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August 22 2005

(SPOILER) Variety reviews Serenity. A mixed review to say the least. Contains plot spoilers. You'll need a subscription to read the entire article... or you can just click the "Read this article for free" link... but to sum up...

The Good -

The cast, the lack of bombastic CGI, the cast,
Chiwetel Ejiofor, the cast, you don't need to have seen Firefly to understand the movie, the cast, some interesting ideas, the cast, "Americana dialogue" oh and the cast.

The Bad -

Apparently the movie has a very TV ish feel to it (including the direction), undeveloped ideas, it's a bit too obvious that the film was shot on soundstages and the score is "meh".

One has to wonder how much stock to put in a review which includes the following statement:

... and corn-fed farm girl Kaylee (Jewel Staite, Whedon's real-life wife), the ship's mechanic.

Pardon me if I don't take seriously any review whose author can't even get basic real-world facts correct.
Or you can click the "Read This Article For FREE...Click Here!" and read the whole thing.

On the review, it pretty much says all the things I expected to hear from a mainstream critique.

[ edited by The First Weevil on 2005-08-23 02:43 ]
Ya beat me to that baddie, theonetruebix.

I'm deposting.

[ edited by Drifter on 2005-08-23 02:43 ]
I can't get into the review using www.bugmenot.com, so I'm just going on your synopsis.

I don't think that review sounds too bad. The most important factors are there. The only real negative points seem to be down to financial constraints, I think. What was their problem with soundstages? I'm probably being ignorant, but how are films usually shot? Are the soundstages used in Serenity just usually obvious?

I'm disappointed about their comments on the score, but you never know. Personally I wouldn't be upset if it wasn't LotR epic, but was more unusual. Less of the big, booming, epic moments, but something less conventional. The music in the trailer is very good in that sense, and I suppose the same could be said of Firefly's music, which I also loved. But who knows, really? It could just be this reviewer's opinion. I certainly am still looking forward to the film.
Once again, this post needs a SPOILER warning included on it. Please, please can we remember to do this? I've seen the film so it doesn't matter to me, but we really need to pay more attention here when posting links.

(Yes, I know the body of this post says "mild spoilers" -- which is actually a very very wrong characterization, FYI -- but people scan posts here for the big red SPOILER tag, and it needs to be seen on this post.)

[ edited by theonetruebix on 2005-08-23 02:50 ]
Didn't see the free article link. Sorry. I've got a subscription so I don't get the same ad pages.

I don't think that there's anything in the review that you haven't seen in the trailer (except perhaps some planet names), but I'll add the big warning anyway.

[ edited by VJP666 on 2005-08-23 02:52 ]
By the end of the review, I was starting to count how many times the reviewer was shortening industry words. The condescending attitude did not win me over as well.

Oh, one glaring error in the review:

corn-fed farm girl Kaylee (Jewel Staite, Whedon's real-life wife)
That comment about Jewel being Joss's wife stopped me dead in my tracks and totally ruined my concentration.

Razor, as was said above, click on the read for free button to read the whole thing without registering.

I'm hoping the rest of the reviewers can get past the whole, "he started in TV" thing.

[ edited by newcj on 2005-08-23 02:56 ]
Man, what is WITH the press these days? The "not bothering to check facts" thing is getting to be the standard instead of the exception! Where's the journalistic integrity?!

Ok, so I wouldn't be yelling so much if it wasn't about our 'verse... but it is, and I am. I'm sick to frickin' death of it. And who the hell would have told this guy that Jewel is Joss' wife? HAH? (imagine Archie Bunker tone)

Alright. Here's me calm now. :P
The only real negative points seem to be down to financial constraints, I think. What was their problem with soundstages? I'm probably being ignorant, but how are films usually shot? Are the soundstages used in Serenity just usually obvious?
Movies are really only shot on stage or on location. And I think I know what this reviewer is on about since I felt the same way about one set in particular that felt very "set dressed."
By the end of the review, I was starting to count how many times the reviewer was shortening industry words. The condescending attitude did not win me over as well.
Yeah. Wanker.

[ edited by The First Weevil on 2005-08-23 02:58 ]
I'm probably being ignorant, but how are films usually shot? Are the soundstages used in Serenity just usually obvious?

Weren't Forrest Gump and Gladiator all filmed on a blue screen? Isn't that even less than a soundstage? Did they have to build an actual working, life-sized model of Serenity for it not to be on a soundstage?

That kind of thing smacks of the kind of arbitrary snobbery and double-standardness that a lot of critics exhibit. We might have to brace ourselves for more of this, because critics often judge a movie based on the percs (or lack thereof) they get from movie studios and the mood they're in.
By the end of the review, I was starting to count how many times the reviewer was shortening industry words.


That's "Variety speak" (thank God for the Animaniacs). It's just not Variety unless they shorten words. This is the Variety slang dictionary.

What was their problem with soundstages? I'm probably being ignorant, but how are films usually shot? Are the soundstages used in Serenity just usually obvious?


The reviewer felt that Joss’ direction made it a bit too obvious that the movie was shot on a soundstage. Most movies generally try to avoid looking too "stagey".

[ edited by VJP666 on 2005-08-23 03:05 ]
I don't think Serenity was shot on soundstages as much as this guy thinks, or even as much as other big budget sci-fi/action movies.

Serenity was shot in the Santa Clarita Valley, where I live, and most of it was on location.
Too many errors of fact for me to take this seriously...
and corn-fed farm girl Kaylee (Jewel Staite, Whedon's real-life wife), the ship's mechanic


Isn't Joss already lucky enough...perhaps Variety is just trying to cushion the blow of their mixed review.
Well, at least we didn't have another reviewer calling him Josh Wheldon or Wheaton.
I bet Kai (sp?) will laugh a lot, if she read this.
On the upside, you'll notice that some degree of this review is of the "not sure it will work for a mass audience" sort of thing -- precisely the sort of judgement it's a little tough to make in either direction.
Well, it is Variety, so on one level we kind of have to take it seriously, as in how it will affect industry opinion and other reviews. Of course we don't have to take anything seriously as far as how it affects our own opinions. ;-)
I thought the review was more positive than negative.

Seems like Variety almost always bags on films (from purely anecdotal evidence, it feels like the one rotten review on an otherwise universally acclaimed film at Rotten Tomatoes is always from Variety).
Those nice folks over at Fireflyfans.net, posted a transcribe.
As previously warned, it contains spoilers.
totbix, how is that an upside? If a respected industry mag says that it's not sure mainstreamers will like it, how is that a positive? We want the mainstreamers! At least to sit their butts in the seat one time. They don't have to become total converts, but we need the mainstream money to insure Joss gets to make more.

A lot of folks think of Variety as their entertainment 'bible'. I guess I'm just wondering how you arrived at that upside conclusion. :)
Wait'll Kai finds out Joss is married to Jewel too.

Here's where as a critic, I think this guy blows it:

"Nobody seems to have told Mr. Whedon tht U.S. sci-fiers were already Westerns in futuristic dress and that cross-cultural Eastern-Westerns were invented 40 years ago."

Yes, there have been plenty of movies that were just Westerns in futuristic dress. But that's all they were--stories typical of Westerns set in the future. They didn't look like Westerns, they just acted like them. Joss has a frontier in SERENITY and explains why it's there. He integrates the two.

And the cross-cultural Eastern-Westerns from 40 years ago? I assume he's referring to movies like A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN? Those movies were realized by filmmakers who saw the similarites in theme and story structure that are shared by Westerns and Samurai films. If he thinks that's why the "Orientalia" is in SERENITY, he wasn't watching the movie. There is no "Orientalia" in FISTFUL and SEVEN. Joss isn't converting a Samurai film into sci-fi western here. He is making a statement about what a future culture might be like and how that is reflected on the outside.

It seems this guy decided he needed to be snarky so he made some very superficial comparisons between SERENITY and both Space Operas and Spaghetti Westerns.

That's why I think as a critic we can't take this guy seriously. That, and VARIETY always skews its reviews toward potential box office. Unfortunately, exhibitors might take him seriously and a result it may not play on as many screens as we'd like.

I think we will get some major critics on our side when SERENITY is released. But my hunch is overall, reviews will be mixed. That's okay--word of mouth produced by us will get SERENITY at least the required 80 million.

Oh yeah, and mainstreamers don't read VARIETY.
Kudos, batmarlowe...nicely done...the reviewer really is missing the forest for the trees, with the western/sci-fi motif, and the Eastern influence, too. This isn't taking Macbeth and turning it into Throne of Blood, or taking The Seven Samauri and remaking it as The Magnificent Seven...this is a melding, a recreation, something very, very new and fresh.

Somebody said there are only six (or five, or seven, doesn't matter) stories, the key is how you tell and re-tell them. Serenity, as I have opined before, retells a couple of age-old stories (won't even mention, for fear of spoilerage), in an entirely new way.

It's called, I believe, art.
Hmm. I guess I never read Variety. Now I know why. Not just the fact that it's a negative review – but the Variety-speak shorthand REALLY turned me off. I know it's a magazine for insiders, and this isn't so much a review as shorthand notes of how the writer thinks the movie will play and what its box-office potential will be. But it's still annoying – very jargon-filled, cliqueish, know-it-all in tone.
Not that I, you know, didn't like the writing or anything....

As for his opinions about how it plays to a mass audience – here's to hoping the inside pundits have it wrong! Happens all the time...
As for his opinions about how it plays to a mass audience – here's to hoping the inside pundits have it wrong! Happens all the time...

That's actually (to answer someone's question) what I meant by the upside. Much of this reviewer's concerns seemed to be predicated on what they thought would or would not appeal to a mass audience. Since reviewers frequently are wrong about that determination, the Variety review has to be taken with a grain of salt.
Yeah, this person clearly doesn't know their facts, nor does it appear that he even watched the movie too closely. The "Jewel Staite, Whedon's real-life wife" part is hysterically, ridiculously stupid (where the hell did that come from?) and I especially like how he misrepresents facts from the opening scene, such as that Simon eluded The Operative himself with the help of Mal. Hmmm...I don't recall that but maybe there was some slight editing done after the preview screening I saw ;-)

The tone really annoyed me, I imagine the reviewer literally looking down his nose the whole time writing this and the "slanguage" really grates (although I know it's a Variety staple).
However, I like that it accentuates the limited CGI (at least compared to so many other films out there, in practically ANY genre), the humour and the chemistry among the cast. If anything, people who actually read and allow themselves to be influenced by this tripe should look forward to those elements that will certainly help distinguish this from the standard passionless sci-fi fare that consistently underwhelms (but hey, "Sith" happens, right?).


On the bright side, I'll bet Adam will be pleased at the comparison to Warren Oates.

This is the kind of mixed review I'm expecting to see. I think it falls under the catagory of "missed the point". But I think it also makes the film sound interesting enough to go see at a matinee.
The howling Jewel error aside, and the wrongheaded "cross-cultural" comment that batmarlowe so deftly dissected above, oh and the general Variety nonsense-speak, I didn't mind the review, in that it allayed certain fears I've been harboring about how the movie will play to non-fans.

I don't mean to say that I know, or anyone else, particularly this critic, knows for sure how Serenity will be received by the masses, but at least the crit - who clearly doesn't know his Joss Whedon from his pancreas - (1) got the plot; (2) got the characters to some extent; (3) liked the actors; (4) was generally positive. Not all "upside," to be sure, but it's the first review I've read by a non-insider "professional" and it's gone some way to making me feel that the movie will be well-received.
People who are snobbish tend to have their own skewed ideas of what a 'mass audience' is IMHO... :)
I'm with SNT on this. The review isn't glowing but doesn't identify Serenity as a howling dud. I've been terrified of the latter kind of review, despite my having seen the movie twice and having loved it. I can deal with a mixed review. At least there is appreciation here of some of what Serenity has to offer. For Variety, this seems to me to be a fairly good reception of a small-budget, sci-fi-Western "cult" film with a cast of unknowns and a TV genius behind the camera. Like SNT, this review makes me feel rather positive about the film's general reception. Perhaps that's strange, considering the lack of a strong "upside," but those are my feelings, anyway.

(Although like acp, the Variety lingo drives me insane.)
OK, I'll put in here the same Napolean Dynamite reaction I had at first "Frickin IDIOT".

(disclaimer: this in no way reflects on the actual writer of the article and is included only for my own personal merriment)
;)
CiV and SNT, thanks for the compliments on my comments. They make me think college was worthwile after all.

Interestingly enough, I like Variety-speak. Stuff like the quintessential "Hix Nix Stix Flix" headline from 1935? I just get a big kick out of that.
Or you could just do what I do. Ignore the reviews, see the movie and judge for yourself. And if anyone is going to pay attention to reviews, Variety isn't the place to start.
Bat, maybe I betray my steeped-in-movie-lore self, but I too like Variety speak. My favorite word is "prexy" for "president"...makes movie town CEO's sound like they're evil elfs or something.

Anyhow, anyone looking for a little perspective on this critic's record might want to look at this: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/author-3087/

The reviewer's taste seems a bit quirky and the majority of his reviews are, interestingly, of Asian films. At least some of the time, he seems a bit out of step with other critics, particularly in the case of "Kung Fu Hustle." (Though I was a bit dissapointed myself with that one myself, for whatever reason.)

Remember two things -- first, this is just one guy.

And movies that do break the mold, even just a little, often get mixed reviews on their initial release -- only to have many critics rewriting their past opinions in subsequent years as they review directors' cuts, sequels, etc. A classic example is "Blade Runner." I don't remember reading one out-and-out positive review on its initial release. Years later, you'd think it was universally hailed as a work of genius.

If "Serenity" turns out to be a hit with audiences and at least a few respected critics, I predict that "Serenity II" will have writers who slagged it on its initial release saying things like..."this sequel somehow doesn't match the brilliance and bite of the original." It's happened before.

[ edited by bobster on 2005-08-23 07:50 ]
I don't know, it seemed fairly positive to me. Variety, in addition to Variety-speak, always comments on how they think a film will do at the box office, and on what they think of the technical side of things - it's just because they're an industry magazine.

I think Serenity will get mixed to good reviews overall from the mainstream press, with this review being around the middle, but maybe more towards the negative side of things. I do agree that the film looks "TV-ish," but I don't think this is due to Joss having a background in TV - after all, the episodes he directed for Buffy, Angel, and Firefly are some of the most cinematic television ever made. Rather, I think it's due to budget limitations - there's only so much you can do when you are trying to make a sci-fi epic on a 40 million dollar budget.

There's a big irony in this review that I think a lot of critics will make too - simultaneously praising the film for not relying on flashy production values, and then criticizing it for having mediocre production values. Critics always seem to do this - when a movie has merely ok effects or design, they will always point it out, but when a movie is nothing but great effects at the sake of the story, they will complain even more loudly. For instance, in the former category, many critics criticized the excellent "Sky High" for having Power Ranger-esque effects...when the film itself was great, and the effects fit the cartoony tone.
Listen to posters whose usernames start with "bo". They bring truth to the mad world.
I thought it was a reasonable review as well. Been waiting to see what Variety thought of the movie and despite almost reaching for my Variety to English translator, what the guy said seemed fair enough.

And besides I'm really waiting to see what these guys think of the movie. I've valued their opinions since the 70s.
LOL! Me too, Simon! Although you know they will hate it. They hate everything!

Curmudgeons! Gotta love 'em! :D
"There's a big irony in this review that I think a lot of critics will make too - simultaneously praising the film for not relying on flashy production values, and then criticizing it for having mediocre production values."
bonzob, this was my immediate initial reaction as well.

I actually didn't think the review was harsh, though his lack of whedon knowledge is obvious. You might say it's not a bad review at all from someone who knows nothing about him and the writer also clearly equates earnings with success. I'm not too familiar with Variety but if the above comments are true, it sounds like a trade mag so profits would likely be considered important for any project. The writer's profits-gauge-success slant aside, he's more positive than negative. Much harsher reviews are commonplace in mainstream media, so I didn't consider this altogether awful when I read it.

We can't expect them all to recognize the name Whedon. *sigh*
I do agree that the film looks "TV-ish," but I don't think this is due to Joss having a background in TV . . . . Rather, I think it's due to budget limitations

I thought parts of the film looked TV-ish as well, and I, too, attributed it to the budget limitations rather than to Joss's vision or his TV background. In fact, I thought it was truly amazing what he managed to do with such a small budget. (I'm hoping that the film makes enough money that the sequel's budget will be markedly more generous.) So, since this review targets industry insiders, I'm hoping that readers of this article note the budget and read between the lines, to marvel at what can be accomplished with few $$$ but a good script and wonderful actors.
You might say it's not a bad review at all from someone who knows nothing about him and the writer also clearly equates earnings with success.

Well, in this case, I suppose success does equate with earnings. Not quality, mind you, but success. And his "review," as others have pointed out, isn't so much a review as his judgement of what that box-office success will be – which is what people look for in Variety, more so than a critic's personal take.
I'd be the last person to say earnings is any judge of quality – hell, most of my favorite movies never go anywhere at the box office, and if a movie is No. 1 any weekend, it usually means it's one I don't want to see. But for the movie to be considered a success and given a sequel? Well, yes, that does pretty much equate with box-office earnings.

I will say, it'll be good to start seeing more reviews from people who don't know anything about Joss. That will be the case with most critics, and is as it should be – someone's movie shouldn't be reviewed through the lens of whatever he may have done in the past. And this review certainly could have been worse. The guy had some reasonable points, some I disagreed with, and the one laugh-out-loud ridiculous comment about Jewel that makes me wonder what piece of PR got mistranslated or misunderstood... perhaps like a game of telephone. Maybe the fact that his wife's name is Kai, which is sort of similar to Kaylee, which is the character Jewel plays.... :-)
lol yes, acp, I also wondered if that's possibly how "Kaylee" was mis-identified. You are right about earnings being tied to success. It is, and the BDM will at least have to pull in significant $$$ to greenlight a sequel, or at least a larger budget sequel. My non-business mind always rates quality before earnings. Can't help it. :)
Folks, nobody reads a Variety review to find out if a movie's any good.

They read it to find out if the movie will make money.

And since No One In Hollywood Knows Anything (particularly about what will succeed or fail)... well, they're not worth much.

I read Variety for the news; in other areas, it's fairly sucky.

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