THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS
The Matrix was, for me, mostly hooey, and this summer's The Matrix Reloaded seemed, at best, visually resplendent nonsense, so imagine my surprise when I attended The Matrix Revolutions and found myself really enjoying it.
Personally, I found it the most entertaining entry in Andy and Larry Wachowski's sci-fi trilogy - better-paced than the first two and less ambiguously portentous - yet nearly every Matrix fan I've talked to has found this third film a huge disappointment. It's not hard to understand why. For amateur (and, if any exist, professional) sci-fi theorists and perpetual grad students, the series' labyrinthine plotlines and metaphysical - dare I say religious? - overtones have made these films seminal works of the fantasy canon. In certain circles, the formalized complexities of the Matrix films are both rigidly structured and endlessly debatable; entire thesis papers have probably been written about Neo's ascension as The One, or the nature of The Architect, or, I dunno, The Oracle's chocolate-chip cookie recipe. Yet while The Matrix Revolutions still features its share of high-minded blather about fate and destiny, this third movie is, in the end, just a tony sci-fi action flick with astonishing special effects and minimal meaning - Aliens for the computer age. It should easily divert those of us who wanted nothing from this series but visual elegance and kinetic thrills, but any Matrix lovers hoping that the new film would wrap up the trilogy in an intellectually satisfying manner - with riddles answered and explanations made - might find this final installment a bit of a drag. (Like the much-derided finale to The X-Files, Revolutions will likely anger the faithful more than fringe viewers.)
Well, I had fun. The film opens beautifully, with a creepy/comic scene involving Neo (Keanu Reeves, more commanding than before) in a mostly deserted subway station - this particular episode can be accurately described as "Kubrickian" - and then we're off and running with a number of show-stopping sequences, the best being a prolonged attack by the nearly liquid Sentinels, a jaw-dropping example of state-of-the-art visuals and brilliant editing. Of course, Agent Smith (insinuating Hugo Weaving) and his clones do their share of amusing damage, and although the late Gloria Foster was irreplaceable as The Oracle, the Wachowskis found a more-than-acceptable substitute in the relaxed Mary Alice. Again, the prepping-for-war activities on Zion are tough to slog through - the inhabitants, including the ever-reverential Laurence Fishburne, act like a touring company of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome - but Jada Pinkett Smith and Harold Perrineau are allowed some grit, and the film culminates in an exciting, airborne battle in the rain between Neo and Smith. This third Matrix film, unlike The Matrix Reloaded, doesn't really feature any new ideas for the series - which might be one reason why die-hards are leaving disappointed - but in terms of its actual presentation, it's still a wow. I'll concede that, as a concluding chapter, The Matrix Revolutions might be a bummer for the devoted and will predominantly entertain viewers who aren't emotionally invested in the series, but speaking as one of the latter, I'm not bothered in the least.
Jon Favreau's Christmas-themed Elf is pleasant enough, but I would have enjoyed the film a lot more if it wasn't trying so hard to be a holiday blockbuster. As an infant, Buddy (Will Ferrell) gets transported to the North Pole, where he lives the next 30 years as an elf. Upon learning his true identity as a human, however, he travels to New York to live with his birth father (James Caan), and Elf becomes a fish-out-of-water comedy in which Buddy tries to fill the entire world with Christmas spirit. What sounds like a ghastly, one-joke comedy - something Adam Sandler or David Spade would have made unbearable - is, in its first hour at least, quite witty. David Berenbaum's script is sentimental yet spiky, and Favreau has a knack for throwaway visual gags, like the Rankin/Bass-esque stop-motion animation at the North Pole or Buddy's attempt to hang a star on a 15-foot Christmas tree. The cast features dependable pros such as Mary Steenburgen, Ed Asner, Bob Newhart, and Peter Dinklage in fine form. Zooey Deschanel, who can be counted on to make any movie she's in better, is wondrous as Buddy's love interest, deeply cynical - a Deschanel specialty - but open-hearted. (You wish she had a much bigger role.) And, in a sentence I never thought I'd write, the movie is unimaginable without Will Ferrell. He plays Buddy the only way the role could possibly work - completely without irony or any kind of audience-nudging - and delivers a first-rate comic performance; Ferrell is so likable here that he overrides everything embarrassing about the material. (After this and his inspired work in Old School, I am gradually, but not grudgingly, becoming a Will Ferrell fan.)
I can't say I ever laughed out loud at Elf (its best jokes have all been given away in the incessant previews), but - again, in the first hour - I smiled almost constantly; it's an appealing, innocuous time-waster. How sad, then, that the film eventually digresses into predictable, cloying banality, with Buddy's dad turning on him and a clunky action finale involving Santa's sleigh hurtling through midtown Manhattan while NYC denizens sing along to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." It's the kind of ending that reeks of fear, as if this charming, clever piece wouldn't affect a mass audience unless it resolved itself with maximum obviousness and shamelessness. Thankfully, it's not enough to ruin your good time, but it's enough to make you wish the filmmakers had fully trusted their smart, surprisingly atypical Elf.
The much-lauded American Splendor has finally made it to the area - at (where else?) the Brew & View - and its reputation as one of 2003's best and most innovative works proves to be richly justified. In an astonishing act of genre-bending, writers/directors Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini have fashioned both a docudrama about cranky comic-book writer Harvey Pekar (played, tremendously, by Paul Giamatti) and an actual Pekar documentary simultaneously, with Pekar himself narrating and providing insight - and, occasionally, acid-laced commentary - on the filmmakers' work of "nonfiction." The movie is endlessly inventive as it shuffles between real and "real" life, and it continually defies expectation; you might think Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander (both exceptional) are overdoing their characters' tics, but you're eventually introduced to the actual people they're playing and realize, if anything, they're underplaying them. Mixing live-action with comic-book art, dramatized footage with real footage (the scenes of Pekar chatting up David Letterman are hysterical), American Splendor is a beguiling, immensely entertaining work that becomes, almost despite itself, achingly poignant and affecting; to employ an overused phrase that most certainly applies here, you've never seen anything like it.