September 27, 2005

“Serenity” Is Special for Its Sincerity

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:26 pm

serenity

NOTE: This review has NO spoilers.

Joss Whedon, the Emmy-nominated writer/director of the television hits “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” has created a big-screen winner in “Serenity.”

Whedon satisfies the long-suffering fans of “Firefly,” who watched the series get cancelled in 2002 but helped it gain new life in reruns on the Scifi Channel. Almost all of the characters they have come to admire perform heroically and go through life-altering changes in the process. Moviegoers who have never seen the TV series will still be engaged by the plot and will be co-admirers of the Serenity crew by the film’s end.

The movie is set about 500 years in the future, in a universe solar system dominated by The Alliance, essentially a sort of one-universe government. “Serenity” is a spaceship commanded by Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), whose motley crew has three purposes: survive by carrying out missions ranging from questionable to criminal (in the Robin Hood sense); stay out of the way of The Alliance; and protect a young female passenger named River (Summer Glau), who has psychic powers and previously-hidden abilities, from capture and execution by The Alliance.

The Alliance detects “Serenity” while it is carrying out one of those shady missions. A trained assassin, The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), spends the rest of the movie leading The Alliance’s pursuit of Serenity and its prize passenger. During the pursuit, with the help of River, Serenity’s crew discovers a horrible Alliance secret and, switching from renegade defense to outraged offense, decides against all odds that the rest of the universe solar system must know the awful truth.

The character relationships are engaging, entertaining, and moving. Some of the many that stand out: the under-the-surface sensual smolder between Mal and “comfort woman” Inara (Morena Baccarin); the believer-nonbeliever repartee between Mal and Book (Ron Glass); the girl-wants-boy giddiness around Kaylee (Jewel Staite) and Simon (Sean Maher); the mutual love between warrior wife Zoe (Gina Torres) and the ship’s pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); and the brother-sister interactions of Simon and River. What is most striking about the characters, and most unusual in science fiction, is that almost everyone, with the possible exception of cynical mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), is searching for some kind of deeper meaning and validation in their lives.

Whedon strikes a marvelous balance in the film’s presentation. The special effects are very convincing without calling attention to themselves. The violence and horror are gripping without getting gratuitiously bloody or graphic. The tense scenes between the characters are strident without going over the top.

Weaknesses, though minor, do exist, but are common to the genre. The space fleet fight sequence is hard to follow, and we have to take the director’s word that our heroes figured out how to get the upper hand. The Assassin’s bad-guy powers seem a bit too great for good-guy Mal to credibly defeat. Some of the blows landed and wounds inflicted, particularly during the final fight sequence between The Assassin and Mal, seem a bit too serious to shrug off while continuing the fight.

But overall, “Serenity” is one of the freshest science fiction projects to hit the big screen in quite a while. It should breathe some life into a year where Hollywood has struggled, mostly in vain, in its search for a blockbuster that isn’t another sequel or remake.

Rating: 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.
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UPDATE: I want to thank those who orchestrated and enabled the Blogger Sneak Preview, particularly Grace Hill Media, Universal Pictures, and AMC Theatres. I suspect they will find that reaching out to potential buzz-creators is an effective way to increase the chances of box-office success.

UPDATE 2, Sept. 28, 8PM: As expected, blog reviews are ubiquitous. Also as expected, the reviews are almost “universally” favorable. Just a few of the better ones: Nix Guy, Combs Spouts Off, Vodkapundit, Resurrection Song, Misplaced Keys, and Internet Freedom Trail.

Quote of the Day 1: Michael Barone on the Economy

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 4:28 pm

From Barone’s Townhall column of September 26:

Polls show that most Americans think the economy is in dreadful shape, even though almost all the numbers are good: Inflation and unemployment are low, and growth is robust despite the exogenous shocks of Sept. 11, Enron and Katrina. After a generation of almost constant low-inflation economic growth, perhaps we Americans are only satisfied when we have bubble growth, as in the late 1990s, and are unimpressed when the American economy proves once again to be amazingly resilient. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that we are going through a time of increased competition and change, as China and India, with 37 percent of the world’s population, are transforming their economies from Third World to First World. Such a large proportion of mankind moving rapidly upward: This has never happened before and will never happen again.

To supplement, I would like to remind Mr. Barone that the “bubble growth” of the late 1990s turned out, with notable exceptions like Amazon and Ebay, to be largely an illusion:

Can you say “internet bubble”? Through much of the late ’90s, millions of Americans tossed their money into gems like Buy.com, flowers.com, and com.com without really knowing how these companies were ever going to turn a profit. We didn’t bother to look at the business models. We didn’t care. It was all so exciting-it was a movement. We were told that the “old rules” of the marketplace didn’t apply. Profit-to-earnings ratios of 50 to 1 were not uncommon, 20-something internet execs were becoming gazillionaires, and the stock prices just kept skyrocketing. (This assumes that these companies were making a profit–most never did, and never got close–Ed.)

But then reality set in.

It turns out that the old rules did matter. The slick dot-com television ads couldn’t conceal the fact that there was no there there. The bubble burst. In retrospect, it all seems so obvious. How could so many people have been fooled for so long?

The Internet Deathwatch is an extensive, but by no means complete, rundown of many of the dot-com wonders that sucked billions of dollars out of the economy that could have been invested productively instead of sent down a rat hole.

Dvorak Says Newspapers and Movies are Fading Fast (Read: Doomed)

Filed under: Business Moves,Economy — Tom @ 1:15 pm

Well, he has never been shy:

There are two important institutions that are about to be decimated by technology: newspapers and movies. It won’t be pretty.

The biggest impact technology has had on any social institution is moviegoing. I think moviegoing is doomed to die off slowly unless Hollywood can come up with a reasonable new experience. As it now stands, I can feed an HDTV signal into a standard Toshiba LCD projector through the composite video ports and blow out a 100-inch 16:9 image on a screen and get a theater experience in the home. With progressive scan or line-doubling DVD players, the experience is phenomenal. Use a DLP theater projector or a large-screen plasma display, and you’re in heaven.

So why do I now want to go to the theater? Do I want to go because it’s more expensive than a DVD rental? Do I want to go for the greasy popcorn coated with trans-fat butter-flavored oil? Do I want to go so I can hear cell phones going off all over the place and people yakking on them? Do I want to go because most of the movies aren’t shown on large screens at all, but in boxcar-sized rooms with screens not much bigger than my projector screen at home? Do I want to go because the sound is turned too loud and pumped through a mediocre audio system?

The only reason you may want to go is if you can see the big-screen version of the movie and the movie has big-screen impact.

….. Now with the DVD and the so-called home theater, the average experience is simply better at home. You can stop the movie when you want. You can eat dinner while watching. You can pause the movie and examine a scene more closely. The only thing you really miss is the group experience of sitting in an audience with a hundred or more strangers who react to the film, which is an important form of socialization. Of course, that experience has to be balanced by the idiot with the hat sitting in front of you or the girl who keeps getting up every five minutes to go to the bathroom or make a call.

In the 1950s and 1960s, during the waning years of the traditional big theater with loge seating, there even used to be ushers who could throw people out of the theater. Nowadays in most venues, if an usher ever showed up, he’d be beaten and stripped.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed, they are starting to bring the release of the DVD closer and closer to the release of the movie. This means that eventually they will be released at the same time, and only the most spectacular movies will get any attendance.

Then he goes to work on newspapers:

….. another American institution is under attack simultaneously: the printed newspaper. Newspapers, once fat and happy with local ads and classifieds, have all bloated up, with too many staffers producing a minimal amount of content per person.

….. This was justifiable when the newspapers were rolling in dough, but craigslist has probably sunk the business, with free classified advertising that is far more useful and functional than anything delivered by any newspaper. There was a lot of money made by the classifieds. That money is gone. Nobody knows how the newspapers can recover. Nobody.

Finally, he points out that their fates are intertwined:

Curiously, many newspapers rely on big income from movie advertising. There goes another income stream, as that business begins to fade. Another irony is that today’s newspapers report celebrity gossip as a form of news, helping to prop up the Hollywood machine. And since newspapers and their movie reviews help pump up sales of blockbuster films, we have an interesting chicken-and-egg dilemma. What got eaten first? The chicken or the egg? We are essentially going to watch two American institutions shrink or fragment into new forms that will probably resemble their earliest iterations, both small by today’s standards.

Meanwhile, the newspaper publishers are clueless as to what they might do to stop the bleeding and Hollywood is more concerned about digital rights management than they are about their own future. Hey, guys. There is a huge locomotive headed your way. Take a look!

He didn’t even get around to mentioning that just about anyone with a little equipment and talent can make a presentable movie now, and anyone with a computer can publish a blog or some other form of online content.

It does not look good for the news and movie dinos, which is a sobering thought to ponder while at the “Serenity” sneak preview tonight.

Quote of the Day: Mark Steyn on “Social Democracy” and “Selfishness”

Filed under: Economy,Quotes, Etc. of the Day,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 10:39 am

From Steyn’s September 20 column in The London Telegraph, commenting on Germany’s problems, with applicability everywhere:

The argument they (“social democrats”) make is usually a moral one – that there’s something better and more compassionate about us all sharing the burden as a community. But the election results in Germany and elsewhere suggest that, in fact, nothing makes a citizen more selfish than lavish welfare and that once he’s enjoying the fruits thereof he couldn’t give a hoot about the broader societal interest. “Social democracy” turns out to be explicitly anti-social.

Positivity: Katrina Survivor, 104, Rejoins Family

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:07 am

Katrina Survivor, 104, Rejoins Family

(more…)

Should American Airlines Preemptively File for Bankruptcy?

Filed under: Business Moves,Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 6:01 am

Writing in Forbes, Richard Lehmann thinks so. It’s hard to disagree (link is free now; may require subscription later):

American Airlines should be praying hard, since only an act of God can now save their company from an eventual bankruptcy filing. The bankruptcies by Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines on Sept. 14 were close enough to Sept. 11 to revive memories of its impact on the airline industry. More importantly, it leaves American as the only legacy carrier that has not resorted to a court ordered restructuring.

….. I have learned a few things about when bankruptcy becomes both inevitable and even desirable. AMR (American Airlines’ parent company) has reached that point. One need only look back at history to see why this is so.

….. (Legendary management guru) Peter Drucker, in his writings on management, pointed out that all industries had one–or more–of three common structural weaknesses. They were either labor intensive, capital intensive or vulnerable to the cost and supply of a key commodity. Airlines are in the unhappy situation of having all three weaknesses. With deregulation, legacy carriers found themselves with labor costs, work rules and cost structures that could not compete against new upstarts.

….. AMR, like its peers, used the threat of bankruptcy to extract wage concessions and work-rule changes from its employees–changes that would have allowed it to become more efficient and enable it to trim back unprofitable routes. This did not, however, relieve it of employee seniority costs (i.e. the higher wages earned by its more senior “last to go” employees and their higher pension costs)–costs, which an upstart carrier doesn’t have. But even after squeezing its labor force, AMR is still left with billions in debt from the hundreds of aircraft it does not want and the expensive airport gates that are being under-utilized. Only through bankruptcy can they quickly reduce this large and costly accumulated debt.

….. Yes, AMR can survive out of bankruptcy for another year or two, but it would be a pointless exercise. Its shareholders have no future, and with its current debt load, profitability is not on the horizon. With the latest bankruptcy filings, they become the only carrier left without the competitive advantage of a lean balance sheet and a lower cost bankruptcy or post-bankruptcy environment. In short, bankruptcy gives Delta and Northwest an immediate competitive advantage over AMR and, thus, only quickens the inevitable.

AMR should go for a prepackaged bankruptcy by stopping all debt payments now. It should set a negotiating deadline and offer to pay all legal fees–with incentives for all of the attorneys–if the deadline is met.

….. With the Delta and Northwest bankruptcies, the airline industry is near an inflection point where industry-wide consolidation and restructuring is possible. AMR can either be a leader in this process or wait and become the final victim. Sometimes bankruptcy is the answer to your prayers.

The fact that every other major airline has either recently filed for bankruptcy (Delta, NWA), is emerging shortly after shedding legacy costs (US Air, United), or had their bankruptcy baptism of fire years ago (Continental) seems to make American’s ability to continue without filing for bankruptcy itself very problematic. The legendary but retired Robert Crandall will not be pleased, but I agree with the author that there appears to be no acceptable alternative.
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PREVIOUS POST: The Airline Bankruptcies Preview the Upcoming Disparities in the New Bankruptcy Law

State Tax Tax Coffers Are Filling Throughout the Land (Time for CAT Tax Repeal in Ohio)

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 12:27 am

The TaxProf Blog notes that state tax revenues for the 2nd quarter of 2005 vs. 2004 are up 13.3% nationally (original link at site is to a PDF at the Nelson Rockefeller Institute).

Must be the lousy economy (/sarcasm).

Some states are reaping a bonanza:

  • Alaska, up 42%–This windfall should be able to pay for The $200 million Bridge to Nowhere (halfway through linked article), if Alaskans want it badly enough that they are willing to pay for it themselves (any bets?)
  • New Jersey, up 28%
  • North Carolina, up 28%
  • West Virginia, up 25%

Ohio lags the national average increase, but is still up 9%. I suggest that this is enough to justify repealing the ridiculous CAT business gross-receipts tax that will go into effect next year. I don’t remember what CAT really stands for, and don’t really care, because as far as I’m concerned it should be called the Completely Anal Tax.