The Light and the Dark Sides of “The Force Awakens”

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

A long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away… a Star Wars fan was born.  In 1977, I was (like many) awestruck by the brilliance of “Star Wars“.  Granted, I was 7 at the time, but it’s a true statement regardless.  Since then, I have seen everything Star Wars (except for Star Wars: Rebels and the CGI Animated Series of The Clone Wars).  To say I have been a fan the majority of my life is true but also HIGHLY understated.  I became deeply enchanted with cinema and storytelling through the medium of movies in a large part because of Star Wars.  So all of that being said, and having seen “Star Wars, Episode VII: the Force Awakens” now twice, I feel it’s finally time to say what needs to be said.

Disney has gotten somethings right, but somethings VERY wrong.

Point #1:

Here’s the gist of it: Star Wars: Episodes 1 through 6 (that’s The Phantom Menace through Return of the Jedi) tell a complete saga, and Episode 7: the Force Awakens is something new…and yet, it is not.  As some other fans and bloggers have pointed out, George Lucas really tied the visual references between Jedi & Phantom Menace.  That was purposeful, meaningful, and really very clever – not to mention, it’s a storytelling element used in mythology.  The same could be said about what J.J. Abrams has done with Force Awakens and connecting it to A New Hope … except you can’t and maybe you are already seeing why.

Lucas connects Episode 1 to Episode 6, the beginning to the end.  This is the story of Anakin Skywalker, and with Episodes 1, 2, and 3 added to the existing Trilogy, it made 1 complete saga.  Now, Episode 7 comes along and it begins something anew, and yet it ties into A New Hope.  So…is this new trilogy of Episodes 7,8, and 9 going to be the story of Luke Skywalker?  If so, I can say I think that’s a bad idea.  If that were the case, you should have shown us his life’s journey from Jedi to Force Awakens.  My point is, it isn’t very cohesive, connecting a beginning to the middle, whereas Lucas connected the beginning to the end.

Point #2:

A great tale, especially an epic saga and certainly anything that echoes mythology, must have villain.  Episodes 1 through 6 owns arguably the greatest villain of all time:  Darth Vader.  When the talk first began about Episode 7, I said to a friend of mine “it is all going to hinge on the villain”.  I was right.  So, we are looking at a Darth Vader wannabe in Kylo Ren – but one that is not wearing a mask for any health reasons.  He’s not burned up.  His body isn’t 50% machine.  He has no great backstory to explain why he’s an evil cuss.  He’s been corrupted by the Dark Side….from a crack head (literally, the guy has a crack in his head).

He is an old man (?) that seems to be rotting or something, and he sits on a throne, and commands his henchmen via his holographic communication.  This is no Emperor, aka. Darth Sidious!  THAT villain, was a shadowy puppeteer, a masterful manipulator, and a power-hungry conqueror.  His motives are obvious and his story was brilliantly executed over Episodes 1 through 6.  This new Supreme Commander Snoke is an obvious rip-off of Emperor Palpatine and not even cleverly veiled.

Am I saying that I need to know all about this villain in the 1st movie of a trilogy?  No.  But what I ma saying is that J.J. Abrams and Disney have given us a non-intimidating lackluster stand-in for Vader and then you give us Snoke – an even more lame-duck villain stand-in for the Emperor.  This Episode 7 seems more like an excuse to turn the anger-management-challenged Kylo Ren INTO Vader, because he was seduced into being an evil little cuss at the hands of an obvious rip-off of the Emperor.  I am not impressed.

Point #3:

The Jedi are no more.  Luke tried to recreate the Jedi Order only to have Anakin’s story line repeat itself via Luke’s very own nephew.  Stop!  You heard that correctly: Kylo Ren’s story is the same story as that of his grandfather.  Honestly!  We couldn’t come up with a better story arc than this?

So, there was a prophecy during the last days of the Jedi that a Chosen One would be born that would bring balance to the Force.  In other words, the Force was never intended to be wielded by an army – of either Jedi nor Sith.  Lucas tells us this story is really all about that balance being restored by Anakin.  The all-powerful Force which is balanced by the end of Anakin’s life and the return of Luke as the solitary Jedi that remains. But that doesn’t sound balanced at all, does it?   No more Sith Lords exist (always 2 there are, a master and an apprentice) because Vader kills the Emperor.  And Luke remains?

And what is his 1st act?  Let me recreate the Jedi Order and train others to wield the Force.  That would immediately unbalance the Force!  So there has to be 1 Dark Side Force-user out there if Luke exists, right?  So Luke tries to recreate the Jedi order, and Snoke is obviously in with the Dark Side.  So Snoke seduces one of these new Jedi and turns him to the Dark Side, and then he wipes out all the rest of the Jedi.  What balance is there here?  Now, there’s Kylo Ren, and his master Snoke, and Luke (whom quits the world and goes off to live as a hermit  in search of the 1st Jedi Temple).  This creates yet another unbalanced Force scenario.  It seems that the writers are going around in circles, without a sense of an ending.  What is this, “Lost”?

But there are some very good things to be found in the Force Awakens, too.

Point #1:

What or whom is the Force Awakening in?  Is it the Storm Trooper Finn that defies his training inexplicably and stands toe to toe with this new villain Kylo Ren?  Is it is Rey the desert scavenger left on the wasteland planet of Raaku to grown up alone and yet can fly the Millenium Falcon?  I sense a lot of people go immediately to Rey and see no reason to consider Finn.  Rey is too obvious.  Finn 1) rebels against his indoctrination, 2) and that’s significant enough to make Kylo Ren stop and look at him, 3) remember him later on & immediately identify him as the inside help that breaks out his prisoner, and 4) he inexorably does good because “it’s the right thing to do”.  Who is this guy?  He’s awesome!  Luke Skywalker never even did that stuff.  It’s like he is the moral compass that is poised to right the universe.

Seriously.  Look at Finn.  He wants to be more than he is, because of the way Rey looks at him the first time they meet.  He rescues Po Dameron because it’s the right thing to do.  He says he’s a coward, but everything he does in the movie is far more heroic than what most others are doing.  He wants to rescue his friend so much, he lies about his abilities and puts the entire rebellion effort against the First Order in jeopardy.  When the Force-wielding Rey gets knocked out by Kylo Ren, Finn doesn’t hesitate to pick up that lightsaber and face off against this (supposed) badass.  Oh, and he wounds the badass.  Yes, Ren cuts him down….and yet, he lives.  He took a lightsaber slash across his spine!  And he’s ALIVE.  Think about that.

Point #2:

Rey is effortlessly cool.  She is a pure soul, a real “good guy” and obviously having that built-in moral center that allows her to know right from wrong.  She is easy to root for.  She doesn’t seem complicated.  She is easy to understand.  She is scared of the Force calling out to her.  And what (very) little “training” she receives in the Force (via Mazz) is enough to make her wield that lightsaber well enough to defeat Kylo Ren.  And yet, she isn’t interested in killing him.  She’s in it for her friend.  That’s who needs her at that moment.  Daisy Ridley is a star in the making, and we look forward to seeing her Rey develop into something even more awesome in the upcoming films.

Point #3:

You have an exceptional pilot and hero in Po Dameron.  He’s easy to root for, but what’s more, you buy into this sort of immediate friendship between he and Finn.  It’s a tangible element of the story and its very believable.  And it’s equally believable that there’s a friendship between Finn and Rey.  And Rey and BB-8.  The amazing part of this new story is that there’s a feel-good, wholesome sense of the good guys versus the bad guys.  And THAT is what I admire most in the Star Wars films.  This is modern mythology, and you need that sense to carry out those thematic elements.  This is a vital point to make about the Force Awakens: you can believe in the chemistry and friendships of the good guys.

So, in summary, there’s a lot wrong with the Force Awakens but there’s also a lot that the creators got right.  I will continue to watch these new Star Wars films, but  it needs to come a long a ways before I am sold on ALL of it.

…and that’s all for this edition of The Reel Voice.

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The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug The_Hobbit_-_The_Desolation_of_Smaug_theatrical_poster

I am a HUGE fan of all things fantasy.  Correction: I am HUGE fan of GOOD fantasy.  It could be a book, a TV show, a mini-series, or a big-screen movie.  If you have read some of my previous reviews of fantasy films – such as my one for “Conan the Barbarian” – you will undoubtedly know that I have stomached a plethora of horrid films to arrive at the glory & majesty that is Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I have already posted a review of “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey” and I spoke at length about the deeper meaning of the film in my article “It’s Not Such a Small World After All…”.

So it took me a while to get to the theater to see this latest cinematic entry in the Tolkien storybook, “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug”.  {Since I hate acronyms, I will abbreviate this title to simply “Smaug” for the remainder of this article.}  What I can say is it that it was well worth the wait!  Okay, time for my secret love of very specific things Tolkien to be voiced here, so bear with me.  There are two things I didn’t want to be screwed up when the stories finally got translated to film: the Balrog of Moria and Smaug the Dragon.  Why?  Because if they looked corny or foolish, they not only lose their potency but they also vastly diminish the film.  In other words, if their treatment sucks, so too will the movie.  Allow me to say, the dragon is worth the price of admission, and he is glorious!

You can look at this movie as having multiple parts and all of them are brilliantly executed.  Part 1 is the journey into Mirkwood Forest and the Elven kingdom therein.  It will be interesting to see these films in chronological order and then watch LOTR afterwards.  I think – though I cannot confirm this – that Peter Jackson is nimbly creating the “stage” for LOTR with these “Hobbit” movies and is layering a little bit more of what SHOULD have been included in the original tale of The Hobbit.  This may seem like tinkering with the source material, but honestly it is more like George Lucas tinkering with Star Wars.  Tolkien did it for ages with all of his material, so why shouldn’t Jackson?  Truth is, I believe it makes for a better story.

What exactly am I talking about?  What precisely is Jackson adding to (story-wise) that is different than the original book?  Well, I don’t recall anything about Dol Guldur being in The Hobbit.  That’s rather significant, especially in this film version of the story.  Again, it is layering the film to pave the way for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It’s a fantastic addition and it makes the story seem even more tightly wound together.  Bravo!  Ultimately, there is nothing better in fantasy than a “meet the bad guy” scene.  I don’t know how Jackson managed to add this and then end the film on a cliffhanger – especially involving Gandalf!  {If you haven’t seen the film, just go and watch it and then come back and re-read this part – then you will understand what I am talking about.  I am trying to avoid spoilers here.}  I know that Tolkien wrote several “inclusions” that were or were not included in later revisions or editions of the book – one of them is the Quest for Erebor which essentially is EXACTLY this subject matter.  I still think it bears mentioning though – since most fans of the work don’t even know the existence of the Quest for Erebor.

Okay.  Enough of the inner-geek-speak.  Review the movie!

In “The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey”, we saw Bilbo Baggins as a slightly different Hobbit.  He wasn’t necessarily content with staying at home.  This film picks up on the heels of where the last left off.  They just got flown to safety by the giant eagles, remember?  So here they are on the run from the nasty albino orc (Azog, if you care), and we see a bit more of the heroic side of Bilbo that is starting to emerge.  Something has fundamentally shifted within Bilbo.  He will never be the same again.  It’s fun to ask the question here: is his change internal (i.e. his own choice) or is it external (i.e. caused by possessing the One Ring)?

Regardless, Martin Freeman brings a new layer of depth to Bilbo in this film.  I think if I have a negative criticism about the LOTR trilogy, it is that Elijah Wood was great as Frodo but he doesn’t seem all that unusual when compared to other Hobbits.  He made bold decisions, but it isn’t until he is already on the quest that we begin to see how he is different than his kin.  With Bilbo, you are told (via Gandalf) why he was chosen.  Martin Freeman does a fantastic job at bringing this to the surface of the character in increments.  In “Journey” it was a slow pace, a building pace, but with “Smaug”, he is revealing Bilbo’s differences with each passing scene.  The changes are becoming far more evident.  It’s a sharp contrast to where he started from.  I loved this aspect of the film.  Even with the faster pace of “Smaug”, Freeman brings the character more to life with every scene he is in.  In short, Freeman presents a much stronger character than Wood’s Frodo.

Lee Pace plays the Elvenking, ruler of Mirkwood, Legolas’ father, and also called Thranduil.  I have to pause to talk about this awesome douchebag.  Seriously, I have always despised him.  Pace plays him so well that I have only one thing to say: he is AWESOME!  His outfit is incredible, his voice is perfect, and just his demeanor comes through.  He is the kind of character you love to hate, namely because he is so blind.  It’s hard to believe that Legolas comes from this guy.  Again though, here is Jackson layering the story to make it more relevant to the LOTR storyline.  He is giving us Legolas’ backstory – which we were denied in “Fellowship of the Ring”.  The scenes in Mirkwood are great – I could have spent another half an hour in the hall of the Elvenking and listened to him prattle on about the rest of the world isn’t his problem.  No wonder Legolas wanted to get out of there!

Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, the elf maiden Captain of the Guard for Mirkwood’s elves.  She looks great and I never really thought much about who would play her (as compared to say Galadriel, which could not have been cast better).  She does a good job, nothing overpowering really.  Yet, the story of her and the dwarf Kili, and the obvious weird love story there…well, it’s odd and slightly distracting from the overall tale.  Did we really need to play up the love angle?  Why can’t they just befriend each other and develop a bond based off of that?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just me but I find it all a bit weird.

The film presents us with all the highlights from the cartoon film which is great – the barrel ride out of Mirkwood is absolutely stupendous!  It’s better than anything in LOTR, honestly.  It was funny, and exciting, and just plain thrilling to watch.  The theater was filled with gasps and cheers during that scene and it is no wonder either! It isn’t long before we reach Lake-Town and we are introduced to Bard the Bowman.  We get to see the brief history of the Black Arrows and we know its significance.  Yahoo!  This was really well done too.  Just the right amount of detail without it dragging down the pace of the film, and it’s all told in a very “in-the-moment” style.

The fighting got juiced up in the 2nd film of this trilogy as well, which was to be expected I guess.  “Journey” was slow but that was not only intentional but also necessary.  “Smaug” is more like the barrel ride: fast-paced and thrilling.  It’s the proverbial out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation, time after time in this film.  This helps you jump from Mirkwood to the dungeons of the Elvenking to Lake-Town to Erebor itself.  Once the film gets you inside the Lonely Mountain, you should make sure you have emptied your bladder – because you will not be able to leave your seat once that begins!

Enter the biggest scene-stealing diva of all time: Smaug, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch.  The dragon is so brilliantly depicted that you will not be able to think of another better looking dragon on film EVER.   I have seen a lot of them and a lot of so badly rendered that they are laughable.  But Smaug?  O…M…G!  This is brilliant cinema, the devilish and cunning old dragon slithering across his hoard, his greed so obvious that it deserves its own Academy Award.  He is charming and terrifying all at the same time.  You are thinking the whole time (even if you know how this scene is supposed to play out): “Bilbo put on that damn ring and RUN!”

And what about Gandalf and his quest to draw out this Necromancer at Dol Guldur?  Oh, that…yeah that’s awesome too.  Loved the scenes with Radagast in the mountains at the tombs!  But the biggest sucker punch of “Smaug” is the ending!  The film clocks in at 161 minutes but it feels like less than 2 hours, I swear!  That’s the pace of this film!  And the ending is like someone just yanking the rug right out from under your feet!  It is so swift and brutal that you will be left sputtering in the aisles saying things like “they can’t end the film here!” or “Seriously?  That’s the end?!”

Suffice to say, I highly recommend “Smaug” to all fellow fantasy film lovers – to all GOOD fantasy film lovers, that is.  It’s a briskly paced movie with still a ton of character development with Bilbo and some great new additions to the tale – like Bard and Tauriel. The villains are just epic – Thranduil and Smaug are fantastic!  So, butter up your popcorn, find a nice cushy chair and settle yourself in for thrill ride that makes you want to drain and elven barrel of wine just to go ride it down a waterfall!  ENJOY.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Sneak Peek [HD]

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Watchmen

Watchmen”  ?????????????????????????????????

Suffice to say, but every comic book-reading teen from the Eighties has read this ground-breaking Graphic Novel.  Calling that masterpiece a “graphic novel” isn’t enough – even saying that sounds lame.  “Watchmen” changed the landscape of comics forever.  It was all thanks to Alan Moore, the author.  This was not Superman or Spider Man.  These were new heroes, and not quite what you’d expect heroes to be or even look like.  Oh, the immediate comparison of Night Owl to Batman is apparent, but what else seems the same?  Not much.

So, this book (let’s just call it that) comes out in 1986 and it spelled the end of an era.  Comics at that point were pretty bright and colorful and the climate was changing much more so than the comic book companies were aware of.  “Watchmen” broke the image of comics for all time.  Frank Miller would continue this trend in his brilliant work “The Dark Knight Returns”.  Suddenly comics that had not accepted the darker storylines and imagery stirred up by the eighties themselves found themselves with disillusioned readers and low sales.

The teens of the eighties demanded more of their comics.  The artwork was much improved from the seventies and a lot of talent was springing up all over the world.  However, the storylines were suffering.  We, that teenage crowd of the day, wanted darker heroes – and mostly it was because we were seeing the world without blinders.  The reason for that change: Alan Moore’s work called “Watchmen”.  Folks, there was an underground movement years ago involving a smiley face button with a drop of blood on it.  Nobody that had one explained it: we just assumed if you knew, you KNEW.  Moore had crippled the sugar-coated view of the world, and believe it or not, a lot of teens listened and read intently.  We understood.

Yes, I was one of “those” kids.  I still have my bloodstained smiley face button from back in “the day”.

So, of course I had to re-read the whole story prior to going to see the movie.  Folks, you don’t need to read this story prior to seeing the movie.  It’s ALL in there.  For those of you who were fans back in the eighties of this “comic book”, the wait was worth it.  This is a dark film.  There isn’t a happy ending.  The true hero of the story kills criminals without mercy – at least that’s my opinion.  There’s sex, rape, murder, brutal scenes of grotesque violence, naked blue men, and some very disturbing imagery.  Realistically, this film should be a NC-17 rating.

There are 3 actors whom you may recognize in this film, but for the most part they are unknown.  At least, they were to me.  They are perfect for their roles!  So, the casting is top notch, which really helps a film like this one.  The actor who plays Rorschach is brilliant – of course, the role is just written that way.  None the less, the portrayal is flawless!  Even Moloch and Hollis were well cast parts, fulfilling all readers’ dreams and wishes.

The imagery was ripped straight from the panels of the comic, which makes the film FEEL like you are reading that masterpiece.  It contains everything from Dr. Manhattan’s glass “house” on Mars to Dreiberg’s basement lair for “Archie”.  It is both a relief and not a surprise that the creators of this film didn’t mess around.  Instead, they just got it right!

If you are a fan of the book, then don’t delay: go and see this movie right away!  It is worth every penny to see this one.  It is not an “adaptation”; it’s just the book in movie form!  I know that’s kind of hard to imagine, but it’s true.  Go see it and you tell me if I am wrong.  There are a couple of minor things that were changed in the film, but nothing that changed the tone of the movie.  As I say, these are minor changes.

If you have not read the book, you just need to prepare yourself for a long movie.  At nearly 3 hours in length, “Watchmen” is a sumptuous visual feast.  It is a story that spans at least 3 decades, so there is a lot of ground to cover.  There are flashback sequences in the movie to explain both character storylines and give the story a full telling.  If you don’t like that kind of thing, then you won’t like this movie.

If you prefer a more heroic tale, where the good guys win out over a clearly defined villain, then don’t go see this movie – you won’t enjoy it.  If you thought Chris Nolan’s “the Dark Knight” was a pretty terrific movie, then you might enjoy this film.  Keep in mind this: criminals don’t get arrested in this film, they die.  If you liked “the Punisher” with Thomas Jane (we won’t even bring up its “remake”), then you’ll appreciate “Watchmen”.

The bottom line: this film has a power to it than cannot be matched by other super hero movies.  I found it rather fitting for today’s audience to be exposed to this movie.  There are a lot of kids out there who have grown up with “darker” comic book heroes (like Dead Pool and Spawn), and I hope they do somehow convince mom or dad to take them to this.  Parents, you have to know what you child may be able to handle.  Take that into account prior to making that decision.  Will this movie change the way people will view super heroes?  Maybe.  Who knows what the film’s effects will be?

In those prophetic words I will end my review: who watches the Watchmen?

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

The Matrix

“The Matrix”  The_Matrix_Poster

“You take the Red Pill and the dream continues.  I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

There hasn’t been a truly great science fiction tale filled with legendary quotes since the days of Star Wars.  The one exception to this rule: the Matrix trilogy.  I have long been a fan of this series of films.  Wait – that’s probably a massive understatement.  I knew about the movie called “the Matrix” long before anyone else was talking about it.  I remember reading about it in a movie periodical about special effects.  That was almost 9 months before the 1st trailer appeared.  Then, when trailers were scarcely seen for it, everyone I knew was asking me “do you know about this new Keanu Reeves movie?”  Indeed, I did.  (I actually learned a great deal about the film through a back-channel: martial arts.  Yuen Wo Ping was the fight choreographer, and a legendary talent.)  When I 1st saw “the Matrix” in the theaters, there was hardly anyone in the theater.  It was as if someone didn’t want you to see the movie.

2 weeks later, it was a whole different story.  EVERYBODY was talking about this film!  At the coffee shops, the restaurants and bars, and even at the Post Office, people were talking about “the Matrix”.  At the Oscars that year, I knew it would beat the newest Star Wars film for Visual Effects.  I was right.  Before ever I even knew that there were 2 more movies to this trilogy, the Wachowski brothers released a special documentary called “the Matrix Revisited”.  That documentary clocked in at just over 2 hours and I loved every minute of it!  It was brilliant!  I began to see the size & scope of what the Wachowski brothers created.

So, as I begin to share my mild obsession with the Matrix trilogy with my family, I realized that I have never written a review of one of my most beloved films!  And now, I give you my thoughts on one of the most visually-stunning, intellectually-challenging, filled-with-cool-quotes films ever made…

The Matrix” is a science fiction action-packed movie that will intrigue the mind of any viewer.  It asks us to question our own reality.  It asks us to look deep inside ourselves and see the inner “rebel”.  Ultimately, the film is about a rag-tag bunch of computer hackers that are driven to find a mythical figure who will aid them in freeing the human race from their enemy.  The enemy in this case: an entire race of intelligent machines.  Along the journey of Captain Morpheus and his rugged crew of intrepid heroes, you will be shown a level of control that is so complete that almost no one even guesses that it exists.  If you have never seen this film, they you won’t understand this line (but I’m going to use it anyway).  The film asks us “what is the Matrix?”  The answer is horrifying and stunning.  It also is only the beginning of the tale.  But you cannot be told what the Matrix is…you must see it for yourself.  Here is where (to quote Cypher) you “buckle up your seatbelts because Dorothy is going bye-bye”.

Okay, so let’s begin to break this film down.

You have a simple and ordinary guy who is apparently a computer hacker that makes some extra bread on the side as a “personal savior”.  This hacker is named Neo.  Neo is also searching the computer world for a terrorist named Morpheus.  We are not told why, just that he is.  Neo becomes a threat to the authorities because Morpheus is looking for him too.  Again, no reason is given, but that is a temporary situation.  Neo is put in contact with Morpheus by another hacker named Trinity.  This mysterious meeting with Trinity turns into a nightmare day when Neo returns to work and is captured by the authorities.  When being questioned by Agents, Neo has his world turned upside-down when he loses his mouth and has a mechanical bug inserted into his belly-button!

Now, that doesn’t sound too confusing does it?  It doesn’t seem like a science-fiction film yet, does it?  Well, that last part is, but do you understand?  The set-up is brilliant.  It’s a normal bit of reality for a while, and then suddenly – BAM!  You find yourself being plunged head-first into an entirely different kind of reality.  That is what this film does and does it extremely well.  A little bit confusing at first, but that is quite purposeful.  It gets you to buy into one reality and then suddenly it presents a radically different one.

Once Neo meets Morpheus it is a different ball game.  The plot is boldly stated, and that leaves you kind of in shock.  Nobody does that!  Nobody tells you the entire movie’s plot right IN the movie!  This one does.  Morpheus then asks Neo the all-important question: “you know the reason [I sought you out], don’t you”?  Neo replies “What is the Matrix?”  Morpheus then gives a direct answer (another shocker) “unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself.”

This is where things can get confusing to many people.  The truth of the Matrix is that the reality Neo is living is in fact a prison for his mind.  Thousands of humans are kept prisoner in a future world where humans are essentially reduced to batteries to provide the enslaving race of intelligent machines with power.  I suppose you could say that the machines are using humans as a food source.  In order to make this prison effective, the machines had to create a reality that the human race would accept.  It creates a reality of America circa the end of the 20th century.

Now, this future world where people are trying to free other people from the Matrix seems to blow away most people and utterly confuse other people.  I unfortunately cannot make anyone reading this review understand the genius at work here – you’ll just have to see it for yourself (the movie, that is).  This is high-brow writing, intellectual stuff.  It is mired in books such as Simulacra & Simulation and esoteric philosophy books.  If none of that interests you, just trust in this: the machines have enslaved the human race in a CGI “video game” that is so believable that almost nobody suspects it is NOT real.  Of course, as the villainous Agent Smith explains the machines had to create a flawed reality, one in which humans believe there is a chance for something greater than the world around them.

Enter Neo.  When we meet Neo, he is looking for Morpheus but we don’t know why.  When Morpheus meets Neo in person he explains that Neo knows something is wrong with the world and it is driving him mad because he can’t figure out what it is.  The answer to that little riddle is of course that the Matrix has him.  However, Neo is one of those rare humans born in the Matrix that senses something wrong with the world.  (Ironically, he becomes a hacker – which is even more bizarre because he is hacking his way OUT of the Matrix.)  Okay, so now we know why Neo is involved – and we come to learn that this reason is the same for Trinity, Mouse, Cypher, Switch, and others.  But why is Morpheus involved as such?  What is his motivation?

As it happens, Morpheus tells Neo that there was a mythical figure born inside the Matrix that could change the Matrix to conform to his will.  They called this man “the One”.  He freed the 1st humans from the Matrix, and began to build the last great human city called Zion.  Morpheus says that it was prophesized that the One would return and lead the human race to victory against the machines in this war.  The One is meant to end the Matrix…and Morpheus believes he found the One in Neo.

Okay, so Neo is the One?  He has super powers?  Say whaaaaaaaaaaat????

Stop right there.  Don’t get too excited.  Neo goes to see the Oracle and learns he is NOT the One.  He also learns that Morpheus will sacrifice himself to save Neo’s life because he believes in this “truth” so blindly.  Now, here we have mythical names, a prophecy, an Oracle, a savior returning to end the war and free us all – am I missing anything?  Since when does science fiction get sprinkled with mythology?  (Go back to the beginning of this review, and you will see I already mentioned it: Star Wars.)

Okay, so we have reality that looks familiar – which turns out to be a fake reality and is in truth a prison for your mind.  We have a hacker born inside this fake reality that somehow knows that there is something wrong with the world, and he isn’t the only one to think so.  We learn that the hacker is supposedly a mythical hero destined to save the human race from this enslavement.  Now, we throw in betrayal, salvation, a love story, and of course a truly epic and glorious action-packed ending that will leave you gasping at just how unbelievable it all is.  People learn how to fly helicopters at the push of a button.  People learn to bend the rules of the Matrix like bending the rules of a computer system, and seem to have super powers inside the Matrix as a result.  Of course, nothing beats an Agent.  According to Morpheus many have tried and all have died.

Until you meet Neo.

I could spend hours upon hours talking about how cleverly written this film is.  The references to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland” are everywhere, and this adds to my enjoyment of this film in a way that I simply cannot explain.  There are subtle things too, like the names.  Neo means “new”.  Morpheus is a Greek name and from Greek mythology we learn he was the God of Dreams.  Trinity?  You know, like as in “the Holy Trinity”?  Sound bizarre?  Follow this possible theory: Trinity represents the 3 sides of each of the heroes of this movie – past, present, and future.  That’s just a possibility but her name was chosen rather specifically.  Oh, and the Oracle?  You have to wait until the sequel to “the Matrix” to learn the mind-blowing truth about her, but man is it cool!  The writing of this movie includes references to mythology but also philosophy, particularly Eastern philosophy.  When a small child asks Neo to examine his thoughts concerning the bending of spoon, he explains “…only then will you realize the truth: there is no spoon.”  This is BRILLIANT!  (I think I sat pondering that quote for days and it drove me to re-read a lot of philosophical writings.)

When you add the brilliant fight choreography and the over-the-top action sequences, you get one the greatest combinations in cinematic history: the thinking man’s action movie.  When I 1st saw Trinity move in what would be called “bullet-time”, I was stunned.  Nobody had done anything like this before.  This was literally film history playing out before my eyes.  The lobby scene towards the end of the film is one of the most exquisite action sequences ever to be constructed in film.  “The Matrix” has iconic still shots in it, but the editing for its action sequences ranks at the very top of my list.  In short, the cinematography was well done, but the editing took it to a whole new level.  The special effects were subtle at 1st, and grew a little bolder as the film went on.  Have you ever seen a mirror turn liquid before? Or have you ever seen glass bend and ripple before shattering into a ba-zillion pieces?  Once you see this movie, you can say “yes, I have!”

I honestly cannot recommend “the Matrix” any higher. This is one of those pinnacle films where you have to step back and say “can it get any better?”  Seriously, this film is THAT good.  I think I got this movie on every level on which it was constructed, from writing to action and everything in between.  This is not an easy film to digest (nor review fully) on the 1st go-around.  You may need to watch it again – or 3 or 4 more times.  Trust me when I say, this movie has so much to it, that it warrants at least a 2nd look.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games”  HungerGamesPoster

Wow.  If you have not gotten a chance to see this film yet, I HIGHLY recommend it!  The trailers did not do this film justice, a refreshing change I know.  The young cast is tremendously talented and the writing is excellent.  I hate it when a book is now very popular with the tween-age crowd and the film studios think they have a hit from that fact alone.  Rest assured, dear readers, that such is NOT the case here.  Or rather, this fact alone does not make “The Hunger Games” great.  The novel it is based upon certainly created a unique story and one that I found very engaging, but this is film – a different animal entirely.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen, a tough teenage girl that has developed some impressive archery skills while hunting for food.  Set in a post-apocalyptic near-future North America, the setting is constructed of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 poor districts that once attempted to rebel against the Capitol.  Well, that’s what I got out of it anyway.  I don’t know why they rebelled but the Districts lost.  As punishment for this defeat, a teenage boy and girl are selected by lottery from each District to compete in the Hunger Games.  The Games are a lethal sort of Survivor set in an arena inside the Capitol which is somehow controlled in every aspect by the powers that be in the Capitol.  The competitors are called Tributes, and there is only 1 winner: the last living Tribute.  The objective thusly is to kill everybody else.  Not a bad story concept, although not entirely original.

The best thing about “Games” is Jennifer Lawrence can REALLY act, and she brings warmth to the role of Katniss.  That is to say, she has the ability to make you believe in her character and sympathize with her.  That’s not easy to do, and I credit Ms. Lawrence for really getting into the role.  I don’t know anything about her preparation for the role, but it shows on screen!  She will make you root for Katniss, easily.  She will also make you try to understand the awful situation that she has been cast into.  This was all handled so brilliantly that I must also applaud Gary Ross, Director and co-writer of the screenplay for the quality of this film.

This brings me to the pacing of the film.  The film seems to start slow, and it seems clearly divided into 3 parts.  The 1st part: the build up to the “Reaping” which is the lottery in each District.  A gruesome name for a gruesome aspect of this society, right?  The 2nd part: the last days of life and luxury, wherein the Tributes are trained for the Games.  Where other treatments of similar material would be handled by montages set to inspiration music, “Games” takes you into the characters more deeply.  It all seems so surreal, and the actors (Lawrence and her counterpart from District 12 Josh Hutcherson) do an amazing job with this portion of the film.  Then, the 3rd part: the Games themselves.  Ross directs this material effortlessly.  I didn’t even realize the film was well underway and the audience had yet to be introduced to the Games themselves. That was not disappointing – it was refreshing!

The subtle nature of pitting a girl that masters archery out of necessity against others trained to simply kill is a great storyline.  It didn’t end there, either.  There is the helpful designer Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz with such heart that you wanted to hug him when he has to bid Katniss good luck in the Games.  There is shrill Effie Trinket (played by the almost unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks) and her drunken veteran winner of the Games, Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson with aplomb).  And Stanley Tucci as the Woo-ville Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (what a name!) is absolutely spot-on.  In other words, the supporting cast was terrific in their portrayals as well as their usage within the film.  Ross did a bang-up job of using his actors in the best way!

However, there is one down-side to “Games” and it happens towards the end of the film.  SPOILER ALERT!!!!  This is what I am now beginning to refer to as my U.T.R. – Ugly “Twilight” Reference.  Through the events of the Games, Katniss and Peeta (Hutcherson’s character) develop a relationship, but apparently Katniss and Gale Hawthorne (played by Liam Hemsworth), a boy from back home, have a connection as well.  Oh gee, here we go.  Now, I begin to sense WHY the tweens loved the novel.  A female torn between 2 lovers, and they are all teenagers.  Hmmm.  Sounds awfully similar to (I hate to say it) THAT film/story.  So, maybe the sequel to this one may blow chunks because of direct comparisons to that Vampire-Werewolf shlock-fest.  At least Ross waited until the very end of “Games” to drop this one in our laps.

Regardless, “The Hunger Games” rises to the occasion and delivers the goods: a well-acted, engaging story that is paced brilliantly.  This one is completely worth catching at the theater if you had a vague inkling that it might be worthwhile but were undecided.  Go see it!  You will find yourself immersed almost immediately into this world, and you’ll be thinking “why didn’t I go see this sooner?”

—and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE.

Lincoln

“Lincoln” Lincoln_2012_Teaser_Poster

If you enjoy history, particularly American Civil War history – then you should enjoy “Lincoln”.  Steven Spielberg is at it again and bringing one whopper of drama into theaters just in time for Award Season.  “Lincoln” is filled with greatness.  I overheard some folks that are familiar with the business fuss about the technical aspects of the movie.  WHATEVER!  Folks, do yourselves a favor and go see “Lincoln”!  Every American should watch this movie, really.  Probably the greatest criticism I can give to this film is that I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie.  I felt like I was watching history unfold.

Daniel Day-Lewis is astounding as Honest Abe.  He is without question the frontrunner in every award race this season for best actor.  His performance is so good, that I would rank it right up there with anything that Meryl Streep has done.  Yeah, his performance is THAT good.  If he doesn’t win Golden Globe/Oscar/SAG award, then the movie industry is just plain imbalanced.  His mannerisms are so natural that I was swearing to myself that surely that is what Mr. Lincoln must have sounded like.  His walk, his voice, his hand gestures – everything about him seemed so right!  I wondered if the stories he tells in the movie were really anecdotes that the President actually said.  The line between fiction and reality is so wonderfully blurred by Lewis’ performance that I wanted to give him a standing ovation at the end of the film!

The film is a dramatic piece and it focuses on the political proceedings surrounding the amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery forever.   It is part Civil War “West Wing” and part courtroom drama.  Both appeal to me, so it was all good.  The best part about the story was seeing how close we came as a people to shelving this crucial Amendment.  It was Lincoln that altered that course of history and every time I read about his choices as President I am simply astounded.  Abraham Lincoln was truly a great President.  You want to know what a magnificent leader he was?  I suggest you watch this movie!  I know a lot of films like to embellish the truth a little (or a terrible amount, depending) to make a better movie.  I get it; it’s fiction – not a documentary.  Still though, “Lincoln” seems to give it to you straight as well as handing you the periphery storylines concerning some of the other key players.  Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) was one such tale.

I saw so many wonderful other performances in this film too. James Spader is fantastic, and so too is Sally Field!  Tommy Lee Jones is fairly brilliant as well, but that could also just be chalked up to GREAT casting.  Sally Field as Mrs. Lincoln was just simply perfect; I don’t think anyone could have done a better job with that role.  Hal Holbrook, Jason Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce McGill, and Jackie Earle Haley, and Jared Harris (that’s Moriarty!) are all brilliant in the film as well.

I can say that without question, this film is a masterpiece.  It is utterly realistic and wonderfully executed.  Kudos to Speilberg once more!  This is a holiday treat worth every penny and at 2 hours, 30 minutes, it makes you feel like you have truly gotten your money’s worth.  BRAVO, Mr. Daniel Day-Lewis!!!

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE

Ben Hur

Ben Hur394px-Ben_hur_1959_poster

So, here comes the Easter holiday once more, and in keeping with one of my favorite film traditions, I thought I would write a review of “Ben Hur”.  I have watched this movie almost every Easter since I was born.  At least, that is how it seems to me.  I can even remember “accidentally” watching it at a friend’s house one day at the beach – and suddenly realizing that it was Easter!

Arguably one of the greatest movies ever made, “Ben Hur” is brilliant all over.  You can stand back and think “my God, they really made movies like this once upon a time?” I mean seriously, people.  This movie is beautifully shot for starters.  The Director of Photography is Robert L. Surtees with Art Direction by Edward Carfagno.  Gentleman, my hat is off to you both.  This film has a look and feel to it that simply is divine.  It doesn’t get any better than the clean look of this film.  It’s sharp!  How much of this is due to Director William Wyler?  I doubt it was very much, as I believe the Director was hard at work on directing the film itself (which he does a fantastic job with!).

Then there is an incredible score to accompany it – loud and powerful stuff!  Miklos Rozsa has written a beautiful score that just has so much to offer that it is incredible.  He gets to write the rousing music for the chariot race and the sea battle, but also the sweet and soulful nature to Judah Ben-Hur’s first encounter with Christ.  Let’s face it: more movies should be written with scores like this in mind.  Hey, there’s even a Prelude and an Intermission piece!  What’s not to like here?

Then there’s Charlton Heston in his most magnificent role ever.  I know, I know: that’s saying a lot!  As great as he was in “The Ten Commandments” and “Planet of the Apes”, he blows by all of that with his performance here.  I have a tremendous respect for this man’s quality as an actor because he shows his range and depth in this film. His character, Judah Ben-Hur, is smooth, dignified, believable, and very realistic.  He’s a flawed man, not some perfect fellow.  He’s motives are a little less than savory towards the end of the film.  Judah Ben-Hur is a great character to see come to life as interpreted by Heston.  You’d swear that he was just born to play this role!  His opponent in the film is Messala, played wonderfully by Stephen Boyd.  Messala is just an absolute perfect portrait of how a young man can be molded by military and the political life.  The conflict of this movie that revolves around these two fine actors with a killer script is acted to a “T”.  I have heard some other reviews speak of this movie having a “homo-erotic” subtext.  Maybe it’s just me, but I fail to see what they are talking about.

This film has so much going for it, it is absolutely no wonder it was a powerhouse at the Oscars.  It won 11 Oscars, one for every person I mentioned herein – save for Stephen Boyd.  The Best Supporting Actor went to Hugh Griffith for his lovable role as Sheik Ilderim.  I watched this movie over this past Easter (go figure), and I hadn’t watched it in years (why, I don’t know).  I had purchased the uber-edition on DVD and my goodness, is it ever worth it!  It’s crammed with brilliant material, but if you are not into that kind of thing, no problem: just enjoy the movie!  I do not profess a whole lot of love for the craziness that goes with religion, especially Christianity, but this film’s portrayal of Jesus is a masterstroke.  It is both moving and simply done.  I always feel moved when I watch this film.  I think for me it has a lot to do with Judah’s mother & sister.  The amazing part of this is that the movie is actually titled “Ben Hur: a Tale of the Christ”, and yet Jesus isn’t in the film but a few moments.  Wyler was a genius for his treatment of Christ, never showing his face and having given him no dialogue whatsoever.  For some reason, that makes it more meaningful to me.  I guess it’s the idea that God – or any deity for that matter – is unknowable.

So, sit back with the family this Easter weekend and enjoy this movie for all it is worth.  It is so powerful and brilliant that I dare anyone to point out a real “flaw” in it.

This is without question one of my most recommended films EVER.

…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE