This new version of Shakespeare's romantic farce looks like it was shot on video in the filmmaker's house with his friends over the course of about two weeks, which is exactly the case. It's lively and funny, and occasionally also warm and emotional, but the uneven tone never quite comes together to bring out the passion in the characters. An enjoyable experiment, the film keeps us entertained but refuses to spring to life.
Set in present-day suburbia, the story opens as Don Pedro (Diamond) and his henchmen Benedick and Claudio (Denisof and Kranz) deliver rival gang leader Don John (Maher) to his mob boss brother Leonato (Gregg). A confirmed bachelor, Benedick continues his verbal sparring with Leonato's feisty love-rejecting daughter Beatrice (Acker), while Claudio seeks help in wooing her sweet cousin Hero (Morgese). But Leonato decides to have some fun here, tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love with each other. Meanwhile, the imprisoned Don John is plotting to destroy his brother, while a bumbling detective (Fillion) tries to figure out what's up.
Filmmaker Whedon assembles his cast from actors he worked with in everything from Buffy to The Avengers, creating a loose, relaxed atmosphere that makes the film easy to watch, even though it's in black and white and is spoken in Shakespearean dialect. On the other hand, this kind of mutes the play's romantic highs and tragic lows, evening everything out into a gentle comedy of manners with slapstick touches. Part of the problem is that, if you're unfamiliar with these actors, it's not easy to tell them apart as they are dressed in identical black suits. But the cast is excellent, delivering the dialog with off-handed precision.
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The name of the series comes from the model of spaceship our protagonists travel in. It's an out-dated clunker full of problems but it's a comfortable mobile home that engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite) affectionately maintains for a variety of passengers who fall in the enormous gap between government (a.k.a. Alliance) official and beggar on the fringe. Captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, Waitress), the crew flies from one smuggling or delivery job to the next, be they legal or not under Alliance rules, to maintain their independence. Their main objective is to keep food on the table, fuel in the tank, and to stay away from Reavers, hideous beings whose hunger for anything living is never satisfied. By staying on a planet too long they would end up on the Alliance's radar, or end up slaves to a system they don't wish to support, so purposeful vagabonds they are when we join them.
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It's no matter, though, as Whedon gets the uninitiated up to speed quick: 500 years in the future, most of the human-colonized galaxy is controlled by the autocratic Alliance, who won a war some time ago against the rebel Independents, now roaming the fringes of explored space. This is where we find the rattletrap freighter Serenity, crewed by a loveable gaggle of rogues who want to be free to wander at will and maybe pull off the occasional crime. The unusually personable crew is led by Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a sarcastic loner with a not-so-secret heart of idealism. A shambling kind of hero, he's about the best thing to hit movie screens since Harrison Ford lost his sense of humor. Since every good hero needs sidekicks, Mal's backed up by badass Zoe (Gina Torres), her geeky husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), weapons-crazed lunkhead Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and wide-eyed girl mechanic Kaylee (Jewel State). There's also some new crewmates: a doctor, Simon (Sean Maher), who we've seen busting his teenaged sister River (Summer Glau) out of an Alliance research facility where she'd been being turned into a psychotic killing machine. Now River just mopes around the ship, occasionally having psychic flashes, while Simon ignores advances from lovestruck Kaylee.
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It's nothing like the country vibe we were anticipating.
The most exciting movies set to drop in the coming months.