Tag Archives: D+

THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS

The sense of disappointment most people felt in “The Matrix Reloaded” earlier this year is likely to deepen with this third installment in the Wachowski Brothers’ series, which now lands in theatres with a resounding thud. After the fun and freshness of the 1999 original–which (despite what its acolytes later alleged) treated its clever, if rather silly, premise with a sort of deadpan, tongue-in-cheek quality as well as considerable energy–the followup proved far too bloated and self-important, suggesting that the fraternal writer-directors had begun to believe all the fan hype and to take themselves (and their dime-store theorizing) much too seriously. In “The Matrix Revolutions” the slide into ponderous absurdity has accelerated even further. The picture is technically a slick piece of work, of course–impressive in the dark style familiar from the earlier episodes, though like its immediate predecessor it lacks the innovative visual fizz of the initial film (and it doesn’t boast any set-piece as spectacular as the highway battle in “Reloaded”). But from a narrative standpoint it’s the weakest part of the trilogy, a mixture of frantic but empty action and solemn, even more vacuous philosophizing that ends up simultaneously pretentious and puerile. By the close it’s become a kind of pompous joke, a two-hour equivalent of one of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts.

“Revolutions” begins where “Reloaded” left off, with Neo (Keanu Reeves) in a state of apparent suspended animation, though he’s actually trapped in a half-way station between the human and machine worlds controlled by a grubby chap called Trainman (Bruce Spence). Meanwhile Zion is about to come under massive attack. So Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) once again leave the sanctuary to seek advice from the Oracle (Mary Alice replacing the late Gloria Foster, with a barely intelligible explanation for the change). To free Neo from his limbo, the duo, aided by the Oracle’s right-hand man Seraph (Collin Chou), must secure his release from Trainman’s master, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson). Once liberated Neo traipses off to the Oracle too, who tells him that all will be settled through his confronting the rapidly-multiplying Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), Neo’s evil mirror image, who’s grown so powerful that his goal is now to destroy both human and machine worlds. So Zion’s motley population–including femme captain Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith) and homeboy Link (Harold Perrineau)–prepares to defend itself against the machine assault while Neo, accompanied by Trinity, takes Niobe’s ship on an apparently foolhardy journey to Machine City, where, it turns out, his goal is to bring an end to war by agreeing to battle Smith on behalf of both men and machines. On the way, though, he suffers great losses, some at the hands of Bane (Ian Bliss), who’s been possessed by Smith. Nonetheless he’s able to reach an agreement with the machine leader–a roiling, disembodied face that’s amusingly reminiscent of Zordon from the old “Power Rangers” series–and, restored to his sleek leather garb, engages in a final showdown with his nemesis.

The picture, which runs about two hours if one ignores the protracted closing crawls, falls into two parts of about an hour each. The first of them is very slow and talky. Though it boasts some periodic fight scenes, much of it–especially over the first half-hour–is devoted to laborious exposition, so solemnly intoned (and hopelessly muddled) that it will engender amazement of entirely the wrong sort. (Certainly no one who hasn’t seen the previous installments will be able to make heads or tails of this one.) Then at about the half-way point, the story divides into two rotating story threads–the one involving the noisy, chaotic, bullet-ridden defense of Zion, with lots of characters lifted from old World War II potboilers and the “Star Wars” franchise, and the other portraying the Neo-Trinity mission–slow, somber and filled with mystical twaddle and melodramatic self-sacrifice. Though they’re hardly at a high level to begin with, matters deteriorate as the plot drags on, with viewers likely to chortle over some of the howlers that crop up toward the close, expecting to be taken seriously. And when the big battle between Neo and Smith finally arrives, it goes on far too long, makes much less of an impression than the makers obviously intended, and finishes up with a twist that’s supposed to be illuminating but instead is just confusing–a “Huh?” moment.

In the last analysis “The Matrix Revolutions” is little more than a Tinkerbell movie–a story about a Chosen One who succeeds, finally, because other characters believe in him. Unfortunately, the audience never can: what sinks the picture is that it lacks all sense of wonder and never emotionally connects with us. That’s not merely the fault of the actors, though–to be sure–they’re either stolid and statuesque, ponderously reciting the ludicrous lines as though they were as pregnant with meaning as Holy Writ (Reeves, Fishburne, Moss, Alice), or brutally broad (the scenery-chewing Weaving, the leering Wilson and Spence, and all the stock Zion defenders who blast away at the millions of octopus-like “calamari” that invade their city). Rather it’s the result of Wachowskis’ inability to put any human feeling into the film. The entire “Matrix” trilogy is supposed to exalt free choice and the passion of man, but this final episode of the series is as cold, heartless and sterile as the villainous machines.

It’s taken “The Matrix” only three episodes to reach the level of turgid mediocrity that George Lucas didn’t succumb to until his second “Star Wars” trilogy. About the only thing one can be thankful for in “The Matrix Revolutions” is that Jar Jar Binks isn’t in it.

BEYOND BORDERS

It’s the bad luck of Martin Campbell’s ambitious saga to appear so soon after “In This World,” Michael Winterbottom’s brutally realistic, gritty account of the efforts of two Afghan refugees to make their way across Asia and Europe to enter England illegally. By concentrating on their story, it personalized, in a remarkably powerful and compelling way, the plight of Third World people in circumstances of devastating want and deprivation. “Beyond Borders” is also set against a backdrop of human misery in world trouble spots–specifically Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya–but uses the locales merely as an excuse to present an old-fashioned love story between two westerners who devote their lives to aiding the unfortunate masses racked by war, pestilence and famine. To build what amounts to an elaborate soap opera on such a foundation seems crass and meretricious after the white-hot idealism of the earlier film. Winterbottom’s passion to make us sense the desperation of characters seemingly far removed from us has been replaced by a glitzy effort to interest us in the passion of a couple of privileged do-gooders who sublimate their reluctant attraction for one another in service to the less fortunate. The glossiness of the result, ironically, makes it feel all the more tawdry.

The focus of Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s script is Sarah Jordan (Angelina Jolie), an American woman married to Henry Bauford (Linus Roache), the well-to-do son of a British gent (Timothy West) who heads up a fund-raising group. We’re introduced to her in the mid-eighties, when idealistic doctor Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) crashes one of their benefit soirees to berate the foundation for cutting off support for his Ethiopian camp because of the country’s communist ties. Though Jolie’s stiff, inexpressive face registers little, Sarah responds by spending her savings on supplies for the camp and taking them there herself. Her time in Ethiopia has some affecting moments–particularly those centering on an emaciated child whom she rescues in a spurt of western maternalism–but most of the episode (like her playing–badly, one should note–the Traumerei from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” on an old piano she finds there) is arch and affected, and the chemistry between the two stars is virtually nil. Skip ahead a half-decade and Sarah is a U.N. relief agent, approached by Callahan’s good-natured, diplomatic partner Elliott (Noah Emmerich) to sponsor a shipment of supplies for a camp the good doctor is now running in war-torn Cambodia. She agrees and accompanies the goods there, whereupon the group gets caught in the fighting between the Vietnamese-affiliated government and Khymer Rouge guerillas. (There’s a brutal confrontation with a government officer, followed by an even worse one with a vicious Khymer leader who threatens a darling baby with a hand grenade.) Six years later we find Sarah pining for Nick from afar, and deciding to go find him after he disappears in Chechnya. Her involvement with the rebels who are holding him captive leads to tragedy, but also (due to a twist that proves the intensity of feeling between them) a sort of rebirth.

One can imagine this scenario serving as the basis for an overripe TV miniseries, if the networks were still making such things, and in its way the picture also resembles the sort of glossy women’s flick that Ross Hunter used to produce for Lana Turner. It’s certainly been handsomely mounted and is well photographed by Phil Meheux. But it’s as haltingly directed as Hunter’s films ever were, Jolie is as stilted as a latter-day Turner, and Owen, who was so quietly intense in “Croupier,” is encouraged to overemote here to an alarming degree. (In his defense, however, one has to point out that Dr. Callahan is drawn as such a hot-tempered, self-righteous loose cannon that it would be impossible to make him either credible or sympathetic.) The supporting cast is pretty unimpressive across the board, too, with Roache and Emmerich barely getting by and Teri Polo and Yorick Van Wageningen going for the broadest strokes as Sarah’s journalist sister and a shady CIA operative, respectively.

In fact, the only way in which “Beyond Borders” works at all is as a mini fashion-show. (The same was often true of the Hunter efforts.) Miss Jolie models an elegant ball gown in the first reel, and then dons a flowing white outfit that looks great against the Ethiopian desert. (Remember how beautiful Lawrence of Arabia’s snowy tunic appeared in a similar environment?) Her clothes in the Cambodian segment are less memorable, though what appears to be a dark pants suit catches the eye; but the black trousers and coat she dons for the Chechnya trip certainly set off her slim (even vaguely anorexic) figure, even if the little Russian fur cap she wears comes across as a bit absurd.

But one can admire–or analyze–the costume design only so long; the fun soon pales. This slickly superficial epic ultimately degrades the important subject it cavalierly employs as mere background matter for its centerpiece romance. In dealing with life-and-death issues “Beyond Borders” never goes beneath the surface, and so is pretty much beyond redemption.