Monthly Archives: March 2006

V for Vendetta (2006)

Legendary comics author Alan Moore has a particular disdain for Hollywood adaptations. They just haven’t gone so well for this scribble scribe. There was 2001’s From Hell (I may be the only one in the world that actually likes it, Heather Graham’s atrocious cockney accent aside) and 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Moore is even responsible for the creation of the John Constantine character, who had his own 2005 big screen venture. I suppose you could see why he has certain contempt for the movie versions of his much-heralded stories. Now comes V for Vendetta, based on Moore’s 1988 comic and adapted into a screenplay by the Wachoswki brothers. While I may have no idea how close V for Vendetta is to Moore’s graphic novel, I can say that the movie is a smart, superb thriller that dares you to think while you?re stuffing popcorn into your mouth.

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”

In the future, America has lost its super power status after overextending itself in war. Britain has turned into a hostile totalitarian government, led by chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). Evey (Natalie Portman) works for the state-controlled TV station. One night, while walking out past curfew, Evey is attacked by some undercover cops looking for a good time. A mysterious masked man named V (Hugo Weaving) comes to her rescue. His grinning, bearded mask resembles Guy Fawkes, a revolutionary that tried to blow up the British Parliament 400 years ago on November 5th. V starts taking out high profile government figures and then infiltrates the government airwaves, asking others to rise up against the corruption they see around them. He promises to blow up parliament one year to the day of this message. Finch (Stephen Rea, so expressive with his hangdog demeanor) is assigned to find out who this V is and how to deal with him. In reality, Finch discovers a lot more troubling information about his own government. Evey is linked with V and tracked down for interrogation and potential execution. As the date approaches, Evey must battle her own loyalties and strike out against what she feels is right and just.

What makes V for Vendetta so exciting is its playground of ideas. This is a dynamically intelligent, complex movie but it never lets the smarts get in the way of a rousing good time. This is a very political movie that’s very relevant today, like the exchange of freedom for security and the use of fear mongering to serve an agenda. I love that the government’s leaders were a rogue?s gallery of corruptible figures; the Bill O’Riley-like TV pundit blowhard, the church leader who just happens to be a pedophile, the scientist whose good intentions justify the worst in human experimentation. V for Vendetta is a thinking man?s comic book movie, one that actually has actual respect for its audience and refuses to dumb down its message. The movie starts at a gallop and never lets up intellectually, and that’s so wonderfully refreshing from a film of any stripes. While I would not classify myself in the camp that views V for Vendetta as an anti-Bush administration screed, I’d have to say the movie does stir people out of a sense of apathy. I was even moved by the film’s hopeful conclusion, which is more than I can say about any other comic book movie (yes, even Elektra).

Director James McTeigue has previously served as the Wachoswki brothers’ assistant director. V for Vendetta is his debut as a director and what an auspicious debut it is. The movie is visually lush thanks to Aliens cinematographer Adrian Biddle (sadly, he died December 2005), but the smartest notion McTeigue accomplishes is putting story above special effects (ahem, George Lucas?). The command McTeigue has as a first-time director is impressive; how many people would be this restrained with all the fancy tools Hollywood has to offer? It’s his restraint and priorities that allow V for Vendetta to excel. And when the film does call for action, McTeigue judiciously uses visual trickery to enhance the scene. A late scene involving slow-mo V taking out a cadre of soldiers while they reload is amazing both in its “hey, look at this!” visual acuity and that it fits perfectly within the narrative. Nothing is self-consciously showy for the sake of wowing an audience, and every beat of action feels organic to the storyline. V for Vendetta is a terrific debut with some great set pieces.

Weaving is awesome as our hero. Since at no point does V ever take off his mask, it wouldn’t have been unheard of to simply hire a stunt guy to play the part and dub Weaving’s voice in later. But no, Weaving decided to be the part and adds so much to the character. He knows when to turn his head, nod, lean to a side, just like a silent film star interpreting the moment through action; it sounds ridiculous but it definitely helps paint a clearer picture of V. Then there’s Weaving’s incredible voice, making V sound like the world’s craziest, coolest Shakespearean lit professor.

Portman has finally made me appreciate her as an actress. She had a long winter between 1994’s The Professional and her 2004 one-two punch of Garden State and Closer, but I now finally see that Portman is a fine actress and not just a promising talent. She’s the heart of the film, the focal point for the audience to journey along, and she’s excellent at every point. I also give her props for having her head shaved on camera (I can only imagine what the eventual porn version will do with this scene).

I’m left in the cold by this over inflated discussion on how “daring” V for Vendetta is by having the hero of a major Hollywood movie be a terrorist, one that says things like, “Violence can be used for good,” and, “Sometimes blowing up buildings can change the world.” Yeah, sure, but it’s a well-mannered, well-read, cultured terrorist versus a giant evil totalitarian government that kidnaps people, strips them of their rights, and enforces cruelty and prejudice. So exactly how daring is that? Of course audience sympathy is going to fall to the little guy, in this case a terrorist, which is the only hope of shaking things up and righting wrongs in the system. That doesn’t exactly strike me as subversive. This movie isn’t promoting terrorism any more than Munich was when Spielberg allowed the Palestinians to have a voice. The movie is anti-oppression if anything.

My only complaints are minor. The movie gets a bit repetitious in its windup to the climax (oh look, we’ve cut again to the Big Brother round table), and that somewhere along the middle V for Vendetta gets log-jammed with subplots. Everyone has a story to tell in V for Vendetta and we see every personal tale, and after a while it kind of grinds the flow of the story down. However, this problem is sidestepped after awhile and V for Vendetta gets back on track, driving full-force toward its conclusion like a runaway train.

What sounds on paper as something incredibly silly, including a kissing scene involving a motionless clay mask, V for Vendetta plays out with such excitement, visual prowess, and vibrant intelligence; this is a very political movie that?s very relevant today and I loved it all the more for it, but V never forgets to be entertaining at the same time. McTeigue has fashioned together a stirring and fascinating directorial debut, and even though the Wachowski brothers have their fingerprints all over this film, the pretension is kept to a minimum. V for Vendetta is exactly what the Matrix sequels should have been: a pulpy mix of brains and action, not a snore-fest that beats you down before putting on a show. It’s a shame Moore didn’t want his name attached to the finished product, because V for Vendetta is 2006’s first great movie of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

16 Blocks (2006)

If you think you’ve heard of 16 Blocks before, you may just be correct. There was a 1977 Clint Eastwood movie called The Guantlet where he was transporting a prostitute/mob witness on a bus, and hordes of dirty cops and mob enforcers are trying to eliminate this witness. So the bus gets shot up beyond all imaginable repair and something of a standoff occurs. If you’d rather rent The Guantlet than pay full price for 16 Blocks I can understand that, but 16 Blocks is an adequately entertaining return to form for director Richard Donner (The Goonies, Lethal Weapon).

Officer Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is the kind of New York cop that, when stationed at a crime scene, raids a drug dealer?s cabinet and helps himself to some booze. Jack is like a walking zombie, trudging from assignment to assignment. He’s stuck with one more assignment, transporting Eddie (Mos Def), a key witness in a government trial just 16 blocks away. Everything seems so routine, but then Jack thwarts an attempt to murder Eddie. He reports the attack and takes a breather in a bar. Shortly after, he’s greeted by his old partner, Frank (David Morse), who is ominously familiarity with Eddie. Seems Eddie saw something he shouldn’t have, and now a whole slew of dirty cops are going to go down if he testifies. Frank would appreciate it if Jack stepped aside, gave up Eddie, and everything would be square again. All he has to do is make sure Eddie misses his testimony deadline in an hour, dead or alive. A sudden conscience gives Jack a new life, and he?s determined to escort Eddie to the courthouse, no matter the cost. Frank is willing to stop this, no matter the cost. Let the countdown begin.

16 Blocks is a solid genre picture up until a bus standoff lets all the air out and kills the film’s jumpy momentum. Yes, it’s assembled out of worn clich├ęs and plot elements from other flicks, but this cut-and-paste action flick is a cut above out of its determination. When 16 Blocks is cooking, and it does for stretches, the movie seems to be moving forward by sheer force of will. It’s somewhat admirable, and I’m convinced Donner is responsible for this as he settles into familiar territory. 16 Blocks successfully introduces obstacles and then lets our heroes find believable and entertaining ways to skirt past the danger and into the next obstacle. New York City really feels like its own integral character that’s central to the unfolding plot. 16 Blocks is nothing spectacular but it’s proficiently fun, that is, until that protracted bus standoff gums up the film’s flow. The contrivances become too glaring and 16 Blocks settles into an overly redemptive finish. 16 Blocks succeeds as long as it can, which is surprisingly longer than I would have estimated, but it eventually winds down with too much time left on the clock.

What the hell is up with Mos Def’s voice in this movie? I don’t know if he was trying to stretch his thespian wings, but going the entire film sounding like you’re a cartoon is not helpful (unless you’re Joey Lauren Adams). I seriously expected a tank of helium to be connected. It’s so mannered, so annoying, and so purposely “different” that you’re almost glad he may die in the film’s opening minutes. However, if this was Donner’s attempt to put the audience in Jack’s place, make us just as bedraggled and frustrated, then well done sire. It’s still not forgivable but at least I may understand.

Willis comes across perhaps a bit too realistic as a doughy, down-on-his-luck cop. It’s getting all too natural to see Willis wearing a badge, or at least holstering a weapon, so at least it’s nice to know he changes it up every once and a while. In 16 Blocks he’s overweight, over the hill, and even sports a limp; not exactly action star material unless you still consider your dad the Strongest Person in the World. It adds an interesting, gritty charm to the picture and Willis coasts on our goodwill. 16 Blocks tries to do too much with his character towards the end, encasing him in a crusade to better himself. There just isn’t that much substance there, folks.

I don’t understand why Jack or Eddie doesn’t phone the media as soon as they know the trigger-happy cops are gunning for them. Seriously, you’d think one call to the press and they’d be swarmed with TV cameras, and as a rule the more TV cameras pointed around you, the less likely someone is going to shoot you. This seems like a no brainier to me, as well as an opportunity to put the media in the cross hairs of danger; it’s win-win.

There are some moments in 16 Blocks that are perfect indicators about how familiar a movie like this has become. First, the “gotcha” edit. We see two sequences of action, Group A in a fixed location and Group B quickly descending toward that location when “voila” we’ve been had. The film reveals Group A has already left. I usually enjoy this bit of action sleight-of-hand, but when a movie has to pull the “gotcha” edit twice, then it’s a little like the boy who cried wolf. There’s also some stupid character slips meant to squeeze in tension. At the film’s sleepy climax, Jack is surrounded by men with their guns trained on him. He says he has a key piece of evidence is tucked away inside his coat pocket… and then he reaches in to grab it. Now wouldn’t an astute individual, let alone an experienced man of the law, just ask someone to grab it from him instead of reaching inside and giving people a reason to shoot? 16 Blocks has moments like these because the characters are all stock, so what does it matter if they alternate between brainy one second and bone-headed the next?

16 Blocks is an enjoyably retro genre flick, pasted together with stock characters, contrivances, and cliches, and yet the entire project nearly makes it to the finish line by sheer force of will. Despite the well-worn territory, Donner’s precision and some clever obstacle/resolution conflict keeps 16 Blocks passably entertaining. Willis and Def lack any real camaraderie, and you may want to strangle Def after listening to five seconds of his cartoonish voice, but it doesn’t matter because this film is about the journey, not the journeymen. 16 Blocks loses its way when it forgets this, spending the last act focusing on character dreams, morals, and redemption. 16 Blocks is a redemption of sorts for Donner; the man can still make nervy action sequences and keep an audience entertained, if even for only two acts. That’s worth a walk to the movie theater for most.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Match Point (2005)

This is an excellent return to form for Woody Allen and his best film since 1987’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. The first half is deliberately slow, yes, but it is justified by the second half which more than makes up for it. The first half needed to be as slow as it is to set up the incredible minutia of this rich, elite world that former tennis pro Chris (Jonathon Rhys-Myers) has been adopted into. We need to see how comfortable this life is to understand why he doesn’t want to give it up and why he goes through the machinations he does in the second half. The characters and dialogue are spot-on and Allen has transported his world of the upper crust New York elite so well over to London, and the change of scenery has reawakened his writing. Allen knows the privileged world very well and their disconnected view point. However, he rightly centers his film not on the neurotic upper crust but on his social climbers Chris and Nola (Scarlett Johansson), a beauty engaged to Chris’ prospective brother-in-law. It is the second half of Match Point that makes it great. Allen tightens the screws on his social climbers and the tension is superbly taut. The dark turns and in the final act are greatly entertaining, as Allen delves further into his look at a universe built around chance and disorder. The returning imagery of the ball hitting the tennis net elicited gasps from my audience, and I was one of them. I love that Allen lets his story continue to unfold after the dark twists. The film’s biggest flaw is anchoring the entire point of view on Rhys-Myers, a somewhat limited actor that reminded me of Jude Law’s character in Closer. Johansson is an excellent noir femme fatale, her husky voice perfectly suited. Frankly, if ever there was a Scarlett Johansson nude scene, this movie was crying out for it. She has her tawdry affair with Chris and there’s even a sequence where we see her laying on her stomach nude while he applies baby oil to her. Their sex is supposed to be so impassioned and carnal, in contrast to his boring but stable relationship with Chloe (Emily Mortimer). And yet no nudity? Woody Allen, you’ve let me down. Your film, on the other hand, is intelligent, sharp, dark, taut, and wonderfully entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: A

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