I remember the early 2000s well, that era where computer technology was finally becoming present in the average household but not omnipresent in everyday life. If you were an early adopter of technology, no doubt you owned a DVD player, offering the highest-quality of picture with absolutely zero degradation on repeated viewings like the inferior VHS format – and if you owned a DVD player, you almost certainly owned a copy of The Matrix. And how cool it was, with all the extra features telling you how the filmmakers put together the wire-fu and bullet-time, and every time in this era more than two people were at home with nothing to do, somehow they would end up putting the film on, and it never stopped being awesome.
Well, it’s not the early 2000s any more, and my how The Matrix has aged.
Hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is liberated from the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late-20th century, by cyberpunk-terrorist Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and thrust into a post-apocalyptic future where the remains of humanity wage war against their robotic overlords from within the simulation. No other film is a more finely-sharpened pinpoint marking when the landscape of film changed – almost overnight it seems that all action was dominated by stylistic slow-motion, Hong Kong-inspired wire-work, and flowing leather trenchcoats – but that really is the sum of The Matrix‘s legacy. The philosophical concepts raised about being able to trust our own reality are nothing more than a half-baked rehash of Descartes, the science fiction laughably-thin cyberpunk coming at around the time of cyberpunk’s dying breath, the action overwrought, the dialogue pretentious, and the acting (with the exception of Hugo Weaving‘s unnatural cadence as Agent Smith) painfully flat. The film borrows from many sources in both style and content but gives no depth to any of them, and if time and perspective wasn’t enough to prove the Wachowski siblings were just making things up on the fly then the two sequels certainly were. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the film was just a cobbled-together mix of interesting sci-fi and anime things with no greater aspirations other than to collect up all these cool things and show them to an audience under one big tent, but it takes itself so amazingly seriously; there is no humour, no joy, no sense of triumph or danger, just stone-faced exposition and stone-faced kung fu in the torrential green rain.
I really enjoyed the first entry into the Hobbit trilogy – it was slowly-paced and managed to capture of the tone of the book very well, faithfully rendering many of the memorable scenes in the fist six or so chapters of the story. The story of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming homebody who gets shoved into a wild adventure by the wizard Gandalf and finds in himself a depth of bravery and cunning he never knew he possessed is much beloved for a reason – it’s a classic fantasy tale with an excellent narrator, this quaint little fish-out-of-water among a band of hardened warriors.
But since Bilbo managed to find himself at the end of the first film, apparently we can move on and do something completely different for The Desolation of Smaug.
The comfortable pacing that allowed for dwarven songs and character interaction is replaced with computer-generated roller-coaster rides, sections of the book skimmed over to allow more time for pointless asides to provide credibility for characters barely- or non-existent in the original text. For a film titled The Hobbit, there was a severe lack of hobbit for the first half, so much so that when Bilbo took prominence on the screen after a long absence (to find the hidden door into the Lonely Mountain) I nearly said out loud, “Oh, are you still here?” Taking the focus off Bilbo attempts to make the whole film just as serious an affair as The Lord of the Rings, and it’s… not. It’s not a story about events that shape the whole world but how one adventure affects an unlikely adventurer, and aside from his conversation with Smaug the dragon there was none of that story in this film. I don’t care about Azog the Defiler, I certainly don’t care about Tauriel and her silly love triangle with Legolas and Kili, and these additional elements stealing focus made me care less about the canonical-but-background elements like Gandalf’s uncovering of the Necromancer, Thorin’s quest to become king, and everything about Lake-town: they’re uninteresting if you don’t have that very quiet, very English voice providing running commentary on all of it and wishing they were back at home where they would have seven square meals a day, but also occasional being surprised at their latest feat of daring. Even if the third film manages to restore the tone, that can’t make up for the anemic second entry. Extremely disappointing.
I think by now I can officially say that I don’t “get” Charlie Chaplin. The mischief his innocuous Little Tramp character manages to keep falling into doesn’t translate to feature-length format at all for me – I imagine I would find it similarly difficult to stay focused during ninety minutes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck playing “duck season, rabbit season”, too – and despite the insistence people have that the social commentary in his films retains its relevance, I can’t bring myself to agree. Not to say that it doesn’t exist – calling Hitler out in The Great Dictator was a bold thing to do at the time, and the effect of industrialisation on the workforce and the role it played in the Great Depression certainly would have resonated with audiences when Modern Times was released – but it fails to have any lasting impact; the social observations feel more like a backdrop or even an accident, the thing that provides the setup for where the Tramp is going to be while he engages in his slapstick. The comedy is almost completely driven by physicality – you could transplant the sequences into a completely different context (see the Tramp working on the assembly line early in the film replicated with Donald Duck and Lucille Ball) and they would work just as well. Nothing about the comedy is in any way inherently tied to the situations presented – they’re all just a framework to string together a very loosely-connected set of sequences, that, while often technically impressive and inventive, have nothing to do with the dehumanisation of workers in an industrial society, unions and the labour movement, poverty and vagrancy, the penal system, and so on. When Brian shouts down to his followers that they are all individuals, and they all assert they are (except for one lone dissenter), that’s tied to the core message that you should find your own interpretation of faith instead of blindly following someone elses; when C.C. Baxter waits outside alone in the cold for his co-worker to finish his tryst in his own apartment, it underscores his isolation and terrible romantic track record; when the Little Tramp sings nonsense words to a song because he can’t remember the words, it doesn’t matter why – it happens to be because he needs to job to not go hungry, but it could just as easily be to impress a girl or because of mistaken identity or to avoid a large man who wants to hit him.
I may have mentioned once or twice that, if given the choice, I like to go into films blind; that is, with little to no knowledge about what happens in the film. Usually it’s fairly evident at least what the main genre is going to be by the first five minutes, and it’s of course difficult to avoid picking up some knowledge about the best films of all time through their appearance in references and parodies, but still, I like to have as few expectations as I can get. What I knew of Vertigo was that it was an Alfred Hitchcock film, that it was the origin of the dolly zoom, and that one of the famous scenes was set in a clock tower. That’s enough to get an impression of what the film may be – a mystery, perhaps, where the protagonist has to overcome his fear of heights in the climactic scene – but what the actual film is turned out to be something else entirely: unpredictable, uncomfortable, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Former detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), retired after developing acrophobia, is asked by an old friend to investigate his wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), whose erratic behaviour suggests she is being possessed by a suicidal ancestor. That’s an out-there premise already – even within the realms of ghost stories, just how do you appease a spirit like that? – but somehow the reality of the situation is even more convoluted: Madeline’s madness is all an act put on by an impersonator, Judy Barton, for Madeline’s husband to get away with murdering her by shaping John to be a credible witness to her “suicide”. The flaw in the incredibly shaky plan comes when John falls in love with Judy-as-Madeline and spirals into depressive obsession when he believes her dead. Having the film pivot from ghost-noir to a focus on one man’s descent into an internal hell is jarring; there’s perhaps more of a film to be made about John’s possessive and controlling attempts to recreate Madeline in Judy (whom he meets by chance) and Judy’s being a somewhat willing participant out of guilt over her involvement in the muder plot, which is at odds with the otherwise normal and sometimes slow first half of the film. The mystery is unpredictable and the psychological drama dark and disturbing, but neither fit together nor have much logic on their own. Watching the film made me feel like I had vertigo myself – while I’m sure that’s the intention, I can’t help but think it was meant to be out of confusion and uncertainty rather than incredulity.
No matter how much advertising companies would like it to be so, you can’t manufacture nostalgia. Without the actual investment of years of memory, such faux-nostalgia can only manage a lukewarm reception at best, a half-hearted, “Oh yeah, that’s kinda like this one thing I remember…” If Monster House had come out in 1986 instead of 2006 as a live-action feature, it would most likely be remembered fondly, a sibling to The Goonies, but by not even fully embracing its grab at emulating the kids-on-wacky-adventures mid-80s formula the final result is clumsy and awkward. Actually, “clumsy and awkward” describes almost everything about this film: the plot (three young teens discover their crotchety old neighbour’s house is not haunted but a literal monster that devours children, pets, and nosy police officers), the animation (the same motion-capture technique used in a previous Robert Zemeckis venture, The Polar Express, and though stylising the characters helps avoid the uncanny valley/dead-eyed feeling of Express the human movements ironically fail to ever look natural), the setting (it took me about halway through before I started question, “Wait, is this film set in the 80s?” and ultimately, the answer doesn’t matter as it adds little to the feel of the film and nothing to the story), the humour (a couple of lines here and there, but for the most part the jokes feel dated as the period the film is trying to timestamp itself with), the cinematography (just because you can whip the camera all over the place and jam things right into the “lens” doesn’t mean you should, 3D glasses or no). It feels like watching a film that was a part of someone else’s childhood but not yours, something you’ve heard talked about and referenced but ultimately ends up being a disappointment because you watched it after your brain had time to fully cook. It gets points for trying to harken back to a time where movie children were not expected to be as innocent as they are today, but it fails to carry the concept through all the way – not sure if that’s the fault of the filmmakers or the current climate in entertainment, but either way the whole experience feels watered down and inauthentic. Stick with the film you remember from your childhood instead.
It’s All Hallows’ Eve as I write this, which is far and away my favourite holiday in the year – Halloween looks neat by day with the ground full of crisp orange leaves and spooky by night with bare trees in the wind, and I find it much easier to divorce from the gross consumerism that surrounds other yearly holidays. My biggest problem with it, though, is finding scary films to watch, because my definition of “scary film” seems to be orders or magnitude narrower than most of the film-going population. It can’t rely on blood, guts, and goo to get scares, which usually manages to be more off-putting than scary, and discounts perhaps half of the answers to the question of, “What scary movie to you recommend?” right away. It has to make sense, which you would think wouldn’t need to be a requirement for any film as it’s kind of understood that, outside of some very specific and recognisable genres, entertainment typically is required to make sense, but once you start messing around with any sort of supernatural element all bets are off. It would be nice if the acting and effects were halfway competent – doesn’t need to be perfect, but I shouldn’t burst out laughing when I’m not supposed to. It would also be nice to have some kind of ghost/haunting angle, but that’s not a hard requirement. Oh, and I’d like to not know all that much about it going in. Not to hard to find good films with that criteria, right?
So one of this year’s shot-in-the-dark Halloween blind watches is A Tale of Two Sisters, a Korean horror film based on a fairy tale/folk legend structured as a Gothic horror story where because of an unreliable narrator everything that happens in the film is questionable if it really happened. And the house is haunted, maybe. What begins as a glacially-slow tension-building mystery of just what is going on, as clearly something is being hidden from the audience, devolves into garbled nonsense with multiple horror sub-genres tripping over each other and complicating what doesn’t need to be complicated. Are we meant to be scared of ghosts? Then stick to ghosts. The isolated, claustrophobic environment? Then play that up. That we can’t trust anything we see? Then that should be the focus. The mix-and-match approach to genre dilutes the experience, leaving the big reveal at the end of the intentionally-obscured plot with a “That’s it?” rather than shock and awe and re-examining of all the previous events that clearly was the goal. Other than a really good strange-moving woman with long hair – no Asian horror film is complete without one, it seems – this whole experience felt like a waste of time.
I’d like to feel I’m growing as a film viewer as I take on this project. I’ve got a deeper appreciation of older styles of filmmaking, and a much better sense of chronology and the history of cinema. I’m able to put a lot more landmark moments that are consistantly referred back to into context, to understand more what they were and why they had such a big impact. And then when I think I’m making progress, I hit a massive stumbling block like The Great Dictator. Maybe it’s me, something in my personal makeup that makes it impossible to find Charles Chaplin funny. Maybe I still don’t have enough understanding of the environment he came out of, or (based on other comedic pieces I’ve seen from around his vintage) maybe there’s just too big a gulf of time for me to ever appreciate his work with a real connection to it and not just a higher-level intellectual understanding. Constantly I get the feeling of watching that ancient film with the gardener and the hose, which is of great historical importance but completely unfunny to an audience over a century later. Or, maybe this film isn’t recognised because of its comedy, but rather its subject matter – which I still have problems with, but I’ll detail those after a summary.
Chaplin plays both a nameless bumbling Jewish barber with amnesia from an injury in the Great War and Adenoid Hynkel, fanatical Jew-hating dictator of Tomania. Every summary of the film I’ve read, and even the structure of the film itself, sets up that the barber will be mistaken for Hitler… sorry, Hynkel, and hijinks will ensue, but nothing of the sort happens until the last ten minutes of the film. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek directive in the opening credits saying to ignore the similarity between the two characters, which everyone in the film universe does until the switch occurs. Strange. The humour is mostly slapstick, pratfalls, and silly accents, which was probably pretty damn edgy at the time considering how little England wanted to upset the Third Reich but comes off today no more politically sophisticated than the lower-tier works of Bugs Bunny. The pleas for a world where all men stand together as brothers are heartfelt but completely at odds with the comedy, the incredibly stirring speech this film is most known for seeming to come from a completely different place altogether, and the pivot from pie-in-face gags to a worldwide call for peace doesn’t work. As a piece of propaganda, a caricature of Adolf Hitler, and a forward-thinking message, The Great Dictator has a lot of merit, but as a film it feels like cheap parody and cheaper activism.