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DVD SAVANT

V for Vendetta
Savant Blu-ray Review


V for Vendetta
Warner Home Video
2005 / Color / 2;35 anamorphic 16:9 / 132 min. / Street Date May 20, 2008 / 28.99
Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves, Roger Allam
Cinematography Adrian Biddle
Production Designer Owen Paterson
Art Direction Marco Bittner Rosser, Stephan O. Gessler, Sarah Horton, Sebastian T. Krawinkel
Film Editor Martin Walsh
Original Music Dario Marianelli
Written by The Wachowski Brothers from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Produced by Grant Hill, Joel Silver, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
Directed by James McTeigue

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Apparently given an early place in the Blu-ray line because of the Wachowski Brothers new release Speed Racer, V for Vendetta seems even more urgent in this election year. Its paranoid image of monumentally abusive and mendacious government tyranny may have been meant to describe England, but we across the pond are in no position to feel superior. The articulate "V" opines that People shouldn't be afraid of their Government, Government should be afraid of the People.

Just the same, the reasonably intelligent thriller V for Vendetta is an uncomfortable fit in the present-day political landscape. Its story of a fight for 'freedom' against an oppressive fantasy dictatorship has many excellent touches but seems partly irrelevant, like a cautionary tale that's about 25 years too late. When one is surrounded by wolves, one doesn't really need to hear an allegory about the future threat of wolf-dom.

Taken as a straight thriller V for Vendetta is certainly a good ride. A mysterious 'avenger' eludes the police while exposing the dictatorial Blue Meanie government as liars and hypocrites. Sort of Zorro expanded into an industrial-strength freedom fighter, the masked hero is a symbol of a healthy Anarchist tradition (??), a caped romantic swashbuckler.

Starring the very popular Natalie Portman, the show did well enough theatrically but perhaps offered too many dangerous elements to be a runaway hit: when the posters and trailers trumpeted a hero who blows up the Houses of Parliament, audiences became nervous. Although the movies should welcome all ideas, even dangerous ones, the public really isn't looking for a mad bomber as an identification figure no matter whose dynamite he's tossing.

Synopsis:

With England oppressed by a "1984" style totalitarian regime, broadcasting worker Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) becomes an outlaw "terrorist" when she falls in with "V" (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious anti-government rogue who wears a Guy Fawkes mask in honor of the 17th century Anarchist who tried to blow up Parliament. The ruthless government uses its media stars to drive home a steady stream of lies, invoking a fear of imminent disaster and the need to back the administration when V's reign of terror continues. V is intent on killing a number of government VIPs associated with a secret project for which all official records seem to have disappeared; Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea) uncovers evidence that the Big Brother-like Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) may have swept himself into power by manufacturing a catastrophic virus attack and blaming it on terrorists. Meanwhile, Edie becomes separated from V and stays with broadcast entertainer Gordon Dietrich (Stephen Fry) until the comic is arrested for putting on an anti-government skit. She's arrested as well and kept in a small cell while interrogators attempt to coerce her into betraying V. While there, she comes upon a desperate note left by a previous prisoner which details the secret plot to create the deadly virus -- an effort in which 'undesirables' were murdered in deadly medical experiments.

The graphic novel V for Vendetta was borne of 1980s anti-Thatcher, anti-Reagan sentiment. It uses a mixture of pulp references from The Phantom of the Opera to Guy Fawkes to tell a fantastic tale of struggle against an oppressive, Orwellian regime. Scripted by the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame and directed with clear efficiency by their former assistant director James McTeigue, the 2005 film version of V for Vendetta took a lot of flak for its near- Anarchic political stance, with many critics assuming it was intended as a direct reflection of our present landscape of fear-driven hate-mongering. Vendetta's incidentals do indeed resemble our present situation, especially the manipulation of public opinion through the media. The overall story is more like Dr. Mabuse than Washington D.C.. The ruling power in Alan Moore's fantasy is a straight Orwellian dictatorship, and the rabble-rousing hero is no more original than a comic book avenger aiming to inspire the downtrodden public to rebellion. The show probably wanders too close to Anarchist-Chic, in that many of its fans won't really care what it's about beyond martial arts action and rebellious posturing.

V for Vendetta is an often exciting action suspense tale about the overthrow of a convincing Empire of Evil. It even has room for Matrix-like knife dervish fight scenes, an implied romance and a superhero who lives in a secret underground lair blessed with inspired art direction. Hugo Weaving takes the Claude Rains "Invisible Man" prize for playing an entire role without once showing his face. As he always wears a mask, it's up to superstar Natalie Portman to carry the bulk of the film, and she's fine. V spouts Shakespeare and Right-On revolutionary couplets with a silken voice inspired by Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo, which he watches incessantly.  1

Alan Moore's graphic novel, like his epic Watchmen, pulls in a number of direct cultural and filmic references for its many tangential subplots: if Film School directors can do it, why not comic books? The Wachowski brothers simplify this into two or three major themes but retain the flavor of the original. It's actually well structured, something not seen in many Comic Book movies and certainly not in the ponderous Matrix films.

The first major revelation is the back-story of an atrocious medical lab where V was meant to be killed along with hundred or thousands of other human guinea pigs. He instead emerged a charred semi-superhero.  2 As it turns out, the ambitious and utterly ruthless Evil politician Adam Sutler (John Hurt) wanted to develop a controllable virus attack, which he could unleash on Britain for political purposes. He creates a false threat and when the country is desperate steps in as its savior, after being granted dictatorial powers, of course. His draconian police cover up all trace of the experiments and anyone who remembers how so many victims 'disappeared' is encouraged to forget.

Literal-minded critics jumped on V for Vendetta by assuming that this self-created crisis was meant to represent 9/11, even though the story predated that event by almost two decades. 1997's Starship Troopers has a very 9/11 attack from space that motivates a dishonest war, but even that movie requires a heavy dose of paranoia to conclude that the Earth government purposely wiped out Buenos Aires to create a consensus for war.

The virus attack in V for Vendetta simply takes political opportunism to the next level: If Marcus Licinius Crassus hadn't had Spartacus as an excuse to assume dictatorship, he'd have had to invent him, etc. Hitler certainly did things like this on a smaller scale, burning a building and then blaming it on the Bolsheviks, or stage directing a border skirmish to 'justify' a massive invasion of Poland. Plenty of politicians have committed dastardly deeds, and then cleverly shifted the blame to a convenient political enemy. It's only a matter of which lies one chooses to believe. With enough lies the public disengages and stops paying attention. That's when the wolves really take over.

V for Vendetta's functional plot traces the journey of Portman's Evey Hammond from apolitical benchwarmer to full-fledged radical avenger, someone new to fill V's boots. Moore uses a police investigation format (with the very likeable Stephen Rea) to help uncover Chancellor Sutler's past crimes. The result is much more coherent than the clumsy A.I.P. thriller Scream and Scream Again, with its similar investigation into a grandiose government conspiracy. Rea's Inspector Finch takes the same journey as Evey, but from the opposite end. He's threatened at every turn by Sutler's minions. When push comes to shove, Finch has no trouble choosing sides. It's a shame that he never captures his man, even symbolically.

The story trips up now and then. (Mild Spoilers here). V's campaign to discredit the government goes swimmingly, as the average Brit family already distrusts most every bit of predigested TV news. Actually, I prefer V's reading of the evening News to Katie Couric's. V's secondary aim of eliminating the corrupt mass murderers from the vile Virus lab is an arcane throwback to the days of Fantomas and Judex, where no vendetta is too far-fetched. V murders all of the prime suspects who could testify to the reality of the death camp, essentially doing Sutler's job for him. That's either very foolish, or cynically astute -- the world overflows with the truth on every issue, but in the open market of information the truth all too frequently loses out to sales pitches and disinformation. If it isn't discredited, smeared or ridiculed, the truth is drowned out by a lack of funding.

Interestingly, V reserves his sentiments for a higher political plane. (Spoiler) One of his victims (Sinéad Cusack) was fooled into participating in the Virus plot until she was in too deep to back out. She's even contrite. When V kills her, neither has any doubt but that her death is the only possible path to atonement. That's an unusual attitude.

(Big spoiler) However, the ordeal V puts Evey through is much less convincing. Only in a very abstract story does a person undergo torture, deprivation and subtle brainwashing (hmm, very Guantanamo-like), and come out the other end thanking the torturer for helping one attain a higher spiritual level. Maybe Herman Hesse could get away with it, I don't know. The movie wants us to accept V as a timeless manifestation of defiance to Tyranny, the story's real theme. But it also engenders a warm 'n' fuzzy romantic connection between V and Evey, so sometimes he seems very human.

Peformances in V are quite good. Besides Rea's stubborn cop there's Stephen Fry's foolish, Benny Hill-like entertainer and Tim Piggot-Smith's engaging secret policemen. These actors lend gravity to scenes even when the comic-book martial arts battles get a little stale: V uses The Man With No Name's old boiler-plate trick to fend off a fusillade of bad-cop bullets. Further down the cast list, the lady who plays the actress-turned-medical-victim and the little girl who ably sketches V's youngest supporter offer rich vignettes. The film has no roles for teen heartthrobs or twenty-something babes, a very good sign these days.

In its details V for Vendetta hits the mark more often than it misses. The media lies are barely exaggerated ("I only read the news, the government creates it") but the Big Brother imagery is not very subtle. Chancellor Sutler seems Evil just because he has bad teeth. Some visuals aren't too interesting, such as the government's 'double cross' insignia (shades of The Great Dictator) and the rape threat to poor Evey Hammond, a tired gambit that seems to be the opening situation for everything from bad martial arts films to Redneck epics to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The most important visual is perhaps the most flawed. We're given a 'stirring' finale with massed armies of marching citizens in matching hats, capes and masks. Unfortunately, the idea of hiding behind disguises to carry out illegal but "morally elevated" vigilante actions has sinister repercussions: It evokes a vision of the Ku Klux Klan. This ending also resembles the 'righteous counterrevolution' of Halas and Batchelor's animated Animal Farm. Remember that Animal Farm's altered ending was dictated by the CIA. V for Vendetta carries its own contradictions.

When times are complacent and the public needs to be grabbed by the lapels and shaken, radical provocation in the culture is a good thing. I'm thinking of Mad Magazine in the 1950s and perhaps National Lampoon in the Vietnam/Nixon era. But when the whole world is at war and the morality of all sides is too cloudy for generalizations about "Freedom" and "Vengeance," a fantasy like V for Vendetta isn't as resonant as it might be. Audiences cheered Diabolik when he murdered policemen and blew up public buildings, but that was 1968. Today only zealots, idiots and munitions salesmen think that blowing up buildings and people serves any practical or ideological purpose. Audiences watched V for Vendetta's dynamiting of Big Ben without much of a reaction. If they won't hoot and scream in protest the offensive ads and other propaganda before the show starts, one can't be surprised when they don't react to the finale's 'inspiring' demolition.


Warner's Blu-ray of V for Vendetta reveals many razor-sharp and impressively toned images; the disc has the look of a theatrical presentation. Savant has a 65" rear projection TV but can clearly see the added richness in the image. The wide scenes of V's underground lair reveal many more details of décor. I'm also beginning to notice that Blu-ray audio is more dynamic than the average DVD track, being expressly mixed for home theaters.

All the extras from the previous DVD presentation (2006) are here, augmented by Director's Notebook, a BonusView chronicle of the making of the movie, from the graphic novel to the screen. They're better and more thoughtful than the EPK filler that often clogs new release special editions.

The Making-Of story has nice input from the eager director McTeigue, while a separate feature on the design will impress art students that enjoy the details of how a film like V for Vendetta creates a consistent world. Even better are two featurettes on contextual issues. Remember, Remember is a look back at the historical Guy Fawkes and his actual Gunpowder Plot of November 5. England Prevails is an okay look at the world of serious Graphic Novel comic books, of which V for Vendetta is a prime example.

Finally, there's a Trailer and a Cat Power montage, that turns out to be a music video. 3


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, V for Vendetta (Blu-ray) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: BonusView extra Director's Notebook; Freedom! Forever!: Making V for Vendetta - The cast and crew of V for Vendetta reveal the intense filmmaking process; Designing the Near Future - A look at the artistic process of creating the frightening future world of V; Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot - The history behind the story of Guy Fawkes; England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics - The origins of the original V story is illuminated; Cat Power Montage; Trailer; Easter egg: Saturday Night Live digital short
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 17, 2008


Footnotes:

1. Actually, if V's Britain had our Patriot Act laws, V could be caught easily. Simply look up DVD renters or buyers who go for old movies about implacable gentleman avengers like The Count of Monte Cristo ... bingo -- V's identity would surface pretty quickly!
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2. V is basically a gothic-Mengele version of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, who is blasted with a particle disintegrator but emerges as a super-being.
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3. Savant is a generous fellow; in this footnote I offer my critics a laugh at my expense (I do get knocked from time to time in tech-oriented bulletin boards, by people incensed that I haven't noticed a PROFOUND difference in an aspect ratio, or that I accept less-than-perfect DVDs of movies that are 60 years old. But that axe grinds elsewhere.)

I received my Blu-ray screener of V for Vendetta last week, popped it in my two-month-old player and unhappily watched as it froze up between the MPAA card and the 2nd Warner logo. Gulp. Warners sent me another, and it didn't play either. That was Savant's cue to jump to the conclusion that my 1.0 Sony Blu-ray player had been sold to me under false pretenses. Even though newer and perhaps less expensive players are due this summer, I decided that I couldn't wait to start reviewing Blu-ray discs. Various resources claimed that the generation 2 players would mainly have computer and game playing features. Playing the discs might mean only that an extra or two wouldn't work occasionally. I of course assumed that that was wrong, that all the discs from here on out weren't going to play in my machine. Yes (gasp!) I was to become a Victimized Early Adopter.

My producer, who has a level head, has a machine similar to mine. He downloaded firmware updates from the web and I installed the one for my machine. I had to install it twice, but now V for Vendetta plays ... with an odd pause at that 'freeze up' spot. So for the meantime, all my paranoia was in vain for nothing. Moral of story: as soon as I find a magic computer elf to keep my Mac in tip top shape, I'll have to start looking for a magic home theater elf to help with the HD set. Too bad that the magic elves in my city are such expensive bastards.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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