Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

June 24, 2011. Women at Centre Stage, Men at the Fringe. Movies Reviewed: J.X. Williams Cabinet of Curiosities, William S Burroughs A Man Within, Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Last week was NXNE Toronto’s huge indie music and movies festival. And while there were a lot of music videos and films about bands going on tour, (bands practicing their instruments, bands getting drunk, bands feeling sad…), there were also a few good ones about people in the underground, on the fringe, at the far reaches.

At the same time as the festival, there are also loads of mainstream movies at the local googleplex. I’ve talked about this before, but women are disappearing from movies. There are lots of movies with only one female character, for every ten or twenty male characters. “The woman” is now a token character, along with the black guy, the fat guy, the grandpa, the guy next door…

So, today I’m going to deal with both those themes: two movies about men on the fringe, and two movies with women, front and centre.

William S Burroughs: A Man Within
Dir: Yony Leyser

William S Burroughs was the prep-school and Harvard heir to the Burroughs adding-machine fortune in St Louis. He drifted to New York and fell in with the so-called beatniks, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After he accidentally killed his wife, Joan, in Mexico when he tried to shoot a tumbler of gin off her head and missed, he fell into a depression and began to write it all down.

His style really took off when he fell in with artist and visionary Brion Gysin, the inventor of the Dream Machine (a psychedelic light tube that spins on a turntable and is viewed with the eyes closed). Burroughs began using Gysin’s cut-up technique, snipping up his manuscripts and realigning strips to a give a broken feel to his mind-bending novels.

At the same time, his personal life consisted of cold, unemotional sexual relationships with much younger men – who were poets, writers, artists. His books were banned, but Burroughs was eventually embraced, in succession by the beat movement of the 50’s, the 60’s counterculture, 70’s punk, and gay liberation movements in the 80’s – none of which he was actually a part of. So his influence was huge and deep for more than half a century.

This excellent biography is made up of interviews with some of the people he knew or influenced — his ex-lovers, academics, musicians like Patti Smith and Genesis P. Orridge, poets like Amiri Baraka and John Giorno, artists – Andy Warhol, and directors like David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. And also, people who knew him like his arms dealer – he had a lifetime obsession with guns and slept with one under his pillow, even during sex, a reptile trainer, his fellow druggies, and his next door neighbours. The new interviews and old footage are combined in sections with cool wire animation. This documentary is well worth seeing.

JX WIliams’ Cabinet of Curiosities

Archivist and Curator: Noel Lawrence

Another underground artist from the same era deserves attention too, even though he is so underground and obscure that virtually no one in the world has ever actually heard of him.

But his name is J.X. Williams, and his Cabinet of Curiosities – clips from the films he made in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s – have been collected and curated by L.A. devotee Noel Lawrence, who brought some of his collection to NXNE.

Williams was no ordinary underground figure, and his films are not ordinary movies. Lawrence, both in the film clips and in the unusual extended panel discussion at NXNE, explained part of this man’s career. He was the son of a communist, and managed to get blacklisted by the House un-American Activities Committee at the age of 17. Somehow, he became involved with not just the communists, but also the mob, the FBI and the Kennedy assassination. He earned his living as a base pornographer – some of his movies showed only in Copehagen, and even there, only once — and was forced to flee to Switzerland to avoid arrest (perhaps for copyright infringement)?

The movies themselves are, at times, baffling and annoying, but also a pleasure to behold. Basically they consist of parodies of classic and film noir titles, with Mad Magazine-style names: for example, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows with Williams becomes the 400 Blowjobs. Other films in his porn/occult matrix include Hollywood Playgirls, Hades Highway, and ESP Orgy. So split-screen film clips of Steve McQueen meets Clint Eastwood in an alternate universe, combined with unexplained stock footage of flashing coloured traffic lights, wicked stop-motion animation, crackly peepshow credits, and hardcore B&W silent porn.

What can I say? Keep an eye out for Noel Lawrence’s amazingly detailed lectures (photog: Brad Clarke)  about this hitherto unknown, underground figure J.X Williams. www.jxarchive.org

From the obscurest of the obscure, to the mainstreamest of the mainstream are two movies which attempt the unthinkable – comedies starring women – and pull it off. Both of the movies have women in atypical roles (as underdogs, underachievers, and anti-heroes), with the successful, beautiful, rich and hard-working women as the “villains”. And the female stars both manage to do non-topless sex scenes.

Bridesmaids
Dir: Paul Feig

Annie and Lillian (played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) are best friends who share everything including laughs. But when Lillian makes Annie her maid of honour or her upcoming wedding, she finds herself pitted against a new enemy – Whitney, a rich, preppy trophy-wife who is trying to steal away her best friend. Annie’s life unravels – she feels used by her douche-y sex partner, hates the jewelry store job she was forced to take once her cake business went bottoms-up, and lives with the roommates from hell. Meanwhile, her crazy fellow bridesmaids take up her time with a series of fiascos, with only a kind-hearted, Irish cop (Officer Rhodes, played by Chris O’ Dowd) shows some sympathy for her. Will she completely give up and be defeated by Whitney? Will she ever get back together with her best friend? And will she find true love?

This is a pretty funny comedy, with humour coming more from unusual characters than from cheap site-gags. A competitive speech-making scene was especially funny, as was Wiig feeling queazy. While the pace seemed slower than most comedies, and the gags – save for a puke and diarrhea scene – more mature, it works. I laughed a lot and it kept my interest. Some of the writing was weird, with dialogue not matching the rest of some characters’ lines – but in general it was a lot of fun, especially Mellissa McCarthy, the woman from the TV show Mike and Molly.

This is a comedy, not a chick flick, but it also avoids most of the gratuitous nudity, dick jokes and gross-outs, and allows the very funny cast of seven funny women to shine.

Bad Teacher
Dir: Jake Kasdan

Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) is forced to work as a teacher at John Adams Jr High (“we call it JAMS!”) when her rich fiancé dumps her before the wedding. She’s a gold digging pothead, and a misanthropic teacher who hates kids. She soon finds herself in a competition with the hardworking and perky teacher Amy Squirrel (hilariously played by Lucy Punch) over the rich, airhead teacher Scott (Justin Timbelake).
She decides to get a breast-implant operation to win him over and marry into his fortune – but this will be expensive. Can she get her previously neglected class to score high on the state tests and get her the bonus she needs? And will she ever date the gym teacher (Jason Segel) who likes her?

Well, I thought it was pretty funny. Not great, mind you, but funny enough, and much funnier than the gags they show in the trailer. Filthy language, but no serious violence, disgustingness, or dick, puke or bowel jokes. Both Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher are directed by people from that great TV show Freaks and Geeks, maybe that’s why it’s a bit better than most. This is not a clever movie by any stretch, but it has its larfs, and Cameron Diaz is great as the anti-heroine.

William S Burroughs: The Man Within, and J.X. Williams’ Cabinet of Curiosities screened at NXNE last week, Bridesmaids is now playing, and Bad Teacher opens today: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining .com.

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