Picks and Pans Main: Screen

updated 05/26/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The Matrix Reloaded
Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

The first Matrix, released in 1999, hinged on an entertainingly mind-boggling conceit. A computer hacker (Reeves) swallows a pill offered by a mystery man in a leather trench coat, then wakes to find that he has spent his life incubating in a giant industrial farm—along with the rest of the human race, harvested for fuel by robot tyrants. As for reality, it's no more real than a Hollywood blockbuster, a scrim of images projected into our minds by sinister software. Written and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski and featuring groundbreaking digital effects, wildly imaginative martial-arts fights and a healthy appreciation for its own loop-the-loop cyberlogic, The Matrix had a genuine visionary kick.

This sequel, which will be followed by a third installment this November, has its share of kicks too, many of them administered by Reeves, now a messianic rebel whose spectacularly combative feet could pummel the entire corps of Riverdance into pulp. But the vision thing, as they used to say in a simpler age, has blown a gasket. After so much talk in the first film about Zion, the human forces' subterranean city—Reloaded, by the way, won't make a lick of sense if you skipped The Matrix—we seem to have taken an elevator to the bottom of an underground parking garage and exited at a level marked Beyond Thunderdome. Zion is that cheesiest of sci-fi fantasies: futuristic colonists milling about in precivilized rags. Their leaders, the same sort of wise yet shifty consuls who signal an onrush of dead air whenever they speak in Star Wars or Star Trek, debate about an impending invasion from the robots. This all feels awfully shopworn for a series that, having anticipated everything from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Minority Report, needs to stay sharper than cutting-edge. It needs to slice clean through the screen.

Past the halfway mark, Reloaded finally rights itself with a dazzlingly tricky highway chase and a crazy, funny scene in which Reeves, surrounded by countless video images of himself, gets the prophetic lowdown from the world's programmer-in-chief, the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis). A portly figure with white whiskers, he's cold, clinical and bemusedly pessimistic. He could be Stanley Kubrick's notion of Santa Claus.

Reloaded ultimately succeeds in making you look forward to the finale, Revolutions. But facing the prospect of a return to the stalactites of Zion, you may also dread it a bit. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Reboot!

Down With Love
Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor

An aggressively adorable homage to Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies like Pillow Talk, Down With Love is coy, cute, candy-colored and so close to its inspiration as to be a clone. Swingin' '60s journalist McGregor decides his latest exposé subject will be Zellweger, author of a bestseller urging women to refuse romance and savor sex à la carte. He'll gently woo her into love, then reveal her philosophy to be a fraud. Unlike McGregor, whose bland, oily performance fits the material, Zellweger has a stubbornly contemporary presence: a raw vulnerability combined with a soft abrasiveness, like sandpaper applied by atomizer. If this quality had been exploited by director Peyton Reed (Bring It On), the film might have scored off the friction between now and then. Instead, the biggest laughs go to plummy old Tony Randall, winking at his supporting roles in those Day-Hudson hits. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: The heck with Love

The Dancer Upstairs
Javier Bardem, Laura Morante

Bardem's powerful head, with its boxer's profile and strong brows riding low over sensual eyes, dominates John Malkovich's directorial debut. A Latin American police thriller (in English) with Bardem on the trail of a terrorist, it's hushed and cunning—like so many Malkovich performances. The ending is romantic folly, but Bardem, whose somber dignity feels like one long, deep sigh, is excellent. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Surefooted

Sweet Sixteen
Martin Compston

After casting a 17-year-old with no acting experience as the center of this sorrow-bruised, working-class drama from Scotland, director Ken Loach shrewdly kept the full script from him. Loach spoon-fed scenes to his star, Martin Compston, often withholding key information. The result is a commandingly natural performance that breathes with life.

Compston plays Liam, an unschooled, unemployed 15-year-old trying to set up a new home to share with his mum, who's in prison on a drug conviction and soon to be released. The pitiless irony: The surest way for him to raise money in this seedy town is by selling drugs himself. Bright and personable, Liam prospers, still lit with hope even as his career forces him to make choices no kid should have to contemplate. His greatest mistake—and this is what gives Sixteen such wrenching resonance—may be his love for his mother. In just a few scenes Michelle Coulter, another nonactor, lets us see just how weak, confused and dangerous a woman she is.(R)

BOTTOM LINE: Movingly bittersweet

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