It’s been a diffident period in America’s movie theaters, thanks to the pandemic — even if audiences aren’t worried about COVID, they’ve adjusted their viewing habits to mostly exclude the cineplex. Just last week Steven Spielberg’s highly touted remake of “West Side Story” fizzled at the box office.
This week, three big-deal new films — two of them sequels to proven franchises, the other fresh work from a widely admired auteur — will try to buck the glum trend. Here to jawbone the topic to a sugary paste in a less than Socratic dialogue are Neon editor Scott Dickensheets and Barry Friedman, a comedian with dubious ties to Las Vegas. Take it away, fellas.
‘The Matrix Resurrections’
Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 22
SCOTT: I thought James Bond would lure me back into a movie theater. He did not. I was certain “Dune” would — ask anyone, I love a good sandworm. But that didn’t do it either. Not sure why I’m reluctant; I mask up like a bandit and have three shots of funky cold Moderna. In theory I’m good to go. Now comes a week in which a confluence of highly anticipated new films — “The Matrix Resurrections,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and Guillermo del Toro’s latest, “Nightmare Alley” — together renew the question: Will I go this time? How do you feel about all this?
BARRY: First off, let me just say that movies, like all art, should depress. I don’t want to be uplifted, nor lost in some fantasy of a director’s vision of good and evil. I want two people, over mixed drinks and an appetizer, tearing apart their relationship till they’re both metaphorical puddles on the floor, and none of these movies, sadly, speaks to my self-conscious meta-acute dysfunction. As a result, I may just sit home and write Elon Musk to ask why my self-driving Tesla 3 didn’t see the deer. Nevertheless, “The Matrix Resurrections,” which revolves around Neo’s strange memories — I’m shocked — looks the most alluring. And by alluring I mean in the sense that I have always wanted to dodge nuclear warheads with a tilt of my head and make out with an unkempt Carrie-Anne Moss while the dystopian world caves in on itself. After the first film in the franchise was released, I walked in on my father, watching it on HBO, who asked, “What the hell’s going on in this movie?” I told him, “Dad, listen: When things are in the light, it’s the Matrix. When it’s dark, it’s reality.” I, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. Hey, is Tobey Maguire still Spider-Man? If not, I’m not going.
SCOTT: Well, I believe “The Matrix Resurrections” will depress you, Barry. Remember the series’ baseline narrative: that the hard slog of this reality is actually a pacifying illusion to mask an even bleaker, more terrifying reality; that humans are just a passive biofuel source powering the machines. In the new film, set 20 years later, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is somehow back, even though in the last film he died to save both humans and machines from a rogue computer program (basically the martyr complex of every IT guy you know); turns out, Neo was essentially a Matrix-reboot protocol. Now he’s seeing a shrink about his strange dreams-slash-memories, who prescribes the blue pills that keep Neo securely anesthetized in the fake reality. And then, at least according to the trailers, crazy Matrix plot devices happen, and John Wick starts killing — no, wait. Sorry. People start running upside down in slow motion as the soundtrack reminds us what a great song “White Rabbit” is.
Funny you should mention Elon Musk. As the leading crackpot visionary propounding “simulation theory,” which holds that we’re just characters in an elaborate computer game, his spirit seems right at home in the machine-gothic allegory of the Matrix Cinematic Whateververse. I joke about John Wick, but I wouldn’t mind if a little of the campy mojo of Reeves’ other franchise pierced this one’s mist of gravid philosophical murk. Or maybe that’s just what the source code is telling me to think.
BARRY: The trailer is loud and bathed in green and fun and has some dialogue that could stop the bus Reeves eventually stopped in “Speed” — “She believed in me,” he says in this latest “Matrix.” “It’s my turn to believe in her” — speaking of campy mojo. Of course, nobody goes to “The Matrix” for the dialogue any more than they went to “Rocky” to discover the working conditions in Philadelphia meatpacking plants, but, still, I’m getting computer-generated diabetes. And we must, Scott, talk of the computer-generated elephant in the room. Where in the name of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is Laurence Fishburne? The producers wanted newer, fresher blood, fine, and if media reports are correct, Fishburne is being a mensch about the whole thing, but a “Matrix” without Fishburne is like a “Godfather” without Duvall, and you know how that sequel turned out. As for Musk’s insufferableness, I agree, my friend, it grows by leaps and bounds, which doesn’t mean I won’t buy a Tesla Nebuchadnezzar should he make one, because I will.
‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
SCOTT: Before we plunge any deeper into this “White Rabbit” hole, let’s remember what the dormouse said: “With great power comes great responsibility.” That Dr. Phil-style bromide has, of course, served as the moral compass of the various Spider-Man movies, starring Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and lately Tom Holland, whose latest opens this week: “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” I’ve always presumed the different iterations were standard reboots intended to shake down the fan base for more nerdcoin. But, Barry, your wisecrack about Maguire has proved prophetic, as the “No Way Home” trailer makes clear when Doc Ock rips off Spider-Man’s mask to reveal Holland rather than Tobes: “You’re not Peter Parker,” he rasps. Not his Peter Parker, at least. So the previous films will be treated as having happened in different universes, just as Mark Zuckerberg has foreseen. (The idea of a multiverse has already been latent in the MCU, particularly in the “Loki” TV series and the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.”) The presence in this film of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange signals a major rift in the space/time/pop-science continuum, opening the possibility of quantum fan-service cameos as characters not only from the different Spider-Man films erupt into our world, but also, perhaps, characters from Spider-Man-adjacent movies, such as “Venom” and “Daredevil.” That’s a lot of plot machinery to activate — were the screenwriters bitten by a radioactive Rube Goldberg? — and it reminds me of an observation by a film vlogger: Whereas installments in the Maguire and Garfield versions were disdained by fans for packing too much improbable narrative into one film, the audience seems hot for “No Way Home” precisely because it does so. It’s all pretty crypto, yes, but it will surely mean lots of currency: “No Way Home” is widely expected to be the first pandemic film to open north of $100 million domestically.
BARRY: Your dormouse, Scott, knows what you need, but I know what you want — and I hope what you want is an end to wisecracking, self-conscious superheroes. Adam West, after all, didn’t mine his Adam West-ness until long after he was cheated out of Batman residuals. Think of the arc of that TV show had West kept making asides to Burt Ward and/or the camera about how preposterous it was to think Lord Marmaduke Ffogg posed any real danger to Gotham City. So the earnestness and self-doubt that Peter Parker/Spider-Man embodies has always been more than a little endearing to me. He’s a kinder, gentler, thinking man’s Avenger who doesn’t spike the ball — more Barry Sanders than Deion.
I recently watched a show called “90 Day Fiancé Pillow Talk: Before the 90 Days.” In it, long-distance couples who decided after 90 days of courtship to get married on last season’s show watch the new season. A show about couples who were already on a show (and knew they were on one and now know they are on another one) riffing wise on new couples (who know they are being watched) on that same show is a metaverse Zuckerberg can only hope to create. Long way of saying, Doc Ock would have to rip off Spider-Man’s mask and find Maguire’s Red Pollard from “Seabiscuit” to surprise me enough to spill the overpriced popcorn.
And can we please lose the damn hyphen in Spider-Man already? No real superhero — Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Aquaman — would be caught dead in such a grammatical construction.
SCOTT: I have to believe that in at least one of those spiderverses there’s a shiftier, griftier version of Uncle Ben, a rank cad who tells a bewildered young Peter, “With great power comes great opportunity.” That Uncle Ben will be played by Bradley Cooper with the same snaky charm he brings to Guillermo del Toro’s latest, “Nightmare Alley.” Cooper plays an amoral, ambitious carnival worker who parlays his grasp of human nature — primarily, that people are desperate to reveal themselves — into a career as a high-flying sham mentalist unwittingly headed for a dark reckoning. Classic Americana! That “Nightmare Alley” is based on a 1946 novel proves that “carny noir” has been a durable metaphor for the human character long before current events made it so richly relevant.
While the story, as far as I can tell, takes place in just one universe, you can tell from the trailer’s lighting design that “Nightmare Alley” takes for granted that our deepest psychology serves as its own reality, distinct from the physical world, and that much will depend on the traffic between them — prime del Toro turf. And at least it will unfold without much meta irony, and thank God. Indeed, I’ve always wondered if one effect of the way superhero movies are relentlessly self-aware of their comic book origins is that it curtails their visual lyricism; form tends to follow action. I can’t think of many scenes in the MCU that might qualify as poetic. And while I didn’t love del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” it was visually stunning, and the trailers suggest the same will be true of this one. A carny noir that’s probably depressing and unironic — “Nightmare Alley” might be right up your alley, Barry. I’ll spring for the popcorn, assuming my loan application is approved.
BARRY: Have to tell you, my friend, when you mentioned ambition, amorality and high-flying carny-ism, I couldn’t tell if you were talking about the movie or Las Vegas Boulevard, which, let’s face it, considering our theme in this exchange, eats meta before the breakfast buffets open. I agree with you, though, on “Nightmare Alley.” It looks stunningly diabolical and metaphorical and would be right up my alley, but I want art to depress, let me reiterate, not disturb — and if I’m not mistaken, while we’re on the subject of superheroes and visual lyricism, someone who looks very much like Wonder Woman appears to be getting electrocuted in this movie, which is where I draw the line on the commercialization of Christmas. Further, nobody looks likable or redeemable in the picture — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are mesmerizing, del Toro was made to tell such stories, and when does Willem Dafoe ever disappoint; however, no one deserves a hug. On the other hand, there’s chain-smoking, women with thick red lipstick, men with well-coiffed facial hair and a cacophony of laughs throughout that sound like warnings and sirens, so this is pretty delicious fare. I’ll bet you not only the popcorn you have already agreed to provide, but some licorice, a large slushy, and season tickets to the 2022 Raiders (which, if 2021 is any indication, won’t be hard to procure) that “Nightmare Alley” wins at least four Oscars — and at least two new mentalist shows open on the Strip.