Sunday, March 26, 2006

V for Vanity

In terms of source material, V for Vendetta is easily the most intelligent of the latest slew of comic-book based films (and even possibly of all of them). While most comic book movies are content to be slam-bang, a hundred thrill-a-minute action films, this movie dares to be different by tackling a rather sensitive theme: terrorism.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers, most significantly screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski of Matrix fame (or infamy depending on which installments we're talking about) trade Alan Moore's caricatured allegory of Thatcher's England for a hit-you-over-the-head diatribe against the Bush government. And it is here that the movie stumbles. I say this as someone who utterly despises Dubya and his policies.

The movie is set in a totalitarian London taken right out of George Orwell's 1984. Civil liberties are a thing of the past, and the whole nation is run by the iron fist of High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Enter V (Hugo Weaving), a one-time political dissident whose body has been radically altered by horrific genetic experiments conducted by the government on many of its political prisoners in a secret detention center. V is at once a freedom fighter, a poet, a master swordsman, and a madman. He spends the entire movie concealed behind a Guy Fawkes mask and under a page-boy wig. In the course of the movie, of course, we're made to understand why.

In the course of his clash with the government, V rescues and is rescued by a twenty-something employee of a state-run television station, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman). He pulls off a particularly daring raid on a television station, sending an anti-government broadcast all across London which sets the police, led by Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), on his trail. Apparently, he plans to blow up Parliament on November 5 of the next year, just as historical figure Guy Fawkes attempted to do in the 1600s.

What follows is the unravelling of the mystery of who V is and how he came to be, as well as his rather intimate relationship to the government and its dark secrets.

Writer Alan Moore has openly disowned this movie, and although it is entertaining in its own right, it is easy to see why. The problem posed, really, is an ideological one. I've never actually read it, but I've heard that Moore's original graphic novel juxtaposed fascism against anarchy. V was not out to restore people's civil liberties, but simply to destroy the establishment and replace it with its antithesis. V is an anti-hero, in short, and this is evident even in his relationship with Evey, which, although still somewhat dark in the movie, has apparently been romanticized considerably from its original incarnation in the comics.

The problem here is that, rather than preserve the integrity of Alan Moore's original vision, the Wachowskis would rather preserve their own message that Bush is the devil incarnate, so they refuse to saddle V with character quirks such as moral ambiguity. V, a man who wants to blow up buildings and who murders at least two dozen people in the course of the film, is depicted as a man on the side of the angels, which is actually somewhat dangerous.

A good character to compare V to, if only because they both are anti-heroes, is Tom Hanks' world-weary hitman in The Road to Perdition (also a comic-book adaptation). Never once did Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self try to convince us that Hanks' character is anything other than a killer. He's a sympathetic character, to be sure, but he is a bad guy who does bad things, whose fate at the end fo the movie is practically pre-ordained. That we identify with him and his moral quandary is one of the movie's triumphs.

V, by contrast, is even more murderous than Tom Hanks' hitman, but it is clear from the music, from the lighting and dialogue that we are meant to cheer him on. That is one train I just cannot ride.

Still, in terms of action and pacing, both the cast and crew acquit themselves well. Natalie Portman is effectively the eyes and ears of the audience, and she carries the film admirably, even though her English accent seems a little spotty here and there. Hugo Weaving was quite well-cast as V, especially considering that the mask he perpetually wears is sometimes as difficult to watch as it undoubtedly was for him to act behind. John Hurt, who plays the movie's least fleshed out character, tries to make do with what he has, but he can't elevate Sutler beyond the pasteboard figure that the script makes him out to be.

The irony of the Wachowski brothers efforts is, given how blatant the movie is in its intentions, it's likely that the only people who will even go and see it are the people already inclined to hate Bush, so essentially they'll be preaching to the choir.

This movie certainly has some entertainment value, but it's not nearly as brave as its makers would like to believe.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

On UP Grads Winning Beauty Pageants

Maybe it's the snob in me (who I didn't even know existed, incidentally), but I personally feel slighted by the sudden boom in beauty queens who graduated from my old alma mater, UP Diliman. It's funny how, when a law school classmate of mine joined the BB. Pilipinas contest in 2001 and won, I was one of those cheering her on, but after seeing several more of them join, and seeing two them win in as many years, I find myself bothered.

The latest winner, Lia Ramos, who happened to finish the same undergraduate course as I did (Political Science) recently defended beauty pageants, saying that they aren't exploitative. While I'll leave it to Gabriela and similarly oriented groups to debate that point, my concern is a tad different. I can't help but feel that beauty pageants, in their own way, keep us in the dark ages when it comes to appreciating true beauty.

Thanks to instantaneous communications technology, we find ourselves bombarded with more and more sensory stimulants by the day, and as a result, appearances seem to matter more than anything. Individuality remains a subversive concept, which has even been hijacked by these asshole clothing companies that purport to sell it on their racks.

In this day and age of bulimia and insecurity, it is important that people should be reminded that looks aren't an all important thing. To my mind, there is no one better to lead this charge than those more enlightened among us, namely the intelligensia (if I've misspelled this, someone please tell me). In my honest opinion, UP grads should be at the forefront of such a group.

It strikes me as a tad off, therefore, that UP grads (among them a lawyer and a poli sci grad, for Pete's sake) seem to tackle things from a completely different direction! Instead of distinguishing themselves in their field by championing environmental causes or something truly significant like that, they're joining contests that before anything else place emphasis on physical beauty! They explain that this is a way to put themselves on the map and therefore get people's attention so that they can share whatever advocacy it is they want to push. And then there's all that self-confidence stuff.

Well, I can't help but feel that there are plenty of other ways by which such obviously intelligent people can make an impact in society, particularly when they are of such phenomenal academic pedigree and are drop-dead gorgeous to boot. They don't really have to try to so hard to work within the system because the system is already skewed in their favor. Beauty and brains, sad to say, trumps plain old brains, really. So why bother putting even more premium on appearance by joining these contests? It's starting to get annoying.

Well, maybe it's just the snob in me. It only started bothering me, after all, when UP grads started figuring so prominently in these things.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Traditional Meets Avante-Garde

As a comics fan, I am fond of great stories, more than anything else, and of the creative teams that are responsible for them. I'm not really into "event" books, like Infinite Crisis and its ilk, and truth be told I'm still banging my head on the wall that I paid for two issues of House of M.

The favorite comics in my collection involve writers and artists who I feel are at the top of their game. I treasure my issues of Amazing Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr, my issues of X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, and my issues of Ultimates by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. I feel these books are more important than megahyped event books because of the way they alter status quos without trying too hard to do it.

It's nice to know, however, that even though the big comics companies are caught up in "universe altering event" mania, that they can still come up with books that stick to the basics, i.e., put a dynamite creative team together and just let them do their work, free of any "change the world" directives.

One such book I'm really looking forward to is "The Eternals," coming this June from renowned writer Neil Gaiman and my all-time favorite comic book artist, John Romita, Jr.

Though just about everyone credits Frank Miller and Alan Moore with revolutionizing the superhero genre, to my mind Neil Gaiman has done more still to win respectability for comic books in general as a legitimate form of literature. I'm fairly certain that it was his work for DC Vertigo that has bridged the gap between "funny books" and literature, especially since he is well known for having achieved a great deal of success writing both. In college, one thing that really struck me about the man was that (as consummately shallow as this may sound) girls read his books. Enjoying his "Sandman" was not just "a guy thing."

John Romita, Jr. on the other hand, is about as traditional a comic-book professional as one can get. He's something of a latter-day Jack Kirby (a comparison which I was not the first to draw) with the exception that he has shown a LOT more versatility than the late "King" of comics. Not only that, but he's proven to be something of an "eternal" himself, considering that his career began all the way back in the seventies, and he's still going strong, still selling books while erstwhile comic greats like Chris Claremont and John Byrne have fallen by the wayside. One of the reasons he's been so enduring is that while he still maintains a distinctive style, there is no denying how remarkably he has been able to reinvent himself over and over with each passing decade. Also, he is according to both fans and his peers, able to tell a story better than anyone else in the industry.

I avoided Marvel 1602 because I had the rather unpleasant impression that the folks at Marvel were trying too hard to pander to Gaiman's penchant for writing strange, off-kilter stuff. Setting the entire Marvel universe in the 17th century was admittedly a novel idea, but it didn't really give us an idea of how Neil Gaiman would write a legitimate, mainstream Marvel book. This new project, however, is completely in continuity and involves an actual (albeit almost unused) character from Marvel's pantheon.

Bearing this in mind, "Eternals" promises to be a true marriage between exemplary traditional comic book storytelling and the virtually haute couture sensibility for which much of Gaiman's work is known.

Of course, not a single page of this series has even been penciled yet, so I don't really want to draw any conclusions until I've finished reading at least one issue, but having enjoyed Gaiman's Death and Stardust and Romita's Daredevil, Amazing Spider-Man and even Wolverine, I'm hard-pressed to imagine how this team will let me down.