Film reviews

Far from serene
Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon.

Not many TV series that get cancelled before they even finish their first series get turned into big-budget (well, OK, medium-budget) feature films. But then most TV series don’t spring from the mind of Joss Whedon. For those of you who don’t already know, Whedon was the writer, producer, and sometimes director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. Firefly was to be his new baby—a sci-fi western set in a post-civil war galaxy where folks swear in Chinese and the Alliance (think Yankees) ruthlessly crushes any remnants of Browncoat (think Confederate) resistance.

As with Whedon’s previous work, the series featured a quirky, genre-blending premise, his trademark snappy dialogue, gunfights, kung fu and comedy seamlessly woven with surprising moments of genuine pathos. It got cancelled 11 episodes into its first season, but the dedication of its fans (they paid for ads in Variety magazine lobbying for the series to be resumed) and the DVD sales of the unfinished series were enough to convince Universal to put up the cash for a feature-film version: Serenity.

The story follows ex-Browncoat Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of smugglers as they unknowingly take on board some very dangerous cargo in River Tam (Summer Glau). River has escaped from some kind of experimental torture by the Alliance, which has turned her both psychic and schizophrenic—psychic enough to know secrets the Alliance wants kept secret, but too insane to know that she knows them. The Alliance wants her back before she comes to her senses. Squeeze Mal and his crew between the Alliance and the Reavers (think cannibalistic zombie Hell’s Angels) and the fun begins.


Whedon does a surprisingly good job of compacting the series-long story arcs, multifaceted ensemble performances and shifting character perspectives of Firefly into a two-hour feature without losing too much of the complexity of the series. (He even manages to tie up one of the story threads left dangling by the abrupt cancellation of the series—the origins of the mysterious Reavers.)

It may not have the most original of plots, but it manages to be funny, clever and full of action, with none of the turgid mysticism of the Matrix films or the bloated self-importance of the recent Star Wars instalments. You certainly don’t need to have seen the series to enjoy it, but if you like the film, grab the series on DVD and keep on enjoying the fun.

Allan James Thomas

Spooky spoofy fun
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, dir. Steve Box and Nick Park.

Inside the cinema are more adults than children—I suspect this is because parents would rather have their children outside on a warm spring day. The five-year-old sitting behind me laughs hysterically throughout, and gives us all a running commentary: ‘Mummy, look at the funny man and his doggie! Mummy? Is the funny man all right? The dog’s coming to save him, Mummy, look!’ Some cinemagoers appreciate things like plot and story, others look for deft cinematography, or laughs, or originality—sometimes you get to review a film that has all these qualities.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the latest full-length feature from Aardman Animations. After the disappointing Chicken Run, it’s widely seen as a return to form for the Academy Award-winning animators. Bumbling, quixotic inventor Wallace and his taciturn genius-dog companion Gromit come alive in the appealing style with which British-based Aardman first caught major international attention, in their classic The Wrong Trousers. Sets, models and characters are handcrafted, giving a more solid feel to the action—utterly refreshing when compared with the high-definition machined graphics in Shrek and Madagascar. This movie took five years to make, and the careful artifice is visible: thumbprints on the characters give it a lovingly homemade feel. Even in the age of cutting-edge computer-animated features, it manages to surprise and delight.

Wallace and Gromit run Anti-Pesto, the village humane pest controllers, and are called upon to tackle a plague of vegetable-crazed bunnies and one mysterious, very large ‘beast’: the were-rabbit. Employing an eclectic array of Heath Robinson-style devices for capturing and subduing the irrepressibly cheeky rabbits, Wallace and Gromit are indispensable in the sleepy English village where the action takes place (keep an eye out for sight gags: bumper stickers, book titles and shop signs) which is preparing for the annual giant vegetable-growing competition. The contest consumes the village with an at times unholy lust for growing the plumpest pumpkins and producing the biggest marrows— the local vicar is taken over by vegie fever.
Lady Campanula ‘Totty’ Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) is host of both the vegie competition and, unwittingly, the uneven contest between aristocratic hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine (spoken with vicious pomp by an almost unrecognisable Ralph Fiennes) and the well-meaning, humble Wallace for the affections of Lady Totty. The stakes are raised when Wallace is called to Tottington Hall to clear the grounds of bunny warrens before the big day.

‘Nothing wrong with a little mind alteration, eh Gromit?’ In an attempt to solve the rabbit problem in the village once and for all, Wallace attempts an experiment in brainwashing rabbits en masse into thinking that vegetables are bad with his ‘Mind-Manipulation-O-Matic’ device. Gromit watches nervously as Wallace opens up the laboratory to unleash the light of the full moon, harnessing the ‘mind wave increasing’ effects of lunar power on a bury of petrified rabbits.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is stacked with clever references to famous British movies (including due homage to the cheesy Hammer Horror flicks) and performs well on many levels: it is equal parts fun action movie, spooky satire, and engaging comedy. Animation fans have been waiting for this one. The humour is self-deprecating and British—just as punchy as any American animated movie on the market, and far more original. Kids, adults—come one, come all.

Gil Maclean

Tiny moments that make a life profound
Me and You and Everyone We Know, dir. Miranda July.

A man pours lighter fluid on his hand and sets it blazing. He watches it with the curiosity of a man more pained by love lost than physical injury. Sounds bleak, but first-time writer/director Miranda July turns it into a wondrous sight full of strange possibilities and aching humanity.

Richard (John Hawkes) is a shoe salesman, recently separated, with two children. Christine (Miranda July) is a video artist who drives cabs for the elderly. And while the film weaves through a multitude of loosely connected characters and stories, Christine’s and Richard’s relationship is the film’s central anchor. We watch them negotiate love and life with the sort of idiosyncratic detail that makes you weep, grimace and take joy. In performance, writing and direction, July has conjured a world that is painfully true, visually acute and delightfully absurd. Any seasoned director would be praised for achieving that combination, but for a first-timer it is nothing short of breathtaking.

Me and You and Everyone We Know is a story about love, the art of shoe sales, childhood curiosity, loneliness, video art, single parenthood and everything else we know. It’s the perfect mix of grand themes and minute storytelling. Watching it unfold with such ease, you almost feel as though you’re grazing on another person’s thoughts. The writing invites you to ponder the tiny moments that make up a life—the events that settle on individuals and make an ordinary existence into something profoundly important and universal.

Besides the overall charm and wit of Me and You and Everyone We Know, it is brimming with wonderful performances. John Hawkes is perfectly awkward and hapless as the single father, portraying just the right mix of love and panic. Miranda July plays the impulsive romantic with a delight that is infectious. And Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff, as Richard’s two sons Peter and Robby, give two of the best child performances I’ve seen in years. Watching the seven-year-old, Robby, meet up on a park bench with a woman he’s been courting on the internet is nothing short of inspired.

I envy anyone who has not yet seen this film. I would love to watch it again for the first time. It has been showered with awards, every one of which is deserved.

Siobhan Jackson

Saved by the wit
The Magician, dir. Scott Ryan.

Seen Man Bites Dog? If the answer is yes, then you’ve seen the best parts of The Magician. If the answer is no, then I suggest you get it out on DVD and pop some corn in the comfort of your own home. That said, I’m inclined to like the film, but to say it’s derivative would be an understatement.

Ray (Scott Ryan) is a hit man. Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto) is a documentary film-maker. Tony (Ben Walker) is the hit. Droll wit is the saving grace.

The Magician is your classic low-budget mockumentary (shot over a handful of days, spread over a year, with a budget in the low thousands) following the trials and triggers of a Melbourne killer. Mixing interviews with Ray and on-the-job footage, the film depicts the matter-of-fact professional at work and play. Ray discusses subjects as varied as Wayne Cary’s indiscretions, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, film criticism and body disposal as he waves guns and blunt objects at his victims.

The interviewer, Max (just a voice and the occasional limb entering the frame), walks precariously between documentary maker and accomplice—a wavering line that the film plays out with a subtle intelligence. How guilty is he and when does his documenting become as immoral as the act it documents? The Magician is plainly aware of that salient issue.

Dirt and raindrops gracing the lens, some rickety camera operation by the director’s father (Ryan showed him where the record button was) and a cameo from his brother all add to the madness of this rough but solid piece of black comedy. And while its content is insanely derivative, its energy and local flavour are very much its own.

Ryan’s performance as the philosophising hit man is the film’s highlight. Comic but restrained, Ryan never pushes for laughs, but instead lets understatement and situation do the work.

The Magician is a sound mix of tension and humour, and when bleak frankness is called for, the film doesn’t shirk. With much Australian comedy bouncing between a wink and a quirky nudge, a bit of edge is something to admire.

Watching a man dig his own grave is hard to make funny and sad, but Ryan succeeds. For that I congratulate him.

Siobhan Jackson

 

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