Saturday, 1 October 2005

Firefly

The new movie Serenity just came out. A lot of people may not be aware that the movie is based on a TV series that ran all too briefly on Fox. That series was Firefly, a science fiction show created by Joss Whedon (the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The series was set in 2517. Earth had long ago been depleted of its resources and as a result humanity colonised space. It is also set not long after the Unification War, a conflict which resulted when the Alliance sought to unite all of the colonised worlds under one government. The Alliance succeeded, although the results of unification were not particularly beneficial. Many of the various colonies are still very much a frontier, with little to no law. While this allows inhabitants of those planets a bit more freedom than they would have in the worlds where the Alliance exercises its power, they also lack many of the modern day amenities. As a result, many of Earth's colonies are in the same situation as that of the Wild West of the United States.

Among the many "Browncoats" who fought against the Alliance in the Unification War were Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe Warren (Gina Torres). The two command the spaceship Serenity (hence the movie's name), a Firefly class transport vessel. Like Reynolds and Warren, the rest of the crew of Serenity are also outcasts and nonconformitsts. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) was a preacher not quite like any other. And Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) was a Companion (think of a very high class call girl). Episodes of the series centred on the various jobs accepted by the crew of Serenity and their efforts to avoid the forces of the Alliance.

On the surface, Firefly might not sound that different from such space operas as Star Trek and Farscape, but the series does show some marked differences from other sci-fi shows. First, the show featured no unusual aliens. If there were any other intelligent species in space, humanity had yet to encounter them. Second, the show felt very much like a Western--in some ways more like a Western than a sci-fi show. It treated the far reaches of space like the Old West, where lawlessness often prevailed. Third, character interaction is more central to Firefly than technology, science, or even action. It was largely a character driven series. Fourth, its visual style was decidely different. It often used scenes done in CGI which duplicated the movement of handheld cameras. Some scenes were actually shot using handheld cameras. Most markedly, the space scenes had no sound whatsoever. While this is scientificaly correct (there is no sound in space), it is quite different than the average sci-fi show in which every single explosion can be heard.

While Firefly received good notices and developed a loyal following, it was given very little support from Fox. The series was scheduled on Friday night where very few genre shows survive. Rather than move the series to a better time slot, Fox simply cancelled the show after a few episodes. Fortunately, Joss Whedon realised that his creation still had a hope of success and set to work on the feature film known as Serenity. It is difficult to say whether Serenity will be a hit or whether it will result in a revival of the series. Regardless, Firefly won't soon be forgotten.

Thursday, 29 September 2005

Corpse Bride

Saturday I went to see Corpse Bride. I have always loved The Nightmare Before Christmas, so I was looking forward to Tim Burton's latest animated feature. I can't say I was disappointed.

Corpse Bride is a wonderful film. Its plot is inventive and original. I don't think I am revealing anything when I say that the plot centres on a young man, Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), who finds himself married to a corpse (played by Helena Bonham Carter). This unusual situation leads to some of the funniest scenes and funniest lines I have seen in any movie of late, animated or otherwise. Indeed, some of the best lines are uttered by the town crier (whose news always seems to be to the detriment of poor Victor's reputation).

The vocal performances are superb. Depp lends an air of melancholy to poor Victor, a young man who seems to have always found himself a victim of his circumstances. Helena Bonham Carter also does quite well as the Corpse Bride of the title, a poor dead soul desperately in search of love. Perhaps the best voice in the entire money is that of Enn Reitel, who not only voices the Maggot (yes, the movie does have a maggot as a character...), but also the Town Crier (who has many of the film's best lines). Corpse Bride literally has an all star cast, with voices provided by Joanna Lumley, Tracey Ullman, Albert Finney, Michael Gough, and even Christopher Lee (yes, that Christopher Lee).

The score by Danny Elfman is superb and I would dare say that some of the songs are even Oscar worthy. Particularly good are "Tears to Shed," the movie's token ballad, and "According to Plan," the film's opening number.

Among the movie's strongest points are its visuals. Corpse Bride does not look quite like any movie. It also has an original take on the world of the living versus the world of the dead. The world of the living is a glum one, coloured largely in greys, blacks, and whites. On the other hand, the world of the dead is full of colour and (no pun intended) life.

Corpse Bride is a must for any fan of animated movies, as well as anyone who enjoys black comedy. Indeed, I would say it is perfect viewing for Halloween this year.

Wednesday, 28 September 2005

A Few Thoughts about Young Adult Fantasy Novels

It seems to me of late that there has been a rise in the popularity of young adult (that's library talk for "adolescent") fantasy novels. Eragon by Christopher Paolini has been a huge success. A motion picture based on the novel is due to come out in 2006 and its sequel, Eldest, has made the best seller's list. Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke has also proven popular. There are also several other fantasy books out right now geared towards younger people: Gregor the Overlander: Book One in The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, The Children of the Lamp Trilogy by P. B. Kerr, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and yet others. Of couse, the popularity of Harry Potter seems to only grow with each passing year.

I find this uprise in young adult fantasy novels curious as it seems to me that there has been no similar rise in the popularity of fantasy novels for adults. Oh, I have no doubt that adults also read the young adult novels--the popularity of Eragon and Harry Potter is not entirely due to children. Yet, it seems to me that no work written solely for adults has proven as successful as either of those. As to the reason for this new surge in the popularity of young adult fantasy novels, I don't think that is too hard to find. The Harry Potter series is quite possibly the most successful series of books of all time. On top of that, the Lord of the Rings movies were successful enough that they rank among the highest grossing motion pictures of all time. It is not surprising that youngsters would now be interested in fantasy novels. As to why there has not been a smilar upsurge in the popularity of adult fantasy novels, that is perhaps a question for another time....

Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Maxwell Smart R.I.P.

Among the things that this year will be remembered for in the annals of televison is the loss of sitcom legends. Earlier this month Bob Denver died. Now Don Adams, best known as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, has passed on as well. Adams died Sunday of a lung infection at the age of 82. He had been in poor health since he had broken a hip about a year ago.

Don Adams was born in New York City in 1923. In high school he did impressions of celebrities (among which was William Powell of Thin Man fame). He dropped out of high school to join the Marines at the start of World War II. He served at Guadalcanal where he contracted malaria. He was later sent back to the States where he served as a drill instructor. Following World War II he took a job as a commercial artist. He also started doing stand up comedy at night clubs around New York. For his stage name he adopted his first wife Adelaide's maiden name--Adams. Inm 1958 he made his television debut on The Steve Allen Show. He went on to do several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1962 he appeared on Broadway in the play Harold. In 1964 he provided the voice of Comet in the perennial Yuletide favourite Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Nineteen sixty three was a turning point in Adams' career. It was that year that he was cast on The Bill Dana Show, as hotel detective Byron Glick. For the character's voice he used his William Powell imitation, which he would later use as Maxwell Smart. It was also that year that he provided the voice for Tennessee Tuxedo on the cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. The cartoon centred on a penguin and his walrus powel Chumley, always plotting to escape the zoo.

Adams' role as Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show led to him being cast in Get Smart. The series was a parody of spy movies and TV series that overwhelmed the American media at the time. The show centred on Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of Control. Smart's partner was Agent 99 (played by Barbara Feldon). Together the two of them faced the agents of the evil organisation known as KAOS. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and buoyed by the spy craze of the Sixties, Get Smart became a smash hit. Through Max the show introduced a number of catchphrases to the English language, inlcuding "Would you believe...," "Sorry, Chief,"and "Missed it by that much..." The show ranked in the Top Twenty Five highest rated series for its first two years. It also won two Emmys for Best Comedy Series and three for Best Actor in a Comedy for Don Adams. The show lasted five seasons--four of them on NBC and one of them on CBS. Don Adams would once more play Maxwell Smart in the 1980 feature film The Nude Bomb, in the 1989 reunion movie Get Smart Again!, and in the 1995 revival of the series.

Following Get Smart Don Adams found himself typecast. Parts were few and far between. He appeared in the TV series The Partners and Check It Out. In 1983 he would voice the third character (after Tennessee Tuxedo and Maxwell Smart) for which he was famous, providing the voice of Inspector Gadget on the cartoon of the same name.

Adams appeared in only a few movies over the years. Besides The Nude Bomb he appeared in Jimmy the Kid and Back to the Beach.

I am truly saddened to hear of Don Adams' passing. As a child I grew up watching both Tennessee Tuxedo and Get Smart. Indeed, as a child Get Smart numbered among my favourite shows. Maxwell Smart is one of those few television characters who is immediately recongisable to any American over thirty. Much of the reason that Smart became such an icon and that Get Smart became such a success was the talent of Don Adams. His clipped delivery was perfect for comedy and his timing was always precise. Adams had a gift for vocal comedy, including developing catchphrases. I rather suspect that in the history of television there are only a few comedy stars who could match him. At any rate, I seriously doubt we will see too many with his talent any time soon.