V FOR VENDETTA
A day after seeing it, I'm still a bit shaken by John McTeague's graphic-novel adaptation V for Vendetta. Action blockbusters - not to mention action blockbusters based on comic books - have been so dour and pedestrian of late that I don't know if I've fully grasped the extent of Vendetta's greatness yet; it's the kind of explosive, overwhelming work that gets better and better the more you think of it. The film is a little 1984, a little Phantom of the Opera, and, with its screenplay by the Wachowski brothers, more than a little Matrix-y, but it casts an extraordinary, devastating spell. It may be the most fully realized film of a graphic novel the genre has yet seen, a movie you want to talk (and argue) about long after the closing credits.
As its surprises are key to the movie's magnificence, I'll give nothing away of the film's labyrinthine - yet astonishingly lucid - storyline, except to say that it involves V (Hugo Weaving), a heroic, British terrorist in a chilling Guy Fawkes mask who wages war against the totalitarian regime that has effectively silenced its populace; any similarities between current and futuristic governmental policies are absolutely intentional. Yet V for Vendetta isn't a tract. It's a staggeringly effective, exciting, and, in a wondrous shock, moving entertainment, funny when it needs to be, appalling when it has to be, and so well-staged - the fight scenes, featuring V's dexterous proclivity with knives, are deliriously enjoyable - and well-acted by Weaving and Natalie Portman, playing V's accidental protégé, Evey, that it leaves you breathless. (Weaving is so vocally and physically expressive behind that immobile Fawkes mask that his unchanging expression actually seems to change through the course of the film; a friend commented that the Fawkes visage "does what you want it to," and he's right.) V for Vendetta - a big, meaty adventure pulled off with superlative skill - deserves far more space for discussion than I have here. But this deceptive "popcorn entertainment" is so good that I'm not sure what amount of space would be enough. It needs to be seen. And - for the sheer pleasure of it - seen again.
SHE'S THE MAN
Like all erudite terrorists, V often quotes Shakespeare in V for Vendetta, and develops a particular fondness for Twelfth Night; as a child, Evey wanted to play Viola. Meanwhile, on a neighboring cineplex screen, Amanda Bynes actually is playing Viola - or at least, her movie seems to think so. She's the Man, which has Bynes' Viola infiltrating a boys' high-school soccer team in the guise of her twin brother, Sebastian, is purportedly based on the Bard's romantic, gender-switching comedy, and in addition to Viola and Sebastian, the film finds room for characters named Duke Orsino and Olivia, and the action takes place at Illyria Prep. (I couldn't fathom how a Malvolio was going to fit into the mix, but the filmmakers were a step ahead of me - it's the name of a character's pet tarantula.)
Yet She's the Man bears about as much resemblance to Twelfth Night as Rob Schneider's The Hot Chick does, and it might be an even stupider piece of work. Of course, we're not meant to take Andy Fickman's girl-power extravaganza seriously, but come on - I'm okay with characters buying into Bynes' completely unconvincing drag act, but when the real Sebastian shows up at the end, and characters fail to recognize that this isn't the same Sebastian they've been talking to throughout the movie, don't they at least notice that this new Sebastian is six inches taller than "he" was five minutes before? Add to the movie's migraine-inducing ridiculousness a torturous screwball plotline and a rare unappealing performance from David Cross, and She's the Man stands as almost hatefully bad.
Or at least it would, but damn it all if Amanda Bynes doesn't give a completely inventive, even invigorating performance. From minute one of She's the Man, this girl is on - Bynes catches you off-guard with her lightning-quick double-takes and comes up with a hysterical "boy" voice that is part hayseed, part gangsta, and so out-of-left-field wrong that your giggling at Bynes quickly morphs into giggling with her. (She sounds like a pre-pubescent Harry Connick Jr. after a fifth of vodka.) No one with an IQ in triple digits should bother with She's the Man, but until Viola turns into a predictably love-struck sap in the final reel, Bynes makes mindlessness feel like a pretty delightful state.
THE SHAGGY DOG
No sentient adult should really be caught at The Shaggy Dog, either. Excepting the oddly touching sight of Robert Downey Jr. lending his weirdness to a middling, cynical Disney trifle, there isn't much entertainment to be had; the movie is exactly as weak as you think it'll be. But a word must be said for its audience. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I saw the film surrounded by a large, mostly juvenile crowd, nearly half of whom were suffering from either croup or consumption; my admission ticket should have come with a shot of penicillin. The kids managed to suppress their hacking whenever Tim Allen played puppy - they roared at him lapping up his cereal and chasing the neighbor's cat - but whenever the puppy played Allen, with the actor's apathetic voice-over droning away to generic scenes of the dog acting "human," the young 'uns' interest seemed to fade immediately, and the cacophony of coughing started anew. It was as if, even at their young age, they'd seen this dog's old tricks before. We all have.
THE HUMAN BODY and BUGS!
Rather than The Shaggy Dog, those searching for viable family fare would do well to visit the Putnam Museum & IMAX theatre, which recently debuted two pieces of "edu-tainment" - The Human Body and Bugs! - that are each less than half the length of Disney's latest self-plagiarization and at least three times more fun. In less than an hour, The Human Body does a terrific job of introducing audiences to their own interiors, and it's about as satisfyingly informative and disgusting as you could want; the wonders of the digestive system, in particular, made me glad I didn't eat before the screening. (And kept me from wanting to eat for several hours afterwards.) Bugs!, meanwhile, gives you an up-close-and-personal view of the insects in a Borneo rainforest, and while it's not as detailed as Claude Nuridsany's and Marie Perrenou's similarly themed Microcosmos, the 3D effects make the film's creepy-crawly world pop in enjoyable fashion (a descending spider made the kids, and my adult companions, jump out of their seats), and the bugs' life-and-death struggle makes for endlessly intriguing viewing, especially when our praying-mantis protagonist attempts to mate without - as is prone to happen - his female counterpart literally biting his head off. Hmph. Women.