September 30, 2005

Serenity

Captain Malcolm Reynolds first became wounded and incomplete at a place called Serenity. A show called "Firefly" spent its very first moments bringing the exact moment of defeat to life in potent fashion. The series then paired him with eight other incomplete souls and became immersed in their collective journey through the black as they slowly filled in the emptiness with each other. The last episode, "Objects in Space", ended the series optimistically; leaving us on a final note with all the characters engaging simple, mundane moments of beautiful connection.
Serenity (the movie) picks up with the same people more fractured and miserable than we'd seen them at any point in the show. Book and Inara, the two civilizing influences on Mal, have either chosen to leave or been driven away. The limited work available to a crew harbouring wanted fugitives in the face of an ever-expanding central government has left them so destitute they can barely keep the ship in the sky. Tensions are running at an all time high, and Mal's nobility and compassion have sunk to an all time low.
There was a lot of darkness peering in from the edges of "Firefly", and it all comes to the fore here. The show was focused on Mal and River learning to compensate for their emotional and spiritual wounds. Movies have no time for such progression, of course, so Serenity places them on the brink of ruination and forces them to either confront their pain or be consumed by it. As their internal journeys progress, the progress is reflected by the attitudes and actions of everyone around them.
The universe — a stew of ingredients from traditional China, the American frontier, and Star Wars — strikes a balance that is never less than seamless and true, wisely forgoing the jokey conceits that would occasionally mar the series. The film's plot takes elements of The Fugitive and Dawn of the Dead and ties them together with a classic science fiction concept rooted in the most central theme of the Western genre: civilization versus nature.
The result is an immersive stand-alone experience that provides pleasures and surprises entirely different and separate from the series. From the surreal and duplicitous opening all the way through the horror-movie climax, this doesn't feel anything like television. It means that newcomers can watch the film without feeling like they're walking in after intermission. But it also means that as a fan I felt like a visitor among people and places that once felt like home. The ship was rusted brown on the show, and felt welcoming. Now it is composed of metallic blues and greys that seem at once cold and hard.
The rhythm of the show was focused on inhabiting the ship and letting its environs expand outward into the black. For the majority of the running time, the rhythm of the movie focuses on inhabiting the black and letting it increasingly press inward on the ship from all sides. As the tension builds, the noose gets tighter. It was only once the outer pressures are finally confronted and — after surprising consequence and real loss — overcome that the space and rhythms of the show flooded back in and I felt, finally, like I was home.
Serenity is a rewarding journey and a marvellous reintroduction to characters that I love. Hopefully the sequel, if there is one, won't take so long to immerse the audience in its world. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

September 24, 2005

Corpse Bride

About ten minutes into Corpse Bride, I was ready to dismiss it as another example of textbook Tim Burton style and aesthetic over substance — and even more disappointingly, the style of this is less thrilling and engaging than that of its predecessor, 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Walking out, I more fully understood the depth of Burton's evolution. He is so adept at wielding fantastic and curious style and slightly ominous whimsy that these elements no longer need to be the focus nor the point. The setting captures what I was maybe hoping for in The Brothers Grimm with the such curious reversals as a monochromatic world of the living sketched over a vibrant underworld of passion and lust. The Corpse Bride herself draws the eye to her tarnished beauty at any given moment because she alone among our leads has colour in her cheeks. (Never mind that they are blue...)
Still, the sheer invention on display here doesn't command a fraction of what Nightmare unleashed upon the screen. That was a whirlwind, a carnival, throwing fantastic things at the audience without ever truly pausing to catch its breath. Danny Elfman's songs here are a distraction instead of a centrepiece. It isn't Nightmare, and thankfully it doesn't try to be.
Because somewhere between 1993 and 2005, Tim Burton became a true storyteller. Not as much needs to be on the screen when the characters carry the burden instead of the set pieces. This film realizes finally the potential of Big Fish. After a impressive career of memorable theatrics, Tim Burton has finally made me care.
The entire plot revolves around a classic love triangle in the most undisguised of terms. I am ready to be tired of the plot device, and yet this story (based on a Russian folktale) utilizes it to its fullest and most honest potential. Unusually, the groom, his living fiancée, and his not-so-living bride are all fundamentally decent beings. Which pairing I rooted for at any given moment depended entirely on the revelations that had come immediately before. We spend the most time with Victor and his late espoused Emily, so they are each allowed a greater share of the flaws and indecision. But once the time had come for a final decision to be made, my heart went out equally to all three. It seemed that there was no solution that would not leave a character I empathised with disappointed and alone.
The actual solution is the film's greatest hat trick of all. For the first time, Burton transcends his trademark haunted immature affection of death for a moment of graceful awe that approaches the truly divine. I wish more fairy tale adaptations would capture both the focused simplicity of narrative and the undiluted integrity of storytelling on display here. In its own unassuming way, Corpse Bride has mined the secrets behind Walt Disney's early magic and repackaged the effect for modern audiences. An utterly involving confection. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT

September 19, 2005

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener is one of those wonderful films that takes on a global conflict and presents it on the smallest, most delicately personal scale. I have seen few films that present real life human crises so powerfully — and yet in spite of (or perhaps the reason for) this is that it never makes an attempt to preach.
Much of the film revolves on an impassioned and enigmatic woman named Tessa who kisses the title character good bye and then promptly turns up dead on the continent of destination. The man left behind, Justin Quayle, relives her time with her as he slowly unravels exactly who she was. A mid-level diplomat with limited opportunity for advancement, Quayle meets her when she hijacks his presentation with an impromptu rallying cry against the current war in Iraq. The movie never reveals its own opinion on that matter, only that the spirit behind it is a major factor in Quayle's attraction to her.
Trailers for the film made it appear to be about Africa. This reputation comes from the film's painting its setting with unflinching realism. But Africa is important to the movie only because of its interaction with the characters. Africa moves Tessa to action. Justin loves Tessa. His love for her ultimately moves him to action as well. Though an interesting political thriller plays out on the edges of the stage, the film never looses focus on its themes of love, passion, and connection. Tessa's death propels a meek man into political action, yes. But more importantly it allows him to connect with his wife in a way that they never could in life.
Each successive wave makes us re-evaluate their marriage. One moment I'm certain that she's just using him as a key to the people and places that matter for her cause. The next moment I'm certain that nothing else in that world was so right and pure. Indeed, the only character that's never put under the microscope is Tessa's cousin Ham. It is his purity of emotion if not intention towards his relative and as a result his relative's husband. Since he is the only honest character, it is only through his correspondence with Tessa that we get an honest look at what she really felt.
As Justin wades through the human impact of the crisis in Africa to piece together the truth, my faith in humanity is alternately shaken and reaffirmed. As a political thriller, this is one of the most cynical movies I've ever seen. As a romance, it is one of the most optimistic and uplifting I've ever seen. In a world as dark as this one, the fact that true love can not only survive murder but transcend it is a particularly beautiful thing. ()

  - ADAM LENHARDT