In Media Resonates

Get a clue.

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Veronica Mars

2004-2007, UPN, The CW

Created by Rob Thomas

Teen dramas often inspire a certain stigma amongst the general public.  Though there are plenty of examples to prove the naysayers right, a handful of series rise above the rest and prove themselves just as intelligent and engaging as any adult-driven fare.  Leading the pack is Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ darkly sarcastic, neo-noir series that just happens to be set in a high school.  More detective mystery than teen soap, Veronica Mars emerged onto the television scene with its quick-witted originality, cementing itself as a pop-culture cult sensation while Kristen Bell’s effervescent performance as the title role rocketed her to stardom.

"If you go here, your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires.  Neptune, California, a town without a middle class," Veronica narrates in the pilot episode.  The fictional town and its school provides an excellent backdrop for the series’ startlingly on-point depiction of class warfare, race relations, and more.  Veronica, of course, rests in the center of it all, helping her father (Enrico Colantoni), a private investigator, solve cases while running her own investigations at Neptune High.

Veronica Mars is strongest in its freshman year, a season-long arc that follows the mysterious circumstances of the murder of Veronica’s best friend Lilly Kane (a then unknown Amanda Seyfried).  Thomas layers the plot-lines and clues masterfully, all while introducing the audience to a diverse cast of characters that bring the vibrant Neptune, CA to life.  The series remains strong throughout its second season as well, when a fatal school-bus crash takes center stage during Veronica’s senior year.  Like many a teen tale before it, Veronica Mars struggles when it sends its leads off to college during its third (and unfortunately final) year, but through thick and thin manages to resonate thanks to engaging relationships developed across all three seasons.

Bell and Colantoni bring to life a father-daughter relationship that feels real and heartfelt, never letting it drift into saccharine territory.  Veronica’s friendship with Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) is another consistent high point of the series, as is - love it or hate it - Veronica’s star-crossed romance with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) thanks to the electric chemistry between the two actors.

Even a lackluster third season, and premature cancellation, couldn’t stop this little series that could, as Thomas’ recent Kickstarter campaign to fund a Veronica Mars movie was a huge success.  Set to premiere in 2014, the film promises to reintroduce fans to the world of Neptune while hopefully providing some closure to the open-ended third season finale.

There has never been a better time to catch-up on (or revisit) Veronica’s adventures.  Take a trip to Neptune; you’re sure to love Ms. Mars.


May the odds be ever in your favor.

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The Hunger Games, 2012

Director - Gary Ross

Screenplay - Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray, from the novel by Suzanne Collins

Every so often a young adult novel comes along and cements itself within the pop culture lexicon.  Sequels follow, movie studios come calling, and sometimes before the final book has even been released audiences are watching the tales play out before them on the silver screen.  Therefore then it was no surprise when Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular The Hunger Games made its way into movie theaters in March, 2012.  Star-studded and relatively faithful to its source material (Collins co-penned the script), the film remains an enjoyable, often exciting, yet mostly tame adaptation.

By now most of the world knows the story.  As punishment for a past rebellion the nation of Panem holds a yearly tournament, the titular Hunger Games, in which each of Panem’s districts must offer two tributes - chosen by lottery - to participate in a fight to the death while the populace watches.  When her younger sister’s name is called, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place and, after intensive training and preparation, the games begin.

One aspect that never falters in an otherwise uneven film is the casting.  Jennifer Lawrence does an admirable job bringing Katniss to life.  When she screams out the fateful words - I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE! - it is raw and real and completely sells the character’s desperate motivation.  As Katniss’ fellow tribute Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is appropriately wide-eyed and charming, and he and Lawrence share an easy chemistry when they aren’t being victimized by awkward screenwriting.

A-list talent shines in supporting roles, notably Elizabeth Banks.  Nearly unrecognizable, she all but steals the film as cheery chaperone Effie Trinket.  Joining her in the high-calibre ensemble are the likes of Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley, a pitch-perfect Lenny Kravitz, and an oddly restrained Woody Harrelson.

"They just want a good show.  That’s all they want," Liam Hemsworth’s Gale stresses to Katniss before she leaves for the Games.  While she succeeds in doing just that, the film itself is a mixed bag.  The great performers are often held back by stilted dialogue.  Interesting expansions to the source text (audiences get nifty behind the scenes glimpses of the mechanics of the arena) seem to come at the expense of some of the novel’s important themes.

There are effective, emotional, and even epic moments, which makes the film’s unevenness all the more frustrating.  Director Gary Ross can never seem to settle on a tone, resulting in a finished product that suffices narratively, but lacks tonal cohesiveness.  In its most successful moments the film generally has its actors to thank rather than its director who can’t seem to decide what kind of movie he is trying to make.  Ross quietly stepped down from directing the sequel (Francis Lawrence will take the helm) and his departure might be just what the doctor ordered.

The Hunger Games is an alright film, the end result leaving much to be desired.  Stronger direction and a tighter script would have done wonders for the haphazard adaptation that manages to get by thanks to a committed cast.  Only time will tell if Catching Fire can learn from past mistakes to fully realize Collins’ layered world.


Spies don’t get fired, they get burned.

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Burn Notice

2007-2013, USA

Created by Matt Nix

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy…When you’re burned, you’ve got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You’re stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.  You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who’s still talking to you. A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend, an old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI, family too…if you’re desperate. Bottom line: until you figure out who burned you, you’re not going anywhere.

So narrates Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) at the beginning of nearly every episode Burn Notice, a vibrant series that recently concluded its seven season run on USA.  Westen had been a hot-shot CIA agent who, with no warning, is burned by the very organization he has devoted his life to serving.  Stuck in Miami for the foreseeable future, with no clues as to what brought about this burn notice, Michael decides to get to the bottom of the conspiracy while using his agency-honed skills to help people in need along the way.

The set-up is simple enough, but under Burn Notice's relatively procedural format lurks a complex web of intrigue dressed up in designer sunglasses and sun-drenched beaches.  Though the series occasionally becomes lost in its own mythology, its fast-paced cutting and dry sarcasm keep Burn Notice afloat during rougher patches while allowing it, most frequently, to soar.

The true magic of Burn Notice rests in its cast.  Donovan inhabits the role of Michael with ease, bringing an intensity, but also a humor to the character, setting the tone for a series that often walks a fine line between drama and comedy.  His snarky narrations, a sort of ‘spycraft 101,’ make him the audience’s window into the world of espionage and Donovan, from beginning to end, makes it a window well worth looking through.

Joining Donovan are Gabrielle Anwar as former IRA agent (and Michael’s ex-girlfriend) Fiona Glenanne, a spunky weapons expert with a knack for blowing things up; Bruce Campbell as Michael’s beer-loving buddy, a one-time Navy SEAL and occasional FBI informant; Coby Bell as Jesse Porter, a fellow spy that Michael accidentally burns; and Sharon Gless in her powerhouse - Emmy-nominated - portrayal of Michael’s mother, the outspoken, chain-smoking Madeline, who might just be the beating heart of Burn Notice.  The ensemble is a tight-knit group that plays off each other with ease and, from simple dialogue scenes to outlandish action sequences, keeps the audience invested.

Through seven seasons of snappy banter, sleek outfits, car chases, and many a molotov cocktail, audiences followed Michael Westen and his unlikely team toward a thrilling, even touching, and ultimately satisfying conclusion built around carefully crafted characters who were worth every second of the wild ride.


Heaven help us.

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Saved!, 2004

Director - Brian Dannelly

Screenplay - Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban

High school is a common setting for coming of age stories and budding romances.  The young, hormonal, angst-ridden students provide perfect fodder for over-the-top storytelling.  Too often writers exploit the actions of young adults, sensationalizing their emotions, their fears, their desires.  When approached correctly, however, a good teen tale can be just as compelling as any adult-driven drama and - in the case of director Brian Dannelly’s darkly comic Saved! - provide scathing social satire.

Saved! follows a group of students who attend American Eagle Christian High School.  After her “perfect Christian boyfriend” reveals he is gay, Mary Cummings (Jena Malone) decides that she must go against her religion and have sex with him to restore his heterosexuality.  She does just that…and ends up pregnant.

The film, reportedly inspired by Dannelly’s own experiences at a Christian school, provides an always on-point, often hilarious commentary on everything from religion to homophobia to disability.  Mandy Moore gives a standout performance as Hilary Faye, devout Christian it-girl and Mary’s supposed best friend.  The movie is first and foremost Mary’s story, but Moore has some of the best one-liners.  ”I’m saving myself for marriage, and I’ll use force if necessary,” she deadpans before unloading a clip into the crotch of a paper target at a firing range.

The surrounding cast is also excellent.  Macaulay Caulkin gives one of his best performances as Hilary Faye’s wheelchair bound and self-proclaimed fake Christian brother Roland and Patrick Fugit nails the role of resident teen heartthrob Patrick, the cool new kid and eventual object of Mary’s affection who happens to be - wait for it - the pastor’s son.  Meanwhile Eva Amurri Martino is a commanding presence as Cassandra, American Eagle’s only Jewish student with a flair for rebellion.  Whether smoking on school grounds or pretending to speak in tongues at an assembly, Martino steals every scene in which she appears.  

Saved! is an important film, not only because of the snappy writing and the first-rate cast, but because it deals with real world subjects that, nearly ten years later, still ring true.  Even more heartening is the fact that the film never feels like it is mocking its young adult characters.  Even in its heightened satire Saved! approaches their issues with thoughtful realism, preventing them from morphing into caricatures.  This film might just be one of the best comedies ever.  Cross my heart.


I can be anyone I want to be.

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Alias

2001-2006, ABC

Created by J.J. Abrams

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a time when J.J. Abrams wasn’t a household name, but in 2001 - with only a few screenplays and the WB’s Felicity on his resume - Abrams kickstarted his career, and that of a then unknown Jennifer Garner, with Alias.  From 2001 to 2006 Abrams’ spy-fy drama sky-rocketed through plot-twists, startling family revelations, and cliffhangers of the emotional and literal variety.  It was a sometimes rocky road, particularly in the later years, but impeccable performances and relentless ambition made Alias an iconic adventure from start to finish.

Sydney Bristow (Garner) is just your average graduate student…who happens to be a spy.  Working undercover for SD-6, an organization she believes to be a black-ops division of the CIA, Sydney makes the mistake of telling her fiance the truth about what she does for a living.  It is an error that not only results in his death, but leads to the revelation that SD-6 is not part of the CIA.  In fact it is a terrorist cell.  Sydney turns herself over to the actual CIA and soon finds herself a double agent, working to bring down the agency responsible for the murder of her fiance.

It is a complicated premise, one that is brilliantly established in the series’ feature-quality pilot.  There is a lot to digest in Alias.  Abrams rapidly throws a great deal of information at his audience, but - just as Sydney must balance her personal life with her complicated and dangerous professional responsibilities - his direction skillfully establishes the web of familial intrigue and daring espionage to come.

The action is exciting, and Sydney’s aliases are always fun, but the series ultimately succeeds, at its best and worst, because of the characters.  Through some silly plot-lines and network meddling (ABC was always pushing for less mythology and more case-of-the-week episodes) it is the emotional consistency of the characters that keeps the series grounded.  Through thick and thin Alias remains a dysfunctional family drama set-against an international backdrop of sci-fi flavored espionage.  The relationship between Sydney and her father Jack (the always excellent Victor Garber) is Alias' firm backbone.  In a series that, at its core, is about identity, it is important to truly care about the characters, and with a cast that includes Ron Rifkin, Lena Olin, Bradley Cooper, Michael Vartan, and many more talented actors, Alias truly delivers.

Even seven years after its series finale Alias still holds up.  Its tense immediacy and carefully crafted plotting - particularly in its pitch perfect first and second seasons - make it ideal for multiple viewings and attentive analysis.  Like all the best stories, there is nothing quite like Alias, a series that - even at its lowest point - dared to break new ground in television at a time when most major networks were playing it safe.  Truth be told.


Love is blindness.

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The Great Gatsby, 2013

Director - Baz Luhrmann

Screenplay - Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Huh?" was the general response when, in 2008, Baz Luhrmann announced his intent to adapt The Great Gatsby for the big screen.  The filmmaker’s kinetic and colorful style, displayed to dazzling effect in Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom, and Romeo + Juliet, seemed perhaps mismatched with what is often considered the greatest American novel.  Many wondered how the director would approach the text.  Would he adorn it with all the bells and whistles audiences have come to expect from his films, or would he aim for a more traditional approach (something he has attempted only once, in the best forgotten would-be epic Australia)?

Five years later the film has burst into cinemas and the result is a mixed bag.  Luhrmann’s films are known for their chaotic visual style, but never has he shown such a lack of control as he does here.  The Great Gatsby is certainly bold and spectacularly gorgeous, but it is also, particularly in the first twenty minutes or so, sloppy.  Some scenes play like rough drafts, interesting ideas that never truly come to fruition.

In many ways, however, Luhrmann proves the perfect director to usher The Great Gatsby into the twenty-first century.  His lavish approach to filmmaking comfortably suits the novel’s decadence.  Just as narrator Nick Carraway (an adequate, but ultimately miscast Tobey Maguire) is transported into the wild world of Jay Gatsby, the audience is similarly ushered into Luhrmann’s vision of it.

A stunning vision it is.  Every frame bleeds beauty, thanks in no small part to Luhrmann’s frequent collaborator (and wife), production designer Catherine Martin.  Though the film itself is structurally haphazard, Martin’s sensational sets and costumes are consistently breathtaking.

Nearly as consistent is the film’s cast, a group of actors who seem to truly understand the material and, generally, Luhrmann’s take on it.  Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a fresh, charming take on the character that lives up to Fitzgerald’s literary descriptions.  Carey Mulligan gives an appropriately affected performance as Daisy Buchanan while Joel Edgerton and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki nearly steal the film as Tom Buchanan and Jordan Baker, respectively.  Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke suit their small, but - as those who have read the novel know - integral roles well.

Much debate has transpired over the film’s soundtrack.  Luhrmann’s choice (hardly a surprise, considering his resume) to sprinkle modern music into the The Great Gatsby's 1920's setting is a bold move that doesn't always pay off.  The Jay-Z produced album is phenomenal, so its saddening that the quality of the record doesn't always transfer over to the screen, but - like many aspects of the film - when it's on it's on.  Tracks are often used to gripping effect, particularly in the knockout party sequences and most remarkably in the climactic hit-and-run scene where the fate of every character is ultimately decided. Jack White’s vocals soar and so does the sequence.  Herein lies Luhrmann’s vision for Gatsby at its most focused.

If the entire film exuded such clarity we might have the definitive film version of the novel.  Still, this is probably the closest any director has come to actually capturing the haunting beauty and dazzling decadence of Fitzgerald’s prose onscreen.  Stunning and well-acted, The Great Gatsby is sometimes maddeningly imperfect, but it is never boring, and like Jay Gatsby himself, it is truly a thing to behold.


Some legends are written in blood.

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Spartacus

2010-2013, Starz

Created by Steven S. DeKnight

Playing with history is always a delicate task when it comes to entertainment.  There is a careful balance a writer must keep when trying to honor both historical accuracy and artistic integrity.  Not much is known, however, about Spartacus the historical figure.  Perhaps that is why he has served as a perfect base from which writers and directors can build their stories upon.  The history itself is somewhat open to interpretation thereby allowing a certain degree of leniency and artistic license when it comes to adapting the man’s life for the screen.

Most famously the tale of was brought to life by Stanley Kubrick in the 1960 film Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas, but in 2010 audiences were greeted with an altogether new approach to the character when Spartacus premiered as a television series on Starz.  Brimming with sex, violence, and a hyperreal style, the first season exploded onto the television scene with gusto.  It took the the series a few episodes to truly find its footing, but once it hit its stride Spartacus became a non-stop visceral thrill-ride unlike anything television has seen before or since.

The series could have been a train-wreck, a landfill of sex scenes and bloody battles without justification, but under the careful watch of creator Steven S. DeKnight, Spartacus never fell into that trap.  A man whose resume includes numerous writing, directing, and producing  credits on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Angel, and Dollhouse, DeKnight knows a thing or two about genre television.  He brings that experience full-throttle to every episode of Spartacus, where each fight, sex scene, and special effect serve the emotional undercurrent of the tale being told.  He utilizes the freedom of cable television, but never takes advantage of it.  Spartacus is an unquestionably adult series, but it never feels gratuitous.

The emotional impact of the series also resonates on account of the first-rate cast.  Over the series’ four seasons DeKnight pulled together a group of talented actors that delivered each stylized line of dialogue perfectly, enlivening history and having a grand old time with it.  At the forefront of the impressive group is the incomparable Andy Whitfield who, as the titular character, truly embodied the spirit of the series.  Both commanding and contemplative, he brought an intensity to the role in the first season that truly set the stage for the years to come.

Whitfield’s tragic passing, and eventual recasting, was handled incredibly well by all involved.  With his blessing the torch was passed to Liam McIntyre who tackled the role with fervor and truly seamlessly integrated into the already established cast, an embarrassment of riches including Lucy Lawless, John Hannah, Manu Bennett, and Peter Mensah.  From season to season, new cast members and old ignited the series with their talent, turning faceless historical figures (some completely fictitious) into living, breathing characters.

A whirlwind of action, sexuality, history, and passion, Spartacus is a completely original take on an age-old tale.  Unabashed in its storytelling, the series barrels through four seasons of intensity, a loose cannon of emotion and style that succeeds because it keeps its focus on what really matters: the characters.


If you ride like lightning you’re gonna crash like thunder.

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The Place Beyond the Pines, 2013

Director - Derek Cianfrance

Screenplay - Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder

Unlikely settings often create the best backdrops.  Thus is the case in The Place Beyond the Pines, an atmospheric drama set in the Schenectady area of upstate New York.  Director Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to 2010’s Blue Valentine is both thrilling and contemplative, a brooding exploration of familial obligation, twenty-first century blood-feuds, and the deconstruction of the American dream.

Pines opens on Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stuntman who is part of a traveling act that frequents state fairs.  He is visited by a former fling Romina (Eva Mendes) and discovers that not only does she have a son, but the child is his.  Though Romina protests, Luke insists on quitting his job and settling down into a more stable profession.  He hopes that this will lead to a happy, family life for the one-time lovers and their son.  Instead he finds himself thrust into a series of bank robberies which prove financially lucrative, but ultimately self-destructive, and set him on a collision course with rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).

The meeting of Glanton and Cross is both inevitable and surprising, and it is in that moment that audiences will really get a handle on the type of film they are watching.  Cianfrance has fashioned a film that is simple in its storytelling yet epic in scope.  In a narrative spanning fifteen years Pines could easily have felt bloated, but Cianfrance smartly keeps the focus on just a handful of characters.  The screenplay is targeted with laser-precision on Glanton and Cross, their individual moralities, and the legacies they leave.

The film is gorgeously shot, endless roads disappearing into sprawling forests coupled with the terrible beauty of decaying small-town Americana.  Helping set the stage is Mike Patton’s score.  Formidable and volatile, it illuminates every frame with such purpose that it is difficult to imagine the film sans its presence.

Pines really takes flight, however, thanks to its leading men.  Gosling and Cooper have proved themselves in recent years to be two of the best actors in the business.  The fact that a pair of household names can still disappear so completely into fictional roles is a testament to their versatility.  Eva Mendes has never been better and supporting players Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, and Bruce Greenwood make for great icing on the cake.

In The Place Beyond the Pines Cianfrance has crafted a captivating tale of love, honor, and obligation that will stick with audiences long after the final credits have rolled.


Ever think you’re being watched?

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Person of Interest

2011-Present, CBS

Created by Jonathan Nolan

"You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day.  I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people.  The government considers these people irrelevant.  We don’t.  Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number’s up…we’ll find you".

So Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) eloquently narrates the opening credits of each episode of Person of Interest.  Brainchild of Jonathan Nolan (brother to Christopher and co-scribe of many of his films) and producer J.J. Abrams, Person of Interest documents reclusive billionaire Finch as he recruits a former CIA agent, the down-on-his-luck John Reese (Jim Caviezel) for a mysterious mission.  Finch proposes that he and Reese combine their skill sets (brains and brawn, respectively) to prevent the violent crimes detected by Finch’s machine that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Reese, homeless and without direction, agrees and the rest is history.

The initial set-up is straight-up procedural, but it is through Nolan and crew’s clever construction that Person of Interest, now in its second season on CBS, has managed to establish itself as something nearly unheard of, a viewer-friendly procedural that also happens to have one of the most intricate mythologies of any series currently on air.  Through a careful blend of case-of-the-week storytelling, a slow-burning undercurrent of a larger plan at work, and carefully timed and excellently executed payoffs, Person of Interest is one of the most consistently thrilling, narratively satisfying dramas in recent memory.

Nolan has impeccably created a world that plays on our ever-increasing reliance on technology, coupled with “big brother” paranoia.  Person of Interest is, perhaps, science-fiction, but it tip-toes so near to the edge of science-fact that it is all too easy to imagine Finch’s machine as an existing facet of our twenty-first century reality rather than as a distant impossibility.

A clever concept, however, is useless without a stellar cast of actors to bring it to life and Person of Interest's core four more than rise to the challenge.  Caviezel gives an understated, solemn performance as Reese, as methodical in his line-readings as in his fight scenes.  Emerson, who took home a well-deserved Emmy for his outstanding work on Lost, brings an air of quiet intelligence and dry humor to Finch, traits that play nicely against Caviezel’s more stoic presence.  Rounding out the principal cast are Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson as Joss Carter and Kevin Chapman as Lionel Fusco, both NYPD detectives who find themselves inextricably linked, for better or worse, to Finch and Reese’s cause.

Nolan has surrounded his talented leads with an excellent array of guest stars that deepen the series’s mythology and keep the narrative’s pulse pounding.  The writers have smartly crafted a roster of recurring characters including Paige Turco, Brett Cullen, Carrie Preston, Enrico Colantoni, Amy Acker, Ken Leung, Mia Maestro, and most recently - in a game-changing episode that turned the series’ entire format on its head - Sarah Shahi.  These multi-faceted supporting players lend credence to the idea that there is a larger plan at work, a thousand-piece puzzle being meticulously pieced together.

Person of Interest is a bonafide hit for CBS which is hardly a surprise.  Its consistent quality serves as a constant reminder that the oh-so-tired (and elitist) idea that all great television is airing on cable these days is quite simply a myth.  In Person of Interest, primetime television is given the gift of a great story brought to life by great actors.  It is intelligent, thought-provoking, and could not be more - to use the vernacular of the series - relevant.


They aim to misbehave.

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Serenity, 2005

Director - Joss Whedon

Screenplay - Joss Whedon

In 2002 Joss Whedon’s Firefly debuted on FOX.  It was bold, funny, and unlike pretty much anything else on television….and almost no one noticed.  FOX’s mishandling of the series (only eleven of the series’ fourteen episodes were aired…out of order) led to its quick cancellation.  Then something happened.  Firefly's small fanbase became very vocal, their numbers growing as more and more viewers discovered the series on DVD, and come September 2005 fans were treated to an all-new experience, a big-screen continuation of their short-lived obsession in the form of Serenity.

Writer/Director Whedon reunites Firefly's entire principal cast, an army of talent that includes Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, and Adam Baldwin.  The film picks up where the series left us and follows Captain Mal Reynolds (Fillion) and his band of renegades, the crew of his ship “Serenity,” as they participate in a life of petty crime to fund their continued flight from the oppressive Alliance.  Most troubling is the presence of fugitive River Tam (Glau), a strange young girl with mysterious capabilities clouded in secrecy, perhaps even from herself.

In his film Whedon successfully captures the ingenuity that made his series so special, masterfully weaving plot and character long before his Avengers success.  Balancing multiple characters and distinct locales with ease, Whedon transports us into a world that feels appropriately influenced by the likes of Star Wars and Indiana Jones (with a dash of classic Western thrown in for good measure) while managing to maintain a distinctiveness that sets it apart from anything that preceded it.

Serenity is fresh, funny, and action-packed, but it doesn’t shy away from bigger issues (Chiwetel Ejifor’s methodical Alliance operative is a study in moral complexity).  Whedon’s universe is rich with detail and culture, highlighting a cast of characters that illuminate the various perspectives a group of very different passengers might actually have when placed in such a volatile situation.  The idea that, as surviving superpowers, the United States and China united to form a central government is certainly thought-provoking (not to mention a great way to deliver some well-placed swears) and, as has ever been the case in science-fiction, the vast expanse of space provides a haunting and beautiful backdrop for it all.

It isn’t a bright and shiny future that Whedon has crafted, but it is certainly an entertaining one, and with a crew like Serenity’s we would all be foolish not to go along for the ride.