EW review: 'V for Vendetta,' O for OK
Also: Hot 'Smoking,' gooey 'Guilty'
By Owen Gleiberman
Natalie Portman comes under the spell of V (Hugo Weaving) in "V for Vendetta."
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- Comic-book superhero movies almost always hijack reality, reducing cinema to a state of pure, uncut escapism.
You could hardly level that accusation, though, against "V for Vendetta."
Written and produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the creators of the "Matrix" trilogy, who based it on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, this bombs-away delirious avenger fantasy is set in a police-state Britain that draws elements from 1984 but, mostly, from the post-9/11 world, and it pushes its topical relevance in your face -- that is, when it's not hitting you over the head with it, or bashing you in the solar plexus.
In "V for Vendetta," the United States, reeling from a misguided war of dominion, has ceded the centrality of its global power back to Britain, whose ruler, Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), looms Big Brother-like on oversize video screens, backed by a flag done in neo-Nazi red and black. (Can you say, bad guy?)
As his scowling backup minister plots in the shadows (can you say, Dick Cheney?), the anchorpeople on the British Television Network report what the government tells them to, as the populace -- a nation of couch potatoes -- drink in the media lies that no one pretends to believe.
Citizens are covered in hoods and subjected to torture (Abu Ghraib, anyone?), and if that doesn't sound overheated enough, there's a priest with a taste for young flesh, a popular bushy-browed TV demagogue who's like Bill O'Reilly crossed with Nixon, and a pointed allusion to Timothy McVeigh's homemade fertilizer bomb. Did I mention that the hero is an apocalyptic terrorist?
Known as V, he first shows up, all cutthroat eloquence and whirling, flying blades, like a merry-prankster Zorro, just in time to save the innocent Evey (Natalie Portman) from arrest -- or worse -- by state policemen. Dressed in black, with a cape, shiny gloves, and squared-off cap, plus a wig of flowing ebony hair that wouldn't look out of place on Bettie Page, V wears a mask that he never takes off -- a grinning ceramic visage of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century British anarchist hero, with pink cheeks and eyebrows raised in delight. It's like a Halloween mask of the Joker, but when this joker speaks, the words flow out in a velvety aristocratic purr -- a gush of moral indignation.
V, played sensationally by Hugo Weaving, is a droll and charming devil-doll. He's also a bit twee, given to soaring flights of alliteration and a few too many Shakespeare quotes.
The first-time director, James McTeigue, may have been influenced by the one inspired touch in "Eyes Wide Shut": the spooky surrealism of a mask that ''talks.'' Jamming the signal at the BTN studios, V asks for the citizens of England to rise up and join him in annihilating Parliament. As we listen to his lofty call to arms, it's hard not to hear an overtone of Osama bin Laden, and for a few moments the film seems inspired in the daring of its off-kilter sympathy.
But once V gets Evey in his underground lair, bursting with old paintings and a jukebox that plays Julie London singing ''Cry Me a River,'' you realize you're on far more familiar turf than you thought. A disfigured monster-saint seeking vengeance through action, V is Batman crossed with the Phantom of the Opera with a touch of the killer from "Scream."
As a fix of pop iconography, "V for Vendetta" is eyeball grabbing, even if it lacks the relentless videogame bravura that sold the "Matrix" films. As a movie, however, it's merely OK, with a pivotal dramatic weakness: Evey, for all the attentions of her revolutionary Svengali, remains, in essence, a bystander, and Portman, her head shaved, plays her like Joan of Arc as a tremulous Girl Scout.
There's one startling sequence in which the chancellor's fake appearance on a variety show becomes a black-as-midnight Benny Hill sketch. There's also a down-the-rabbit-hole flourish -- it has to do with Evey's confinement and torture -- that would bend your mind a lot more if the film did what it appears, for a moment, to be doing: cast V in a morally ambiguous light. But he remains the saintliest of guerrillas, a Batman who realizes Gotham is too dirty to be cleaned up and must be blown up instead.
Will audiences follow him, cheering the implicit detonation of America's institutions? Or will they find it all a bit ... jejune?
Coming out of "V for Vendetta," a friend of mine called it ''radical'' and ''subversive.'' He was awestruck with disbelief that a film with a harlequin terrorist as its hero could actually be released by a major American studio. I was awestruck at his naivete in a world where fight-the-power anarchy is now marketed as a fashionable identity statement -- by the corporations that helped raise a generation on bands like Rage Against the Machine, by the armchair-leftist bloggers who flog the same righteousness day after day.
"V for Vendetta" has a playful-demon vitality, but it's designed to let political adolescents of every age congratulate themselves. It's rage against the machine by the machine.
EW Grade: B
'Thank You for Smoking'
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Aaron Eckhart is a handsome devil who, since "In the Company of Men," has made a tidy movie career for himself selling the Mephistophelian face of good looks: By virtue of square jaw and cold charm alone, he was born to play Nick Naylor, the infernally resourceful tobacco-industry lobbyist who peddles death for a living in "Thank You for Smoking."
And the way he promotes amorality as an attractive employment choice marks a new high in the actor's career playing ethically challenged men. I could swear Eckhart turns the glint in his eyes on and off at will, daring an audience not to love him while Naylor derides everything a health-conscious populace holds dear.
The guy earns his living campaigning on behalf of the fictional, richly named Academy of Tobacco Studies. He spins lies into truth and truth into lies. And once a week he gets together for booze, fatty foods, and shoptalk with fellow shills for alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms (Anchorman's David Koechner). They call themselves the M.O.D. Squad -- as in Merchants of Death.
"Thank You" is that kind of story, cynical and cheerily merciless. And damned if this biting comedy of hypocrisy, a confident feature-film debut for writer-director Jason Reitman, hasn't taken on even more resonance in the dozen years since Christopher Buckley first published the rollicking novel on which this tar-black PC satire is based. Today, spin is as persistent as cell phones that ring in a movie theater.
As a Vermont senator (with the unimprovable name of Ortolan Finistirre) and an antitobacco activist of the most fun-killing sort, William H. Macy, shoed in nubby socks and Birkenstock sandals like a vegan warrior, embodies every joke ever made about NPR. Hollywood pomposity is dispatched in the persons of a self-important studio honcho (Rob Lowe) and his groveling assistant, hilariously nailed by "The O.C.'s" Adam Brody.
And as an alluring newspaper reporter with no qualms about employing seduction as a tool of the trade, Katie Holmes breezily sets back the twin causes of journalistic integrity and gender equality by decades. (If the movie turns out to be Holmes' last fling with professional freedom before committing to the role of Mother of Tom Cruise's Child, at least she goes out with a nice bit of dirty sex on her resume.)
Still, the movie is also, for better and worse, as uniformly rolled as a machine-made Marlboro. (Apropos, Sam Elliott plays a former cig-promoting cowboy now angrily dying of lung cancer, bribed with a briefcase full of hush money.)
And as a result of such smoothing out, where Buckley's book is scathing about spin, Reitman's movie is, well, kinder. Gentler. Perhaps because Jason Reitman is the son of producer-director Ivan (who, for "Meatballs," "Stripes," and "Ghostbusters" alone, deserves a Canadian prix d'honneur). And something of Dad's eye for the box office has understandably rubbed off on the son, something that may well put the younger Reitman's Hollywood career on a fast track.
That same gentling, though, casts a disorienting glow, particularly when it comes to Naylor's empathetic, expanded screen relationship with his adoring 12-year-old son, Joey (Cameron Bright, coming up in "X-Men 3"). In the way of movies sure to be endorsed by someone like Finistirre, the bond between lobbyist father and impressionable son is now all too resistant to cynicism. Mocking PC piousness may have come of age in movie comedies, but family values are still no laughing matter.
EW Grade: B+
'Find Me Guilty'
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
The galvanizing return of "The Sopranos," with the series' authoritative grasp of ethics and consequence, doesn't do any favors for "Find Me Guilty," a sharp-looking Mob drama with a gooey moral center.
Based on the real-life testimony of Giacomo ''Jackie Dee'' DiNorscio, a member of New Jersey's Lucchese crime family facing a 30-year sentence, the movie is a shorthand version of what became the longest criminal trial in U.S. history: For 21 months during 1987-88, 20 Lucchese associates were tried on 76 different charges. Each wiseguy had his own defense attorney -- all except DiNorscio, who represented himself.
As Vin Diesel plays him in a likable, image-adjusting turn -- prosthetically fat, thick of Jersey accent -- Jackie (who died in 2004) was about as sweet as a career criminal can be; he was also a showman, a comedian, a doozy. And the fact that he refused to rat on his family is admired -- with irksomely naive neutrality -- as its own form of nobility.
Never mind that "Find Me Guilty" is directed by that great, 81-year-old chronicler of urban law and disorder, Sidney Lumet. Diesel's DiNorscio is styled as an untouchably charismatic mook in the softy script by T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea, which can't decide whether to smile or laugh outright at the government's efforts to break the power of organized crime.
As a result, the rest of the players -- a great clutch of guys, including Peter Dinklage as a precise and persuasive lawyer, Linus Roache as an obsessed federal prosecutor, and Ron Silver as the judge -- are never granted a fair day in court.
EW Grade: B-
'Don't Come Knocking'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
Sam Shepard, with his snaggle-toothed rawhide glamour, is just about the only actor of his generation who can still wear a cowboy hat that looks as though it utterly belongs on his grizzled head.
In "Don't Come Knocking," which he wrote and stars in, and which Wim Wenders directed with his usual flaky but open-eyed here-and-there ramble, Shepard plays an aging Hollywood bad boy who was once a big Western star. His glory days are 25 years behind him, which vagues out the film's cultural time frame a bit; after all, it's not as if they were making vintage horse operas in the mid-'70s.
Nevertheless, Shepard's charisma has always reached back to an earlier time, so it's easy to accept him as a kind of pre-counterculture hero -- Eastwood without the sneer -- who aged into the era of tabloid scandal.
When we first meet him, he's riding a horse through the rocky plains of Utah, but what looks like a joyful gallop is really an escape: Shepard's character, Howard Spence, has ditched a movie set, leaving the production he's starring in high and dry. A quick glimpse into his trailer -- liquor bottles, smears of cocaine, slinky groupies -- tells us most of what we need to know about Howard's lifestyle.
A little later, he flips through a scrapbook of infamy: affairs, fights, drug and alcohol busts splashed over years of headlines. "Don't Come Knocking" is a tale of redemption, and much of it passes by in that wandering Wenders haze, but what gives it a vital, touching dimension is that Shepard, as actor and writer, depicts Howard's burnout from a hard-bitten inside knowledge of celebrity's privileges and traps. Howard is a man so used to not giving that he's dried himself up.
He learns, early on, that he has a son he never knew about, the product of a love affair with a waitress (Jessica Lange) that took place when he was making a film in Butte, Montana, decades before. He arrives in Butte with a half-hearted inclination to connect with his past, and maybe with himself.
"Don't Come Knocking" bears a surface resemblance to "Broken Flowers," but this movie is soaked in regret. Howard, by looking into the eyes of his son (Gabriel Mann), who has no particular interest in his deadbeat famous father, touches something essential: the life he should have led but couldn't.
EW Grade: B
'She's the Man'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
The press notes for "She's the Man" state that it's a teen update of "Twelfth Night" (what's next -- Paul Walker in "To Party or Not to Party"?), but the historical work it reminded me of most was "Soul Man," that vintage '80s piffle in which C. Thomas Howell, in a tan-from-the-can, pretended to be black and was so unconvincing at it that your face curdled into a wince.
In "She's the Man," Amanda Bynes pastes on sideburns and a shaggy bowl-cut wig and struts around in a prep-school jacket attempting to pass herself off as a boy, but Bynes, with her chipmunk cheeks and goggly eyes, comes off more like some bizarre third sex -- Davy Jones after an infusion of estrogen.
When she tries to talk ''masculine,'' squeaking out lines like ''Hey, bruthuh!'' in a vaguely hip-hop patois, it's so cheesy-wrong that you stare with a mix of fascination and horror.
"She's the Man," in which Bynes has to pretend to be her brother to play competitive soccer, is a role-reversal comedy that has almost too much situational structure -- the whole "Twelfth Night" thing -- and not enough scurrilous hilarity. As an actress, Bynes is wholesome to a fault. She impersonates a teenage boy yet never gives him one good dirty thought.
EW Grade: C
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