Cinema Dispatch: Serenity

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Serenity and all the images you see in this review are owned by Aviron Pictures

Directed by Steven Knight

Independent of the movie itself, I’d just like to say that this is PROBABLY the worst January I’ve had in quite a few years.  Not only did I get the flu which knocked me out of commotion for about a week, I THEN got a really nasty cold that I’m dealing with right now as I try to push through the fog and sinus congestion to try and create cogent points about this movie which certainly could use a much clearer head to talk about.  Seriously, we started the month off right with a crappy horror film and a Shyamalan Greatest Hits piece, but now we’re getting THIS utterly absurd art piece!?  It’s way too early in the year and I’m way too sick to stay all that coherent, but maybe that’s the best way to truly experience this movie which, after all feels like a total fever dream!  Is this movie as good as everyone says and its qualities can shine through even if I saw it under less than ideal conditions, or was this the last thing I should have gone out to see when I barely had my wits about me?  Let’s find out!!

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman on the small island of Plymouth who works with his friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou) to take rich jerks out on the ocean so they can catch big fish to brag about on Instagram or whatever.  Mostly he does this so that he can pay for the OTHER days he’s on the ocean looking for… HIM.  You know who I’m talking about!  That ONE FISH that has eluded our hero and has occupied all his thoughts since… THE INCIDENT.  After yet another unsuccessful chase for his Great White Whale, which is actually just a big Tuna Fish, he is greeted by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who has somehow tracked him down to this nowhere island and wants to make him an offer.  You see, Karen has since married this total monster named Frank (Jason Clarke) who abuses her as well as the son she had with Baker before they split up (Rafael Sayegh), but she can’t simply divorce him or run away because the guy has some serious mob connections.  For ten million dollars as well as ensuring that his son no longer grows up in an abusive household, she wants him to take Frank out on a fishing trip and throw him overboard.  Seems simple enough, but there’s a whole lot of grey area for things to go wrong and Baker is quite hesitant to carry out his ex-wife’s dirty work.  However, there might be more going on than meets the eye as this latest bit of drama seems to have stirred up something on the island of Plymouth that Baker either never noticed or chose to ignore before now; not to mention the sudden appearance of some dude in a suit (Jeremy Strong) who REALLY wants to get a sit down meeting with Baker about something urgent.  Is Karen being completely truthful about what is that she wants Baker to do, and can Baker pull off such a scheme if he needs to?  What is it that’s suddenly so off putting about the island, and is it in some way connected to the sudden reappearance of his ex-wife?  Just how many video essays will be made about the DEEP MEANING of this movie, and how many will actually make sense!?

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“ALL WE ARE IS DUST IN THE WIND!!”

After watching this movie, I had a few thoughts.  Many of them weren’t particularly HELPFUL, most being variation on “what the heck just happened!?”, but the one that stuck with me is whatever the movie was “about”, was it fun to watch?  The answer is unambiguously yes because no matter where this movie ended up going or if the twist wasn’t all that great, the movie around it is a solid thriller with some great performances.  I don’t think this is a new classic or anything like that as the message (at least as far as I could figure it out) wasn’t something that hit me all that viscerally, but it was certainly great to watch it all play out once it was clear they were committed in going in THAT direction.  If they had cut out the second half of the movie which is where things go off the rails and just made it a continuation of what we were getting up to that point, it still would have been a solid movie, but the fact that they took that risk of derailing everything to make something this unexpected is a commendable effort, and I do think they MOSTLY succeed at selling us on the ludicrousness we end up finding ourselves in.

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“Please tell me I didn’t just sign up for a Dark Tower sequel…”

We’ll start with the few problems that I had with this movie and move onto what’s good and then what’s utterly bizarre as we go along.  When you’re first watching it and have no idea where it’s going, I’d say that the film has a problem with balance.  Whether it’s the plot itself or the visual tricks it employs, it often feels like its teetering between doing too much and not enough.  When the movie first starts it’s intentionally keeping us at arms-length from McConaughey’s character which is fine but can be a bit exhausting when you’re waiting for explanations about his character and certain motivations that take forever to come.  On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Jason Clarke’s character who is not just a bad guy, but the most CARTOONISHLY villainous character who has ever existed, and while I do enjoy it when an actor gets to act like an unrepentant jerk like this, being so unambiguously evil it takes away some of the suspense since it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt how we’re supposed to feel about this character which makes his story perhaps a bit TOO straight forward.  For most of the other characters in the film (Anne Hathaway is a great example as is Jeremy Strong) the movie does manage to find a nice balance between being mysterious and giving you enough reasons to be invested with what they’re up to, but that line isn’t consistently held throughout for all of the characters and it makes the early parts of the movie a lot more uncertain than I personally would have liked.  Visually, the movie is somewhat hyper stylized with the town of Plymouth being full of colorful and quirky characters as well as overly cute details like McConaughey living in a furnished shipping container that at first made me think of Wes Anderson, but once the plot starts moving its very clearly going for more of a Cohen Brothers vibe than anything else.  Still, the movie can’t help but have these odd moments where there’s a flash of needlessly garish style that seems to just be there as a distraction or POSSIBLY as a clue to some deeper meaning that just flew over my head.  Now I could be COMPLETELY misremembering this as it’s been a few days since I saw it (not to mention I was already feeling sick at the time), but I remember the movie making very certain that you noticed Anne Hathaway’s ring by making it shine and making a ‘DING’ sound effect at least twice, and if I AM remembering that correctly I genuinely don’t know WHY because as far as I can recall the ring was not significant in a way that was helped by such an attention grabbing visual.  There are other moments where there are very brief flashes of style over rather mundane scenes which feel a bit out of place which you could probably argue is intentional considering the twist that happens at the halfway point but they felt more like a distraction than anything else; especially when so much of the style of this movie ISN’T in fancy camera work or things that break the fourth wall; rather it’s in detailed sets and well shot locations to give the world its quirky yet very human sense of life.  None of these issues are a huge detriment overall and the unbalanced nature of it does KIND OF lead into what happens in the second half, but maybe they should have narrowed the bell curve just a bit so that certain things didn’t feel so wildly disparate at times.

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“Look, I’m WAY behind on my Baby Dolphin Stabbing quota, so can we just hurry this along already?”

Despite the film taking a few minutes to get its bearings, it really does manage to grab you and hold your attention all the way through which is great because this movie goes to some VERY odd places and it wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t sell you on every moment leading up to the big turning point.  I mentioned the Cohen Brothers earlier and that’s probably gonna be the best comparison for at least the first half of this movie as it’s a tight thriller with oddball characters who are all intriguing in their own right (even Jason Clarke who’s as transparent as a window but sells it for all its worth) and the scheme that you KNOW cannot lead to anything even remotely good is perfectly handled in that way that makes it feel utterly inevitable even if it really shouldn’t be.  Its great watching as the pressure builds over time and how these characters end up reacting to it or how some characters will just worm their way into a situation and just upend everything to make things even more precarious which culminates in THE BIG TWIST that only makes things THAT much more absurd.  I’m actually not sure how some people will take the movie once we get to what it’s ULTIMATELY about (especially those who may not have a frame of reference for what they’re doing there), but I think it works better than other similarly obtuse movies like Annihilation or Mother in that it feels like the investment we placed in this story was not due to how much it is a metaphor for something else or that we’re seeing it through the eyes of a storyteller giving us a visual lecture on the human condition; it still feels like a story about character we genuinely care about and aren’t just playing their roles for the sake of the director’s vision.  Now it’s not like that kind of film making can’t work, but whatever deeper meaning is being explored through this hard left turn into… wherever it is we end up, it never loses sight that as an audience we still need someone to grab onto who reacts to all this in a relatable way.

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“No, I know what it is!  They’re trying to stick me in another Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie!  WELL WE’LL SEE ABOUT THAT!!”

Now this is where we’re going to get into some degree of spoilers.  I’ll keep it as vague as possible, but I do encourage you to go check the movie out now if you have any inkling to see it as its best to be utterly surprised by it.

We Good?  Okay, so the movie does take a really bizarre turn at the halfway point that completely flips this movie on its head in a way that I’ve rarely ever seen in a movie.  The best comparison I could make is that this is a take on The Lego Movie for the Grand Theft Auto generation which I know sounds like utter nonsense, but it really is something that you have to see to believe.  Once it was clear we were going in THAT direction, I was absolutely hooked.  I wanted to know exactly what was going on and what could be done to subvert it.  Did anything we see up to that point ultimately matter, or is there a bigger shell game at work that will reveal itself as Matthew McConaughey gets more and more desperate to find the truth!?  It’s exciting in a way that few films can successfully pull off as twists like these are either revealed much earlier in the movie or end up feeling poorly executed as one big hand wave excuse for getting weird.  Now sure, there are some aspects of this part of the movie that diegetically left me confused, but I’m at a place right now where I’m trying not to get hung on those kind of issues; not just in movies like this where it would feel like a derailment away from what’s actually important, but in movies I absolutely hate as well.  Even if I truly despise where a movie ended up going (which is certainly NOT the case here), there are better ways to explain a movie’s failings than just asking why a character didn’t do that one thing I thought of or pointing out minor contradictions which really don’t amount to much.  Still, if there’s ONE part of this utterly gripping second half that stumbles, it’s in trying to cram its big idea into the film they’ve already established.  To try and make this as cogent as possible without giving much away, what happens in the second half of the movie BASICALLY confirms that there are “rules” that need to be followed, but I’m not sure exactly who or what set these “rules”.  I mean I THINK I know who or what set these “rules”, but the “rules” seem to run contradictory to its clearly stated goals; whether or no those goals are “good” in a sense.  It’s a minor point and I didn’t get TOO hung up on it considering how much I was having with everything else the second half revealed, but it does feel like one where the journey is a lot more interesting than what is ultimately the destination… or at least what I THINK is the destination.

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“After all the bloodshed and turmoil, I learned definitely that eating an apple a day keeps the doctor away.  If only I knew that in my younger days; none of this would have happened…”

There’s a lot about this movie that’s hard to talk about for two reasons.  First is that so much of the movie’s strength is in its second half which is not worth spoiling, and second is that I only saw it the one time and it certainly feels like a movie I’d need to see a few more times to really wrap my head around everything that it’s trying to do and zero in on a much more coherent critique of it.  After the initial pass however, I can say that it’s genuinely fun to sit through for its entire running time despite a few stumbles at the beginning and a small amount of confusion as to what exactly the film was trying to say at the end.  I’ve certainly had problems interpreting heady movies in the past, but what sets this one apart from films like Mother or even Hereditary is that I ultimately had fun with it on a beat by beat basis instead of just sitting there hoping that it all comes together at the end.  This is one of the better definitions of THE JOURNEY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE DESTINATION, and I do recommend you going to see it even if you’re not sure what it’s even about like I was when I went to go see it.  Heck, I STILL only have a somewhat half-baked theory on what the movie was trying to say, but I still managed to have fun with it!

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