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)

Cinema and Ambition: The Martian and Interstellar

Hi Hello,

This is a new blog made anew by me. The writer. Who enjoys writing and cinema enough to do and talk about them simultaneously.

The Two Lone Astronauts

I watched The Martian (2015) in cinemas recently, Ridley Scott’s new directorial effort based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir. Honestly, it was a good movie. Matt Damon is extremely affable, and honestly its just a pleasing film. It’s watertight in terms of script and character, everything is necessary and explained well, it actually makes you laugh and honestly in terms of technicality its pretty seamless.

For me at least, as I sat in the 2/3 full cinema, I couldn’t help but feel tinged with a bit of bitter-sweetness about the whole affair. The reason for this, is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Interstellar to me, was one of the most affecting movies I’ve seen in a while. Honestly I’m sure the IMAX helped, but the films visual splendor and grandiose themes helped propel me into a state of what felt like extreme consciousness, of hyper-awareness and sensitivity to the profundity of the reality we inhabit.

Now all of that sounds pretentious, and that’s because it is. Pretension is a grappling for higher ideas and themes. The word carries poor contentions because people associate it with snobbery, smugness and elitism, but the very idea of pretension, of reaching for something, is one I widely admire.

The Martian however, is far more scaled back in terms of the vast expanse of space,  exploring the life of what essentially becomes the first hermit on Mars. Consistently tasked with seemingly impossible challenges, Matt Damon’s character consistently and unrelentingly overcomes every obstacle put in his way without hesitation and without doubt. A man is stranded on the Red planet, and everyone bands together to come to his rescue, which promptly arrives. Fin.

Interstellar however, decides instead to pursue the path of most absurd, as it falls into speculative quantum theory, wormholes, time travel, inter-dimensional beings from the fifth dimension who may be humans from the future, visualised string theory and far more difficult to tackle concepts and ideas. As a result, being a far more intricately weaved beast, it has been criticised and picked apart by film reviewers, amateur science enthusiasts, professional scientists, and everyone who has seen 2001 and unleashed their claws the moment anyone made a comparison.

So currently as it stands in the general opinion, Interstellar stands as an overreaching failure while The Martian stands as Ridley Scott’s return to form. But why is this?

Well there’s a few reasons to this, and it is both of the films which are responsible.

PERSONALITY

The Martian is a relatively small and contained story. Large parts of it are devoted just to Matt Damon explaining a problem, then him working out how to fix the problem, then showing him having fixed it. As a result, the film almost becomes a series of vignettes which could be retitled “How to survive on Mars (feat. Matt Damon)”. In fact its only the returns to Earth which provide an overarching story to the film, as the people there just try and figure out how the hell they’re going to get him back. And the entire film, and every character is devoted to this aim. If Matt Damon was the sun, then every other character orbits him and only exists in relation to him. These streamlined characters  help move the plot along at a nice pace, but come at the expense of actually giving a shit about them. More importantly, it makes each character simple and easy to swallow.

Interstellar however seems to be the antithesis of this. The personal dramas of the film take up the primary role in a film which contains fifth dimensional extra terrestrial  contact. Space ends up playing second fiddle to the characters who inhabit it, and so many of them are independent from the central protagonist, Matthew McConaughey. Rather than being a sun, Each character is their own asteroid hurtling through space, being pulled into various different orbits and trajectories which sometimes cross and sometimes clash with every other person/asteroid. They all have their own aims, and their own thoughts on the same event, in fact rarely is consensus ever achieved in the film. Besides the fact that they agree to go into space, lots of time is devoted to people arguing over the best course of action. A trait The Martian shallowly has, but in reality everything moves along so swiftly that the weight of decisions never really hits with the impact it should.

Jessica Chastain might be the excellent center point here, considering she plays a central supporting role in both films. In The Martian, she’s Matt Damon’s commander, and in Interstellar she’s Cooper’s daughter (Matthew McConaughey’s character). Her troubled relationship permeates most of Interstellar, and her troubled relationship with leaving the astronaut on Mars that permeates most of The Martian, but only one of them feels truly meaningful. The other is just almost a shade of a real conflict, as Jessica Chastain “wrestles” in the least impactful way with leaving Matt Damon behind on Mars. If film is illusion, then its puppets need to be convincing, they need to be Punch and Judy, not  a man with his hand up two backsides making silly voices.

SCALE

Interstellar is a big film. In every sense of the word. It’s a monolith, each piece of it, from the writing of the film which required screen-writer Jonathan Nolan to study the science behind relativity at Caltech, to the scientific and technological papers published from the making of the film, to the unbelievably layered and constructed score, I mean I know it sounds like I’m over investing in the film, but truly every aspect clicks so well and no shortcuts seem to be noticeable. I mean the sound mixing and editing alone is impeccable. The key here though, is that the more you scale something, the easier it is for the house of cards to collapse.

This is really where The Martian comes into its own. The problems of accretion disks in black holes just don’t exist in the world of this film. As a result its a lot tighter, a lot leaner, and more importantly is never at risk from completely overloading and overpowering your visual and auditory senses, along with your mind’s processing power.It’s ironclad this film, and it’s because of its simplicity. No characters in this are giving the space or necessary reason to spout philosophies at each other, or to be betrayed by someone who experienced a cruel fate in the first place. There isn’t really any room for anything besides just what is happening on-screen and when and how and if Mark Watney will be saved from the red planet.

FAILURES

Here’s the key here. Interstellar is so ambitious, and its scale becomes so gargantuan, that its flaws become gargantuan with it. Plot pin pricks become plot gaping holes, and the central core of the theme becomes a giant presence, which as its reach extends, so too does the audience who can react or reject it. Not everyone will agree on Anne Hathaway’s sentiments on love, or his mixing of the emotional and the rational, or his science which under scrutiny has fallen apart (in particular, the low hanging fruit appears to be the Blight idea which would not occur in reality). Every leap the film makes, leaves a space where people can leave it behind. To go along with the journey is one thing, but to accept or appreciate it or even like it requires something else.The harder you think about things, as human history shows us, the more divided opinion becomes.

Combine this with Nolan’s almost magical status in cinema today, as a man who provides intellectually nourishing mass entertainment. People call him out as overrated, and regardless of whether you agree with that or not, its hard to deny that his films are just cannon fodder for the movie machines. His films if nothing else (and I believe they do a lot more) provoke thought, and provide incredibly engaging visual spectacle. As a result, his films meet an almost maddening level of scrutiny, as critics are finally giving something with so much meat on its bone. A Nolan film may mean many things to you, but it never leaves you with nothing to say. As a result, the “elite” descended from their perches, to dissect and pull it apart and explained to us that it was good, but not really great because x,y and z.

Put this way then, the failures of The Martian’s supporting cast to be really engaging pales in comparison. So what if they aren’t particularly memorable? The story’s about Matt Damon,sorry Mark Watney, and they all need to help him. Oh there wasn’t enough spectacle? Well the film is trying to be far more realistic than other “space operas”. The Martian presents astronaut food on a plate on the moon, while Interstellar presents a buffet which breaks its inter-dimensional table. One is the cinema of spectacle and excess, which has its failures and flaws. The other is the cinema of the technological and the functional, where mechanically the pieces lock into perfect place at the expense of personality.

There’s a point in a Paul Thomas Anderson Q and A  I saw ages ago(which is pretty funny/depressing, considering he looks like he wants to leave the whole time and the mic kept being weird) where he talks about films and flaws and personality. I think cinema is better for both The Martian and Interstellar being in them. But in my corner, I’d take a personal failure over a mechanical victory any day.The Martian is by no means a bad film, and is far easier to watch. But that doesn’t make it better, it just makes it more palatable. And in the age where everyone’s a critic, simplicity sells far better because it offers less room for people to take issue with it.

-Alex

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Cinema and Ambition: The Martian and Interstellar