The Matrix series got off to a great start with a movie that created its own mystical world in which people paused in mid air before punching others in the face, and leather was in. Keanu Reeves found his best role in Neo, and the Wachowski brothers enjoyed instant fame and fortune with their creation. A sequel was inevitable, and it seemed like a continuation of the story couldn't miss. Well, it did miss, as things got a little tedious and preachy with The Matrix Reloaded, and downright intolerable with Matrix Revolutions. Reeves performance went from enthused, to competent, to sleepy over the course of three films, and my enthusiasm waned with his. What was clever in film one became all too obvious in film three, and the action got lost in a series of droning speeches about what was happening, what was going to happen and the spiritual ramifications of what just happened. The Wachowski brothers seemed to lose their faith in the audience's ability to comprehend what was going on, and all of the religious imagery and symbolism made it feel like a dreary day at Sunday school. More than a year after the series concluded, it's fair to say that the Wachowski brothers got a little ahead of themselves. Technology was not yet lined up with some of their ideas (special effects in Reloaded are often awful), and they took themselves a little too seriously.
The first film remains a science-fiction classic, and the moment in which Neo does the one-handed judo thing is killer. The original had a small cast of determined characters trying to conquer the machines that controlled the Matrix, and that created a nice sense of doom. In the subsequent films, the cast got bigger and blander, and that sense of urgency created by a small, capable cast was lost. After the immediate sting of the sequels not living up to the originals, a subsequent viewing of them reveals that they are not all that bad, just a little bad. They aren't nearly as good as the first time one, and that's the usual rule of thumb for sequels. It's too bad that the Matrix series didn't wind up an exception to the rule rather than another series whose quality dwindled as it progressed.
Special Features: Now that I've whined one last time about the series, I can tell you that this collection is well worth your money and time, even if you don't consider the films to be favorites. Ten discs comprise the package, with each of the three films getting a disc devoted to special features about the making of the movies. There are four other discs that include The Animatrix (anime inspired by the films), storyboards and production archives, a comprehensive study of the people who acted and created the movies, and a disc dedicated to the philosophical and technological inspirations for the Matrix world. Each film has two commentaries, one featuring philosophers and another featuring movie critics who actually don't like the movies. (Watching the films with critics pissing on them is actually quite fun!) A beloved relative procured me the limited edition collector's set for Christmas, which has a nifty display case and a kick-ass Neo sculpture. If you liked The Matrix on any level, The Ultimate Matrix will surely keep you happily occupied for many hours.
You had to do some searching if you wanted to buy this one for Christmas, because some retailers had a hard time keeping it on the shelves. The movie, about a high school super-geek with extraordinary dancing abilities, is a mixed bag, but the funny moments are hilarious. Actor Jon Heder has created something very amusing in Napoleon Dynamite, an eternally annoyed moaner trying to get his new friend Pedro elected to student government. If you don't find yourself laughing at Napoleon instantly, you might want to bail on the film, because the success of the movie depends on whether or not you find the character entertaining. The moment in which a cow is shot as a bunch of schoolchildren watch in horror is priceless.
Special Features: A commentary with Heder and director Jared Hess is terribly boring. Some deleted scenes are of no interest, but the short film Peluca, the inspiration for the movie, has its merits.
Director Yimou Zhang released two amazing martial-arts action spectacles in the United States this past year (House of Flying Daggers is currently in limited release). This stunner gave Jet Li the role of his lifetime, and showed that the director had a knack for action films. Ziyi Zhang proves herself the greatest female action heroine working today, and some of the fight scenes are beyond exhilarating. The film is not for those who prefer their martial arts with a lack of flying.
Special Features: A documentary that fails to impress, along with a long-winded interview with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li.