Tuesday, March 21, 2006

"V" for Valiant; "P" for Predictable


directed by James McTeigue
starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, John Hurt, others

For a movie that has all the ingredients for controversy, “V for Vendetta” is surprisingly bland.

Which is not to say that it’s boring. It’s actually quite watchable as dystopic flicks go, and I’m a fan of dystopic flicks—even when they lean too heavily on Orwell, Huxley, and/or Philip K. Dick. This one favors Orwell, in a big way, although most of the people in “V for Vendetta” look better fed and furnished than the non-elite citizens of “1984.” It’s the polished, prettified version of Orwell’s nightmare, with a more rousing climax—if you buy into the movie’s ideology, that is.

This involves accepting that the hero (he’s not quite dark enough to be an anti-hero, though some may disagree) must and does employ terrorist tactics to free an oppressed society from the chains of its totalitarian regime. “V for Vendetta” steers us to that conclusion by unfolding from the perspective of a young Eve/rywoman, aptly named Evey and adequately, if not brilliantly, played by Natalie Portman. The year is 2020, and England is dominated by a fascist Big Brother figure (John Hurt, who’s come a ways since playing Winston Smith in “1984”) and, behind the scenes, his fish-faced cabinet. Conformity, censorship, curfews, and government-manufactured news are the order of the day, as is round-the-clock (if somewhat spotty) surveillance of every citizen’s private home. Despite these restrictions, most people seem to lead fairly tranquil, comfortable lives, and Evey, who works for a London television broadcast station, is no exception—until one night (the 4th of November, to be precise), when she breaks curfew and is unfortunate enough to run into some very nasty secret police.

Fortunately, however, she is delivered from a fate worse than death by a man in black (Hugo Weaving, whose face we never see), sporting a Guy Fawkes mask and remarkably elegant diction. He calls himself “V” and invites her to a self-orchestrated concert—an explosion, set against Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” that utterly demolishes the Old Bailey. This, he informs her and, in due course, the British public, is his opening salvo in a war against a government that lied to its people, bound them through fear, and must be overthrown. In a hijacked television broadcast (which reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt’s radio address in Atlas Shrugged), V promises that in a year’s time, in honor of Guy Fawkes Day, he will blow up the Houses of Parliament, and invites all of England to join him for the occasion. (The movie was originally slated for release last November, but pushed back after the subway bombings in London.) A year passes, during which Evey struggles to decide where her loyalties lie, while the reigning powers frantically attempt to track down their mortal enemy. Deployed on the latter mission is a police inspector (a nicely weary Stephen Rea) and his second (a still-boyish Rupert Graves), who begin to uncover some highly unsettling truths about their government, and V’s personal motives, in the course of their investigations.

“V for Vendetta” is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, though the famously crotchety Moore disassociated himself from the film (perhaps burned once too often after the hack-job Hollywood made of his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”). By all accounts, the film—written by “Matrix” scribes Larry and Andy Wachowski—softens the main character quite a bit, and plays down the anarchism that lies at the root of his credo. At the same time, in updating the book (which was written some 20 years ago, in response to Thatcherite England of the ’80s) for the present times, the filmmakers ratchet up its eerie resonances with today’s most pressing political debates and headlines. Secret prisons and scenes of torture? Check. A government that spies on its citizens, does so in the name of security, and fans fears of terrorists, epidemics, and gays? Check, check, and check. But the film doesn’t really do very much with its topicality other than throw it up there on the screen, in some admittedly searing images and sound bytes that will ring sadly familiar with those who get their news from the so-called liberal media. At times, it also seems to be reaching for deeper symbolic resonances of the mythic-religious persuasion—which is par for the course for the Wachowski brothers—but again, those themes are just there, inert, not developed in any particular direction or depth. The same goes for the “Phantom of the Opera”esque bond that builds between V and Evey; when one of them finally makes a declaration, the only proper response is: well, duh.

Some might argue that “V” isn’t a political tract or a love story; it’s an action movie, or a superhero thriller. Except that it isn’t even that, either: the pure action sequences are few and widely spaced, and each turn of the plot is telegraphed well in advance, so the movie doesn’t really pack any surprises. (The visuals, however, are nifty, especially the use of the Guy Fawkes masks.) The movie is primarily focused on V’s brand of freedom fighting: what it means, what it requires, and what brought it into being, all delivered with the same expository heavy-handedness that marred “The Matrix.” However, “The Matrix”—at least, the first one—was able to blend its bits of Philosophy 101 with a more unpredictable narrative and far more dynamic action sequences that embodied the movie’s ideas rather than providing a momentary break from them. “V for Vendetta,” for its part, tries valiantly to be a thinking man’s action movie—but in the end, it doesn’t provide anything very memorable in the way of either thoughts or action.


Monday, March 06, 2006

"Crash" into me, you stupid Academy...

Of all the potential surprises that Oscar night could have brought, the one upset that did take place was the one I was really, really hoping would not.

Many explanations have been tossed around for this turn of events. Among them:

(1) The Academy, for all its much-vaunted, much-pilloried liberalism, is secretly homophobic. Or at least enough of the more, uh, "traditionalist" members were to swing the balance. (I wonder if George Clooney would have modified his acceptance speech if he'd seen this coming?)
(2) The Academy, for all its much-vaunted, much-pilloried liberalism, is basically conservative in its tastes. As a group, they will always go with the "safe" choice over the more daring one: after all, this is the same body that rewarded "Forrest Gump" over "Pulp Fiction." (Though I've said it before and will say it again, stylistically, "Brokeback Mountain" is no envelope-pusher.)
(3) "Brokeback Mountain" was a victim of its own hype. Academy voters who saw it late in the game, restive under all the pressure to crown it king, rebelled.
(4) "Crash" had a lot of grass-roots goodwill among Academy members, especially among actors, many of whom recognized it as an actor's movie. After all, it won the Screen Actors' Guild award for best ensemble acting, beating out the favored "Brokeback." At the time, several prescient observers suggested that this might be a sign that "Brokeback" dominance at the Oscars was less than secure.
(5) Everyone in the Academy loves Don Cheadle (who was one of the film's producers, as well as one of its stars).
(6) Everyone in the Academy loves Paul Haggis.

Myself, I'm inclined to believe that the answer is a combination of all of the above, though Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times makes a compelling argument for reason #2 as the decisive factor:

"Crash's" biggest asset is its ability to give people a carload of those standard Hollywood satisfactions, but make them think they are seeing something groundbreaking and daring. It is, in some ways, a feel-good film about racism, a film you could see and feel like a better person, a film that could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul, when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed and your preconceptions reconfirmed.

So for people who were discomfited by "Brokeback Mountain" but wanted to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and feel as if they were good, productive liberals, "Crash" provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what "Brokeback" had to offer. And that's exactly what they did.

God bless Kenneth Turan. He was one of the few critics ten years ago to call "Titanic" for what it was - the worst screenplay ever written - without flinching before the wrath of self-anointed "king of the world" James Cameron. Similarly, today he has no qualms in calling out the liberal guilt of the Academy. While it's impossible to prove empirically that that guilt was the reason "Crash" beat "Brokeback," I've no doubt it at least played a part - and I certainly think that as a critique of the movie it's spot-on. Paul Haggis wrote the screenplay while he was working through his feelings about being carjacked in L.A. by two black guys, and you can clearly see every drop of his own white liberal guilt poured into this movie. It was cathartic for him, and by extension, for all viewers like him. But apart from what it reveals about that particular psychological mindset, the movie doesn't have a damn thing to say about racism and interracial relations that the musical "Avenue Q" didn't say more smartly and tartly in one song.

"Crash" sets up stereotypes with the earnest idea that it's going to subvert them - then proceeds to do so in a manner that manages to be simultaneously programmatic and melodramatic. (And it never does subvert its stereotype of Asian Americans, who apparently can't speak ploper engrish, can't drive, and have no qualms about trafficking in human labor.) And never for a moment does it probe seriously into the "why" behind everyone's latent racism. If you're not going to explore that in any real depth, why bother showing it in the first place? For shock value? Just to show that it exists, even within supposedly enlightened, educated people? that it exists inter- and intra-minorities? that it can be a byproduct of poverty and hardship? that even racists can have redeeming qualities? Well, I hate to break it to you, Paul, my friend, but none of this is news, and nothing in the way you present it is hot stuff, either. Spike Lee strip-mined this territory way before you.

And while we're on the general subject of racial stereotypes, I have to say I'm also aggrieved by the fact that "Memoirs of a Geisha" walked away with 3 Oscars (admittedly, for what I call the "scenery" awards, but even that sticks in my craw, when you consider the particular cultural picture the movie's aesthetic perpetuates - floating cherry blossoms, flowy kimonos, etc.) while "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Munich" went home empty-handed. One of my fellow members of Cinemarati, where there's a very spirited Oscars post-mortem going on, put it best: "One of the winners for Geisha went out of his way to thank 'the people of Japan,' and I thought it was oddly appropriate. ‘Cause the whole movie is pretty much about thanking the people of Japan for being so exotic and strange." And the Academy saw fit to award that, too. Sheesh.

Oh well, I still won my Oscars pool, so there's some consolation in that. For once my last-minute change-in-gut (i.e., picking George Clooney for best supporting actor) paid off. And it didn't matter that I didn't have the same flash of insight for Best Picture, since no one else in my pool did, either.

On a lighter note:

Jon Stewart's mock-political endorsement ads rocked, - a clever way of integrating the brand of humor he's known for - even if he himself seemed a tad nervous throughout the entire show. The opening sequence - involving all of his predecessor Oscars hosts - was pretty funny, too.

The best quip of the night, though, was from George Clooney, on receiving his Oscar: "Wow, all right, so I'm not winning for Best Director."

Most hilarious presenter: Ben Stiller and his "green screen" magic. I'm not a Stiller fan, but that was sheer comic genius.

Fashion choices: Boring, meaning most people looked good. Exceptions: the growth on Charlie Theron's shoulder at the Golden Globes seems to be expanding and taking over her body, and Naomi Watts looked like she had shoestrings coming out of her bodice. Keira Knightley was stunning in that plum-colored gown, and for once her makeup actually worked, too. (How did she end up sitting next to Jack Nicholson? How much you wanna bet Jack had some say in that?) Salma Hayek, ravishing as always in an elegant blue number; Reese Witherspoon cute as a button; Michelle Williams too thin! but otherwise adorable, though I couldn't decide whether I liked that shade of orange she was wearing. Clooney was dapper as always, Eric Bana not quite as delectable as at the Golden Globes, but still dreamy; William Macy and Felicity Huffman definitely the cutest Hollywood couple there...with Reese & Ryan a distant second.

Acceptance protocol: Glad they ditched the asinine (and in my opinion totally disrespectful) notion of presenting the "lesser" awards to the winners in their seats. But what genius thought up the idea of playing music while people were actually giving their acceptance speeches? Maybe it was supposed to psych them out into thinking their time was up before the clock had even started to run.

Musical numbers: Once again, why they have an Oscar for Best Song is beyond me. So the Academy awarded a (mediocre) hip-hop song - yawn. Doesn't make them hip, sorry. I actually liked Dolly Parton's performance the best, though I'd never remember the song if I heard it again. At least they didn't try to stage it with zombies, à la "Into the Deep" from "Crash." Interpretive dance, indeed.

Montages: What was with all the non-sequitur tributes to Hollywood film traditions? I love noir and epics as much as the next person, but I don't recall any of this year's contenders being either.

Honorary Oscar - continuing the tradition of luminaries who were, arguably, too good for a standard Oscar. The Lily Tomlin/Meryl Streep riff on Robert Altman started off a little annoying, but ended up being an impressive and rather endearing performance. It helps, of course, to have those two doing the performing.

And finally, the only good thing about "Brokeback Mountain" losing Best Picture was the fact that we didn't have to hear that damn six-note motif AGAIN, as the parting sound in our eardrums. As it is, it was still twanging in my head all of today.

Friday, March 03, 2006

In the Oscars homestretch...

With the Oscars just three days away, the time is drawing near for all of us wannabe movie pundits to make those last calls. The beauty of blogging, of course, is that it allows me to change my predictions up till the very last minute, and even beyond...but I probably won't. I stand by my predictions, such as they are.

Every year there's a pervading theme in the mainstream media Oscars discourse, and this year it seems to be all about how no one's seen any of the Oscars contenders this year and therefore no one will tune in to watch the awards. I find this an interesting rather than distressing cultural phenomenon (but then again, my career doesn't rise and fall by box office or TV ratings). This was the year of what I call the pseudo-indie movie - i.e., the well-made, well acted, upper-middlebrow film, thoughtfully put together by the "arthouse" division of a major studio, and controversial on a purely political, as opposed to aesthetic, level. The funny thing is that this is exactly the kind of movie I tend to see, as opposed to edgier, more obscure fare that requires greater effort to seek out and appreciate.

So it's no coincidence, perhaps, that four of the five Best Picture contenders made my personal top ten of 2005. Yet it's also no coincidence that none of them really blew me away. They struck me as films of very good quality that somehow fell short of either opening up a whole new world-view or striking that deep emotional chord that for me usually ends up being the real measure of cinematic greatness. Still, they were all solid achievements, and I'm happy to see them do well. The one glaring exception is "Crash," which for me has to be the most schematic, intellectually sloppy, and emotionally half-assed attempt at thought-provoking I've seen in a while. Many of the films up for Oscar recognition this year have been excoriated as exercises in liberal guilt; I think only "Crash" really falls in that category. Sad to say, it stands a pretty good chance of winning some of the major awards.

But enough of that. It's time to bet the farm!


Will win: "Brokeback Mountain," by a nose, over "Crash." At least, I hope so.
Should win: See comments above - basically I have no real preference among "Brokeback," "Capote," and "Good Night, and Good Luck," though I technically ranked GN/GL the highest. And with reason: it's crisper and more tightly crafted than the others, and poses some highly resonant observations not so much about politics or even reporting as the gradual fusion of news media and pop culture that's been taking place over the past fifty years.


Will win: Ang Lee for "Brokeback Mountain." He's practically a lock.
Should win: I'll have to say Ang Lee, for the sheer genius of making the taboo mainstream - in a good way. He turns what could have been a turnoff premise for many into something emotionally recognizable by all - yet preserves the différance.


Will win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Capote." It's in the cards, though Heath Ledger still has a sporting chance.
Should win: Ralph Fiennes, "The Constant Gardener." Yes, I know he wasn't nominated. My point exactly.


Will win: Reese Witherspoon, "Walk the Line." An upset by Felicity Huffman is possible, but I don't think it'll happen.
Should win: I haven't seen either Charlize Theron in "North Country" or Judi Dench in "Mrs. Henderson" presents, but among the three I have seen, I'd give it to Reese. She showed an emotional depth and range that ended up being the only truly memorable thing about "Walk the Line."


Will win: This, without doubt, is the hardest race to call. Paul Giamatti, Jake Gyllenhaal, and George Clooney all stand equally good chances of getting it, and even Matt Dillon isn't out of the running. Because the supporting actor races are where the Academy likes to recognize newbies, I'll pick Jake for now...but I actually have no idea how this one's going to go.
Should win: I'd be happy with Giamatti, Gyllenhaal, or Clooney; they were all great. However, I remember being especially impressed by Giamatti, who stood out in the otherwise unremarkable "Cinderella Man" by doing the unthinkable - he outshone Russell Crowe.


Will win: Rachel Weisz has a slight edge and will probably win it. However, Michelle Williams runs a close second, and Amy Adams could conceivably pull an upset.
Should win: An even tougher call. Weisz was wonderful as the heart and soul of "The Constant Gardener" and the hidden spark that galvanizes Ralph Fiennes, but Adams wrings the heart as the in-law whose chatterbox ways mask a fierce desire to hold a drifting family together. Therefore, Adams, for my money.


Will win: Probably "Crash," though "Good Night, and Good Luck" also has a lot of goodwill in stock.
Should win: Anything besides "Crash" (except for "Match Point," which was even worse). I'd give it to "Good Night, and Good Luck," with "Syriana" a close second. GN/GL has a certain simplicity that some see as a flaw, but I think contributes to its crispness and masks more intellectual depth than it's been given credit for. By contrast, "Syriana" has a surface byzantine complexity that really boils down to a few simple, recurring ideas. Both approaches get the job done very effectively.


Will win: "Brokeback Mountain."
Should win : "Capote," for its probing examination of both the snake's-charm fascination and the baffling banality of evil (pace Hannah Arendt), and the moral quandary of any writer who tries to wrap his own head around it. Smart and chilling.

And there you have it, folks. Don't quote me on any of these, but feel free to send me any percentage of your office pool winnings. Stay tuned for my post-Oscars recap...