Wednesday, 29 October 2014

James McTeigue - V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin and The Raven

"I don't think anyone wants to go to the cinema and get preached at. You have to evolve the ideas, some of them political, some of them personal, into a film. Then the film becomes like a Trojan horse. You push it into the village as one thing & it comes out another thing. Hopefully it is something that people think about afterward, have discussions about, even vehemently disagree on. I like the idea you can have the entertainment & the political idea in there".

James McTeigue is probably more commonly known for being a Second Unit or Assistant Director, having worked in these capacities on 19 feature films between 1992 and 2008. He was Assistant Director on George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode II - The Attack of the Clones in 2002 however he is far more renowned for his partnership with The Wachowski's on their eponymous and groundbreaking Matrix trilogy and having worked with them on these wonderful, unique films he took their screenplay for V for Vendetta and ventured out into his directorial debut with yet another unique and truly wonderful film. He has since helmed two further cinematic features, Ninja Assassin in 2009 and The Raven in 2012. V for Vendetta struck a chord in me like no other film in recent history and I have been an avid fan of his directorial work since and all three of his films are reviewed here, as ever, with as few spoilers as possible. I have written these appraisals from the perspective of a genuine fan and my sincere aim is always to give just 5-10% of the film as a whole. I want to give a flavour for the following films hoping you will see them for the first time or be tempted to re-watch them all over again.

What follows are my genuine and honest appraisals of three very individual films and I sincerely hope you enjoy my take on them.

V for Vendetta (2005)

"Remember, Remember the 5th of November, the gunpowder treason and plot"

"There are of course those that do not want us to speak. I expect even now orders are being shouted into telephones and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning for those that will listen, the enunciation of the truth and the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression and where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission".

"Beneath this mask is an idea and ideas are bulletproof"

"A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having"

Thus is "V" (Hugo Weaving) a masked revolutionary hero who whilst being a loquacious and eloquent orator is also an expert of subversion, confusion and anarchy frustrated at an oppressive Government taking over and taking complete control of the lives of the UK populace. A freedom fighter seeking to right the wrongs for both the population as a whole as well as wrecking revenge on high profile personalities that as the narrative unfolds clearly deserve their comeuppance. V is many things but anything other than the terrorist portrayed by the oppressive Government and their mouthpiece the "British Television Network". Their job is "to report the news, not fabricate it. That's the Government's job" however V is quickly painted as the villainous terrorist and the Nation's newest threat but by breaking into the very network TV that provides the Government sponsored news V is able to make an immediate connection with the population and more importantly to make them think beyond what is presented to them as fact and to question the very fabric of the oppressive, surveillance filled society that surrounds them. V is an every man, an idea, a purpose and a figure head for rebellion and revolution against the suffocating dystopian society of a near future England under the control of a neo Fascist Government that watches and hears everything via their suffocating surveillance and nightly curfews. V is also partial to Shakespeare, to dancing to "Cry Me a River" or "The Girl from Ipanema", cooking and re-taking valuable pieces of artwork from the aptly titled "Ministry of Objectionable Ownership" but we're getting ahead of ourselves! Here's the opening 13 minutes of a two hour film which sets the scene for an incredible cinematic debut feature from James McTeigue as well as introducing a sizeable cast of characters to come:

V for Vendetta opens with ominous black and while toned opening titles including a reference to "DC Comics" on whose graphic novels the film is based. Against the background of a completely black slide the English folk rhyme of "Remember, Remember the 5th of November" is recited as a narration by an unseen young lady before this is dissolved into a sepia coloured re-enactment of the foiled plot of Guy Fawkes in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The re-enactment follows his capture and eventual public hanging before a completely black screen returns for the end of her narration as she presciently announces that ideas have worth and value, that "they do not bleed" and that a single man taught her the value of ideas and truth and she will never forget this man or what 5th November represents ever again. As the narration ends a blood red and fiery title slide announces "V for Vendetta".

We cut to the first of many television rants from "Shock Jock" and all round odious creature "Lewis Prothero" (Roger Allam), the self titled "Voice of London" on the British Television Network as he espouses violent retribution on the United States of America by invoking the Boston Tea Party revolution of the 18th Century and the reasons for their current demise in the western world as a lack of "Godliness". During Prothero's obnoxious continuing rant to camera the camera cuts brilliantly between a young woman and an older man sitting at their respective dressing tables preparing and dressing for an evening out. Both of the unnamed characters have their televisions on and continue dressing almost simultaneously as the clever cuts between them display. Neither is particularly watching the repulsive actions of Prothero but as the young lady finishes brushing her hair we cut for the first time to the real hero of our film.

Facing his dressing table mirror "V" (Hugo Weaving) affixes his distinctive mask for the first time whilst Prothero prophetically exclaims that "someone is watching over this country" however V is clearly not the someone he has in mind! Meanwhile, V is now fully dressed, all in black and the still unnamed young lady equally fully dressed and looking at Prothero's continuing rant with utter disdain. The problems of the country can be attributed to "Immigrants, Muslims, Homosexuals and Terrorists" but thankfully both the young lady and V have had enough of his vile verbiage and swiftly turn off their respective televisions before the young lady, looking at a nearby clock and realising she is already late, rushes out of her apartment.

We cut to loudspeakers informing the local residents of the curfew that is now in effect and "for your protection" before quickly cutting between the footsteps of both the young lady and V as they make their way through these same streets. The young lady, fearing to walk straight ahead instead cuts through a nearby alleyway however she walks straight into the arms of a waiting "Fingerman" or a member of the Government's Secret Police. Quickly the young lady is surrounded on all sides by two further Fingermen and fearing for her life produces a small can of mace or pepper spray. The odious Fingermen threaten her with sexual violence if she doesn't acquiesce to their needs and she is quickly overwhelmed and can only cry out for help. Enter our hero! He dispenses quick, swift and severe justice to the Fingermen with the young lady cowering in a corner and while still brandishing the mace/pepper spray asks who he is. V, forever with a flair for the dramatic, answers thus:

"Voila! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a bygone vexation stands vilified and vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition! The only verdict is vengeance, a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it's my very good honour to meet you and you may call me "V".

Dumbfounded, the young lady can only nervously ask "Are you a crazy person?" to which V laughs and responds that "they" will certainly think so. However, he has a question of his own, who is this beautiful young lady that he's rescued? "Evey" (Natalie Portman) is the frightened reply to which V simply says "E V...of course you are". V doesn't believe in coincidence and is convinced they were destined to meet on this evening and assuring Evey that he means her no harm he would like to invite his new companion to a very special musical performance and albeit reluctantly, Evey finally agrees.

We cut to a brightly lit London sky with V and Evey admiring the view from a rooftop opposite The Old Bailey, however she remains sceptical about any musical performance and notes that V doesn't have any instruments. V then swiftly produces a conductors baton from beneath his dark cloak and dedicates the impending concerto to "Madam Justice, in honour of the holiday she seems to have taken in these parts". As Big Ben chimes signalling midnight and the first seconds of November 5th are upon us, V begins majestically waving his wand yet there is no music. A quick cut to Evey again portrays her scepticism however slowly, growing louder and louder across the multitude of the Government's oppressive loudspeakers that fill the neighbouring streets come the strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture to the bemusement of both Evey and the residents now roused from their slumbers and filling the streets below. As the overture reaches it's crescendo V strikes at the Old Bailey with his wand and the old lady topples from her perch amid a huge explosion that continues to rip the entire building to pieces and with fireworks surrounding the huge explosion that's engulfing the building, the scene ends with Evey's open mouthed astonishment and fireworks rising into the night sky in a colourful shape of a V.

A quick cut follows and as the breathless opening thirteen minutes reaches it's conclusion we are greeted with an extreme close up of "High Chancellor Adam Sutler" (John Hurt) dispensing orders via the telescreen to his dark suited Government Investigators namely "Finch" (Stephen Rea), "Creedy" (Tim Pigott-Smith), "Dominic" (Rupert Graves), "Dascomb" (Ben Miles) and "Etheridge" (Eddie Marsan). His orders are simple: find the culprits, add the 1812 Overture to the "Blacklist" (Memory Hole anyone?) and for Protheroe to spin the explosion of the Old Bailey into a controlled demolition. He simply won't tolerate chaos returning to the streets of London, the "terrorist" must be caught and, as always "England Prevails".

Although constantly masked, Hugo Weaving (or Agent Smith from The Matrix trilogy if you prefer) is superb as the loquacious, elegant and indeed eloquent V and finds a partner in crime with Evey whom Natalie Portman enthuses every last sinew into a boisterous, never giving up young lady her parents would be proud of. Stephen Rea is superb as the meticulous Government Investigator Finch whom it's clear from the outset is anything but a compliant officer of the Government and going against the grain, a truth seeker above all. But of the roles not already noted it is to Stephen Fry we turn for the darkly comedic twists needed in this dystopian tale as TV Host "Dietrich". Dietrich has his own agenda to rail against both the overbearing TV Network for whom he works and the Government to whom he opposes, however it's the comedy and warmth that shines through in his performance and this is perfectly encapsulated in his Benny Hill style TV mock up of the current Governmental regime that flies in the face of everyone concerned. It lightens an otherwise very dark (in every sense) film and his lament of "You wear a mask for so long you forget who you were beneath it" perfectly summarises a truly wonderful, if disturbing film.

Written as a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd in 1982 and adapted for the screen by The Wachowski's, this debut feature from James McTeigue immediately entered the public consciousness and Zeitgeist after it's release in 2005 and nine years later it still retains it's power to shock and shine a pertinent light on the events of today. The Guy Fawkes mask worn throughout the film by V has now become synonymous the world over with it's adoption by anti Government and anti Globalisation groups such as Anonymous, the multitude of Occupy groups and the ever growing "99%" groups as a marker (and no doubt in due deference to) the film's stance against oppressive and Fascistic Governments in collusion with Big Business coupled with the mass surveillance society we all now live under. The film references, and takes inspiration from, a great number of sources and none more so than George Orwell's eponymous novel "1984" with eerie parallels to today's surveillance and CCTV spying society through to a single Dictator barking out orders via a "telescreen" to an apathetic populace. The dictatorial Government here has a slogan of "Strength through Unity. Unity through Faith" which is another eerie parallel to 1984's odious "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength". There are obvious and distasteful parallels to the German Nazi Party and their expulsion of immigrants and homosexuals as well as the Adam Sutler character that as the film here continues, is seen in an ever increasing dictatorial role. Today's fear based television news is mirrored by the British Television Network and their spinning of viruses, plagues and pandemics and Protheroe's horrific rants wouldn't look out of place on Fox News. The Gunpowder Plot, Phantom of the Opera and The Count of Monte Cristo are also key influences throughout.

V for Vendetta struck an immediate chord with me in 2005 and this has only heightened as the years have rolled on since it's release. Yes it strikes me as a highly prescient film reflecting the times in which we live, but also as an incredible achievement for a first time Director. Subversive, outspoken and a clarion call to arms? Maybe. Or if you watch Fox News long enough, just another damn immigrant terrorist on the loose! V for Vendetta is a towering achievement for Director McTeigue and a cinematic debut to be justly proud of.


Ninja Assassin (2009)

"It is a demon sent straight from hell"

"It" is "Raizo" (Rain) a Ninja Assassin from the Ozunu clan who hides in the shadows before exacting his brutal and extremely bloody revenge. Raised from childhood by "Lord Ozunu" (Sho Kosugi) amongst many similarly orphaned children Raizo becomes the most feared ninja assassin as the clan wreck revenge on Yakuza gangs as they follow an ancient tale of money and revenge as they secure "100 Pounds of Gold". Despite the ninja, yakuza and martial arts tale the film is primarily based in Berlin as Europol are tracking the huge sums of money changing hands via wire transfer. "Mika" (Naomie Harris) is the lead investigator who quickly persuades her Boss "Maslow" (Ben Miles) that her thorough investigations lead to the ninja gang of assassins, however with the vast sums of money involved and with internal affairs also tracking the movements of their investigators the film quickly unravels into a more clandestine and personal investigation of everyone involved.

Written by Matthew Sand and J Michael Straczynski and produced by a whole host of nominal producers including Joel Silver and The Wachowski's, Ninja Assassin is a mighty fine achievement as a blood soaked revenge thriller however the film still falls flat and underwhelms on the whole. As well as the brutal and bloody violence (of which there is a voluminous amount and starts from the very outset of the film) there are hints at a longed for and perhaps needed romance for Raizo and "Kiriko" (Anna Sawai) who desperately tries to tempt him with "life" away from the arduous and oppressive training of their teenage years inside the Ozunu compound but this and any further romantic narratives fall as flat as the occasional comedic gags that seem to increase as the film gathers momentum towards its denouement. The comedy jars against the full on violence that envelops the film and rather than providing any light relief just stands out to be mocked. There is however one exception to the rule with Raizo described as though he "looks like he belongs in a boy band" but along with brother "Takeshi" (Rick Yune) they certainly both belong as lethal assassins rather than behind a microphone as their fighting skills are breathtaking at times. Which after the negative aspects of the film bring us neatly to the positives. The battle sequences are indeed breathtaking as well as masterful, skillful and brilliantly executed (pun intended!). As you would imagine from a school of ninja assassins there are very few one on one sequences (but where there are they are particularly crucial to the narrative) however the film is bathed in full on multiple ninja assassins battling for their lives and for overall supremacy, with the screen often a blur of instruments of death from numerous sources and from every possible camera angle imaginable. Of these innumerable fight sequences, the constant training scenes but especially the rooftop scene amid the thunder and lightening stands out and every praise possible is due to both the two Editors (Gian Ganziano and Joseph Jett Sally) and Director of Photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub. The aforementioned rooftop scene is a true highlight of the film as is Director McTeigue's use of flashbacks to establish the painstaking training undertaken by Raizo and which often breaks away from the present day narrative but which always returns to our main protagonist. The extreme close ups and wonderful slow motion sequences are also expertly executed with a clear nod or two to The Matrix.

Ninja Assassin is not a particular favourite of mine and perhaps a strange choice of follow up film to the critically acclaimed V for Vendetta. However, for fans of the genre it's well framed, executed and edited brilliantly but as a story it left me feeling more than a little underwhelmed. Anyway, talking of strange follow up films.......

The Raven (2012)

"On October 7th 1849, Edger Allen Poe was found, near death, on a park bench in Baltimore, Maryland. The last days of his life remain a mystery"

James McTeigue's follow up to a bloodthirsty tale of ninja assassins was a further eclectic choice as he embarked on a fictionalised telling of the last days of Edgar Allen Poe, a 19th Century American writer, poet and literary critic. Although heavily panned by 21st Century film critics on release in 2012 for it's historical inaccuracies (amongst many other criticisms) I rather enjoyed this on first viewing and re-watching for the purpose of this blog my initial enjoyment and appreciation of a fine film has not diminished one iota. Far from perfect, it is though a good film with much to admire with an engaging narrative and some wonderful central performances and a career high portrayal from John Cusack as the somewhat alcoholic, angry and railing against the perceived wisdom of the day "Edgar Allen Poe". Poe is dismissive of the "philistines" that surround and haunt his every move, from the general populace of the bars he inhabits to the newspaper editors and publishers on whom he depends for the circulation of his literary works. In the midst of writers block and searching for inspiration a frustrated Poe exclaims "I am Edgar Allen Poe - ring any bells?" however his local audience in Maryland, Baltimore are all growing weary of his exclamations and tired of his rantings and drunken tirades. All except one, his muse and love "Emily Hamilton" (Alice Eve) who despite Poe's growing depression is deeply in love with the frustrated and eccentric writer and they soon plan to marry.

John Cusack (Eight Men Out, Grosse Point Blank, Being John Malkovich) returns to stellar form here as the penniless and frustrated Poe with an intensity of performance not seen for many years. He infuses a difficult character with a lilting and operatic style of delivery as well as embracing his frustrations with both full on bombast as well as more nuanced touches and glances. Alice Eve too is superb as his would be love Emily however their union is violently opposed by her Father "Captain Charles Hamilton", with Brendan Gleeson also on stellar form as we've now come to expect. Smaller supporting roles are ably filled by Kevin McNally as the put upon newspaper editor "Henry Maddux", Sam Hazeldine is superb as newspaper typesetter "Ivan" and Pam Ferris cameos as "Mrs Bradley" however sharing star billing with John Cusack in The Raven is Luke Evans as "Detective Fields". From the outset the story written by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingstone is a fairly simple one: A serial killer is using the writings of Edgar Allen Poe for inspiration for their grisly and bloody murders and leaving obvious clues as to their inspiration. Whilst Poe is obviously innocent of any such involvement and feels as "trapped as any of the hapless bastards I ever created" he is quickly utilised to provide any assistance he can in circumventing and preventing any further murders committed in his name. As such the joint scenes between the beleaguered writer and the detective are crucial and critically, well played by both Cusack and Evans with Cusack continuing to enthuse Poe with a critical eye and a renewed enthusiasm for his writings and Evans is arguably the star performer as the meticulous and driven detective piecing together the clues as they hunt the shadowy serial killer.

As I alluded to earlier, far from being a great film The Raven is a much better cinematic treat than some sniffy critics would have you believe. Aside from the wonderful central performances from John Cusack, Brendan Gleeson and particularly Luke Evans there is much to admire in this adventurous take on the final days of Edgar Allen Poe and Director McTeigue blends numerous oblique angled shots, overhead shots and employs a hugely effective rolling and spinning camera throughout his engaging narrative tale. The colour palette used is also a blend of rustic sepia as well as a slightly dimmed colour variation which Director of Photography Danny Ruhlmann uses well before coming into his own in the often dimly lit nighttime scenes clouded by an ever present mist shrouding the city. The tunnels and catacombs scenes are excellently evocative of the age, lit only by lamplight as it enhances the already building tension of the pursuit of the still at large serial killer and there are numerous further scenes of note that impress, mostly involving Poe and Detective Fields as they track the killer and try desperately to sense and calculate his next move. Whilst I dislike the cliche' The Raven sees a true return to form for John Cusack and a worthy and intriguing two hours of your time.

"Take this kiss upon the brow!
and, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream,
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream"

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