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)

American Animals (2018)

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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)

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Spike Lee is not a subtle filmmaker, I don’t think im stepping on many toes by saying this. He specialises in issue led films which have clear and important messages often centred on American racial division. Here however Lee uses his anger at the racial segregation being pushed by the POTUS (Agent Orange as he calls him) to craft a powerfully prescient story of the importance of overcoming racism and the spread of hateful language in modern culture. However Lee is no fool and knows he needs to make it entertaining and oh is BlacKkKlansman fun to watch.

Lee uses the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black policeman in the Colorado Springs Police force who at first is overlooked because of his race. However when he is transferred to the intelligence section of the force he quickly begins to use his wit and intelligence to ingratiate himself over the phone with the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. As he is obviously not the desired recruit for such a group it falls to another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to visit and delve deeper into the Klan to monitor them and see how dangerous they are to public safety. John David Washington and Adam Driver as Stallworth and Zimmerman are a really effective duo, with Stallworth taking the job as a subversive crusade to fight racism from the inside, whilst Zimmerman slowly begins to understand that the investigation has more and more poignancy for him than he first realised. The two actors are perfectly cast, having not seen John David Washington in anything before he was immensely impressive, and seems to have picked up all the charisma and chops of his Oscar-winning father Denzel Washington. Meanwhile Adam Driver yet again teaches a masterclass in understatement and empathy. Lee uses this true story to craft a kind of buddy cop movie where the two men most identify with each other over their status as minorities in America and in definition by the Klan themselves.

Lee treats the Klan as both comic figures and as people who are genuine threats to America there may be braying bumbling idiots in the organisation but there are also more cunning and measured racists who are the real threats. Topher Grace as David Duke, the then grand wizard of the KKK plays him with a creepy self-assurance. Duke is more bank manager than racist monster but the language he uses gives him away. Lee is also very clearly drawing parallels between one monster and another, our current POTUS. Duke is responsible for the phrase America First after all, Dukes own political motives are viewed as a ridiculous pipe dream in the film, a cringe inducing exchange that really hammers home how dark America is right now. The power of language is really called to the forefront in the film, whether it’s from civil rights activists speaking truth to power, or from the bigots of the Klan spewing bile at every opportunity. Honestly the language that the Klan do use in the film became hard to hear after a while, the sheer abrasiveness of their speech really brings the power in those words home (if that was needed to begin with).

Somehow Lee balances the moods of this film very delicately whilst still being able to hammer home its political message. The film is challenging and yet incredibly fun to watch, it zips along with a real verve and is funny to boot. The pace and wit of the film may come from Lee’s clear influence he’s taking from the Blaxploitation films he namechecks within the film. Their slightly overwrought action and soundtracks make an appearance in the film as well as their humour. Lee has always managed to do this balance of humour and serious discussion, think of Do the Right Thing which is an incredibly funny film but also has a strong seam of pathos running through it. The 70s aesthetic of this film is all-encompassing, Lee is clearly drawing our attention to the period and trying to say that whilst this might seem like another world filled with beige and olive clothes and massive Afros, the issues are still the same and are actually getting worse in our current world. The world is incredibly well realised, with everything from the editing techniques to the spot on period detail and costumes.

The films ending is another strong point of this film but do not worry I am not spoiling the overall plot of the film, there is just a moment in which we are pulled out of the past and planted in the here and now which was immensely affecting. Lee uses a short montage of footage from the white power marches in Charlottesville North Carolina to reflect back on us the reality of what the film has been talking about, these bigots that may have had to hide before are now marching in the street with the support of the President, once again Lee is asking us to ‘Wake up’ and get woke to what’s going on. A message that after a film this good, is hard to say no to.

-Ed

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BlacKkKlansman (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)

The Animatrix (2003)

Animatrix_High

­ 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.


Regardless of your opinions on The Matrix series, the ethos of The Animatrix is one I wished existed more in film. The Wachowski’s, riding high off of the cult of long trench coats they had established with the series first instalment, set their sights higher for the rest of their stories. In the creation of its’ second and third instalments, they managed to birth this surreal side project. To create an anthology of tales to do with the world of The Matrix, but not specifically relating to its main canon of Neo. Oh, and they would all be animated, each done in a different style by exceptional animation directors from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Shinchirō Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Peter Cheung, Mahiro Maeda, Takeshi Koike and Andrew R. Jones all contributed to the project.

It’s interesting when looking back at it, to see the path the Wachowski’s carved out with this series. Because honestly projects like these in cinema, especially today are practically non-existent. The genuine example of vision here is so bold I’m kind of awed by it. Ideas in film today are so psychotically and irrationally guarded, it’s amazing to see the wildly different directors continually chewed up by the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a rainbow coloured sludge. For the Wachowski’s to offer up their baby so to speak, to the whims of other visionaries and not just through contractual obligations, but through active enthusiasm and engagement (they collaborated on each film and wrote four of the nine total scripts, one being a two-parter) is fiercely brilliant, even if it had been a colossal failure.

Fortunately, the films themselves are not colossal failures. What really gets me is the range shown, the range of ideas and the range of how much they engage with the world of The Matrix. While all are connected in some way, some are much looser than others. In particular Beyond (Koji Morimoto) about a girl looking for her cat in a house where the physics of reality (read: computer simulation of reality) stop working, is not interested in “waking up from the conspiracy”. In fact if you didn’t know it was officially part of The Matrix canon, it could very well exist without that connection, and that goes for a few of these short films. But they don’t just stand on their own; they fly.

To start, the animation styles on display here are a brilliant showcase to the world of animation. Everything from 3D CGI of western animations, to classic anime styles, to stylised pastiches of film genres, to experimental and wild animation that tears and drips out of the screen. Honestly, the project deserves to be seen just for that. It’s just wild that a project like this contains so much aesthetic variation, even if that was the intended emphasis. The animation style in a film like Matriculated (Peter Cheung) is just one I don’t have any reference point to compare to, beyond the extremes of The Holy Mountain (1973, Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky). What an insane but cool comparison point to have! Animation has always been able to transcend the limitations of reality, and this anthology is a testament to just how far animation has been able to do that.

And the films themselves take the material of The Matrix, something they’re all fans of, and pull the ideas and themes they’re interested in and mould them into their own films. Like comic book writers taking a long-standing character, and putting their own mark on them, the world of The Matrix becomes fertile soil for these films to grow from. While I appreciate some more than others, all of them contribute a unique spin on what makes them tick when they connect with The Matrix. Program (Yoshiaki Kawajiri) is a special example of this. One only connected through the concepts involved (i.e plugging into a simulated reality), it shows what clicked in Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s mind when he built his own personal relationship to The Matrix series and ideas.

Ultimately, The Animatrix is not essential viewing in regards to The Matrix series. Besides some limited promotional screenings, it never showed in cinemas and was released direct to video/DVD. While it provides context (some of it definitely important) to the main films, those main films still function without The Animatrix. But to skip by it is a mistake for every other reason not regarding to The Matrix. Short stories are underappreciated, and anthology tales like these have the opportunity to add texture to that world, but more importantly they are original, arresting at times and beautiful to look at. They are the work of some fine animation directors experimenting in a world under the supervision of its’ original creators, a working environment unheard of in cinema. This series of films is a beacon, and one you’d do well to pay attention to. Just make sure you’ve seen The Matrix first to really get the juice out of this one.

-Alex

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The Animatrix (2003)

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix

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.


So it all starts here. With a chase scene that reminds me of a Backstreet Boys music video that I love.

This is the beginning of the film. It’s weird for me, who was too young to properly understand and digest The Matrix when it was first on TV, to be watching it with adult eyes. It’s weird to remember that The Matrix actually has a beginning if that makes sense. Because for me, the only thing I can remember from it, is certain memories of images. The image of the bug crawling inside Neo’s stomach. The image of his mouth shut by his own skin. The image of the abstract empty training zone. And obviously there are the more iconic moments, the bullet time and the kung fu and the “Misterrrr Anderrrrrsonnnnn”. I guess what I’m trying to say was the memories in my head of The Matrix are those of moments, of images. It’s kind of bizarre to remember those moments are actually part of a sequence, a story.

And usually when I’m writing about films for this site, I’m trying to do it without bringing any personal baggage to the project. But The Matrix series is weird for me, because I remember watching it all the time and loving it, but I can’t actually remember anything about it beyond some memories of images. It’s ironic then that this is part of the same stress Neo goes through, of carrying the baggage of his remembered past, into an illusion shattering present. His life spent inside the simulation, “the matrix” is as real to him as our lives are to us. Even if it’s not real.

I think in a technology driven world, technology driven stories are going to interest us inherently, and I think the sustained influence of The Matrix, of its ideas is testament to that. Although its pre-Y2K “hax0r “aesthetic looks dated as hell now, it’s interesting to think how much our collective common thinking about the internet can be traced in this film. It’s a paranoid film that’s for damn sure. You can almost draw a straight line between this and the next big reality breaker Inception (2010, Dir. Christopher Nolan), where reality and dream become inseparable.

But just because The Matrix could have been interesting, doesn’t mean it would become the classic it’s revered as. And watching it now with adult eyes and some distance between us, it might be easy to only look for the faults of the film. The aesthetic of the film looks a little bit school shooter, but that’s because that image was co-opted later, after The Matrix came out. It’s not the fault of the film’s aesthetic designers at all. But the whole film’s imagery, from its costumes to its cinematography is possessed by a bleakness. Colours and walls are washed out, filled with sepia and gray tones. It’s a world drained of colour, of life. And the world itself is filled with unrecognisable personas, characters who speak in lectures and riddles while others speak in b-movie clichés. The Matrix is filled with big ideas, but on its surface it’s a techno grunge-y guns and fists brawl. In fact it’s very minimal in this regard, its ideas are distilled to a degree of experience above all else. Cinema-kinetics.

And because of that vision, it’s also so difficult to capture what makes it worthwhile in words. I mean, the fact alone that it’s an intelligent sci-fi film which was marketed as a blockbuster and actually lives up to that title is worth it alone, but also its’ restlessness and genre crossing make it a hybrid which just needs to be witnessed. In the world of the Matrix, it makes sense why this idea captured the imagination of the populace. It’s a distilled vision, one which definitely has some drawbacks and one which is distinctly individual (if a vision by two brothers can be individual, including the input of a technical and creative team of probably hundreds).

I don’t have to explain and sum up The Matrix here. This whole film is the first part of an intended trilogy, a film meant to be experienced as part of a larger whole (although the unity of this film is due to it only being signed on as a one-movie deal). Which is good, because I’m finding it difficult to conclude what I feel about this film. It’s like being exposed to a web, and the sheer volume of different strands and points you’re riding on and the things you discover means that it’s very hard to actually stand back and view the whole thing, even to comment on it. Keanu Reeves awakening into this techno-future is one we ride alongside on, and we have about as much time as he does to reflect on the events of his cybernetic world. It bursts with ideas though, and doesn’t have to answer any of them yet.  So I’ll end for now, with this.

The Matrix is a flashpoint in cinema history. Love it or hate, it’s a film which was born first as a film. It has voluminous influences, from comic books to philosophy and chucking in the kitchen sink in-between, but it’s a film that will always first and foremost, be cinema. I’m not waving the flag for this to be the greatest film of all time, but inventive cinema that’s not riding the coat tails off of other mediums is something valuable.  And I wish there was more of it.

-Alex

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The Matrix (1999)