Thursday, August 26, 2010

V for Vendetta: 4/5

There be spoilers here.

The fifth year of the new millennium was a good year for movies: three great comedies (40-Year-Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, Fun with Dick and Jane); a great epic (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); a great coming-of-age tale (Elizabethtown); one of my favorite movies (Match Point); and what may be the best adaptation of a comic book I've seen: V for Vendetta.

James McTeigue stepped up from the associate director's chair to direct this relatively concise telling of a sprawling tale about the last man on earth (V, played masterfully by Hugo Weaving) finding a suitable helpmate (Evey, played charmingly by Natalie Portman) with whom he can resuscitate civilization from the cultural death throes of 1984-style dystopia.  The Wachowskis wrote and produced it, so you might think it would be Matrix redux, but it's not.  It's better.

Three Up

1.  First off, this is one of the best pragmatic adaptations I've ever seen.  The Wachowskis take a long and complex story, written over the course of a decade, featuring dozens of characters---many based on contemporary (then-relevant, now-unfamiliar) personalities---and squeeze it into 127 minutes.  How do they do it?  They know what to keep and what to chuck, and what to shift into something that works better on film.  Maybe the best example: V's alliterative introduction.  It's not in the novel, but it uses one of film's defining differences from sequential art (i.e., sound) to introduce us to V's passion for the art of the moment.

2.  If I had really thought about who ought to play V, I would have a hard time coming up with someone better than Hugo Weaving.  You need someone with the flare of Johnny Depp, the menace of Al Pacino, and the ability to play from behind a mask.  Hugo Weaving---whom you may recall as Agent Smith---uses body language and subtle intonation to turn a lifeless mask into something expressive and sympathetic.  Put more simply, Weaving played V like I imagined.

3.  Like 1984, V for Vendetta has aged remarkably well.  Contemporary critics complained about the use of black hoods and words like "rendition"---they thought it smacked too loudly of political commentary and would age more quickly than organic bread. Watching the movie from half-a-decade out, however, those references slipped right past me.  I didn't think, "Wow, this movie is about Bush!"  I thought, "Wow, this movie is about how art keeps us free and censorship kills us."  It worked for 1984, and it (so far) works for V for Vendetta.

Three Down

1.  I must admit, first, that I missed some of the ambiguity surrounding the character V.  In the novel, you didn't even know V's gender.  By the end of the twelfth issue, you thought s/he might be some random concentration camp survivor, or maybe Valerie (who wrote the letter on the toilet paper), or maybe even Evey's dad/mom/brother.  I think Moore and Lloyd intentionally kept it ambiguous, and I dig it.  Obviously, with a movie, you can't do that.  We can hear V talk, so we know instinctively his or her gender.  That eliminates half the ambiguity right there, and I missed it.  (Even so, I have to admit that the Wachowskis did an excellent job making up for it.  See 1- and 2-up.)

2.  One problem I have with a lot of movies is that, when the story's over, it's over.  The war has been won and the future is secure.  The Wachowskis slipped into the same rut.  You remember: the masses converge in a (deliciously ironic) display of mass individualism and tear off their masks to reclaim their individual individualism, Big Brother dies, along with his Dragon, and a new day dawns on Mother England.  But what if . . . V dies and Evey takes on his mantle, carrying forth the battle for freedom, beauty, truth, and love; Big Brother A is dead, but Big Brother B steps up to fight the fight for safety through conformity like nothing happened, and the war rages on?  I find that ending more interesting.  (Even so, I love the irony of the mass individualism.)

3.  I'm having trouble coming up with a third down.  The Missus didn't care for it (she fell asleep, an unmistakable sign of distaste), so that means I likely won't get to watch it again for some time.  But if your complaint is that you can't watch it again as soon as you want, maybe that's really an up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Black cat

I recently downloaded a doodling app for my iPod Touch and drew my cat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Synecdoche, New York: 5/5


The first time I watched Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, I just watched it.  I tried to follow the events and purposely let the metaphors and symbols slip right past my eyes and into my subconscious.  When the ending came, I was floored.  I didn't know why, but I was floored.

The second time I watched Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, I knew what I was looking for.  Subtle hints of time passing (something like 6 months in the first 10 minutes), covert suggestions about who was who (Sammy shows up a lot sooner than you think), dialog that makes clear we are living in Caden's memory (or are we?).  Still, I got sucked into the story and the characters and their relationships.  The metaphors and symbols slipped right past my eyes and into my subconscious.  When the ending came, I was floored.  I knew a little better why, but I was still floored.

What is SNY about?  I really don't know.  I know that we follow Caden's life from the moment it really begins for him until the day he dies.  But what is his life about?  Why are we following this particular character?  Maybe this is just a giant exercise in Rashomon-like memory play.  Maybe this is a direct assault on the tendency of modern American movies to have their plots play out over two or three days.  Maybe Kaufman is trying to show us that the real poetry in life stretches out over decades.

Maybe that's why I was floored both times I watched SNY.  Here is a movie that takes on the grand scheme of things and wrings out the poetic poignancy of life.  A director who can put on a brilliant play in the theater but can't put on a decent show at home.  The same director thinks that every ailment is life-threatening but survives every one---for thirty or forty years, no less.  He doesn't die from some sickness or his inability to salivate or whatever holocaust is wreaking havoc on the outside world; he dies because he acquiesced to someone else's control.

Maybe, in the end, that's the key to unlocking SNY.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Fly: 3/5


David Cronenberg directed the 1986 sci-fi horror The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.  It's a re-make of the 1958 Vincent Price thriller, but my understanding is that it only keeps the rudiments of the 1958 plot.  Basic story: Seth Brundle (JG) is a scientist trying to solve the problems of motion sickness once and for all by mastering teleportation.  He invites a reporter, Veronica Quaife* (GD) back to his warehouse apartment for a demonstration.  They fall in love.  One night, she leaves to break things off with her ex-boyfriend, and Brundle gets all nervous and insecure.  He drinks a bit too much and tries to teleport himself.  He succeeds, but (because he was drinking?) a fly came along for the ride, and the result is Brundlefly.  The story then revolves around everybody coming to terms with Brundlefly.

*Weirdest last name I've heard in quite some time.

Three Up

1.  Jeff Goldblum's acting is brilliant.  It's not so difficult to portray a static character; it's not much more difficult to portray a character who experiences some instantaneous cathartic change; it is very difficult to portray a character who changes incrementally. Jeff Goldblum pulls it off.

2.  Subtlety.  In a movie known for being disgusting, maybe you don't think it's very subtle.  But you're wrong.  Take, for example, when Seth Brundle asks Veronica Quaife for something personal to prove that his teleporter pods can work.  She demurely reaches up her skirt, unsnaps her stocking, and pulls it down.  Cronenberg could have gone all fan-service on us, showing Geena Davis pull her skirt up to her waist, showing the audience her undies, and having her slowly, slowly pull the stocking off.  Instead, it's a subtle hint that this girl is more interesting than we at first thought.  Throughout the film, Cronenberg hits some things hard and other things very, very softly.

3.  There might be more to this than we thought.  Watching the film, I kept thinking that the whole thing was symbolic for something.  Technology gone too far?  Maybe.  Man's desperate search for glory and immortality?  Perhaps.  The disastrous effects of trying to re-enter the womb?  Feels a little cozy.  As much as I did not enjoy physically watching the last half-hour, I can't stop thinking about what Cronenberg was trying to tell us.

Three Down

1.  This movie was stomach-churningly disgusting.  I normally have a strong stomach, but, especially during the last half-hour, I had to look away.  But kudos to Cronenberg for his unwavering commitment to showing the disgusting effects of seeking immortality (or trying to re-enter the womb).

2.  Veronica's pregnancy.  A 96-minute movie shouldn't need tacked-on unnecessary conflict.  Cronenberg could have done great things with that pregnancy (the grub nightmare is disturbingly great), but it felt less like "OMG?!" and more like "o. m. g."  I see why (theoretically) it's the catalyst that propels us through the final act, but it felt over the top to me.  Especially since it goes unresolved.  Too much, too late.

3.  Stathis Borans's descent into madness.  Weird coincidence or valuable insight into Cronenberg's mind: both men who fall in love with Veronica Quaife slowly go mad and suffer irreversible physical deformations.  If somebody can explain to me why this is neither simple misogynism nor junior high fear of commitment, this might be one of the more fascinatingly subtle parts of the movie.

Verdict: I recommend it, if only because it's a classic of science-fiction cinema.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Watchmen: 3/5


The Watchmen, is Zack Snyder's (at least) third try to take a property with a cult fan base and make it into a movie.  You've read all the reviews about how he was damned because he did and damned because he didn't.  I won't bore you with that.  Instead: three up, three down.

Three Up

1.  Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.  Rorschach was my favorite character in the graphic novel, and he is most definitely my favorite character in the movie.  He is so true to his morals---even if he is a bit absolutist.  He is a black-and-white person lost in a world of greys; I love that his name is Rorschach.  And Jackie Earle Haley plays him almost exactly as I imagined him.  Finally: "You don't get it.  I'm not locked in here with you.  You're locked in here with me."

2.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian.  All I can really say is that, in the book, I found The Comedian a bothersome character.  I didn't understand why anybody cared about why he was murdered.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan made me care why he was murdered.  (Though I still don't really get the plot.)

3.  The Opening Credits.  A great use of Bob Dylan.  A lot of people thought this was the best part of the movie.  I don't know that I'd go that far, but it's the first opening credits I've paid attention to in a long time.  (Now closing credits . . . )

Three Down

1.  Rorschach's Death.  I know Snyder was true to Moore's conception, but I didn't like Rorschach's death in the novel either.  My two cents: Dr. Manhattan should have let him walk off into the Antarctic wilderness.  There's no way all-too-human Rorschach is making it anywhere in his trench coat and purple pin stripe pants, but he'll go down fighting.

2.  Running time.  At two hours and forty-five minutes (give or take) this movie is w a y t o o l o n g.  Snyder should have broken it in two (or twelve?).  He is damned because he did . . . too much.

3.  The Ending.  I felt no catharsis.  The only guy I had been rooting for (Rorschach) gets obliterated like the human water balloon that he is, and then it's over.  All I felt like was that I had spent two hours and forty-five minutes (give or take) watching this w a y t o o l o n g movie drag its feet and shuffle and then my man Rorschach dies.  That's a big eff you.