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Posts Tagged ‘The Wachowski Brothers’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 23rd 2006: 

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that once knew someone wanted by the police for non-payment of poll tax. Yes indeed, we lived high and wild back in the old days! And there’s more civil disobedience of various kinds in this week’s movie: James McTeigue’s belated and controversial film adaptation of V for Vendetta, a legendary graphic novel created by artist David Lloyd and a writer of surpassing genius who has declined to be associated with the film in any capacity — a wish I feel obliged to honour. Set in a fascist London, not too many years hence, this is the story of V (voiced by Hugo Weaving), a man transformed into a living avatar of vengeance and anarchy by government-sanctioned drugs tests. Styling himself as a modern Guy Fawkes, with his true face hidden from the world, V is finally ready to set his masterplan in motion, but finds his path crossed by Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a young woman working in TV. V saves Evey from the secret police after she’s caught out after the curfew and takes her along as he cheerfully blows up the Old Bailey, his calling card to the world. A strange bond begins to form between them even as V reveals his ultimate objective: to destroy the government, an act that will be symbolised by his blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Can he succeed where his predecessor failed?

This is a movie that’s had some rather mixed reviews — and that’s probably putting it a mite charitably. To be honest, V for Vendetta is a film that doesn’t easily fit into a neat category. Is it a political thriller? Is it a darkly comic satire? Is it a drama? Or is it just another knuckle-headed comic book adaptation? Well, it isn’t really any of them (and especially not the last one — but then, the original strip was never remotely knuckle-headed either). But I have to say I was impressed by it. It’s a bit difficult to say whether a familiarity with the source material is necessary to fully ‘get’ where the film is coming from, although I suspect many purists will be utterly horrified by some of the changes made to the story (and indeed, He Who Shall Not Be Named was loudly and publically scornful when the Wachowski brothers ran one version of their screenplay past him). That said, many right-thinking people will no doubt also be utterly horrified by a movie which openly aligns itself with a ruthless and deranged terrorist and deals with topics like Islamophobia, suicide bombings, blanket public surveillance and police shootings of innocents in a fairly no-holds-barred fashion.

One quietly impressive aspect to this movie is how much of the essential Britishness of the story remains, with a plot that revolves around the use of British landmarks and folklore (a brief primer on Guy Fawkes forms a prologue for those who don’t know the story), with the US barely mentioned. Admittedly, in parts this is an as-seen-by-Americans kind of British, where the definitively British swearyword is… er… an anagram of ‘sloblock’ and people eat exotic breakfasts like ‘eggy in a basket’ (no, me neither). The script’s faithfulness to the original text also leads it astray at one point – the story has been shifted into the future, resulting in one character talking about how they took their 11 Plus exam in 1996, which is obviously sloblock but an understandable goof [Or so I thought. Suffice to say, you would not believe the length of the debate this sentence provoked – A].

The Wachowskis’ script is generally quite good. Well, there’s an alarmingly arbitrary area of appalling alliteration near the start and a tendency towards rather pedestrian dialogue in the new sections, but most of the wit and the heart of the book survives, if not all of the brain – some of the subtleties and ambiguities are excised (V’s background is presented very straightforwardly, for example). They’ve done a good job in paring back a long and densely written work while keeping all the most memorable sequences more or less intact, if perhaps a little rearranged. It’s not quite perfect: moving the story from a post-nuclear 1998 to a post-viral 2026 requires a bit of creative stitching and the joins show (plus this involves a sequence where V appears to disguise himself as He Who Shall Not Be Named, a bizarrely obscure and no doubt unwanted little homage). More seriously, not only is the end quite a bit different, but it also includes a rather egregious sequence where V declares his love for Evey (yeah, a bit of a spoiler there, sorry). Thankfully, by this point it’s not quite enough to derail things.

As you would expect, Hugo Weaving gives a tremendous vocal performance as V (quite how much, if any, of James Purefoy’s original physical performance in the costume has survived I’ve no idea), coping with some dodgy dialogue with aplomb (apart from the stuff mentioned already, one monologue where V rants about how this twisted future came about is so hackneyed and overfamiliar in its politics that I almost expected V to rip off his mask and reveal a lipo-sucked Michael Moore underneath). Natalie Portman is also good, albeit with a slightly peculiar accent. The supporting roles are filled with very reliable British and Irish thesps, with Stephen Rea excellent as a world-weary copper. The real surprise package is the fourth-billed Stephen Fry, who — while admittedly nearly playing himself — is terrific, hopefully reminding everyone of what a classy and talented serious actor he can be when not holidaying at short notice in Bruge.

Those who know the team behind V for Vendetta solely from the Matrix trilogy will probably be a little disappointed by the lack of action in this movie, and to be fair it is a little simplistic in its advocacy of the politics of violent rebellion. One of the quirks of the original book was that — due to a delay in its original production — a story originally predicated on the impending defeat of Margaret Thatcher at the end of her first term in office (this really did look likely, prior to the Falklands War) eventually became an incensed polemic against Thatcher’s government during its late-1980s zenith. You can say what you like about the current lot but they’re not quite that bad (yet, at least) and so some of the anger seems targetless here. But there’s a real spirit of righteous fury in this film, even if it sometimes seems a little unsure as to who it’s furious with and why. The end result is often moving, thought-provoking and exhilarating, if never quite all three at the same time.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 6th 2003:

Deadlines are unforgiving beasts, and can occasionally force one to thrust an opinion out into the world without, perhaps, giving it the due consideration it deserves. Certainly I have experienced the odd qualm over the past five-and-a-bit months about my declaration that the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded was a contender for film of the year. [And that’s understating it a bit – A] But even so I will happily maintain that it’s a very solid, ambitious and thoughtful blockbuster, with far more substance to it than almost any of the summer’s other big movies.

And the tradition is maintained, in a way, by the concluding instalment of the trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, which has just hit cinemas. Things looked rough for our cassock-clad crusader and his cyber spatial chums when last we saw them: a machine armada was mere hours away from breaking into the human city of Zion, and Neo had just learned his power as the One was simply another element of the machines’ control systems – but also discovered a hitherto-unsuspected ability to influence the (so-called) real world…

Well, it turns out that while his body’s in a coma, Neo’s mind has been banished to a realm beyond the Matrix under the control of the Trainman (Bruce Spence, soon to be seen in Return of the King, and not-quite-so-soon to be seen in the final Star Wars movie – do you sense a pattern developing?), an employee of the Merovingian. After seeking help from a regenerated Oracle (Mary Alice, replacing the late Gloria Foster – a piece of forced recasting the film just about accommodates), Morpheus, Trinity, and Seraph (Collin Chou) set off to rescue him, with the twin threats of the machine strike force and the insane Agent Smiths still looming over them…

Fans of the series will – well, they’ll all have seen it already, so I’m wasting my breath – will have been glad to learn that this is a much pacier, grittier and more straightforward movie than its immediate predecessor, having a bit more in common with the original. Even so, the start of Revolutions suggests we’re in for another mixture of computer-enhanced kung fu and an NVQ in philosophy, the Big Theme this time around – notebooks out, everyone – being Love (Richard Curtis may well sue for demarcation). But after a while the film changes both gear and tone, becoming a much more straightforward SF action-adventure, with very few scenes actually set within the Matrix itself.

This is one of a number of laudably brave choices from the Wachowski’s and one which, for me at least, pays dividends. There are still many eye-popping moments and action sequences, the standouts being a gravity-warping sequel to the original’s lobby scene and a crunchingly unballetic real-world brawl to the death. But the film’s big set piece is the assault on Zion’s docking bay by hundreds of thousands of Sentinels, and the desperate defence by the city’s people. It’s a lengthy, dazzling, special-effects blow-out that bears comparison with similar sequences in both Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the original Star Wars trilogy – and those who know me will know I can think of no higher praise than that.

The cast work wonders in managing to be more than just cyphers standing in front of bluescreen with all this going on around them. The four leads are as solid as ever, even if there’s once again relatively little Hugo Weaving this time round (though we are treated to a sly impersonation by Ian Bliss, the actor playing his human host). Collin Chou gets a beefed-up part, but alas Lambert Wilson and especially Monica Belluci may as well have not turned up for all the material they get. Mary Alice, in a very tough role, performs rather creditably, recalling Gloria Foster without being an outright copy.

With all this good stuff going on, then, I’m sorry to have to say that the bottom line is that The Matrix Revolutions is actually quite disappointing. This is solely because the script skimps unforgivably when it comes to the final stages of the story, which seem underdeveloped and unclear. There are quite simply too many unanswered questions at the end, which rob the climax of much of the power it deserves. (And, depressingly, the door is subtly but clearly left ajar for another instalment should the principals’ finances dictate it at some point in the future). I’m loath to say more, because this is still a breathlessly enjoyable adventure and a conclusion, of sorts, to the story. But the fact remains that it’s only as a visual-effects spectacle that The Matrix Revolutions is truly satisfying.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 22nd 2003: 

It has become something of a cliché, but nevertheless a true one, that no-one saw the original Matrix coming. In the summer of 1999 the imagination of the cinema going world had been seduced with the promise of duelling Jedi, droid armies on the march, and the rebirth of the Star Wars legend – and so the impact of the Wachowski brothers’ vision was only accentuated, coming out of nowhere as it did.

This time round things are different. Only a select few films of recent years have been so keenly anticipated as the follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded. This time everyone is watching (the most dedicated through ray-bans). We’ve been here before, of course, and while sometimes our hopes have been transcended, more often we have known the taste of bitter disappointment. So, what’s it to be this time – another breathtaking Two Towers, or a grim revisitation of Attack of the Clones?

Well, readers, cutting to the chase, and adopting the Keanu Reeves idiom, the answer is this: Whoah. In every way, and in the best possible way, The Matrix Reloaded is a mind-boggling experience, and a near-total success.

Six months have passed since Neo (Reeves) discovered his powers as the One, in which time he and the other human warriors have freed many more minds from slavery in the Matrix. But all he, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) have achieved is threatened when it is discovered that the machines have launched a last-ditch attempt to eradicate the free city of Zion, which will be destroyed in a matter of days if the assault is not stopped. Their quest takes them in search of the Keymaker, the only being who can give Neo access to the machine mainframe. Unfortunately, Neo’s old adversary Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) has acquired unusual new abilities of his own and is determined to get his revenge…

The success of the original Matrix rested upon several things: its unique visual style and startling innovations in effects technology, its wholesale appropriation of the energy and grace of Hong Kong cinema, and its willingness to couple both these things to a script that wasn’t afraid to be cerebral and explore quite complex philosophical concepts.

Well, this potent mixture of pizzazz, pistols, and epistemology is once again at the heart of the film. But there are new elements, too – after a few appetising pieces of action, the Wachowski’s unexpectedly – and probably wisely – take some time to explore new areas of their story and add texture to the existing ones, while establishing’s Reloaded’s themes – control, destiny, choice, and belief. So we see Zion, and the effect Neo’s omnipotence has had both on him and on the people around him. (Several plot elements that will only really come to fruition in Revolutions are also established ). The true nature of the Oracle (the late Gloria Roberts) is also revealed, something which in itself opens up new possibilities.

With things thus set up, the film proceeds to let rip with a succession of the most dazzling set-pieces ever committed to celluloid. The Office Lobby scene from the original Matrix is already legendary – very soon it will be joined by an astonishing sequence in which Neo does battle with a hundred clones of Agent Smith, plus the freeway chase, the fight in the Chateau – the list goes on and on. The special effects throughout are immaculate, but your jaw will sag open only momentarily before you are caught up again in the action.

And when the adrenaline ceases to pump, your brow will furrow as the second part of Reloaded’s formidable one-two punch hits home. If the original was a crash-course in philosophy, this is the Master’s Degree. It doesn’t detract from the story, but the ideas and concepts inherent within it are, well, challenging. Is there such a thing as true freedom? Can we ever really have a choice? Are our lives ruled by fate? Reloaded steps up to tackle all these issues and does so pretty well (although the film can be obtuse and portentous in places). It all builds up to the truly startling revelation of the source of Neo’s powers and the true history of both the Matrix and the real world.

Just so things don’t get too heavy, though, there’s a lot more humour here than there was first time round. Of course, much of this comes from Hugo Weaving’s performance as the increasingly exasperated Smith and the interaction between his various clones (that said, he doesn’t have that much screen time this time round). But there’s also a crowd-pleasing turn from Harold Perrineau as the new Operator, Link, and a very ripe and arch performance by Lambert Wilson, playing a bizarre French computer program Neo and his friends must contend with.

If Reloaded has a flaw it’s that it suffers a little from middle-episode syndrome, plunging into an ongoing story so rapidly that it takes the viewer a short while to get up to speed on what’s happening. This may have something to do with the way the film links into the animated prequel Flight of the Osiris – but then again, even Lord of the Rings has had a touch of this complaint. The end is also not entirely satisfying, opting to conclude not with any sense of closure but a giant cliff-hanger for November’s The Matrix Revolutions (a trailer for which follows the film, and it’s well worth a look unless you have to dash off to catch a bus or something).

What The Matrix Reloaded lacks in novelty value and mystery it more than makes up for in depth, diversity, energy, and sheer gob smack value (both visually and intellectually). Whether this standard can be maintained for the concluding instalment is something we’ll have to wait and see, but for now one thing is certain: we have a strong contender here for film of the year.

[Is it worth mentioning I wrote this thing only a couple of hours after watching the movie? In any case I hope readers appreciate my resisting the temptation to judiciously rewrite this to make myself sound less stupid. Hey ho. – A]

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