Grand Illusion

THE MATRIX
Written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Stuffed full of fantasy comics, addicted to action and steeped in digital technology, frenetic moviemakers Andy and Larry Wachowski have done what they must -- create an eye-popping, morph-mad, quasi-mythical sci-fi flick that will thrill computer nerds as it kicks serious ass. The Matrix also presumes to (ahem!) think deeply -- although this notion is sure to be more enthusiastically embraced by hardcore science-fiction cultists than by the rest of us. For the noncultist, this full-tilt visual and aural bombardment is simply a lot of fun. It never lets up. Nor does it ever want to.

It's not easy competing with snarling mechanical octopuses 30 feet tall, the vision of a thousand fetuses growing in a thousand gleaming chrysalises and some dazzling slow- and stop-motion never-before-seen effects. But the Wachowski brothers did sign on a couple of putative human stars. They are Speed merchant Keanu Reeves, who looks so pale and desiccated that you wonder how long he's been skipping breakfast, and former Othello Laurence Fishburne, burly and booming and always about to burst his skintight black leathers. They portray, respectively, an innocent computer hacker who calls himself Neo and a mysterious mentor named Morpheus, one of the only guys on earth who understands that the world is not what it seems. The world is, in fact, a vast illusion -- a virtual "matrix" -- created by evil machine/ monsters who have long since turned human beings into slaves.

This revelation will come as no surprise to anyone conversant with 1984, Brave New World, the assorted hallucinations of Franz Kafka or, for that matter, scores of previous science-fiction stories and scripts. We've already seen parallel universes aplenty and lots of cosmic mischief. We already know what paranoia is. What the technology-crazed Wachowskis manage to do in The Matrix is revive the old mumbo-jumbo in high style, using the latest lab techniques and giving free rein to their can-you-top-this sensibilities. Compared to the stuff in The Matrix, 2001 seems absolutely primitive, the slyest inventions of Face/Off like the-day-before-yesterday's gizmos.

Some of the witty, transcendent kung-fu effects dreamed up here by the noted Hong Kong "wire-fighting" wizard Yuen Wo Ping, the Matrix press notes boast, weren't even possible six months ago. When Reeves' Neo and the main villain of the piece, Hugo Weaving's sinister morph-meister "Agent Smith," do battle, they defy all the laws of gravity and physical movement while happily wrecking the joint with fists, feet and enough heavy artillery to stock the next three Schwarzenegger movies. It's a blast to watch.

The complex (sometimes opaque) cosmology of The Matrix borrows from Orwell and Heinlein, acknowledges Alice in Wonderland and ransacks religious myth -- which means that devoted sci-fi buffs will probably take several weeks to deconstruct and detail it all. Good for them. Suffice it to say that our man Neo, like many worthies before him, goes through the training program, then sets out for the Unknown to battle the forces of Evil in the name of Truth. This is the computer age, though, so he and his several sidekicks in Morpheus' platoon of rebels can get certain help whenever they want it: Neo turns into a super-Bruce Lee after downloading a martial-arts program directly into his cerebral cortex; the heroine, who is called Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), learns to fly an assault helicopter in exactly five seconds because the boys back at the lab have that software at the ready, too.

Such technological miracles make things easy -- plotwise, anyway -- for the Wachowski brothers. But as they showed in their earlier, more earthbound movie -- a quirky women-against-the-mob thriller called Bound -- they aren't averse to the purely human moment. In The Matrix, my favorite was a beautifully written, thoroughly offbeat encounter between the young hero and a font of universal wisdom called, somewhat bombastically, "the Oracle." That their conversation takes place in the kitchen of a cramped apartment, and that the Oracle turns out to be an earthy grandmother who's just now taking her tray of cookies out of the oven, is a real stroke of genius. The Wachowskis seem to be saying that though state-of-the-art effects speak for themselves loud and clear, there's still room amid all the kicking and shooting and shouting for the carefully observed human emotion.

Does Good also stare down Evil? Can Neo, the neophyte trained to become Morpheus' most crucial warrior, defeat Agent Smith and put The Matrix asunder? We're not saying. But only Kafka would bet against it.

Opens April 2.
-- Bill Gallo

THE HARMONISTS
Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier

Back in 1993, Disney released Swing Kids, a dead-earnest portrait of rebellious German jazz fans during the Third Reich. This bizarre hybrid -- a blend of Footloose and Schindler's List, of The Dead Poets Society and The Diary of Anne Frank -- pitted big bands vs. armbands; it was a classic case of high-concept desperation unintentionally turning into sheer surrealist insanity.

Now, six years later (almost to the day), Miramax, a Disney subsidiary, is releasing The Harmonists, a German production that deals with a similar subject, albeit with far greater success than its Hollywood cousin.

Both films are based on real events, but The Harmonists is more specific: It recounts the career of the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group popular during the decade preceding the rise of Nazism. Director Joseph Vilsmaier was fortunate enough to have as a resource the last remaining Harmonist, Roman Cycowski, who died in Palm Springs only four months ago.

The Comedian Harmonists have no modern equivalent, but they somewhat resemble (for those of you old enough to remember) the Coasters, the '50s group specializing in comic songs that were, despite their "novelty" aspects, musically brilliant and inventive. Like the Coasters, the German group spiced up their act with onstage antics and mildly risque lyrics; their strongest influences appear to have been the very same black musicians from whom the Coasters' art ultimately derived.

At the movie's beginning, we meet Harry Frommermann (Ulrich Noethen), an actor who can't resist introducing continued on page 68continued from page 66humor into everything he does whether it's appropriate or not. As a result, he is, not surprisingly, out of work most of the time.

But Harry sees himself more as a musician than an actor ... despite the fact that he can't play an instrument. A huge fan of American pop and jazz -- which he gets to hear while flirting with music-store clerk Erna Eggstein (Meret Becker) -- he decides to assemble a vocal group along the lines of the Revelers, the most popular such group in the U.S. at the time.

After hiring bass Bob Biberti (Ben Becker), Harry assembles three more singers (Heino Ferch, Heinrich Schafmeister, Max Tidof) and a pianist (Kai Wiesinger) and starts mercilessly rehearsing them in his own syncopated arrangements. After a false start, the group zooms to fame -- a rise that is documented in classic Hollywood fashion, with montages of headlines, champagne glasses, performances and wild parties.

But in the background is the growing menace of Nazism. We know from early on that Harry is Jewish, as are the owners of the music store where the gentile Erna works. But so assimilated are most Jews within the overall culture that we, like the group itself, only gradually discover which of its other members are Jewish. Eventually we learn that the ethnic tally is 50-50.

In 1933, when Hitler comes to power, it's obvious that the group is headed for trouble. Still, in understandable denial, all but Harry convince themselves that the strength of their fanbase (which includes Nazi bigwig Julius Streicher) will somehow protect them. Finally, in 1934, they are forced to break up, and the Jewish members flee the country.

Though the political conflict is the most interesting part of the Comedian Harmonist story, it is too simple and not particularly dramatic. Vilsmaier appears to have too much respect for the truth to goose things up with contrived crises. But he also realizes that the outline of that conflict is frankly insufficient to carry a two-hour film.

As a result, he concentrates for most of the film's length on the group's musical and personal struggles, relegating the Nazi elements to the background until the final third. The primary subplot is the romantic competition between Harry and Bob over Erna's affections. (That the actors portraying Bob and Erna are siblings in real life adds a small, creepy frisson to their big romantic scene.)

If it's not already obvious, however, most of The Harmonists fits firmly in the tradition of the Hollywood show-biz biopic: except for the political scenes and a slightly higher level of realism that forbids fake melodrama, it could pass for a 40-year-old 20th Century Fox extravaganza. That's not an insult. The production is lavish and handsome, with beautiful sets and costumes, and Vilsmaier's graceful camera tracks through the action, frequently for a minute or more without a cut. The music is impressive, though it would have been nice to hear more numbers in their entirety.

And Noethen, a stage actor making his screen debut, is a memorable presence. His wild hair and hangdog face have a classic sad-clown look that evokes both Buster Keaton and Roberto Benigni.

Opens April 2 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Andy Klein

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU
Directed by Gil Junger

A couple of years or so ago, Jane Austen suddenly rose from classical obscurity to become the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood. Now it is Shakespeare himself who has become the magic name to drop. There are straight-up productions of his plays in the works -- a star-studded version of A Midsummer's Night Dream is scheduled for release in May -- but the creators of the endearing, energetic new film 10 Things I Hate About You have chosen a less risky approach. As the inspiration for their script, first-time screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith have followed the template forged by Amy Heckerling for her transposition of Jane Austen's Emma into the 1995 hit Clueless. And although comparisons to that earlier, splashier film are inevitable, there are at least 10 things about this one that are better.

One of them is the inspired way director Gil Junger and his collaborators have played off the original. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Lutz and Smith have used The Taming of the Shrew as their source, substituting the rich suburbs of Seattle, Wash., for 14th-century Verona, Italy. What they have retained from the original, though, is the air of swooning romanticism. The story begins when Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a newly arrived sophomore who is being given a tour of Padua High School by his friend Michael (David Krumholtz), first lays eyes on Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) and falls madly in love with her. Naturally, Cameron wants to go out with this comely fellow student, but there is a slight problem for anyone who would like to ask Bianca out on a date. By proclamation of her hilariously nervous and overprotective father (Larry Miller), Bianca cannot date until her older sister, Katarina (Julia Stiles) dates. And if Kat has anything to do with it, that won't be anytime soon. Whereas everything about Bianca is gentle and sweet, everything about Katarina is odious and rough. She hates boys, and the thought of dating even more. And so she terrorizes every unwitting lad who comes within shouting distance of her.

The setup, of course, belongs to Shakespeare, but Junger, making his feature debut here, can be credited for using everything the Bard has given him to very best advantage. Junger received most of his directing experience in television, specifically on situation comedies. (He directed the famous coming-out episode of Ellen.) And where his skill shows itself most is in the way he keeps the various crisscrossing storylines straight.

He also has a considerable talent for getting confident performances out of his mostly inexperienced teenage cast. As Cameron, Gordon-Levitt is enormously winning as the character who -- with considerable assistance from his geeky friend Michael -- keeps pushing the story forward with his behind-the-scenes plotting. The one person in school who isn't terrified by Kat is Patrick (the Australia-born Heath Ledger), the school's notorious juvenile delinquent, who agrees to ask Kat out on a date only if he is paid for his trouble.

Because none of the characters are exactly as they seem, Kat is not nearly so unapproachable, and Patrick not nearly so tough. After growling at one another through a few scenes in the classic screwball style, the inevitable transformation takes place and the obstacles to love fall away, not just for Patrick and Kat but for Cameron and Bianca as well. Even Michael is rewarded for his labors on love's behalf. Though it has a classical parentage, 10 Things That I Hate About You is a small-scaled, slight undertaking, but its pleasures are unexpectedly rich. It has become a habit in our movies to portray the exploits of high-school-age characters as shocking and depraved. 10 Things I Hate About You allows its teenagers their innocence and something that is even rarer these days, something like nobility.

-- Hal Hinson

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