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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Must Download: Weeds (2005)

I don't normally review TV shows, but as the countdown begins to a new season of "Weeds" (and to the DVD release of the first season) I felt it necessary to voice my opinion about the show.

"Weeds" is a sitcom about dealing drugs in the suburbs. Okay, so some shows try a little too hard to shock in order to gain an audience ("Starved," and later seasons of "Nip/Tuck" come to mind). "Weeds" doesn't fall in that category. Rather, it is a thoughtful and above all well rounded depiction of life in the suburbs--and the many complicated economic and sociocultural aspects of building a drug pyramid.

The show stars Mary-Louise Parker (The West Wing, Fried Green Tomatoes) as Nancy Botwin, a widowed mother of two who is barely able to make ends meet after the very unexpected death of her young husband, Judah. Although I'm sure Nancy could have figured out some legal way to pay the bills, the one she chooses is pot dealing.

We meet the requisite colorful array of supporting characters: Nancy's CPA (Kevin Nealon) who is also her biggest customer; Celia (Elizabeth Perkins) as her uptight, miserable friend; Andy (Justin Kirk) her dead husband's screw-up brother; her kids, 16-year-old Silas (Hunter Parrish) and 11-year-old Shane (Alexander Gould); her dealers, Heylia James (Tonye Patano) and her nephew Conrad (Romany Malco of the 40-year-old Virgin). No matter how much the viewer might disagree with the morality of the script, it's hard to argue that the acting and dialogue are anything short of brilliant. Elizabeth Perkins has never been better. Her character could have been totally played over the top and made into a two-dimensional caricature of a WASPy housewife. Instead, Perkins makes her into a real person, with lovable and hatable qualities (mostly hatable, but she has her moments). Kevin Nealon is funny. Very funny. He was born to play his inexplicably successful professional pothead character. Mary-Louise Parker (who beat out ALL of the Desperate Housewives for best actress at the Golden Globes) is about as real as you get in her character. "Weeds" manipulates us into empathizing with Nancy--then it makes us question this empathy. The show would not work without her compelling performance. The best lines are given to Heylia, who fire them like a high-powered assault rifle.

Okay, so the first episode kind of pissed me off. I was upset that the writers tried to set up Nancy as a totally sympathetic character, making her a widow, playing up that she "isn't hurting anyone," when she is, in fact, dealing drugs in a town full of innocent kids. Let's face it, as harmless as pot is, drug dealing is not cool. As I continued to watch the show, however, I realized that we the audience are intended to question Nancy's behavior, just as Nancy often questions herself. She behaves like a real person, and her customers behave like real potheads, and that kind of realism is incredibly hard to produce and squeeze in a 23-minute show. Stick with it. Watch them all before you decide. The first one had me doubting, the second one had me only moderately interested--but by the final episode I was totally engrossed in what was going to happen next. The best episodes, in my opinion, are "Lude Awakening," "Good Shit Lollipop," and the series finale, "The Godmother."

The term "sitcom" is applied to "Weeds" because of it's humorous content and 30-minute format. However, it breaks the sitcom rule that the audience must laugh once every thirty seconds--and it is blissfully free of a laughtrack.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

V for Vendetta (and Vexing)

ATTN: Alan Moore

We, the United States of America, apologize. We apologize for The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. We Apologize for From Hell (which could have been SO cool, DAMN you Heather Graham!). And we apologize for V for Vendetta, although to a lesser extent. V has a lot more going for it as a film, but it still doesn't quite live up to its source. V for Vendetta is a movie of ideas, but few of those ideas are fully formed.

The film plays as a lighter, swashbuckling version of George Orwell’s 1984. Instead of Tyrone Power, however, we have Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings) as V, the masked terrorist hell bent on bringing down future England’s totalitarian regime. He is assisted by Evie (Natalie Portman), a young woman who gets dragged into the world of political radicalism after simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are being followed by Eric Finch, a police inspector (Stephen Rea) who answers to the giant televised head of Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). The biggest joy in this film is the performance of Stephen Fry as Dietrich, a talk show host who believes a little too strongly in the subversive powers of television.

The original "V for Vendetta" stories published in England by Warrior during the Thatcher administration and later in America by DC Comics, were created by Alan Moore (writer) and David Lloyd (artist) as a criticism of England’s Conservative Party.
Adapting the comics for the screen, writers Larry and Andy Wachowski (of Matrix fame) ask viewers to make connections between this future England and America under Bush. The script includes references to avian flu, secret "detention facilities" and political "rendition," a word rarely heard in that context before its recent association with the CIA practice of transporting terror suspects to countries that allow torture. To add to all of these details, we see that the torture victims in the film have black bags placed over their heads, ala Abu Ghraib.

The film remains somewhat faithful to its original source material, but only in the most superficial ways. The screenplay incorporates original dialogue with grace and panache. The sets, costumes and photography of the film are the most impressive and faithful part. V’s Shadow Gallery is almost identical to Lloyd's illustration, right down to his disco ball. McTeague manages to translate Moore’s “Valerie,” chapter well to the screen, depicting the moving story of a gay woman persecuted and killed by the government. In a film filled with forced and hollow pathos, this segment is probably the most affecting.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers miss the mark when it comes to the underlying themes of Moore’s work. The audience is force-fed the idea that V’s movement is right, rather than being allowed to decide for themselves. It is the moral ambiguity of V’s acts that make the story so interesting. The central theme of the series is the rationalization of carnage in the name of a higher purpose. The government’s higher purpose is to maintain stability; V’s higher purpose is to gain freedom.

One of the problems with adapting a work for the screen is that you often either have to change nothing or change everything. V for Vendetta changes enough to make its narrative suffer and its plot appear flimsy. For example, the comic had Inspector Finch dropping acid to reach his revelations; in the film, he simply has "feelings," that "tell him where to look." All in all, I was disappointed by Finch’s lack of development in the film. He is an interesting character and deserves better than a few throwaway lines. The focus is, instead, on Evie, who is intended to become the next anarchist in a long line of anarchists. Too bad she's too busy losing her battle with the English accent to wage war on anything else. The film takes a serious wrong turn in trying to implant a love story. When Evie grabs V while standing next to a subway car full of fertilizer and plastic explosives and says, “V, it’s not too late, we could run away together,” I just about wet myself with laughter. Her love for the idea of V might be understandable, but her love for V himself is unsupported by the rest of the film. It makes no sense, it stands out, it cheapens the whole thing.

V for Vendetta has some amazing photography of London and some truly spectacular explosions. That said, it is sorely lacking on the fight scenes. I love a good Matrix-style bullet-time hand-to-hand scene as much as the next lady, but V features such choppy and poorly photographed fight scenes that I was left wondering if I was missing something.

The movie is not so much about terrorism as it is about anarchy and revolution. However, as the French discovered in the 18th century, where does revolution end and terrorism begin? Rather than respecting its audience enough to leave us with that open-ended question, it simply tells us what we’re supposed to think. It’s enough to make you wonder who Big Brother really is.

Trivia: James Purefoy, who plays Guy Fawkes in the beginning of the film was the original casting choice for V. He left after 6 weeks of filming (no one will disclose why) but the filmmakers left the sequence as it was.

The amount of money I'd pay to see this: $5