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Wednesday, June 4, 2003

The media trapped in the Matrix


"What is the Matrix?" asked Neo in the first "Matrix" film. "The Matrix," replied Morpheus, "is control."

News photo
Laurence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves, Jada Pinkett Smith and Hugo Weaving in Tokyo to promote "The Matrix Reloaded"

It was ironic, then, to find Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne -- along with costars Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, producer Joel Silver and "concept designer" Geoffrey Darrow -- at a press conference hosted by Warner Bros., the most uptight of Tokyo's film distributors.

This is a company that likes to give out two-pages of "rules" for the media to follow at their press conferences and that would threaten to eject cameramen for doing something egregious like, say, taking a picture of Hugo Weaving as he sits grinning at the cameras. Warner is the only distributor to have uniformed guards outside their screening room, and they also pioneered the use of rent-a-cops at a recent preview screening of "Matrix Reloaded." They not only searched the bags of all who attended, but also lined up ominously inside the theater by the exits, on the lookout for bootleggers in the audience. (Funny that pirating and online file-sharing, not terrorism, was the perceived threat to a film that glorifies hackers.)

The press conference was an exercise in total control: In a marketing-driven medium where image is everything and no one has anything to say, Warner whittled down a one-hour press conference to a mere 15 minutes of chat from their famous guests, padded by the typical "I'm so happy to be here in Tokyo" pleasantries. The stars were then quickly whisked off to preen before the TV cameras and to do photo-ops at Tokyo Tower, which was lit up in "Matrix" green.

Many journalists who attended left muttering that there was nothing to write up. That's no exaggeration when the few questions asked were nonsense like this: "Unlike most American movies, 'The Matrix' has a hero with dark hair; does this reflect an Oriental influence on the film?"

Hello? Seen any Hollywood action flicks lately? Do the names Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise or Nicholas Cage ring a bell? Any blondes there?

Geoffrey Darrow could barely grope for an answer: "I couldn't tell you, umm . . . from what I know, when they [the directors] met Keanu, he was Neo, and Keanu has black hair. So . . . "

If Warner Japan is looking for some even more Draconian rules, perhaps they should try applying California's "three strikes, you're out" law to the media corps. One reporter managed to squeeze in three stupid questions in one breath:

No. 1: "Did you have any fears of coming to Japan because of SARS?"

Like, the cast would be there in Roppongi Hills if they did?

No. 2: "When will we get to see 'Matrix 3'?" -- a question that anyone who'd bothered to read the press release Warner handed out at the entrance would already know: "Nov. 5, in a simultaneous global release!"

No. 3: " 'The Matrix Reloaded' had an incredible opening weekend, the biggest box office take in the history of America. What do you credit to the success of this franchise?"

Ummm, perhaps the mesh of cyberpunk style, Hong Kong fantasy action, fetish fashion, postmodern philosophy and psychedelic visual effects all in one film? Maybe, a $300 million budget, the bulk of which went into the groundbreaking digital effects? How about a $100 million advertising budget? There are a lot of good answers to this question, but for God's sake, don't expect one if you ask Keanu Reeves!

"We're all here because of the vision of Larry and Andy Wachowski, who directed and wrote the film," Reeves said in that post-"Speed" voice of his, studiedly lower and reeking of vintage Clint Eastwood. "And their vision is, I think, a very accessible, fun film that has very universal elements, universal to us personally, I think, as people."

Then there was the current no-brainer question, making an appearance at every news conference these days: "Did you have any accidents during the shoot?" It's indicative of an era when the top Hollywood actors have become more good-looking stunt men than, well, actors. Fishburne sprained his wrist, and told us that Carrie-Anne Moss also broke her leg. Hugo Weaving mentioned a slipped disc, while Darrow -- ever the dry wit -- confessed to "a really nasty paper cut." Keanu, alas, emerged unscathed.

And finally, the question we've all been waiting to ask Lawrence Fishburne : "What did it feel like [as Morpheus] to wield a Japanese katana during the big highway action sequence?" Said Fishburne: "Handling the Japanese sword made me feel very much like, umm, an emperor."

Cue much nervous laughter.

References to the royal family are just a bit too out-of-control.



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