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The Matrix. 1999. Directed & Written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, & Marc Aden Gray. Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership.
Rated 14A. 136 minutes.
An interest of mine, as well as the minor in my Honours degree, has always been Philosophy. Even the times when I can’t grasp a concept the entire school as a whole is intriguing. There are so many different philosophies, ranging the gamut of Eastern and Western Philosophy, many great thinkers since time immemorial. So what happens when you take the ideas of many philosophies, create an interesting, modern story, then wrap the whole innovative package inside an action film?
Then, you have The Matrix.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly known as Larry and Andy) wrote one of the most unique, original science fiction-action adventures in cinematic history, let alone of the 1990s. Their ideas concerning various philosophies translated into something which captivated the minds of those willing to think outside the box. No more did a science fiction-actioner flick need to be about a renegade ass kicker taking on bad guys, villainous henchman, terrorists, and so forth. Nor did it have to involve space, as was often the case before this came along. After The Matrix, this changed. Writers became more willing to take chances, at least until remake and sequel fever got too serious. For a while, though, we coasted on the high of the Wachowski genius. No matter how you feel about the sequels, this first film broke new ground, daring to go where no one had ventured, at least not in any significant capacity. The story, the action, every last bit is equal to the portion before it. And not many movies can make their stories so amazing while also doing amazing stunts and action sequences overall. That’s where this movie gains its traction.
The Oracle is one of the best parts. Her dialogue does so much. She questions cause and effect. Above her kitchen door is KNOW THYSELF in Latin (Temet Nosce), which was supposedly inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delphi; this connects to the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia. In relation to Delphi, this iteration of the Oracle follows suit with the fact the Pythia, the one through whom Apollo spoke, needed to be an older woman “of blameless life” it is said.
One of the most obvious allusions in the screenplay as whole is the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, narrated as usual by that bad motherfucker named Socrates, or as he was known in his break dance circles Socra-deez-nuts.
If you’ve never actually heard of this allegorical story, jump over here, then come back.
So Neo (Keanu Reeves) is essentially one of those people down in the cave. Chained to his life, this imposed reality, he’s left staring at the blank wall. Only here the blank wall is a falsified reality, one that looks and feels alive, real, genuine. But underneath, outside of the cave, is an actual life. One where things have deteriorated. Now, in Plato’s allegory there’s none of the post-apocalyptic storytelling. Only that the truth is beyond the cave, it is out in the light, beyond darkness. So Neo sits watching the fire in the cave, his supposed life and reality and believing the shadows it casts upon the wall are his only truth. Then in comes Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He brings the truth. All of a sudden, Neo is in the light. At first, it isn’t easy. Like Plato’s narrating Socrates relays, the people exit the cave, they see the light, and initially the light burns their eyes. Likewise, Neo is served the truth so quickly, so cold, his body reacts physically. This is a great adaptation of Plato into a recognizable, yet smart package.
Who better to play the blank slate, the tabula rasa that is Neo than Keanu? Honestly, though. I personally love the guy as an actor, he can be compelling at times. But really, his sort of disaffected attitude works in the beginning. He’s able to feel like this almost teenage-like character, one whose adult life hasn’t fully kicked in. Then as the hits keep coming he begins to feel more real, an emotional man that opens up to the truth of the world. Added to that, Reeves can do the action bit. He’s attuned to this kind of role. Best of all in terms of his casting is that he doesn’t even need to do a whole lot of intense dialogue. Not that he can’t, he certainly can. Rather, the Wachowskis needed someone able to convey the innocent qualities of the character then carry the action star part as the plot progressed. They got what they needed.
Then there’s Laurence fucking Fishburne. A treasure, unheralded. Yes, he gets lot of roles. I just don’t think people appreciate his range. He’s done everything from play in a Coppola classic to portray a wild gangster to give us the best performance as Thomas Harris’ Jack Crawford character on screen. Here, he gives us the perfect Morpheus. Nobody else could have done it this way. He has an iconic voice anyway, though it’s all in his presence, the delivery of his lines. It’s in the fact Fishburne makes Morpheus truly feel like this all-knowing, ever knowledgeable, almost ancient-type figure. This is a star role as is, but Fishburne gives it the extra boost needed to lift his dialogue off the page and make it live.
There’s an equal balance of philosophical musing and action in this film. The innovative bits aren’t solely in the enjoyable screenplay. One massive portion of that is due to the unique action sequences. The Wachowskis single-handedly coined the term Bullet Time, which of course comes out in the iconic sequence where Neo finally discovers what Morpheus meant earlier when implying he wouldn’t have to dodge any bullets, someday, at some point. A solid moment. Before that we’re given a wonderfully bullet laden sequence as Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter the building on their way to locate and free a confined Morpheus. This entire series of scenes is amazing, as they go right up to the top of the building. That’s where Neo first dodges bullets, almost all succesfully. It’s not until later in a hallway facing the agents that Neo realizes he can literally stop bullets with just his hands. Both of those moments are well executed and intense, particularly the latter as its effectively the climax of the movie, after The One discovers his full potential. But any action fan in their right mind will love this movie for its wild fun. Hundreds of bullets literally drop from the sky when Neo and Trinity go for Morpheus, the agents are tough to beat, and this makes for exciting scenes. Love when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) comes up against Neo, they’re riveting to watch, and the fight choreography is stellar (as were the scenes where Neo trains alongside Morpheus fighting). Instead of watching the typical sort of action, the Wachowskis give us gorgeous stunts, a bit of the odd elements that come along with the agents and The Matrix’s physics, even Neo himself. You can’t be bored watching any of this stuff, bottom line.
For me, The Matrix is an outright masterpiece of modern cinema. Again, it taught people that action, specifically that with a science fiction angle, needn’t always be the same tired formula. Philosophy and action can mix. Brain and brawn find middle ground, a territory where each co-exist in the minds of bold filmmakers. There are a couple solid performances, a plethora of action sequences to boggle your brains, and a satisfying finale that’s ripe to lead into other stories, yet can easily be taken as one standalone film if you want to see it that way. No matter how you cut it The Matrix blew things wide open. A movie right before the turn of the 21st century that I’ll never, ever find far from my mind. It comes along with exciting memories of being 14, hanging with best friends, eating chips and drinking Pepsi, watching movies late into the night and having fun. And that’s part of what movies are all about, good or bad. Fortunately, this is better than good. It is perfect.
Season 2, Episode 4: “Fear and Trembling”
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Written by Steve Blackman
* For a review of the previous episode, “The Myth of Sisyphus” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “The Gift of the Magi” – click here
This episode begins with a flash to 1951 – Moonbase Freedom starring Ronald Reagan (not an actual film) plays in a small movie theatre. On the way there, a boy and his father rattle along in a truck. Over top of the scene Count Basie plays, “Topsy”. A man named Kellerman (Kai Lennox) sits waiting for the father. Ends up with dear ole dad about to be shot in the back of the head, but then the young boy ends up knifing Kellerman in the back of the skull. Turns out, this is little Dodd and papa Otto back in the day.
Otto: “Like the heads of Easter Island”
Otto: “Not a sound”
Back in their current timeline, Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) is teaching his nephew Charlie (Allan Dobrescu) the ways of the Gerhardt clan. They end up at a restaurant where Dodd tasers a man violently, getting Charlie to join in on the action with a few punches. Nice bonding. Surely Bear (Angus Sampson) is going to be REAL happy with his brother showing his son – someone he wanted to be away from the family business – the dirty, gritty ropes. Not just that, we get a bit of Devo’s “Too Much Paranoias” to boot. Jam.
At the same time Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) accompanies his wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) to the doctor where they have an extremely frustrating conversation. Essentially, she’s asked to be part of a trial for an experimental drug, but naturally there’s no guarantees she’ll get anything real. Possibly just a placebo, like “a Smartie – you know, a Smartie.”
Then there’s Ed and Peggy Blomquist (Jesse Plemons/Kirsten Dunst) who are trying to go about their lives. In fact, among all the madness they’ve become involved with – re: Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) – they seem to be gunning for a baby. Or at least Ed is, anyways. Their problems are plenty, and it’s not as if they’re going away any time soon.
Ed: “Today’s the first day of the rest of our lives”
Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) is more and more a character I’m interested in. At first, he seems like the typical bad guy, the silent man waiting in the wings to do crazy things. But then we see him at the crime scene, we watch him check out tire tracks and look into the sky like a clairvoyant. Though, he isn’t. Just a smart man who has obviously spent his life around these types of nasty situations. Clearly we’ve seen this already last episode in “The Myth of Sisyphus“. We’re just expanding further. He tracks down the Blomquist car at a garage, where a very Coen-ish type mechanic character gives up a little too much information about Ed.
Then we get a glimpse of Hanzee’s character. Is it true? He talks about being a Tunnel Rat during Vietnam, after the mechanic mentions being in the war himself. Very brief, before Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) interrupts and shoes Dent off.
Mr. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) has ended up in bed with Simone Gerhardt (Rachel Keller). Shit. That can’t be a good idea, can it? She’s clearly not too worried about her family, especially not daddy Dodd whose fists are a little too liberal around the house. But still, Milligan certainly isn’t making things easy for himself. Then again he doesn’t feel like the type of guy who cares about things being easy; in short, he’s a bad motherfucker. Or, at the very least, one cool cucumber.
Lou heads over to the garage where Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) is on the scene. They get the scoop on Hanzee, though, you can be sure Lou doesn’t exactly feel right about any of it. He has a brief flash to his run-in with Ed at the shop recently, which will come to bear later on.
The Gerhardts, lead by mama Floyd (Jean Smart), head to a big meeting with Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett); Milligan is curiously missing, no doubt held up by Simone. Then Floyd lays it all out on the table – they will not be backing down: “Partnership, not a sale,” she tells Joe. But it’s evident Floyd is one tough lady. She tells Bulo a little bit about her hardships, then makes clear: “We’ll fight to keep what’s ours ’till the last man.”
However, as we could’ve already assumed, Bulo isn’t too keen on taking the offer straight up. He wants assurance the Gerhardt boys will follow mom’s orders. Floyd tries her best to assure Bulo this will be the case, though, Dodd makes a scene. We’ll see how things go from here.
As if Otto Gerhardt (Michael Hogan) hadn’t been through enough with his stroke, Milligan had to go and make things worse. He wasn’t still with Simone. While Floyd met with Bulo, Mike and the Kitchen Brothers killed the men transporting Otto around. I thought they were actually going to kill Otto off, but Mike simply gave him a Godfather homage: “Joe Bulo says hello.” Then at the table, word reaches Bulo and the counter offer is rejected. Things are about to get even more dark and violent than ever before.
More Blomquist drama. Poor Ed. He wants to buy the shop so bad, the meat shop where he works, but Peggy’s been less than upfront with her unsuspecting husband. He’s trying his best to get things straight with her. Peggy went and dipped in when Ed thought they were clear on the money situation – even worse, Constance (Elizabeth Marvel) pushes her into being an independent woman, which is great, but Ed isn’t even being a bad guy. She’s basically fucked them and Ed only wants to buy the shop so they can be better off – instead, Constance is telling her what to do while trying to make it appear as if Peggy is living free.
Then in the background, Hanzee rolls by giving them the eye; Ed meets his gaze briefly, you can almost see it shake him.
A little later Mr. Dent strolls into the Blomquist garage, alone, quiet. He knows the ways of murder. He rubs the floor, smells it, and then looks up to find bleach on a shelf nearby. There’s an amazing presence Zahn McClarnon displays, as Hanzee walks around the house and examines everything, flicking his Zippo open to have a look here and there, even finding what looks like Rye’s belt buckle in the fireplace among the ashes. Over top of the scene plays “Song of the Earth” played by the Philharmonic Orchestra, a piece by Gustav Mahler.
Perhaps the most tense of all comes when State Trooper Solverson goes to see the Blomquists. They feed him a nervous, awkward story about what happened with the car – and Ed happens to spy, out the corner of his eye, the fireplace has been moved around a bit. Uh oh.
Yet Lou seems to want to help. At least in the sense he gives them the benefit of the doubt. He goes into a story about war, the look in a boy’s eyes after he’s been shot – the sort of unaware sense, not realizing yet what has happened. Lou’s identified that look in Ed and Peggy. He straight up knows, even bluntly stating who the man was they hit. All the same, the Blomquists keep up the charade. A very great moment comes when Ed looks up at a painting on the wall – a picturesque landscape of a farm, the ideal, the dream they hope to attain – and you can see he’s just not willing to let go of the hope that they can get out of this without admitting to what they’ve done. But Lou knows, and he tries telling them to be careful anyways.
At Ranch Gerhardt, the boys are wondering what mama Floyd wants to do about Bulo and the coming onslaught. “It’s war,” she tells them defiantly.
But what I love most about this moment is how they cut from one strong woman to another: Betsy. She’s sitting at the kitchen table staring down her experimental drugs, about to go to war herself. Nice little shift. Plus, there’s a good little scene between her and Lou when she goes out to find him on the lawn. He laments about how “we used to know right from wrong” – we, the society. It’s strange because we don’t often get such a strong and righteous type of character like Lou. Yet in the Fargo universe, we do get those characters. They come into such incredible contrast with the darker, more malevolent characters at play. So, to see Lou dealing with his wife fighting cancer, as well as watching the world he knew and loved slipping away bit by bit, now with seemingly normal and moral people like the Blomquists covering up murders, it’s a tragically exciting situation character-wise.
Every week I’m left craving more. One of the best shows on television, ever. Next episode is “The Gift of the Magi”, directed by Jeffrey Reiner.
Stay tuned for another one. Looking forward to it!