It was a good weekend for movies. I saw two that I liked a lot, and would recommend seeing in theaters. I’ll start with the one I saw last night, V for Vendetta. The review contains, after the first paragraph, a number of major spoilers that are hopefully described in such a way they won’t spoil anything, but if you’d rather not take any chances, skip ahead to the spoiler-free review of Thank You for Smoking.
Natalie Portman’s hyperventilate performance must be a response to this breath-taking movie — a movie so subversive, it subverts itself. About thirty years in the future, America is torn by Civil War and the British Isles are still recovering from a plaugue that left 80,000 dead. In the wake of this plague, Londoners live under a restrictive curfew imposed by a ruthless authoritarian government who, proverbially, at least keeps the trains running on time. Portman’s Evey, out one night after curfew, is detained and nearly raped by the local thugs-with-badges when she is saved by the one man who will stand up against oppression, a verbose swordsman dressed post-ironically for the British Halloween. This tall figure with the bemused visage of Guy Fawkes, the rebel who sought to explode barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament building in England’s now-dim past, announces his plans to finish the job a year hence, on the fifth of November, to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Though his adamant mask gives no indication if he truly believes such a task is possible once the all-knowing Big Brother government has been so amply warned, ‘V’ (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix‘s Agent Smith) displays a playfulness that walks the border between lunacy and genius.
So, too, does V for Vendetta walk that line between brilliance and baloney. It is a visually and intellectually stimulating morsel with a creamy center of ideological confusion. Are we to identify V with Osama, a terrorist to some degree created by our own government who is intent on the symbolic destruction of buildings? Or is V just a run-of-the-mill anarchist, obessessed with chain reactions of destruction that can be caused by bombs or a few well-chosen words. Alan Moore felt his graphic novel, upon which the movie was based, has been perverted away from its fascism vs. anarchism message (link to an interview with Alan Moore). As the linked interview shows, his demands to have his name removed from the movie (a re-writing of history?) comes from a deep distrust of Hollywood.
I don’t think Moore gives these filmmakers enough credit. V for Vendetta is lightyears more politically astute than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. V is no anti-antihero. Even after surviving torture and Tuskeegee, he is willing to subject his bald Lolita to a quasi-Abu Ghraib. And V’s idea of slashing the Orwellian buzzword Unity is to have an identically-dressed crowd descend at midnight to usurp the seat of government. Indeed, V is as much a crypto-fascist as the High Chancellor (John Hurt), with his fiery balcony addresses and goose-stepping SS, is a barrel-scraping sendup of Hitler. If V isn’t Osama, and the Chancellor isn’t Bush, then it puts the lie to the idea that the references to our current Middle East quagmire are meant to make this movie an evil neo-conservatives vs. righteous liberals allegory. V is a man who wears a mask at all times, dresses theatrically, loves music and culture and has a chaste and admiring relationship with a beatiful and strong-willed Judy Garland type. If that doesn’t make the subtext of the movie clear enough, we get two reduxes — one lesbian, one S&M — for good measure. Sure, references to the goverment persecuting by race have been removed (except for maybe some tepid glances at Islam). But after Brokeback‘s stunning loss, maybe Alan Moore should be glad the film has been updated for the present prejudices, where homosexuality is the new Black.
One thing I love about V for Vendetta is the unapologetic wordiness and historic nerdiness. We are not only treated to a spectacular riff on Guy Fawkes, there are appearances from Typhoid Mary, the Count of Monte Cristo and some of Shakespeare’s least quotable lines. The plot itself has a good mix of super-sweetened knife-weilding action and conspiratorial machination. Each flashback into the pasts of the characters echo their futures. At times, the story is pat to the point of homily. Director James McTeigue can join the M. Night Shyamalan club of having characters remark upon coincidences in a story that has not-so-coincidentally been constructed from the conclusion backwards. Some people find O. Henry plots unsatisfying, and they will be unsatisfied with this movie. Another type of audience member — the type I once heard remark in a video store about The Matrix, “I’ve seen it, like, four times and still didn’t get it but it’s totally awesome!” — are about to have their minds blown again. I think the rest of us will be highly entertained, if not by the film itself, than by these two opposing camps. Viva la Vendetta!
At bottom a story of one generation corrupting the next, the vigorous Thank You for Smoking is an unapologetic romp in the fields of spin. The spinner is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), Big Tobacco’s chief lobbyist, and he’ll be our anti-hero for the duration. Starting with a Sally Jessesque talk-show where he gets a cancer boy to shake his hand, we see Naylor has the winning smile of the devil himself. Eckhart has played the slimy charmer before; but here he does so with such aplomb that we start to root for him in spite of ourselves — which is, I suppose, the whole point.
The director, Jason Reitman, happened to be sitting a few seats away from me (Arclight, Friday night), but even without his partisans peppered into the crowd, I’m sure I would’ve laughed just as hard. The movie beats a lot of no-longer-sacred cows — Big Tobacco, guns, self-important senators, Southern gentlemen — but it does so with great energy. Clever budgeting has stretched the production values with stagy cut-scenes that are intentionally cheap-looking punctuating the more handsomely crafted set-pieces.
Two particular scenes stand out for me. One, a peek inside a Hollywood super-agent’s Taj Mahal, is as well-couched a piece of surrealist absurdity as any in Tristam Shandy (“That sand isn’t going to rake itself!”); the other, a visit where Naylor attempts to bribe the Marlboro Man, blends danger, humor and sadness in a particularly stiff drink. Were it not for the perpetually mis-cast Katie Holmes, I would have zero qualms with this martini of a movie. I don’t know whether it is because she is dating Tom Cruise, or because the people who give her roles are as crazy as him, but she just keeps landing parts that call for smart and sexy — while mustering only cute and out-of-my-league. This needs to stop. You’d think this chick was as addictive as nicotine.
P.S. Speaking of which, I ran into some people I knew when I was leaving the theater. They had been in the same screening and when we started to discuss the movie we had just seen, they got fidgety. Smokers all, in quick succession they made their apologies and ducked outside to light up. Thank You for Smoking never shows anyone smoking, but all that talk about it sure has the same effect. I guess whether your anti-hero is hatching a sci-fi revolution or bamboozling America, there will always be some hearts and minds and lungs left charred by the experience.