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One Last Trip into THE MATRIX

Plus: HULK and T3 Hit DVD, and The Mail Bag Returns!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

It might be the understatement of the year to write that there was a whole lot of hype surrounding the Wachowski Brothers' MATRIX sequels. The original movie had established a huge following around the world, made a ton of cash, and garnered mostly deserved critical kudos for its sci-fi fantasy story and groundbreaking effects, which a few felt would make it the representative genre franchise of the new millennium.

The first of two sequels, "The Matrix Reloaded," arrived last May and entertained for the most part, though I felt as if I should have left an "incomplete" grade on the movie since so much of its dramatic weight was left dangling in the air. Yes, the effects were great, and it had a brilliant set-piece (that highway chase) in the center, yet the movie's story and characters -- even the mythology of the "Matrix" itself -- took a back seat to the technical wizardry, all to the detriment of the audience's dramatic interest. Still, I recommended the movie for its technical achievements and hoped the narrative would kick into gear in the second half of the story.

A lot of other viewers also felt that the problems with the sequel would be rectified by its conclusion -- once we saw where it was all leading -- yet THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (**1/2) sadly provides more of the same. It's entertaining enough to sustain one viewing, at least, but it's equally disappointing that the movie doesn't offer anything more than that -- confirming that the reservations many had with the second movie were more on the mark than off it.

This is a sometimes tedious "final" installment that takes forever to get going (the opening half hour is filled with more talk than the endless Jedi Council scenes of "Attack of the Clones"), then turns into routine action sporting a split story line that finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) venturing to the Machine City to find answers, while Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), Naobi (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Co. attempt to save the human city of Zion while the automatons attack at every angle.

Sure, there are more impressive sequences -- including the massive assault by the machines on the human city -- but none match the excitement of "Reloaded"'s highway chase, and what's more, there's no real tension or urgency inherent in the script. We all know Keanu will have to fight one last battle, we know that the humans will struggle to hold on -- there's nothing surprising in any respect about the plot. Reeves and Moss get to emote in one pivotal scene near the end, but characterizations are otherwise thin and some of its predecessor's intriguing supporting players (like Monica Bellucci) appear only fleetingly.

Poor Larry Fishburne, meanwhile, does absolutely nothing in this movie except serve as Pinkett Smith's co-pilot, while Hugo Weaving pops up again, mugging as Agent Smith and uttering the movie's few (intentionally?) funny lines. Speaking of which, the Wachowskis' heavy-handed dialogue this time wears especially thin; if they're not going to follow through on the various mythological/religious elements they none too subtly raise (and they don't), then the whole techno-spiritual mumbo-jumbo really does feel like a mere smoke-screen for the endless use of F/X that the filmmakers have at their disposal.

It all culminates in a predictably bombastic showdown between Smith and Neo which, while putting a somewhat satisfying cap on how the series began, also disappoints because there's nothing really new here. What's more, the movie's seemingly abrupt coda -- without giving anything away -- manages to open the door as much for another installment as it ends the trilogy itself. After three movies, you'd think we could have had something a little more substantial than what the Wachowskis opt to end the saga with (sure, it's "earthy" and simple, yet it's too short to make much of an impression).

Don't get me wrong: THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS is peppered with some amazing visuals and ultimately pulls itself together in its second hour to at least remain watchable. It's just that, when the two sequels were announced, many fans felt the anticipation that something truly fresh and unique was about to happen.

In the end, the Wachowskis are content to finish off their live-action video game the way it began, teasing us with a pseudo-religious mythology for its central characters and the universe they live in, yet never following through on the potential of either. When the end credits roll, it's the equivalent of seeing "Game Over" plastered on the old "Pac-Man" screen at your local arcade. (R, 148 mins).


Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

THE HULK. 138 mins., 2003, PG-13, Universal. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas. COMPOSER: Danny Elfman. SCRIPT: John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus. DIRECTOR: Ang Lee. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Ang Lee; deleted scenes; Making Of featurettes; video game sample level for Xbox owners. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen (separate full-frame version also available), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It's hard to imagine that there has been or ever will be a super-hero movie that divided as many viewers as Ang Lee's ambitious filming of THE HULK. From the pre- release buzz about how Lee had taken a revisionist tact with the origin of the Stan Lee- Jack Kirby Marvel comic book hero, to the first, fleeting -- and unfinished -- glimpses of the all-CGI green one during the Super Bowl last year, the comics-to-movie community eagerly waited for and debated about the movie even before it was released.

The end result at the box-office clearly showed that THE HULK, while likely profitable in the long haul, wasn't the huge box-office blockbuster the studio hoped for. At $130 million plus, it was the cinematic equivalent of 1998's "Godzilla": a movie that didn't perform badly, yet didn't take off despite all the hype that surrounded it.

That said, though, THE HULK is still a challenging film that's well worth a look. Though I grew up with the Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno TV series like many readers out there, this "alternate universe" vision of the Marvel character isn't without merit. While what Ang Lee and James Schamus (along with credited co-writers Michael France and John Turman) have come up with is at times too dark for its own good, and is overly bogged down in psychological aspects that don't quite come off, THE HULK is still an ambitious, flawed, but always watchable combination of silly, colorful Marvel Comics action and a study of parents and children and what makes us all tick.

Sound like a jumbled mess? Well, it works better than you might have heard. Eric Bana essays Bruce Banner, a California research scientist who works alongside former lover Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in a lab for their betterment of mankind. Their work, though, spurs interest from Josh Lucas, who represents an "evil corporation" that's also associated with Betty's military dad (Sam Elliott). Enter Bruce's long-lost father (Nick Nolte, appropriately disheveled in one of his best performances in years), who has tracked down his son and wants to make good on the experiments he believes are trapped in his son's DNA. Obviously, it's just a matter of time before Bruce is ticked off and his transformation into the Hulk occurs.

When it does, it's a triumph of CGI animation on the part of Industrial Light & Magic, who have fully captured the look and movement of a comic book character on- screen. Unlike the tempering of the X-Men's physical characteristics (i.e. their subdued uniforms), ILM's Hulk isn't a compromise -- it's the animated character captured in its full, colorful glory, and while some may carp that the Hulk doesn't look "real" (as if a 20- foot green creature ever could), I found ILM's work to be tremendous here. The Hulk's facial animation is nothing short of outstanding (he's certainly more emotive than Bana's bland Banner), like a combination of Frankenstein's monster and Ferrigno's old muscular creation, and the level of detail in the creature is astounding.

Getting to the movie's more outlandish (and entertaining) second half does require some patience, as Lee spends a great deal of time establishing the relationships between nutty old man Banner and his bottled up son, not to mention Betty Ross and her military father. It's a little heavy-handed and slow-going at times, but you have to applaud the filmmakers for trying to establish characters and drama in a movie that ultimately turns more bonkers than any comic book film in recent memory. Nolte's ultimately over-the-top performance goes for broke and fits the movie perfectly, as does Elliott's excellent work as Ross' father. Bana and Connelly are OK but don't have much chemistry with one another, and the former is completely overshadowed by the Hulk once the muscular one takes over. One failing of the film is its notable lack of humor -- there should have been an additional supporting player on-hand for the audience to identify with, since every character is overly brooding and wrapped up in the story.

Visually, THE HULK benefits from Frederick Elmes' fine cinematography and the use of comic book-styled "panels" that keep reminding the viewer that you're watching a comic book movie -- even if the Shakespearian aspects of the script sometimes clash with its pulpy pedigree. Danny Elfman's music, meanwhile, is always serviceable but comes off as uninspired for the composer, sounding like a compromise between what Lee reportedly wanted (is there some point to the female vocalist who wails away on the soundtrack?) and a by-the- numbers Elfman score that has "auto-pilot" written all over it (the furious "lab montage" motifs reminiscent of "Darkman," the dark and brooding "Batman"-like aspects, the "Planet of the Apes" percussion, etc). While I wasn't a huge fan of Elfman's solid but unremarkable work on "Spider-Man" last year, THE HULK unquestionably sounds like the result of one too many trips to the same well for the composer.

THE HULK is decidedly uneven but constantly surprising and, in the end, highly satisfying from a number of angles. It's a movie that takes a lot of risks and encompasses a wide range of emotions, and while some are more successful than others, it's certainly one of the most audacious attempts at creating a live-action comic-book that can sustain the interest of both adults and kids.

Universal's Special 2-disc Edition DVD offers a marvelous 1.85 widescreen transfer with an active, enthralling 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The supplements are highlighted by a decent commentary track with Ang Lee and some six minutes of deleted scenes, culled from the workprint (these are mostly dispensable but worth a view for fans, including an extended segment with the teen Bruce Banner and a longer Ferrigno cameo). Various Making Of segments include a history of the character, sporting interviews with Stan Lee among others; a look at the ILM special effects, and a basic overview of the production. There's nothing extraordinary here -- just slightly better-than-average DVD supplemental stuff -- yet fans should enjoy it just the same.


TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES. 109 mins., 2003, R, Warner Home Video. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken. COMPOSER: Marco Beltrami. SCRIPT: John Brancato, Michael Ferris. DIRECTOR: Jonathan Mostow. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; HBO Making Of; gag reel; visual effects segment; timeline; storyboard; video game and action figure featurettes. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

I have to confess that, when I first heard of "Terminator 3" going ahead minus James Cameron, I wasn't looking forward to the latest installment in Arnold Schwarzenegger's sci-fi series -- despite all the effects and action it would inevitably contain. More over, the movie's long, drawn-out production process seemed to hint at a film just being made for monetary purposes and little more (check out how many studio logos and companies get screen time before the flick starts!).

That aside, the surprising news is that TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES offers the ideal popcorn movie experience: an unpretentious, fast-moving, well-oiled machine of a film that delivers constant thrills and a breakneck pace. And, with a domestic gross of over $140 million at the box-office, the film turned from the brunt of jokes into a successful summer-time entertainment. Sure, without Cameron's involvement, the movie doesn't have the nuances or involved characterizations that fans loved about T2 and the original movie, and yet Jonathan Mostow's film benefits from its new director's involvement in several departments.

First off, though, there's the story, which this time out is simple to explain: John Connor (a strong performance by Nick Stahl) is now in his 20's, struggling to get by on the road following the death of his mom. Connor's life is soon disrupted when a sleek, female Terminatrix (Kristanna Loken, very easy on the eyes) pops into the present from the future, out to kill Connor and the eventual leaders of his human resistance against the Machines. Naturally, another Terminator (Arnie) shows up to protect him and veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), who plays a pivotal role in the future, post- apocalyptic world.

TERMINATOR 3 is basically just one long extended chase movie -- but who cares when it's so much fun? T3 opens with a bang and never lets up, with terrific special effects and money set-pieces interspersed with ample doses of sly humor that effectively play off scenes from its predecessors (Arnie's introduction in a local bar is hysterically funny). Arnold is back in his old form, giving deadpan, frequently amusing responses to the action in a performance that reminds you why he's still (or at least was) the king of the genre (and if this is a cinematic swan song for the new Governor of Cale-fornia, at least it's a good one).

Just as impressive are the performances of Nick Stahl (you won't miss Eddie Furlong) and especially Claire Danes, who manage to interject warmth and appeal even while the impending doom of Judgment Day is raring down on all of humanity. While the movie's focus is squarely on the action, you do come to care about Stahl and Danes' plight, and root for them through the barrage of effects.

The movie might lack Cameron's epic sweep, but at 109 minutes (including lengthy end credits), this is a leaner, faster-paced movie than T2, minus Linda Hamilton's pretentious, preachy monologues. Speaking of Hamilton, who turned down the picture, I have to say I didn't at all miss her character's whining speeches about "no fate but what we make." T3 might be a straightforward action movie instead of a groundbreaking sci-fi blockbuster, but in its own way, it offers nearly as entertaining a ride -- like a faster- paced, almost B-movie version of T2 but still with grade-A special effects.

In the end, T3 is a blast of escapist fare, played at the perfect level by a fine cast. The "WarGames"-like ending goes off in a predictable direction to set up another sequel (I didn't think it was so "brave" in being downbeat as it's sly about leaving the door open for T4), but I won't be so apprehensive next time about its prospects should Stahl and Danes return. As for Mostow, this fits comfortably alongside his previous films ("Breakdown" and "U-571"), as an efficient, entertaining action movie that fits the bill for escapist fun.

Warner's two-disc Special Edition DVD offers a strong presentation in both the audio and visual departments. The 2.35 transfer is exceptionally good, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise a standout, sporting a solid Marco Beltrami score and plenty of booming sound effects.  The supplemental features are good, not great, highlighted by two audio commentaries: a director's commentary track with Mostow himself, and a more engaging group commentary with Mostow, Schwarzenegger, Danes, Stahl, and Lokken. While the participants were recorded separately and compiled for this track, the editing here is superior to most commentaries of this ilk: the speakers are mostly having a good time and sound eager to pass along various anecdotes about the shoot, making this a recommended listen for fans. Mostow's talk is predictably more technical in nature, and will be of greater interest to film scholars.

The other materials, though, are more promotional in nature. The "Making Of" is an HBO Special that aired prior to the movie's release, and basically promotes the movie as much as it chronicles its backstory. An interactive F/X segment fares better, while short segments look at Todd MacFarlane's action figures and the costume design. There are also trivia games, a sneak peak at the forthcoming video game, and a timeline for the three movies. Despite the supplements being mostly more fluff than substantive, T3 is definitely a recommended view for all sci-fi fans, and a much better film than most thought it would be.


Aisle Seat News, Notes & Mail Bag

Quick info for those who have asked about these titles over the last few months (years?): ED WOOD is finally coming out in February from Buena Vista, in a two-disc Special Edition set no less. THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, another oft-requested title, is due out in January from Warner, though I'm not certain that the disc will contain any special features. Now, onto this week's Mail Bag!

From Wilson Maffetano:

Hi Andy!
I saw Mr. Greg Spinoza question about the canceled release of "The Enemy Below", and I'd like to say that it was released here in Brazil using the US master. It contains only the movie and trailer. Good sound and image. I believe it will soon be released in the United States. Brazilian Fox has released a BIG package of old WW2 movies last August.
From Steve Lehti:
Hey Andy,
A tip of the hat for your TREK V review. You really nailed it. I've always thought that while the criticisms of the film have usually been on target, its strengths have been grossly overlooked. With its focus on the primary three characters, TREK V really plays like a big screen episode from the old television show. The dramatic scenes between Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley really hearken back quite nicely to the best of classic TREK. For all its flaws I too would take it hands down over most of those awful TNG movies and episodes, and even prefer it to the sententious, largely pointless TREK III, though for consistency, I admite the latter is a better film. My only disagreement was with your evaluation of Laurence Luckinbill. I thought he was fabulous, totally charismatic, passionate, even self-deprecating. Even most reviewers who hated the film at the time admired his performance. Keep up the great work!
From Michael Karoly:
Great review of the Indy Box set -- while it's hard to beat RAIDERS, I believe that CRUSADE is the most well-balanced of the three- everyone looked like they were having so much fun making the film and their performances all seemed "natural". I used to love TEMPLE OF DOOM, and I think that movie is extremely funny at times, but overall it's not as strong as the other two films. I look forward to watching these films again and plowing through he supplemental stuff.

As far as MATRIX RELOADED goes, I was a bit disappointed in the film as a whole. I realize that it's the middle film of a trilogy, but my biggest complaint was in its length- they could have easily cut out 15-20 minutes and had a more solid and cohesive story. Get rid of the sex between Neo and Trinity and get rid of the bump-and-grind dance orgy- both were totally unnecessary to advance the plot. The freeway chase was my favorite fight scene, but did it have to go on that long? And the cause-effect model (pun intended) was a bit silly to me as well- I hope that the final installment will be better than this one. So it is confirmed that the STAR WARS Trilogy will not be released in their original forms at all? Bad move on Lucas' part, in my opinion.

Michael, who knows what's going on in George Lucas' head these days. Until the original Trilogy hits DVD, we can only hope EPISODE III manages to return some respect to this saga, and rectify the boredom of ATTACK OF THE CLOWNS (err, CLONES).

From Bill Williams:

Hi Andy,
Great review on the new Indiana Jones DVDs! I could not agree with you more! I remember getting the laserdiscs when they were released in the 90's, and "Last Crusade" wasn't anamorphic widescreen, while "Raiders" and "Temple" were anamorphic. And like you, I also remember the "Temple" teaser spot on the head of the first "Raiders" VHS release. Why in the world didn't Paramount include that on the DVD?

And here's one I don't know if you remember or not, but I clearly remember it: The night before the sneak preview showing (one week before the full theatrical release), one of the networks ran a 30-second spot promoting the sneak preview showing of "Raiders". And the next night I went to see that sneak preview of "Raiders" and came away thinking that it was one awesome adventure film, though the ending was a bit graphic.

I agree, I don't know why there weren't deleted scenes included on the DVD set, when we know they exist. One of them was the original take of the sword fight between Indy and the swordsman where Indy used his bullwhip to fight him off. Of course, this was replaced by the now famous and hilarious take of Indy using his gun instead. And another take had to have been from the scene where Indy boards the Nazi sub before its descent. The music from the clip clearly exists on the DCC CD soundtrack of the film.

Also, the Best Buy set has a bonus disc with a 10-minute featurette from the original "Making of Raiders" documentary. As we know, the making of "Raiders", the "Raiders"- inspired "Great Movie Stunts" special, and the "Last Crusade" special "Great Adventurers and Their Quests" have all been released on video, but neither of the "Temple of Doom" documentaries have appeared on video in an official capacity. That's kind of surprising, and we should have a complete release of these vintage documentaries.

From John Fitzpatrick:

Re: ALIEN QUADDRILOGY. The proper term, of course would be "tetrology." But since these films concern monsters, Fox might justifiably deem them a "teratetrology"!

NEXT TIME: We saddle up with John Frankenheimer's THE HORSEMEN, plus run down more huge holiday DVD titles and answer your Q's! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then.

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