Waiting To Explode

A fascist future with the Matrix touch and an icy directorial debut.

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The long-awaited, long-delayed V For Vendetta isn't quite the action blockbuster some will assume it to be. And it's certainly not the thinking person's film that its makers would have us believe.

But it does boast at least one idea worth pondering. Taking the political flirtations of movies like Syriana and The War Within one giant leap forward (or backward, depending on your perspective), V For Vendetta gives us a bona fide hero who is also a bona fide terrorist.

His cause (overthrowing tyranny) is a just one. He's also one of us (freedom-loving Westerners) as opposed to one of them (dogma-toting jihadists).

But the message is still jarring. V For Vendetta means to have us pumping our fists in support of heroes who understand the symbolic power of blowing up landmark buildings.

Based on Alan Moore's graphic novel, V For Vendetta takes place in a lethally rigid, totalitarian society in the proverbial not-too-distant-future. The original was a jab at Maggie Thatcher's Britain, but it's been updated to posit the end result of all our worst post-9/11 paranoias of enemies lurking under every bed. In the film's cautionary sci-fi vision, it's a short step from the Patriot Act to an absolute dictatorship where dissidents, homosexuals and anybody who doesn't think, act or worship in exactly the same way as the majority is rounded up in the middle of the night and executed. (Pretty scary stuff, although not as scary as the fact that regimes every bit as nasty as the imaginary one depicted in V already exist all over the world.)

There are some great extended sequences here and some marvelous visuals, but the movie is clearly the brainchild of its producer-screenwriters, the Wachowski Brothers, and it exhibits many of the problems that marred their last two Matrix installments. For every killer moment there are swathes of poorly paced storytelling and pompous speeches replete with noodling pseudo-philosophy and simple-minded politics. By the time V's final credits roll to the tune of the Stones' "Street Fighting Man," the whole thing may seem about as convincing as the notion of Sir Mick the revolutionary.

The film moves forward and backwards simultaneously, chronicling the rise of its fascist, post-apocalyptic State, the armed struggle of the masked insurrectionist V (Hugo Weaving), and the gradual consciousness-raising of V's young cohort Evey (Natalie Portman). Portman's performance here isn't one of her best (the English accent is iffy). Weaving struggles to engage the audience while wearing a mask the entire time, and the chemistry between the two is minimal. Still, the couple's peculiar love connection does have a certain kitschy appeal, if only in a Phantom of the Opera/English Patient sort of way. It's not much, but it's enough to keep us interested while we're waiting for the next building to explode.

A quote from Moby Dick — "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall" — opens The Dying Gaul, serving as fair warning that we're in for a bumpy ride. This is far from a perfect movie, but you can't say it's not an ambitious one. The Dying Gaul manages to tackle thorny topics like artistic compromise, sexual panic, mercy killings, adultery and the hallowed halls of Hollywood itself — all in well under two hours — and lives to tell the tale.

At root, this directorial debut from playwright-screenwriter Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss) is a sexed-up Faustian bargain in which struggling gay screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) is offered a boatload of money for a script if only he'll change the story's male lovers to a heterosexual couple. Robert not only obliges (even though his script is an intensely personal one, based on his own relationship with his recently deceased lover); he also enters into a covert affair with his Mephistopholes-like producer (Campbell Scott). Things turn truly weird when the producer's wife (Patricia Clarkson) discovers their affair and begins anonymously confronting Robert in chat rooms, claiming to be his dead lover communicating from the great beyond.

The twists and turns of The Dying Gaul are often fascinating, but the film has a curiously icy feel that works against it, and Lucas sometimes seems to be striking out in multiple directions that wouldn't seem particularly connected were it not for the powerful Steve Reich score gluing it all together. Lucas' direction seems modeled after early Atom Egoyan, frequently concentrating on intellectual aspects of his story at the expense of emotional momentum, and illustrating the film's subjects and themes with characters who, solid performances aside, often seem more like symbols of something or other than flesh and blood creations. There's much to admire in The Dying Gaul but the movie seems almost to be daring us to call it pretentious.

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