The Empire Strikes Back of the Matrix series is a tour de force of action sequences, a line drawn in the sand leagues ahead of other action movie competition. Only a few months after its premiere, scenes like the Burly Brawl and the Freeway Chase have become as famous in their way as the Airport Farewell in Casablanca, or the Car Chase Under the El in The French Connection.
Amazingly enough, the increasingly convoluted plot of The Matrix is as much an attraction as the state-of-the-art effects, a solemnly unfolded mish-mash of second-year philosophy tutorial Cartesian brain-teasers (“If I think, therefore I am, who am I when I’m dreaming?”) set in a sci-fi nightmare universe of machine overlords and brave human rebels. If this were the only storyline the Matrix had to offer, it’s doubtful that the first film would have been the phenomenon it has become.
No, it’s the cyberpunk, virtual reality level of the Matrix Universe that makes the franchise soar. For the first thirty minutes or so of Matrix Reloaded, the film plods along in the subterranean world of the rebels before Neo and his pals go online and into the world of “bullet time”, hundred-against-one fights, and spectacular, hyperspeed car chases. At the end, with a hint that even the dreary underground “reality” is an illusion of the Matrix (Whoa. Like, far out.), the film promises to launch us into an even more spectacular realm of physical impossibility.
The double-disc release of Matrix Reloaded is at pains to celebrate the film’s phenomenon, with a second disc of featurettes exploring how the animated shorts of The Animatrix and even the video game are essential to understanding the whole concept. (It’s canny marketing, at least.) Best of all is an unusually lucid documentary on the filming of the Freeway Chase, which will leave you with renewed respect for the peculiar skills of the real stars of the film – the production crew.
Absolutely Fabulous: Absolutely Special
The Vicar of Dibley: Series 1
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were virtually unknown here until the 1997 premiere of Absolutely Fabulous in North America, at which point they dominated British comedy like no one else had since Monty Python.
The two specials collected on Absolutely Special are anomalies. Absolutely Fabulous: The Last Shout was made in the long gap between series three and series four, while Absolutely Special was made last year as another standalone “reunion” of the cast. At this rate, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley can probably reprise Eddy and Patsy, the aggressively shallow boomer harpies at the heart of the series, till they’re incontinent and demented. At any rate, it would hardly damage their repulsive but hilarious characters.
The Vicar of Dibley debuted in 1994, and featured Saunders’ writing partner, Dawn French, as a female Anglican vicar sent to an oddball rural parish. Neither French nor Saunders wrote it (considerable credit is given to Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis), but the show’s appeal rides on French’s considerable charm and comic timing. It’s a far gentler piece of work than French and Saunders would have written, and nowhere near as irreverent as, say, Father Ted, but it’s a must for French and Saunders completists.
Knife in the Water
The Pianist reminded us of something we should never have forgotten after Chinatown, despite the scandal and disgrace that sent him into exile – that Roman Polanski is probably the most gifted filmmaker working today.
The Criterion reissue of Polanski’s first feature, Knife In The Water, with a second disc of his early short films, is a testament to that talent. An ungenerous professor might have regarded the student shorts, including the classic Two Men And A Wardrobe, as precocious and even showy. But his debut film, a taut drama set on a boat, is so formally and technically confident that there was no mistaking the arrival of a unique talent.
The timelessness of his treatment of a story of the escalating tension between two men and a woman on a day-long sailing trip transcends the political realities of early-60s Poland, which is why the film was officially frowned-upon, sending Polanski into lifelong exile.
A terrorist group hijacks an airship and plans to crash it into an iconic American structure, killing thousands. This 1976 film would probably be a bit more prescient if it didn’t involve the Goodyear blimp and the Cowboys/Steelers Super Bowl, but John Frankenheimer’s film still manages faint resonance, with Robert Shaw as a determined Mossad agent, Marthe Keller as a PLO terrorist, and Bruce Dern as a Vietnam vet, war hero and former POW driven mad by his country’s indifference. No special features.
As Time Goes By: You Must Remember This
This BBC sitcom is a perennial favorite on PBS, due mostly to the performances at the heart of this gentle, romantic story – Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer as a pair of young lovers reunited after forty years. Don’t look for satire or irreverence from As Time Goes By – it’s an utterly charming character-based comedy, predicated on Dench’s skittishness and Palmer’s stuffiness. This disc is a companion to the series, a laugh-track free reprise of the show, a “flashback show” with Dench and Palmer’s characters looking back on the whole of the series story arc. Includes three classic episodes as a bonus.