Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Double feature candidates aplenty

I had a pretty good weekend as far as bringing movies home from the library. I told you on Saturday that we were watching movies on the projector in our garage, and I mentioned that Jaws was up first. It turned out we watched the other two movies I brought home as well, which I believe marks the first time ever that my wife and I have watched all three movies I plucked from the library shelves in one visit. (I've watched all three myself, but I don't think she's ever watched all of them with me.) Since you get a maximum of three movies for only two days (three on the weekends), it makes such a success rate pretty unlikely.

We got an earlier start on Saturday than we had on Friday, so even with running over two hours, The Matrix finished up by a little after 10. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to tack another movie on and make it a double feature. But which movie?

It wasn't quite so simple, but it looked like I was going to subconsciously choose a thematically appropriate double feature, whether I liked it or not.

Before I start, I should tell you that I rarely plan double features where the movies will be good companions for each other. People have called me a cinematic omnivore, and I think that's true to some extent. This means that I am not usually gravitating toward the same kinds of movies, which also means that the best movie to appear as the second half of a double feature is usually the movie I feel the most pressing urge to see.

The one factor that does influence my decision is whether there is anything about the circumstances that dictates one choice over the other. So the projector was the influencing factor in this case. The theory when watching a movie on the projector is that you want it to be visually impressive in some way. That was a guiding influence in my choosing Jaws and The Matrix, though not necessarily 21 Jump Street, which we watched on Sunday night to cap our weekend. 

Having already seen all three of the movies I checked out of the library at least once, I was eager to crack the seal on something new to follow up The Matrix. I don't mean that literally. There would be no cracking of seals on unseen DVDs, because there are only a few movies I own that I've never seen, and that means I acquired them in some unusual way (as a present or a gag gift) and did not expect them to be projector-worthy.

So I scanned our Netflix instant queue for a visually dynamic film that I hadn't seen that was short enough for me to have a reasonable chance of consuming before sleep overtook me. The title that jumped out was David Cronenberg's Existenz, which I have been trying to prioritize for years. I may have subconsciously had The Matrix on the brain when I chose it, but I don't think so, in part because I was scouting choices earlier in the day, before we'd popped The Matrix in.

Existenz sure would have been a natural partner for The Matrix. Although I haven't seen it, I know that it has to do with a virtual reality form of gaming, in which people are connected via a port inserted into their spinal column. Not only does this speak to The Matrix's traveling between two worlds, one real and one imaginary, but Existenz also shares the physiological logistics of making the connection.

I say "would have been" because Existenz was defeated by two technological realities with which it couldn't grapple. My computer reported that a plug-in needed to be updated in order to play Netflix (it's my new work computer, so it hasn't done this job previously), and after 10 o'clock at night, I just didn't want to bother with that. Then there was the fact that the wifi signal just wasn't at maximum strength in our garage. Although it had worked fine for email on another night, I noticed it struggling along at just two bars out of five.

Having lost the possibility of a new movie, I turned to our DVD shelves in our living room, and quickly came away with two sound choices -- both of them also inadvertent double feature pairings for The Matrix.

The first was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which may just be my all-time favorite film adaptation of a video game. This 2001 film, which is in the anime tradition but uses a far more advanced animation style (as you can probably tell from the poster), should have been a technological marvel and a real hit. But for some reason, it just wasn't. Even if people didn't like the story, although I don't know why they wouldn't have, this was perhaps the most effective CG recreation of human beings that had been seen yet at the movies, and that should have counted for something.

Anyway, the setting is a post-apocalyptic earth that is ruled by phantoms, which are diaphanous alien creatures who can kill by mere physical contact with human beings. Their physiognomy is often squid-like or otherwise aquatic, making them reminiscent of the robot sentinels that come searching for the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix. Not to mention that the "real world" in both movies is a torched wasteland, where a small pocket of human resistance living in a thus-far impermeable "final city" try to stave off the extinction of the species.

I tried to watch Final Fantasy as my third movie of the night, actually, but I made it only 20 minutes, the last five of which were spent more asleep than awake. It lost out to the eventual winner of this double feature sweepstakes simply because I didn't want to watch it quite as much.

That eventual winner was Tarsem Singh's The Cell, the movie I would have been least conscious of having a connection to The Matrix before I started, but may have had the most significant similarities when all was said and done.

Both movies feature characters who use a specific procedure to consciously leave their real world and enter a fantasy world where rules don't apply -- a fantasy world they can manipulate, but one that will eat them up if they're not careful. In both movies there's a lot of talk about how if you die in the fantasy world, you die in reality, because your mind can't separate the two. (Each movie has a specific line about this. In The Matrix, it's "The body cannot live without the mind." In The Cell, it's "It's like that old wives' tale, if you die in your dream you die in your real life.")

Both movies feature the hero "going back in" when it will very likely result in his/her death, while people sitting at the controls stand by in shock, either physically unable to prevent the hero or reluctantly agreeing not to. Both movies also conclude with a race against time -- in one case, to prevent a victim from drowning in an underground cell, and in the other, to prevent sentinels from killing all the human resistors we have come to know.

As discussed, any one of these would have been a great match for The Matrix, but I'm glad The Cell ended up winning out. I wouldn't say it enthralled me quite as much this time as when I wrote about it in 2010, but each viewing further reminds me that this is an underappreciated classic involving a singular vision by its director.

Now I'm just licking my lips for my next opportunity to borrow the projector.


Travis McClain said...

I've never seen any of these movies so I can't comment on them. The idea of double features (or triple features), however, is one that's familiar to me. I've mentioned in previous comments about my teen years with friends renting movies for all-nighters.

My personal favorite double-feature ever was, believe it or not, Doctor Zhivago followed by Wayne's World. I suppose if one really insisted upon it, an argument could theoretically be constructed that Yuri and Wayne are both caught up in events beyond their power and just want to be with the women they love. I dunno. I think the fact that they're such totally different milieus is why it worked, especially with Zhivago's lengthy run time.

I remember we did Val Kilmer Night once. We started with Tombstone and ended with The Ghost and the Darkness but for the life of me I can't think of what we watched between them. The Island of Dr. Moreau, maybe?

There was also a night we did a four-film set of black comedies and satires: Canadian Bacon, National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 and we ended with The Silence of the Hams. I can't recall now what the other film was, but it was either #2 or #3 in that sequence. They worked because they were all roughly 90 minutes, which added up to the same 6-hour bloc as 3 2-hour movies.

Also, a friend of mine once had a VHS tape at home where they'd recorded a pair of movies off TV (a common practice in those days, as you probably recall). What made it so fun was that whoever in his family had written the titles on the label had gotten lazy about the titles and so it wound up reading:

"Indiana Jones and the Hunt for Red October"

To this day, I want to see someone make that movie.

Vancetastic said...

You neglected to mention that Canadian Bacon and Silence of the Hams were good double feature partners not only because they are satires, but because they both involve pork products.

Vancetastic said...

Also, it's funny that you mention Indiana Jones and the Hunt for Red October, because The Hunt for Red October is the first Jack Ryan movie, and Harrison Ford would later play Ryan.

Travis McClain said...

Good catch on the pork product pairing! The Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones/Jack Ryan connection has long been on our minds. It would be absolutely perfect had he been cast as Ryan for that film instead of Alec Baldwin.

One wonders: Suppose they'd cast Ford with Connery in Red October right after the two had shot Last Crusade. Would audiences have gone for another pairing back-to-back like that? How differently might Jack Ryan's cinematic incarnation have gone had they just cast Ford in the beginning?

It's always surprised me how badly Clancy's novels have fared as a movie series. Part of that is because 90s movies weren't willing to go to the depth and length of a Clancy novel; Clear and Present Danger is a perfect microcosm of that butchery.

I think part of the problem is that Jack and his world falls somewhere between le Carre's George Smiley and Fleming's James Bond. Clancy wants us to buy into the real life/legwork/grunt work kind of agent that le Carre has crafted, but he also wants to put us in high stakes, grand adventures a la Fleming. That means Jack is either too fantastic for the gritty le Carre-style spy fans or too bogged down in mundane details for the glamorous Fleming-style spy fans.

I'm eager to see what this year's forthcoming Jack Ryan movie with Chris Pine in the role turns out to be like. I can easily see where someone at Paramount is envisioning concurrent Mission: Impossible and Jack Ryan movies, alternating with one another every other year or thereabouts to keep the genre prominent while allowing each series to "breathe" between movies. It could be a lot of fun...if they do it right.

Thaddeus said...

Existenz is really good and I strongly recommend. You're damn right that it has a certain resonance with The Matrix, although the tone is completely different. One is an action film, while the other is more of a thriller.

I love Cronenberg!