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Serenity now!

By Lady Liberty
web posted October 3, 2005

A History of Violence

** out of ****

There is apparently not much of a publicity budget for A History of Violence. I see a couple of movies every weekend, and saw a grand total of one trailer for the film. I don't recall having seen any TV commercials for it (though I don't watch vast amounts of television). What I did see was a stellar review of the film and the level of acting in it in People magazine. Given that People's critic hates far more movies than she loves (I've often privately wondered if Leah Rozen actually likes movies at all), I figured it was worth a look. Besides, it was a Rozen review that got me to see Memento, a movie I'd never have given a second glance if not for her and which I consider one of the best movies ever made. A History of Violence, however, turned into a sort of mixed movie bag, at least for me.

The film opens with a pair of men bizarrely lackadaisical men checking out of a small town motel. What they leave behind them when they go, however, serves in the strongest possible terms to prove that the pair aren't so much calm as they are sociopathic. As the pair wend their way through the Midwest, the scene changes to that of a small town diner in Indiana where owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) serves up a great cup of coffee and typical small town conversation and camaraderie.

Tom and his lawyer wife, Edie (Maria Bello) live just outside of town in an old farm house with their two children, Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Their marriage is a good one; their teenaged son has some trouble in school with a bully, but it's nothing beyond what you'd see in countless small town high schools across the country. In short, the family is entirely ordinary in just about every way. But then the traveling men show up in Tom's diner and threaten him and his patrons. Seeing a momentary opening in the tense situation, Tom takes action and suddenly finds himself a local hero with his praises sung and his face broadcast in newscasts across the area.

Tom modestly shrugs off all of the attention and says he just wants to go back to his quiet life; his wife, though proud of him, agrees. But as the reporters finally leave, three men in a shiny black car show up, complete with a menacing aura and unbelievable claims. Carl Fogerty (Ed Harris) is one of those men. Horribly scarred and with only one good eye, the soft-spoken Fogerty approaches Tom as if he knows him. Calling him "Joey," Fogerty tells Tom that he just wants to talk about Philadelphia and something that happened there in the past.

Tom tries not to offend the man even as he just wants him to go away. But even his wife begins to wonder what's going on when she reflects on just how handily her husband disarmed the men who tried to rob his diner, and her fears of the men who seem to follow her and her family everywhere only make her doubts all the greater. While Tom struggles to preserve his quiet life and to protect his family, more and more secrets come to be revealed and even he begins to wonder just how all he knows and loves will survive.

His personal politics aside, I love Viggo Mortensen. I can't imagine another man in his role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I thought his portrayal of Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo was spot on. As Tom Stall, Mortensen is also very good. Despite a restrained demeanor, he somehow conveys a panicked struggle just below the surface of his character that gives reality and dimension to the performance. Maria Bello is all right though she has little to do but be angry or afraid. Ed Harris is, as always, just brilliant; William Hurt, though limited by a small role, is terrific. Ashton Holmes, who is making his movie debut in A History of Violence, does himself proud as a boy who must face his demons even as his father is facing some of his own.

The story told by A History of Violence is compelling to say the least (it's based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke) The real shortcomings of A History of Violence lie in the script that conveys that story. The movie moves very slowly at times as it works to establish the very ordinariness of characters who are about to have their mostly uninteresting (except to them, of course) lives turned upside down. While I appreciate that the writer is drawing some contrast between now and later for us by doing so, the time spent was just too long and as a result there were substantial stretches of time when the movie dragged. It also appeared that, while the graphic violence in the film was shown with real purpose, one of two relatively graphic sex scenes was entirely gratuitous and as such was more an interruption than anything else.

A History of Violence is a relatively short movie clocking in at just over 90 minutes. It seemed much longer than that. When a movie is billed as a psychological thriller (and it could have been), it should have been over before we knew it. It wasn't. I saw the film with a friend and her kids. When the lights came up at the end of the show, her 19 year-old said, "That is the worst movie I have ever seen." No, it's not the worst. But it certainly could have been better and, in fact, deserved to be.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: A History of Violence is rated R for "strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language, [and] some drug use." This is not a movie for children or for adults who are upset by blood and gore. Some death scenes are very graphic; the sex, too, is well beyond what younger viewers should see. A couple of the performances are well worth seeing for those who appreciate such things; if you're willing to endure the slow scenes (and there are too many), there is a substantial pay-off waiting for you as the movie progresses. The question, however, is whether or not you're willing to wait for it. I was; my friend and her kids were unequivocally not.


*** out of ****

SerenityAll right, I confess: I never saw the TV series Firefly when it was originally broadcast on Fox. I never regretted it, either, until a friend of mind shamed me into watching the DVD of the series. Finally, two years after the series was prematurely cancelled, I began to "get it." Firefly is entertaining in and of itself, but it's also pro-freedom as all get-out. I fell completely in love with the premise and its characters. As a result, when I heard that there was going to be a movie released featuring the same characters and general story arc, I could hardly bear to wait until it opened. That can prove to be a very bad thing. When your expectations are that high, even a good movie can fail to measure up. So now I hope you'll understand just what high praise it is when I tell you that the best thing I can say about Serenity was that I wasn't disappointed in the least.

The movie takes place about 500 years in the future when humanity has spread to other worlds. Unfortunately, it's taken some of its worst traits with it including the tendency of some to demand they be charged with the caretaking of the others. A powerful central government that calls itself the Alliance is spreading "civilization" to outlying worlds, and it will stop at nothing to continue its mission to subjugate various peoples "for their own good." One of its research and development programs involves the literal weaponization of human beings; one of the test subjects is 17 year-old River Tam (Summer Glau). Her older brother Simon (Sean Maher) manages to rescues her from the top secret facility where she's held, but much damage has already been done to the young girl's psyche.

Simon and River find temporary refuge aboard a privately owned transport ship named "Serenity." Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe (Gina Torres) are veterans of a failed war for independence. Their distaste for the Alliance and all it stands for makes them somewhat sympathetic to the Tams' predicament and so the pair become a nominal part of the crew. What no one knows, though, is just how important River is to the Alliance and why; and they certainly are unaware of just how far the Alliance will go to get her back.

Mal and his crew often cross the line between legal commerce and illegal smuggling, but they generally steer clear of the Alliance and manage to survive in relative freedom on the edges of known space. But the Alliance has assigned an Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to get River back for them, and he's both very, very good at his job and entirely ruthless. Although they still don't know the details of the danger they're in, Mal is quick to recognize that he's in trouble. So he rallies his crew and braves both Alliance forces and the horrifying Reavers who lie in wait for unsuspecting travelers in a search for answers and, he hopes, some way to survive all that is to come.

To Firefly fans, the main characters in Serenity are old friends. It's truly a delight to see each and every one of them again. The good news is that, even if you don't "know" any of the group, just enough back story is included for you to jump right in and enjoy the movie as a stand alone tale.

Joss Whedon, the creator, writer, and director of Firefly and Serenity, brings his unique touch to the story which makes the humor and the drama work in seamless ways that others likely couldn't manage. Though the actors are largely relatively unknown, the performances are uniformly good; given that Whedon isn't George Lucas and didn't have a Lucas budget at his disposal, the special effects are also impressive (an epic space battle involving countless ships in particular is just wonderful). There's some real drama, some horror, and moments of laugh-out-loud levity in Serenity. There's also an underlying and very important message: Freedom! That's a concept that too many take for granted and, as such, we are imminently threatened with losses of it every day. Films like Serenity may not change that, but at least we can hope that more will recognize what's happening as a result.

Firefly fans will, of course, love Serenity. Science fiction fans should also be pleased. For those of you who are neither, Serenity still has something for you. There's mystery and love; there's suspense and horror. I recommend Serenity on many levels, not least of which is the fact it's a pretty darned good movie. (As an aside, I'm betting that many of you non-Firefly fans will like the movie well enough to check out the series, too.)

POLITICAL NOTES: There's a line uttered by a young school girl near the beginning of Serenity that's positively haunting. When another child asks a teacher why it is that anybody would want to fight against a government that only wants what's best for them, the girl says, "We're in their homes. We're in their heads. We're meddlesome, and we don't have the right." Amen! And the horrors that ensue when the Alliance determines it can improve the lives of some of its citizens are truly frightening, and ought to serve as a warning that even the best motives can result in the very worst of unintended consequences.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Serenity is rated PG-13 for "sequences of intense violence and action, and some sexual references." The rating is probably about right given the graphic nature of a few violent scenes; your very youngest should probably stay at home. But slightly older children — even those 12 and 13 year-old kids who aren't old enough or knowledgeable enough about politics or government — should enjoy the battle scenes quite a bit (both those in outer space and those in convenient outer limits bars). Meanwhile, those able to understand the political undercurrent will get far more than mere enjoyment out of the film, or at least I hope they will. I saw Serenity twice this weekend; I hope every one of you will see it at least once. The worst that can happen is that you'll be entertained, but in the best possible world, you'll also come away with a new and personal appreciation for liberty.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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