Olivier Dahan's 'La Môme (La Vie en Rose)' (2007)

I'm often hesitant to heap praise upon performances in these biopics because I don't think that mimicry always equals a great performance. I would rather see an actor who can accurately convey the spirit of the person even if she cannot master every mannerism. However, Marion Cotillard's performance in La Vie en Rose as beloved French chanteuse Edith Piaf is a superb example of an actor really inhabiting, and not just mimicking, another person. She attacks the role with a ferocity and dedication that's undeniable, and the superb make-up by Didier Lavergne only enhances her work. Cotillard deservedly won the accolades of critics as well as myriad prestigious awards, including the first Oscar for a French-language role and the first Golden Globe and BAFTA given for a foreign language role. Indeed, her performance makes La Vie en Rose worthwhile. With a less compelling lead, Olivier Dahan's depiction of Piaf's life would be entirely too banal to merit much attention.

Yes, Piaf led a complicated life, but as portrayed by Dahan it doesn't seem all that different from many a tragic celebrity. Drugs, alcohol, and failed relationships are the standard fare of films about famous musicians. Why not include Piaf's activities during World War II? She received criticism for performing at German Forces social gatherings, but Piaf claimed that she was a member of the French Resistance. She also was instrumental in helping several people escape Nazi persecution, and supposedly posed for photos with French prisoners of war so that they could use the pictures to make fake passports. While I can see the challenge of fitting a person's life into a film of reasonable length, even someone who only lived into her early forties, I don't understand why Dahan would choose to omit aspects of Piaf's life that really distinguish her experience from so many other stories of tragic geniuses. Also, for no discernible reason the narrative is nonlinear, jumping back and forth through time at random. This presentation doesn't augment the film in any way and, in fact, I found the non-sequential approach detrimental to understanding the progression of Piaf's life and career.

What Dahan does do right is putting Piaf's voice at the forefront. Cotillard lip synches a number of her songs and many others are woven into the soundtrack. My enthusiasm for Piaf's music undoubtedly increased my enjoyment of the film, but despite Cotillard's tremendous performance I can't say that I really liked it.

Robin Swicord's 'The Jane Austen Book Club' (2007)

The Jane Austen Book Club is about as bland of a "chick flick" as one can find. With perhaps one exception, writer-director Robin Swicord forsakes character development and relies on comfortable stock characters related by visual cues. Sylvia's husband recently left her for another woman and she is still recovering from the divorce, which we can tell because her hair is always messy. Jocelyn is the self-reliant, fortysomething single who is too closed off for a real relationship, which we know because she has a lot of pets. Bernadette is a middle-aged bohemian with lots of previous marriages, evident because of her spiky haircut and colorful clothing. Prudie feels trapped in her marriage and ignored by her husband, and she's uptight because hello! severe bob and high-necked clothing. Also, her name is Prudie. While I wouldn't say that Allegra, Sylvia's impulsive, lesbian daughter, or Grigg, the sweet-natured, young love interest, are stock characters necessarily, both characters remain seriously underdeveloped, especially Allegra. If you've read Austen, then you can figure out where the women's storylines are headed, and the final scene is so saccharine and contrived that I couldn't bear to watch it in its entirety.

While the screenplay definitely lacks originality, what the film does have going for it is a cast of very likeable actors. Amy Brenneman and Maria Bello are both very under-appreciated and underused actresses, in my opinion, and Maggie Grace and Emily Blunt are two up-and-coming young actors to watch out for. Even though Prudie's storyline is far from fresh, Blunt plays the role as if it had never been done before, and I found her performance the most affecting. Hugh Dancy is charming as the well-intentioned but baffled Grigg, and he really clicks with Bello. Similarly, Jimmy Smits and Brenneman are well-matched, but Smits doesn't get enough screentime to make much of an impression. Marc Blucas, a.k.a. Captain Cardboard from Buffy, lives up to his nickname and is poorly paired with Blunt.

The Jane Austen Book Club does get points for presenting Allegra's sexuality as a non-issue, and even though she never kisses one of her girlfriends on screen (maybe to make this mainstream film acceptable to its target "Middle America" audience) Swicord manages to make the more intimate scenes pretty sexy. However, I'm a little irked that only Allegra doesn't have a partner at the end of the film, though I admit it fits with her character. Her having yet another girlfriend would have been preferable to the insinuation that the lesbian is fated to end up alone.

'Firefly': "Safe"

"Safe" continues the boring precedent that "Shindig" established, but I have sort of a soft spot for this episode because it's about Simon and River. Theirs is probably my favorite relationship on the show because I feel like I so rarely see a platonic yet loving relationship between a man and woman. I also finally started to like River when I first saw this episode, because she gets to be lucid for a few moments. And she dances. I like almost anyone a little bit better if I get to see them dance so unselfconsciously as River does here.

This episode begins with a flashback, which usually would make me cranky. But the flashbacks in this episode actually aren't so terrible because they provide information that isn't rehashed a thousand times during the course of the series, namely that Simon was the beloved child and he severed his relationship with his parents when he rescued River. I only wish that the first scene had been written a little better. And didn't involve Zac Efron. But isn't that Summer Glau's voice coming out of young River's mouth? I think so. Joss does the same trick in The Big Damn Movie, which makes me wonder why he thinks having Summer voice all of River's incarnations is so important.

I don't understand the inclusion of the scene with the mountain people in the teaser. That moment telegraphs the main plot of the episode and kills any suspense that could have been created in the moment that Simon is kidnapped. Not that the kidnapping plot is at all interesting. I never feel as though Simon and River are in real danger.

The writers jump through an impressive number of hoops of contrivance to separate Simon and River from the crew so that they can be kidnapped. Mal says he wants River to leave because she makes his disreputable dealings "not be smooth," but if one considers the previous episodes, River had little to do with Mal's criminal activities not going smoothly. River has yet to be a benefit or a detriment to any of the jobs. Mal has managed to screw up all by himself. Then Mal sends River and Simon into town rather than into the ship and to their rooms. If Mal were really concerned about the sale going smoothly, I would think he would want the fugitives safely tucked away out of sight. Even if the Alliance doesn't regularly patrol a "backwater" planet like Jiangyin, Mal knows that criminals are afoot. And criminals might turn in River and Simon for a reward or to bring trouble down on Mal. Or the criminals may be pursued by law enforcement officials, you never know. It could happen. Apparently, the mountain people conclude that Simon is a physician because Mal calls him "Doc." Maybe it's the academic (and the Back to the Future fan) in me, but I would need a mention of treating wounds or stitching people up to decide that Simon wasn't just a really educated person.

And does Simon walk through an alleyway and end up in a field? Who planned that?

Book receiving such quick medical treatment from the Alliance is intended to add to the "mystery" of his past, but personally I don't find his background all that intriguing. So he's a preacher who knows about nefarious dealings and has an in with the government. There are several explanations, all of which have been explored in literature, film, and television before. I'd be interested in Book's mysterious past if the explanation finally showed up and was something new and different. These "hints" are tiresome.

I'm rather fond of some dialogue from this episode. Mal's "Morbid and creepifying I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like," gets a chuckle from me, and Simon scores with "I'm very sorry if she tipped off anyone about your cunningly concealed herd of cows." "Safe" also features the "big damn heroes" line that Browncoats seem to like, but it sounds awkward to me. I think the situation calls for an f-bomb or some other two-syllable curse word. "Big gorram heroes" would have worked.

Music Crush: Lavender Diamond

The folk delight Lavender Diamond originated from Bird Songs of the Bauharoque, an operetta inspired by the work of American painter Paul Laffoley. Vocalist Becky Stark wrote and created the piece with a friend, and she starred as a character named Lavender Diamond, a charming part-bird/part-human who wants peace on earth. An album of Stark's songs was sold on tour, and Lavender Diamond became a four-piece band when Stark relocated from Providence, Rhode Island to Los Angeles.

Lavender Diamond has a knack for creating songs that feel both fresh and timeless, blending percussion, strings, guitar, and piano into gorgeous, folksy arrangements. But I think it's the delicate yet sure voice of Becky Stark that I love best. Stark can sound despairing, hopeful, vulnerable, and triumphant within the space of only a few minutes, especially on songs like "Rise in the Springtime," "Oh No," and "You Broke My Heart," which sounds like someone's heart swelling until it bursts.

Lavender Diamond - "You Broke My Heart"

Peter Jackson's 'Heavenly Creatures' (1994)

After watching An American Crime the other day, I felt compelled to pull out Heavenly Creatures to remind myself how a true crime movie should be done. In depicting the Parker-Hulme murder that happened in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954, director Peter Jackson seamlessly blends fantasy and suspense into what amounts to a coming-of-age story. Though Jackson by no means downplays the brutal, chilling murder – the film both begins and ends with it – Pauline and Juliet are so well-drawn and well-portrayed that the audience can't help but be captivated by their relationship.

Heavenly Creatures was the feature film debut for both Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. Winslet had done some work in British television, but Lynskey was discovered by co-writer Fran Walsh when she scoured high schools in New Zealand for Pauline Parker lookalikes. Winslet's career very quickly took off soon after filming Heavenly Creatures when she played Marianne Dashwood in Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, a role for which she was nominated for many awards, while Lynskey languished in obscurity for several more years. However, both young actresses effortlessly inhabit their characters, and their natural chemistry carries the film during the slower bits. Paul and Juliet remind me of girls I knew when I was younger – they do not seem like monsters. But Winslet and Lynskey give them enough of an off-kilter quality that I can see why they would form such an intense friendship and how that relationship could lead to extraordinary behavior.

The girls initially bond over their ailments that caused them to have extended stays in hospitals, and in Juliet's case she has developed something of a romanticized notion of death and dying. With working-class parents who run a boarding house out of their home, Pauline is intrigued by Juliet's posh lifestyle, but Juliet's homelife is far from ideal despite the fineness of her surroundings. Though not completely unkind, her parents do seem rather self-absorbed, and they keep deserting her to recuperate from various illnesses. During Juliet's convalescence in a tuberculosis hospital, her relationship with Paul becomes increasingly codependent and steeped in fantasy when they decide to write to each other as characters they created. Eventually, Juliet finds herself living with her parents and her mother's lover during their divorce, and Paul's relationship with her parents becomes unstable when she becomes the object of one of their boarders' inappropriate attentions. Paul and Juliet delve so completely into their fantasy world because of these instabilities in their home environments, and the girls feed off each other's increasing desperation, which leads to murder seeming necessary, even unavoidable. Jackson leaves it up to the viewers to decide how insane they think the girls become.

Heavenly Creatures is one of those movies that makes lesbians squirm a little. Portraying queer women (and men) as psychopaths is a time-tested technique of the film and television industry – right up there with suicidal and predatory lesbians – for delivering the message that homosexuality is wrong and no good will ever come of those gays. Because the newspaper coverage of the Parker-Hulme murder sensationalized the girls' supposed lesbianism, Jackson was obligated to address that aspect of their relationship within the film. He includes a friendly kiss between Paul and Juliet early on, and he portrays a passage of Paul's diary that describes her and Juliet "enact[ing] how each Saint would make love in bed" as the girls having sex, though he clearly implies that they imagine making love to their male saints as they do it. However, he chose not to include a passage of Pauline's diary that reads "I believe I could fall in love with Juliet," which is very telling about his agenda. Like the girls' sanity, I think that Jackson purposefully leaves their sexual orientation a bit ambiguous, giving me the impression that Pauline and Juliet's intense codependent relationship became sexual in nature due to their burgeoning sexuality more than anything else. I think Jackson had strong evidence that Pauline and Juliet's relationship did involve sexual encounters, so I cannot read his inclusion of those lesbian overtones as derogatory toward the LGBT community when he approaches these two characters with such affection.

I find the last sentence of the film's postscript, which mentions that a condition of the girls' parole was that they never see each other again, particularly intriguing. I can't help but wonder what would happen if Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker ever did meet again. Most likely, nothing would happen. I doubt they would be able to become friends again, let alone commit another crime together. But their story does beg the question of whether either of these women would have become a murderer had they never met.

'Firefly': "Shindig"

I'm not sure if I dislike "Shindig" more than "The Train Job," but this episode certainly represents a nadir of the series' short run. Where "The Train Job" is schmaltzy, "Shindig" is boring, and both are predictable.

This episode attempts to illustrate that Mal doesn't really belong in "his world" of thieves and Inara doesn't belong in "her world" of manners and fancy parties. No, they belong together! on Serenity! because they luuuuuuuurve each other! Or something. But really "Shindig" acts as a vehicle for Mal (and others!) to degrade and objectify Inara even more than usual. Also, Inara has the opportunity to establish that the only way she'll ever be useful on the series is when she can sleep with someone. The only part of this episode that I find somewhat unexpected and refreshing is the gender role reversal of Mal asking Inara to teach him how to fight.

Mal also gets to assert his patriarchal authority over Kaylee when he pretty much orders her to come to the ball with him, telling her that she "got no need to speak." Just to look pretty on his arm at the dance. Mal is real different from Atherton, ain't he? Yeah, yeah, I know that Mal buys Kaylee the layer cake dress to make up for being rude to her earlier, but I'm not as easily won over as she is. As much as Hollywood tries to sell me on the idea, I don't think that someone being an asshole is actually endearing and romantic.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew sits around, and Summer Glau gets to show off her ability to do accents. Her Cockney isn't as impressive as her Russian accent from the Angel episode "Waiting in the Wings." However, next to Mark Sheppard who makes a living doing ridiculous voices, Summer doesn't look so bad. But I don't understand why Badger reacts so congenially to River after she completely humiliates him.

The only bit of this episode that I really like is Kaylee. I like her walking back to her bunk from the engine room and lying on her bed to stare at her layer cake dress and listen to classical music. I think Jewel Staite looks so sweet but also sexy with the top half of her coveralls dangling around her waist. I also love her beleaguered "Hi" when she returns to Serenity as the captive of Badger's henchmen.

Tommy O'Haver's 'An American Crime' (2007)

Despite having two talented actors like Catherine Keener and Ellen Page as his leads, co-writer and director Tommy O'Haver has created a film that would feel at home on the Lifetime Movie Network. From the title to (the usually solid) Keener's underwhelming performance, An American Crime is as bland as these "portraits of a murderer" come. Though O'Haver did not approach the material with exploitation in mind, he fails to fascinate the audience with what fascinated him as a teenager growing up in Indianapolis, where the real crime occurred.

I suppose there's something grotesquely intriguing about how a woman managed to torture and abuse a young girl for two months in a household of ten people without anyone intervening, but I find the Lord of the Flies aspect of this case the most disturbing. The torments Gertrude visits upon Sylvia in the film are, for the most part, pretty tame, at least in comparison to what series like Law & Order: SVU and CSI can portray on television these days. The real Gertrude Baniszewski did much worse to Sylvia Likens, so O'Haver chose not to sensationalize the violence. But if he didn't intend to shock audiences with graphically depicted torture or suggested extreme abuse, then O'Haver needed to make a compelling, tense psychological thriller. Instead, he fails to create any atmosphere or dramatic tension, fails to explore the social and psychological conditions that enabled this crime, and fails to produce an intriguing representation of the perpetrators.

I could forgive coming out of the theater still questioning why Baniszewski tortured Sylvia Likens or why so many children became complicit in her abuse if the characters and performances were memorable, but the script and O'Haver's direction also fail here. I understand why Catherine Keener would choose a more subdued approach to Gertrude, but it's disappointing that she never lets a little bit of insidiousness or villainy shine through. I'm puzzled why Ellen Page would choose to play Sylvia, unless a large chunk of the film was cut for some reason. Little is required of her except to seem completely innocent and play the passive victim. Though apparently Page really committed to the part: supposedly she chose not to eat much during filming because Sylvia wasn't being fed. But if you're in the mood to see Page in a disturbing thriller, pick up Hard Candy instead.

Ginger Crush: Seth Green

I admit that I find it difficult to separate Seth Green from Oz, Willow's sweet, laconic, guitar-playing, werewolf boyfriend on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But if I can still get excited about Seth's presence in a project after growing up with Austin Powers, Idle Hands, and Without a Paddle, there must be something about Seth himself that tickles my fancy.
He has made better films since I was a teenager like Party Monster and The Italian Job, which are both fun, entertaining movies. He has been working mostly in animation since departing from Buffy, which is a little disappointing just because we don't get to see that sexy, slow smile of his. Robot Chicken isn't quite my brand of humor, but I gotta love a guy who loves stop motion.

And points for Seth being into Scrabble: he played in a celebrity Scrabble tournament for the game's 60th anniversary and plugged the new Super Scrabble during the Buffy panel at Paley Fest in 2008. He also seems to be very loyal to his friends, and I think it's kinda sweet how he ran interference for Sarah Michelle Gellar at Paley Fest by joking with reporters who became critical of her not previously participating in fan events such as the festival.

Also, he's short. Short men are sexy.

Bruce McDonald's 'The Tracey Fragments' (2007)

Director Bruce McDonald seems to think that his approach to this material is avant garde or some shit, but The Tracey Fragments looks like a bad film school project. Maureen Medved's script, based on her book of the same name, details the experiences of 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz, "just a normal girl who hates herself," and whose sanity rapidly disintegrates after a traumatic incident. McDonald tries to duplicate that experience of psychological "fragmenting" by using split screens in practically every shot, which annoys more than anything else. The split screens manage to be visually interesting a couple times, but not frequently enough to justify their use throughout the entire film. Used sparingly, they might have worked better, but after five minutes the audience gets what McDonald is going for and the onslaught of largely banal visual information loses its emotional resonance. However, I admit that I do like how McDonald repeats bits of scenes from time to time.

Medved presents what little plot there is in a nonlinear fashion, a storytelling device that could effectively portray Tracey's fractured mental state without the help of split screens. While bits of the film work, the overall narrative is rather flaccid and uninteresting. Medved leaves all the supporting characters underdeveloped, and much of what Tracey says to the camera is overwritten and overly dramatic.

I doubt that this film would have made it outside the film festival circuit if not for Ellen Page and her current marketability. Though Page filmed The Tracey Fragments before Juno, it was only released in theaters after the latter film became so successful. Her performance makes The Tracey Fragments bearable to watch, but even she falters at some of the more purple bits of dialogue. Most of the supporting actors failed to impress me. Though his performance is solid, I enjoyed seeing Maxwell McCabe-Lokos mostly because he inhabits such a different character from the one he plays in the other movie he made with Ellen Page, 2005's Mouth to Mouth. I also liked Julian Richings as Tracey's transgendered therapist.

I'm disappointed that this material doesn't receive better treatment, because I think The Tracey Fragments could have made a powerful statement about the practically socially sanctioned degradation of young women's sense of self through the sexualization and objectification of their bodies and pressure to conform to social standards of beauty, just for example. Many teen-aged girls endure most if not all of what Tracey experiences, so it's amazing that more of them don't end up wrapped in only a shower curtain, "on [a] bus, looking for someone."

Kelly Reichardt's 'Wendy and Lucy' (2008)

Wendy and Lucy is a story about a girl and her dog. But it's not one of those movies about a girl and her dog. It's not a cutesy, feel-good affair about the bonds of friendship between human and animal. While Lucy may be Wendy's only friend, she functions more as a symbol for the life that Wendy left behind when she started on her journey to Alaska to find work. The road trip is long and money is tight, putting Wendy in a precarious financial situation. Any unexpected expense could break her budget, and when her car breaks down in a small town in Oregon, Wendy finds that her circumstances quickly become dire.

Director Kelly Reichardt employs a minimalist, almost Dogma 95-like style, which keeps this unashamedly political tale from becoming too schmaltzy or too preachy. Instead, Reichardt crafts a quietly heartbreaking and engrossing film that never hits a wrong note. Wendy and Lucy isn't designed to be a tearjerker, but I found myself crying quite a bit because of how accurately Reichardt captures the disdain with which poor people are treated. When Wendy runs out of food for Lucy, she tries to shoplift a few cans of dog food and gets caught. The young, zealous store clerk sneers that if people can't afford a dog then they shouldn't own one, implying that poor people are less deserving of basic human needs like companionship. Most people would interpret Wendy's decision to leave Lucy with a foster family as a responsible one, but it also feels like Wendy has finally been broken, convinced that she deserves a life stripped of all comfort.

Credit for the emotional punch this film delivers also belongs to Michelle Williams. This role is not a glamorous one. Worried that Williams would be too pretty, Reichardt asked her not to wear any make-up. Her hair is cut in a messy, androgynous mop, and she wears unflattering clothing that makes her knees seem a little too knobby. Wendy spends most of her time alone, rarely interacting with other people. But even without the luxury of revealing Wendy's mental state through interpersonal dynamics, Williams manages to make all of Wendy's emotions easily accessible to the audience, conveying her sadness and loneliness through her eyes and her body language. Just like her performances in Brokeback Mountain and Land of Plenty, Williams' work here proves that she is an actress to watch.

'Firefly': "Bushwhacked"

"Bushwhacked" takes a familiar premise and pairs it with a weak plot, resulting in mediocre storytelling. Like "The Train Job," this episode attempts to play catch-up after losing "Serenity" as Firefly's pilot, and it includes a lot of exposition. The first scene exposits at length about Simon and River's situation, and the later interrogation scene provides an opportunity to recite information about Inara and Mal's backgrounds. The Alliance and Reavers also receive an "introduction."

Even though Reavers don't come off as intimidating here as they do in "Serenity," this episode better presents the spectrum of civilization in the 'verse with The Alliance on one side, Reavers on the other, and the crew of Serenity somewhere in the middle. Or to a Freudian, the three entities would represent the psychic apparatus: Reavers are the unchecked id, The Alliance represents the moralizing superego, and Serenity the pragmatic ego. Joss & Tim missed an opportunity to invoke a Western motif of women acting as a socializing force, i.e. the superego. They should have made one of the female members of the crew, instead of Book, insist they investigate the abandoned ship or cast a female actor as the Alliance officer.

The plot takes too long to get going, especially since anyone who has ever watched a sci-fi show has seen a version of this episode before. When a crew stumbles upon a mysterious abandoned vessel in the middle of nowhere, the audience knows that the ship will be full of dead bodies or some disease that's fatal to only certain members of the crew or something else equally ominous. Kaylee disarming the booby trap left by the Reavers proves to be pointless filler, and the interrogations create an awkward pause in the middle of the episode. I also don't believe that the Alliance officer would let Mal lead them in searching Serenity for Mr. Proto-Reaver, nor do I completely buy that the officer would release the crew of Serenity after Mal saves his life.

Not surprisingly, both of my favorite moments involve Simon. Especially on Angel, Joss far too often uses badly written misdirection that's telegraphed within the first seconds of the scene. But Jayne tricking Simon into putting on a spacesuit and entering the other ship genuinely surprised me. That bit of misdirection also works to establish relationship dynamics amongst the crew. I also really like the scene with River and Simon hiding from the Alliance. River staring wondrously out into space while Simon blanches at the same view reveals a lot about these two characters.

Though they interrupt the narrative flow, the interrogation scenes do provide a couple humorous character moments. I love Kaylee's rant about a ship that really would be junk, unlike Serenity, and Zoe's terse conversation with the officer. "You fought with Captain Reynolds in the war?" "Fought with a lot of people in the war." "And your husband?" "Fight with him sometimes, too."

Mal continues to assert his patriarchal authority. As the Alliance is boarding the ship, he tells Simon to fetch his sister without telling him why. I know the writers are attempting to create some dramatic tension here. But in the time it takes to make Simon obey the instruction, Mal could have said something like, "I'm not gonna turn you in. Just get your sister," which still would leave the reveal of Simon and River clinging to the side of the ship a surprise. Instead Mal, with inexplicable support from Book, imposes his authority on Simon because he doesn't follow orders blindly.

James Wong's 'Dragonball Evolution' (2009)

I'm not a Dragonball fan. As a rule, I can't stand anime. Or manga for that matter. But I saw this movie at my local dollar theater because James Marsters was one of only two Buffy alums whom I hadn't really seen in any work outside of the show. Viewed in that context, the movie is pretty disappointing: Marsters only appears for maybe fifteen minutes. And besides Marsters' limited screen time, I think the movie still disappoints. The story structure caters to newcomers to the story of Goku, but I was confused about some of the finer details and I didn't have an attachment to the characters. Fans of the series will have greater affinity for the characters, even though they aren't very well drawn here, but will probably be bored by the origin story plot. So most likely, Evolution fails to engage both newbies and fans of Dragonball.

Yeah, Dragonball Evolution is kinda bad. The plot is predictable, the characters shallow, and the acting amateurish. But it's kinda bad in a fun, campy B-movie way. Approached with low expectations and a desire to see some reasonably cool stuntwork and special effects, the movie can deliver a pretty good time. Director James Wong doesn't take the material too seriously and he has instructed his actors to do the same. Everything has a heightened, over-the-top quality that feels very much like the manga and anime I've seen.

Though James Marsters' performance isn't particularly notable, I don't really understand why he doesn't appear in the movie more. While he doesn't fight with his hands much, Lord Piccolo seems to have a superior control of his qi, which he uses to subdue a trained fighter and destroy a house. But he inexplicably has a female henchman who acts as his muscle — one of those leather-wearing types whose outfit is all tight-fitting and high-necked, except for the circle cutout that shows off her cleavage. Why does he need her to do any fighting for him? He seems perfectly capable.

Ginger Crush: Tilda Swinton

I think I most admire Tilda Swinton's sense of self and the unapologetic way that she lives her life. She is five-foot-ten and wears heels. She is 48-years-old and regularly shows up places like David Letterman and the Academy Awards wearing little or no makeup. She has played male characters a couple times and doesn't mind a good genderfuck. She lives platonically with the father of her kids and has a romantic relationship with a German painter 18 years her junior. She is articulate as hell and extremely intelligent, not to mention fiercely talented.

Zackary Adler's 'I'm Reed Fish' (2006)

I'm Reed Fish is a semi-autobiographical romantic-comedy written by a man named Reed Fish about a character named Reed Fish, who makes a semi-autobiographical film called I'm Reed Fish with a character named Reed Fish. 'I'm Reed Fish' posterThis movie has more layers than a trifle, I tell you.

But despite the frankly needless postmodern approach to the narrative, Reed Fish's screenplay offers little in the way of originality. It's not a bad film, but it loses its footing in the middle and never recovers. The ending of both the film and the film within a film feels rushed and hastily patched together.

The acting is, by and large, quite good, and all of the actors seem comfortable in (and not too big for) the small town their characters inhabit. Jay Baruchel of Undeclared plays the titular character as a decent guy having to struggle with his identity very publicly. Gilmore Girl Alexis Bledel is on familiar ground playing Reed's fiancée Kate, a beloved daughter of a tiny town of quirky characters, and she offers a very nice performance. Bledel has an excellent scene with Baruchel when they call off their wedding, which is probably one of my favorite bits of acting I've seen from her. But as good as Baruchel and Bledel are, Schuyler Fisk steals scenes with her unforced charm and girl-next-door good looks. Her lovely singing voice doesn't hurt either. Neither of the actresses who play "the real" Kate and Jill is as winning as Bledel or Fisk, which contributes to the disappointment of the ending. And despite the fine acting from the leads, I came away from the movie more excited about Schuyler Fisk's music career than anything else.

'Firefly': "The Train Job"

I really hope the production designer didn't think those Chinese checkers would suggest an Asian cultural influence because Chinese checkers? Not so much Chinese. Zoe, Mal, and Jayne should have been munching on fortune cookies too. That would have been really "Chinese."

I know that FOX deserves some if not most of the blame for the lameness of this episode. For whatever reasons, the network elected not to air "Serenity" and instead made Joss & Tim write a different pilot. Give us bigger than life villains! they said. Make the main characters snuggable, little bunnies! they said. And while you're at it, give us 37 minutes of exposition! they said. OK, maybe they didn't say that last part, but that's what they got.

Perhaps Joss & Tim didn't have a choice but to include all of the background information presented in "Serenity" in their reworking, but I don't think they really needed to. Pilots should demonstrate the interpersonal dynamics between the main characters, but they do not necessarily have to reveal all the characters' histories. Why Simon and River are fugitives, for example, could have been addressed in a subsequent episode, which would have reduced the exposition by about 40%.

Mal and his merry band of thieves are supposed to be our morally ambiguous but relatable antiheroes; however, FOX really isn't comfortable with that "anti-" part. So Joss & Tim brought in Nishka of the fake accent and Crow of the intimidating face tattoo so that the audience knows who the real bad guys are. The crew of Serenity may steal things, but they don't cotton to torture. And they aren't foreigners or have unsightly body art. They're also touched by the hardships of others and would never steal medicine from thems that need it...except when they do that a few episodes later in "Ariel." As well as providing the one surprise in a terribly predictable plot, Mal shoving Crow into the turbine offers the only evidence that the captain might actually have some bite.

You know, Mal invites Simon and River to stay aboard if Simon earns his keep, treating wounds and the like, but Book just stays on the ship and no one says a word. I really doubt that Book has the money to pay for being shuttled around everywhere they go, he doesn't really do anything as a crew member on a regular basis, and Mal doesn't particularly seem to like having a shepherd on his boat. So why does no one question Book's continued presence on the ship?

A doped up Jayne is the only somewhat enjoyable bit of this episode. "What? What do you mean back? I waited for you guys!"

Also, in my quest for HoYay! I note that when Inara is brushing her hair, Kaylee asks if Inara ever brushes her clients' hair, which suggests Kaylee thinks of hairbrushing as something that's done between people who sleep together. Heh heh heh. And Mal goes to the infirmary to wash his cuts from the fight. He could have done in his quarters, so I think he just wanted to see Simon.

'Firefly': "Serenity"

While I think that the idea of a space western is actually quite germane, I'm not thrilled with Joss' execution. Outer space is a very appropriate setting for a western, which is a genre that explores the effects of men having a lot of space. Instead of relying on really stylized production design, I would rather Joss focus on common themes of westerns to make Firefly seem westerny, such as civilization encroaching on wilderness, morally ambiguous justice in the absence of law, and the subordination of nature and the original inhabitants of the frontier. While the more primitive, seemingly more agrarian conditions on the outer planets make antiquated lifestyles and simpler, homemade styles of dress practical, most of the western dress and props feels stylishly "retro" and ridiculously over-the-top so that the audience knows IT'S A SPACE WESTERN. A WESTERN THAT'S IN SPACE, GEDDIT? Greg Edmonson's score and Joss' terrible theme song also try too hard to be folksy. I don't so much mind the western dialogue, when it's done well, because it isn't pervasive: it's used to differentiate class and implies greater association with the outer rim rather than the central planets.

The production design also fails to sell the integration of American and Chinese cultures. Sticking some chopsticks and a paper umbrella into frame suggests that someone made a run on World Market rather than two cultures have blended. I also wish that the Chinese dialogue had been used less as creative cursing and more to create a language like Tex-Mex in its beginning stages. I think the meimeis and dong mas are on the right track.

The episode begins with a flashback to the Unification War, showing Zoe and Mal fighting on the losing side. Joss thinks that flashbacks are a lot cooler than they really are, and he overuses them, especially on Angel. In this case, I find this scene poorly executed. It would be one thing if the flashback revealed how different Mal was before the war and leave the cause of his change in disposition a mystery to uncover in the series. But instead the flashback shows why Mal lost his faith and became (sorry) a malcontent, leaving little to reveal later on. I could convince myself to legitimate its inclusion if it hinted at why the Independents are fighting the Alliance or what exactly the Alliance is, but the scene accomplishes neither. I would rather the little bits of information this scene offers be doled out gradually throughout the series.

Another something that I wish Joss would stop doing is writing all these crazy people: first Tara, et. al. on season five of Buffy, then Fred on Angel, and now River on Firefly. No babbling crazies on Dollhouse yet, thankfully. Again, they are not as cool as you think, Joss. Mostly they are just irritating. I think that Summer Glau does a good job with the material she is given, but having a character that doesn't make sense most of the time becomes tiresome.

This episode also sets up the romantic tension amongst the characters, namely Mal and Inara and Kaylee and Simon. But I never saw much sexual tension between either of the pairings. Sean Maher does a really good job playing Simon as kind of sexless, completely focused on protecting his sister and interested in little else. And I always thought Simon would turn out to be gay. Similarly, I thought that Inara and Kaylee might end up being love interests from their little "Hey you" exchange in this episode until the scene between Inara and Mal in her shuttle made it clear that they were the intended pairing. Though they make good sparring partners, Morena Baccarin and Nathan Fillion don't have much romantic chemistry, and I would rather see Inara be with someone who doesn't belittle her or try to dominate her. So if Inara and Kaylee hooked up, then Simon could be Mal's love interest, I guess. They do often argue very intensely.

Joss includes some ridiculous shots of Inara and River because they're artsy or some shit, but I really like the shot of the Alliance ship reflected in the visor of Mal's space suit. It's a really nice effects shot and makes the spaceship seem very commonplace in this 'verse. I also like Kaylee eating the strawberry, the fuss over the fresh vegetables, and Mal selling food supplements on the black market, which give the audience a bit of a glimpse of what the lives of people "on the edge" are like.

The script has a few weak spots:
  • Mal's comment about not interrupting Inara so that someone can make an honest living seems very out of character for him. Usually he speaks with nothing but vitriol in regards to her profession. That line should have been given to Wash or Zoe instead.
  • The first scene between Inara and Book in her shuttle mostly repeats what the previous scene in the galley conveyed, that Mal is protective of his crew and doesn't much care if people like him. They also say that Mal is "a mystery" to which I say, huh? Mal is conflicted, sure, but mysterious? Not so much. He's a cynic with the heart of an idealist, but aren't they all.
  • I can't reason why Book is involved in the discussion about River in the galley. He is hardly part of the crew at this point but acts like he is.
  • Dobson looks like the most incompetent federal agent ever.
  • I'm also not convinced that Mal would think it's worth the risk keeping Simon and River aboard his ship at this point.
Mal's annoying, patriarchal attitude that persists throughout the series is abundantly evident here. He tells Inara not "to tell [him] what to do" on his ship and dismisses everyone's opinions about whether Simon and River should be killed. He even takes away their efficacy, telling his crew that they "don't vote on [his] ship." Mal systemically belittles Inara because of her legal profession in effort to control the only woman on board who doesn't follow his orders. His continuing invasions of Inara's personal space also assert his authority and degrade her sense of empowerment.

Looking at "Serenity" as Firefly's pilot, this episode functions a hell of a lot better than "The Train Job," which aired as the first episode. All of the characters, as well as The Alliance, border planets, and Reavers, receive a proper introduction without too much exposition. Sure, this episode feels self-indulgent on Joss Whedon's part and a little padded, but most of the filler is pretty interesting so overall "Serenity" succeeds.
Does Summer Glau only choose shows in which she's naked in the pilot?