Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 at the Movies: Veronica Mars

First things first: I happily contributed to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign last year. I kicked in fifty bucks.

I supported the Veronica Mars movie project mainly because I believe that the canceled TV series is a work of art that carries tremendous value -- and currency -- in our society.  This value and currency arises on three very specific fronts. 

The first front is one that involves gender. Veronica Mars revolves around a smart, resourceful, decent female protagonist.

Importantly, Veronica is not a princess, and she doesn’t own a pony. 

She isn’t rich or powerful.

And yet despite these facts, Veronica successfully makes her way in the world on the very virtues I mentioned above, namely smarts.

I believe this is a message that can’t be transmitted widely enough to young people, and especially women in our society today, who are asked by the pop culture to look-up to the Kardashians as role models. There is significant cultural pressure on American women to be stupid and vain, and to judge themselves by their bodies, their clothes, and the bank accounts of the men they marry.

This is not to say that boys don’t have it tough growing up too, but let’s be real: girls have it worse.

And boys have many more heroes in the pop culture to choose from.


They need many more heroes like clever, caustic, cunning Veronica Mars.

The second front that makes Veronica Mars so worthwhile is its crisp, trenchant commentary on the haves and the have-nots. The TV series and film take place in the (fictional) town of Neptune, CA.

 “When the class war comes,” Veronica notes in the movie, “Neptune will be ground zero.” 

This is so because Neptune boasts no middle class, only the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor.

And the ultra-rich control everything. 

Law and order in this town -- justice itself --  remains the purview of the “highest bidder,” and again, this conceit carries tremendous relevance in today’s culture, where certain parties relentlessly push to privatize everything.  It seems that anything for the public -- whether it be schools or the police force -- is deemed “an entitlement” or a “hand-out.”

But the fair application of justice is not an entitlement. It is not a hand-out. It’s something for all Americans, regardless of color, creed, sex, or class.  Veronica Mars sharply and caustically notes, however, that this isn’t always the case in practice.

The third aspect of Veronica Mars that I admire is one involving its specific genre. The TV series vigorously updates the detective/mystery genre, taking into account and revolving around new technology.  Veronica Mars is a private detective extraordinaire, but she operates in the age of I-Phones, social networks, “Google Alerts” and the like. 

In other words, Veronica Mars knowingly updates the film noir genre format, replete with femme fatales, private dicks, labyrinthine mysteries, laconic voice-over narration and other familiar staples of the genre.

But all these “old” ideas get a new coat of paint, and thus new relevance in the Web 2.0 Era. Amazingly, all the sturdy old tropes seem brand new and relevant again with this infusion of the modern.

I once wrote that “Veronica is the Sam Spade for the Wikipedia generation,” and I think that description still works.

So for me, the Veronica Mars (2014) movie could succeed completely only if it addressed itself to all three aspects of the franchise which I’ve tagged above.

To my delight and satisfaction, the feature film continuation nails all three facets of the established mythos. 

And on top of all that, it’s funny as hell too.

Almost a decade ago, Veronica Mars (Kirsten Bell) left behind Neptune, California -- and the private eye biz -- and never looked back.

After leaving Hearst College, she transferred to Stanford, and then Columbia Law School.  Now, Veronica is in the process of applying to high-powered New York law firms like Truman-Mann.

But news that pop-star Bonnie DeVille, late of Neptune, has been murdered draws Veronica back to the life she left behind. She knew Bonnie as high school classmate, Carrie Bishop.

Worse, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) -- Veronica’s old on-again/off-again boyfriend -- is the prime suspect in Bonnie’s murder. He was dating her, and was discovered by the police at the scene of the crime.

When Logan calls Veronica for help with his legal woes, she flies back to Neptune to assist. Her trip also coincides with her ten year high school reunion, an event where Veronica catches up with old friends, and renews old rivalries. 

Seeing Logan again also makes Veronica question her stable relationship with current boyfriend, “Piz” (Chris Lowell).

As Veronica uncovers evidence of Logan’s innocence, she also develops an alternate theory about Bonnie’s murder, a theory that involves the death at sea of another Neptune high student, Susan Knight, nine years ago. 

Instead of returning to New York and starting her new job, Veronica becomes veritably obsessed with Logan’s case, causing her P.I. father (Enrico Colantoni) to worry that she is throwing her future away….

Veronica Mars is a faithful, funny big-screen rendering of the very aesthetic that many fans fell in love with nine years ago.  The writing is relentlessly sharp, and the observations about celebrity culture are wicked, mostly because James Franco plays along gamely in an extended cameo appearance.

The movie is, perhaps, a little less sanguine about the characters than the old show was, but that’s to be expected.  The series left Veronica during her first year in college. The movie picks up approximately a decade later, and so Veronica has more of a past to contend this time around.

But again, that’s the point. As Chinatown’s (1974) Jack Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would no doubt remind us at this juncture, the past “never goes away.”

That’s the lesson Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) learns in the film, and one that she accepts in a way she never quite did in the television series.  In some sense the character has always dreamed about escaping from Neptune. And though Veronica likens returning to that town (and her sleuthing ways…) to a drug addiction in the movie, it’s apparent that’s not the case.

The people of Neptune, other than the super-wealthy 09-ers, anyway, need her help. And unless I’m mistaken, this is the first installment of Veronica Mars in which she has acknowledged that she fits a need in Neptune.

It’s not just the place where she belongs; it’s the battlefield of the fight she wants to wage.

It’s very intriguing how the “past” plays into the movie’s murder narrative in a lot of crucial ways. The inescapable past is, after all, an obsession of film noir, going way back.

Logan has basically made good on his life in the last decade, moving some distance from the unstable, violent guy we last met.

But this celebrity murder case threatens to bring his volatile old life right back to him. One prospective lawyer in the film lays out a conceivable defense for him, and it all involves celebrity and fame…a “legacy” (from his troubled parents…) that Logan has tried hard to leave behind. But the past never dies, and he never quite escapes it.

Even Mac (Tina Majorino) -- Q to Veronica’s Bond -- has evolved and changed, and made compromises. Everyone assumed the brilliant “geek” would write her own ticket for millions, but the film finds that she has accepted a job with the corrupt establishment, at Kane Software.

In Veronica Mars-speak, Kane Software is nothing less than the devil, and another signifier of the past.  I suspect a sequel could involve Mac and her job at the company.

Former PCH-er Weevil (Francis Capra Jr.) also must reckon with his past in the film as well and, I’m sorry to report, his past gets the better of him. When he falls back into old (criminal) patterns, he does so because he feels powerless, not because he feels emboldened, like Veronica does.

In terms of the film’s approach to gender, Veronica Mars makes no bones and no apologies about the decisions Veronica forges either in her professional or personal life. She isn’t waltzing to any tune other than her own…and I love that.

In terms of her profession, Veronica can get rich at a firm called Truman-Mann (True Man, Man, essentially), or remain loyal to who she really is, and work for justice in Neptune.

Ultimately, Veronica gives up the life that the male patriarchy -- represented by that very male-sounding law-firm -- promises her, and goes her own way instead. 

It’s a way that does not involve wealth or power beyond measure.  It’s a way that will involve lots of struggle.

Veronica chooses to be her own person anyway.

In one of the film’s best and most honest scenes, Veronica must also make a final choice between Piz and Logan. Someone is going to get hurt no matter whom she selects to date.

Like many of us would, Veronica stalls and delays the decision as long as possible, and then is faced with it head-on, and makes the best one she can.  The emotions in this scene are surprisingly real, and I appreciate that the movie didn’t candy-coat it, or make the wounded party all friendly and accepting.

Sometimes life just hurts.

And again, in her personal life, Veronica does not take the proscribed route, the route of “security” and “stability,” and “expectations.”

Instead, she follows her heart. We see heroes like Captain Kirk or Mal Reynolds or Batman do this kind of thing all the time in movies, but so often in Hollywood women are expected to take the route that leads them to security and wealth, not necessarily self-knowledge or self-fulfillment.

In terms of Veronica Mars’ approach to class-warfare, the movie moves dynamically into the age of “stop-and-frisk.” The local police establishment is corrupt, and is actively seeking to weed-out any element it considers undesirable, guilty or not.  The goal is to make Neptune a community where only the rich and the famous can live, and everyone else -- the worker class -- will have to be bussed in.

It’s the end of the American Dream as we know it. Those who have made (with help from others) it will not offer a helping hand to those who are still trying.

Veronica’s dad is aware of the corruption and conspiracy, and the movie treads into some sinister material without really resolving it. Again, that’s what a sequel is for, I suppose. But Veronica Mars works because we note again the racial and class injustice in Neptune and Veronica is the one who fights it.

Finally, the Veronica Mars movie involves a very contemporary-style mystery (about celebrity culture), harnessing every Web 2.0 Age device or program it can reasonably work in.  We get talk of “Google alerts,” “memory sticks,” “in-boxes,” “sex tapes,” and tablets programmed with the capacity to spy on their owners.

In every sense, the film’s central mystery involves (not unlike the first V/H/S), the way that this modern technology doesn’t connect us, but rather transforms us into voyeurs.  By the same token, Veronica’s use of technology to capture criminals provides the yang to that yin.

It seems that no movie review of Veronica Mars can fail to use the term “fan service,” meaning that the film offers multiple and direct appeals to the hardcore faithful. Uniquely, these two words have rarely appeared in reviews of Star Trek films, or in other properties based upon TV programs. Not many folks seem to be complaining about fan service in the Marvel-based movies.

In truth, this term is code for critical disapproval over the way the film was funded, by Kickstarter, by crowd sourcing. Like Veronica herself, the movie's genesis is unconventional and independent. 

Somehow, folks in the establishment don’t consider that kind of democracy valid, and so noting "fan service" is a way to diminish the film. It's derogatory, to be certain.

How very 09’er…

In point of fact, you don’t really need to know a whole lot about the past of Veronica Mars to enjoy the movie. 

For one thing, there’s an opening montage that goes into a lot of it, certainly enough to understand the film's central narrative. 

For another, the story is entertaining and self-contained, with a delineated opening, middle and end. I mean, the movie is about a girl who used to be a private detective returning to that vocation to solve a mystery. How complicated is that?

I'm guessing that “fan service” is the act of featuring actors in their original roles -- down to the smallest parts -- nine years later, as opposed to re-booting the property with new ones.

So if Veronica Mars is “fan service,” I’d like more fan service, please, and soon. It should become the industry standard.

As you may recall, the theme song to the old Veronica Mars series featured the lyrics, “a long time ago, we used to be friends.” 

Well, with a faithful, funny, and fresh new movie at your back, Veronica, please consider the friendship renewed…

Nice to have you back. 

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