A to Z Challenge – V is for V for Vendetta

V for VendettaAfter the twin “mehs” of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, the idea of watching something else Wachowski-related was the only big thing going against V for Vendetta. Fortunately, good early word allayed those fears and after watching the movie myself, I have to say it’s just about everything I could’ve hoped for.

There’s no doubt that some people will find the movie controversial, ignoring that it a) takes place in England and b) was based on a comic written back in the 1980s. But the fact remains that it’s a great action thriller that’s intelligent without soaring over the heads of its audience.

In a futuristic England where a conservative totalitarian government has taken control, a meek young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) has spent her entire life being afraid. One fateful night, though, she’s rescued by a mysterious masked man who calls himself V (Hugo Weaving). V is one who has the courage to stand up to the government, and his goal is to motivate Evey and others to do the same.

Call V a terrorist if you want–those in the movie certainly do–but remember that the root word of “terrorist” is “terror.” V doesn’t inspire terror here. The government, on the other hand, does, and there are plenty of examples of that.

They’ve made a theme out of the idea of V versus the actual man. V is not perfect. Though he seems not to have a past he is a man and flesh and blood, and as such occasionally makes mistakes. He didn’t start out wanting to change the country. He wanted revenge, and changing the country became a byproduct of that.

He is single-minded in his mission, but he’s not cold. Somebody like that we only expect to get to know as an idea. Getting to know him as a man, that makes you sit up and think. It’s clear that he cares for Evey from the first time he meets her, and later it develops into something more.

And they never, not once, remove his mask and show his face. (Other comic book movies should take note.) Hugo Weaving delivers a fantastic, sympathetic performance despite it being only voice and body language.

V for Vendetta is also a reminder of how well Natalie Portman can act. As Evey, she’s sort of an embodiment of the current generation of citizens. She’s been scared of the government her entire life, living with the constant knowledge that if she does or says the wrong thing she could disappear forever.

That fear changes through her interaction with V. At first she’s terrified of him, understandably so. But she gradually confronts her real fears, and she stops being so scared. Her shaved head is like an external symbol of that inner change. (Ooh, symbolism and a character arc!)

On the government’s side, there’s Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), the policeman in charge of tracking down V. However, he has the nasty little habit of thinking for himself, and in trying to find V, he starts unlocking secrets that the government has gone to great lengths to keep.

A quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin kept springing to mind the entire time I was watching V for Vendetta: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It wasn’t really applicable to the movie so much, but more to the events that led up to it.

Unlike most movies involving a totalitarian government that rules by fear, it doesn’t treat the general populace like “oh, poor civilians, you had no choice in what happened with your government.” It holds the people accountable for their choices in the elections, for trading liberty for safety.

However, it also gives them the chance to redeem themselves, and the chance to stand up to the real terrorists. The people have the opportunity to make the choice if they’d like to continue living safely in fear, or take back their future.

It says something about V for Vendetta that the characters and the themes stuck more with me than the explosions or the action sequences. Those are good, don’t get me wrong. But they’re supported here by a solid script and good characters, and together it makes a movie that will hopefully make people stop and think.

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.

The Barenaked Archives – War of the Worlds

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

War of the Worlds posterLike many people I know, I’ve been getting physically ill over the amount of time Tom Cruise has spent in the press lately, extolling his love of Katie Holmes and Scientology (though not necessarily in that order). However, that didn’t mean I was going to pass up a chance to see that which he was supposed to be promoting: his latest coupling with director Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. The trailers promised creepy basements, freak storms, and mass destruction in general.

Not only does Spielberg deliver on that promise, he crafts an effective alien invasion/survival story without resorting to most of the tired stand-bys of that genre.

Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a divorced, blue-collar worker whose ex-wife has just dropped off their kids, daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend. Ray’s much better at handling cars than at handling his kids, and neither Rachel nor Robbie is afraid to call him on it. That has to change fast when a strange lightning storm hits, a precursor to something more sinister, and Ray’s only thought becomes to get his kids to Boston and their mother.

The first rule of alien invasion movies that Spielberg breaks is in his choice of protagonist. Ray is not a top-level general in the army. He’s not the president. He’s not an important scientist who’s been studying these aliens for years. None of the aforementioned characters even appear in War of the Worlds, and it’s a blessed change.

Ray’s a regular guy with regular problems, and he isn’t even a very sympathetic regular guy. He’s 30 minutes late to meet his kids. He lets his pregnant ex help his daughter with her suitcase. He’s got engine parts strewn around his kitchen and the only food he has is in the form of condiments. And the primary reason he heads to Boston when all hell breaks loose is to get his kids back to his ex because she can take better care of them than he can.

Tom Cruise does a good job of keeping Ray relatively likable, despite his faults, and you buy it as he becomes more and more concerned with keeping his kids safe. Dakota Fanning plays the same precocious, neurotic child that she does in all her other movies, only this precocious, neurotic child spends a lot more time crying and screaming.

Of course, you can’t talk about this movie without discussing the special effects. Unfortunately, the words that best describe such effects are those such as “cool” or “sweet” preceded by certain words that one can’t say on a school-sponsored website. The first appearance of the tripods will blow your mind, and the destruction they wreak is just absolute. They alternate between vaporizing people and capturing them. Their shields won’t let anything pass. They can go over land or under water. They’re just faceless, emotionless, devastating machines, and it’s truly frightening.

Spielberg eschews other common elements of alien disaster movies. There is no token comic relief character. There is no token love interest and thus no token love subplot, thank heaven. (There is a token crazy character, for which Tim Robbins was perfect.) There are no shots of major landmarks getting vaporized. All we see in the film is what happens to Ray and his kids, and keeping the focus so tight forces the tension to skyrocket. And the end is definitely not what one expects from this movie genre, although (for those of you who have read the novel), it is in keeping with the end of the book.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. The aliens bear a striking resemblance to those in Independence Day, which is kind of a let down. When the tripods first appear, all electrical things stop working, including those battery-operated, yet two guys have cameras to take pictures and videos of the tripod. And, with a film that clocks in at just under 2 hours, they could’ve added a little bit more in the way of resolution. I’m not asking for everything tied up in a bow, but I am asking for the filmmakers to give us an idea of what’s going to happen next.

By making such a huge film about a large-scale invasion but keeping it a survival story about a family, Spielberg makes War of the Worlds very effective and surprisingly tense. It’s a great summer movie and worth the time.

The Barenaked Archives – The Pacifier

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

The Pacifier posterMr. Nanny. Kindergarten Cop. Both are movies from our childhood wherein a buff, action-oriented star (Hulk Hogan in the former, Arnold Schwarzenegger in the latter) meets his match in rowdy children under the age of ten. This is funny, because, you know, they outsmart bad guys but get their butts handed to them by a bunch of kids.

Obviously not classic filmmaking in the least, but entertaining to the prepubescent set. Now, another film has come to join the ranks: The Pacifier, featuring current action star Vin Diesel. And like its predecessors, The Pacifier is probably a lot more entertaining if you’re a kid.

Vin Diesel plays Lieutenant Shane Wolf, a Navy S.E.A.L. who’s just come back into action after being shot during a rescue mission. His new mission is to protect the five children of a dead scientist while their mother goes away to check out a safe that may hold the scientist’s top secret project. When it turns out she’ll have to be gone longer than they thought, Shane has to find a way to live with the five bratty kids, and search for the project, which may still be in the house.

This movie winds up being sort of like director Adam Shankman’s last film, Bringing Down the House: there are some really good laughs, but for the most part the movie is relatively predictable and tepid.

Quite a bit of the film even tries one’s suspension of disbelief, especially the chase scene at the end with a 16-year-old handling a minivan at speeds one would only trust to a seasoned NASCAR driver. Also, a montage features a number of scenes that, according to earlier dialogue, take place within a week (or less), but it’s really hard to believe that the kids learned the things they did in that amount of time.

There are also a few times when the dialogue crosses into the painful territory, usually when they’re going for emotion rather than comedy. When Peter calls Shane “Daddy,” it elicits an “aw” from the audience. Shane’s emotional speech at the end, though, is close to nausea-inducing.

Sadly, Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) is actually overused as the vice principal Mr. Murney. Even though there are points where his character is funny, it becomes so overdone that soon he’s an unbelievable caricature that won’t shut up. It’s hard to believe that this guy would be allowed to work in a high school for that long. Also, the romantic subplot between Shane and the kids’ principal Claire (Lauren Graham from Gilmore Girls) is completely sans chemistry and seems thrown in just because they felt Vin Diesel should have a love interest. It doesn’t work at all.

However, not all is bad. Unlike most movies like this where the kids are holy terrors, the kids here aren’t too bad. Their reactions to Shane feel a little bit more realistic than is typical for these films, and they don’t pull too many Home Alone-esque stunts. Also, Vin himself doesn’t do too badly (then again, this role doesn’t really feel like a stretch), and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he spends one scene in a towel.

The Pacifier is simply an average movie, one that would be a lot more entertaining for kids than for adults. If you’re being forced to take a younger sibling to the theater this weekend, this won’t necessarily make you want to kill yourself, but other than that, you can wait for 50-cent Tuesdays.

The Barenaked Archive: End of the Spear

Last night I hit panic mode as I realized the only non-school-related stuff I’d done this week involved watching disc 2 of Neon Genesis Evangelion and playing copious amounts of board games with my brother and his roommates. In other words, I hadn’t watched a movie in almost seven days, a record for me since probably January 2004.
end-of-the-spear-movie-poster
Thus, in desperation and with absolutely no desire to drive north to the AMC theater in Oklahoma City (where, at the time, they were showing Paradise Now, Match Point, and The Squid and the Whale), I headed to the Norman theater to catch a 7 p.m. showing of End of the Spear.

All I know about the movie going in was that the production company, Every Tribe Entertainment, was based in Oklahoma City, and that the film was based on a true story of five missionaries who were killed by the very tribe they were seeking to help.

The movie opens with two men taking a canoe down a river in Ecuador’s part of the Amazon rain forest. One is Mincayani, a Waodani and native Ecuadorian. The other is Steve Saint, an American who spent most of his childhood in Ecuador thanks to his missionary father, Nate.

It’s then that the movie takes us back to 1943, to Mincayani’s boyhood in the rainforest. His Waodani tribe is considered one of the most violent in the world, and not even women and children are safe from what seems like daily attacks. They have very little contact with the outside world, and refer to everybody who comes from there as “foreigners.”

A “foreigner” is exactly what Nate Saint and his four missionary friends are. They’ve been trying for some time to make contact with the Waodani, and they live with their families in the Amazon jungle, connected to the outside world only by CB radio and Nate’s little plane. When they finally make contact, though, the Waodani attack, and all five men are killed.

Sometime later, however, Nate’s sister Rachel goes to live with the Waodani, the same family group that killed her brother. The other female family members of the missionaries and their children, including young Steve, also go to visit or live with the tribe, to continue the mission that their husbands died for.

Honestly, there’s a very moving story here about forgiveness and redemption, and by the end you may be asking yourself if you could look into the eyes of the man who killed your father and not only tell him that you forgive him, but become a part of his family. It’s a refreshing look at some real Christian ideas, instead of the minority of the crazy intolerant ones that seem to be getting all the press lately.

The problem is that that story isn’t told very well. It’s not the acting at all; the actors all do very well in their roles, especially Louie Leonardo, who plays Mincayani, and Chad Allen, who plays both Nate Saint and the grown-up version of Steve. It’s just the way the movie’s put together seems a little amateurish.

Several times, especially in the beginning during the night attack on Mincayani’s tribe, the camera seems to be too close to the action or to the characters, and it’s difficult to tell what’s going on. There are also a lot of airplane shots, where the little yellow plane is just flying around the jungle and while I do appreciate the beauty of the rain forest, it got to be just a little tedious.

And though the movie starts out with Steve and Mincayani on the river, we don’t return to them until the last few minutes of the movie. The bulk of the action takes place during Steve’s childhood. You get to know Steve (or at least Steve as a kid), and you get to know Mincayani, but you don’t see them together until the end.

The real climax of the movie is when Mincayani confesses that he killed Steve’s father, but before this point we’ve never even seen them have a conversation. What’s the relationship between Mincayani and Steve? Are they close friends? Acquaintances? Or do they not even really like each other? The climax could’ve been so much more powerful if their relationship had been established for the audience, and not just through the voiceover.

Ultimately, End of the Spear is a good story with not-so-good execution. If you go see it in the theater, you probably won’t wind up wishing for your money back, but you’d be just as well off waiting for the DVD.

The Barenaked Archives: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
— Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”

Everybody’s had that relationship that turns sour. Where the fights become more frequent, harsh words are shouted, false (or true) accusations are made, and finally it ends with one or both parties violently slamming the door and wishing that they could just forget their disastrous relationship.
Eternal Sunshine
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which wins the “Longest Title Without a Semicolon” award), Joel (Jim Carrey) is given the chance to forget his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) thanks to a memory-erasing procedure developed by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). In the midst of the erasing, though, Joel changes his mind and tries to hide Clementine from the technicians in order to keep her.

This movie is a trip, but what else would you expect from writer Charlie Kaufman, who brought the world such movies as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation? It’s not quite in chronological order, which requires the viewer to pay attention or else risk losing what’s happening on screen. For paying this sort of attention, though, said viewer is rewarded with a film that is funny, sad, intelligent, and real. This is the antithesis of Nora Ephron romantic comedies. Missing are the conventional leads, the conventional story, and the conventional ending. Talk about a welcome breath of fresh air.

The film moves between the real world, where the technicians are erasing Joel’s memory, and inside Joel’s head as he tries to hang on to Clementine. Sometimes things speed up, sometimes they slow down, and sometimes you’re moving backward or forward in time. Visually the movie is great, especially the sequences on the beach at Montauk, or the way things fade and blur when Joel’s memory is erased. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re in a memory or in reality.

Jim Carrey has finally found the perfect role for segueing into drama from comedy. Joel is shy, cautious, neurotic, about as far from Ace or Lloyd as you can get, and Carrey nails him. Kate Winslet is also outstanding as the free-spirited, spontaneous, flighty Clementine. Both characters feel so real, like people you’d run into on the street or something. They aren’t high-powered ad execs or freelance writers or journalists and they don’t live in huge loft apartments. They’re just people.

Equally good are the supporting characters: Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo as the technicians performing the erasure, Kirsten Dunst as the secretary who worships Dr. Mierzwiak, and Tom Wilkinson as the aforementioned good doctor himself. These aren’t one-dimensional supporting characters. They each have a life and problems of their own.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic movie for the anti-romantic. A quirky indie film with no robots, aliens, or oversized elephants. A Jim Carrey movie more in the vein of The Truman Show than Ace Ventura. And if it sounds like it could be for you, see it immediately while it’s still in Norman.

The Barenaked Archives: Elizabethtown

Elizabethtown was always one of my most anticipated movies for this year. So when negative word came back from Toronto, I was understandably worried and a little confused, especially since other reviews had been quite positive.

Since seeing it Tuesday night, I’ve come to two hypotheses that could explain the negative reviews.
Elizabethtown
1) This is a uniquely Southern movie, very much about the heartland of America, and if you don’t have much of a connection to this area of the country, you’re probably not going to get it.

2) All the critics are just cynics.

Elizabethtown is by no means perfect, or even close to it. However, despite its flaws, it’s sentimental and funny (oh boy, is it funny) and leaves you with warm fuzzies that feel like they were earned, not coerced.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a suicidal shoe designer who’s just cost his company nearly a billion dollars, which results in him losing both his job and his girlfriend. Before he can carry out the deed, though, Drew gets a call that his father’s died and he must go to Kentucky and pick up the body. On the flight there, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a perpetually perky flight attendant who might be just the person Drew needs to help him reconnect with his life.

This is definitely a Cameron Crowe movie, so obviously the music is fantastic. It’s also very personal and optimistic, which could also be construed as self-indulgent and cloyingly sentimental if you’re more of the jaded and cynical type. This is a celebration of the little things that make life worth living, not the monetary success that can so easily be taken away.

There’s almost a sense of the surreal in the beginning of the movie when we follow Drew (who steadfastly repeats the mantra “I’m fine” although he’s clearly not) to his boss’s office in a complex that’s best compared to Xanadu. Alec Baldwin is deliciously fun in the beginning, as he manages to be both a disappointed fatherly mentor and a ruthless businessman who’ll hang you out to dry without any scruples.

A lot of people are wondering how Orlando Bloom will handle a role that doesn’t require some form of ancient weaponry or elf ears. This movie is about Drew’s inner journey from depression and the verge of suicide to the point where life might actually be worth living, which means he’s in just about every scene and a good part of the movie rests on his shoulders.

Bloom really pulls it off, right down to the American accent. He gets a chance here to show his chops more than in any other movie he’s done to date. It’s hilariously morbid how determined Drew is to commit suicide. Even this trip to Kentucky is, for him, nothing more than a delay of the inevitable. As a fish out of water, he perfectly portrays the overwhelming feeling a well-meaning Southern family can inflict on an unsuspecting newcomer. And, he’s got one of the funniest scenes in the movie after getting lost on his way to Elizabethtown.

Speaking of family, the scenes involving Drew’s family, especially the extended crew gathered in Kentucky for the funeral, were some of my favorites. The overpowering crush of family members, all of whom think you look just like somebody else in the family (be it a parent, cousin, or distant relative), is something those of us subjected to yearly family reunions will quickly recognize. The family is almost as important to the movie as the romance that probably comprises the most screen time.

The romance is a bit of an unorthodox one, something that comes from a chance encounter and blossoms into something more, starting with a marathon all-night phone call. Kirsten Dunst does well as the sweet and philosophical Claire, who really understands people and may know Drew better than he knows himself. But even so, her life’s not all sunny and roses and she needs rescuing almost as much as he does.

Crowe nails the setting, from the comment “Does it ever cool off?” to the noisy, noisy locusts that infest this area every summer. It warms the heart to see the South portrayed so honestly when Hollywood, for the most part, tends to ignore us. (The mere sight of Oklahoma City on a road map was enough to garner cheers from the audience at the screening.) We aren’t perfect, but we’re not a bunch of slack-jawed yokels.

However, like I said earlier, this movie has its flaws. There are some great logic-defying plot leaps, my personal favorite being the fork in the musical road map Claire gives Drew near the end of the movie. It is very self-indulgent, which might win some people over but will likely lose others. And despite being about death and suicide, it’s a surprisingly un-cynical movie, which could tickle some gag reflexes.

But, for some reason, I loved this movie despite all the faults, and this is coming from a self-professed cynic. Give Elizabethtown a chance. It may really surprise you.