Serenity (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #82

They aim to misbehave.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 29th September 2005 (Australia)
US Release: 30th September 2005
UK Release: 7th October 2005
First Seen: cinema, 7th October 2005

Stars
Nathan Fillion (Waitress, Super)
Summer Glau (The Initiation of Sarah, Knights of Badassdom)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, 12 Years a Slave)

Director
Joss Whedon (Avengers Assemble, Much Ado About Nothing)

Screenwriter
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story)

Based on
Firefly, a TV series created by Joss Whedon.

The Story
In the far future, a crew of renegades harbour a fugitive who knows a terrible secret about the totalitarian rulers. When a ruthless assassin comes for them, their only hope becomes to seek out the truth behind one of the regime’s darkest acts…

Our Heroes
The crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Led by Captain Mal Reynolds, they’re a gang of rogues and thieves, but are also honourable sorts (well, mostly) forced into that life by a harsh universe. They’ve recently taken onboard Dr Simon Tam and his mysterious sister, River, who has certain skills…

Our Villains
The Operative, an efficient and moral assassin sent by the Alliance, the universe’s ruling body, to retrieve River — at any cost. But if he’s the rock then there’s also a hard place: Reavers, bloodthirsty perverted cannibals who stalk the uncharted regions our heroes will need to venture into.

Best Supporting Character
Shepherd Book, a preacher and former member of Serenity’s crew, now living on the appropriately-named planet of Haven. Has some very insightful words of advice for Mal.

Memorable Quote
“I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” — Shepherd Book

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Shiny” — as a synonym of “great”.

Quote Most Likely To Be Found on a T-Shirt
“I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.” — Wash

Memorable Scene
After the history-lesson-within-a-dream-within-a-hologram-within-a-scene pre-titles, Whedon introduces us to the crew and their titular ship with a four-and-a-half-minute unbroken tracking shot. I do love a long single take, and this one excels by introducing us to all the main heroes, their personalities, their situations, their relationships — all at the same time — while also establishing the geography of the ship; and, by extension, the incredible set, which featured the entire interior of the ship built across just two sections (there’s an invisible cut in the middle of the shot to transition between sets).

Technical Wizardry
I created this category to highlight any elements of production that were especially striking — things like cinematography, editing, design, costumes… No offence to any of them (and considering the film was produced for a slight-for-a-sci-fi-blockbuster $40 million, they all do a super job), but the real star is Whedon’s screenplay. Packed to the gills with the literate, witty dialogue he’s famed for, it also manages to be emotionally affecting, make points about governments and their power, engage with themes of belief and the importance of freedom, and weave in a subtext that reflects the real-life story of Firefly’s death and rebirth — though Whedon claims that last one was an accident.

Letting the Side Down
The public. It didn’t gross enough; there weren’t any sequels. Damn you, mankind!

Making of
Talking of the impressive Serenity set (see: Memorable Scene), it was built in the same way for Firefly, but the blueprints were lost between Fox destroying the series’ sets and production on the movie beginning. When Nathan Fillion learnt this at a production meeting, he was able to supply the blueprints himself — he’d been so excited to be on the show, he’d taken photos of all the pre-production material he’d seen, including the set blueprints.

Previously on…
Serenity continues and, to an extent, concludes Joss Whedon’s criminally short-lived TV series Firefly. Mismarketed by US network Fox, the series wasn’t a success on original broadcast, leading to cancellation after just 11 episodes had aired. Thanks to word-of-mouth and availability on DVD, it has developed a massive following since.

Next time…
Despite the distinct and disappointing dearth of sequels, the Firefly/Serenity franchise has continued on, mostly in the form of various comic books, which have plugged gaps in continuity, revealed long-awaited character histories, and even continued the story after the movie.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Supporting Actress (Summer Glau))
1 Saturn nomination (Science Fiction Film)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“With its Hawksian attention to group dynamics and its skilful definition of character through action, this supremely entertaining hybrid-movie plays like Rio Bravo in space. The textured narrative is peopled by precisely delineated characters who employ a salty retro-future-speak, in which twenty-fifth century slang is morphed with frontier Western archaisms (‘take umbrage’, ‘confound these bungers’). The settings and tone are hyper-real, yet the human behaviour is grounded and credible, the moral conflicts complex and involving. Shiny, intelligent fun.” — Nick Funnell, Time Out London

Score: 82%

What the Public Say
“We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring.” — Ian Farrington

Verdict

Regular readers may have picked up that I don’t re-watch films much (I can’t identify at all with people who claim to have seen the same film dozens or hundreds of times). Despite that, I saw Serenity in the cinema four times, two of them back-to-back. Such is the genius of writer-director Joss Whedon, and the quality of the Firefly universe — it’s a situation where every element just clicked to make a perfect result. (Well, every element except the original TV network, anyway.) No doubt Serenity is best viewed as a capper to the fourteen-hour TV series — that extra investment in the characters and universe makes the film’s best bits sing — but it’s accessible to newcomers also, being so cleverly structured and packed with all the information you’d need.

It was named “Film of the Year” by the BBC’s Film programme; it topped an SFX poll for the best science-fiction film of all time; and its DVD is a permanent resident on the International Space Station to entertain the crews. Cào nǐ, Fox.

#83 will… get busy living or get busy dying.

Super (2010)

2011 #71
James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

SuperIf Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.

It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.

Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), He's in your hoodwhich moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).

It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.

Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.

Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, Messed-up heroesreally, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.

The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy.Boltie Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”

A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.

All-action climaxFor all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.

All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes Good eggsa decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.

So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”

I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says,Fight! “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.

5 out of 5

Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.

Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.

* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^

Waitress (2007)

2010 #31
Adrienne Shelly | 103 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Whenever a star, director, writer, or other key creative dies during or around the production of a film, it’s apparently tempting to draw some kind of correlation between their death and the themes or content of their work. To force such a link between the murder of writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelly and Waitress seems inappropriate, however, when the film is so much about life.

The basic plot could be made to sound identical to Juno’s, if one really wanted (I don’t though, so this won’t): Keri Russell (TV’s Felicity) plays titular waitress Jenna, a genius creator of delicious pies, who finds herself unwelcomely pregnant after a drunken night with her controlling, abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto, TV’s Kidnapped). When Jenna visits her (female) doctor, she’s been replaced by (male) Dr Pomatter (Nathan Fillion, TV’s Firefly), an awkward, slightly bumbling man who, to cut the story slightly short, she falls for and they begin to have an affair — despite his being married (to fellow doctor Francine (Darby Stanchfield, TV’s Mad Men)).

Jenna tries to keep her pregnancy secret from Earl, with the support of her friends Becky (Cheryl Hines, TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), who has a secret of her own, and Dawn (Shelly), who’s being stalked by her one-time five-minute-date Ogie (Eddie Jemison, TV’s Hung). And she tries to keep her affair with Dr Pomatter secret from everyone, though it seems she can’t hide anything from perceptive elderly diner-owner Joe (Andy Griffith, TV’s Matlock).

Bun in the ovenI know I recently said I don’t give plot descriptions, but it’s these threads that illuminate Waitress’ life-affirming themes. Becky and Dawn show there’s hope for happiness with whatever hand you’ve been dealt, even where you least expect it; Ogie, Joe (and diner chef Cal (TV’s occasional guest star Lew Temple)) show you can’t judge a book by its cover; Joe also offers Jenna the gift of premature hindsight thanks to his reminisces and regrets; and then there’s the baby, who, aside from the obvious, represents fresh starts. None of these are hammered home quite as bluntly as I have here — not even the baby one — but my observations show, I suppose, what I took from them.

Though every performance excels, Shelly’s screenplay is the real star. To bring up the Juno similarity again, it features a quite idiosyncratic style of dialogue, particularly when delivered through the cast’s Southern accents. It’s also very funny, but never allows this to interfere with the more serious elements. Some have criticised it for putting so much levity near such tragic topics; I can only assume they live in a different world to our’s, presumably one where either everything is punctuated by a laughter track or one where everything is underscored by Coldplay.

From its promotional material and vaguest of outlines (Keri Russell leaves unhappy marriage for lovely Nathan Fillion!), Waitress looks like another breezy rom-com, the kind of thing that stars Jennifer Aniston — a chick flick, or to sound inappropriately less derogatory, “woman’s film”.Waitresses Waitress is a “woman’s film”, but in a good way: written and directed from a female perspective, with its central roles being female, it doesn’t pander to a perceived female demographic and nor does it bellow “this is what we women think, and it’s so different to you damn men” — it’s more subtle than that.

Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar by beating men at their own game — and that was probably for the best as a first-timer, dodging accusations of “well, she just made a woman’s film, didn’t she?” from the off — but hopefully it’s nudged the door open for female voices on a wider range of subjects. To slightly go against what I said in that opening paragraph, it’s a loss that Adrienne Shelly won’t get a chance to be among them.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Waitress is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.
Waitress is on Film4 +1 today, Monday 28th July 2014, at 7:50pm.

Commentary! The Musical (2008)

2009 26a
Jed Whedon & Joss Whedon | 42 mins | DVD

Commentary! The MusicalCommentary! The Musical falls somewhere between DVD extra, TV episode and short film. Whatever it should be classed as, it’s utter genius.

You’ve surely heard of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the project Joss Whedon created during the infamous US Writers’ Strike. (That in itself you could debate the status of. Three-part miniseries? Short film? Feature film? (At 42 minutes it’s over the Academy’s boundary.) And endlessly on.) Well, on the Dr. Horrible DVD can be found this — an alternate audio track, on which the cast and crew discuss the making of the feature… except it’s all scripted and the majority is sung. Not your traditional audio commentary then.

As an audio commentary, it does little to illuminate the production of Dr Horrible — though, surprisingly, it does do some — but instead focuses its energy on spoofing commentary tracks, DVD extras, and the American film and TV industry in general. Specific targets include the Writers’ Strike and its lack of success, rivalry between lead actors, the importance of ensemble cast members, Asians in US TV and film, the dissection of art by DVD extras, and many more. It’s almost all incredibly funny — inevitably there are a few duff gags and dull songs, although they are uncommonly rare — and it moves at a rate of knots, meaning it rewards multiple listens to pick up every gag. Having already re-listened to a couple of tracks, I can attest to noticing funny lines that I was too busy laughing through before. In a spot of technical impressiveness, the commentary is often surprisingly scene-specific, sometimes even shot-specific. When you consider the effort that must’ve been involved to script and time both songs and spoken dialogue to make this happen, it’s even more impressive.

It’s this careful scripting and the sure-handed attentiveness to theme that marks Commentary! The Musical out as a fictional work in its own right, rather than ‘merely’ a DVD extra, in much the same way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the short-lived (and easily forgotten) Rob Brydon series Director’s Commentary are original works. With its well-targeted thematically-appropriate comedy and plentiful gags, it’s pure delight for fans of DVDs, or anyone else with a mind open to the concept.

5 out of 5