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

Friday the 13th movies. Films reviewed: Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, The Hunt

Posted in Action, Christianity, College, comedy, Ghosts, Horror, Ireland, Music, Romance, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

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

If it feels like the world is going crazy, well it is. And it’s Friday the 13th, too. This week I’m looking at two movies with a sinister theme, and one more for believers. There’s a car rental clerk fighting the “liberal elites”, a  driving instructor fighting Satan, and a Christian rock devotee using prayer to cure cancer.

Extra Ordinary

Dir: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman

Rose (Maeve Higgins) is a middle-aged psychic driving instructor in Eastern Ireland. She believes ghosts are everywhere. When she was still a little girl, she used her paranormal abilities on her Dad’s TV show. But when he died she blamed herself and stopped listening to ghosts. Nearby lives Martin (Barry Ward) a highschool shop teacher whose house is haunted by a poltergeist. He’s used to it burning his toast or throwing away unhealthy food like donuts. But when he finds his daughter Sarah in a trance and floating above her bed, he senses something has changed. So he goes to Rose for help. She thinks he’s cute – but does he like her that way?

What neither of them realize is Sarah’s possession is the work of Christian Winter (Will Forte) a sinister pop star who lives in a nearby castle. Winter is a one-hit wonder trying to regain his fame with a little help from Satan. But to do so he needs to sacrifice a virgin – that’s Sarah, Martin’s daughter. Can two psychic talents overcome powerful forces? And are Rose and Martin just friends? Or is there something more?

Extra Ordinary is a very cute paranormal comedy. Much of its humour comes from the “ordinary” — average, middle-aged people with normal lives – set against a bizarre world of magic and ghosts. And it’s presented within a retro world full of Swiss Balls and VHS videos.  Higgins is hilariously deadpan as Rose, while Ward shows his stuff when his body is occupied by a series of spirits. If you’re looking for a nice light break from the ordinary, this is a fun one to watch.

I Still Believe

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

It’s 1999 in Indiana. Jeremy Camp (KJ Apa: Riverdale) says good bye to his parents (Gary Sinise, Shania Twain) and his two little brothers and heads off to college in California. He carries his prize possession: an acoustic guitar. At college he meets Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons) a popular musician who lets him work as a roadie at a show. And almost immediately he falls in love with a young woman he sees in the audience. Melissa (Britt Robertson) is smart, pretty, and is into astronomy.. Jeremy’s career takes off with help from Jean Luc, even as his love — or infatuation – with Melissa grows. Problem is she’s dating Jean Luc… or is she? Later she comes down with a terrible illness. Can Jeremy cure her using prayer?

If you haven’t noticed yet, I Still Believe is a music biopic (apparently Jeremy Camp is a wildly popular musician, though I’ve never heard of him) and a faith-based movie. Faith-based means capital “C” Christian. It means no nudity – even male characters can’t take their T- shirts off – no violence, no alcohol, no cussing, no cigarettes, no gambling. It’s like Sunday School.

But there’s also no conflict, no tension, no suspense, no villain.

When characters talk to each other, they’re also talking to Jesus. And when Melissa looks up at the stars, she says “They’re God’s paintbrush!” Now don’t get me wrong; the acting was actually good, and the script wasn’t corny or cringeworthy, but the movie itself was just really boring. And for a faith-based movie you’d think it would make you cry a bit. But this movie is so whitewashed, so denuded, that it has no soul. Unless you’re a true believer, stay away from I Still Believe.

The Hunt

Dir: Craig Zobel

What if the culture wars were actual wars, not just twitter spats? This might be what’s going through the minds of 12 random people who wake up in a field somewhere in Vermont (or so they think). They are being attacked by unknown others with crossbows, hand grenades, and assault weapons. And all around them are trip wires and booby traps set to kill. But who is doing this to whom, and why? Turns out the hunted are all Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”: conspiracy theorists, MAGA loyalists and xenophobes. Their hunters? Politically-correct liberals who use gender-appropriate pronouns and keep farm animals as pets. Who will win this culture war?

The Hunt is the latest version of the classic The Most Dangerous Game done as a very dark comedy. It’s an extremely violent thriller, with occasional bouts of gruesome gore. Some characters are introduced and then immediately killed off. The story focuses on Crystal (Betty Gilpin) an Afghan war vet who works at a car rental service. She is neither a deplorable nor a liberal, just a tough woman with a survival instinct, a suspicious mind, and special-op training. She questions everything she sees, even after she escapes from the so-called hunting ground. Are the people she meets friends, foes or actors playing roles? And can anyone be trusted?

The Hunt deals with obvious stereotypes and cliches but in very funny ways. It’s violent, scary and more than a bit gory. And it’s not for everyone… but I enjoyed this flick.  And it’s the perfect movie to watch during a pandemic.

Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, and The Hunt all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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