Thursday, April 17, 2014

Serenity and Iron Sky, Reviewed

In my last MRQ, I said that two intended entries would go instead to one multiple review post. Both films were fine enough to merit their own space and spotlight. The 60+ hour weeks I've been working slowed me down, but here we are with reviews of Joss Whedon's first feature film, 2005's Serenity, as well as the 2012 Finnish-German cult film, Iron Sky.


When I was in grad school, an old college friend asked to crash at my Boston apartment. She was a huge Joss Whedon fan, and the East Coast had several advanced screenings for Serenity, the movie based on his short-lived sci-fi TV series, Firefly. I'm always happy to help a friend, so I told her I'd gladly host her for the night. And then she told me she had a second ticket.

My pal knew I'd never seen the series, but I didn't tell her why I hesitated when she invited me along. Basically, I tried to watch Firefly when it first aired, but I didn't especially like the pilot. Then, I saw the next episode and tuned in early enough to catch the theme song - which I thought was so awful that it had me laughing hysterically.

Music is pretty important to me, and Whedon's new series lost me from the get-go. Even more, between the setting and the song, I suddenly got very predictive about the show, (accurately) guessing that there would be a space cotillion, a space saloon fight, a space train robbery, and a space whorehouse. What I couldn't predict was that I would realize I was horribly wrong in my judgment. Firefly was terribly well-written and -acted.

I couldn't find the opening credits video, but it's lots of pictures of the cast, and the final shot is a ship flying over a herd of running horses.

So the film itself came out of the blue and slapped me upside the head with its virtues. The overall effect, when I was done, was profound, as I had to get caught up on and invested in a variety of characters I hadn't even heard of before that night. One mark of its fine writing was that it was incredibly funny, despite my ignorance with its fictional world and players.

The picture's genre was kind of confusing - a scifi western isn't unprecedented, but a lot of it feels like an action movie, too. At the very least, Serenity had a nice sense of pace, and a fine sense of tone, both of which helped the finished work come across more smoothly than it otherwise would have.

But, to analyze myself here, I think my comment is really about how the tone and pace of Serenity collides with the genres the picture inhabits. Because, y'know what? This really is a Western set in space. The lead is an honorable crook, a masterless man who has a lot of depth while maintaining a simple code. His cause? His own survival.

This Captain scrounges up whatever honest or illegal-but-not-awful work that he can, in the name of keeping himself untethered to any one land while providing for his crew and his ship. And, above all, Malcolm Reynolds is an underdog - always underestimated, usually outgunned, and frequently falling just a bit short of success. But few people know how hard he can fight.

Reynolds has a lot of heart - which one can't wear on your sleeve in a dangerous world. The government wants him, his "business associates" often try to cheat him, and one of his crew members could betray him at the drop of a space-hat (a space-western hat). So, in addition to often having to act like an alpha male, Mal frequently engages in tough love - so tough, it threatens to push everyone away from him. It's a very rich role, and Nathan Fillion always makes the most of it, with obvious skill and an easy, undeniable charm.

While this makes him very much an Indiana Jones - or, better, a Han Solo - Reynolds has more depth and agency and doubt than either one of those characters. What Serenity does, then, is show you all this - his struggles, flaws, and ethics - at a time when Mal's in conflict with his crew, when his faith in his path is disturbed, and when he calls down a world (or two, or three) of trouble on his ship.

Don't worry about backstory: If you never saw the TV series, it's still a fun scifi story: a sort of Empire Strikes Back or Brazil-style fight against a brutal totalitarian government. This is backed up by great visual effects, exciting action scenes, and genuinely interesting characters. Since all the relationships and personalities make sense, you won't feel lost.

Yet Serenity, in many ways, is also the ultimate bit of fan gratification and plot progression. The film accomplishes in 119 minutes what probably would have played out over 13-20 televised episodes. Several relationships are pushed ahead at great speed, answers are given to at least two major questions about the universe of the series, and about half of the cast's 9 members get major moments and developments.

The flaws? If anything, it's too... Whedonesque. Without this cast - probably these specific 9 or 10 people - I can see the material falling apart. Fillion represents charisma at critical mass, and everyone is quite pretty, so that helps, too.

And just because you can believe humans will traverse the stars doesn't mean you'll buy a 100-lb. female wrecking a roomful of people with ease.

But Whedonesque also means that the smart story with expert plotting must have emotional beats that follow a strict sine wave. You can practically track Whedon with a metronome, really:
things start okay enough for solitary, hardscrabble people. Things get a little too bad - unfairly, no one does something wrong that bites them back - then a little too good, then something horrible happens. Most come through it okay, save a sacrificial lamb or two. Of course, nascent romance serves as a side plot - but judging by the actual content, it's either an audience hook or Joss himself is simply lost beyond the flirtation stage.
One final, mixed gripe: I love Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I very much like the Operative as a character and as an antagonist. However, by 2005, I had simply heard the "I am a bad man, and I do bad things" speech too many times. By that point, it felt like like faux-deep shorthand...

All of these faults, though, were a cheap price to pay considering what I got out of the experience. And, for those who were reading this site in September, Tamara Taylor has a cameo at the very beginning.

Iron Sky

When you get right down to it, a lot of films are made with the idea that one "interesting" or even just "insane" concept is enough to drive 80+ minutes of movie narrative. While Iron Sky certainly excels in the bat-s--t nuts department, it also never loses sight of character and story. For all of these reasons, IS represents a big win.

What you expect from a schlock film like Iron Sky is the hot Nazi female being portrayed as a sex pot, a lot of terrible puns and inexplicable use of English by the German soldiers. What you don't expect from a schlock film like Iron Sky is the female being fleshed-out better than in many mainstream big-budget American movies, the characters' behavior to make sense, and brilliant political and social satire to be strewn throughout the picture.

There is no reason for Sky to possess so much quality - except, I guess, that it was made by professionals who genuinely cared. Someone remembered that most narrative films involve story-telling, and that this includes attention to story, dialogue, and character.

I think that IS 's plots are generally simple ones that all make sense from the POV of the characters. As insane as the premise is, the gradual buildup of events works well. If you don't want to know what kicks things off ~10 mins in, don't highlight this text: Attacking the American lunar expedition, the cloistered lunar Nazi army takes an astronaut hostage. The confused Nazis want to kill James Washington (a black model in space for PR purposes), until they realize that his iPhone's computer is so powerful, it can power their inefficient superweapon...

The various roles are also a hell of a lot of fun. The scientists, the German military hierarchy, and their new guest all interact uniquely, bouncing off of each other in credible ways. Similarly, the narrative is impressive even before it really folds in its fourth major element: an American political machine that spins the space news, tries to run the world, and finds itself with unexpected enemies.

The amount of satire the picture rips from its Palin-esque prez. is unbelievable. Once or twice, I was beginning to tire of and find these scenes predictable, but the movie repeatedly proved me wrong. It was not only the funniest aspect of Sky, it was very, very well observed.

I love the amount of comedy this film can wrest from its characters while also writing them in a credible and consistent way. I love that it has a 1950's B-movie throwback sensibility that it wears on its sleeve as proudly as Mars Attacks! did. In truth, I could discuss this film for as long as I did Serenity, but since it's so much more likely that people have seen Whedon's movie, I feel obligated to spoil as few of the foreign film's surprises as possible.

As to the flaws of Sky - well, it doesn't really have any, save for some odd pacing here and there. Part of this is due to the lowered expectations of its B-movie scifi genre, and part of it is due to solid recovery. Whenever I thought the film was about to stumble, the next moment or scene made up for it. Since the plots were credible, the parts were engaging, and the script and comedy and effects were fine, Iron Sky really proved to be an exceptional achievement in A-level B-filmmaking. Months ago, I no desire to see this pic, and I'm glad I listened to my friend Tom's recommendation.

Please note that if you follow Hacking Netflix (I know I do), you'll know that this week Netflix got exclusive rights to a director's cut of the film. I haven't watched it yet, but it boasts over 10 minutes of added footage. I'll give it a spin myself at some point, and chime in about the additions at a later time. I will be happy to see this one again.

It has Udo Kier in it, and he's Germany's own Christopher Walken. Why wouldn't I want to watch it again?

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