Whenever a highly anticipated action movie like The Matrix Reloaded arrives, most moviegoers have the same question on their minds: Is it as good as the hype?
But beyond that, discerning viewers have other questions on their minds: Is there more than just entertainment on the screen? Is there anything worthy of praise? Is the experience edifying or challenging? Does it offer us glimpses of truth or cleverly packaged lies?
Parents add even more questions to the mix: Is the movie safe for my kids? Should I let them sit with their friends, or should I be sitting next to them?
Regarding The Matrix Reloaded, critics will give you different answers to the first question. Some are thrilled, but others feel it is not quite what the hype promised.
Reloaded takes the most notable aspects of the first film and super-sizes them. There are more awe-inspiring visuals, more stylish and thrilling kung fu, more superhuman and CGI-enhanced feats, and more brain-bending ideas about reality, illusion, freewill, and determinism. But in my opinion, these excesses should qualify Reloaded for an "Oversized Load" sticker. The philosophical riddling becomes too talky and convoluted. The awe-inspiring fight scenes run too long, are more Sega than saga, and deliver few surprises and zero suspense. And the movie carries us along at such a rapid pace that we fail to develop a sympathetic connection with any of the major characters the way we did in the first film. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)
Kid-safe? Absolutely not. This is science fiction for grownups. And even discerning adults will have to filter carefully what they see and hear. As filmmakers, the Wachowski Brothers are too quick to indulge the baser appetites of the audience. The violence is harsh, excessive, and often completely unnecessary. A scene set in the city of Zion shows the masses preparing to face an advancing enemy by indulging in a dirty-dancing marathon (gee, you'd think they'd want to load their weapons, pray, or do some stretches). The scene is intercut by an unnecessary and explicit sex scene between the hero and heroine.
It is a shame. There are so many metaphors that ring true in the Matrix's metaphysical stew. From its inklings of the world's need for a Messiah to its compelling portrait of a world blind to its own enslavement, this is a saga rich with storytelling opportunity. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' preoccupation with action and heavy speeches distract us from the metaphors. Rather than finding a engaging fusion of action, ideas, and storytelling (as Bryan Singer did with X2: X-Men United), the Wachowski Brothers give us an unbalanced, schizophrenic hodgepodge that satisfies only in wowing us with special effects.
Several religious press critics share similar sentiments. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "It is amazing to watch the technological prowess of the filmmakers. It is just too bad that the Wachowski brothers choose to move the story sideways instead of forward. We learn nothing new about most of the old characters. Perhaps further revelations will come in the final sequel that will tie things together, but at the end of the second film, there are a number of unexplained loose ends that make for a frustrating viewing experience."
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) shares that frustration. The film delivers, in eye candy, he says, but it's not enough. "While the Wachowskis have made their world more complicated, they haven't made it more interesting. The sense of urgency, danger, or even plot relevance to the fight scenes is lacking."
He adds, "The movie undermines its own clumsy attempts to suggest that 'everything starts with choice' with plot-level revelations that, based on what we know from the first film, make even the most fundamentally human choices—even love itself—inescapably deterministic."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "The film's glamorized violence—earning it a well-deserved R rating—overshadows an otherwise intriguing premise. And while the high-octane sequel leaves the eye-popping visuals of its predecessor in the dust—no mean feat—it breaks no new ground story-wise. While the filmmakers have crammed their film with clever Christian motifs and mythological allusions, the metaphysical mulligan stew serves to obfuscate the overstuffed and at times incoherent plot rather than affect any real philosophical musing."
Steven Isaac and Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agree: "Reloaded does very little to further the plot of The Matrix. At the end of the first film, Zionites face extinction by the machines and pray that Neo can save them. At the end of the second, Zionites face extinction by the machines and pray that Neo can save them." They conclude, "Reloaded isn't as much a story as a glorified video game. At each stage, heroes fight off attackers in order to finish that level and proceed to the next one."
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) says the film "roars on the screen like a juggernaut, with both the visual power to stun the senses and the philosophical underpinning to tantalize the intellect." But he too is bothered by "too much exposition [and] … all kinds of speeches … that make the movie drag at the beginning."
Rather than exploring the film's strengths and weaknesses, Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) shares how the film gave him some insight into his own life. He finds Neo's dilemma—to save his endangered beloved or to save the threatened masses of Zion—to be a picture of his own struggle between the requirements of intimacy and the demands of following Christ's call to give up everything to serve others everywhere.
Brian Shipman (Relevant) focuses on the theme and its echoes of the gospel. He writes, "If The Matrix was about freedom, then The Matrix Reloaded is about purpose and choice. The plot progresses powerfully, and there's a few jaw-dropping surprises and twists that will change a lot about what you assumed in episode one." Shipman praises both the special effects and the dialogue: "Like its predecessor, this movie thinks before it speaks. No matter how much you listen, there's always something new and deeper."
Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "a disappointing, derivative sequel, not only on an aesthetic level, but also on a moral, philosophical, and spiritual level as well. Most disappointing of all … is the movie's failure to create a convincing portrayal of Zion, the last human city. There is no depth or character, much less variety, to this one-dimensional city's culture, which leaves one to ask the question: Why is this city worth saving?"
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says she "enjoyed this movie more than the first one." But she shares the prevalent concern about the film's potentially damaging effects on younger viewers. "It's up to parents to be discerning for their children—no matter how old they are. What might make a lasting impression is if parents see this movie with their mature teenagers and afterwards discuss the deeper meaning of this movie."
The Phantom Tollbooth offers no fewer than three critics' reviews of the film. Marie Asner says it doesn't go anywhere: "There is a fine line between action and dialogue, and this film crosses over into maxi-action and mini-words. Perhaps the last film, Matrix: Revolution will explain everything, but right now I am beginning to doubt it."
Gareth Von Kallenbach calls it a misfire: "What I saw was a film that had some nice effects that quickly became boring as the setup … and the plot lacked cohesion."
But J. Robert Parks says the negative reports are overblown. "Is Reloaded a better movie than the original? Probably not. And there are certainly some glaring weaknesses. But the good parts are very, very good, and those are the parts that most moviegoers want to see anyway. If you don't take it too seriously, if you don't get caught up in the expectations game, you're going to have a fine time. Ignore the critics. Free your mind."
Reloaded ends with the words "To be concluded." There are loose ends everywhere you look. The Wachowskis have a lot to resolve in The Matrix Revolutions, which opens in November. You can bet the debates, interpretations, and assessments of this saga's significance will continue with renewed vigor at that time.
Down with Love dabbles in Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedy stylings
Wrapped up in a retro-makeover and Technicolor costumes, Renee Zellweger follows up her acclaimed Chicago performance with a witty, endearing turn in director Peyton Reed's over-decorated trifle Down with Love. Sending up the popular '60s sex comedies of Rock Hudson and Doris Day (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back), the film sets up a formulaic battle of the sexes. But its plot is clearly secondary; the filmmakers are much more interested in giddily exaggerating and celebrating genre conventions.
The movie follows the rising fame of Barbara Novack (Zellweger), the outspoken author of a book titled Down with Love. Novack's book is an aggressive exhortation for women to behave like foolish men, teaching them to win power and influence by pursuing sex for merely carnal purposes, as many Manhattan playboys do. The book becomes a bestseller. Women embrace it, enraging their neglectful husbands and lovers by becoming promiscuous and self-centered. Men, choking on a taste of their own medicine, get mad. A hero will rise, and the champion of this disgruntled male population turns out to be a ruthless investigative reporter named Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor). Armed with a playboy's caddish charm, fortune, and good looks, Block sets out to prove Novack is a fraud.
The resulting caper is as light, cheap, and ultimately as insubstantial as cotton candy. It has no further ambitions than to clown around with romantic comedy conventions. And yet, it inadvertently strikes some resonant chords.
Some viewers may object to the film because they, like the men in the film, are offended by promiscuous characters. But the film seems to acknowledge that Novack's ideas are flawed, even if they are popular. The character who wins the greatest support from the audience is Block's best friend, Peter McMannus (David Hyde Pierce), an insecure buffoon smitten with Vikki, Novack's literary agent (Sarah Paulson). To his credit, McMannus finds the complexities of modern romantic maneuvering completely beyond his grasp. He utterly fails to dress up his simple adoration in a disguise of lies and egocentrism.
The film deserves applause for other reasons as well. It has been a while since a comedy has delivered such a heavy dose of old-fashioned wordplay. And the actors relish the opportunity to sink their teeth into such comical banter. The actors (McGregor especially) do better work than the film deserves. The combination of their whole-hearted performances and the enthusiastic work of the set designers and costumers help the film's virtues match its weaknesses.
Despite its stumbles into inappropriate humor, the story's morals remain true. Sex divorced from its appropriate context is empty and leads to no end of trouble. Honesty is always the best policy. And the best relationships are those in which each partner is faithful, honors his or her beloved with respect and honesty, and refrains from self-centeredness. Some interpret the film as a parable of radical feminism. But it seems to me the film shows the flaws of anyone who will stoop to cheapening their behavior in the name of equality. Instead, the irresponsible fool is provoked to realize that his charade of virtue is actually pointing him in the right direction.
Still, before you buy a ticket, please consider whether you want to expose yourself to the film's unfortunate reliance on double entendre and sex-oriented sight gags. Comedies that deal with concealed identities and even more cleverly concealed agendas at their best echo Shakespeare. At their worst they recall Saturday Night Live. This one relies far too heavily on the latter.
Other religious press critics debate the ups and downs of the movie.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says McGregor and Zellweger "give a pair of breezy performances that are fun to watch. The sexual innuendoes may be a bit more overt, but Down With Love still has the look and style of a film that easily could have been made forty years ago. At the same time, the film keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) is displeased. "While there's still much to be said about the misogynistic treatment of women common in a male-dominated society, the film endorses a fatuous philosophy of liberation, dressed up in modish catch phrases and vintage couture and passed off as harmless humor. The message viewers are left with falls far short of love conquers all."
Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) cautions families to keep their kids away from the film's abundant innuendoes.
Lisa A. Rice (Movieguide) says it "has a few strong points, including good casting, great music and art direction, and incredible scenery. The biggest problem, however, is found in the movie's feminist worldview. Though portrayed with silliness and humor, the movie assumes that women find love and marriage repressive and confining and that they're all looking for satisfaction in work. Though several viewpoints are batted around, the movie ends with a dissatisfying, slightly confusing combination of traditional and feminist worldviews."
Mainstream critics are divided over whether the film has enough substance to make it worthwhile. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) concludes, "Down With Love is no better or worse than the movies that inspired it, but that is a compliment, I think. It recalls a time when society had more rigid rules for the genders, and thus more adventure in transcending them. And it relishes the big scene where a hypocrite gets his comeuppance. The very concept of comeuppance is obsolete in these permissive modern times, when few movie characters have a sense of shame and behavior is justified in terms of pure selfishness." Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "There's enough going on in the busy, glowing, Technicolor-stylized surfaces to help you forget about your troubles for nearly two hours, and to ignore the movie's obvious shortcomings."
Predictable Daddy Day Care preaches virtues of fatherhood
Eddie Murphy is winning compliments from religious press critics for Daddy Day Care, a family comedy in which he plays a man driven by necessity to open a childcare service. While mainstream critics are bemoaning the film as lacking in creativity or quality filmmaking, many Christian critics approve of its positive portrayal of fatherhood and positive message.
David Dicerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though the fish-out-of-water plot is mired by a schmaltzy ending … director Steve Carr's film is buoyed by its heartwarming—albeit heavy-handed—affirmation of fatherhood."
Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "Daddy Day Care is quite possibly the cleanest movie Eddie Murphy has ever made. It also drives home a number of worthwhile points. The actions of the dynamic (and very male) day care duo provide a pep talk for hands-off dads everywhere."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "There's an undeniable sweetness to the film, as well as a surprising emotional depth to the relationships formed between the characters. Murphy connects with the children and they with him. … Even though the end is overly predictable, the ride is a family-friendly enjoyable romp."
Movieguide's critic calls it "nearly perfectly wholesome."
A thief and a poet switch places in Man on the Train
A few years ago, director Patrice Leconte won raves for Girl on the Bridge, the tale of two unusual characters—a desperate and devastated young woman and a grizzled, world-weary knife-thrower—who met each other by chance, bringing new opportunity and excitement to otherwise troubled lives. In the beautiful redemption parable The Widow of St. Pierre, a military officer's wife took pity on a convicted killer, and what seemed a case of difficult justice led to a relationship of grace and tragedy.
A chance meeting between aging professionals starts the wheels turning in Patrice Leconte's new film, Man on the Train. When a bank robber named Milan slips into a quiet French town eager to score some cash, he finds instead an unlikely friend in Manesquier, a retired poetry teacher. They meet because one of them has purchased the local drug store's last bottle of aspirin, but both of them are in need of some pain relief. This is only the first of many small details that reveal deeper truths.
The rest of the film is a brilliant demonstration of subtle and revealing characterization, as the odd couple tosses around the idea of trading places for a while. The great Jean Rochefort (The Hairdresser's Husband, Lost in La Mancha) plays Manesquier like an affable old hound dog who dreams of running and hunting under the night sky. For years he has been an expert on the finer points of poetry. Now, he has a pistol in his hand and Milan teaches him to shoot.
Johnny Hallyday, whose music career has earned him the nickname "the French Elvis", plays the thief as a grizzled and battle-scarred old wolf, staring at the world with cold blue eyes, silent and yet fiercely attentive. What he lacks in human kindness he makes up for in curt, keen, sometimes painful observations about human nature.
Anyone who appreciates good acting will find Man on the Train immensely satisfying. You get the feeling you are watching the adaptation of a classic novel. There are moments of deep sadness and regret, flashes of discovery and joy, and intriguing What if? questions throughout the film. Most of us have wondered what it would be like to walk away from our baggage-heavy identities and begin a new life. But the film is not so much about abandoning responsibilities as it is the desire to live life more fully. It's worth seeing—for many, more than once.
Next week:The In-Laws, Bruce Almighty and more.
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