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Serenity Starring: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Director and screenwriter: Josh Whedon
I went to see Serenity this weekend. And I liked it, it was a fun movie with some interesting plot twists and turns and some really good special effects. The whole thing was very intelligent and well thought-out.

Except for the title.

Honestly, when the word “Serenity” appeared on the marquee of the local theatre, my first thought (and I can’t be alone in this) was, Oh, hey, it’s one of those sensitive films about young girls coming of age. I mean, that even sounds like a TV show title, where young women experience laughter, heartbreak, love and friendship all separated by carefully timed commercial breaks. Nothing wrong with that, I hasten to add. Heck, I like a good cry…far more often than I should be admitting in public. But that isn’t here or there. So the fact that it’s a science fiction western may come as a shock to those of you who didn’t dig too deeply. And that’s my main point.

The film is a spin-off of sorts from a failed television series, “Firefly.” Something I never watched, but fans have a passion that will not be dimmed. At the IMDB show times screen, it was quite instructive to see that other films in the theatre I go had a few hundred votes…some had four thousand or so…but only Serenity had over seventeen thousand.

That’s quite a fan base. And that’s quite a fan base for a film that is, let’s face it, preaching to the converted. Who is going to dig deep enough to see what this film is about, and then go to see it? Other than me, I mean. People showing up for a sensitive chick flick are (I hope) going to be warned away from a pretty violent and sometimes gruesome science fiction shoot out. People who are going to look for a science fiction shoot-out are, I guess, watching something else on DVD since they may not be aware of this film. But the "Firefly" fan-base, they’re going to be out en mass.

Which turns out to be not much of a mass. Wouldn’t it have been better to call the film something a bit more a propo? Like, urm, Killer Cannibals from Space? Granted that would have tied into the schlock movie crowd (like me) and wouldn’t have alerted the fans of quality idea films that here was something they might like…but then, the title “Serenity” didn’t do that either. (Spoiler alert: It's the name of the spaceship.) For despite the fact that I went to see it, it dropped off the charts this weekend. Who’s to blame? Well, it’s hard to say. The whole set up is so insular that one imagines the fans of "Firefly," and writer-director Joss Whedon are equally to blame. He made a film for them, and they went to see it. No one else was invited. Oh sure, you might say. All someone had to do was peruse a few message boards or read the synopsis or what-have-you, and you’d know what to expect and be there with bells on.

But that requires WORK. As noted, you've got to go to the trouble to dig up info on the entertainment in question. Why put people to work like that? Why not make it easy for them? Why not try to tell people what you've got on offer?

It might be argued that an arty title is the priviledge of the artist and his right to be true to his vision. And I won't argue the point. But films aren't just art. They're commerce. Someone gave Mr. Whedon almost 40 million dollars to make a movie. Wouldn't it have made sense to have as many folks as possible see the result? So that if it was a huge success, he might make another one?

The second argument is that such actions might delute the cult. It won't be cool and hip, man, if everyone goes to see it. No, no, it is only for the select few. The enlightened ones...and I'm going to stop there before I get too scowly. I don't have much patience with fans who desire that an artist, in whatever field, remain their exclusive property, and if that artist becomes a success he has, therefore, sold out.

The surprising thing was, I was able to pick up on the story and characters with minimum confusion. I may not have had the rich experience a "Firefly" fan might have had, but clearly Mr. Whedon was persuaded that potential newbies had to be brought up to speed. (The exposition was quite cleverly handled.)

So, it may be too late if you missed it and that sounds like something you'd like. If you're a "Firefly" fan, you've probably already seen it. And if you're a "Firefly" fan, perhaps you can answer a question for me. The Reavers in the film are a group of completely psychotic space cannibals. In the film, they appear totally out of control and completely in thrall to their passions, howling and rawring all the while. They seem to be 28 Days Later's "Rage" victims...of the future.

How in the heck are they able to avoid killing each other, let alone organize? How the heck can they fly spaceships?  I guess I would probably know the answer if I watched the TV show.   However, after watching Serenity, which gives a giant chunk of important information regarding the Reavers, I still don’t know.  In fact, it makes even less sense.

 Though I could follow the story easily enough, I did feel throughout the film that I was almost eavesdropping on someone’s private conversation.   And my lack of familiarity with these characters lessened the impact of some of the deaths here.   Had I laughed and loved with these people over the course of a television season, perhaps their passing would have made me sad, but their deaths seemed almost gratuitous.   One in particular just looked like You know, we really need to shake up the fans a bit.  How about now?  Let’s make it really sudden, too.   I guess the message (for the fans) was This is not your father’s Firefly.  

The story concerns a young girl who is a psychic killing machine, being protected by her older brother and the crew of the Serenity.   Sometime while she was being weaponized, some high members of the government happened to be standing around, and she (subconsciously) read their minds.  The thoughts she received, of course, contain knowledge of a vast conspiracy.   The government sends its top man to retrieve the girl at any cost, and the costs quickly become high indeed.

There’s a lot of intelligent stuff in here, from subliminal programming and proper governance and the need to direct society for its own good.  One nice aspect was that neither the Serenity people (and their friends) or the government people was presented as either all-good or all-bad.   Both sides believed in the rightness of their cause and thought they were genuinely doing what was best for everyone.  

 (Much of this was originally published at An Island Where No One Lives.  I couldn’t think of a whole lot more to add.)

Wallce and Gromit in "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" Starring: Peter Sallis, Helena Bonham Carter, clay. Directors: Steve Box, Nick Park. Writers: Nick Park, Steve Box, Bob Baker, Mark Burton.
Who doesn't like Wallace and Gromit, or any of Nick Park's stuff?   The seems pretty impossible, as the things are done with such charm and inventiveness that anyone who likes watching things should like watching the things that Nick Park does.  Wallace and Gromit, here making their big screen debut, have starred in (I think) three short films.   Everyone likes those films, and everyone likes Wallace and Gromit. 

The first thing you see, just before the movie, is an absolutely awful short film featuring the Penguins from the film Madagascar.   It’s an unfunny, frantic mess that (if nothing else) would make any film following it look good.   Fortunately, the short is immediately forgettable and luckily, the film following is good all on its own.

You know who the characters are, right?  Wallace is a cheese-obsessed inventor of gadgets, and Gromit is his silent dog who always manages to save whatever day Wallace has gotten them jammed into.  Or something.  The shorts are very funny and extremely clever.

Like Corpse Bride, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is made using a very time-consuming and painstaking technique (in this case, clay animation).  Also like Corpse Bride, the film-makers decided that just being technically clever wasn’t enough, and they fashioned a funny, interesting story populated by funny, interesting characters.   The writing is excellent throughout (one of the screenwriters, Bob Baker, wrote several episodes of Doctor Who).   And there are tons and tons of puns and visual jokes, so many that it would probably take several viewings to catch them all.     One that I just barely caught shows the film’s heroine (Helena Bonham Carter in her second animated role to be reviewed here) briefly framed by angel wings and a halo (part of the décor in the church where a town meeting is being held).  The next shot shows the film’s villain turning to face her.   Just behind him are folks with red scythes, held just so he appears to have devil’s horns.    The whole thing probably lasts less than a second.  And more importantly, it’s not dwelt on, it’s just there if you notice it and if you don’t, you’ll still love the film.   (I hate it when film-makers feel they have to shove my face in some clever reference they’ve concocted.)

Those things are just surface, though.   The surface throughout is very clever and full of stuff like that.   What makes it even  better is that the story is just as engaging and portrayed in a very clever way.    The film kept me guessing right on through to the big reveal, and kept my attention throughout. 

My only complaint might be that the chase scene at the end went on a bit long, and it didn’t help when Gromit and his foe (the villain’s dog) stopped dead in the middle of everything to fish for change to start up a carnival ride.    (It makes sense in the film, trust me.)   The film just came to a complete halt then, and I understand the cleverness of it, but I don’t think it worked.  Fortunately, the film recovers; a lesser film would have fallen over dead.

And, after a while, the characters start to look really, really weird.   Almost…disturbingly so.   I know this sounds odd coming from someone who thought the Corpse Bride was a beautiful woman, but honestly, after a while all the characters start to look like they were squeezed from a tube.  (Granted, they probably were in real life, but still.)  And the main villain (I can't remember the character's name--Ralph Fiennes did the voice) looks like Bert from Sesame Street.  Well, they say Bert Is Evil. 

So, those tiny, tiny, tiny caveats aside, this is movie is terrific fun.   I’m starting to think that Fall is definitely the best time for movies (at least for me.  You youngsters might feel differently).  First Corpse Bride, now Wallace and Gromit.   And the new Harry Potter movie looks pretty cool, too.   I guess I’m not really a Summer person after all.

Wallace and Gromit:  Highly recommended.