Keanu, is that you?
by Katrina Onstad
National Post film columnist Katrina Onstad is attending the 56th Cannes International Film Festival, the world's most famous filmfest. Today, the cast and crew of The Matrix Reloaded meet the press.
Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss share the same dark androgyny; he's pretty, she's handsome. Bonded by good looks and a drive to free humans from machine bondage, their love story drives The Matrix Reloaded, the sequel that greeted journalists with streaming, screaming code and an exploding freeway at the ungodly hour of 8:30 a.m. on the second day of the Cannes film festival.
When the pair took the stage for a press conference, along with other cast and some crew, they were easy to tell apart because Moss is the pregnant one, and Reeves has a smudge of beard.
The first question was uncharacteristically blunt for this celebrity-loving festival: What to make of many less than stellar reviews? Producer Joel Silver got a little huffy: "I've obviously read more reviews than you have because many have been very good," he said, before offering the classic I'm-smarter-than-you-are defence. "It's the shock of the new. People are troubled by something that's fresh and new."
The question's implication is that perhaps the Matrix brand is review-proof, its cult following so dedicated that no whining critics will affect the movie's box office. The film is not in competition at Cannes, but it still seemed odd that the panel didn't include the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, who wrote and directed the trilogy. Their reputation as reclusive eccentrics was tempered by Silver's less intriguing excuse for their absence: They're rushing to finish the third instalment, The Matrix Revolutions, in time for a Nov. 15 release date. The two films were made at the same time over 270 days in 2001 and 2002 for a mere US$300-million. Like the second Lord of the Rings, Matrix Reloaded suffers from cinema interruptus, an abrupt, unsatisfying ending designed to leave an audience pining for the next time. Silver promises that the third film will resolve the many unanswered questions, though he was cryptic enough not to rule out the possibility of a sequel to the sequels: "The story the boys have told will end in the next movie."
Everyone refers to the Wachowskis as the brothers, or the boys. Only once were they identified separately when Laurence Fishburne, who plays Morpheus, a revolutionary with great enunciation, boomed: "Larry Wachowski said to me at one point that the whole idea of the way we look and dress inside the Matrix -- the coats, the leather -- is about armour." Asked if any American actors had qualms about coming to France, birthplace of the freedom fry, the cast shook their heads and made like happy tourists. Reeves, who seems to have internalized the Zen master reticence of his character, the saviour Neo, answered the question of whether he's been treated badly as an American ("Canadian," my internal nationalist corrected) with a joke: "I just got here." People laughed -- Keanu Reeves made a joke! -- and he added, "I hope there isn't [tension] ... Festivals and cinema should be a moment to come together to celebrate art and humanity and stuff." A smattering of applause.
As a rule, sequels mean more: more characters, more story (the last human settlement, Zion, is under siege by octopus machines called Sentinels while Neo and his crew battle virtual tyranny), more fight scenes, more Agent Smiths (Neo's nemesis multiplies by 100), more special effects. The Wachowskis, who love architecture, built elaborate sets -- 150 in total -- so that even when the actors needed to perform against blue screens (the space where the effects later appear), they were in a creative environment, the opposite of the legendarily gruelling methods of George Lucas. Talk of CGI made actress Monica Bellucci irate: "All these actors, they worked so hard. It wasn't about blue screens and special effects -- this is acting! This is acting!" Oddly, Bellucci performs entirely without special effects in her small part as the temptress Persephone.
The Matrix reworks philosophy and mythology for the comic-book set, and as such, it brings the nerdy insiders out of their basements. A nervous Argentine journalist, clearly needing content for his Matrix fan site, asked this question: In the first film, Reeves' Neo takes the red pill (it frees his mind, man, because he's made a choice). In Reloaded, the Oracle offers him a piece of red candy but he doesn't eat it. Why not?
Reeves' answer: "Once you eat a red pill, you don't eat another red pill." Another laugh from an easy crowd. "And I'm saving it for later."
The first disappointment of the festival was a rare misstep from German director Wim Wenders. The Soul of a Man is a grindingly slow, impressionistic semi-documentary about three blues legends: Skip James, J.B. Lenoir and Blind Willie Johnson. Wenders' films have always indulged his fetish for American music, and this one only comes alive when he pops up as a goofy young obsessive fan. Otherwise, re-enactments of old recording sessions alternate at a snail's pace with clips of worthy modern-day musicians such as Beck, Lucinda Williams and Nick Cave reinterpreting songs we just heard; comparisons can only be unflattering. Wenders' is the first release in a seven-part film series called The Blues, produced by Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the next instalments, by Clint Eastwood and Mike Figgis, among others, will do their subjects more justice by telling us their stories, instead of merely representing them as relics. Until then, find the soundtrack, because the music is phenomenal.