J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for March, 2008

The Matrix Trilogy

Posted by J on March 29, 2008

Let’s begin with the end.  The third movie in the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix: Revolutions, is blatantly200px-the_matrix_poster.jpg anti-Christian.  The hero and potential savior, Neo, decides to go on a mission and save Zion from the machines who rule the Earth.  Neo travels to Machine City with his girlfriend, Trinity.  Trinity dies just after their ship crashlands, but before doing so she states that Neo must go on without her.  Then Neo makes peace with the machines by agreeing to destroy the rogue computer program, Agent Smith, the movie’s symbol of destructive nihilism.  So how does Neo destroy Smith?  By combining with him and thereby negating him.

So not only is Trinity killed off, but after that happens the unbalanced good and evil forces in the universe combine in order to restore the balance of peace and harmony to the world. Final score: Yin/Yang 1, Christianity 0.

All three Matrix movies are filled with a record number of philosophical inanities.  Religious symbols and ideas are thrown together in a visual hodgepodge so that, hopefully, we’ll all just accept them and enjoy a multi-million dollar spectacle.  Consider that Neo is “the One,” the Savior of the city of Zion, who with the help of Trinity, Morpheus, Seraph, and the Oracle will overthrow the machine civilization.  To do this, Neo must confront the Merovingian, visit the Architect (a god-like figure), and make peace with the Deus Ex Machina.  What does this all really mean?  Which world–the real or the computer program–is really reality?  Not only does this trilogy not clearly answer these questions, it doesn’t even care.  Choose whatever you want to believe, as long as you’re paying $10 to watch.

But we do find one solid answer, in Agent Smith’s final dialogue with Neo.  Here, Smith confronts Neo with the facts:

Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more that your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?”

Neo: “Because I choose to.”

If we were to explain the philosophy of existentialism, we could do no better than the movie does here.  Having nothing ultimately to live for, trapped in an artificial world he can never make sense of, Neo exists only to choose.  But unfortunately it doesn’t matter whether Neo chooses to live or not; the end result of either choice is the same: nothing.  Fundamentally, Neo’s choice is meaninglessness.  Some Savior, this Neo.

But then countless Christians have told us how great The Matrix is, mainly the first movie in this trilogy.  Fine, take it as  a standalone work without the ridiculous sequels.  As much as you’d like to believe that Neo is a Jesus Christ figure, a Savior of the Matrix world in a noble retelling of the death-and-resurrection story, you’re forgetting a great deal.  For The Matrix is entirely gnostic.  It is not Neo’s physical body that is resurrected, but his mentally constructed body that exists only in a computer program.  Neo’s real body has to be plugged into the Matrix, and in that program he is a Savior.  But the actual material world remains a grim place in which machines rule.  Who’s going to save that?  Of course, the third movie answers that with its nonsensical blend of existentialism and Oriental philosophy.

The success of this trilogy rests on one act, the first act in the first movie.  In that opening 45 minutes, Neo discovers that his world is not really what it seems, that there is far more than what he’s previously known.  This is no different than the setup of beloved children’s stories — Alice in Wonderland; The Wizard of Oz; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the first Harry Potter book.  Thereafter, in the final two-thirds of the first movie and its two sequels, The Matrix is full of bullets and karate chops.  We think Neo should’ve taken the blue pill.  That would’ve been a more peaceful choice, and ultimately, that choice didn’t matter anyway.

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, They Spent Millions on This? | 1 Comment »

The Bourne Identity Supremacy Anonymity Synchronicity Ultimatum

Posted by J on March 21, 2008

At the end of the Bourn200px-bourneposter.jpge movies — and yes, we’re going to tell you what happens; the suspense is in the action, not the storyline — Jason Bourne jumps off a building to escape from his enemies. We cut to the chief of the U.S. government spy operation, who shoots at Bourne. Then Bourne falls into the river below. His body hangs lifeless, suspended in water, his arms outstretched with a bright light shining down from above him. Is he shot, and will he live or not? We cut to a newstory about the exposed spy operation. Authorities have searched for Bourne’s body for — hint hint — three days, but have found nothing. Now we cut back to Bourne, who comes to life, swims away, and the movie ends.

Bourne is something of a Jesus figure here, just as he’s been a Superman throughout the rest of the movie. He can survive fierce beatings, long jumps between rooftops, and serious car crashes. He’s also gained a conscience and starts to preach to another brainwashed spy, shortly before his pseudo-death and resurrection, that it’s not right to murder just because you’ve been brainwashed. The symbolism is thinly applied, but perhaps for good reason, since moviemakers know what makes big bucks.

This doesn’t make it worth your time to watch these movies. Only The Bourne Ultimatum has a plot. The first two, The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, contain nothing but Bourne being elaborately chased through several major cities. But even with The Bourne Ultimatum, there’s nothing that’s not in countless other spy movies from the last twenty years.

Bourne is an American superagent with amnesia. He wants to find his identity, and he needs to avoid and infiltrate the CIA to do so. Bourne, then, is the anti-James Bond. Bond revels in being a government agent who makes killing for that government sexy. Bond also knows who he is, and everyone knows who he is.

But the Bourne movies — if they pursue moral problems at all — question the morality of government spy agencies. The fantasy of these movies is that a person, Bourne in this case, can avoid the massive, all-seeing surveillance state. CIA agents are everywhere, they have cameras everywhere, and they are fast and efficient. In several chase scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum, the spy agency’s central operation in New York can see almost everything via a vast information center. Bourne eludes them only by being very fast and very clever, but it is clear that no normal citizen could ever avoid being captured or shot by these people, a fact that a newspaper reporter learns the hard way. Even worse, this surveillance state is global, a fact emphasized by frequent shifts in locale. (And where haven’t we gone in these movies? Only Greenland, Antarctica, and Mars.)

Bourne finds a conscience when he realizes that he knows none of the names of the people he’s killed. The fact is that besides not knowing who he is, he hasn’t known anyone else either (except a girlfriend he shacks up with). Bourne’s world of a vast, global surveillance state is entirely anonymous. The world’s cities in which Bourne runs from his pursuers are backdrops for Bourne to become nobody, or to use one of his countless fake identities. Bourne deliberately blends into crowds of people so as to disappear. As the audience, we know the faces in that crowd just as well as we know Bourne.

This coldhearted impersonality is something we’ve noted before, and when Bourne gets a conscience, he seems to realize this too. Unfortunately this series of movies ends without the development of any personal relationships, making the Christ symbolism less than potent. Why would Christians enjoy watching a story that completely lacks relational connections? We probably want Bourne to find out who he is, but it’s at the expense of slogging through three, mostly plotless, feature films made with a deliberately shaking camera. And in the end we don’t get what we want.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 3 (see review)

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Silly but Entertaining | Leave a Comment »

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Posted by J on March 18, 2008

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the unsung Frank Capra movie. Everyone’s seen It’s amdgtt1936.jpg Wonderful Life twenty times, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is patrioticly satisfying, but Mr. Deeds stands with them as a plain old great flick.

Thankfully Capra’s naive socialism is not at it’s heart. Instead it gives simple praise to rural/small-town conservatism. This praise is implicit in most of Capra’s well-known movies–in which small-town heroes stand against greedy business interests and corrupt urban bureaucrats–but it’s the main focus in Mr. Deeds. Here, Longfellow Deeds, a greeting-card poet and tuba player from tiny Mandrake Falls, inherits $20 million from a distant relative. Whisked away to New York City, Deeds is coddled and manipulated by lawyers, the media, and greedy rich people. What happens next is typical Capra: romance, montages involving newspaper headlines, a courtroom scene, and the hero giving a final, defensive, decisive speech. All of it is syrupy, and all of it works.

To take a country boy and put him in a big city is an old storyline, done thousands of times, Mr. Deeds being one of them. In this story, the points of contrast between rural and urban people are in their uses of wealth and their cultural expectations. As a hackneyed poet, Deeds and his simple verse are mocked by high-class modernist poets, whom Deeds gladly punches in the face. Deeds’ financial decisions and his leveling attitude towards servants (he doesn’t want them rolling up his pants for him, thank you very much) raise eyebrows among the lawyer class. No one understands why Deeds wants to turn his opera company from a non-profit into a for-profit organization. No one can fathom why he would jump on a fire engine and help put out a fire. No one can believe that Deeds would give his wealth away to hundreds of poor families during the Great Depression.

For all that misunderstanding, Deeds is charged with insanity. His lawyers and financial consultants, trying to wrest Deeds’ wealth away from him, manufacture a courtcase. They want to take down Deeds using that great intellectual fad of the early 20th century: psychobabble. So a psychologist with a Swiss accent testifies that Deeds has serious mental problems. Who will stand up for Deeds?

Mr. Deeds works just as well today as it did in the mid-30s. Big-city bankers and lawyers, backed by government bureaucrats, represent cultural interests alien to most American folk (e.g., Washington D.C. politics, and the Hollywood of the last 50 years). It is not the case that rural or small-town people are more virtuous; they’re capable of great sins, and as a result the places in which they live can be as hellish as big cities. But good-hearted places like Deeds’ Mandrake Falls still exists. How do they resist the vices and alien cultures of the metropols? Imitating Mr. Deeds is a start: practice Christian charity, write poetry (good or bad), and play the tuba in the local band.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

Posted in Comedy, Great | Leave a Comment »

X-Files (TV Series)

Posted by J on March 13, 2008

250px-msf74.jpgThe Industrial Revolution has given us a lot of headaches. Thanks to the advances in technology and productivity since 1800, we work sedentary jobs, not having to milk cows, chop wood, make clothes, and live an Amish lifestyle. But that means we get fat. Especially in the winter. What to do but buy a piece of modern technology–an exercise machine, or in our case a treadmill. That’s the cure for our winter fatness. But with the treadmill comes other problems. Just what do we do while we run the Red Queen’s race? Because we need to be spoonfed entertainment, we can’t remain content running in place. It’s too boring. So we enhance our technological setup, just to get a workout. On our treadmill is an MP3 player. Next to it is our lone TV and DVD. And this setup sometimes feels a bit frightening. It’s too cluttered, too mechanical, too wired, too much.

The X-Files–our choice of viewing for our winter treadmill runs this year–also understands the headaches of the Industrial Revolution. In the show’s case, the main headache is that a bunch of aliens are in cahoots with the federal government in trying to take over the world. This not quite our clutter problem in the bedroom, but it’s close nonetheless. Anyway, The X-Files is nine seasons worth of the fear of conspiracies, computer technologies, global economic systems, and human mutant sewer-worms.

Now we didn’t watch all nine seasons–very far from that–but we did get the gyst of the show. All you have to watch, dear reader, is the very first episode of the first season and the very last episode of the last season. Maybe you could throw in a couple of others too, but the last episode explains all, saving us lots of time and lots of hours not spent listening to bad ’90s TV synthesizer music. Now C.’s reaction when she first realized that we were watching the show was, “Um, dear, isn’t that really creepy?” which implies that in her mind it’s either Satanic, gross, or stupid. To the first we say “no,” to the second “sometimes,” and to the third, “What do you think? It’s a TV show.”

But the show isn’t stupid all the time. There are actually brilliant episodes thrown in here and there. We appreciated one (not brilliant, but decent) dedicated to making fun of television viewers. The episode involved a man capable of changing reality with his brain. Of course he didn’t think of a tropical island fantasy or an endless supply of Dairy Queen blizzards, but he envisioned himself on The Brady Bunch. He imagined the B.B. house and its occupants smiling at him because that’s what made him happy. In the course of the show, this psychic freak gains a real father and is told to stop fantasizing altogether. Why? Because it’s killing him. Even better, Agent Doggett advises us all to shut off the TV while stating that our Brady Bunch freak now “has something better to do: live in reality.” This got us thinking about our own treadmill setup.

The show’s tone is grim, dark, haunting, and conspiratorial. It’s a sci-fi detective show on steroids. There is no escape anywhere for Agent Mulder (our hero and truthseeker), an FBI agent who works within the government system to discover and reveal the government conspiracy. With all the technological devices run amok in the show, and with all the mutants, freaks, and alien invaders, The X-Files plays off of a lot of understandable modern fears. Namely, an increasingly powerful government, the increasing likelihood of global government, and the rapid social changes brought about by mass immigration and globalization. Whew. But hey, at least in The X-Files the government is generally the bad guy.

The show throws bones to religious conservatives. Maybe it’s on their side, maybe not. In episode four of season one, we learn that Mulder believes in a vague “higher power.” That show ends with Mulder weeping in a cathedral. This is a fine gesture, since Mulder has nothing else to cling to. Mulder’s partner, Agent Scully, is a lapsed Catholic turned hyper-rationalist, but there are plenty of signs that she wants to believe in something supernatural too. The last scene in the series finale makes these kinds of gestures, but goes no farther than gestures. After learning about the alien conspiracy in full, Mulder and Scully muse about the possibility of the afterlife. Mulder wants to believe that “maybe there’s something after we die.” Then he sees the cross around Scully’s neck–the visual symbol for hope here–and then the entire series ends. Well so much for those aliens taking over in 2012. We’ve got crosses of gold!

It’s not that we’re being iconoclastic here, it’s just that we’re not sure how serious to take these gestures. It feels like The X-Files exploits sacred objects or symbols, but that could be because it just does that in a hokey way. At least the show is not outright hostile to Christians, which 92.5% of everything on TV is.

But now that spring’s almost here, we can forget our treadmill and go outdoors as we please. No more TV while running in place for us. We won’t miss aliens with telekinetic powers, but we might miss Mulder and Scully’s search for truth. That’s a noble quest. We just wish that Mulder and Scully had figured out that the truth is not “out there,” but instead it is God with us.

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, TV Series | 1 Comment »

Lost: Season 3

Posted by J on March 10, 2008

After two high-quality seasons, this third season of Lost opened with a baking mitt opening an oven, the pop song “Downtown,” and a suburban book club. The members of the book club are discussing Stephen King’s Carrie. One club member claims that Carrie stinks “because there’s no metaphor.” Another, however, quietly tells him to shut up because it’s her favorite book.

We had those two reactions to most of this season. Yes, we like the show and it has successfully hooked us to this point. But what does it all mean? Season 3 doesn’t have much of a metaphor, or a greater meaning, that we could comprehend.

Let’s explain. If Seasons 1 and 2 were about anything–and they did had a tremendous amount to say about sociology, don’t get us wrong–they’re about the challenges of belief. John Locke, Eko, Desmond, and Jack all faced up to the problem of the hatch task. The show’s growing mythology props up this problem. The island provides not just plenty of mysteries, but visions, dreams, and a strange cloud-spirit monster–all of which enrichen the hatch task problem.

Season 3 changes the immediate problem. It pits the plane-crash group (we’ll call it Jack’s group) against the Others. As viewers our problem is that we don’t sympathize with either group. The Others were never worthy of that sympathy. They lie, manipulate, kidnap children, torture captives, brainwash teenagers, practice slave labor, perform unethical science experiments on pregnant women, and attempt to murder people–all while claiming that they’re “the good guys.” Meanwhile, by the middle of Season 3 we’re hardly sympathizing with anybody in Jack’s group, which is less a unified group than a loosely-bound collection of rogue individuals with their own personal agendas.

Consequently, Season 3 features a lot of low-level, action-packed drama. Capture, interrogation, escape, betrayal, two love triangles, lots of tense moments with guns — it’s all there. But what was the point of it all? In the case of most episodes, we had a hard time figuring that out.

To say something good about it, Lost is ruthless in its portrayal of the immediate effects of original sin. Even the most decent characters–Jack, Locke, and Sun–become increasingly violent in a place where there’s little accountability for violent acts. And almost all of the characters continue to hide the truth, lie, manipulate, and form sub-groups with each other based upon hidden truths. However, dramatically speaking, this great turn to the dark side is a great problem because it leaves us as viewers with no heroes to root for and almost no one to sympathize with. (Season 4 amplifies this problem by a factor of ten.)

The episodes featuring John Locke, Jack Shepherd, and Desmond Hume in flashbacks continue to be the strongest. The rest of the characters have remained flat (for example, every time we see them Ben’s a clever manipulator and Sayid’s a noble guy with a torturer’s streak), and it seems that the writers are content to alleviate that problem merely by cycling through characters, killing some off and bringing new faces on, which is as exhausting as it is confusing.

The turn at the end of Season 3 to flashforwards was a momentarily effective plot twist. Unfortunately, while it’s supposed to make people yearn for what will happen next, it mostly eliminates the tremendous narrative possibilities with the flashback sequences, in which character motivations can be questioned and comparisons can be made between a character’s past civilized life and his new existence on the island. Now, with the flashforwards in Season 4, we’re only left asking what has really happened.

Worst of all, Season 3 amps up the sex content. While there was little else but a few bikinis in the first two seasons, the third (and currently the fourth) are unnecessarily pornographic. We’re now turning away our heads almost once per episode, which is a sign that we probably shouldn’t be watching it anyway. Viewer beware.

(Admittedly, this review could be too disillusioned. We miss the old John Locke, before he became a combination of King Lear and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. And we miss Eko and his Bible stick.)

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, TV Series | 1 Comment »