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'Matrix' Moviemakers Have Hit With 'V'

'Matrix' Moviemakers Have Hit With 'V' | Oscar Publicity Ignores Judi Dench | Billy Joel Pays for His Car Insurance | Fagen Does It Again

'Matrix' Moviemakers Have Hit With 'V'

“V” is for very good, a little “violent” and very much like “Batman.”

That’s James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta.” Or should I say the Wachowski brothers’ “V for Vendetta.”

I don’t care what they say: there’s no way that first-time filmmaker McTeigue made “Vendetta” on his own. It’s simply too good, too well done, too complete a vision.

Even though McTeigue downplayed it last night at a Q&A session, the fact is that Matrix filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski not only wrote and produced “V,” but they are the nominal directors. It’s got their fingerprints all over it.

This isn’t to discount McTeigue’s participation. He was the second unit director on all the “Matrix” films and on one of the “Star Wars” sequels. Listening to him last night, he’s obviously a smart man. But “V” is just too complex. Let’s just say he had around-the-clock and up-the-wazoo assistance from the strange Wachowskis.

We all know just how strange they are: by now the world is well-versed in brother Larry’s bid to be a transgender, and about his relationship with a dominatrix. It’s “Transamerica” for real, except instead of Felicity Huffman playing the part, it’s the man who helped think up “The Matrix.”

“V for Vendetta” is based on a graphic novel, but as the movie turns out, its themes are all about acceptance and not conforming to society’s pressures. It doesn’t take a Hollywood shrink to see why the Wachowskis would be interested in this material.

Luckily, they’ve made a visually stunning, well-cast, action-packed and sensationally crafted film from the original work. A combination of “Batman” and “1984,” “Vendetta” should have a clear field for a hit on opening day, March 17.

But here’s a warning: there’s still some concern about the main plot point: the blowing up of Parliament by placing explosives on a subway train running below the British houses of government. This movie was supposed to be released last fall, but had to be postponed after the London subway explosions. Though this is a movie based on 25-year-old story, “V” still pushes a few uncomfortable post-9/11 buttons.

It also doesn’t completely make sense, but I’ll leave that problem to those familiar with the graphic novel.

The story in a nutshell: set a few years in the future, the world seems to have been taken over by fascist leaders. In Britain, a masked, impassioned and dissident madman who resembles The Joker has identified with Guy Fawkes, the historical figure who attempted to blow up Parliament with about a dozen others on Nov. 5, 1605.

Fawkes and his friends were low-level terrorists, attempting to show their unhappiness with Protestant rule. The plot was foiled, but King James — who escaped being murdered — decreed November 5 Guy Fawkes Day.

Hugo Weaving, wearing the Joker-esque mask, is splendid as the cape-wearing, Fawkes-emulating “V.” He’s joined by Natalie Portman (resembling Sinead O'Connor with a shaved head and sporting an inconsistent English accent) and a bunch of very good players from Britain and Ireland: Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Sinead Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith and Rupert Graves (who should be in more American films).

There are a lot of good stories about the making of “V,” including the one about Weaving replacing actor James Purefoy after shooting had begun (the Wachowskis preferred Weaving’s voice).

Then there’s the whole thing with Alan Moore, who wrote the graphic novel but had his name taken off of the movie. Illustrator David Lloyd left his name on the credits, which seems right. Why Moore didn’t want a “based on” credit beats me. After all, a lot of his dialogue survived. I think he’ll regret that move.

So it’s six months late, but “V for Vendetta” looks solid, especially at a time when the box office is dull and this year’s Oscar movies are well over and done with. And for once, it’s a film based on a DC Comic, not a Marvel one.

Oscar Publicity Ignores Judi Dench

I think it’s kind of disgraceful and rude that People magazine has ignored Dame Judi Dench in its current Oscar fashion feature. Every one of the other Oscar nominees is presented in their various designer outfits, but Dench is omitted — much the way talk shows didn’t want her this season because she was considered “too old.”

First of all, not one of the 19 other actors nominated in Oscar categories this year holds a candle to Dench. A winner, thank you, for “Shakespeare in Love,” she has also been nominated for her work in “Iris,” “Mrs. Brown” and “Chocolat.” She won the Tony for “Amy’s View,” and has a raft of theater awards in Great Britain, where she is one of perhaps three actresses (Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave being the others) who can open a play in the West End on name alone.

Maybe people think of Dench as a stuffy “thee-aytah” actress. What a shame that they haven’t allowed themselves to know a charming, funny and bawdy gal who knows more good stories than most actors will forget. She is famous for her post-show dressing room soirees in the West End, where champagne is regularly popped and all kinds of people pop in.

I shouldn’t give away how accessible Dench is a person. Her note-perfect acting makes it seem impossible. Certainly she must be living in a glass case most of the time!

And the fact is, the Academy loves Judi Dench. Every voting member mentions her performance in “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” even if they find the movie slightly thin. Wouldn’t it be a rude awakening if she upset the apple cart and won next Sunday? Then People and the talk shows would be forced to acknowledge her.

Billy Joel Pays for His Car Insurance

Back in the real world: Saturday night.

Billy Joel played his seventh in a series of shows at Madison Square Garden that will take him through April. He joked that he needed the money “to pay his car insurance,” a reference to his many infamous car wrecks on Long Island, several the result of being impaired.

No matter — Billy Joel circa 2006 never looked or sounded healthier.

Howard Stern and girlfriend Beth Ostrosky sat in the VIP area, as did Billy’s young wife, Katie Lee, and his slightly younger musician daughter Alexa, who brought two school friends.

They were lucky to get seats. Believe it or not, on the seventh night, Billy’s show was completely sold out. The Garden had that bursting to the top feel, and because Billy’s stage set allows it, there were no “obstructed view” seats — everything was taken.

And it was a rowdy crowd of mostly middle-aged people who danced and sang along to the music through every single song.

It was kind of surreal — and very moving — at the end, when 15,000 voices in unison knew every word of “Piano Man.” I realized that it was exactly 30 years ago that I saw Joel play the tiny Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. He opened with “Angry Young Man,” just as he did on Saturday, only just a handful of people were there then and no one knew if he was going to make it through a third album. “Turnstiles” was just out, and Billy — despite a hit with “Piano Man” in 1974 —looked like he might be relegated to cult status only.

Of course, two years later we would see “The Stranger” and the hit “Just the Way You Are.” The rest is history. But for those of us who loved “Turnstiles,” Saturday night’s show had a lot of meaning. Billy, with his driving accidents and rehab for alcoholism, is a survivor. He’s never been mean to anyone; in fact, he’s been a victim a number of times for his largesse, ripped off by former managers, lawyers and in-laws. He still comes off like a local hero, like the neighbor who’s made it. It’s quite touching.

And he really loves the music and the audience. At 54, he’s a whirlwind on stage. He plays the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and sings his brains out — as Regis Philbin might say — with a voice that has not lost a beat.

Where Bruce Springsteen’s music is more steeped in R&B, Billy Joel’s songs are popular because they recall Doo-Wop, Tin Pan Alley jazz and Broadway. They are much more Leiber and Stoller than they are Motown or Stax. The '50s influence is all over his songs, and it’s kind of interesting, since Joel was only born in 1949. He must have been like a sponge, sitting by the radio, to have absorbed an entire oeuvre so quickly.

The songs tell stories that reflect a commonality of the audience; everyone can identify with them. Listening to the sagas of Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the narrator from the terrific gospel-like “River of Dreams,” or Mr. Cacciatore down on Sullivan Street in “Moving Out” for the umpteenth time, you come to realize this era is completely over.

No one is writing music like this anymore, and there is very little to identify with for the pop audience. That’s why 15,000 people are filling the Garden for every night of Billy Joel’s record-setting run, many of them standing in the audience and belting out the songs with no inhibitions, arms outstretched, like they were in their favorite bar or the chorus of a Broadway show. He’s their friend, and they can’t get enough of him.

He can also play a grand piano with his butt and his feet, but that’s another story altogether!

Fagen Does It Again

Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame) gives us his third solo album, “Morph the Cat,” on March 14. Full of sophisticated jazz and Fagen’s quirky lyrics, “Morph” is the last part of a trilogy. The good news is that Fagen will do a short tour this spring before Steely Dan goes out on the road again.

I can’t wait to hear “What I Do,” Fagen’s best single since “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” If there are any live people left in radio, maybe they’ll even play it. I know — sorry! — nothing on “Morph” is sampled! It’s all original! How quaint!...

Also to come: tomorrow brings Elvis Costello’s “My Flame Burns Blue,” a live recording of jazz-ified versions of some of his hits. I’ve been enjoying his “Watching the Detectives” re-imagined as if by Neal Hefti. Cool, man…

And on March 7, Van Morrison’s first country disc. Like Judi Dench, Billy Joel, Donald Fagen, and Elvis Costello, Van the Man is always spot-on.