City of God (2003)

City of God

Why do you make a film? It’s only a relatively new medium, one which has a history now of over 100+ years, but the written word has been around for thousands, same with paintings. And City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund) or Cidade de Deus, was originally a recounting by author Paulo Lins first, in book format. But there are millions of books, and millions of stories. So why do you make a film? Why tell a story with images, with sounds and sights and do you best to create and reflect a world to an audience?

If I could answer those questions, I wouldn’t be asking them. But I think City of God has some of those answers. Because one of the things a film does, is communicate. It’s an arrangement, a mosaic of thousands of pieces arranged in order to present a picture, a view. And a mosaic can be described with words sure, but it is at its best when it’s seen. And City of God, needs to be seen. Forever.


It’s a film which if you ever needed to blow away someone’s common understanding of the world, the laws and rules and moralities which seem to govern the world you might live in, this film holds that understanding down and puts a gun into its mouth before pulling the trigger. Everything in the film destroys those boundaries, ripping apart their flesh. There’s no delicate innocence placed in this world, no societal halo’s applied to anyone. Criminals, kids, police, adults, drug runners and drug takers, every citizen in the City of God is a warrior, fighting the inhabitants or even the space itself. Every crime, every act damned by the law and society, takes place here. And not just takes place, but is encouraged, celebrated and becomes the reason for living. If this is God’s city, then God is more akin to the bloodiest Roman emperors than a benevolent caring father.

It’s also a film which gets to some of the darkest understandings of the human condition. That life can be cheap. That violence can be continuous, brutal and explosive, spilling all over the city like oil, coating its inhabitants in its sticky darkness. That your life can be upended by power, by chance, by accident, by anything with enough force to suddenly put a knife in your back when you’re not looking. And how witnesses, become participants, become casualties, and give rise to more witnesses who get caught in the same gravitational pull of time and action. And furthermore the film itself is a witness to it all, because the story it tells is of the city and its inhabitants and they both fed back into each other, a feedback loop splattered and distorted by the violence and struggle of a world turned upside down.

But even the residents of a hellscape live, and City of God is a witness to the life in all its perspectives. Even its most violent residents need to relax from time to time, and to see the favelas here only as places of violence is a mistake that the film refuses to make. The people who live there are just that, people. And they spend their time doing what every one else does. Working, eating, playing. The world is vibrant and sunny, and everything is soaked up, blood of the dead mixed with the blood of life. If life is short and uncertain, then it must be lived while it is still there. And through Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues)  primarily, we see how the space of the city works, how its’ heart beats.

But the heart supports the body, and the body of this film is one bursting at its seams. A dizzying, continually multiplying cast of characters spread over the city’s landscape, reminding me that in the real world everyone is their own protagonist, and their aims and ambitions sliding and crashing against each others. And the blood that pumps through the film, the racing, vibrant music is whips you through the landscape itself. And that’s balanced against the film’s cinematography, the films’ eyes, a camera which never dares to look up for fear of getting shot. A camera which keeps close to the ground, caught and trapped inside the winding and looping close quarters of the streets, a camera which is caught in the multiple currents of the film’s river. It strongly evokes war footage, captured first hand on the ground by journalists who put their lives on the line to present the images of what happens in a field where lives are staked.

I could go on about this film forever, it’s one of my favourites. But, if I had to put some kind of resolution down, to answer that question from earlier; why do you make a film? And I think one of the secrets is in the film’s tagline: “one man will do anything to tell the world everything”. One of the most powerful things a film can do, is present a world, real or fictionalised. And to show a world like City of God to the world, a world of spirited and electrifying danger, of adrenaline, of exhilaration moral and amoral, is one of the most incredible things you can do with a film. City of God transports you to the place, the time, the lives. And it does so by all accounts except by actually living there.  And to even catch a glimpse of the things which make us different, and the things that make us the same, in the eyes and hearts and stories of these characters, is a pretty fucking powerful reason to make a film.

-Alex

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City of God (2003)

Irreversible (2002)

irreversible-296439l

This one is going to be tough.

WARNING – BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF ADULT THEMES, VIOLENCE, RAPE AND MURDER.


 

When you make a film, you make a statement.

When you make a film which concerns the darkest of natural evils, it only succeeds if it accurately reflects those evils in the real world.

The reason why Irreversible (2002, Gaspar Noé) is so terrifying, is because it feels so real.


 

But a film is not reality. And what this film does is take the human world, a world in which such awful acts and awful consequences can occur, and make it more real than real. And there’s two big ways that occurs. The first is the film’s structure, the story told from end to beginning in 13 scenes. It’s an experience equivalent to walking up a flight of stairs, the whole set of stairs moving rightwards but you’re walking up them leftwards. It’s a truly disorienting structure, akin to walking up(?) a flight of M. C. Escher staircases. It forces you to reverse engineer everything, something so abstract from our normal processes of daily life. Usually you start with thoughts, motivations, expectations which then lead to action, doing and consequences. But to be forced to refocus your mind, to not grow with and alongside the characters, but to witness their ending’s first and work backwards.  It’s a perspective which forces you to understand the events in a different way.

More than that, it’s a perspective which forces you to encounter the consequences of the actions, and their abhorrent nature, before you can use the framework of character motivation to talk about justice and justification. The film’s guttural, inexpressibly dark actions are presented as raw as can be understood, horrific actions that happen to the humans in front of us. Before we have gotten to know them, their motivations, their loves and fears and tensions and relationships, we witness what they’re capable of. And you are forced to bear witness to it, in some of the most uncompromising cinema and cinematography I have ever seen. You have to reconstruct the story, but not in the way you might in a film noir or crime story. You are not a detective working out a puzzle, because the ending is your starting point. All you can do is witness the strands slowly unweave themselves, as they become darkened by the knowledge of their ending.

It’s style is the other bastion of refocusing your mind, and it is delirious. The cinematography is mind-bending, the equivalent of starting off at the harsh end of an acid trip. It pays no attention to the traditional markers of human experience; scale, distance, orientation, perspective.  It rolls backwards, passing through the walls and skies of Paris with reckless, trippy abandon. It destroys your normal limitations of how you experience the world, but its power is volatile and explosive. It throws you into a cinematic typhoon at points, barreling through space and time completely lost, as a drunk might do on the edge of blackout. And then at other moments, it becomes still and clear, resolutely focused on witnessing the black, pulsing heart of humanity, rape and kill its way through the world.

It’s whole world is tainted,  tainted by the inevitability of its actions, but also as the film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, it’s tainted by the sheer horror of its actions. The irreversible actions you bear witness to, it is impossible for their effects to be irreversible either. There is no going back, no way to un-experience it, even as it moves into a time before those events. The hellish red, a colour which invokes blood, sex, violence, seeps into everything, practically bleeding through the films walls both literally and metaphysically. The scenes that happen earlier, become charged with sickening dread, charged with the knowledge that God might have of knowing how every story ends. And the sound of the film, explored here from pg 87 onwards, is one which matches that hell. One which through music and sound, is discordant, grotesque and nausea inducing (literally, through low-frequency sounds).

And you can’t talk about the hellish experience of the film, without invoking the actors, the human participants who you are anchored to. And never has that anchoring process, of aligning yourself with the characters of a story and sharing their experiences, felt so caustic and soul-destroying. As we watch Alex (Monica Bellucci), Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) have their lives up until then obliterated, our empathy is assaulted alongside it, the waves of events crashing over us and rippling through us. The obscene violence, the degrading and unending nightmare of the rape, all of those are endured, channeled through the actors into our vision, experiences so brutal they can often not be lived through. Noé asked his actors to go further, to do more than almost every other film ever made. To put them through the knife-edge of darkness, and it is some of the bravest performances I’ve seen.

The whole film is one of disorder, the most violent assault of chaos on the human soul. And it’s nightmare is so violently unendurable, just like the nightmare of rape is for so many sexual assault and rape survivors. It’s an experience which creates a void space, something that can become impossible to process, reconstruct, to ever properly heal from. The phrase “Time heals all wounds”, feels pitiful and ironic next to Noé’s ending statement, “Time destroys all things”. The one thing I was terrified of, going into this film, was the potential for the films events to not be given the weight they truly represent. Rape especially has had a poor, often misogynistic treatment in cinema history, but violence itself has also become something cartoonish. Countless experiences of action films, superhero movies, war films and all the like, portray the aspects of violence we want to believe in. The thrill of the fight, the valiant defense, the fight against invisible and unknown enemies we don’t need to empathise with.

Irreversible does not do that. It forces you to encounter the colossal, unimaginable weight of the real life actions. The ugly, brutal, cruel and often unpunished nature of humanity’s most irreversible sins. It presents unflinchingly, the closest experience besides real life. And it is a film which sears itself into your consciousness, a film which gives screen violence and screen rape the core-shaking effects it has on the real human psyche. And for Noé to pull that blood-drenched heart out and expose it to you, to confront anyone brave enough to watch it with an experience that mirrors the trauma of real life rather than try to hide it or edit it out, it’s to be supported. Films should not just be made for entertainment, because life is not just entertainment. And art must reflect the world around it, through whatever stylistic forms it chooses. And while the legacy of this film will remain forever muddied, in its violations of normal good taste, decency etc, it proves one thing.

Fearless works of art are irreversible, for better and for worse. That’s the truth.

-Alex

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Irreversible (2002)

Suspiria (1977)

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Sometimes I feel like I’m running out of things to say about film.  Not because I can’t write anymore, my hands still work decently and my brain hasn’t melted into soup yet. And its not because I’ve run out films to watch either. There’s over 100 years, that’s at least over 36,500 individual days of film history to continually wade into, alongside the constant slew of individual releases which come through every day. No, I think it’s just that films come at you in waves, and their effect can crash down on you to varying degrees.

And so Suspiria (Dir. Dario Argento, 1977) crashed down on me.  And it crashed down with the impact of all of its Technicolor might.


 

The more you experience, the more you know. But one of the facets of the beauty of film, is its ability to deliver such a complicated and multi-layered vision. And while the director is the spearhead of that vision, they also channel all of the other creative outputs of everyone who works with them. And I think what keeps Suspiria close to the surface of film history, is its overwhelming abundance of expression. Of nightmares, of music, of landscapes and myths and much more, each part of its construction like snakes intertwined. If one of film’s major abilities is to create an escape from the conventions of normal reality, to tear apart the prisons of space and time and our fixed perspective, then Suspiria is a film which goes hell for leather towards that point, a searing meteorite of colour and nightmares going across the sky.

It is a film so flippant of normal concerns, of reality based aesthetic choices. It’s  vibrant, gaudy and fantastical use of colour (amplified by that Technicolor process mentioned earlier) is one which is so divorced from our own reality. But that intensifies its’ vision to an absurd degree, its colours become hypnotic and entrancing purely as primal entertainment. But the colours are not just an abstract light show, fireworks for its 94 minutes and nothing more. The colours communicate with you, the surreality of the world, it’s dangers and riches and complements and conflicts. Colour, shifting and unstable, communicates in the silences between moments. Or it emphasises certain moments, fears, emotions. The colours assault your senses, they seem to be pushing you into the films phantasmgoria.

And the other elements, the exaggeration and violent instability of almost every aspect of Suspiria’s world. It’s grandiose and strange spaces, overflowing with artistry. Words and paintings and patterns and colours stream across the film’s canvas from its beginning to its end. And because it is so saturated by it, by decorative stimulation, it leaves no dead space in the experience, no room of blank walls to let your eyes metaphorically switch off. The characters are backdropped against the world. meshed into it. They appear from its walls, it’s walls become doors and its doors become walls. The whole world is a continually shifting labyrinth, without clear understanding of where things are in relation to each other. In fact I’d go so far as to claim that the school itself where most of the film is spent, becomes a threat simply because of its unknown, hidden nature.

But those kind of claims are claims and just that. And a film is not just these kind of abstract, psychic thoughts. Because the killer haunting the world of Suspiria is one of ugly, violent reality. The killings in the film are guttural, blunt happenings. Just like the colour, they spill all over the film, irregular editing and violent screams and violent imagery and discordant sound work all combine to create this horrible, dread inducing experience of the danger of Suspiria. It’s a danger which is fragmented, glimpsed and searched for, frantically tried to understand and when it’s over, to reconstruct and process. Argento’s overwhelming aesthetic vision takes on a hellish, furious extreme at moments like this, and it pulls you into the peak of horror cinema; an experience which you can’t look away from, because that would be even scarier.

I’m sure my experience, and my understanding of the film will change, develop over time, as I become more accquainted with its vision. To spend more time with a film is to bring it closer to your mind, to make it more intelligble and less unknown, which usually means less scary. So I think it’s important to put down my experience of this, because it can become easy when watching films, especially watching films in-depth, to forget that their aim is to build up all their pieces, the story and performances and camerawork and sound and etc etc into a single unified whole. And when you study those disciplines in detail, when you move your magnifying glass over a particular aspect of its construction, you can be in danger of forgetting how the combination of those parts grow something more, the film itself.

One of the myths about film is that it’s a visual medium. And that’s not true. It’s an audio-visual medium (side note: soundtrack on this film is insane), but both of those have their own language, one never fully explained by writing. What can be attested to, is how when those elements speak together, in such a well synchronised way, then it has the power to affect your senses and your mind in such a powerful way. And the elements of Suspiria which affected me might not affect you in the same way. It has elements which people might find off-putting;  out of sync english dubbing, garish and intense colouring. It has a world which might be boring, confusing and uninteresting to some. But I’d like to hope that those people would find other cinematic experiences which could move them as much as Suspiria moved me, with its curious story of the things in the darkness which lurks beyond the edge of our vision.

I’m gonna call it for me; Suspiria is some peak cinema. And it’s given me more to say.

-Alex

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Suspiria (1977)

American Animals (2018)

american-animals-poster

I have always loved heist films. I find it tough not to get wrapped up in them, a story which is an intricate puzzle, a crossroads of crime and justice and  an adrenaline filled real time (usually) injection as the theoretical heist becomes a real one. Each heist film, good or bad, is an act of chinese spinning plates, never fully comfortable and requiring constant focus and attention. If it’s not the outside forces, it’s the inside forces of the participants and their minds which may cause things to unravel. And usually, the unravelling seems almost inevitable, as time after time we watch heist movie after heist movie where ultimately the robbers meet their comeuppance, the long arm of the law putting them in handcuffs. In fact if cinematic history is anything to go by, a heist is something almost always doomed inevitably to failure.

That doesn’t stop people from trying though.


 

Bart Layton seems like a shrewd filmmaker. He seems like a man whose vision for the film is one of complexity, both technically and artistically. For American Animals is not a straightforward film. A fictional recreation of the events of the narrative intertwine and bleed through into documentary interviews with the subjects of the film. Four men, in their college years of 2004, planned and executed a heist of some priceless books from Transylvania University, Kentucky. Among them a copy of The Birds of America, a work by James Audubon which contained elaborate prints of America’s wildlife. The symbolism already rife in the story, Layton uses and blends film techniques together to not just show an unknowing audience what happened, but also why it happened from the source themselves. But to hold a story up like this under the magnifying glass, you can see the complexities and multiple stories vying for control underneath the surface.

Memories can change over time. Memories can be misremembered. They can be distorted, flipped, shifted or even confused with others. And that’s right before you get to any sort of conscious denials or lies. Through sometimes nauseatingly intense testimonials, we can see the real life players of the events do their best to remember why and how they did the things they did over 10+ years ago. We can see them do their best to explain, confront, justify and explore the things they did, how they came to solidify their past into a path which pushed them to pull off a heist. Layton and his collaborator, Ole Bratt Birkland, push an unflinching camera and cinematography into your world, one which sees many sides to these robbers. We explore their perspectives, their ambitions, their defenses. All the big and little traits which make up a personality really.

And alongside this, we see a filmic re-enactment of the events in question, as they are explained in real time to us. And to have both the real life people and actors share the same space on the screen (sometimes literally, as stories overlap and fight each other), creates a viewing where you have to acknowledge the film as a fake, after all it isn’t real documentary footage of the actual heist from 2004, but also a film which feels more real as the real life Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk explain the actions and behaviours and mental states of what you’ve just seen, and what you’re about to see happen. It’s a really fascinating and unconventional way to watch a film, half aware of its construction but also feeling more connected and involved because of it. It’s a bold and refreshing technical choice to see for sure.

The fictional half of the film has no slack either, it is arresting and gripping. The performances/performers are very open, very easy to hang onto. You watch them with the same amount of close inspection you apply to their real life counterparts, and it’s hard to convey the range on show here. It’s soundtrack is carefully sculpted from a broad spectrum, it’s use of movement in space is frenetic and at times genuinely nail-biting. The performances I mentioned earlier build to a compounded finish of intensity, as events spiral. Of course one tool Layton has on his side is the truth, as the real life oddities of their heist make the story more unexpected than any written and telegraphed script.

Look, a lot of what makes this film really good is just the river it flows down, the journey it takes you on. And while there’s so much to love about this film, it also offers only a coda of reckoning, as the silence of guilt and trauma hangs over them, as the damage they’ve done to themselves and the people in their lives is brought up. And it is hard for me to come to a conclusion on this heist, other than what it is. And I think the symbolism of the film collapses to the real life narrative as well, the final battle of the stories. And any technical flamboyancy evenutally has to quiet down to the plain, unpleasant truths. They tried to make and execute a successful heist, they failed and paid a heavy price for it. Their ambition got cut down. Nothing melodramatic about it, only the true weight of their consequences crashing down on their lives. And so it goes on.

And maybe someone else down the line will see this, and think it might be their turn. That maybe they can do it right.

-Alex

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American Animals (2018)

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Revolutions

In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.


Questions are a lot more fun than answers. Questions involve your imagination, involve possibilities. Answers do their best to solidify in concrete and to collapse those possibilities into a form with a beginning and an end. Answers scribble out, cut away, and destroy those limitless possibilities in the hope of cutting down the crystal into a shape which is deemed best. And so the crystal of The Matrix, full of potentialities, is finally cut down in this last instalment, The Matrix Revolutions. Every which way you could have imagined the story going, is cut down into this last piece of the puzzle. Barring the realistic compromise that not everything is answerable, and the fact that the Wachowskis did not maintain complete 100% artistic control over their work, this film is the wrap up; the disparate threads finally being woven together.

As I said, questions are a lot more fun than answers. And the answers The Matrix Revolutions provides were never going to satisfy the hungry questions the original threw into the air. So what does it do instead? The Matrix set out to be a mix of ideas and a mix of action. If you can’t deliver on the reality making and reality breaking ideas, then you put your best foot forward and sucker punch the audience with action. Revolutions is a war movie, a culmination of the larger background conflict of the previous two films between humanity and the machines. An enemy so alien, so anti-human that there’s no need for any debate about the war, its ethics and it’s consequences. So the only questions The Matrix Revolutions has left to answer are who will win the war, and will Neo stop Agent Smith?

And with respect, these questions are just a lot less interesting than the ones posed by the previous installments. See, I can’t help but feel some of the backlash against the second and third films is partly down to the fact it focuses on the areas that only backdrop the first film, and when delving into the far more traditional sci-fi elements, it’s robot cities and mech-warriors etc etc, it’s just not the areas that the possessed the imaginations of those in the first film. People don’t remember the war against the machines, they remember the green code and the red pill/blue pill and those sunglasses. And sure, there’s a lot of bells and whistles going on to keep you entertained. The scales tipping back and forth between the machines and humans, Neo and Trinity’s final pilgrimage and the dangers they encounter. And the wealth of smaller side stories, of characters involved in the battles big and small help to connect the scale of the conflict to the audience.

But it’s too big. Too unwieldy, too much going on. And the characters we once attached ourselves to, have all graduated well beyond our understanding. Neo in this film plays the role of the enlightened mystic, and the problem with that role as a central protagonist is that they never feel the need to explain themselves, because everyone needs to trust them. Belief and faith is one of the deepest roots in this series that’s true. But faith, just like reason can only go so far.

And while everything that made the two previous films what they are, the strong visual design and expert audio design continue to back up the film and at some points overwhelm the senses, the film feels like it’s careering out of control and has to fall back on much simpler conventions to keep itself up. The continuity of Reloaded and Revolutions and the ambition of wrapping the series up in such an intense space of time (they released in the same year and were shot back to back) may have simply lead to burnout. The fleeting glimpses of clarity, Neo and Trinity breaking across the sky and seeing the sun for the first time, are stuck inside the swamp of story and it’s kind of sad to watch it all happen.

I said in my first post that I didn’t need to sum up my feelings on The Matrix series. That back then it was all a lot of questions, feelings, emotions and thoughts in flux (I’m saying that bit now). Well the time has come for me to collapse the possibilities, to narrow and cleave down all of it to a crystal that you can see.  So here goes.

The Matrix series itself is an overstuffed sci-fi mythical story, one exploding with enough elements of cinema that it genuinely acts as a fantastic channel for a lot of the best aspects of cinema. It’s full of homages and pastiches and subversions to other film genres, being one of the few Western blockbuster films to really bring a direct Asian influence from its fight scenes.  It’s got its head stuck in the heady world of philosophy and it’s not dumb. It’s commitment to its world visually and aurally is nearly unparalleled, just in sheer consistency and experimentation.

It’s characters fill primary symbolic roles, and this is a massive double-edged sword for it because as time goes on they feel less and less real. Like I said, mystic god Neo is almost as alien at points as the machines he’s fighting. The love story which is at the centre of Neo’s journey is also one of its more surreal parts, as the way it’s directed and acted consistently just comes across as ridiculous and unbelievable. It will forever be a stressful thing in my mind that the insane kung-fu/action sequences can feel so breathtakingly real, but the relationship at the heart of the story just feels anti-that.

And with Revolutions, while it’s not the downfall that many people continue to claim it is, it certainly is a fall from grace. Because this final film is the one that deals least with “the matrix” itself, it’s no surprise. And it still has that ambitious drive that powered the first two, especially with a dizzying last fight sequence between Neo and Agent Smith, which makes you dizzy and keeps you that way even after the film. So no, it is not the crowning jewel in the most perfect film series ever made, and the ending of Revolutions really does feel like a vague afterthought.  But after two and a half films exploding with ideas, should I be surprised they might run out of tracks?

The Matrix series endures for its’ striking originality and for its awe-inspiring execution. It’s a story by film  lovers for film lovers, and it shines in a lot of places while doing its best to cover up its weaker spots. It’s ambitious as all fuck, has left an indelible mark on modern cinema. So since questions are a lot more fun than answers, I’ll end this retrospective with this one.

What more can you ask for?

-Alex

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The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

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In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final installment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.


Okay, so here’s where things get weird.

The Matrix of 1999, the original is a world unto itself. It briefly references the larger conflicts surrounding them, the war of the Machines and against Zion, but they are alluded to like an oral history, events experienced by others which set the background to the conflicts your following. Every world has to have causes, and the causes in the Matrix are stripped down, unknown, and simply defined. Machines are bad, they enslave the humans in dreams. What we can see is what we follow and are interested in, Neo’s journey to master himself and the world around him, and to best Agent Smith. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey. The Matrix is a story which if it had not had sequels greenlit by Warner Brothers, could exist on its own. Even if the Wachowski’s had ideas for it to be part of a trilogy, The Matrix itself stands by itself.

Fate would not have it that way however, because The Matrix became massive, gigantic even. A phenomenon that captured the imagination. And with that, The Wachowski’s expanded the world of The Matrix into something that had never been done before, with so much intention and imagination. They began production on four projects, the second and third instalments of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, a video game which contained a side story intertwined with the films in Enter The Matrix, and a side-quel animation project The Animatrix which contained universe expanding short films. This multiple media storytelling venture was approached with the same level of vision and attention to detail that the original film was made with, but only now on a much grander crisscrossed platform. If the chapters of a single story are not all in the same book, then a problem arises. The trade-off for scale is focus. And The Wachowski’s always had a grand sense of scale.

To bring it back down to Earth then, The Matrix Reloaded is made with a different idea in mind to its original counterpart. It must be two things, its own self-contained story while also being the first half (two fifths maybe with the game) of a story which still has another film to come. Not only that, but The Matrix Reloaded has success to deal with. The first film’s budget was much smaller than that of the second, and with greater freedom comes greater ambition. And The Matrix Reloaded is nothing if not ambitious, standing on the shoulders of the giant of the first film. Everything has become bigger, and less concessions are made to the audience. The Matrix is an introduction to a world, but this second instalment has no interest in rehashing or repackaging that introduction again, it moves forward like a freight train and you have better done your homework from the last film otherwise you’re going to fall off.

Expansion is the aim of the game, and everything is more. The human world expands beyond the confines of a ship, it goes from an individual journey of enlightenment to a communal environment of conflicting desires. Neo has his path, while the humans return to their city and have dense ideological sparring matches while multiple clocks tick down. “The Matrix” program itself is no longer just set dressing, but a riddle to be solved as to why it exists. The plot of this film is so overstuffed with events, conflicts and characters that it is difficult to keep track of who is doing what where and why (sometimes when aswell). I can pinpoint the exact moment I suddenly lost track of what was happening, right after an absolutely exhaustive freeway chase scene and the film doesn’t even come up for air or give us some to digest what just happened, so concerned it is with moving onto the next even bigger complicated infiltration. I think a lot of the frustration that came with the plot is not necessarily indulgence, but that it is simply an overwhelming amount of information in too short a space of time.

Even this reflection I’m writing feels dense. Furthermore, knowing that some key story and structural information is actually hidden and explained in the video game accompaniment makes it even more bizarre to reflect on The Matrix Reloaded, simply because it feels incomplete. How can too much be going on and not enough at the same time? A conundrum this film’s existence can’t ever solve, a glitch in its own matrix. It almost begins to feel like a lost ancient text at points, fragments simply missing from its whole which we can’t retrieve. Which is saddening to me, because some of the fragments still present really are tremendous to witness.

Truth be told, I actually enjoyed this one more than the original. The Wachowski’s didn’t hold anything back for this one, and it’s a spectacle and a half. Dizzying, absolutely dizzying fight sequences which make the original’s seem tame in comparison. That freeway chase I mentioned earlier is just incredible for the amount of focus it manages to keep, and one testament to the entire series achievements (maybe the key to its’ success?) is how almost every fight scene manages to keep its focus and you can keep track pretty easily of the action. And as for the environments themselves, everything seems to come alive more. The aesthetic of the first film which I may have derided, suddenly clicked with me. I no longer saw the all black sunglasses BDSM lite costumes as tacky and naff, but actually saw them for how the Wachowski’s saw it. Cool. Full credit goes to Kym Barrett for that.

I honestly can say I thought there were some masterstrokes in this movie, but it all gets lost in the flood. And the flood contains good and bad. It’s ironic that for a film series who’s main message is how love can conquer anything, every time it moves to this subject it feels more lifeless than ever. Neo and Trinity’s romance is just…it just seems too detached to be convincing. Maybe it was an intentional directional choice, but if it is what a strange one and if it isn’t it’s just a grand shame that the core of the movie feels like one its weakest parts. Furthermore this film falls even further down the philosophical rabbit hole set up by its first part, its’ ambitious and heady cocktail  giving too much of a kick to be appreciated properly. It reminds me of Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman), except the difference being so much of Zardoz’s heady and confusing philosophy is presented through its images, not its dialogue.

The first reflection I ever put up on this site was about ambition and cinema, and how I appreciated the ambitious film which might fail to the safe film which succeeds. But does The Matrix Reloaded stretch my ideals to breaking point? Because it’s so ambitious, it needed a separate video game and another film to even begin to properly comprehend its full story.  I think so. While I may actually love this fragmented film more than the first one, its’ very nature just means it can’t communicate as well as the original. It’s a book missing a chapter. It’s a train missing a carriage. It’s a metaphor missing a clear connection. It’s-

I guess I’ll leave that one unfinished. Seems kind of appropriate.

-Alex

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

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Sometimes you see movies, and sometimes you see films. It seems like nothing more than a minor linguistic distinction, but the rope that ties the two together can also stretch for miles. And so, with Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Dir. Béla Tarr) we encounter, at least I’d say, the far end of the “film” rope. A film which seems to eschew general cinematic convention, a film so primordially focused on the ability of film to show us images, that it asks you to encounter and relate to the film in a completely different frame of mind.

One not focused on aesthetic entertainment, images designed to purely amuse and impress on you a highly glossy view of the world. A different kind of filter is applied, one which reflects the jagged and coarser edges of the world around us. And the film’s images then ask you to see the beauty in them, rather than demand your awe in the presence of its well sculpted god-like actors, the elaborate and dazzling fantasy landscapes, the endless obliterating action sequences which command you to be overwhelmed.

No, this is a different kind of cinema for sure. And your response to it will be guided by whether you can move into a harmony with its’ rhythms.


János (Lars Rudolph) lives in a desolate provincial Hungarian town. A circus has come, with a giant whale and a mysterious figure called the Prince. Trouble is brewing. The context of the films wider landscape, something never explicitly alluded to, was originally lost on me. Set during the Hungarian communist regime, it’s a film whose history is everything to those who know it and very little to those who don’t. For life here seems on the edge of the world, one consumed on a knife-edge by isolation and loneliness and small folk life. In the 21st century interconnected network of existence, Werckmeister Harmonies speaks to a time and atmosphere which almost no longer exists anymore, one where life was not connected to the globe, but only to the surrounding miles of land around you.

As a result, the tone and rhythm of this film’s life seem almost alien, especially filtered through the vision of Béla Tarr. 39 long and detailed shots make up the entire running time of the film, and the fast paced interactive editing style of today is inverted on its’ head and smashed underground.  Shots don’t just breathe, they seem to gain life and evolve through delicate camera tracks and pulls. The world is presented to you as a quiet, mute observer who stands in the shadows of these village places, presented with the faces and bodies of people who have lived long and died longer. The whole place evokes a haunted town, one populated by ghosts drifting into the space of life only to fall out of it again just as quickly.

And everything in this film feels ethereal, its entire presence seems like it’s completely removed from the experience of our world, of conventional cinema. The wraith-like auras of its actors, Lars Rudolph eyes carrying what seems to be like centuries of experience. It’s score (by Miháli Vig) does some absolutely moving work.

I don’t know, you know. I honestly don’t know what or how to feel about this film. It seems to invert language and speech about it, it’s a film which feels difficult to talk about. It feels like it’s so natural to try and analyse it and intellectualise it, but it also feels so deeply like that is missing the point. It’s a film which rides such a wavelength of just quiet, ponderous experience. Not thought, not conversation, just raw stylised experience that you end up submerged in. It’s hard to talk when you’re under the water. And this is not just me getting so wrapped up in how much I love it that I can’t even begin to explain it, in fact the film sometimes grated and annoyed me as to its own peculiar idiosyncrasies. It’s not a film I could come out boldly and stake my flag in the ground to defend it to the ends of the Earth.

But I can’t deny its overwhelming spectral presence. It’s a film which truly earns the moniker film, because it feels like something made in that cinematic mold not to entertain, but to show something greater. And so much of the film is not shown, people and places and events alluding to a terrifying off-screen darkness which surrounds them. It feels like a film with a heart of darkness, one which beats through its very core but also hides inside the films’ exterior body. What do you do when confronting a film like this? A film which is deeply hidden, who’s parts are not on display for you to easily pick up and inspect, analyse and critique at your leisure.

For me, it was an encounter with a cinema which is hard to love, but easy to respect. There is no doubt that what Béla Tarr does here in this film is impressive. The haunting tale of man waiting for a circus, an obsession with a great whale, and a nightmarish village is told with such bold unconventionality, that at the very least the experience of it feels like bringing your head above an icy bath, even though at times watching it you can feel like you’re morphined to fuck. The rhythms of this film, polyvocal and atonal, are ones which are difficult to grasp and hang onto as they fly into your experience.

But they are deeply, deeply worthwhile to encounter. They can give you the gift of perspective, which is rare. And like the closing shot of this film, they can give you a profound sense of the abysses of experience we can sometimes live in.

-Alex

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Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)