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Reign Over Me (2007)

Adam Sandler in a serious drama? Well it worked in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but that was aided by Paul Thomas Anderson deconstructing the typical Sandler goofball in his glut of crude yet successful comedies. Can Sandler work his thespian skills in a story not tailor-made for him? I think writer/director Mike Binder’s 9/11 human drama, Reign Over Me, is proof that Sandler can step outside his popular persona for a worthy cause. But this movie isn’t it.

Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is an ordinary dentist living his family life in Manhattan. Then one day he spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), zipping along on an electric scooter. He looks drastically different than Alan remembers, and this is because Charlie’s wife and children, and even his dog, were on one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Charlie’s life now consists of a new adolescence where he does what he wants because of the insurance money, so he plays video games late at night, goes to see Mel Brooks retrospectives, and keeps remodeling his kitchen over and over. He is without friends and refuses to even think about any painful memories. Alan takes it upon himself to help his former dentist school pal confront his grief and get back on his feet.

The varying elements never truly mesh, and Reign Over Me has a very haphazard, clumsy feel as it never comes to a firm landing. There’s a mixture of the serious and the sitcom, and both elements go together as well as vodka and motor oil — sure it may work in the immediate but couldn’t it be much better? Many of the connections feel tenuous and it’s hard to care about certain storylines, especially the film’s preoccupation with Alan’s midlife malaise. Are we supposed to be in Alan’s corner as he argues his adult life sucks because women at the office throw themselves at him and his wife wants him to open up? Am I really supposed to believe the film’s assertion that he covets the freedom of a 9/11 widower? Reign Over Me never shifts gears smoothly when it comes to tone. The audience is left to question why this story needs to be told through the prism of a bored dentist. It never truly feels right.

Charlie isn’t just bummed out, he is severely damaged from the shock of 9/11; this is far beyond post-traumatic. At several points he just freaks into violent fits out for no discernible reason, but people still tolerate him and don’t call for greater help. It would be naive to think that one friend could fix all of the psychological horrors of one man, but then you remember this is a movie. Charlie could use some serious meds. Friendship is important, but Reign Over Me toys with the object of abject loss without delving too deep, instead feeling that one good crying confessional and a terribly manipulative and unbelievable court battle will sum everything up.

I think that feeling was pervasive for me while watching Reign Over Me was that I felt toyed with. The drama takes a long time to wind down and even then it settles on surface-level solutions that always seem so easy in movies. Many of the comedic elements feel too dependent on sitcom generalizations. Charlie comes to Alan’s apartment late at night and asks his wife if he can go out and play. Alan chastises his friend, saying he’s an adult and doesn’t need his wife’s permission to go outside. Can anyone guess what the next moment will entail? That’s right, he asks his wife if he can go out and play. You’ll be forgiven if you hold for expectations of a laugh track. Reign Over Me even is also filled with the usual suspects like the brassy receptionist, the shyster lawyer, and the hilarious misunderstandings between the sexes that bring about sexual harassment lawsuits.

Let me stop and illuminate on that last bit. Alan’s patient is obsessed with wanting to orally pleasure the good doctor, enough that she sues when he declines a second time. For whatever reason, he sees her again and she apologizes in some ham-handed back-story about how her husband dumping her left her devastated (and if you can figure out what Binder has in store for the film’s broken female and broken male, then you too deserve a lollipop). This storyline is beyond tacky, a bit humiliating for the actress, and a prime example of how poorly the all the female roles are written. It’s shocking that Reign Over Me can examine male adult male bonding so well but completely drop the ball with every single female character. Alan’s wife seems nice and responsible but the film tries to convince us she’s sucking the life out of him because she likes jigsaw puzzles, quiet nights at the home, and knowing where her husband is when he’s out odd hours of the night. It’s appalling how this movie treats its female characters. They are either seen as flighty beings at the control of their sexual desires or as cold, non-sexual wet blankets. After the hour mark you can almost forget about seeing anything about Alan’s family except for an implausibly tidy “I’m sorry/No I’m sorry” phone call.

Sandler can be a fine actor when given the right material, and a character that retreats into an infantile existence seems like a plum role for him. He effectively channels Charlie’s disconnect from reality, but a lot of his grief tics will start to remind you of Rain Man-style autism, like repeating phrases, obsessive behavior, and moaning and rocking while upset. He gets lots in his Bob Dylan bird’s nest of hair.

Cheadle is always dependable as an actor and proves to be a stable center the film needs because of its narrative shortcomings. He’s doing primarily a lot of reaction but still manages to work above his material and build sympathy to a character that really deserves less. Sandler bounces around like a ping-pong ball and Cheadle holds steady, and the two men form a rather strong acting unit that just makes me wish the material were up to their task.

Ultimately Reign Over Me is hard to pile on because of its wealth of good intentions and fleeting moments of dramatic heft. It’s a messy film that somehow believes all its disjointed elements fit together, when in reality the movie never settles on a cohesive tone. The acing is generally strong and there’s some mature and realistic writing regarding male relationships, however, there are just as many frustrating moments. The film skims the surface of Big Issues like 9/11 grieving but never wants to develop into something more thoughtful. Instead, the film retreats much like Charlie into an easier existence where the questions are only momentary. Reign Over Me is a fine if unremarkable drama, but good intentions can only take you so far. At some point, to be memorable, you have to actually be good.

Nate?s Grade: B-

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Four years ago the Wachowskis revolutionized the world of cinema, with their surprise sci-fi opus, The Matrix. Their mixture of philosophy, kinetic visuals, and inventive action with style to spare laid waste to all inferior action movies and gave birth to a cult of fan boys. Now six months after the second installment, The Matrix: Reloaded, we’re left to supposedly close the chapter on Matrix land.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) is caught in a strange limbo between the machine world and the real world. The only passage back to either is through the Merovingian’s chief hobo, the Trainman (seriously, he’s a hobo with teeth like a jack-o-lantern). Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) travel to the most spastic fetish club imaginable for negotiations with the Merovingian. He agrees to give them back Neo if they will bring him the eyes of the Oracle, the prophet of the Matrix.

The rest of Revolutions takes place within two storylines. The first involves Morpheus and his former flame Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith, finally getting a sizeable role she deserves) flying the last remaining ship of the human fleet back to Zion, the last remaining free human city, before the tunneling army of the machines breach the city walls. The other storyline involves Neo and Trinity flying a ship to the heart of Machine Town to have a face-to-face with The Wizard. They want to negotiate a peace between the two factions and put a stop to the increasingly uncontrollable rogue program, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who, left unchecked, could destroy both the human and machine world.

Reeves has never been confused with a serious actor, or even much of an actor for that matter. And sure, he has a penchant for being out-acted by inanimate objects, but his stint in Revolutions is stiff and wooden, like he’’s just punching the clock to get through another day. It doesn’’t help his case that half of his scenes involve the woefully inept romance between him and Moss.

The only person that seems to be having any fun in this overly serious melodrama with guns is Weaving. His Agent Smith character has morphed into the true star of the Matrix trilogy. He’s charming and even more likable than the dull-witted Neo. Weaving seems to love the drawn out line delivery, so much so he might be accused of abusing anti-depressants. His insidious cackles are a delight.

The plot of The Matrix: Revolutions has several head-scratching moments. Like the kid who yearns to be in the fight but is too young and clumsy. Anyone who’’s ever seen any movie ever will know how that plot point turns out. Then there are questions like, why do people far in the future still use wheelbarrows to lug ammo around? Why, during a shoot-out at the fetish club’s gun check room, do people jump on the ceiling? Why would being on the ceiling make you any more difficult to shoot? The whole sequence comes off like a poorly done rip-off of the Wachowski’s’ own bank lobby shoot-out from the original Matrix.

Revolutions is the least densely plotted of the three films. Now, one would think this would be a godsend, especially after the pretensions and bloated mess that was The Matrix: Reloaded. But there’s nothing at all memorable in this third installment, and perhaps this is because everything but ten minutes of it takes place in the dingy “real world.” Who cares about a post-apocalyptic universe where the surviving subterranean humans wear rags and pull all-night raves? I’’ve seen that stuff in a thousand other movies (maybe not the raves part, though). Everything is better within the virtual reality Matrix world; from the clothes to the gravity-defying cool acrobatics to the cinematography to, God help me for saying it, the acting and dialogue. At least Reloaded gave us the stylish goods when it came to that heart-thumping freeway chase.

Although Revolutions is a slight improvement over the tedious Reloaded, this is only because after seeing the third and final leg of this trilogy, it makes the second film look worse. The intriguing new elements of Reloaded, like the French Merovingian and his wife (the lovely Monica Bellucci), are now seen to be nothing more than dropped subplots. Even the coolest additions to the Matrix universe –the ghostly twins- don’’t even show up. Sigh. Now that I know where the story ends, the loose ends of Reloaded don’’t justify themselves nearly as much as I would have liked.

The showpieces of Revolutions are two long battles in its final act. The first is a near-20 minute assault by the Sentinels, resembling flying mechanical octopi, against the defenses of Zion. It’’s exciting for a while but battle fatigue settles in quickly. You can only watch so many CGI robo-exoskeletons shooting CGI machine guns at CGI flying machines as they explode in CGI explosions and CGI shrapnel. The effects are nice, and seem more polished than Reloaded, but the sense of imagination seems to be entirely absent. The second battle is the final fist-fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the pouring rain. Smith has duplicated himself enough to cover miles upon miles of high rises. The fight sequence is impressive and beautifully filmed, but it amounts to a big shoulder shrug after watching Neo battle 100 Smiths in Reloaded. The final confrontation in Revolutions is adequately satisfying if a bit under whelming and unmemorable.

The need for corporate coffers to ring has turned what was a great stand alone film into a mediocre franchise, one whose diminished hopes and lowered expectations can only be judged on par with the Star Wars prequels. My friend Colin equated watching The Matrix: Revolutions to a wet dream: momentarily satisfying but leaving one with nothing but pangs of emptiness. The Matrix trilogy doesn’’t end with any sense of urgency; instead it draws to a close with a half-baked artificial fulfillment. The journey of Neo and Trinity and all the rest has come to a whimpering end.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

Imagine my disappointment as I viewed the highly anticipated sequel to 1999’s sci-fi smash The Matrix and learned that the writing and directing team of the Wachowski brothers had taken a page from good ole’ George Lucas on how to make sequels: the “bigger is better and more is more” approach. Like the first two Star Wars prequels, the second Matrix movie is overstuffed and unfocused. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, it’’s also extremely talky when it comes to psycho-babble that would only impress the bong-carrying peanut gallery.

Reloaded picks up sometime after the first. Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), Neo (Keanu Reeves), and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are late for a pow-wow with other leaders including Morpheus’ former flame, Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith). In this meeting, which is within the Matrix, we learn that the humans have discovered that the machines are drilling at an incredible speed and will reach Zion, the last human city far beneath the Earth, in a matter of days. Add this to the bad dreams Neo keeps having where Trinity falls out of a building and gets shot by an Agent, and things are not looking good for our heroes from the first film.

At Zion, Morpheus stokes up the crowd who already believe that Neo is The One in the prophecy of the Oracle (Gloria Foster). They believe he is the one who will lead them to topple the machines. Morpheus informs the many citizens of Zion (okay, the last battalion of the human race lives in caves under the surface and people are STILL wearing sunglasses all the time? Watch your heads.) that the machines are digging to a town near you, and they have 250,000 Sentinels to wipe out what remains of humanity.

So what do people do next; what would your standard response be? Apparently, in Zion, it involves a massive spontaneous, sex-charged rave. The multitudes of Zion start grinding and sweatily dancing to electronic beats. And curiously, as you’ll notice with the slow camera movement in the scene, NO ONE in the future wears a bra. Perhaps the machines got those too. So after a tremendously long span of raving with nipples, intercut with Neo and Trinity knockin’ boots (though could you imagine zero-gravity sex in the Matrix?), the heroes set off to find the Oracle once more. Zion is preparing to mount a counterstrike against the burrowing machines and is hopeful that it will buy them some time. They plan on sending the entire fleet out, save Morpheus’ ship and one or two to aid him in his quest.

Neo finally regroups with the Oracle along a park bench inside the Matrix. She puts forth more psychological babble about choice and how choices are already made before you make them. You may start zoning out and wondering when people are gonna’ start punching people again, because it takes a good 45-50 minutes to get into this movie. The Oracle does have an interesting tidbit of information however. She reveals that the Matrix if just chock full of rogue programs living out their days in the confines of this virtual reality. Included in this group are werewolves, vampires, ghosts, angels which are all programming errors that walk among the Matrix. So, wouldn’’t it be kind of neat to see Neo fight the monsters from Universal Studios (“Hey Frankenstein monster … I know kung-fu” “Fire baaaaaaaaaad!”)?

The supreme drawback of Reloaded is that it introduces us to a plethora of new characters, all with minimal screen time and even more minimal plot impact, and then fails to advance the story. Niobe is pointless except for the old action picture adage of being at the right place at the right time to rescue our seemingly doomed heroes. A rogue program that calls himself The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson), who decides on being a European playboy with an accent that renders all speech useless, snoots and huffs his way around. Monica Bellucci plays his wife. This Italian actress can be enthralling, and not just on the eyes, but she also serves minimal purpose other than some heaving chest shots. Then there’s the Keymaker, who will somehow lead Neo to his destiny or whatever. There’s about fifteen or so new characters and hardly any of them matter. The coolest additions are the twins, a pair of pasty dreadlocked fighters who can go through walls and parry any enemy assault. More time is needed for these two before they turn into another wasted villain, like Star Wars‘ Darth Maul.

All of this criticism is moot, of course, because the center of The Matrix is on inventive and pulse-pounding action, right? Well I’’d say that is so with the 1999 film but its sequel suffers when its action sequences drone on and become repetitious and dull. Neo fighting twenty or so replicates of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is interesting and fun, but when ninety more show up and it’s painfully and slightly embarrassing when the people fighting are CGI, then the fun level drops with the film. Neo ends the big brawl by flying away. My friend next to me whispered in my ear once this scene concluded, “If he could fly, why didn’’t he fly away at the beginning?” My response: “That would be using your brain.” Seriously, this action sequence is nifty and all but it serves no purpose, just like much of the first half of the film.

The freeway chase scene seems to already be famous and with due cause. Trinity and Morpheus zooming through traffic, fighting Agents and the twins, is a fantastic set piece that is reminiscent of the inventive action the first Matrix gave us. When Trinity zooms through oncoming traffic on her motorcycle the film comes alive and my attention was certainly front and center. The scene does fizzle a bit as it segues into Morpheus fighting an Agent atop a speeding semi. Again, the CGI rotoscoping of the landscape and the people is painfully obvious and detracts from the enjoyment.

What ultimately kills The Matrix sequel is that no one had the heart to question if maybe more wasn’’t better. Sure the Wachowski brothers had all the riches unto Caesar to make this movie, but what perplexes me is that once we do get much more it only feels like more of the same, and disappointment sets in. Agent Smith is shoved to the side of the film and pops up here and there to glare. He’s more or less just repackaged with nothing new and no personality, like much of the film. The purposely perplexing psycho-babble does not help. I’m sure hundreds of websites will dissect the exact philosophical links the movie presents, but man, all this talking about stuff that’s shutting down my brain is getting in the way of ass-kicking. I felt bloodlust the more I heard people, usually some old fruitcake, endlessly blab about causality and choice. When it comes to action-packed sequels from 2003, I’ll take X2 any day over Reloaded.

This is not to say that Reloaded is a bad film because it does have some nice special effects, cinematography, and some cool action sequences. These points of interest do not, however, justify its bloated running time. Some things were better left to the imagination, like the city of Zion, which looks about as dreary and dull as you might expect the last bastion of human civilization to look like in a ruined world, but this is science-fiction. Where’s the fun in dreary and dull? Again, whereas the first Matrix took place mainly in the false virtual reality where we could watch fantastic feats defying the laws of physics, Reloaded spends half its time running around the dank real world.

Some moments did have me giggling, like the Merovingian’’s joyous creation — an orgasm cake. A woman has a piece of cake and her temperature rises. Finally the camera zooms into her vagina (it’s in computer-code so it’s all columns of sexy green numbers) and we see an explosion of light. Very interesting indeed. Essentially, this is a key metaphor for the film itself: an attempt to have its cake and eat it too.

The Matrix: Reloaded is an occasionally entertaining and often mind-numbingly talky summer entry. You’ll get some thrills, maybe the philosophy will connect more for some (even though to me, at the heart, they say very little very eloquently), but because The Matrix is a colossal franchise that will make a gazillion dollars and then some, the power of editing has been kicked to the curb. If that power had been present perhaps someone could have trimmed a few of the many peripheral characters, kicked the pace up a few notches, reworked the fight scenes to advance the plot and stopped events from being so repetitive, and while they were at it maybe they could have done away with all the philosophy and stilted love dialogue. As it stands, The Matrix sequel has lost a lot of edge and this is because of the initial success of the first film. Sure, you might have an intermittently good time, but you should have had a great time. The Wachowski brothers had every tool at their fingertips but they became so enamored with fame and fortune that their work of creativity and genius has morphed into a self-indulgent, adolescent (with its hormone driven sexual events and its stoner philosophy), cash cow.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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