Friday, March 31, 2017

Too Little Too Late: A Review of "V for Vendetta"

[I am not going to waste a lot of time on this flick as it doesn't merit much time.  Just some thoughts I had after watching this misfire of a movie.]

After reading an article praising the "V for Vendetta" graphic novel, I decided to watch the movie treatment from a few years ago.  Truth is, I've been actively avoiding this movie because I recall that when the movie was originally released, the cast and crew went around pushing the film as some sort of cinematic denunciation of the Bush administration.  While I don't begrudge the Hollywood left their right to speak their mind on politics, I do find it insufferable silly at times, such as when they try to paint a mush Republican as a despot.  But more than that, I usually find such a tactic to be an indicator that the movie in question cannot stand on its own merits as a work of art, so it needs to be promoted on trendy political grounds to create some interest.  Sadly, I was correct here.

[Note: what follows is my critique of the movie.  I have never read the original graphic novel, so I am unable to know if the identified faults lie with the movie or the source material.  Furthermore, I cannot be bothered to go back and watch the movie again, so some of my recollections might be inaccurate.]

Initially, I found myself really enjoying the movie!  The character of V was precisely the type of protagonist I like to root for: he was flamboyant, cultured and most endearing of all, a tragic romantic.  In some ways, he reminded me of William F. Buckley if Buckley had a violent streak.  Of course, V isn't a mere analogue for some contemporary political pundit, but was an actual historical personality who ardently fought for Catholic political rights at a time when being Catholic meant real persecution in Protestant England, a fact carefully omitted from this movie and seemingly forgotten by contemporary revolutionaries who are quick to don Guy Fawkes masks.   Be that as it may, I found V's incarnation of this iconic rebel to be suitably larger than life - which is how it must be as very little is known about the actual Guy Fawkes (he wasn't even the mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot but just one of the lower level conspirators who was unlucky enough to get caught).  In fact, I came to like this character even more when we were invited into his batcave (can I mix graphic novel material here?).  Inside, we discover that he is a consummate traditionalist: classic books, especially Shakespeare, fill his den, a chess set sits on his desk, and timeless pieces of art, especially pastoral landscapes, adorn his walls.  Capping all this off is a jukebox filled with jazz records, the only fitting musical choice for nonconformists, of course.  Lastly, V is revealed to be a fan of classic B&W cinema, especially "The Count of Montecristo," a movie V endearingly reveals to be his favorite of all time.  Clearly, V isn't some trendy anarchist but a man grounded in the wisdom of the past. He is very much an antiquarian, one whom I suspect would feel quite out of place in contemporary campus politics where would-be revolutionaries are more likely to have their nose buried in a mass-produced smartphone than in a tome by Aristotle.  For that reason I suspect that V and I would have gotten along famously, doubly so after listening to his political views that were a mix of healthy political cynicism and upward looking idealism.  Honestly, I was surprised at how V's views mostly transcended the kitchy libertarian politics of Millennials.  Instead, the politics that were on display here seemed to gravitate towards a more thoughtful, politically savvy worldview, one similar to Jean Jacques Rousseau's observation that  "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains."   I even found myself nodding in agreement when V made a point to highlight how mass media is deliberately used to frighten people into surrendering their liberties to confront the latest bogeyman du jour, only to later split them into artificially opposed groups - the old "divide and conquer" trick used countless time by despots as well as cable news hosts everywhere.  All surprisingly insightful observations for a contemporary flick.

I hated to admit it, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the movie by the midpoint!  It was smart, exciting, and deliciously subversive in the timeless fashion of the best of conservative thought.  And like V's favorite movie, it had some great, swashbuckling action in its early parts.

But then it happened.  What had to happen, I guess.  The dirty fingers of contemporary Hollywood politics intruded into the narrative. The shift in tone was so striking that I got the distinct impression that some corporate suit from Warner Bros. picked up the phone and told the team, "Guys!  Knock it off!  We said you could make a politically subversive movie, but we didn't mean an authentically subversive movie!  You know, keep it politically correct subversive."  And that is what the second half of the film came to represent.

In an almost unaccountable decision, a large portion of the second half of the movie almost completely abandoned the fascinating and truly subversive character of V and instead shifted the narrative to the cardboard cutout character of Evey, V's romantic interest / groupie.  Compared to V, Natalie Portman's character is dreadfully boring with little to say or do of interest.  In a move as torturous for the audience as it was for Evey, we are forced to endure a lengthy, cliched sequence where Evey is imprisoned in a detention facility and is tortured daily.  I normally dislike such scenes because once you've seen one, frankly, you've seen them all.  That held true here as the viewer is subjected to boilerplate prison camp tropes such as tearful hair clippings, head dunking water torture, and bouts of incoherent whimpering by Evey in her drab, grey cell.   Guys: If you are going to do a detention center sequence, try to think outside of the box a bit as audiences the world over have long since become desensitized to such cliches.

But it gets worse.  Apparently, the powers that be didn't feel like this sequence was sufficiently boring, so they introduced a sub-narrative more stultifying than Evey's, one that deals with an ill-fated lesbian romance.  Yeah.  Thrilling, that.  Not surprising, really, as the bungling Wachowski brothers - well, now the Wachowski sisters (look it up) - have always been obsessed with homosexuality and homophilia in their films, whether or not it had a place, as it really didn't here.  In fact, this isn't even the first time the audience is awkwardly forced to endure such a pointless sexual digression as earlier in the film we are introduced to another subversive character, the urbane TV producer Dietrich, who inexplicably reveals his traditionalist batcave to Evey on a whim.  As with V, we see that he also collects banned literature, art and - wait for it - tasteless Robert Mapplethorpe homoerotica, an incongruous addition to such a noble collection, to say the least.  Strangely, Dietrich, who reveals himself to be gay to Evey, also cherishes a Koran, a curious decision seeing the muslim world's oft violent intolerance towards homosexuals.  I never read the graphic novel, but this has all the hallmarks of post 9-11 political posturing and little else as it makes no sense.  Welcome to the tiresome world of Hollywood politics!

Honestly, while I did think the shoehorned-in Mapplethorpe collection to be tasteless, especially when juxtaposed with timelessly beautiful artwork (the Wachowski brothers/sisters/ are artistic philistines apparently), I liked Dietrich as he was presented to be kindhearted man struggling to survive in a hostile world.  As a result,  the narrative didn't suffer much because Dietrich was as interesting as V in his own way despite his unaccountable taste in kitch S&M "art."  Unfortunately, though, Evey's imprisonment sequence was just a cliched, crashing bore because she is as gray and lifeless as her prison walls.   Add in the dull and ham-handed lesbian narrative, and all the accumulated energy of the first half of the film was utterly lost.

Frankly, the movie never recovered from this turn in the plot.  The tense pacing and interesting politically repartee of the first half was lost for good, with the remaining runtime of "V for Vendetta" being devoted to formulaic graphic novel movie treatment: contrived  action sequences, juvenile smash and burn mob politics (as seen in an ending right out of the horrors of the French Revolution), and a forced and nonsensical confrontation between V and his nemesis, the dreadfully banal Adam Suter (John Hurt) who was shamelessly ripped right out of "1984" (also starring John Hurt).  All the magic of the first half of the movie - the flamboyance, the socratic philosophizing, even some interesting sleuthing about V's origins by the noble Detective Finch - was lost in the second half's by-the-numbers, modern mass-produced movie mediocrity.  Again, one can't help but to suspect some corporate meddling here because the distinction between the two parts was so great.  Cries of "Dumb it down!  Dumb it down!" echo in my head from some imaginary Warner Bros. boardroom meeting.  This impression was made all the stronger when the ending credits didn't even have the logical courage to play the audience out to V's favorite jazz piece, Julie London's iconic "Cry Me a River," but instead played the non sequitur that is the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."  That is unaccountably dumb.

Which is a good, final synopsis for "V for Vendetta."  It could have been much better - indeed, it was on track to being something much better!  But we just can't have nice things in this day and age of entertainment mega-conglomerates churning out the cinematic equivalent of spam for illiterate audiences.  I suspect that if V got wind that Warner Bros. was going to make his graphic novel into a movie, he might have started stacking gunpowder once again.  But this time under Hollywood, the ultimate Orwellian enclave.

Score: C-