Sunday, May 14, 2006

musing #3: j.j. versus joss
I went to see Mission: Impossible III last week and, in spite of the many warning signs that led me to believe it was going to be a disaster, I really enjoyed the movie. My low expectations may have furnished the entertainment factor to a point, but ultimately, my demands of a summer blockbuster are no different than those of any other film; no matter what I might expect, I always hope it will be good.
Which is why I tend to avoid films starring Tom Cruise. There are actors with less talent, but then Tom's not really an "actor," is he? He's a "movie star" whose infamous personality tends to impede any suspension of disbelief; my constant awareness that he IS Tom Cruise almost always throws me out of the picture. This, however, is where expectations become interesting. Walking into the latest installment of the M:I franchise, I harbour no illusions about this being a character study. I am fully aware that Ethan Hunt has less psychological depth than, well, cardboard, for instance. The role is physically demanding, but the first two films make it evident that Cruise is adept at performing action, and that he is photogenic enough to compel audiences to watch him do just that.
So I was less concerned about Cruise, in this case, than with the film's biggest unknown element: director J.J. Abrams. As evidenced by his television track record (Abrams is creator of the hit shows Felicity, Alias, & Lost), J.J. ain't no hack, but directors who cut their teeth on the boob tube don't always chew their way onto the big screen as effortlessly as one might expect. I had hoped for more, par example, from Joss Whedon's Serenity, the motion picture follow-up to his ill-fated Firefly series.
Now, don't get me wrong... I am a Whedon-ite in the geekiest sense of the term. I consider Joss to be the master of genre television, and although he is best known for the horror-comedy-film noir-melodrama-screwball hybrids Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, I really feel that he has never come as close to perfection as he does with Firefly. It comes as no surprise that the series was prematurely cancelled (only eleven of the thirteen episodes filmed actually aired); it's difficult to peddle a Space-Western in today's market. But damned if this isn't the best show that no one's ever seen.
Whedon's quippy, stylized dialogue is delivered with a natural rhythm by the cast of Firefly (whereas it periodically sounds a bit stilted in his previous series). The stories also flow quite organically-- less frequently interrupted by the choreographed fight scenes one finds at the 35 minute point of a Buffy or Angel episode. The characters are rich and complex (as they are in the Buffy-verse), and the show establishes a fully textured world (multiple worlds, actually) that yearns to be revisited. There are details in the production design that introduce plot-lines that may not have surfaced for seasons to come.
In keeping with tradition, Whedon's show looks spectacular. One of his signatures is to bring a complexity to camera movement and editing that stands apart from the traditional television formula. Compared to most T.V. shows, Firefly is cinematic; compared to cinema... Well, therein lies one of the problems with Serenity. Although I admire Joss for maintaining visual consistency with the series, I feel that the motion picture adaptation of Firefly bears too close a resemblance to really, really good T.V., and consequently fails to hold up as a cinematic experience.
J.J. Abrams has offered up similar quality with his television programs. Though I was never a fan of Felicity, I would certainly remark that the show's cinematography is quite stunning, that it is visually distinct from other fare. The premise of Alias intrigued me more, but I was too busy to watch when it first aired, and by the time I made time for it, I felt that too much had happened for me to catch up. Lost, on the other hand, blew me away with its two-hour series premiere; the production value and visual splendor of the show was like nothing I had ever seen on T.V. I do have some issues with the way that Lost has progressed, but it has its hooks in me; I have been a committed viewer for nearly two seasons now, and the story-lines are still more riveting than most everything else on the dial.
His talent, however, is unleashed like never before in the M:I 3 action sequences. I think I may have held my breath a little during the helicopter chase sequence that weaves through a field of wind turbines. There's also a fantastic gag that plays with that old cliche of the oil tanker barreling sideways down the street towards imminent explosion... The style of the film is cinematic in the blockbuster mode, and I daresay that this installment is far better than its two predecessors. The drama is okay, too. Philip Seymour Hoffman may be slumming it, but his intensity proves that he's still bringing full efforts to this performance, and he more than makes up for the ridiculously convoluted plot.
In addition to being a film that works on the big screen, Mission: Impossible III is also instantly forgettable. I suppose it's not meant to resonate much (mission: accomplished), but this brings me back to the issue of the Whedon works. In many ways, adapting a show as sophisticated as Firefly for the cinema has more insurmountable obstacles than producing a sequel. Serenity picks up where the series left off (or shortly thereafter), and basically attempts to wrap up plot-lines that would have composed the second half of season one. How do you effectively cram eight or nine episodes worth of material into two hours? Well, you don't. Whedon's film has to jettison a great deal of the core character interation in order to make room for exposition. The series has a large cult following, but the movie must be accessable to newcomers, also.
From discussions with a number of people, I have discovered that those who have never seen an episode of Firefly tend to enjoy the movie more than the die hard fans. So, Serenity is not an all and out failure. My position is that, if it entices viewers to look at the thirteen episodes available on DVD, then all will be right. Honestly, Firefly is one of the most re-watchable shows you will ever come accross (I myself have participated in no fewer than eight marathon sessions).
I look forward to the next motion picture J.J. Abrams directs, but I won't be purchasing M:I 3 on DVD. The film more than entertained me for two hours, but as far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon has delivered a life-time's worth of satisfaction in a four-disc box-set. "Satisfaction" is, perhaps, an iffy term... If and when you seek out this hidden gem, you may be disappointed that it ends. I guarantee that you are likely to crave for more, but as Joss ponders aloud on an episode commentary: "Wouldn't it be great if someone watching the movie said, "Hey... This would make a fantastic T.V. show."
In any case, the J.J. versus Joss battle results in something of a tie. Each has entertained to the extreme in an individual way. The best we can hope for is that both of their talents continue to reach our screens, be they 1.33:1 or 1.85:1.
p.s. I secretly hope that Joss Whedon will ultimately win!!!


Melanie Miles said...

Hi John! I really enjoyed your "musing"... I was quite skeptical of MI:III's Cruise factor, but thoroughly enjoyed the film!

Thanks for the email... I will try to check your site often... I love the way you write! Love Mell Miles

Douglas Stebila said...

Hey John, good to see you online and to hear that my fandom of Joss Whedon is validated by such an esteemed critic as yourself.