2005 and after several years of complaining about Tony Blair being a terrible Prime Minister for getting us involved in a war we didn’t want to be in, the British public finally had the chance to voice their displeasure at the voting booth. They voted him back again.
Meanwhile the trial of Saddam Hussain began in Iraq. While human right’s campaigners complained about the fairness and lawfulness of the proceedings, most of us either couldn’t be arsed to care or were sat with popcorn shouting “bring on the rope.” It would take over a year before Saddam would have the chair kicked out from under him. Now if he’d had some dirt on the Clinton’s everyone would have been saved a whole lot of hassle. Those Clintons don’t fuck around.
If Saddam wasn’t so busy claiming he was still the leader of Iraq, complaining about his cell and going on hunger strike (which lasted exactly one meal), he’d have been able to check out these fine movies.
Serenity (Director: Joss Weedon)
After narrowly pulling off a bank robbery, the crew of the starship Serenity find themselves hunted by a dangerous agent of the alliance. Due to the knowledge of one of their crew, the team lead by Mal Reynolds are plunged into a conspiracy of Galaxy wide implications.
In 2002, Joss Whedon followed up his success with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with a sci fi TV show called Firefly. Firefly followed the exploits of a ragtag crew of the spaceship “Serenity,” who tried to make a living by fair means or foul in a universe where mankind has reached out to the stars, settling on planets in a life resembling the old wild west.
With it’s cast of colourful characters, great dialogue, fun capers and intriguing world building and backstories, Firefly settled comfortably into a gripping, strong first season. Unfortunately audience response was tepid, not aided by Fox seemingly not confident in the show’s genre mixing and tone and airing episodes out of order (including the pilot episode). Due to poor ratings, Fox cancelled the show after only 11 of 14 filmed episodes had aired, leaving many developing plot lines hanging.
The show did attract a cult following which increased with a dvd release (which is where I discovered the show), prompting Wheedon to push for a spinoff movie series. To the delight of fans, Wheedon sold the concept to Universal and the crew found themselves on the big screen in a film named after their beloved ship “Serenity.”
Serenity follows up the storyline running through the series of River Tam, a young, mentally unstable girl who was experimented on by Alliance scientists trying to brainwash her and use her psychic abilities. After being rescued by her brother and on the run, the pair found an uneasy refuge in Mal Reynolds crew. The series ended while scratching the surface of the mystery surrounding her, and in Serenity it’s revealed she may be the key to a scandal and government cover up.
Serenity is a flawless adaptation from television to cinema screen. There is a wonderful familiarity to the characters, as Mal played by Nathan Fillion in a welcoming tracking shot interacts one by one with his crew of Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Simon and the scene stealing anti hero Jayne. Fans are reminded of the dynamic while introducing new viewers to the tensions between the crew members, as Mal tries to prepare his team for a heist on a small town bank while worried the Serenity appears to be falling apart.
The film utilises many of the elements established in the show, such as Mal and Zoe being veterans on the losing side of a war of independence against the alliance and brings in the boogeyman like threat of the pirate like Weavers. In the show, though rarely seen the Weavers were a constant ominous shadow, described as brutal savages, notorious for raping and cannibalistic practices. In Serenity they are brought to the front of the story in terrifying fashion.
Just as frightening is the new villain played with quiet menace by Chiwetel Ejiofor, known only as the operative. With a scarily, mild mannered demeanour, he pursues the crew, slaughtering innocents along the way, believing in his religious like purpose of creating a perfect world whatever the cost. He’s a gripping character, believing in his righteousness but aware that he is a monster and as such forfeits the right to live in the world he wants to create.
The film also advances the relationships and simmering love stories of Simon and Kaylee, and Mal and former crew member Inara. Sadly the intriguing, mysterious backstory of the Reverend Shepherd Book that dropped hints throughout the series was left unexplored.
Serenity successfully treads the path of following a story that feels epic for the crew from the television series, without making it seem alien from the tone and feel of the show. The story told is conceivable that it could have fitted into a two part series finale, but doing here with lashings of cinematic flair. It has the humour and banter of the show, but with dark elements, with Mal pushed to his limits and drawing on his more aggressive survival instincts.
At a time where science fiction movies are driven by heavy philosophical undertones with lots of slow shots of space craft and brooding characters staring, grimly into space (looking at you Ad Astra) some space based fun as seen in Serenity is something that’s desperately in need. It’s exciting, a grounded action packed romp with a charismatic, lively crew that even newcomers will feel drawn to (and sadly this been a movie, not all make it to the end). Yet there are still some weighty issues. At the heart of the conspiracy there is a plot by the Alliance to forcibly make the population more peaceable, which is at odds with the freedom exhibited by Mal and his rebellious lifestyle. The theme of surrendering free will for comfort and security is evident, but has an added nightmare element that gives way to the most savage natures in some of the population.
Serenity was well received by loyal Firefly fans and critics. Sadly, just like the television show, Serenity did not find a significant audience. The film drew roughly the same as it’s 39 million budget, which in profit terms makes it a loser (due to the cinema’s cut on every ticket sold a film generally has to make two and a half times it’s budget to start making money). Meaning any chance of sequels was dead in the water.
For Firefly fans though, Serenity was a dream come true. It gave a closure that had been thought lost for ever with the brutal cancellation. Importantly, it gave the crew the chance to leave on a dignified creative high.
No matter the commerical failure of the enterprise, Serenity gave us the chance to hang out with such marvellous characters, one last glorious time.
Munich (director: Stephen Spielberg)
Following the murder of Israeli athletes by terrorist group Black September at the 1972 Olympics, Mossad sanctions a squad to track down and kill those responsible.
“They’re all gone!” The chilling words spoken by sports journalist Jim Mckay, for whom if fell to announce that eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics had died at the hands of terrorist group Black September. It’s with these shocking moments that Stephen Spielberg’s Munich begins, holding nothing back on the brutality of the act.
As someone who honestly has nothing but disdain for terrorists or their rights, it’s a scene that was guaranteed to get my blood boiling, especially with the knowledge the threes surviving terrorists were released to a heroes welcome (in exchange for the release of hostages taken on a hijacked plane). So when Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is tasked with forming a black ops team to track down and kill eleven suspects involved in the massacre, it’s greeted (from me at least) with a sense of justified retribution.
But as the Operation “Wrath of God,” is carried out by the newly formed team (which features Daniel Craig showing the cool and style which would later win him the Bond role), it’s soon clear that there is going to be no glory in this campaign of vengeance. The first target, a seemingly harmless poet is cornered and shot to death in a nervous manner by Avner. The bombing of another target in his office is a suspenseful affair when the man’s young daughter appears unexpectedly and the explosion is narrowly delayed. Another bombing also injures innocent bystanders.
As the operation escalates further complications arise with interference from other nations. An assassination attempt in London is interrupted due to a group of drunken Americans, which it’s hinted may be CIA operatives who the target works for. There are also doubts about the loyalty of a French operative who is their main source of Intel. There is a murkiness to the entire operation, that is signified by the dark, grey sheen of the lighting that allows very little colour to appear on screen.
This is a forgotten movie by Steven Spielberg, but in many ways it’s one of his weightiest films. The theme of violence begetting more violence is driven home with the subtlety of a carbomb, but the portrayal of the effects of the mission are so wide ranging and in a world was still shaking from the tremors in aftermath of 9/11 was very timely. The success of the team makes them targets for reprisals, and one member is the victim of a honey trap by a female, freelance assassin. The team retaliate by tracking her down to her home and catch her in bed and half naked, shooting her repeatedly in one of the most unsavoury moments in the film.
Munich is a down to earth, very hard hitting film. It explores the nature of man’s desires for vengeance, questioning whether it it worth the outcome and aftermath of death it results in. While most of the targets are killed, the price is most of Avner’s squad and the realisation that those they wipe out are replaced by even more vicious and driven members. While Avner survives, his actions leaves him disillusioned, depressed and severely paranoid (he finds it hard to sleep in a bed for fear it may have a bomb in it, like he blew up one of the targets.)
Munich is a long, atmospheric masterpiece that had an effect on me. Like Avner, as a viewer I was left beaten down by the killing and ultimately the self defeating consequences of following a path of vengeance. As someone who still wishes to see terrorists pay in blood for their actions, I can find no answers to the line between justice and revenge, but Munich raises the questions even for someone like me. It’s a challenging film, and makes you face the reality that in destroying those we hate we risk scarily becoming very much like them.
Curse of the Were Rabbit (Directors: Nick Park, Steve Box)
In the latest adventure of inventor Wallace and his dog Gromit, the good natured eccentric attempts to put the local village’s pest rabbit population off eating his neighbours vegetables. This backfires spectacular when his experiments turn him into a giant Were-Rabbit.
There is something refreshing gentle and quaint about the work of Nick Park. The tales of Wallace and Gromit depict a romantic slice of English country life, where a village fair and sitting down to a breakfast with a cup of tea and the morning newspaper are the cornerstones of a idyllic life. The homely feel of the setting and story has it’s tone helped by the classic, old school use of stop motion animation.
For those unfamiliar with Wallace and Gromit, they are the creations of Nick Park who introduced the eccentric inventor (voiced perfectly by Peter Sallis well known for the long running, very, very English sitcom Last of the Summer Wine which featured three pensioners falling down hills every chuffing week) and long suffering pet dog in a number of shorts that were warmly received on Christmas tv schedules in the 90’s.
The shorts earned creator Nick Park a host of awards, including two Oscars, and finally the lovable pair’s adventures finally got a feature length outing on cinema screens in 2005. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit keeps the look and style of the shorts(despite some calls from the studio to modernise some elements), but has a big story worthy of being on the big screen. Wallace and Gromit have started a business catching rabbits which have been causing havoc on the townsfolk’s vegetable patches, though they humanely cage them as opposed to local villain Lord Quatermaine who like all toffs would prefer to shoot the poor bunnies. Wallace is also trying to win Tottingham’s annual giant vegetable competiton and has a potential romance brewing with Lady Tottingham. Oh and experimenting with ways to reduce rabbits appetites for vegetables he’s managed to turn himself into a giant Were-Rabbit at every full moon.
It’s a delightfully silly story, that is kid friendly but is just as appealing to adult film goers. Because Wallace and Gromit is genuinely funny for all ages. The chemistry of the pair is undeniable, with Wallace’s chatty, optimism contrasted with the silent but intelligent Gromit who despite his limited facial features is able to convey incredulous expressions at the naivety of his friend.
There is charming comedy to be found in the elaborate, mechanical and overly complicated inventions that Wallace creates to deal with the simplest of tasks. Also the clueless nature of the rabbits as well as been sweet, provide some goofy laughs, particularly when one is mistaken for a wig. Yet there is one moment that outshines all the others, a laugh out loud moment that I won’t spoil but involves a battle on a out of control plane from a fairground ride between Gromit and Quartermaine’s pet Bulldog.
In a very similar tone to the recent Paddington movies, Curse of the Were Rabbit is a delightful movie, that due to it’s old fashioned setting and tone makes it resilient against ageing. It’s also a positive, good natured piece of English culture, the sort of thing we really could immerse ourselves in right now.
WTF? Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
So for my WTF? section I was going to talk about the ludicrous notion of making a football hooligan movie and casting Frodo Baggins as a “Top Boy,” (the film is Green Street if you’re interested). But instead I’m going to highlight a rarity of Unicorn proportions, a movie based on a video game which is actually pretty good.
If you’re a fan of the Playstation game Final Fantasy VII that is.
Because this is not the 2001 Final Fantasy: Sprited Away which took the name of the video game franchise without tying it in to the mythology in any way, hoping to make it appeal to a wider audience.
In the intro the film is dedicated as being for those who “loved this world,” and this promise is followed up on entirely. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children has the balls to say, final fantasy fans, this one is for you and we don’t give a chocbocco’s arse about catering to a wider audience. Because if the first few bars on the pounding score “One Winged Angel,” does not bring goosebumps all over your body, this is the wrong film for you.
I spent many, many hours playing Final Fantasy VII on my old Playstation 1. I played through it once, then went back and played through it again with a player’s manual to unlock all the game’s secrets and add the side characters Yuffie and Vincent to the story. Then I played it a third time just for the hell of it, so I could indulge in this vast epic story of colourful characters and revel in it’s soundtrack before returning to the outside world again.
And if you don’t have even a smidgen of the time I played on the game, you will find this film frankly baffling. Sure, there is an intro to bring you up to speed on what happened in the game, but you’ll be left scratching your head at talk of life streams, meteorites, and what the heck Jenova is. Watching further you’re going to have even more questions like, what do these guys like have super powers? what’s with these coloured balls? and who is this flower girl who keeps appearing in Cloud’s dreams?
But for us who’ve played and loved Final Fantasy VII, this is just one giant, delicious helping of fan service to gorge on. This film sends us giddy, at the intro that recreates the final after credit scene from the game of the lion Red XIII and his cubs overlooking the ruins of Midgar, only in beautifully smooth, detailed animation replacing the crude yet charming visuals of the original game.
Watching the film with one us players would leave you bemused as we get excited every time we hear the start of an orchestra version of one of the iconic tunes from the game. You’d definitely not get why we’re laughing at the ringtone on a henchmen’s phone that recreates the FF:VII battle victory song.
This is a film that caters purely for the joy of fans, and for what it’s trying to do, it does so well. There may be a few issues as most of the FF:VII characters are absent for most of the film, with more time devoted to bonus character Vincent and baddies from the game Reno and Rude. But when the rest of the team does finally show up it’s to a rapturous, fist pumping the air feelgood moment. But the one thing that overshadows everything is the sudden and totally bizarre appearance of Darth Vader style villain Sephiroth, which makes little sense but when “One Winged Angel,” starts playing you just embrace this drug like sensation of joy.
Newcomers may get a kick out of the mesmerising visuals of Advent Children for a while, but this is a film unashamedly made with the fans in mind. And for giving in total to the needs of the people who invested their time in these games, I admire the makers so much for delivering on that.
That’s all from 2005, next time out I’ll controversially following this up with a look at 2006.
By the way, if you enjoy me waffling on about movies and what to hear me do more of it (like you’ve took a blow to the head or something) you can catch me reviewing new movies with those fine folks on “At the Flicks” podcast. Check out my dulcet Barnsley tone here
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See you next time