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V for Vendetta (2006)

by Steve Habrat

Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.

The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.

Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.

Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.

Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”

V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.

Grade: A-

V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Raven (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Throughout James McTeigue’s overcast thriller The Raven, I kept wondering what the film would have been like if it would have been approached in a much more serious manner rather than as a graphic novel that has come to life. The film, which cleverly uses Edgar Allen Poe as the hard-boiled detective to solve murders based around his own work, does have a pulpy storyline, one that you could very easily see illustrated out in comic book form but I felt like the film could have been much better if the filmmakers would have made it a little bit grittier and meaner. Instead, McTeigue instructs his actors to lightly flit around what look like leftover sets from Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd while holding up lanterns to see through the CGI fog that is supposed to create a portentous atmosphere. The film also tries to lighten the already forced mood by having the superb John Cusack, who plays the boozy Poe, spew chuckle worthy one liners like he is a cleaned up Jack Sparrow on vacation from his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Despite these major flubs, The Raven does have a handful of moments that are moderately fun but they quickly fly off like a startled raven.

The Raven begins with the witty Detective Emmett Fields (Played by Luke Evans) showing up to a grisly double murder and quickly observing that the crime scene resembles a story written by the booze sipping Edgar Allen Poe (Played by John Cusack). After being taken into police custody, Poe is convinced by Evans to begin helping the police to catch the murderer before he strikes again. Poe also happens to be in love with the blonde and beautiful Emily Hamilton (Played by Alice Eve), who at a costume ball, is kidnapped by the murderer, sending Poe and Emily’s protective father Colonel Hamilton (Played by Brendan Gleason) into a frenzy to try to find her. As more murders stack up, Poe has to get inside the killers mind by using clues that he leaves at the crime scenes to find Emily before the deranged fan slices and dices her. But as the chase furthers, Poe begins to suspect that he may not live make it out of the investigation alive.

The Raven is the same old hack and slash whodunit that is dressed in all in black and sips brandy from a flask. The most inspired aspect of the film is the way the killer dispatches his victims by using the work of Poe. By far the most grisly is the death that is inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum”, a scene that overflows with CGI blood that is flung directly at the audience. I’m stunned the filmmakers weren’t compelled to convert the film to 3D just to milk the effect even more. This is the exact problem with The Raven. It’s just gets too cartoonish for its own good and is overly concerned with its own outer appearance rather than making something that will really stick with us and, dare I say, disturb us to our core. Instead, it’s sleek when it should embrace a little dirt under its fingernails. I suspect that McTeigue, who directed the awesome 2006 comic book film V for Vendetta, never really snapped out of comic mode. McTeigue and screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are all about images that look cool and speeding the story along to the next gruesome discovery, with everyone but Poe choking out simple dialogue that would seem more at home in big white speech bubbles protruding from their mouths.

Of all the players in The Raven, Cusack hits it out of the park with his motor-mouthed Poe, who bursts with intelligent jabs at those who try to insult him and continuously spars with Colonel Hamilton, who despises the drunken Poe. Cusack is committed to Poe to the very end and really does his best to give him a little bit of depth and glassy-eyed emotion. He steals every scene he’s in and he makes The Raven a bit easier to sit through without your mind wandering away from the story. Cusack is a magnetic actor and I admit that I really do enjoy his work. My one compliant with his performance is that I wish it were smudged with a little bit more intensity at times but the screenwriters would like him to be a jester. Brendan Gleason sneaks by as Colonel Hamilton, although he isn’t given much more to do than to grumble on about his dislike for Poe and to yell “EMILY!” when he finds out she is missing. It’s a shame that Gleason’s talent was severely underused. Luke Evans plays the real hard-boiled detective in the film, but he just resorts to saying everything with in a gruff whisper. The screenwriters are disinterested in really fleshing him out and he is relegated to just making speeches to groups of gung-ho police officers. Alice Eve is another minor standout and she does have a spark with Cusack, but we only see that spark in brief flashes before she is separated from Cusack for a good majority of the film.

The Raven is devoid of any tension, fear, or shock, all three things that are desperately needed within the film. It briefly thrills here or has us scoot to the edge of our seat there but sadly, McTeigue seems to think that if the whodunit thriller ain’t broke, don’t you dare do anything to fix it or even put a creative spin on it. Another disappointment of The Raven is the big reveal at the end, when we finally get to see the face of the killer, who ends up being a character that we’ve barely seen throughout the film. Maybe it would have been a little bit more of a bombshell if it was someone closer to Poe instead a distant background player we don’t give a lick about. The Raven couldn’t be any more by the books or worse, predictable even when it thinks you have no idea what is coming next. Maybe if The Raven had been a little more game to get its hands dirty rather than cover them up in all the CGI body fluids and atmospherics, things would have played out differently. Ultimately, McTeigue and The Raven are a little too soft and play a bit too nicely, which is a shame because Cusack came to have some devilish fun.

Grade C