Skip to main content

Whenever I’m around fishermen, I wish I had bigger hands.


(SPOILERS) I was intrigued by Serenity as soon as I saw the trailer. And then the reviews mauled it, and I was slightly less intrigued. But I persevered, avoiding spoilers so as to give it a fair go. I can absolutely understand why it has been savaged, since writer-director Steven Knight’s solution to the overfamiliar “reality is not what you think it is” premise is simultaneously absurd and – most damagingly – sadly mundane. And yet, I still couldn’t find it within myself to dismiss the movie entirely; it’s closer to the engaging folly namechecked by Christy Lemire’s review, The Book of Henry.

Miller: If it helps, I don’t much know either. I just know what’s supposed to happen.

Both, after all, take some unlikely genre detours in their attempts to address the subject of child abuse (in this case, it is also spousal). Both also culminate in the death of the abuser. In Serenity, the reveal that Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is actually a character in a computer game devised by Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is signposted early on and revealed at about the hour mark, which leaves perhaps too much “fictional” plot remaining before the coda informs us that Patrick, inspired by the outcome to his game, has stabbed his stepfather Frank (Jason Clarke) with the knife that once belonged to his Iraq War veteran dad John (also McConaughey).

Duke: Catch the fish in your head. That is the rule. Do not kill the man.

In that sense – empowerment, if you want to call it that, through escaping grim reality into a fantasy world – Serenity parallels such titles as Pan’s Labyrinth, Life of Pi, Sucker Punch and Heavenly Creatures. The difference being that Patrick is at best obliquely present in Knight’s movie, necessarily so for the twist. Which makes Dill the focus, as his reality gradually caves in, à la Identity, Shutter Island and Vanilla Sky. Some of these types of movies are much, much better than Serenity. Some are much, much worse.

Duke: You do know it’s just in your head, right?
Dill: Oh hell yeah, that’s why I’ve got to get him out of there.

There’s a span here, as Dill’s perception of life on Plymouth Island is going awry, when Serenity is hitting all the right notes for a stimulating head-scrambling tale. Knight builds measuredly towards this. Which is to say, you know something is seriously wrong with this reality as soon as the patently absurd notion of Diane Lane paying for sex is introduced. Besides which, fishing-boat captain Dill’s Moby Dick-esque obsession with landing a giant tuna is continually characterised as “a tuna that’s only in your head”; “You can get the lady, or you can catch the tuna that’s in your head”. The oddball appearance of besuited Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong, on top beta-male form) also underlines the point, as he misses Dill’s boat leaving port and comments “There’s something wrong. There appears to be a twenty-second discrepancy in my allotted schedule”.

Knight has ensured the movie looks great; ironically, since it takes place in a computer game, it has far lusher, more colourful photography than ninety percent of pictures out there in the “real” world, in all their two-tone glory (cinematographer Jesse Hall has ironically lensed a slew of virtual/alt-reality outings including Transcendence, Ghost in the Shell and WandaVision). Indeed, I was put me in mind of the best examples of “Just what is going on in this tropical paradise?” Lost. So it seems strange that Knight should then simply throws the answers out there, with Dill having little work to do to unravel them. First ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) tells him his son, whom he no longer sees, “hears you through his computer screen. He hears you every time you talk to him. You are connected”. Which pretty much leaves nothing to the imagination.

Then, much more intriguingly, Miller shows up at Dill’s shipping-crate home at 2am and informs him “I am the rules” to “This game. Don’t you get it? Someone made the whole thing up. All of it”. The scenes between McConaughey and Strong are far and away the best in the movie, particular when Miller agrees to help with the new rules. But by this point, you’re also wondering just what Knight hoped to achieve, having spelled out the answers in the most unvarnished way. Even abusive husband/stepdad Frank (Jason Clarke) is in on it, reporting that Patrick plays a fishing game constantly, and when he was asked why, replied “If I didn’t catch fish all day, I’d find a way to kill you”.

Miller: You know, don’t you? Who the creator is.
Dill: It’s a boy sitting in a dark room…

I wondered if Knight would try and make more from the potential of his fake reality scenario. Obviously, he has his non-player characters, unable to awake from their autopilot functions – you know, the sorts who believe whatever their government tells them, and will do whatever they’re told by them, even to the extent of queuing up to jump off the nearest cliff – even as Dill wakes to the reality of the global – as in, the island, as the game – situation. It’s a familiar device (“It sometimes feels as if we’ve been here forever, right”), but we already know what is going on by the time Dill is pushing the NPCs’ buttons and getting no response.

Miller: So as a representative of the existing programme, my question is, the big question is, why has the creator changed the rules?

There’s also the question of just what Patrick is supposed to represent, assuming he’s intended to represent anything beyond what he “is” (a damaged kid out for escape/justice). After all, he has created his own flawed imitation of the actual universe, one in which he consciously changes the rules, so corrupting its “purity” of purpose: “The new game is that you kill a man. It isn’t meant to be that kind of game”. Is Patrick actually the Demiurge, an immature god corrupting his false creation? Maybe he is. Maybe Knight’s message has been lost amid the hoots of derision.

Dill: Your proficiency does not alter the regulations.

Strong and Lane are the standouts here, although the latter simply has to smoulder gently in the Sun (or shade) to make an impact. Djimon Hounsou is the reluctant first mate; Hounsou has an uncanny ability to make a big impression on a part instantly, yet bring almost no notable characterisation or charisma to it. Clarke offers his serviceable brand of assholery. Hathaway, meanwhile… One might charitably suggest she’s playing Patrick’s disastrous envisioning of a femme fatale. More likely, her performance is just disastrous (she earned a Golden Razzie nomination; McConaughey earned one too, although he’s fine, even if he’s relying too much on prop acting, namely chain smoking and maximum mooning).

Dill: Wouldn’t it be funny if the truth was that nobody knows anything? Like where exactly it is that we are.

There are a few writer-turned-directors contributing some of the more interesting – and better directed – fare out there at the moment (David Koepp, David Twohy, Scott Frank). Knight’s batting average isn’t quite up with his peers yet (although, as a writer, he appears not to sleep and is given to the occasionally ill-advised venture such as fucking up “fuckingScrooge). I’m not totally down on Serenity. It’s far from the quality of the disgraced Joss Whedon Serenity, or Knight’s previous movie, the standout Locke. But it’s superior to his Stath starrer debut Redemption. He probably just needs to recognise that every idea he has probably doesn’t need to see the light of day without first going through some, or perhaps considerable, reworking.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the