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Film of the Week: 'Matrix Reloaded'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, May 15 (UPI) -- The biggest and perhaps most anticipated project of 2003 is the two-part sequel to "The Matrix." More than $300 million was spent on this week's "The Matrix Reloaded" and next November's "The Matrix Revolutions."

The average studio movie now costs $59 million to film, and this summer's blockbusters are routinely breaking the $100 million budget barrier.

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To stage the car chase in "Reloaded," for example, the filmmakers built their own freeway and smashed up $2 million worth of automobiles. So many hundreds (thousands?) of people worked on "Reloaded" that the credits run a posterior-numbing 9 minutes.

The scale of this summer's movies has intensified an old problem: how can a business enterprise of such complexity be managed efficiently while still delivering an artistic vision?

Back when they were lowly film critics, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard asserted that one man is the "author" of a movie. Their "auteur theory" wasn't good history, but it accounted for some distinctive films when first self-consciously tried in Hollywood in the late 1960s.

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In the long run, though, the crushing workload of getting a movie made has rendered true auteurism impracticable for all but the most superhuman workaholics. Most of the 1970s auteurs crashed and burned from drugs, megalomania, or sheer exhaustion.

Recently, a compromise solution has emerged: split the auteur's duties between two brothers. Think of the Farrellys ("There's Something About Mary"), Weitzes ("American Pie"), and Wayans ("Scary Movie"). I call it the "frauteur" theory.

Why brothers, though? After all, studios once employed numerous mixed-sex writing teams, such as Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz for 1933's "Dinner at Eight." As the target audience has shifted to teenage boys, however, there's been less demand for grown-up movies displaying sophisticated understandings of both sexes. Now, Hollywood needs grown men who can manage huge ventures yet still possess the imaginations of 13-year-olds. Making movies with your brother is an ideal way to extend your childhood indefinitely.

The single most striking 'frauteur' film has been Andy and Larry Wachowski's 1999 sci-fi instant classic "The Matrix." Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a computer hacker awoken by rebels who show him that the "real world" of skyscrapers and cubicle jobs is just a virtual reality program administered by machines who actually keep the human race unconscious in slimy pods in order to suck out their precious bodily fluids (or something).

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Laurence Fishburne, sounding like James Earl Jones' understudy, is Neo's mentor Morpheus. (Fishburne wears a Columbine-style black trench coat and sunglass lenses without any arms. He must attach them to his nose using the "Opti-grab" device invented by Steve Martin in "The Jerk.") Carrie-Anne Moss, garbed in black rubber domi-Matrix fetishwear, is the dangerous and alluring Trinity.

Fortunately, they've discovered their seemingly omnipotent enemy's one weakness: those crazy computers just love kung-fu fighting!

The Wachowskis have cited a host of highbrow influences. (They supposedly forced poor Keanu to read postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard's impenetrable "Simulacra and Simulation.") They've never seemed to mention, however, the most obvious precursor: Ridley Scott's "1984" Apple Macintosh commercial in which a woman athlete frees the IBM-shackled drones by hurling a sledgehammer through Big Brother's video image.

"The Matrix" perfectly captured the late-adolescent male computer nerd's mindset:

You can't trust anyone but your online friends. Maybe you really will save the world. Computer games are more real than what adults, who are zombies or evil mechanical brain controllers, call real life. It would be cool to have a girlfriend who is a butt-kicking videogame character and doesn't care about dumb girl stuff.

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It's hard to summarize the original "Matrix" without making it sound puerile and dot-com-era dated, but watching it is a blast. The brothers' nimble plotting blends superbly with their much-imitated visuals.

So, given a vast budget, could the frauteurs top themselves in "Reloaded?"

In one scene whose creativity rivals Mickey Mouse battling the multiplying broomsticks in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment from "Fantasia," Reeves must fight off 100 copies of Agent Smith. Call it the Attack of the Clones.

Shockingly, however, the rest of "Reloaded" resembles a duller remake of that much-derided "Star Wars" sequel. At least George Lucas' gabfest featured beautiful scenery. The Wachowskis' Zion, the legendary human city at the center of the Earth, turns out to be just a big hole in the ground. The actors have aged and are lit to look haggard. Even the massive car chase goes on so long you start wishing the brothers would ... just cut to the chase.

"Reloaded" lacks the original's fluid, integrated pacing. It has only two speeds: you either get leaden philosophizing about free will or super-colossal action set pieces. It's like "My Dinner with Andre on the Hindenburg."

Evidently, even two Wachowskis weren't enough.

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Rated a pointless R for a snooze-inducing bedroom scene and some bad words that don't jibe with the otherwise orotund dialogue.

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