Friday, December 17, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Dec. 10-16

Archer, season 1 (2010) ***½
Creators: Adam Reed, Matt Thompson
Starring: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash

“Archer” is exactly the espionage spoof series you’d expect to see from the creators of such Adult Swim animated series’ as “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo”.  I’m a huge fan of the absurd humor of those shows. Reed and Thompson haven’t missed a beat with this series produced for FX. If anything “Archer” is the most straightforward spoof of the bunch, with most of the humor revolving around the lead character’s arrogance and inter-office sexual relations. The creators’ still throw a great deal of their absurd brand of humor into the mix, but if there were a good jumping in point for this adult brand of animation comedy, this would very a great place for the uninitiated to start.

The Matrix (1999) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Gloria Foster

As everyone knows, the Christmas season is the perfect time to watch “The Matrix”. There’s a great book called “The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix” that spells it all out for those of you who may be unaware of all the Christian themes (among others) explored in the popular sci-fi trilogy from almost a decade ago. Now, it’s not my intent to spew a bunch of dogma here, but while some people might not be able to get into the epics “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or “Jesus of Nazareth”, they might be more willing to explore the Christian reason for the season through the bullets and latex of the Matrix universe. The Wachowskis lay it on pretty think if you’re paying attention. If not, it’s still a cool action movie. Although I will admit, for the first time, I began to see a little dating in the filmmaking techniques.

The Animatrix (2003) ***½
Directors: Andy Jones, Mahiro Maeda, Shinichirô Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike, Koji Morimoto, Peter Chung
Writers: The Wachowski Brothers, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Shinichirô Watanabe, Peter Chung
Starring: Kevin Michael Richards, Pamela Adlon, Michael Watson, Hedy Burress, Julia Fletcher, Melinda Clarke, Phil LaMarr, Victor Williams, James Arnold Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss

The parallels between the “Matrix” trilogy and the “Star Wars” franchise are fairly obvious, but I couldn’t help but notice how much the “awakened” in the “Matrix” films are like Jedi Knights. This is most obvious I think in “The Animatrix” cartoon anthology that was released direct to DVD in conjunction with the release of “The Matrix Reloaded”. The first short in the anthology, “Last Flight of the Osiris”, acts as a kind of prequel to the second feature film. Although, not essential to the storyline of the trilogy, the events depicted in the short are mentioned during the exposition of “Reloaded”. 

Three of the other nine shorts pertain to events in the main trilogy. “Kid’s Story” tells how one of the crewmembers in “Reloaded” came to his knowledge of the Matrix. While the two part “The Second Renaissance”, I don’t know why they separated it into two parts, fills in the mythology of just how the A.I. gained control of the human race.

The five remaining stories are really the highlight of the set though, as their disconnect from the events in the feature films really allows the filmmakers to explore the ideals behind this dystopian future world of the Matrix. Some are explorations of the Jedi/Samurai code embraced by the Matrix universe (“Program”, “World Record”). “Matriculated” explores the narrow gaps separating the creation (artificial intelligence) from its creator (human beings). “A Detective Story” transports the world of the Matrix to that of one of its inspirations, film noir. And, my personal favorite of the bunch, “Beyond”, displays the least amount of plot in the way it shows how aspects of this Matrix concept of all humans existing in a virtual reality might manifest itself for the everyman, in this case a young woman searching for her lost cat.

The Good Guys, season one (2010) ***½
Creator: Matt Nix
Starring: Bradley Whitford, Colin Hanks, Jenny Wade, Diana Maria Riva, Joel Spence, RonReaco Lee, Angela Sarafyan

I seem to be becoming a TV critic, but I’m having some passion about some smaller TV productions this fall. The canceling of “The Good Guys” by FOX yesterday marks one of the greatest losses of the current television season. Like the highly successful series “Monk”, the Dallas-based hour-long comedy starring Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) and Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) was forged from a simpler age in television. It understood that it wasn’t as complex as the modern cop show and it had fun with that. It remembered that television could be fun and didn’t have to consist merely of seriousness and the depressing devastating hardships that a life based around the crime that most cop shows are based on today. This lighthearted approach to television in a non-sitcom is a refreshing blast from the past and very welcome in today’s television environment. And, it was damn funny to boot.

Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness (2008) ***½
Creators: Justin Theroux, Steve Coogan
Starring: Steve Coogan, Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Bill Hader

If you haven’t had the opportunity to peruse the special features of the director’s cut of “Tropic Thunder”, then you must get yourself a copy and check out the feature “Rain of Madness”. It’s a fake documentary about the making of the fake movie “Tropic Thunder” within the real movie “Tropic Thunder”. Hosted by documentary filmmaker Jan Jürgens, played by “Tropic Thunder” co-screenwriter Justin Theroux, “Rain of Madness” is a behind the scenes look at the demise of fake “Tropic Thunder” director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan reprising his role from the real movie).

It’s filmed like an expose on the production gone wrong, ala George Hickenlooper’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about the off the rails production of “Apocalypse Now”. Perhaps the most ingenious bit of spoofing done in this mockumentary is Theroux’s choice to base his performance as Jürgens on real German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose unique speech pattern and accent make him one of the greatest doc narrators in the business. Herzog is a bit strange, however, and Theroux uses this odd nature to create some memorable fake filmmaking moments. The entire cast of “Tropic Thunder” contributes choice bits of comedy to the proceedings. The biggest problem with this little nugget is its short running time.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Harold Perrineau, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harry Lennix, Anthony Zerbe, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Randall Duk Kim, Nona Gaye, Clayton Watson, Monica Bellucci

Back to the Messiah. Everything gets loaded back up in the sequel to the sci-fi hit. The actors seem much more relaxed in their roles and the allusions to the Lord Jesus are as well. While the parallels with Christian dogma are still there, the Wachowskis take more liberties and are much more obscure with their references. In fact, the focus on the second outing seems much more grounded in sci-fi philoso-badble. Of course, any Christian whose really paying attention knows how important choice is in regards to faith, the conversations about choice that take place between Neo and the Oracle and later between Neo and The Architect might seem more reflective of the pseudo-philosophy of the sci-fi genre than they are of theology, however. But then, the devil’s ability to assimilate almost anyone to his worldview is kind of hard to miss in Agent Smith.

I Am Love (2010) ****
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: Luca Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, Diane Flari, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson

“I Am Love” is a film that sneaks up on its viewer. It starts fairly matter-of-factly and slowly builds with subtle direction and writing and not-so-subtle music scoring. In fact, the film’s marvelous Hitchcockian score is the only thing that tips its hand at first to the fact that you are watching a highly stylized movie. Tilda Swinton stars as a Russian in an Italian family who will forever be an outsider, a fact even she doesn’t quite seem to realize until she meets a man with whom she will eventually have an affair.

In the early moments of watching the film, I wondered why we seem compelled to watch stories about the elite. Of course, most Americans don’t, and most have missed this movie. What a film they are missing. It’s not so much about the woman’s discovery of self, as so many affair movies are, as it is about her sudden realization that she had buried herself to conform to the woman she was supposed to become and yet could never be as a family outsider.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mary Alice, Harry Lennix, Harrold Perrineau, Nona Gaye, Lambert Wilson, Collin Chou, Clayton Watson, David Roberts, Bruce Spence

I find myself thinking about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” as I contemplate the final chapter in the “Matrix” trilogy. In Scorsese’s film Christ in a way asks “Why?” when he finds himself on the cross. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, he might literally ask the question). In “The Matrix Revolutions” and throughout most of previous two films Neo asks the same question. But, by the time he finds himself in the sacrificial position for both mankind and their machine creations, this question has long since been answered for him. It was answered only by him, as so many of the characters must do throughout the series.

The “all-seeing” Oracle that preoccupies much of Neo’s and the villain Smith’s concerns throughout the series doesn’t provide concrete answers and seems to take pleasure in pointing out to each person she guides that the choice is always theirs. I wonder if more Christians, or followers of any religious sect for that matter, should consider the philosophy behind this reasoning more often than they do. It might make religion seem less like magic to the unbelievers and more like a viable outlet to bring their hopes and concerns about life.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) ****
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Frederick Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler (novel “Traumnovelle”)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Lumet, Todd Field, Sky Dumont, Julienne Davis, Marie Richardson, Thomas Gibson, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming

Stanley Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut” is an easy one to misunderstand. That might be because he spends so much time lingering on a fairly common theme in adult drama. It’s a dissection of what defines adultery. Does it begin at the thought rather than the act? More specifically, it is about deception on a rather intimate scale. While political thrillers deal with deception on a broad scale, the deception in Kubrick’s film is on such an intimate and personal scale that most of its deception is committed by the deceived based on only partially understood information and unverifiable “facts.” Not to mention pot induced interrogation. But, there is one simple reason why I like this film so much, that is its final word. Few filmmakers could put such definitive punctuation on such a vague-natured and meandering contemplation of what defines fidelity.

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