Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Flicks Files: Serenity (2005)

River Tam's mind has been stolen from her and locked behind closed doors in her brain. It's guarded by the assassin she has become, trained to kill at a word. Her brother, Simon, has freed her body from the secret Alliance facility where she is kept, but not even he can interpret her mad, psychic ramblings sometimes.

They are fugitives on an outlaw ship, Serenity. Mal is Serenity's Captain, a rebel and a wanted man, who just wants to stay free, but must live at the edges of law and civilized space to do so.

Now, a dangerous Alliance operative is coming after River --- a man who believes to his core that the right thing to do is to kill her --- and River's presence has become a danger to Serenity and her crew.

Mal is tempted to dump River and Simon on the next civilized planet and let them take their chances, but it wouldn't be right. For all his swaggering cynicism, Mal is a decent guy. Besides, whatever information is encoded in River's brain, the Alliance desperately wants to cover it up. Mal wants to find out what makes them feel so threatened. It might be useful to him.

There is some opposition to the idea of keeping River and Simon aboard. Jayne thinks the crew should be well rid of them, and he swaggers even more than Mal. In fact, Jayne swaggers so much you have to assume that all the brain energy he uses for controlling the swaggering muscles keeps his mind from functioning.

Fortunately, cooler, kinder, and smarter heads prevail, and the crew sets off to figure out why the Alliance wants River so badly.

To unravel the riddle, the crew of Serenity must evade the Alliance operative, while outrunning the Reavers, humans who have descended into madness, violence, self-mutilation, and cannibalism.

Joss Whedon's Serenity (2005) is a wild science fiction ride with a sharply witty script. Whedon is known for quirky, humorous, and original shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the recent Internet-based hit, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Serenity is based on his short-lived series, Firefly, which ran on Fox for one season before being canceled. Though it didn't last long, the show's fresh writing, sarcasm, and stellar ensemble cast inspired a devoted following of fans, strong enough to pressure Universal Studios into making the movie anyway.

Fortunately for anyone who likes science-fiction adventure with a giant dose of snappy snark, both movie and show are available on DVD. If you missed this the first time, don't miss it now.

This exchange between Captain Mal and First Mate Wash comes near the beginning of the film, and gives a sample of the humor:

Wash: "... this landing is gonna get pretty interesting."

Mal: "Define interesting."

Wash: "Oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die?"

Mal: (over speaker to the crew) "This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode."

Mal leaves the cabin and encounters Jayne.

Jayne: “We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode.”

The film’s cast members play off each other wonderfully. The stars include Nathan Fillion (Desperate Housewives, Waitress) as Mal, Summer Glau as River, and Alan Tudyk (3:10 to Yuma) as Wash, Gina Torres (I Think I Love My Wife) as Zoe, as well as several other actors in key roles.

Serenity is rated PG-13 for scenes of violence and some minor sexual references. The on-screen violence isn't terribly graphic, but the implications are disturbing. This film is not appropriate for young children.

Serenity earns the coveted “edge of my seat” rating in the black cat rating system.

The Flicks Files is an occasional column reviewing movies both new and old, to increase your viewing pleasure both at home and in the theater. This is the first installment.

Previously posted on Associated Content.



Here's an article I consulted in writing this review: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/10490/joss_whedon_hits_the_big_screen_in.html?cat=40

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Friday, August 15, 2008

View my work on Associated Content

In an incremental step toward my goal of making a living by publishing my writing, I've joined Associated Content, which pays, albeit minimally, for content. In the future, some of my content will be posted there first, some will be posted there exclusively. That's assuming it works out for me to publish there.

You can keep up with what I'm posting to Associated Content here.

You may notice that I am now publishing under the nom de plume of "Laura Serena." I needed a more professional byline.

Thanks for reading what I write, whether you read it here or on another site.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)

In her collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, April 2008), Jhumpa Lahiri tells earthbound tales of ordinary Bengalis leading very ordinary (and very Western) lives as immigrants to America. Unaccustomed Earth features five short stories and one novella, "Hema and Kaushik," which, at just over 100 pages, is one third of the book.

The stories are written with clarity and insight, giving us an intimate look into the psyches of her characters. The characters themselves could be our neighbors or friends; they are people with everyday concerns, problems, and failures to communicate, which seem so familiar that they often remind me of people I know.

Though most of her characters come from India, the struggles they face in their lives could be anyone's. They occasionally wear Indian clothes, eat Indian foods, and sometimes retain Indian customs, but for the most part they seem entirely American, like they have already been absorbed by a culture with which they still occasionally feel at odds. These are normal people living normal lives.

This, for me, was the problem. I don't think I'm Jhumpa Lahiri's ideal reader. It's true that I have long had an interest in India and its cultures, but I like a good dose of mythology, magic, adventure, and the supernatural with my fiction. I'm quite sure that my failure to appreciate these stories is entirely mine.

I know very well that people sometimes fail to communicate, that family members fail to live up to each other’s expectations, and that marriages are often anything but romantic. Alienation and lack of effective communication are frequent themes throughout all the stories of Unaccustomed Earth. Though heartfelt and well-described, to me, these themes are just so banal.

I must confess, I read fiction to escape from a world of ordinary struggles, ordinary pain. It is not my wish, generally, to be immersed in commonplace hardships that might be happening in any house in any city in America, when I read. But that might be just me.

If you like stories that are windows into the everyday private lives of others, I imagine you will love Unaccustomed Earth. My mother, a professor of literature, who can certainly claim more expertise about the subject than I, loved the book and gave it a rave review over the phone to me. I wish I could share her enthusiasm. I found the book depressing, though that in itself is not a real criticism, depression being a legitimately human state.

Even I must admit that Lahiri's stories ring true on every page, her characters and situations having the vividness to evoke real life. I cannot fault her there. Her writing is thoughtful. Her characters somehow find convincing life and breath between her words on the page.

My favorite quote in the book seems to sum up what most of her stories are about:

"... of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and terrifying as any other."

To be fair, not all of the relationships in her stories crack open. Some of them mend, as relationships often do over time.

To give brief summaries of the stories here:

In the title story, "Unaccustomed Earth," a father visits his daughter in Seattle. She is pregnant with her second child. He is retired and makes frequent trips to Europe. His daughter believes it is her duty, now that her father is a widower, to invite him to live with her family. Both are living in places that are strange to them, yet they are also strange to each other, failing to communicate their expectations, which the other can't fulfill.

In "Hell-Heaven," an immigrant Bengali family adopts a Bengali student as an "uncle." The mother of the family falls in love with him, but eventually he marries an American woman, straining their relationship.

In "Choice of Accommodation," a couple makes a weekend getaway to a hotel, using a friend's wedding as an excuse. The story is a study in contrast between romantic hopes and the reality of marriage.

In "Only Goodness," a family deals with a son's alcoholism. His sister, who introduced him to alcohol as a teenager, worries that she is to blame.

In "Nobody's Business," a college boy has a crush on his Indian housemate, whose boyfriend is cheating on her. Her housemate finds out before she does, and wonders what to do about it.

In the novella "Hema and Kaushik," a girl and a boy meet when his family moves back to America, after having spent some years back in India, and temporarily lives with her family. She develops a crush on the older boy, and grows to love his mother, but soon finds out his mother is dying of breast cancer. Many years after his mother's death, the young man and woman meet again.

Of all the pieces in the book, I enjoyed the longest one, "Hema and Kaushik," the most. I think perhaps it was necessary for me to read more than a short vignette before I would begin to care about her characters. The story also possesses a symbolic dimension, with allusions to mythology the others lack, creating a depth of meaning not present elsewhere in the book, in my opinion.

For example, a sense of fatal foreboding arises after Hema loses a gold bangle given to her by her grandmother, which in the course of the story has come to signify her relationship with Kaushik:

"And yet she felt she had left a piece of her body behind. She had grown up hearing from her mother that losing gold was inauspicious, and as the plane began to climb, in those moments she was still aware of it moving, a dark thought passed through her, that it would crash or be blasted apart in the sky."
Lahiri is also the author of The Namesake, which was made into a movie by director Mira Nair. I found the movie similarly well done, but also slightly tedious, though I must admit I didn't read the book.

Several of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth appeared previously in The New Yorker.

Unaccustomed Earth is currently available in hardcover and audio CD from the major online booksellers, as well as bookstores. There is also a version available for the Amazon Kindle.



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