returns

SUPERMAN RETURNS is as good a film as I expected it to be, but not quite the same film I expected. It's a terrific entertainment, full of spectacle and humor and with the idealism one naturally associates with the character. It's also the darkest entry in the series, a phrase I find myself reading and typing a lot these days. I'm about ready for my escapism to start lightening up again, but in this case, it works. Superman undergoes his greatest trials, faces his gravest doubts, and is forced to reconsider his relationship with humanity. It's powerful, yet strangely fun.

Intended as a direct sequel to SUPERMAN II (bypassing III and IV, though not explicitly), the film begins with Superman (Brandon Routh) coming back from a visit to the remains of Krypton, having confirmed for himself that his homeworld is dead. He's been gone for 5 years, and in the interim, the world hasn't gone so well, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has gotten himself freed from prison, and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a child and a fiancé. She's also won a Pulitzer Prize for her opinion piece "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Ouch. No sooner has Clark Kent returned to his old job at the Daily Planet than disaster strikes an experimental shuttle launched from a plane (it's complicated), and Superman reappears in style, setting the damaged aircraft down in a baseball stadium. The world loves Superman again, but Lois is still a bit upset that their great hero abandoned them without a word. Meanwhile, Lex has managed to infiltrate the Fortress of Solitude and steal some of the vital energy crystals, and works out a way to use them to create a giant landmass while flooding most of the Western Hemisphere (and some of the Eastern). It's the old real estate swindle all over again, only this time billions of people are going to die and the survivors will have to live on a giant crystalline rock.

As in the original, Lex Luthor's machinations and Superman's battle against them are only part of the fun. There's plenty of drama as Clark/Superman has to compete against the new man in Lois' life (played by James Marsden of the X-MEN films) as well as stop plane crashes and bank robberies, quite a bit of snappy, goofy humor (Luthor demonstrates the crystals' power in an elaborate miniature trainset, complete with sound effects of screams and explosions as he causes small-scale calamity), and plenty of sheer visual splendor. I'm not yet entirely sure how to express the main theme of the movie- Superman is conflicted about just how he fits in with the Earth, being the last one of his kind, wanting to explore his roots but also wanting to connect with humanity instead of just pulling their fat from the fire. Reviewers have mentioned a kind of Jesus parallel, and there's some none-too-subtle symbolism, but I'm not sure that encapsulates the whole thing. Maybe it does. It's late. I'm tired.

Brandon Routh makes a convincing Man of Steel; in terms of voice he seems to be straining just a bit too much to capture Christopher Reeve's mannerisms (though I am told he sounds just a bit like that in real life, so who knows), but he has both the authority and the naiveté to pull off the dual role. Bosworth seems too young for the role of Lois, and not nearly as brassy as Margot Kidder, but it's a good performance on its own. Spacey excels as Luthor, adding his own brand of theatrics which help him to emerge from Gene Hackman's long shadow. Parker Posey is also fun as his new squeeze Kitty, Sam Huntington is a perfect Jimmy Olsen, Frank Langella a fine Perry White, and Noel Niell- who played Lois on the TV series- has a nice cameo as a dying widow whom Lex "persuades" to leave him her fortune. Tristan Lake Leabu, who plays Lois' son, is also worth noting; adding a kid to the equation could easily have spelled disaster, but he plays the part authentically and doesn't try to be overly cute.

The more I think of the criticisms I had, the more it seems like I nitpick. It is a bit long, and there are some extraneous scenes. It's never boring, just kind of... fluffy. The effects aren't as convincing as they could be, though I've never really cared about that so long as the visuals are interesting. I do wonder if the film's earnesty and moments of broad humor and 70s-style goofiness won't hurt its box office appeal, but that's not an aesthetic flaw. Maybe the public will surprise me. Hmm. Back to positives. The music score nicely quotes a lot of John Williams' original material while sounding distinctive, and there's a cool-as-crap opening credits sequence, which I wouldn't mention but for the fact that the opening credits sequence is becoming a dying art. Support the film for that if nothing else.

Bryan Singer stepped away from the X-MEN franchise to finally wrestle this film free of more than ten years of Development Hell, and his efforts have not been in vain. This is an exceptional film, and it has both a unique voice and that unmistakable feel you only get in a Superman story. It is, indeed, good to have him back.

Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Bryan Singer (story)
Directed by Bryan Singer

Grade: A

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In Theaters: Cars

One of these days, Pixar is going to make a bad movie and we'll all be too busy running from the giant radioactive space ants to notice. For many reasons I hope that day is far off. Which is my flashy way of saying that I enjoyed CARS quite a bit. It's one of their smaller-scale pictures, low-key and sort of quiet. But it's a great story, well-told, funny, and perfectly accessible to pedestrians and non-racing-fans.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is an ambitious race car who, at the start of the film, is racing for the coveted Piston Cup and angling for a juicy sponsorship deal at the same time. However, he, retiring veteran "The King" (Richard Petty), and rival Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) all tie for third, and a tiebreaker race in California is immediately scheduled. While making the trip, Lightning gets bumped off the Interstate and onto Route 66, and the decrepit town of Radiator Springs, where he manages to tear up the road while attempting to outrun the sheriff (Michael Wallis.) Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town's mayor/judge/etc. sentences him to repair the road, and in the midst of the arduous task, Lightning, still suffering from an arrogant superstar attitude, manages to get to know the colorful locals, such as Mater the tow truck (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and the lovely (by automotive standards) Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). He starts to learn a few things about slowing down, appreciating the past, and generally not being a jerk.

The moralistic element of the movie weighs a little heavier than in other Pixar releases, its lessons a bit more explicit. It's sentimental by nature, but achieves the right level of sincerity, particularly when it takes the time to talk about how the growth of the Interstates killed the old Route 66 experience, and the towns alongside it, how the old roads went with the land instead of cutting straight through it and drivers (or in this case the cars) learned to appreciate the journey more than the destination. Of course, right now, just cruising or taking the long way is a luxury many drivers can't afford, which makes the loss all the more notable. And naturally a theme like this works on the broader level; our demand for speed and efficiency is reflected in a lot of things besides our driving. It's a message aimed as much at the adults in the audience as the children.

Appropriately enough, the narrative itself can be a bit slow and rambling at times. There aren't the same kind of dramatic twists here that you'd see in FINDING NEMO and MONSTERS, INC., instead the plot develops simply, straightforwardly. The downside of this is that it's easier to see where it's going and anticipate some of the developments, though there are surprises along the way. The project is partly carried by its excellent voice work- I may not be a huge fan of Larry the Cable Guy, but he's perfectly cast as Mater, who steals several scenes. Owen Wilson makes Lightning as arrogant as he needs to be without being unlikeable, and both Newman and Hunt match him well. Some of the supporting parts seem underdeveloped, though everyone gets some chance to do their schtick. There are some great bit parts and cameo appearances, including Car Talk's Tom and Ray Magliozzi as Lightning's low-rent sponsors, several racing stars and Pixar vet John Ratzenberger.

The animation is up to Pixar's usual standards, being not just technically well-done but outright beautiful in places (especially during night scenes, where the street lights and neon give the chrome-plated protagonists a lovely glow.) There are all sorts of great background details, from desert mountains that resemble 50s fins to insect-sized "Bugs" to various in-jokes for car enthusiasts.

CARS is not the most memorable of films, but it's hugely enjoyable for what it does. The film has the sad distinction of being the last work by Joe Ranft, the co-director, co-writer, voice of two characters and general story guru for Pixar, who was killed in a car crash late last year. (One of his parts, "Red" the timid firetruck, seems to have been abbreviated as a result.) In the midst of this actual loss, the studio has crafted a fine tale about appreciating what we have and what we used to have, instead of always rushing forward.

Written by Dan Fogelman, John Lassetter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, and Jorgen Klubien.
Directed by John Lassetter and Joe Ranft

Grade: A-

Monday, June 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #7: Rodan

The late night movie is a wonderful thing. In the wee-est of hours, TV channels that can't attract enough infomercials will sometimes throw on any old programmer or bizarre flick that they didn't pay a lot for and don't care if anyone watches. As such they're usually more enjoyable than the respectable mainstream fare that airs when people are awake. Case in point: RODAN, seen at 3:00 AM on AMC on a Friday night. No, I don't have that much of a life, why do you ask?

First released in 1956, RODAN was one of the first of Toho's attempts to capitalize on the huge success of the original GODZILLA (though the very first was 1955's GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, also called GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER.) I'm reviewing the American release here, though I'm not sure of the differences. It's ten minutes shorter, there's stock footage of an atomic test tacked on to the beginning, and there may not have been narration in the original version, but I wasn't able to find an authoritative list of changes.

The first part of RODAN takes place in the mining town of Kitamatsu, where a number of mysterious murders take place in the caves. At first a missing miner named Goro is suspected, but a friend named Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) tries to clear his name. It turns out that the killings are the work of giant insects living in the deep mine tunnels. Shigeru joins a group of policemen in an expedition into the mines to kill one of the grubs, but a cave-in sends him down to the unexplored caves below. He is recovered, suffering from memory loss after having seen something terrifying in the depths. Soon after, an unidentified flying object is taking out airplanes and snatching up unsuspecting humans. Shigeru eventually regains his memory and reveals that in the cave, he saw a giant pterodactyl hatching from an egg (and devouring the insects.) The giant flying reptile flies at supersonic speeds, can create destructive gusts of wind, is mostly invulnerable (like almost all of Toho's creations) and, as it turns out, has a mate.

While Godzilla, in his original appearance, was a kind of walking atom bomb, unsubtly recalling the horror of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rodan is another kind of force of nature, having nothing really to do with atomic power (despite the prologue)- instead, he and the insect creatures are awakened by man's delving too deeply, almost a product of our greed (the narration says as much.) He's also more of an animal, preying on humans for food instead of just for the fun of it, and the film has a nice primal feel, giving us a contest for supremacy in nature without a lot of scientific talk getting in the way. The structure of the film- with the title monster appearing rather late in the proceedings by monster movie standards- is unusual but effective, and the ending is strangely poignant.

The visual effects are up to Toho's old standards. We laugh at guys in monster suits smashing miniature sets, but at the time, this sort of work was really only outclassed by the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen and mentor Willis O'Brien. Remember, this very year, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS managed to wow audiences by running film backwards. The dubbing works in its cartoonish way (listen for George Takei in what, according to AMC, was his first movie work), which seems like faint praise, but there's never been a truly good dub of a live-action Japanese film, so I'll take this.

They don't show Japanese monster movies on TV nearly often enough. You can find a western or a Bond movie on basic cable approximately 90% of the time on any given day, why shortchange the kaiju fans? Once in a while, though, you're flipping channels, a giant pterodactyl starts destroying buildings and you have a reason not to sleep. And so the invention known as television displays its real power.

Story by Ken Kuronuma
Written by Takeo Murata and Takeshi Kimura, David Duncan (U.S. version)
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

101.11: The Metropolis Musical

I can't help but wonder if big-budget theatrical flops are the saddest of media failures. When an expensive movie bombs, chances are it will still have an excessive number of DVDs printed, it'll show up on pay cable a dozen or so times, and it will probably acquire some fans eventually. But the theatre is an exclusive sort of experience to start, limited by place and time and affected by changes in cast and direction and even audience. In global terms, not a lot of people get to actually see CATS or THE PRODUCERS or SPAMALOT in the truest of senses. A show that folds quickly can practically evaporate. We do get script books, and sometimes video recordings, and in the case of musicals, cast albums- and that's how I came to this- but they acquire a particularly special air of esoterica. Until I was given this double-LP set (my mother enjoys browsing Half Price Books), I wasn't even sure the musical version of METROPOLIS existed. I thought I had heard something about Brian Blessed being involved and it being somehow British, but that was it. Finding something like this makes you compelled to share it.

(One warning: The liner note/lyric sheet booklet that came with this once upon a time is missing a huge center section, and the sound mix is such that softer vocals and dialogue sometimes get drowned out. So I can't claim to have fully followed the entire show from start to finish.)

For those who don't know the movie, METROPOLIS is the story of a futuristic city where the idle rich live above in absolute splendor while, below the ground, the workers toil at the cruel machines that keep the city powered and functioning. It's about Maria, a young worker (well, she lives underground, but I don't think we've seen her at the machines in ANY version of the story) who preaches hope for the future, and Steven (Freder in the movie), the son of Metropolis' ruler (Fredersen in the movie, Freeman- and Brian Blessed- in the show), and how his meeting her sparks his compassion for the oppressed. The ruler, trying to put a stop to this, kidnaps Maria and has an inventor (Rotwang in the film, Warner in the show) create a robot double used to mislead the workers, ultimately sparking a cataclysmic revolution. The story changes a bit for the show here, and I'll get into that. Eventually.

The show starts in an interesting way, with Maria teaching the children of the workers about the things that exist on the surface, before they're cleared out of the machine room for the work shift to begin (cueing the song that's the title of this post- and the most blazingly catchy number in the show.) A worker is killed in the shift, cueing a number of interlocking laments.

The songs are good on the whole, but the writing is uneven- the lyrics at times veer towards the simplistic, with Freeman and several of the rich "elitists" professing an open contempt for the workers in a way that seems cartoonish. One doesn't exactly expect subtlety from musical theater, or indeed from the story of METROPOLIS, but there's something decidedly unimaginative about some of the writing. Emphasis on "some"- there are other pieces which are very clever, well-written and evocative. The music itself is very good.

And then there's the ending. In the film, as you recall, Maria and Freder are ultimately able to stop the violence on both sides, and Fredersen makes peace with the worker chief despite having been in on a plan to destroy them. It is, to our eyes, sentimental and a bit unrealistic. The writers here went for a more apocalyptic, "Eat the Rich" style finale in which Metropolis is utterly destroyed in the chaos, and Maria, Steven, some of the workers, and their children are the only survivors. It's vaguely more realistic, but depressingly cynical in its way, suggesting that there can't really be any peace without the complete destruction of the upper class- who, as mentioned, are shown as uniformly vile and bad people anyway. There aren't any words of mourning for the people killed in the cataclysm, and nobody stops to ponder that the elitists may have had children of their own. What was an attempt to be less naive comes across as instead being just a tad immature. But then I suppose it's hard to get a fully complex and ambiguous story from this material.

There's a CD of this, to which I've diligently linked, though the cost is just a bit insane even by music industry standards. I can't give a grade to this, having missed bits and pieces as explained above, but it's an interesting addition to the METROPOLIS legacy- and might make for a good revival if anyone wants to put up the money. (An Amazon review notes that a staging with a rewritten book may be on the way this year.)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

There Is No Trilogy, Part 3 of 3: The Matrix Revolutions

...And so everything ends. THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS managed to confound about as many viewers as the last installment, and I think I'm kinda fuzzy on it too. But it's also an improvement in some ways, and holds up better on a second viewing. The first time around I was distracted waiting for the resolution of the cliffhanger set up in the last shot of RELOADED, which takes a while, and I also didn't quite grasp a major plot point. I'm being vague here, and though I tried to be kind of non-spoilery with my last two reviews, that ends here. After the cut, everything's fair game. So here goes.

Neo is in a coma, his mind lost somewhere in the Matrix as a side-effect of making a bunch of Sentinels go kerploosh at the climax of the last movie. Morpheus and Trinity find out that he's in the hands of the Merovingian, trapped in a subroutine that shunts programs in and out of the Matrix. After some gunplay Trinity gets the Merovingian to set him free. Neo talks to the Oracle (now being played by Mary Alice- Gloria Foster died while the sequels were being shot) and learns more about his powers; he's connected to the Source (i.e. the machine mainframe), thus he's connected to all the machines. Neo decides to go to the Machine City and attempt to negotiate a peace with the enemy, contingent on his somehow stopping Smith, who is now taking over every other being in the Matrix and beginning to destabilize it. He and Trinity set out in a hovership to try and do this very thing, with Bane (Ian Bliss), a human possessed by Smith, sneaking on board. Meanwhile Morpheus tries to return with Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and others to Zion as the machines start to invade. A giant siege ensues, as Neo and Trinity encounter certain complications on their journey...

Most of this film is driven by the momentum of the previous ones. Zion is under attack, Smith's out of control, and boy do we need answers to... a lot. We get the payoff. The battle for Zion is one of the biggest, most elaborate battle setpieces ever, with lots of minor characters making bold stands and bloody sacrifices. It's quite effective, with a gritty feel straight out of an EC war comic, and some incredible visuals. The film overall is more action-oriented than RELOADED (or the original MATRIX for that matter), and it benefits from a zippier pace. I was glad just to see the story play out, having almost nothing more to build up.

But there is one major problem here. Amidst the melodramatics and the spectacle and even the ideas, a couple of things are left ambiguous. Smith is identified as the Architect's attempt to counterbalance the equation, but when Neo goes to the machines they're eager for something to be done about him and his disruption of the Matrix. Smith apparently went rogue because of the time he fused with Neo in the first film, but if that is the case then what was his purpose before? Was he simply meant to be the most powerful of the Agents, and if so, how was that going to be the counterbalance? And if he's gone beyond his role, why does he recall the final fight happening in all previous iterations (with the only difference being at the very end)?

The other loose end shows up in the ending itself. Neo sacrifices his virtual-and-real life to override all the Smith programs and set free the people he took over, with lots of glowy religious symbolism. At the end, the Matrix still exists, but the Architect tells the Oracle that "the ones who want out" will be freed. Unfortunately this is all the explanation we get. If the machines let EVERYBODY out, then the humans can't generate power (though this wasn't very feasible to start with, and in RELOADED the Architect says they've got a contingency plan if the Matrix crashes completely.) If they let out the people that discover the reality of the Matrix and want out- there's still the possibility of too many people leaving, and though it's an improvement over Agents trying to stalk and kill anyone trying to free the sleepers, it's not quite the triumph the viewer expected. These are the sorts of details that can be reasoned out or at least hypothesized, but would it have killed the Wachowskis to add a few more minutes to clarify things? (This is actually the shortest of the three films, so the omissions are particularly baffling.) There is a feeling that they didn't quite want this to be the end- Neo sacrifices himself, but Oracle says she's sure we'll see him again, and the Matrix and the Architect are still out there, so there are hooks for spin-offs galore. Basically this is a movie with a missing denouement.

That said, it works thematically. It's tradition for an epic good-and-evil struggle to end or be resolved in some way that reflects the basic nature of "good" and "evil" as the author sees it. Smith represents control, Neo freedom, and so Smith, and the Architect, are effectively confounded by the element of choice. Neo's power comes from his link to the machines he's fighting, and just as he added a rogue, defiant element to Smith, he is able to do the same for all his copies in his self sacrifice. The religious parallels aren't exactly subtle, but there's no reason they should be. Even if the mundane details are left up in the air, as it were, it still feels like the right conclusion.

One thing here that's kind of odd- not really a flaw, or a strength, just sort of there. There's a bit of "character drift" in the trilogy as a whole. The first movie was about Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus- of Morpheus' support staff, several get their heads unplugged unceremoniously, and three others just plain get shot. (Tank- Anthony Ray Parker- survives to the end, but a salary dispute got him killed off between movies.) In the second, a bunch of new characters are introduced, as is standard, but in the third, the ensemble comes apart- Morpheus goes off to Zion and basically doesn't do much for the second half of the movie, and Trinity gets killed in a strangely protracted scene. The focus starts to shift to characters like Niobe and Kid (Clayton Watson), and the last scene doesn't feature any of the main stars. Neo gets as much screen time as ever, but there's definitely a change.

So, that's the MATRIX trilogy, and I guess it holds up. The sequels have their problems (I will not get into Trinity's death scene), but they tell a good story about a rich and complex world, with a few interesting ideas. It may boil down to "freedom is better than control", which isn't the most profound sentiment in the world, but let's face it, in the movies, it's not what you say, it's how you say it.

Grade: B+
Grade for the trilogy as a whole: B+

Thursday, June 15, 2006

There Is No Trilogy, Part 2 of 3: The Matrix Reloaded

When we last left our heroes, Neo had ascended to become the One, Trinity had found love, Agent Smith was in several pieces and Morpheus was probably feeling a bit smug. THE MATRIX made more money than anyone expected, and so a trilogy was formed, the two sequels being shot back-to-back and released in 2003, THE MATRIX RELOADED in the summer, THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS in the fall. And since this is the second part of the essay series, you can guess which film I'm writing about.

Morpheus' ship returns to the free human city of Zion, hundreds of feet beneath the Earth's surface. The resistance has just learned that the machines are planning a direct assault on the city by digging straight down and sending a quarter-million Sentinels (the squiddy things) to destroy it. Neo, who's been having dreams where Trinity dies, talks with the Oracle, who sends Neo on a quest to find the "Source", the Matrix's mainframe computer. Meanwhile, Agent Smith is back, and being blown up from within by Neo has given him the ability to turn people- and other Agents- into copies of himself. He's also gone rogue, working for his own gain and steadily building up an army of duplicates.

He's not the only rogue program in the mix. Turns out the Oracle is one too, and in their quest Neo, Morpheus and Trinity run across a gang of seemingly supernatural creatures led by the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his wife(?) Persephone (Monica Belucci), who isn't actually that important to the movie except for the fact that she is Monica Belucci. It's an interesting new layer added to the conflict, and it's the nature of a trilogy to alter the nature of what's happening as it goes along.

People didn't think this one was as good as the first, and I sort of agree even though I still enjoyed it. It seems bloated and overextended in places, even though it's about the same as the first movie in terms of objective length. This is mostly due to the construction of certain scenes as elongated, elaborate setpieces, giving the production a vaguely lopsided feel. It's also not quite as gritty or intense as the original, at least for the first half- the Matrix isn't as ugly and hopeless a place to be trapped in, and there's not the same feeling of desperation on the part of the characters. The film also suffers from being virtually humorless, and I think Fishburne's performance is hurt by his character continually having to speechify- which he did in the first film, but not in such an abstract manner.

And there's the plot and philosophy, and the fact that the two have become pretty tightly intertwined. Morpheus believes in the prophecy, in Neo ending the war solely through the power of being the One, but others in Zion are much more concerned with the practical matter of defending the city and its people from the very tangible and real death machines burrowing down to kill them all. Last installment (linked here in case you found this page on its own), I talked a bit about how it was kinda interesting that, on the one hand, Neo and company are rebelling against control by the machines and Neo specifically says he doesn't like the idea of fate for that reason, but on the other hand, he is guided and influenced by the prophecies of the Oracle. The same conflict between freedom and fate occurs here, and is complicated when Neo discovers that he's part of a program, but a program that contains an element of choice (or so it seems.) One of the barriers to understanding the story is that so much of it is presented in abstract and philosophical terms- the concrete reality is tough to nail down. Heroic sagas generally have similar philosophical conflicts, but disguise them more adeptly, meaning the audience only has to follow the literal action. I think I got it this time around, but of course I can't display all my findings until seeing the next movie.

In the end, though, I like this. There are some great action sequences, like a battle between Neo and Smith's endless duplicates which quickly becomes an exercise in classic Hong Kong fight theatrics (complete with hordes of Smiths pouring from every open doorway), and a long but inventive freeway chase. In the end it does what the second act of an epic should do: get the characters in deeper trouble and tell us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. It opens up the world and starts the countdown to the climax. It could have done so a bit more smoothly and clearly, but at the end, I wanted to get to the next one. To paraphrase one of the characters from the movie, it did what it was supposed to do.

Grade: B

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

There Is No Trilogy, Part 1 of 3: The Matrix

Enough has been said about the Matrix movies, particularly the sequels, to make me kinda fuzzy on what I thought of them. I remember liking all three films to some extent, the first more so than the other two, but what happens when you read a hundred different opinions on something like this is you kinda forget what reasons you had for thinking the way you did. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, I decided to take another look and re-rent the entire trilogy, and go through it one movie at a time. I'll try and reign in the philosophical stuff a bit, that wasn't my major anyway. I will, however, be looking quite a bit at how the films now fit together as a whole and maybe compare that to how they stood apart.


Like the first STAR WARS movie, THE MATRIX was conceived as a complete stand-alone story, but with the doors left open for a larger trilogy. Seven years later, it plays like the first act of a classic heroic saga, combining the Campbellian journey of the protagonist (which I'd go into in more detail if I had the book with me) with the introduction of a very cool, very elaborate sci-fi setting. It's a superbly crafted movie, rich in conceptual and thematic detail while still working very well as a story.

The plot, you probably know. Keanu Reeves is a computer hacker going by the name of "Neo", who is contacted by a group of fellow cybercriminals led by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne.) Neo takes the red pill and wakes up in a hydraulic cocoon, and finds out with Morpheus' help that he was trapped, along with most of the human race, in the Matrix, a computer simulation designed by the machines that now rule the world to keep humanity in a trance while they use us for power. Morpheus believes Neo is "The One", a man who prophecy says will have the ability to defeat the machines and free mankind from enslavement. When hacked into the Matrix, Morpheus, Neo, Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and their fellow rebels can bend the rules of reality, perform seemingly superhuman feats, learn skills instantly and pull guns from nowhere, but the downside is, if they "get killed", they die in real life. And they're opposed by the Agents, ultrapowerful programs who take the form of men in business suits and sunglasses.

There's a lot I'm leaving out. Zion, Sentinels, the Oracle, "deja vu" as a glitch in the Matrix, the importance of non-cordless phones, etc. Everything's worked into the story well, feeding into what is a surprisingly coherent linear narrative. The drawback is that it does go on a bit, feeling just a little longer than it should. The climax, in particular, seems overextended, though this adds somewhat to the suspense of the ticking clock. That said, I can't blame the Wachowskis for wanting to throw in as much as they could. What's an epic science fiction story without tons of minutiae for the fans to obsess on?

The acting, for want of a better word, works. I wouldn't call it realistic- everyone's a bit too solemn and stentorian- but that's what the story calls for, and it adds a mythic dimension to the gritty, street-level visuals. Keanu Reeves is well-used, Fishburne comes across as the kind of actor who can do this stuff in his sleep, and Hugo Weaving makes Agent Smith a memorable villain with just the right combination of restraint and scenery-chewing. The action, as over the top as it is, has a good visceral punch.

Some interesting conceptual stuff this time around, which I'll bear in mind for the next two movies. Fate and whether or not it means anything is brought up again and again- on the one hand, the rebels want humanity to be free and make its own decisions, but they follow prophecies, one of which turns out not to be true, but does lead to a character making the right decision. So, there's fate, and there's guidance, and it's hard to say what's what. The phrase "Get up" is heard a few times by various rebels, telling themselves or others to keep resisting. Okay, that one's obvious. The whole "humans as batteries" thing is bad science (we take in more energy than we produce, like all high-on-the-food-chain organisms), but it's such a great image that I'll forgive it.

So, THE MATRIX holds up well. It's a rich, imaginative, and sufficiently non-brainless picture, full of neat ideas but not quite overstuffed. But there's not too much controversy about this one. Lots of people love it. I'm just glad to get the easy one out of the way. The real fireworks are coming up.

Grade: A-

Saturday, June 10, 2006

In Theaters: A Prairie Home Companion

Columbia's Missouri Theater recently held a series of screenings for this film to mark its opening, since Columbia native Ken LaZebnik co-wrote the story. This means I got to see the movie on a large screen in a big old theater much like that in the film itself, which was a nice touch. The film itself is my favorite of the year so far, which would mean a lot more if I had seen more than four movies so far, but this is still an outstanding piece of work.

NPR listeners will know the show this is based on, and recognize old favorites as soon as Guy Noir intones "A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets..." Guy (Kevin Kline), a hardboiled private eye, has taken a job as security guard at the Fitzgerald Theater, home of "A Prairie Home Companion". But the radio station and the theater have both been bought out by a sinister Texas conglomerate who are shutting the operation down, and tonight is the last show. Host "GK" (Garrison Keillor himself) isn't that bothered and goes on as normal, saying he treats every show as the last. So we get a somewhat typical episode, with joke-telling cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), and commercials for duct tape, coffee, Powdermilk Biscuits and Be-Bop-A-Re-Bop Rhubarb Pie. But there's finality in the air, and a bit of death. Noir spends the evening trying to figure out the secret of a mysterious woman in white (Virginia Madsen), while Yolanda's daughter Lola (Lindsey Lohan) writes poems about suicide and is forced to listen to the sisters' endless reminiscence on their own careers.

The film is about death and endings, but not in a terribly sad way. It adopts GK's own calm, Lutheran perspective, with an ambiguous perspective on the fullness of time and the inevitability of endings and beginnings. It's worth noting that the real "Prairie Home Companion" did end once, when Keillor married and moved to Norway, but returned when he moved back and now will apparently continue on until who knows when.

Altman directs in the style anyone who's seen more than one of his films should know by now, relying on improvisation and the dedication of his cast to create a rich and full experience the viewer can immerse themselves in. The performances here are so good that I can't pick out a single best turn, though I suspect a few Oscar nominations will hit random cast members. Harrelson and Reilly get the most laughs, Streep and Tomlin seem to speak in the common and at-times-impenetrable language of real siblings, Madsen has appeared in so many B-noir movies that she exudes genre from the moment she walks on screen, and Kline manages to make every single gesture a sign of awkardness. There's also L.Q. Jones as an aging singer, Maya Rudolph as a put-upon and very pregnant stage manager, some actual cast and crew from the show itself, and Tommy Lee Jones as a sinister axe man.

This is a lush and engrossing film, and if it doesn't show off the full wit and spark of the actual radio show, it represents an interesting fusion of Keillor's and Altman's sensibilities, and should more than satisfy fans of either or both. Watch for this one in your area.

Grade: A

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Comics: Top 10 DC Characters

So, The Great Curve challenged folks to name the Top 50 DC characters, and many bloggers offered up Top 10s, Top 50s, etc. I may be late to the meme-wagon, but it's a fun little experiment. These are my favorites, not meant to reflect popularity or influence or anything quantifiable like that- just the ones what I like.

1. Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle. Around the late 80s and early 90s my brother was into comics, and I picked up on the habit by osmosis. When he left for college I inherited the surviving collection, which included a huge number of issues of the Giffen/DeMatteis JUSTICE LEAGUE run. Ted Kord's Beetle- a geeky gadgeteer with a love of practical jokes and an occasional weight problem- was the heart and soul of the team, reflecting the series' lighthearted, sitcom-ish vibe. He is, perhaps, the most down-to-Earth and identifiable superhero that ever there was, at least to me. I could see myself in him. His recent death in COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS was a disappointment to me- I figured he was the one superhero who deserved to retire peacefully, maybe find a girl, pass on the mantle and live happily ever after. Then again, it's not like he's not going to come back.

2. Maxwell Lord. If Ted was the heart of the JL team, Maxwell Lord was the lynchpin. A sleazy deal-maker with just enough charisma to mask his lack of scruples, Lord not only became important to the basic concept of that book- providing the League with UN backing and trying to boost their public status- he was also a surprisingly complex and ambiguous figure. He was scummy, a bastard, willing to overlook ethics when he felt he needed to- but he wasn't all bad. As the series progressed he went in for a lot of self-examination, developing a conscience in fits and starts and willing to make sacrifices for the team. A lot of this was undone in the aforementioned COUNTDOWN, where he became a wholly evil black ops leader who had apparently been manipulating the League from the start to try and curb superhuman activity, and who was willing to execute good ol' Ted when he got in his way. For his troubles his neck was snapped by Wonder Woman. This is what retcons are for.

3. Amanda Waller. Max Lord's counterpart- a loud, tough, decidedly uncultured leader who is, in her way, highly principled and self-sacrificing, devoted entirely to the team. That team was at first the SUICIDE SQUAD as written by John Ostrander, a "Dirty Dozen"-style outfit consisting mostly of supervillains hoping for reduced sentences by doing the US government's dirty work. Waller is a unique figure in many ways- off-hand, one of the few overweight, not-terribly-attractive* black women I can think of in superhero comics (though one could argue it's a bit of a classic stereotype in itself)- and remains one of the best supporting characters in comics.

4. Oracle (Barbara Gordon.) She's a beautiful, brainy computer geek with glasses, red hair, and (presumably) an MLS degree. The leader of the BIRDS OF PREY, the former Batgirl, now wheelchair-bound, gathers information on superheroes, supervillains, the underworld and just about anything else and sends her operatives to dispense justice. The ultimate comic geek fantasy girl- and not a bad role model to boot.

5. Darkseid. Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" books were years ahead of their time, emphasizing the mythology of the superhero genre instead of crimefighting, and giving the DC Universe one of its best villains. With a stony visage and the solemn tones of a god (which he sort of is), Darkseid is one of those people who can plot the domination of the entire universe and mean it. He's convincing (and deadpan) enough in his villainy that no matter how many times Superman beats him up, he doesn't lose any of his menace.

6. Ralph Dibny (the Elongated Man) and Sue Dibny. The Nick and Nora Charles of the superhero set- super-snoops with a coy sense of humor, fitting nicely into JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE and countless obscure back-up stories. Ralph was, in his own words, "the stretchy guy who[m] nobody takes seriously", while Sue- lacking powers of her own, but with keen investigative skills- never acted like anything less than an equal to the superheroes she spent time with. Killed in 2004's IDENTITY CRISIS, Sue is already due for a resurrection (52 hints at the possibility of one, but I won't believe it until it happens)- the story ended up having little to do with her or anything she did, and it was a bit like seeing Daphne Moon or Diane Chambers fall prey to an axe murderer.

7. Superman. Say what you will- that he's a bit dull, a Boy Scout, a flag-waver- he's still the first, and the brightest, boldest, most iconic superhero ever. He's what we wish we could be, the powerful man who looks out for the little guy, a god with a sense of humility and humanity, a guy who's just out to do good, period. Every kid in the world knows him. And though there are challenges to writing good stories about a superpowerful alien in human form, it's always worth it when it works.

8. Bizarro. Him am worst villain ever! Him am unfunny, uninteresting looking and him way of speaking am absolutely not infectious! He backwards logic totally easy to understand and easy to write. Him am not also idea behind Bizarro World, least interesting place in the universe! Him only this high on the list because Bizarro-speak cannot ever get annoying!

9. Harley Quinn. Though created for the BATMAN animated series, the Joker's squeaky-voiced moll quickly found her way into the comics universe proper. And why not? The cutest and funniest of femme fatales, Harley's childlike goofiness masks her skill with violence and dirty tricks- still, she's best off paired with a more level-headed evildoer, as in Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's hilarious three-issue HARLEY & IVY miniseries (which I think has yet to be collected.)

10. Big Barda. Another Kirby Fourth World creation, the lover and soon-enough wife of escape artist Mister Miracle, and former leader of Apokolips' Female Furies. In some ways, Barda is the strongest of the DC Universe's female characters, both physically and psychologically; despite once being on the "bad" side, her morality has never been in question, nor has her willingness to kick whatever asses need kicking in the name of good. Kirby modeled the character on his own wife Roz, making the character a pillar of strength and the relationship between her and Miracle a portrait of absolute love.

*Your tastes may vary, of course.

So many just barely missed the cut. My apologies to Fire, Ice, Guy Gardner, Salaak, Black Canary, Zinda, Mary Marvel, Orion, the Forever People, the Goddamned Batman, and yes, Space Cabby.