Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Seen two very good movies in two days.

First of all, everyone should go see Proof, mixed reviews notwithstanding and even if (like me) you're fundamentally annoyed by Gwynneth Paltrow. It's quite well done, with great performances from Anthony Hopkins, Hope Davis and (grrr... pulling teeth) especially Paltrow, who does strung-out-by-grief-and-coffee-or-maybe-crazy quite convincingly. (Jake Gyllenhall is fine but nothing special.) The heroin chic body helps here, whereas I always find it weird when we're supposed to believe she's a great beauty. But mainly she actually acts it well. The writing is, well, the same as the writing of the play for all but two scenes, and the play was great.

And the movie is the most deeply University of Chicago I can imagine a movie being. Not the two-minute When Harry Met Sally opener, not the Indiana Jones fleeing from his office hours gag, but a complete movie both set in and filmed in the confines of the university and the neighborhood and capturing them both, visually and emotionally. They got it right. It's not a true story, but it's what that story would have been like.

Then last night we saw a special sneak preview of Serenity (with this guy).

Hot damn.

No spoilers ahead.

We went with one person who'd never seen the TV show Firefly, and he didn't have any problem following it at all and really enjoyed it. Exposition and character introduction are handled surprisingly smoothly and quickly, and the story manages to work really well as a stand-alone movie-sized story that just happens to have had 14 episodes of high-quality TV as setup, to get these characters to where they are at the beginning of the movie. It helps, in a way, that Firefly got cancelled so soon. It was still at the stage of mystery rather than mythology-- we were beginning to get a sense of what the questions were but didn't have elaborate continuinty-heavy answers yet. (The movie provides a lot of the crucial answers.)

For those who have seen the show: the movie is a little less frontier-inflected, a little less Chinese-inflected, a little more space adventure. But it's seamlessly continuous with the show-- in the social and political background, in the low-tech, patched-together atmosphere, in the subplots that get woven in, and in the characterization and character interaction.

This is not a genre-buster like Matrix or even a genre-redefiner like Blade Runner. It's more of an ante-raiser like Alien: "See? This thing that we've gotten used to seeing done badly can be done really, really well." For Alien, it was making a monster movie genuinely suspenseful, scary, and visually compelling. For Serenity, it's making space opera morally serious and centered on complete characters with convincing relationships and first-rate dialogue. I predict that it will make watching Star Wars or Star Trek movies harder to do without cringing.

And it's really, really good. There are a few tricks that will be familiar to fans of Buffy and Angel. And there are homages to Buffy as well as to Star Wars. But none of that is distracting or even noticeable for more than a second-- they'll make you chuckle if you get the connection and won't matter if you don't. There's a major trick that managed to take me completely off-guard, that's a terrific plotting idea.

There's Summer Blau, whose strikingly weird and creepy face manages to carry a lot of the atmosphere of the movie, and who turns professional ballet training into kick-ass movie martial arts very effectively. Nathan Fillian, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin prove themselves matches for the dialogue Joss Whedon gave them. (Harrison Ford famously complained to George Lucas, "You can write this shit, George, but you can't *say* it." Whedon's lines are meant to be said.) And the look of the movie proves that $40 million can go a long, long way in an age of good CGI.

Go see it. Make Universal Studios lots and lots of money, so that they will give it to Whedon and let him make more.

(See also this New York magazine review, which is a touch less spoiler-free than mine. And also: this fun, funny, offbeat joint interview with Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman. I'll be moving on to Gaiman's new novel, Anansi Boys, as soon as it arrives from Amazon.)