Tuesday, March 21, 2006

V for Vendetta / **** (R)

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Evey Hammond: Natalie Portman
V: Hugo Weaving
Finch: Stephen Rea
Deitrich: Stephen Fry
Creedy: Tim Pigott-Smith
Sulter: John Hurt

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by James McTeigue. Written by the Wachowski Brothers, based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd. Rated R (for strong violence and some language).

“People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” – V

I’m thinking of a world where governments operate entirely in secret. A government that assures its citizens everything they won’t tell them about is being done purely for their safety. A government that puts covering up their business ventures and shady dealings above freedom and justice for its people. A government that takes drastic measures to counter what might become rather that was has actually happened. I’m shocked that I’m not sure whether I’m talking about the near-future fantasy world of the film adaptation of the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” or the current state of the world we live in today.

“V for Vendetta” is an angry movie, for a time that could possibly use more anger. I am reminded of the films that came out in the late sixties that openly criticized the policies and practices of the governments of the time. Haskell Wexler captured the Chicago riots as they happened in his anti-authoritarian movie “Medium Cool”, and first-time director James McTeigue comes dangerously close here to the same type of anti-authoritarian finger pointing, but with a much more aggressive nature. It is certainly no mistake that in the futuristic dystopia presented here that this world’s downfall began with an unending war started by the United States and involving Iraq.

It isn’t really surprising that, despite the fact that “V for Vendetta” appeared in its original comic book form in 1983 as a reaction to the Thatcherite period in England, it themes of terrorism and fear could be so easily translated into terms that fit our current world order. The Wachowski Brothers, creators of “The Matrix” universe, have always shown an adept ability to translate the attitude of the comic book format to the screen. Despite a large amount of changes to the storyline, including the deletion of major characters and the addition of a more complete world view that places most of the blame for this bleak future on American foreign policy, this screenwriting team has done a wonderful job preserving the ideology and unique mood of the original story by Alan Moore (who refused source material credit for the film) and artist David Lloyd.

Set in London, in 2020 (the original story was set in the year before the millennium), “V for Vendetta” shows us an England that has become something resembling a Nazi state, where a mysterious man in a mask known only as V has begun a series of terrorist bombings in celebration of former British revolutionary Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was hanged for trying to blow up the Parliament building in 1605. V saves a seemingly random victim from brutalization from the government’s strong-arm division The Finger. Her name is Evey, and she finds herself at first an unwilling accomplice to V’s devious schemes until she discovers how deeply rooted the government’s tactics of submission through fear are throughout British society.

Evey is sort of a blank slate for V to mold toward his point of view, although she is a little more strong-willed here than in the graphic novel. She works a fairly innocuous job as a gofer at a government TV news station, which acts as a stage for V to publicly voice his intentions to the country early in the story. Natalie Portman (“Closer”), with her large expressive eyes and dollish beauty, is a good choice to play Evey, who goes through the greatest transformation in the story. That beauty is shattered along with her emotions in a sequence where government captors try to break her down by shaving her head and torturing her in various ways to gather information on the mysterious V.

Although V is portrayed by Hugo Weaving (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), his face is never seen. The Guy Fawkes mask he wears as his vigilante garb has the effect first of dehumanizing him, but as more is filled in about his history and the atrocious acts inflicted upon him by his government in an affront against humanity as a whole, the mask’s effect is changed into lessening his iconic nature while simultaneously clarifying his message. There is a wonderful scene where V takes revenge on a scientist who is probably the most humane of his former torturers. The scene begins with V as a menacing figure with only his mask appearing out of the shadows of the dark corner of her bedroom, but ends with V at her bedside allowing the audience to sense the pain his mission of revenge causes him.

Stephen Rea (“Breakfast on Pluto”) is another good choice to play Finch, the puppy-like watchdog head detective of the government’s police division The Nose. Not only do his puppy dog looks personify his function in the film they also lend him to be the character naturally to start to sympathize with V and Evey’s purpose. As his loyalties begin to sway, he is replaced on the case by The Finger head Creedy. Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith, “Alexander”) is aptly described by a friend who attended the screening with me as looking like a vampire. And the filmmakers have fun with their casting of John Hurt as their Big Brother-ish dictator Adam Sulter, turning the tables on Hurt’s role as Winston Smith in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984”.

“V for Vendetta” is a surprisingly complex story that the filmmakers tell as if emerging from a bank of fog, it starts out very murky but by the end it is all almost horrifically clear. Some die hard fans of the comic book may be disappointed with the many changes that have been made from its original incarnation, but most of those changes are necessary to preserve the topical nature a story with such political ramifications must contain. In making these changes McTeigue and the Wachowskis have turned a cautionary tale that many may no longer understand into the most aggressive artistic condemnation on film against the status quo since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Jarhead / ***½ (R)

Tony Swofford: Jake Gyllenhaal
Troy: Peter Sarsgaard
Staff Sgt. Sykes: Jamie Foxx
Kruger: Lucas Black
Lt. Col. Kazinski: Chris Cooper
Maj. Lincoln: Dennis Haysbert

Universal presents a film directed by Sam Mendes. Written by William Broyles, Jr. Based on the novel by Anthony Swofford. Running time 122 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, some violent images and strong sexual content).

“Jarhead,” the film based on the memoir of service in a U.S. Marines sniper division during the Gulf War by Anthony Swofford, had an unusual effect on me. Watching it, I took it in as I do just about any movie. With a hero who is reluctant to be in the position he finds himself, Tony Swofford’s story engaged me, but didn’t strike me as something I had never seen before. There were ups and downs for the characters and a slow build to a climax of all their efforts. It was only at the end of the movie did I realize that climax would never come. This previous sentence sums up Swofford’s experience in the Marine Corps during that war.

There is a great ritual witnessed here in this film, that I am sure is the norm in the U.S. military. As part of the soldiers’ R & R, they watch war movies. There is a scene where the company has gathered to watch a big screen presentation of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The scene we witness the soldiers watching is the one where Robert Duvall’s Col. Kilgore is leading his helicopter cavalry charge on a costal village with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” pumped through loud speakers for the assault. The soldiers are all screaming and cheering at the screen, letting out woops and hollers even when women and children are being blown to smithereens on the screen. These men are pumped for war. This is what they’ve been trained for and it has been glorified in their minds. This early scene of the Coppola film is the only we see the soldiers’ reaction to, but I couldn’t help wondering what their responses were to the rest of that movie’s journey into the darkness of men’s souls.

The soldiers in this film are in for a big disappointment with the Gulf War, which was fought mostly with missiles sent into the city of Baghdad hundreds of miles away from where these foot soldiers were encamped. For Swofford the moot nature of his presence in Iraq is made more pointless by the fact that he realizes long before the war that he made the wrong decision by joining up.

Jake Gyllenhaal (“Donnie Darko”) has made a career of playing characters that are just a little skewed off center. His Swofford isn’t typical because he is not the gung ho Marine that the U.S. military likes to spew out as fighting machines with flesh, but he wishes he were. The rare educated foot soldier, Swofford strikes up a friendship with Troy (Peter Sarsgaard, “Garden State”), a man not as privileged as Tony, who only has The Corps to live for. Troy lets Tony in on a joke the other soldiers pulled on him when he first reported to barracks. This joke is only the first of Tony’s troubles in basic training.

Tony’s primary source of adversity comes in the form of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Jamie Foxx, “Ray”), a Corps man to the bone who seems to notice both the potential in Tony and the failing desire. While Sykes is the typical Hollywood drill instructor, picking on the hero and driving his men harder than it seems humans should be, there is a hint that he shares some of their frustrations during the endless waiting for the war to begin. It is only a hint that is never commented on because Foxx never lets his military veneer down for a second. Finally, the war begins and Sykes gives Swofford a speech that could have come from Kilgore himself if he had existed in any of “Apocalypse Now”’s quieter moments. “I love this job. I thank God for every f***ing day he gives me in the Corps. Hooah!”

Director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) does a magical job balancing the standard operating procedures of military dramas with the unusually long staging period taken by the U.S. forces during the Golf War. He and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (“Cast Away”) even include an intense scene of conflict as the climax of the film, but it is not between our heroes and enemy soldiers; rather they are finally getting a chance to do their job when they are suddenly interrupted by other U.S. soldiers trying to prevent them from doing so.

In the end “Jarhead” is a war film with no war. No shooting or up-close death anyway. “Four days, four hours, one minute. That was my war.” Swofford tells us, “I never shot my rifle.” These soldiers never did what they had prepped for, and some would say neither did the U.S. military. That was the Gulf War. As I watched “Jarhead” it was a military drama, afterwards it was an odd little comedy. But not funny, “Ha, ha.” Perhaps that is what war has become.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Shaggy Dog / ** (PG)

Dave Douglas: Tim Allen
Rebecca Douglas: Kristin Davis
Carly Douglas: Zena Grey
Josh Douglas: Spencer Breslin
Dr. Kozaks: Robert Downey, Jr.
District Attorney Hollister: Danny Glover
Judge Whittaker: Jane Curtin
Lance Strictland: Philip Baker Hall

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Brian Robbins. Written by Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley, Geoff Rodkey, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

Disney’s latest remake of one of their own classic titles “The Shaggy Dog” isn’t really a bad movie. That doesn’t make it a good one. It could be a good example of how complicated things have become in our modern society. As I recall the original 1959 film was simply about a lawyer/family man who is bit by a dog and magically starts to turn into one himself, although my memory of it has faded in the almost thirty years since I originally saw the colorized version of it on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” The plot was simply that and the comedy came from a man behaving like a dog and vice versa and the fact that none of his family or coworkers knew that this amazing transformation had occurred.

This new version, starring Tim Allen (“The Santa Clause” series) as Junior District Attorney Dave Douglas, complicates the story with far more plot. Perhaps the producers feel a modern audience is far too sophisticated for such a silly premise without some sort of compelling storyline to cover it up. Unfortunately the plot, which involves a pharmaceutical company running experiments on a 300 year-old sheepdog to develop a life prolonging drug for human application and the trial of a animal rights activist who is accused of torching the testing facilities of said pharmaceutical company, does little to add to the legitimacy of such a silly premise, nor does it provide any distraction from that silliness. Interesting, and not necessarily unwise, that despite the overly complicated setup, little explanation is offered as to what this magical 300 year-old dog is all about. It is also a smart choice not to turn this comedy into an indictment of the pharmaceutical community as a whole, a crusade better left to more serious endeavors.

It is in the situations of the former version of this film where this one finds the charm it does. Dave has a nice if typical family. He has a perfect wife, who puts up with her husband’s poor behavior, in Kristin Davis (HBO’s “Sex and the City”). His oldest child, Carly (Zena Grey, “In Good Company”), is the rebellious teen. His son, Josh (Spencer Breslin, “The Cat in the Hat”), is the awkward kid who would rather have the lead in the school musical than play football. Of course, Dave’s major flaw before his transformation is that he spends more time at work than paying attention to his family. Much of the typical set up extends in to the comedy of Dave’s K-9 activities; never being able to resist the urge to catch a stick when someone throws it, chasing the neighbor’s pet while in human form, etc. But there are some fresh and sweet moments to be found in the domestic comedy, such as when Dave wakes the first morning after his transformation able to smell every little detail of the kitchen right down to the lemon finish of the cupboards. He approaches every smell and taste with the enthusiasm of a dog even though he now finds little enthusiasm for the taste of coffee. “Bitter. That tastes terrible!” he says happily after lapping it from his cup.

While the filmmakers feel the audience may be too sophisticated to accept a simple plot, they have no problem with insulting the audience’s intelligence when it comes to dealing with Dave’s attempts to communicate in dog form. Allen provides a voice-over performance of the dialog he intends to speak to people while he is a dog, but he can only bark. Now, you’d think it might sink in after a while that everything he says will only come out as a bark to all the humans; but God love him, he can’t help from trying to talk. In fact the voice-over of Dave’s thoughts and dialog while he is the dog is so non-stop it gets to the point where he is simply narrating the dog’s actions to the audience. “I’m chasing a stick now. How silly of me.”

To sell the overdeveloped plot to the audience, director Brian Robbins (“The Perfect Score”) assembles a talented supporting cast. Robert Downey, Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) adds life to the nefarious experimentations of Dr. Kozaks. And when Downey gets his own chance at acting like a dog, he shows up Allen by giving the audience a glimpse of what they could have seen with an actor that offered a little more variance in his behavior as an animal.

It is a shame that Hollywood refuses to trust even the material that they have tested on audiences in the past. As I said, “The Shaggy Dog” isn’t really bad, but I don’t understand why Disney would produce a story they didn’t think an audience could get into without some prodding by a contrived plot. “The Shaggy Dog” is silly fun that is never truly allowed to be fun because it makers never believe the audience will stay with them. Maybe the idea of a man turning into a dog isn’t something that would fly with today’s audiences. So why try it?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cinderella Man / **** (PG-13)

James J. Braddock: Russell Crowe
Mae Braddock: Renee Zellwerger
Joe Gould: Paul Giamatti
Max Baer: Craig Bierko
Mike Wilson: Paddy Considine
Jimmy Johnson: Bruce McGill
Universal Pictures and Miramax Films present a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense boxing violence and some language).

The opening moments of “Cinderella Man”, a chronicle of the fall and resurrection of the depression era prizefighter James J. “Bulldog” Braddock, are quiet -- especially when juxtaposed with the roar of the crowd from the boxing ring sequences later in the film. It is as if the characters are afraid to disturb their own fragile existence. In the scenes before the depression when Braddock first tasted success it seems as if he and his family are flying below the radar, trying not to squander their success. But the stock market crash dropped almost everything in the sky, brokers and prizefighters alike; and as the Braddocks struggle through their poverty just to keep the lights and heat on in their miserable New Jersey basement apartment, they remain quiet, as if the slightest pin drop might shatter what little they have left.

Russell Crowe (“Master & Commander”) plays Braddock as one of the most honorable men who ever breathed American air. His goodness makes his fall from grace all that more painful. Braddock was on his way to the big time when the film opens, then director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) skips ahead four years later in Braddock’s story, in the midst of The Great Depression. Like many others, Braddock has had a rough time of it due to injuries, investments that went south in the stock market crash and just plain bad luck.

Braddock has one thing that many people at the time struggled much harder to keep, a happy family. Renee Zellwerger (“Cold Mountain”) plays Mae, Braddock’s faithful wife. Living in squalor, wondering if they would even have milk the next day, Mae keeps a positive outlook on their lives despite her misgivings about the physical risk involved in her husband’s boxing career. When Mae’s worst fears are realized by what looks to be a career ending injury to Braddock’s strong hand, their hard times become all that much harder.

Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman (“I, Robot”) do a superb job evoking the desperation of the Depression; a job made more difficult by the fact that their hero is so good that even when one of his three children steals meat when the family has nothing left to eat, he still makes the boy take the meat back to uphold his good values when most people in their situation would not. The fact that this family is so good helps to drive home the blind nature of poverty and highlights the reality that no one is willing to help these people because no one can afford to give up anything. This presents a heart-wrenching scene when Braddock returns to a social club for boxing officials to beg for just $19 to turn his heat back on so he won’t have to break his family up.

One of the men who does help his ruined former associate is the man who was a good manager for Braddock, Joe Gould. Played by Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), Gould is the other side of the coin of the depression, a man who survives through keeping up appearances. Gould never loses his faith in Braddock and when an opportunity presents itself to gain Braddock another fight despite the Boxing Commission’s view that Braddock is washed up, Gould doesn’t skip a beat getting his old friend back in the ring. The rub, revealed in a scene where Mae goes to Gould’s home to beg him not to risk her husband’s physical health again, is that Gould is in just as big a need for a turn around as Braddock.

Back in the ring again, Braddock is now fueled by all the desperation he felt in his years of poverty, and soon finds himself in the Heavyweight Championship match against the ferocious Max Baer (Craig Bierko, “The Thirteenth Floor”). Much is made of the fact that Max Baer killed two men in the ring, which is an interesting choice to build tension in a true story where it is easy enough to find out how the match between Baer and Braddock turned out, but the drama of the situation still works because of Braddock’s zeal for his pursuit and his wife’s dread from the poor luck which has befallen their family.

Howard’s approach to the material is straightforward, yet crafty in its manipulation of the story for the greatest emotional effect. He merely shows us that Braddock has tasted success in the first few minutes of the movie, but never allows us to see or feel Braddock journey to that point. Instead Howard throws his audience into the midst of the Depression and Braddock’s lowest point after only five minutes have passed. Braddock can only climb from that point. It is a slow ascent, in which Howard seduces his audience with the Braddock’s dire circumstances and converse good nature that the feel-good nature of the film is never overbearing and even the most morbid of viewers can find themselves cheering this greatest of underdogs on by the end of the film.

Howard’s fight sequences reflect the underlying style of the film, seeming simpler than they are. While never pretending to be as simple as Clint Eastwood’s matter of fact direction in last year’s boxing picture “Million Dollar Baby”, many of the film techniques Howard uses, like showing the confusion of a fighter by blurring focus and overexposing the film, are nothing new to the genre. There are other shots, like the almost subliminal x-ray of the ribs as they are pummeled by a blow to the side, inspire a cringe that can no longer be experienced by simply watching yet another boxer get punched in the side.

It is such a unique balance Howard discovers here between the biting realities of a typical biopic and the happy clich├ęs of the Hollywood comeback performance, that this film feels like neither. It is almost as if it exists in it own genre, almost a fantasy piece that somehow is not a fantasy. This is perhaps what the experience of returning to the grandest heights after a career burnout may have felt like to Braddock himself.