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Watching all of these recent science-fiction action spectaculars premiere lately, I think it's a good thing to remember that you really don't need much by way of resources to make a good, engaging science-fiction movie. And I'm not just talking about the one-room talking head exercises like "The Man From Earth," or artsy pieces like Darren Aronofsky's "Pi." Some of the best science fiction media ever made has been very simple stuff, often forgotten and overlooked in favor of flashier projects. One of my favorite sci-fi obscurities is a television movie with very unlikely origins.

Way back in 1980, PBS commissioned directors David Loxton and Fred Barzyk to create a pilot for a potential series of science-fiction television films. The series never materialized, but this did result in an adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Lathe of Heaven," the story of a man named George Orr (Bruce Davison), who has "effective dreams," dreams that can rewrite reality while he sleeps. George goes to a doctor who specializes in dreaming, Dr. Haber (Kevin Conway), hoping to be cured, but when Haber discovers Orr's powers, he decides to use them to try and better the world according to his own ideals. He aims to solve all the problems that plague mankind - war, prejudice, poverty, and more. Unfortunately, George's dreams prove to be mercurial, and difficult to control. The story is complex, set in a dystopian future that undergoes disasters, plagues, and even an alien invasion. Loxton and Barzyk had a budget of $250K (about $710K in today's dollars), and two weeks to shoot the movie.

Watching the film today, it's clear that budget could only be made to stretch so far. You can tell that most of the film was shot in and around a series of Dallas office buildings. Many of the effects look terribly primitive, notable the alien spacecraft that are no more than crudely animated blobs of light superimposed on top of landscape shots. All the aliens are clearly a single creature puppet, dressed and shot differently for each appearance. However, some of the storytelling devices and production solutions that the filmmakers came up with are simply brilliant. Surreal video art and symbolic images populate George's dreams, showing major upheavals happening in the abstract. To present the devastating effects of a plague, George dreams he is seated at a table surrounded by people, who all are eventually draped in gray sheets and then disappear, one by one. When he wakes up, the once busy courtyard below Dr. Haber's office is empty. Simple as that.

The performances do a lot of the heavy lifting here. The film is very exposition-heavy. Each time George has an effective dream, he wakes up to a different reality that needs some of the details filled in, and there is a lot of thunderous debate about the nature of reality, morality, existentialism, and other such heavy topics. It's simple enough for non-sci-fi fans to follow easily, but the material could get dry very quickly. Fortunately Davison and Conway are up to the task. Conway especially is fantastic, as the self-righteous and increasingly megalomaniacal Dr. Haber who morphs from a friendly counselor into a menacing villain. The two of them, plus Margaret Avery as George's lawyer and love interest Heather LeLache, keep the increasingly bizarre and cerebral story from ever going off the rails.

"The Lathe of Heaven" is remarkably faithful to its source material. Author Ursula K. LeGuin was heavily involved with the film from the start. As a result, the script by Roger Swaybill and Diane English (who would create "Murphy Brown" a few years later) is refreshingly smart, literate, and trusts the audience to be able to keep up with its numerous twists and turns. In the spirit of "The Twilight Zone," the ideas are placed at the forefront, rather than the actors or the effects, and it's apparent how much trust the filmmakers had in the strength of the concepts. At the same time, it's a very cinematic adaptation, with little moments of humor and lots of great visuals. The aliens, somehow, have not aged badly, and I've never seen a film with more threatening shots of urban architecture.

"The Lathe of Heaven" was difficult to come by for years, never released on home media thanks to rights snafus until the year 2000, when it was restored and rereleased. It experienced a brief resurgence of interest thanks to this, enough to prompt a new adaptation from A&E in 2002 with a much bigger budget, but little of the charm or effectiveness. Over the past thirteen years, "The Lathe of Heaven" has largely faded from the public consciousness again, which I think is a shame. It's one of those rare, successful adaptations that really should be discussed in the same breath with the 70s sci-fi classics like "Silent Running" or "Soylent Green." It remains a cult favorite, though, and at least it's far easier to access now than ever.
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I read "Ender's Game" when I was in junior high, and several of the sequels, but I was never particularly taken with the series. The elements that many of its fans prize - the shockingly young age of the primary characters, the brutality of their actions, and the sadism of their elders, did not particularly appeal to me, and I didn't find them vital to the story. That's probably why I didn't react as badly to the film version of "Ender's Game" as many others, which has predictably had its content considerably toned down from the book.

In a not-too-distant future, mankind has barely survived an invasion force of insectoid aliens called the Formics, and have directed their entire society towards training a generation of young soldiers for the next encounter with them. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who runs the Battle School program for the most gifted children, singles out a boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) as their best hope, and aggressively begins to train and mold him into a ruthless leader. Ender is conflicted, and despite Graff's efforts to isolate him, tries to maintain ties with his older sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Ha also make friends and allies at Battle School, including a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) and a younger boy, Bean (Aramis Knight).

"Ender's Game" stays fairly faithful to the books, perhaps too much so, trying to cram far too much story into a film that one suspects was contractually required to run shorter than two hours. There is way too much exposition, introducing concepts and characters at breakneck speeds, and the pacing is a mess. Even with several important subplots deleted from the story, everything still feels rushed. The timeline has been seriously compressed, so that Ender's training only seems to take a few months instead of several years. Many characters don't get nearly as much fleshing out as they need to, and there are some parts of the story that are so watered down, that they don't really work any more. The primary one is the Mind Game, a video game used as a psychological testing tool that takes on greater for Ender. Rendered in unappealing CGI, all the Mind Game sequences are a bust.

Then you have the main feature of the Battle School, the Battle Room, a zero-G training environment where two "armies" of cadets meet in simulated combat. Despite so much importance and emphasis being placed on Ender's experiences in the Battle Room, which have by far the most impressive visuals of the film, we only get to see two training sessions and two full battles. After that, we're whisked away somewhere else completely. It's difficult to stay invested in the film when we keep bouncing around from place to place, from one set of characters and dilemmas to the next. Ender has many challenges to overcome, but they're overcome so quickly that most of them hardly feel like challenges at all.

Still, the movie gets some fundamental things right. The first is Ender, aged up to about twelve or thirteen. Asa Butterfield, last seen as the waif in "Hugo," is credible as a boy with the potential for enormous cruelty and destructiveness, but who also has great intelligence, empathy, and sensitivity. Many of Ender's experiences could have come across as dry philosophical exercises, but Butterfield succeeds in humanizing the young genius enough to make the audience care about him. Likewise Colonel Graff is about the best performance I've seen out of Harrison Ford in years. Some of his actions border on the inhumane, but you understand Graff's motivations and his reasoning.

I wish I could say the same for some of the others. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin's roles have been so altered or truncated, they're not left with much to do. Ender and Petra's friendship gets some unfortunate romantic connotations the way they've been aged up. The role of Major Anderson, the second in command at Battle School, was beefed up for Viola Davis. She's placed as a counterpoint to Graff, concerned with Ender's psychological well-being and the damage that the training may be doing. Unfortunately, it's a thread of the story that goes nowhere, and abandoned before it can really pan out. Then there's Moises Arias, an interesting choice to play Ender's chief rival, Bonzo, but severely undercut for simple lack of time.

I got enough out of the movie that I would recommend it, but with a lot of caveats. It's compromised, it's messy, it has a lot of good ideas it doesn't know what to do with, it's too short, and it's too reductive. And yet, I admire it for its great ambitions and for pushing the envelope as far as it did. And I'm glad that we've reached a point, culturally, where an "Ender's Game" film of any faithfulness could be produced.
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I'm glad I went into "Man of Steel" with fairly low expectations. The Richard Donner "Superman" is so deeply embedded into my psyche, I've pretty much accepted that there's never going to be another take on the character that will live up to it for me. The new version certainly didn't, but it didn't try to. Rather, it is exactly what Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder kept threatening it would be, a much darker, moodier, serious version that shows no trace of Superman's origin in comic books for wide-eyed young children. I found the movie mostly well made, very uneven, and overwhelmingly joyless, humorless, and honestly a little depressing.

Still, I understand perfectly why many moviegoers enjoyed "Man of Steel." Not everyone wants the larger than life superhero figure that I always think of Superman as being. This version is far more human, full of doubts about his place in the world and his responsibilities toward Earth and Krypton. Henry Cavill does a great job filling out the suit and giving Kal-El/Clark Kent some psychological depth. Much of the running time is devoted to his growing pains, charting encounters with bullies, struggles to hide his burgeoning powers, and his relationship with his adopted father, played by Kevin Costner in one of his best performances in years.

Less successful are the parts of the movie that deal with the Kryptonians. Superman's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) gets a much expanded role, setting up the conflict with the film's villains and sending his infant son to Earth in the opening sequence. These scenes are too exposition-heavy, designed to deliver mind-numbing action sequence after action sequence, and take away from the more personal exploration of the Superman character that the rest of the film tries to give us. The villains, banished Kryptonians General Zod (Michael Shannon) and Faora (Antje Traue), are a bust. They're intimidating, sure, but they're not developed well at all, and because "Man of Steel" plays everything so straight, Michael Shannon isn't in a position to really let his inner ham loose the way we all know that Michael Shannon can.

Somewhere in the middle, and often getting a bit lost amid all the other plot threads, is the romance with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She provides a lot of early momentum to the plot, chasing after an elusive proto-Superman in order to report on his story, but becomes caught up in his plight and the threat from the Kryptonians. Adams gets a lot to do, and I like this more grounded conception of the character, but Lois Lane remains fairly blank, barely making an more of an impression than her disapproving boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). When she falls in love with Superman, it's so matter-of-fact, you wonder if any of the writers had ever been in a romantic relationship before.

"Man of Steel" tries to do too much and be too many different movies. The parts that worked - the character pieces about the young Superman, the examination of two different father-son relationships, and the journey of self-discovery, would have been more than enough on their own to fill out a whole feature film. However, this is a summer superhero spectacular, and Zack Snyder was hired to direct, so of course it also had to be an epic scale action movie too. The trouble is that action movie is an unrelenting smash-fest, completely missing the nuance and the atmosphere of the rest of the movie. The final climactic battle seems to go on forever, an orgy of destruction that completely loses human dimensions in yet another attempt this year to best "The Avengers."

"Man of Steel" did some things right, and established the new Superman well enough that I think he has the potential to carry a full franchise. However, the way the movie was constructed, so that it's all the fights and CGI that are pushed front and center, ironically all the character development got backgrounded. Cavill gets tossed around, but he rarely gets to do much acting. The bulk of the development is really with the kids in the flashbacks. Consequently, I don't think I got nearly as good a sense of what this Superman is all about as I should have. And that's a shame.

Will I give him another shot? Sure, I guess. Pairing him with the new Batman in the next outing is a good idea, and should help to better distinguish his character. "Man of Steel" took a few too many cues from "The Dark Knight," delivering another brooding hero in a grim universe. It'll be good to see him face off with Batman directly so the filmmakers will have to address what really makes Superman, well, Superman. On the other hand, assuming it's the same creative team, there's a strong likelihood that we're in for more brainless carnage overload.

I'm really not happy with where the DC movie universe is going right now.
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It's easy to get caught up in all the hype about how Alfonso Cuarón made "Gravity," his new space adventure thriller. The film's impressive visuals required the invention of new technology, and a radically different production timeline than most studio features. After all, the major selling point of "Gravity" is its spectacle, the ninety minutes of visceral thrills and awe-inspiring special effects work that distinguish a very simple survival story.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, is on her first mission as a newly trained astronaut, with the space shuttle Explorer. Disaster strikes when a destroyed Soviet satellite causes a debris cloud that wreaks catastrophic damage on everything in its path. Caught out during a space walk, with all communications with Earth severed, Stone and fellow astronaut Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are separated from the shuttle and at risk of drifting away beyond anyone's reach. They have to find their way back with limited resources and limited time, in order to return to Earth safely.

I heard some complaints when the trailers were first released for "Gravity," that casting two major A-listers like Bullock and Clooney was distracting. However, I think having actors of this caliber in the film was a necessity. The script by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás is very simple, and the characters are fairly generic. Nearly everything depends on the performances of the two leads, and they don't have much to work with. We have to relate to and root for the astronauts to overcome each obstacle in their path on the way home, and the film wouldn't have nearly as much impact if the emotional journey wasn't as engaging as the physical one. "Gravity" wouldn't work without Sandra Bullock, and after all the drama about casting the film in the early going, I'm glad she's the one who ultimately got the part.

However, the bulk of the kudos have to go to Cuarón. As we saw last year with Ang Lee and "Life of Pi," it's one thing to have access to sophisticated special effects, but quite another to be able to use them to tell a story in an engaging way. The reason "Gravity" required so much innovation was because of how Cuarón wanted to tell the story. Cuarón insisted on opening the film with a complicated, endless shot that starts with the Explorer as a speck on the horizon and then zooms around it to introduce and follow the characters as they work on the maintenance of the Hubble telescope. Existing methods of simulating weightlessness simply wouldn't cut it, so new methods had to be invented.

One of my favorite shots in the film is the "womb" shot, where we see Sandra Bullock briefly curled up in a fetal position, floating in isolation. It looks so simple at first, but when you consider the logistics of what was necessary to achieve that image, suddenly it becomes exponentially more impressive. Scientific accuracy isn't always paramount in this film, as multiple scientists have already pointed out, but there was clearly a high awareness of the necessity of getting the little details right. Sound doesn't carry in space, so all we hear are the astronauts and the score by Stephen Price. Fire behaves differently. The actors have to move in specific ways to convey the lack of weight and friction. I especially like how all the space shuttles and space stations in the film are ones that actually exist or are planned for the near future.

The technical achievements are without question. The viscerality and the immersiveness of the experience play a major part in its effectiveness, and I think it's to Cuarón's credit that so many critics are calling for the film to be seen in a 3D IMAX format. But at the end of the day, were all these thrills put to use in the best way to tell a good story? Spectacle for its own sake can make for a decent movie, but I expect more from a director like Alphonso Cuarón. By and large I think he managed it. I don't think this is his best film. The dialogue is too simplistic and the metaphors are too blunt, but I was on board with the story the whole way through, and there were times when the human drama did make me briefly forget about the spectacle.

That said, I can't help hoping that Cuarón's next film is a smaller one. "Gravity" is a wonderful film, but I'm not so sure it was worth seven years out of the career of one of the best directors currently working. I don't like the idea of Cuarón turning into another James Cameron, because we already have James Cameron. In any case, I want to see what Alphonso Cuarón wants to do next.
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I went back and forth about whether I should write up a reaction post to the finale of "Futurama," as I've spent so many posts cheerleading the series before. However, it's been over a year since the last time I wrote about it on this blog, there are a lot of other episodes to talk about, and this finale feels like the real deal in a way that the other finales haven't, so I think I can justify this one. Some minor spoilers for the most recent seasons ahead.

Season seven of "Futurama," aired in two batches over the last two years. There's been a lot of debate over whether the quality of the show has dropped since it came back from its long hiatus, and whether season seven was as good as season six. My position is that "Futurama" has always had weaker episodes, and while the Comedy Central episodes were more inconsistent and had different sensibilities than the FOX episodes, they were still well worth watching weekly. Some of my favorite episodes, including body-switching episode "Prisoner of Benda" and time travel episode "The Late Philip J. Fry," came after the hiatus. I'm going to need a few rewatches to cement how I feel about the most recent season, but there have been some strong contenders, including "Murder on the Planet Express," a spoof on "Alien" and "The Thing," and the finale episode, "Meanwhile."

There's no denying that the show changed fundamentally. Fry and Leela became an official couple, and "Futurama" stopped doing episodes about how Fry was a fish out of water in the future. The sentimentality became more overt, spreading to some of the other characters. There was more attention paid to continuity. Characters like Zapp Branigan, Kif, and Cubert didn't show up as often. References to more current pop-culture started appearing. Some of this didn't work, such as the Susan Boyle episode and the one where we learn about how Zoidberg and the Professor first met. It often seemed like the writers were trying too hard or running short on ideas. Plots started coming off as more contrived and formulaic, or so off-the-wall that they didn't feel like "Futurama." There were two anthology episodes, "Naturama" and "Saturday Morning Fun Pit," satirizing nature documentaries and terrible Saturday morning cartoons respectively, that stick out as especially bizarre.

Still, there were plenty of good episodes and the writers came up with some great things to do with the characters. Zoidberg finally got the girl in "Stench and Stenchability," the weirdest remake of Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" ever. "Lethal Inspection" gave us a reason to like Hermes and "Calculon 2.0" gave us a reason to like Calculon, briefly. We met the Professor's parents in "Near-Death Wish" and Scruffy's trainee janitor, Jackie Jr., in "Murder on the Planet Express." And the nerd in me loved that we'd occasionally still get references to older science-fiction stories like "Flatworld," "E.T.," "Twilight Zone," and "The Time Machine." Even the crummiest episodes had their good points. Whatever you want to say about "Attack of the Killer App," the social-media episode, it spawned the now ubiquitous "Shut up and take my money!" meme.

"Meanwhile," the last episode is a good example of all of the things I've always liked "Futurama." It takes a nerdy science-fiction plot device, time travel, and uses it to create absurd situations. In this case we have the Professor's time button, which only allows for time travel ten seconds into the past, and is abused by Fry and the rest of the gang immediately. The show isn't afraid of being weird and morbid and silly just for the sake of being silly. It uses the fact that the series is animated to show us something impossible, a quality I think many viewers take for granted. The show also deals with Fry and Leela's relationship in a way that is emotionally serious, even if very little else in the episode is. The last ten minutes of "Meanwhile" are likely meant to be a take on "I Am Legend" and other "last man on Earth" stories. However, "Futurama" takes the concept and uses it for goofy gags - and to show us just how strong Fry and Leela's commitment has become.

It was hard to escape the specter of the show hitting a plateau of mediocrity the way that "The Simpsons" did around its sixth season. So, it came as something of a relief to learn that "Futurama" has been cancelled. There are other avenues for its potential resurrection, including Netflix, and I certainly wouldn't say no to another movie or two, but this feels like a natural place to stop. The story gave us a happy ending for Fry and Leela (though a calculatedly open-ended one) and it was enough.

Time to bid a fond farewell to the world of tomorrow.
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Some excellent television shows just never caught on, and failed to attract enough of an audience to justify a second season. There are legendary ones like "My So-Called Life," "Firefly," and "Freaks and Geeks," which launched the careers of familiar stars. I have my own list of beloved obscurities that I really, really wanted to see continue, but it was not to be. A quick note on eligibility here - shows had to be open-ended, and not designed to end within a single season like "Cowboy Bebop." They also have to have actually gone to air and run more than just a good pilot. Entries below are unranked, and they're mostly genre programs, because those were the ones I always got attached to very quickly. A lot of these are nostalgia picks, which I make no apologies for.

The Middleman - I will never say about a word against the existence of ABC Family, because they ran one of the great girl geek shows. "The Middleman" was a secret-agent spoof about Wendy Williams, trainee crime-fighter against the myriad forces of evil. Loaded with pop-culture references, meta-humor, snark, and high energy, this was a show I fell for immediately. I loved every single minute of the twelve brief episodes, and the Comic-Con table read of the sadly unproduced thirteenth, which provides a little bit of much-needed closure.

Eerie Indiana - After "Twin Peaks" but before "The X-files" came this supernatural sitcom, about a pair of boy detectives investigating the mysteries of Eerie, Indiana, "the center of weirdness for the entire planet." Elvis is a resident of Eerie, of course, along with a mother who keeps her kids in Tupperware, a boy whose dental gear translates dog barks, and the ghost of the worst bank robber in the West. "Eerie" was a childhood favorite that was pulverized in its time slot by "60 Minutes," and briefly resurrected in the late 90s on FOX Kids.

Nowhere Man - The would-be fifth network UPN recedes further and further back in the cultural memory every day. It had a couple of interesting shows, including the paranoid thriller "Nowhere Man," starring Bruce Greenwood as Thomas Vale, an ordinary man who one day finds his life erased and is forced to go on the run to discover who's after him. As mystery shows go, "Nowhere Man" was remarkably good about actually advancing its story week to week, and ended on a great reveal that left lots of unanswered questions. I still want answers.

Wolverine and the X-Men - This was the perfect happy medium between the plotty but chaotic 1992 "X-Men" cartoon created by Saban, and the later "X-men: Evolution" that had far superior technical quality, but was stuck with teenage characters. The "Evolution" crew finally got to tackle grown-up mutants and more substantive stories in this 2009 tie-in for the first "Wolverine" movie. Sadly, Nickelodeon seemed at a loss with what to do with it, and despite a strong set-up for a second season, we only got 26 episodes of the best animated "X-men" series.

Wonderfalls - Poor Bryan Fuller is responsible for so many offbeat cult shows that never make it past two seasons. "Wonderfalls," one of his oddest creations, only made it through four episodes on FOX before being unceremoniously yanked. The show follows the misadventures of a post-grad, Jane Tyler, in transitional hell, who works as a gift shop clerk at Niagra Falls. One day the tchotchkes start talking to her, giving oblique instructions in order to help people in crisis. Caroline Dhavernas was great in the lead, and hasn't had a part as good since.

Space: Above and Beyond - Fox's Friday night 8PM hour, leading into "The X-files" is littered with interesting genre shows that only lasted a single season, including "MANTIS," "VR5," and "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." My favorite of the bunch was "Space: Above and Beyond," created by two "X-files" veterans, Glen Morgan and James Wong. It was a military space adventure, following a small squadron of space fighter pilots in an ongoing conflict against enemy aliens. Think of it as a smaller, less ambitious "Battlestar Galactica."

At the Movies - I'm reaching here, but I'm counting the final season of the show hosted by A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips. It was not a return to the glory days of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, but it was much better than the train wreck that was the Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz experiment, good enough that I was watching regularly again, and good enough that I was genuinely unhappy at the news of cancellation. I still read Scott regularly and catch Phillips's appearances on Filmspotting, but I think the duo could have gone on to be great.

The Tick - It was pretty much cancelled before it aired, but the live-action version of "The Tick" starring Patrick Warburton was a joy to see realized. I knew it was a severely compromised adaptation that never quite reached the same bizarre comedic heights as the 90s cartoon series, but I didn't care. I loved Warburton in the goofy latex suit. I loved Nestor Carbonell as Batmanuel, an improvement on Die Fledermaus, in my humble opinion. I loved the torrent of puns and visual insanity. Alas! Only nine episodes were ever aired.

Masters of Science Fiction - So short-lived that most people haven't heard of the show. This was a summer anthology program from the same creators of "Masters of Horror," except without any of the marquee talent involved. Its one big gimmick was that Stephen Hawking provided some canned intros. Still it gave us good adaptations of Harlan Ellison's "The Discarded," and Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man." Many similar anthology series have come and gone over the years, but the potential for better was there, which is what irks me the most.

The Storyteller - Jim Henson's 1980s fantasy anthology is often listed as a miniseries, but it sure looked like a continuing series to me. Each of the nine episodes was scripted by Anthony Minghella, based on European folk stories and fairy tales. Guest stars included many familiar faces like Sean Bean and Miranda Richardson, but the real star was the Storyteller himself, played by John Hurt, and backed by the wizardry of eye-catching special effects and Henson Creature Shop puppet creations. To this day I've never seen anything else quite like it.
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The 2013-2014 network television season will soon be upon us, and it's full of ambitious projects. As much as the draw and the influence of network TV has decreased recently, with cable and web offerings taking up more and more of the spotlight, the networks are still default for the mainstream and a good barometer for the rest of the industry. So I thought I'd give you a quick rundown on the new series that I'm the most interested in keeping an eye on this year.

Sunday - NBC's midseason contender, "Believe," is a supernatural genre show. Alfonso Cuarón created this one with Mark Friedman for J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, and that's enough to get me to take a look. It's being paired with the action thriller, "Crisis," which is firmly a maybe, because Gillian Anderson has signed on as one of the leads, but the threat of annoying teenagers is high. ABC's "Resurrection" features the dead returning, but in non-zombie form. Lots of good talent attached to that one, but it's one of those open-ended mystery shows that could just end up going around in circles..

Monday - CBS sitcoms "We Are Men" and "Mom" feature several actors I like. Jerry O'Connell, Tony Shalhoub, and Kal Penn, will be commiserating divorces in "We Are Men," while Anna Faris and Allison Janney will be a bickering mother-daughter pair in "Mom." NBC's crime serial "The Blacklist" reads kind of generic, with its evil mastermind teeming up with law enforcement to prevent major crimes, but it does have James Spader and Harry Lennix. Over on FOX, though, is the promising "Almost Human," a Bad Robot sci-fi series about a cop teamed up with a robot. Former "Fringe" writer J. H. Wyman created it, and the cast features Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Lili Taylor, and Mackenzie Crook. And I have to at least get a look at the pilot of "Sleepy Hollow," which just sounds goddamned ridiculous, but maybe in a good way.

Tuesday - "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the Marvel cinematic universe spinoff about the further adventures of Agent Coulson and minions, is being overseen by various Whedons and Whedon-in-laws. It's inevitable that I will watch this, having been a fan of every other Whedon TV show so far, and an unapologetic defender of "Dollhouse." Not much else on Tuesday to get excited about, but I will be reviewing FOX's "Dads," the Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi comedy that turned in a pilot that is currently causing a great deal of controversy for having a lot of racial humor involving Asian stereotypes, reportedly in extremely poor taste. Yeah, Asian Solidarity obliges me to give this one some attention. Ironically "Dads" is being paired with "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," a police comedy with Andy Samberg that is getting some of the most positive attention this season.

Wednesday - I'm cautiously excited about ABC's "Super Fun Night" sitcom with Rebel Wilson and Liza Lapira. Wilson's been great in everything I've seen her in lately, and I'm willing to give her girls-having-shenanigans sitcom the benefit of the doubt for a couple of episodes. The CW is remaking the old British kids' series, "The Tomorrow People." Sadly, it looks exactly like the typical CW young-people-with-powers show. Might get a watch for some of the cast, though. But I can't say the same for NBC's remake of the detective series "Ironside." Did we really need another "Ironside"? With Blair Underwood? Really?

Thursday - And here's where things escalate quickly. Robin Williams in CBS's "The Crazy Ones" is going head to head with Sean Hayes in NBC's "Sean Saves the World," which is leading into Michael J. Fox in "The Michael J. Fox Show" up against "Two and a Half Men." Also, Greg Kinnear's coming to FOX in lawyer show "Rake," and we're getting a "Once Upon a Time" spinoff, "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland," which looks oddly similar to "Sucker Punch" from the previews. I always liked "Alice in Wonderland" though, and this might be some good for some romance-fantasy fluff. Still, what I'm most interested in on Thursdays is finding out when "Community" and "Hannibal" are coming back.

Friday - NBC has become the go-to for genre programming on Friday nights. They'll be pairing "Grimm" first with "Dracula," from the creators and a couple of the stars of "The Tudors." I didn't like "The Tudors" much, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers is finally playing a vampire, and that should be fun. Then in the midseason we're getting the pirate series "Crossbones," from British writer Neil Cross. It also has John Malkovitch playing Blackbeard, which guarantees I will watch the whole thing, knowing nothing else about the show.

I'll be picking pilots and premieres to review from this bunch. Also, I am working on how to do similar summary write-ups for cable shows, which is more difficult because they don't have the same development schedule. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Happy watching!
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I went into "Elysium" with reduced expectations. I'd been warned that Neil Blomkamp's new science-fiction allegory, the follow up to his excellent "District 9," was a much simpler and less ambitious story that was more concerned with being an action-packed summer blockbuster. However, I wasn't prepared for how much of a step down from "District 9" it would be.

Things start off well enough. We're introduced to the world of 2154, where most of the population lives on an overpopulated, polluted Earth in poverty. The elites long ago fled to an orbiting space station called Elysium, which is visible from Earth. In the slums of Los Angeles lives a former orphan and car thief named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), now a blue collar factory worker just trying to make an honest living. His childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is a nurse at a nearby hospital. Max always dreamed of going to Elysium, but illegal ships carrying non-citizens are turned away or shot down by Elysium's zealous Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). However, when Max receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, his only chance for survival is reaching Elysium, which has special Med-Pods that can save him.

You might notice that the basics of the plot are pretty close to "District 9." We have a protagonist who has a serious medical condition that requires him to undertake a hero's journey and transcend the broken systems of a dystopian society. The difference this time is that there's so much more typical action movie business tacked on. Max not only has a love interest in Frey, but Frey has a little daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who is also sick and needs to get to Elysium. Delacourt is not only enforcing the totalitarian rules of this society, but also plotting a coup with corrupt industrialist John Carlyle (William Fitchner). But if that wasn't enough villainy to deal with, there's also the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who does most of their dirty work, and provides an excuse for one-on-one fight scenes with Damon. Oh, and there's even the loyal ethnic friend who gets the short end of the stick - here it's Julio (Diego Luna), Max's fellow petty criminal pal. However, at least the Ally of Convenience, a gangster named Spider (Wagner Moura from the "Elite Squad" movies), who runs all the illegal flights to Elysium, is around long enough to be a real character.

"Elysium" is clearly a much lighter and more commercial film, but not everyone seems clear on to what degree. So you have Jodie Foster playing a wildly over-the-top villain whose performance is noticeably too cartoony for the film's more serious tone. And then there's Sharlto Copley's Kruger, who doesn't really work at all, because his menace keeps being undercut by barely intelligible rambling that may have been meant to be comedic. Possibly. And you have the same kind of gory, visceral violence from "District 9," where you see a lot of the carnage up close. However, the story is told in very broad strokes, including scenes of uncomfortably on-the-nose moralizing that seem like they should be in a movie for a much younger crowd. The social commentary on the state of healthcare and the divisions between rich are poor are not handled very well, the fantasy filter far too slight, and the workings of the world of "Elysium" too underdeveloped.

Oh sure, the film has great visuals. With the benefit of a Hollywood budget, Blomkamp does a fantastic job bringing visions of decaying urban cities policed by robots and space station paradises to life. I love the way that he delineates the different kinds of technology used on Earth versus in Elysium, and the different languages, and all the weaponry and vehicles. As an action film "Elysium" does its job, providing a fair amount of fights and chases and demonstrations of how to fell a flying Roomba. However, the movie clearly wants to be more than that, and comes up empty at every turn. There are too many unanswered questions about the world, like why Elysium won't share its technology, and what the terms of its coexistence with Earth are. Surely Elysium is still dependent on Earth for resources to some extent, right?

However, I keep coming back to the basic storytelling as the fundamental problem. It's a major disappointment that after a hero as complicated and memorable as Wikus Van de Merwe from "District 9," Matt Damon is stuck playing someone as trite and bland as Max Da Costa. It's to Damon's credit that Max comes off as well as he does. The metaphor of rich and poor being physically isolated from each other is a perfectly fine one, but there's no bite it the way it's presented, no sign of the fiendishly clever scripting that let Blomkamp address lots of different facets of problematic race relationships his last time out. Instead, it too often feels like the director was being distracted by shiny sets and fancy effects. He clearly had a lot of new ideas he wanted to try out, but there aren't many that worked as intended.

I hate to say it, but this sophomore slump may be indicative of a one-hit wonder. And that's an awful shame.
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The trailer for Spike Jonze's new film "Her" was recently released, his first feature since "Where the Wild Things Are" in 2009. However, Jonze has been busy during the break, directing four different shorts that can be found online without much effort, and about the same number of music videos. I want to focus on the shorts, however, as shorts are too often unfairly overlooked and unloved entries in a director's filmography. Many consider them lesser works, or simply stepping stones to full features, and Jonze is a fairly rare director who has continued to produce short films after helming many successful features. So let's take a look at Spike Jonze's recent shorts, one by one, in chronological order:

"We Were Once a Fairytale" (2009) - Made before "Where the Wild Things Are," though its official release was delayed until after "Wild Things" premiered. Discussions for Jonze to direct the music video for Kanye West's "See You in My Nightmares" evolved into this eleven-minute short film. See Kanye as you've never seen him before, playing himself as a drunken lout in a nightclub, who is not having one of the better nights of his life. He repels women, makes a nuisance of himself, instigates a fight, and finally has to face the consequences - a bizarre finale involving puppets, rose petals, and multiple suicides. This is more of a oddball experimental piece than anything else, with a few bits of interesting imagery, but not much else to recommend it.

"I'm Here" (2010) - Wikipedia tells me this thirty-minute short was funded by and is a promotion for Absolut Vodka, which I didn't pick up on at all. Instead, it feels like a much more personal piece, a gentle romance between two robots who live in a version of Los Angeles where robots and human coexist side by side. Lonely robot Sheldon (Andrew Garfield), our protagonist, has a beige, blocky computer tower of a head, with expressive eyes and mouth rendered with the help of CGI animation. The robots have mechanical bodies, but dress in normal clothes, hold normal jobs, and seem to live and behave and feel the full gamut of emotions in the same way that humans do. The female robots, with oval heads and slimmer limbs, even have hair. Sheldon meets and falls in love with a dreamy robot artist named Francesca (Sienna Guillory), and their relationship proceeds much in the same way that human relationships do. However, there are certain advantages to being a robot in love, as Sheldon discovers when unexpected tragedy strikes. It's the worldbuilding here that is the most impressive, with its use of deliberately dated-looking materials to build the robots, and the whimsy of the dialogue and the interactions. It's all a little on the precious side, and it came to no surprise to me what the main inspiration for the film turned out to be, but I liked this one. It's exactly the kind of sentimental, humane approach that I'd expect Jonze to take to this kind of material, and provides the best hints of what "Her" is probably going to look like.

"Scenes From the Suburbs" (2011) - Jonze's collaboration with the band Arcade Fire, for their recent album "The Suburbs." There's very little fantasy or whimsy here, in a thirty-minute short about a group of teenagers living in a small town. We primarily follow two boys, Kyle (Sam Dillon) and his best friend Winter (Paul Pluymen), over the course of an eventful summer. Initially their lives seem simple and untroubled, but the growing presence of armed and hooded members of a sinister militia force in their town suggests something is seriously amiss. The short is an allegory for the loss of innocence, and how we lose the ones we love, built from nostalgic memories of adolescence, and real-world grown-up fears of oppression and violence. This is my favorite of the four shorts for its ability to evoke very painful emotions. Jonze shows us only a few pieces of the characters' lives, but it's enough to understand how the distances form and the alienation sets in between the two boys. Some of the most important scenes are only seen in quickly-cut, fragmentary glimpses, interspersed throughout the short. A six-minute music video version of the short was also produced, containing some different material, so the two versions of "Suburbs" complement each other. Finally, take note that Arcade Fire will be scoring "Her" for Jonze.

"Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side)" (2011) - A quick six-minute animated love story, between characters from the covers of colorful tomes in a live action bookstore. Our hero is a felt skeleton who leaves the cover of "Macbeth" to woo the fair damsel who graces the cover of "Dracula." Alas, he is intercepted on his journey by a tragic encounter with the whale from "Moby Dick." The concept is straight out of the old Warner Bros shorts, like "Have You Got Any Castles?" except far more macabre, and in the closing moments, far more raunchy. The execution is a lot of fun, though, and this is another great example of Jonze mixing mediums and putting his own mark on an old, established, formula.
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There are only about six named roles in "Oblivion," of which I was only convinced that one was a character with anything approximating a real personality. This is Commander Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise as the usual everyman he's played in so many action movies over the years. Of the other five roles, three are minor characters who are essentially plot devices. The remaining two are a pair of women, Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) and Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko), whose relationships with Jack are supposed to be central to the film's premise. However, both women are so abysmally blank, and their actions so contrived, it's difficult to accept that they're supposed to be real people.

Initially we're introduced to Jack and Victoria, who we are told act as a skeleton maintenance crew on Earth, which has been abandoned for fifty years after attacking aliens rendered the planet largely uninhabitable. The humans won the war, but a few of the alien "Scavs" remain, trying to disrupt the power stations that convert seawater into energy for the human colonies on Titan. Mechanized flying drones do most of the patrolling and fighting, but Jack and Victoria remain in order to handle drone repairs. They've been alone together in their little tower outpost for nearly five years, getting their orders from a mission commander named Sally (Melissa Leo), in the orbiting "Tet" space station above them. In order to keep important information from falling into the hands of the enemy, Jack and Victoria have had all memories from before their mission wiped. Jack, however, still dreams about a woman named Julia, and has a fascination with surviving items from before the war. Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are also in this movie, but to say who they play involves more spoilers than the viewer should probably know about in advance.

Many high-concept science fiction films often suffer from feeling cold and detached, where the filmmakers get so carried away designing their gorgeous futurescapes and new technology that they neglect their characters. Joseph Kosinksi, who directed "TRON Legacy," succeeds here in creating a beautiful dystopian world with an interesting history, and relaying a fairly intelligent, ambitious science-fiction story. However, the characters meant to inhabit that story are flatter than cardboard, and it's only thanks to Tom Cruise in the lead, doing what Tom Cruise does best, that the movie holds together at all. Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough are both very lovely women and competent actresses, but the parts they play are just a collection of convenient traits, and neither gets a single one more than they absolutely need for the plot to function. Victoria loves and is possessive of Jack, she's not the least bit curious about anything happening down on Earth, and she is loyal to Mission Control above all else. All those things come into play in the story exactly how you'd expect them to. Julia at one point gets her hands on a firearm and gets to blast away at her enemies, which only emphasizes how utterly useless she is during the rest of the movie. As for Mr. Freeman and Mr. Coster-Waldau, it's maddening how wasted they are in throwaway parts.

However, to Kosinski's credit, the strength of his worldbuilding very nearly lets him get away with it. I admire the early scenes of the film, where Jack is exploring the ruined Earth in his spiffy flying "Bubble Ship." The thoughtful production design is the movie's biggest asset, the way that it takes its time to show us all the nooks and crannies, and the way it subtly feels like a throwback to all those great old hard science-fiction films of the 1970s, with their more uncluttered, monochrome environments. The mood of the film is oddly inviting, with its moments of stillness of silence, though it never feels slow-paced at any point. I love the look of the aliens and the drones, the way they behave and Jack's interactions with them. Though the film is terribly predictable for anyone who's watched enough science-fiction, and the ideas aren't well developed at all, it's still nice to see anyone commit so wholeheartedly to this kind of material, and trust the audience to be able to follow along with all the technobabble and narrative twistiness.

So I came out of "Oblivion" impressed, even though I don't think it was a good movie. It was a decently entertaining watch though, proving that though Tom Cruise may be getting older, he's still a solid leading man and capable of carrying an exceptionally nerdy science-fiction action movie better than most actors half his age. And Joseph Kosinski is still a terribly promising young director who I hope gets the chance to try an original project again one of these days, and improve on "Oblivion."
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If you thought that this summer was crowded with expensive blockbuster movies, wait until you see what's coming up in 2015. I alluded to this a little in my previous posts on the upcoming movies I've been anticipating, but I don't think I got across the sheer number of major studio franchise films that are coming our way. Here's the current list of announced projects slated for 2015 release dates, with the most notable titles in bold:


Avatar 2
Independence Day 2
Finding Dory (Finding Nemo 2)
The Batman and Superman Movie (Let's count this as Man of Steel 2)
The Adventures of Tintin 2
The Avengers 2
Hotel Transylvania 2
Prometheus 2
Snow White and the Huntsman 2
Inferno (The Da Vinci Code 3)
Kung-Fu Panda 3
The Smurfs 3
Alvin & the Chipmunks 4
Mockingjay Part 2 (The Hunger Games 4)
Jurassic Park 4
Bourne 5
Mission: Impossible 5
Pirates of the Caribbean 5
Die Hard 6
Star Wars Episode 7
James Bond 24


Fantastic Four


The Penguins of Madagascar
Ant-Man (Marvel Universe film)


Assassin's Creed
Inside Out (new PIXAR film)

We're probably going to see some of these movies delayed or pushed back to 2016, which is normal. And many of these titles are going to be holiday or spring releases. However, we're still looking at a summer 2015 schedule that is going to be jammed with potentially massive films. 2013 is turning out to be a summer of what some have dubbed blockbuster fatigue, where audiences have been subjected to so many of these expensive event films week after week, they've had enough. As a result, we've had a string of expensive flops over the past few weeks. In 2015, we're inevitably going to see some big titles flop because there simply isn't going to be enough room for them all to grab the audience's interest long enough to make a profit. Scheduling is going to be a life-or-death matter, and notably we've got a lot of big titles like "Star Wars" and "Superman" still missing from the schedule, and a lot of prime real estate in May not staked out.

Some of the tried and true franchises that have hung in there for years and years, delivering profits, are going to find themselves going bust. I suspect that this may be the end of the line for such dependable moneymakers as "Bourne," "Pirates," and maybe even the old "Terminator" franchise. There are bound to be some dramatic head-to-heads. "Asassin's Creed" is currently positioned against an original PIXAR movie in June, for example, while the next "Bond Movie" is up against "Ant-Man" in November. Remember that with theater prices continuing to go up, there are fewer audience members to go around and people are getting picker about what they want to see. The studios are going to have to do a lot more work to convince us of the appeal of a fourth "Alvin & the Chipmunks" movie, or why we should take a chance on "Fantastic Four." Right now, there aren't that many movies I think are guaranteed to be hits. After "Dory," "Bond," "Star Wars," and "Avengers," it all gets iffy pretty quick.

While the studios are probably going to lose out from the increased competition, this will be good for theater owners who are likely to see more turnout overall thanks to the increase in big titles. Whether this is good for the consumers depends on what kind of a movie fan you are. If you're a fan of these big blockbuster films, particularly anything involving CGI cartoons or superheroes, you'll be spoiled for choice. If you're not, you may have fewer options because the big franchise movies have been crowding smaller films out of the theaters. Personally, I'd consider paying to watch about half of the films I listed in theaters just based on their pedigrees, but I'd only prioritize and make actual efforts to see five of them. Movie reviewers may see their influence grow too, as audience members become more cautious about which movies are worth investing their time and money in.

There have been some significant discussions about the possibility that 2015 may be the tipping point for the current blockbuster model of making studio movies. Steven Spielberg's predictions of more big blockbuster bombs potentially endangering the whole system seem likelier than ever, and 2015 looks like a potential powder keg from that perspective. Still, 2015 is still two years away, and a lot could change in that time. Maybe we'll see "Star Wars" or some of the other big contenders delayed. Maybe the global box office will grow big enough to sustain more of these big films.

Or maybe not. Looking over the list of 2015 hopefuls, I can't help already feeling exhausted. There are so many big movies crowded on that schedule, with so many big names and big characters, it's hard to think of any of them as a special event. The event films just look like the new normal.
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"Pacific Rim" is the first film to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro since the "Hellboy" sequel back in 2008. It is one of his Hollywood films, meaning that it's intended to be a pure entertainment, with no deeper artistic ambitions other than to wow a summer audience. However, Del Toro is still Del Toro, and when he tackles the concept of giant monsters and giant robots causing giant destruction, he does it in a way that puts the efforts of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich to shame.

Based on the beloved Japanese giant monster "kaiju" movies like "Godzilla," and the giant robot and mecha genres that gave us "Gigantor" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion," "Pacific Rim" takes us to a world in the not-so-distant future when giant beasts are invading our world through a breach between dimensions at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In order to protect coastal cities from their rampaging, the world comes together and creates Jaegers, giant humanoid vehicles that must be operated by a pair of compatible pilots. These pilots have their minds linked to each other and the Jaeger through an interface called The Drift, causing them to share memories and synchronize their actions.

And if this all sounds like too much science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, rest assured that "Pacific Rim" boils down to a pretty simple redemption story. Our hero is a young man named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) pilot a Jaeger named Gipsy Danger under the command of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Yancy is killed during a battle and Raleigh disgraced. Five years later, Raleigh is a drifter working construction jobs when Pentecost finds him. Thanks to the kaiju threat worsening, and political support being withdrawn from the Jaeger programs, Pentecost is bringing together the few remaining Jaegers and pilots for last ditch effort to stop the kaiju. He brings Raleigh to pilot a rebuilt Gipsy Danger, and assigns an admiring young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to help him find a new co-pilot. Not everyone is so welcoming. Fellow pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) is antagonistic towards Raleigh. And then there are the kaiju researchers, Geizler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorham), who may never stop bickering long enough to conduct any real research.

I'm sure there will be many people who won't be able to wrap their heads around "Pacific Rim." On the one hand, it's an incredibly simple and straightforward film, overstuffed with monster movie and "Top Gun" clichés. We have the hotshot pilot, the earnest rookie, the terse commander, an aggressive rival, a comic relief duo, and even a photogenic bulldog mascot for the Jaeger team. Though the "Pacific Rim" property is original, it's also extremely conventional genre entertainment. You can easily predict what's going to happen. The characters are fleshed out enough to get you to care about them, but don't have much depth. The comic relief characters, including a black market kaiju organ dealer named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), are so over-the-top, they could never be mistaken for anything else. Most importantly, the whole movie depends on the audience finding the Jaegers and kaiju fights cool to watch, and they simply won't appeal to everyone. We're a long way from the era of rubber suits, but there's still something fundamentally goofy about the whole concept which may spoil the effect for some viewers.

On the other hand, it's hard to imagine anyone else handling this kind of material better. Del Toro's visuals are wonderfully tactile, and once again he's created this detailed, immersive world that it's a joy to get lost in. The first time we see Raleigh being suited up for a Jaeger battle, you get to appreciate just how much though and care went into the designs of the various Jaegers, their equipment, operating systems, and everything supporting them. The kaiju aren't given personalities, but they're still distinctive, and there's this fun culture that's developed around them in the film that we get to see bits and pieces of. The fights, even if you don't find them as fun and exhilarating as I did, are set up beautifully. Every single fight moves the story forward, there are big stakes, and every time a kaiju or a Jaeger goes down, there's a weight to it that is completely missing from any of the "Transformers" films. I love that Del Toro keeps finding different ways to remind you of just how huge his combatants are, and that he never loses track of the human element.

If it doesn't do well, I'm afraid that "Pacific Rim" may end up proving to Hollywood that the audience for mecha and other related stories is too small to support films of this size and scope. This is the closest we may get to a live-action "Gundam" or "Evangelion" for a long time. It's frustrating, because "Pacific Rim" has shown that it can be done, and that stories like this are a great fit for the big screen. The movie is far from perfect and probably far too indulgent for its own good, but it gets so many things we've never seen in a big blockbuster before, done so, so right.

Welcome back, Mr. Del Toro.
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With "Pacific Rim" coming out in a couple of weeks and the marketing blitz hitting a crescendo, I think it's time to talk about mecha. The mecha genre, found primarily in Japanese media, covers stories about humanoid robots and machines, including mechanized battle armor, mechanical constructs, modified vehicles with battle capabilities, and your good old-fashioned battling robots. The Transformers are mecha, even though they're technically aliens from outer space, because they're living machines who have the ability to act like vehicles and other large mechanized objects. Iron Man is a borderline case, since his armor does give Tony Stark special enhancements, but traditional mecha tend to be more substantial machines that are piloted or operated.

I've noticed that there's been widespread confusion over the appeal of mecha in the American mainstream, as Japanese media remains an acquired taste. Why giant robots? Why building-sized machines and vehicles, often stylized to ridiculous extremes? Well, part of it's cultural, of course. Japan is famously an industry leader in the research and development of robotics, and use more of them than just about any other country in the world. Robots are also far more prevalent in Japan's popular media, with the Giant Robot genre emerging in kids' manga in the 1950s and 1960s. Several influential titles like "Mazinger Z" and "Tetsujin 28" (aka "Gigantor") seem to have kicked off the national love affair with giant, heroic, mechanical creatures. I think it's also worth remembering that Japan is home to the kaiju, the giant monsters like Godzilla and Mothra, and the same impulse that created them probably also had a hand in the robots getting supersized.

In the West the most high profile mecha franchises remain the ones that were made for children, like "Transformers," "Voltron" and "Power Rangers." In Japan, however, mecha gradually expanded into many different genres over the years. Mecha action and science-fiction shows are a given, but there are also mecha comedy, fantasy, historical fiction, and crime series aimed at much older audiences. They range in style from cartoony and over-the-top to starkly realistic and cerebral. The Real Robot anime subgenre is notably more grounded in the real world and shows human beings using mecha as tools. Some of the most famous mecha franchises like "Gundam" and "Macross" are military-themed shows that involve extensive depictions of mecha used in violent warfare, often alongside traditional weaponry. Mecha stories have become so pervasive in Japanese fiction, they can be seen as the equivalent of superhero stories in the United States, with their own tropes and traditions. Sure, giant battle machines and people with superpowers are completely impossible, but don't they look cool?

Having seen my share of mecha TV series and movies, It's clear that mecha are great for really huge-scale carnage. The "Transformers" movies have already proven this. However, another important aspect that I think often gets lost in the discussion is that piloted mecha allow normal people to gain the powers of superheroes - superior size, strength, and all kinds of different weapons, while still remaining ordinary, relatable people. Mecha pilots tend to be less like Superman, and more like Maverick from "Top Gun." Unlike what we saw in "Transformers," sentient Giant Robots usually work in concert with human operators, and their relationships are central to their stories. This allows for very personal human drama to play out on an epic scale. "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the most influential mecha show of the 90s, is about a group of teenage mecha pilots with a lot of sticky psychological issues, who can't help bringing their problems with them to the battlefield.

Considering current American blockbuster trends, the mecha genre is increasingly looking like a good fit for franchise filmmaking needs. Giant IMAX screens require giant spectacle to fill them, and you don't get much bigger than gargantuans like Optimus Prime and Tetsujin 28 duking it out against the forces of evil. With Michael Bay, "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel" setting the bar higher for big CGI-enhanced battles, most mecha series should fit right in. "Pacific Rim" was clearly heavily influenced by many famous mecha anime, and if it does well, I expect we'll see more adaptations in the same vein. And if it doesn't, it may only be a temporary setback, as mecha keep showing up in our movies in various from, from the AMPs in "Avatar" to the rumbling robot boxers of "Real Steel."

Like many mecha fans, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Japan's film industry is one of modest means, so they've produced very few pieces of live action mecha media. Hollywood studios are currently the only ones capable of creating something with big budget production values like "Pacific Rim," and they're taking a pretty big gamble on this movie, considering the traditionally niche appeal of mecha in the US.

In Japan, however, they're going to eat this up.
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Once upon a time in the 1990s, MTV was the home of some of the most interesting experiments in adult-oriented American animation. "Liquid Television" was their showcase for indie shorts that launched several series, including "Beavis and Butt-head." However, I was more interested in the less conventional titles, particularly two shows that I took the trouble to track down when I was in college: "Æon Flux" and "The Maxx." These days animation aimed at adults isn't a rarity. But as much as I enjoy "Archer" and the recently returned "Venture Brothers," it's still these two MTV shows that serve as my benchmark for what mature, ambitious animation can be.

Let's start with "The Maxx," based on the Sam Kieth comics. Though it looks like a superhero story, featuring a titular hero with superhuman powers and a hidden identity, he's not your standard crime-fighter. The Maxx in the real world is a homeless bum, but he also exists in another world linked to his subconscious mind, and perhaps others, called the Outback. The Outback is full of monsters and fantastic creatures, and the Maxx is charged with protecting the Jungle Queen, who in reality is a social worker named Julie. Most of the too-brief series is spent unraveling the various traumas that brought these characters together, and battling the various evils that the Outback is spilling into the real world.

This is a story that could conceivably be told in live action, but it would be pointless. The joy of "The Maxx" is in its wildly exaggerated characters and its anarchic cartoon violence, paired with some very dark and twisted explorations of the human psyche. I saw most of the show in a single sitting, but I expect the individual episodes must have played just as well in their original eleven-minute installments. Despite the more adult subject matter, they have all the energy and the outsized emotion of a purely comic cartoon shorts like "Tom and Jerry" or "Looney Toons," more than enough to make a big impression on the viewer in only a few minutes. What especially impressed me is that the characters feel like real people, underneath all the layers of comic-book fantasy. Maxx fixates on "Cheers." Julie has a feminist streak. Sarah is too miserable even for the Goth crowd. So at the show's core is some really good, solid character drama that is more than enough to make up for the rougher spots.

Moving on to "Æon Fluxx," which was originally created by Peter Chung as a series of five-minute shorts, and then eventually expanded into half-hour episodes. This one took advantage of cartoon logic to some wild extremes. The series is set in a dystopian future that looks like something out of Moebius comic, where the female rebel freedom fighter Æon, dressed in outfits that tend to resemble leather fetish gear, is perpetually at war with the forces of her arch-nemesis (and occasional lover), the dictator Trevor Goodchild. In the original series of "Æon" shorts, the main character died violently in every episode. In the longer episodes, her survival rate was a little better, though none of the endings could be called happy in any sense. As you might expect, there is no continuity of story from one episode to the next, and really no constants aside from the two main characters and the basic premise. One of the best stories doesn't even feature Æon as the main character.

I find it difficult to describe "Æon Flux." It resembles "Heavy Metal" on a surface level, full of sex and violence, but it's far more intelligent, more bizarre, and more ambitious. Watching it felt akin to reading a really good anthology of science-fiction short stories, full of strange existential conundrums and ironic concepts. It's one of the few shows where I honestly never knew where any of the stories were going, where there didn't seem to be any boundaries at all. Not only could Æon die, but she could be fundamentally changed in different ways, depending on the episode. She could really and truly fall in love with Trevor. She could turn out to be from a different universe or reality, or simply a clever ruse that never actually existed at all. Moreover, some of the concepts are so alien, like mind-warping astral beings and artificial consciences, they can be off-putting to sci-fi novices. The animation is particularly helpful here in giving form to some really wild and avant garde ideas.

It's been nearly two decades since these series went off the air, and I've rarely seen anything in American animation that has come close since in terms of sheer daring and maturity. And I find it sad that they've become so obscure now, and that few people remember or reference them when talking about television animation. Sure, "The Simpsons" and "South Park" undeniably had the most impact in the 90s, but they weren't the only trailblazers. And I hope that someday we'll be in a time and place where commercial animation can venture down that path again.
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Spoilers for "Star Trek Into Darkness" ahead. Lots of them. I mean it.

Whatever happened to boldly going where no one has gone before?

Now, I understand wanting to bring back one of the most infamous villains of the "Star Trek" series. I understand all the song-and-dance about trying to keep him out of the marketing, and J.J. Abrams prevaricating around the bush about who Benedict Cumberbatch was actually playing. However, I cannot for the life of me understand why you wouldn't use the opportunity of the alternate timeline to do something different with Khan. I don't understand why we had to have such a shameless rehash of the ending of "Wrath of Khan," especially one that never had any hope of having remotely as much emotional impact as the original.

I have to wonder what viewers unfamiliar with "Wrath of Khan" thought of these developments, whether they bought Kirk's sacrifice instead of being distracted by the parallels to the previous film like I was. It was hard to watch what I consider one of the most iconic moments of the "Star Trek" films essentially turned into a cheap fake-out death akin to too many others in modern action films. Was the reversal of Kirk and Spock's roles clever? Not very, since that was a pretty obvious way to play it. I'd have been much more impressed if Khan switched sides and was the one who made the sacrifice, as he seems far more morally ambiguous in this timeline. Or if they really had been gutsy enough to kill off Captain Kirk and left Spock or Sulu in charge. However, the moment I saw that dead tribble, I knew they were just going through the motions. And there was way too much of the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, aren't-we-being-clever attitude, plus a totally unearned "KHAAAAAAAN!" callback.

I've heard the charge that J.J. Abrams and the team of writers he's working with do not understand "Star Trek," and I don't agree with that. I think they have a perfectly good grasp on the themes and the ideas at the heart of this franchise. The new versions of the characters are perfectly fine and worthy creations. The trouble is that "Star Trek Into Darkness" was obligated to be a summer blockbuster tentpole aimed at a mainstream audience. To that end, they seem to have banished all the brainier, more conceptually challenging ideas that make "Star Trek" distinctive. In the 2009 reboot, Abrams managed to introduce all these new characters and ideas at a breakneck pace, and that worked because it was a first outing, and you could get away with substituting potential for substance. Trying to repeat that trick failed, because it revealed that the creators weren't willing to explore any of these ideas that they were evoking in any real depth.

What really boggles me is that "Into Darkness" follows nearly the same beats as the first movie. You have Kirk introduced as a rebel, a massive crisis gives him a chance to prove himself, and then Spock and Kirk do some bonding. The difference is that this time Khan is the threat, reimagined as yet another in a long line of recent terrorist villains. I was also very aware that other than the fairly simple concepts of super-soldiers and cryogenics, there's nothing in "Into Darkness" that doesn't have obvious analogs to a typical non-science-fiction action movie, like "Mission: Impossible" or "James Bond." The 2009 reboot at least had parallel universes and time travel for us geeks, but "Into Darkness" takes special pains to avoid anything remotely complicated or nerdy.

Instead, it was lots of big action sequences, lots of fantastic eye-candy, and the obvious villains: Khan and a quick glimpse of the Klingons. I get that the writers were trying to pay homage to the series' roots, but this time out they leaned far too heavily on the mythology and didn't take the kind of creative chances that would have pushed the franchise forward. When you have this kind of talent involved, the possibilities are endless, and I thought that the success of the 2009 movie would have given Abrams and company the clout to do something more ambitious, instead of another generic action picture grafted to a replay of the last half of "Wrath of Khan."

I appreciate that the new "Star Trek" is a series of movies that can't operate the way that the old ones did, but tribbles and namedropping do not make a "Star Trek" movie, and I needed to see more effort. In the end, I found myself wishing for a new "Star Trek" series or miniseries featuring these versions of the characters, just so they could stop running and yelling and fighting long enough to have real conversations with each other, and maybe go on the kind of cheesy, but inspiring adventures that the old crew of the Enterprise used to.
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This one's going to need a double review, one without spoilers, which I'm posting today, and one with spoilers that I'll be posting tomorrow. This is the one without the spoilers, so if you're planning to watch "Star Trek Into Darkness," go right on reading.

Coming out of the theater after my screening, I asked myself a question I find helpful to judge certain movies: who was this made for? "Star Trek Into Darkness," the follow-up to the 2009 movie reboot of the franchise, has lots and lots of references to "Trek" lore for fans of the original incarnation of the series. It brings back a few familiar concepts and ideas, reinterpreting them in intriguing ways. However, it's clear that director J.J. Abrams, and writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof were not trying to make a film that would appeal to the usual "Trek" fans at all. In fact, I'm pretty sure that "Into Darkness" is going to end up disappointing many of them. Instead, their intended audience is the broader summer blockbuster crowd, and the emphasis is all on action and mayhem and special effects. Of course, that was also true of the 2009 "Star Trek" to a large degree, but it's much more apparent this time out and harder to ignore. "Into Darkness" doesn't feel like a "Star Trek" movie. It feels like a much more generic space adventure that is using the most famous and recognizable elements of the old "Star Trek" as window dressing.

Take the opening sequence, for instance. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) violates the Prime Directive, that states the Federation cannot interfere in the development of emerging alien species, by rescuing Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) from certain doom and allowing a primitive civilization of aliens to see the Enterprise in the process. The consequences are severe for Kirk. He's removed from command, and the Enterprise returned to Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk's mentor. However, all the discussion is focused on Kirk's recklessness and Kirk's lack of appreciation for his responsibilities. We fail to see any of the negative consequences that affect the aliens, and there's no mention of how the damage to their society is going to be addressed. The Prime Directive has created many serious moral quandaries that have been at the center of multiple "Star Trek" episodes, and easily could have been the basis of an entire film by itself. However, "Into Darkness" immediately ducks the whole matter, skips the hard questions, and moves on to introduce the villain of our story: John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist who has a serious bone to pick with the Federation.

And so, "Into Darkness" quickly becomes a breathless action spectacular as the Enterprise crew goes on the hunt for Harrison, giving us one impressive set piece after another, and stopping only long enough for a few lines of tense exposition here and there before running off again. The movie is exciting and it is visually impressive. I think most people who go to see superhero and disaster movies are going to be perfectly happy with it. Casual viewers who liked the 2009 "Star Trek" movies should like this one just as much. The characters are a lot of fun to watch, and the whole gang's back from the first film: Karl Urban as Dr. Bones McCoy, Zoe Saldana as Lt Uhura, Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Scotty, John Cho as Lt. Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Ensign Chekov. No matter who your favorite is, they all get their little moments to shine. And casting Cumberbatch as Harrison was a great choice, because his performances gives that character all these interesting ambiguities, suggesting that there's more to him than there really is.

Also, it's not fair to call "Star Trek Into Darkness" a mindless CGI action movie, because the writers did attempt to give us some semblance of a deeper story to go along with all the thrills. There's a new character, Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller), who can be interpreted to be a commentary on current American military policies. And there's some groundwork being laid for some specific future conflicts that might yield interesting things in the future. However, it's hard to give the writers much credit when so much of the material for "Into Darkness" is taken from previous "Star Trek" stories, and the new approach to them just isn't very creative or interesting. The execution feels so half-hearted, and comes off as underwhelming at best. There's so much impact lost, because the characters never slow down enough to have the important conversations, and to feel the impact of the events we witness. Instead, the pace is relentless, pushing on from one spectacle to the next like a "Die Hard" movie in space.

And if you like "Die Hard," that's fine, but I wanted to see a "Star Trek" movie. "Into Darkness" included a lot of references that only fans would appreciate, but in a way that played very badly for anyone who knew enough about "Star Trek" to get those references. I was disappointed by "Star Trek Into Darkness," and now I'm very worried about where this franchise is going.
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Spoilers ahead for the latest season of "Doctor Who."

The much-anticipated 50th anniversary of "Doctor Who" is coming up in November, and a star-studded special has been commissioned to mark the happy occasion. This most recent series of "Doctor Who," however, particularly the back half that featured Jenna-Louise Coleman as the newest Companion, Clara Oswald, often felt too much like it was setting things up for the big event. There was a lot of time talking up the big, plotty mysteries and series mythology, and not as much on the individual adventures. I liked fewer episodes this series, and didn't feel like I'd gotten to know Clara very well, but whenever we have any kind of format change on "Doctor Who," that's normal in my experience. I didn't like Amy much until Rory became a regular companion, and the last two Doctors each took nearly an entire series each to grow on me.

It wasn't a bad stretch of episodes at all, though understandably not as emotionally charged as the goodbye tour of the Ponds that came before it. My favorites included "The Bells of Saint John," "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" and "The Crimson Horror." "The Name of the Doctor," which left us on a big cliffhanger going into the special, was kind of a mess, but also a really fun and tense installment that neatly answered all the questions about Clara and will hopefully give her character a chance to grow from here on out. It's not that Jenna-Louise Coleman isn't doing a perfectly good job, but there really hasn't been much to Clara except being "The Impossible Girl." I'd like to see her given more substance, or at least her current situation as a live-in nanny fleshed out more. The point of Clara may be that she's ordinary, but she shouldn't feel so generic.

Matt Smith continues to impress. He's gotten so well situated into the role of the Eleventh Doctor, that I'm having trouble imagining anyone else in the role now. I've really grown to like this version of the character, who can get emotional and dark and lose control of himself, but there's always something a little otherworldly and a little inhuman about him. Where the David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston Doctors were very good, they always seemed to be very advanced humans instead of truly alien creatures. There's something about Smith that is always off-kilter in just the right way to remind us that he's an alien being doing his best impression of a human, and not the genuine article. And even though he's the youngest actor to play the part, he comes across as having a much higher mileage on him. He's the only reason that some of the weaker scripts worked this year.

This series also brought to the forefront a trio of new sidekicks who won me over in a very short time: the reptilian Silurian detective, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her plucky wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and their butler Strax (Dan Starkey), the potato-shaped Sontaran warrior. The three of them have been hanging out in Victorian England, meeting up with the Doctor whenever he happens to be in their time period. Aside from Madame Vastra, I don't remember how these characters were introduced, but they make for wonderful secondary heroes, and Strax is especially good comic relief. I love that he continually screws up genders and still retains a love for carnage that keeps getting him scolded. I've been hoping for a little more variety in companions, and this is the next best thing. I'm firmly with those who have been calling for a spinoff series to feature this trio.

Disappointments? There weren't any major ones that stuck out on the level of some of the episodes from previous series and previous Doctors. I can't point to anything specific that outright failed, but a few things I was hoping would be really exceptional, turned out to be just all right. The Neil Gaiman episode with Warwick Davis and the Cybermen? All right. Richard E. Grant as this year's Big Bad, the Great Intelligence? Sorely underused, but all right. The return of Alex Kingston's mysterious River Song? All right. The mystery of The Impossible Girl? Fine. It's likely that the anniversary special is going to turn out the same way, even with the promised appearances of so many past actors plus a bonus John Hurt.

However, I've got to say that I'm really impressed with where Stephen Moffat left us with the big cliffhanger. It may end up being a tease, as so many of these things are, but there's the potential for some really serious delving into the show's mythology coming our way. Even if the special in November doesn't deliver, it'll be fun to watch them try. And I'm happily attached enough to this particularly grouping of characters that I don't mind if we hit a few more bumps in the road going forward.
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I can't believe this. I thought I was being smart waiting for the "Ender's Game" trailer to debut before I wrote up my latest trailer post. But now I'm behind again, because we've had a flood of other major trailers released since. Usually I would space these trailer posts much further apart, but screw it. I want to talk about some of these now, especially since there are a couple of awards contenders in the mix. And I'll toss in a few for the upcoming summer indie pictures I left out previously. Here we go. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

The Butler - A star-studded cast, an inspirational true story, and a director who has never dealt with this kind of obvious Oscar-bait prestige material before. Oh boy. This is either going to be a must-see event film or it's going to be a disaster. There's sure to be controversy with some of the casting choices, including Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. However, "The Butler" may hit that sweet spot and become a feel-good crowd-pleaser the same way that "42" did this earlier this year.

Inside Llewyn Davis - There was an earlier trailer released back in January, but this international one gives us a better look at what the Coen brothers have been up to with their latest film, about the journey of a 1960s folk singer named Llewyn Davis, played by up-and-comer Oscar Isaac. The movie is already getting some buzz for its soundtrack, which features contributions by T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Mumford & Sons, and others. It will be in competition at Cannes this month, but we won't be seeing it in theaters until late December.

Captain Phillips - Directed by Paul Greengrass of "United 93" and two of the "Bourne" films, this is one of the action films I've been looking forward to the most this year. With this kind of true-life material, using the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, plus the involvement of Academy favorite Tom Hanks, this could have become a typically schmaltzy Hollywood dramatization very easily. However, Greengrass's stark style and penchant for realism, as evidenced in this promo, should keep his take lean and mean.

Gravity - This is the by far the best trailer I've seen all year. It presents the film's premise very quickly and very well: two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fall victim to a terrible accident that turns a spacewalk into a terrifying, desperate struggle to avoid being lost to the endless void of outer space. The special effects look great, and the thrills are already palpable. The final shot is one of those great little jolts of nightmare fuel that makes me suspect this is going to be a far more visceral film than I was expecting.

The World's End - I'm not thrilled with this honestly, because the trailer seems to reveal that the apocalypse involved here is some kind of monster invasion, which makes it look a little too much like "Shaun of the Dead." Sure, seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost running around and fighting creepers again is sure to be fun, especially since they have Martin Freeman along for the ride, but I was hoping for their take on a different genre, like their buddy cop antics in "Hot Fuzz." Oh well. To early to say much more about this one yet.

August: Osage County - I've been warned that this trailer is misleading. "August: Osage County" looks like a "Steel Magnolia" style women's picture here, the better to draw in Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts fans, I'm guessing. However the story is actually very dark, based on a play by Tracy Letts, whose last script was for "Killer Joe." I wouldn't have minded so much if the trailer as an accurate reflection of the film, because the cast is so high-powered, and we really don't get enough solid character dramas like this anymore.

Fruitvale Station - A big indie contender that came out of the Sundance Film Festival this year, this is a dramatization of the final hours of Oscar Grant, played by Michael B. Williams, before his shooting death by the police at the Fruitvale BART Station in 2009. The trailer plays up the final acts of violence, as expected, but it's the glimpses of Williams' and Octavia Spencer's performances that are the most intriguing. I hope this one lives up to the hype, though I can also see where it might fall short. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Before Midnight - Celine and Jesse are back again in the third chapter of the "Before" series directed by Richard Linklater. Now our fateful lovers have finally gotten together, had a couple of kids, and are approaching middle age together, but it seems that their relationship issues haven't gone away. This time the action is set on a picturesque Greek island, but it looks like it's following the same structure of the last two movies: more long conversations about life and love with two familiar characters it's very nice to see again.

Only God Forgives - This trailer debuted a while ago, but it definitely deserves a mention. It's saying one thing loud and clear: if you liked Ryan Gosling and Nicholas Winding Refn's last movie, "Drive," you're probably going to like this one too. Lots of atmosphere, lots of violence, and a welcome appearance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who we don't see enough of anymore. Apparently the plot involves the murky world of organized crime and boxing matches in Thailand, but all you really need to know is that it's a movie that is just oozing cool.
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It's the first week of May, and we've already got several full trailers for some of the big November movies in circulation. I haven't done a trailer post in a while, so we'll be talking about these, plus some of the notable later summer films where the first trailers were only released in the last few months. We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started. As usual, all links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Thor: The Dark World - Of all the individual Marvel movies, I'd put "Thor" near the bottom of the list. I like the character, but his appearances on screen have felt the most slapdash and lacking in substance. I expect the filmmakers know this, which is why they make sure to show us part of a scene that likely happens a good ways into the second act: Thor seeking help from Loki, who is easily the most memorable villain in Marvel's film universe so far. We don't see anything of the film's actual villains, or really much of the threat they pose, but Loki's involvement is enough.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - I've already been spoiled regarding a lot of what happens in this movie, so I was impressed with how well this trailer kept some of the biggest plot points under wraps, at least for now. I wouldn't be surprised if future trailers go on to reveal more. However, this one nicely sets up the rising tensions between Katniss and the Capitol, giving a lot of screen time to Donald Sutherland, who plays the major antagonist President Snow. And the sight of Philip Seymour Hoffman getting in on the fun makes me indescribably happy.

R.I.P.D. - The trailer spends most of its time setting up the concept of Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as part of an undead police force, but what it's really doing is selling you on a certain mood and tone. This is going to be a supernatural action movie with a lot of CGI effects, but it's also going to be a broad comedy. I can definitely see why people are suggesting that this is going to be "MIB" with the undead. Even the poster looks pretty similar. But will "R.I.P.D." be any good? I can't tell from what we've seen so far, but I do like everybody involved here.

2 Guns - Here's Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg playing a pair of cops, who are both working undercover at cross purposes, get betrayed, and have to join forces to win the day. Pretty standard buddy movie setup. So you sell the movie the way you always do. Car chases! Gun battles! One liners! The big question is whether Washington and Wahlberg are going to work well together onscreen, and I think the clips make a decent case for it. The banter flows, and the antagonism feels genuine. It's not very original, but who sees a movie like this for originality?

RED 2 - The retirees are back for more mayhem, and this time they're joined by new villains Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lee Byung-hun. However, the highlight of this installment is almost certainly going to be Anthony Hopkins, who is acting a great deal sillier than I've seen him on the screen in some time. Will he and John Malkovitch have a ham-off at some point? I can only hope. Otherwise, you have your typical spies and renegades story and most of the cast of the previous film back for more fun - including Helen Mirren and all her dangerous toys.

The Wolverine - The problems of "The Wolverine" trailer are twofold. On the one hand, it's relying way too much on previously established imagery from the "X-men" franchise. And on the other hand, the new material looks pretty weak. The bulk of this movie will be set in Japan, but the visuals are generic, the action and effects look underwhelming, and the whole thing is just so much smaller scale than anything else in the franchise. These are major problems that the marketing for "X-men: First Class" had too, and I hope "The Wolverine" is similarly better than its ads.

Elysium - Director Neil Blomkamp is back, and he's brought more "Halo"- like visuals and some big stars for his latest science-fiction film. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster star in the tale of a dystopian future society where an extreme split has developed between the haves and the have-nots. I'm expecting more social commentary, more crazy action scenes, and more deeply flawed characters. And I'm intrigued that the story appears to have many similarities to the manga "Battle Angel Alita," the one James Cameron's been trying to turn into a film for a decade now.

Ender's Game - And here's the movie that I'm the most curious about, out of everything else listed here. How do you turn Orson Scott Card's science-fiction classic into a Hollywood effects extravaganza? From the new trailer I recognize the characters and the concepts, but how faithful is this adaptation going to be? The trailer is provocative, but it's hardly very informative, more concerned with making sure we see every award-winning actor who will appear in the film than introducing us to Ender Wiggins or his universe. The glimpses of Battle School and the Formics are encouraging though.

Turbo - I know, I know, but the little snails are frickin' adorable!
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The trailers for "Iron Man 3" were darker in tone, showing the dramatic destruction of Tony Stark's home, and Tony himself being put in grave peril. Gone were the jokes and the snark, suggesting that this sequel was going to be a much more serious film than the others. Well, that's not the case. "Iron Man 3" is just as light-hearted and irreverent as the "Iron Man" films have ever been, though the stakes are pretty high this time out, and director Shane Black does manage to make the peril suitably impressive. However, if you're one of those fans hoping to watch Tony Stark really face his inner demons, his alcoholism, and his psychological baggage in an adult way, this is not the movie for you. And we're probably never to see that movie because Marvel is now owned Disney. However, if you're in the mood for a light, fun action movie with whole lot of shiny special effects, this one should do the trick. There's a little bit of Tony Stark facing his demons too. Not much, but enough to keep things interesting.

So when last we saw Tony Stark, played as always by Robert Downey Jr., he had just helped save the world from certain doom in "The Avengers." Now it's been a couple of months, and we find that Stark hasn't been dealing well with the aftermath. He's become a workaholic, staying up for days at a time, and has built dozens of new Iron Man suits. The latest can be controlled remotely, and the individual pieces summoned to form the full suit wherever Stark happens to be. Girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), still CEO of Stark Industries, has moved in with him, and she's worried about him. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Stark's best friend and current owner of the War Machine suit, recently rebranded by the government as the Iron Patriot, is also worried about him. Even Stark's former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), recently promoted to Head of Security of Stark Industries, is worried about him. He calls up Tony when Pepper takes a meeting with handsome scientist and think-tank founder Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), to voice his suspicions. Stark and Killian have a past, as it turns out, stemming from a bad encounter during Tony Stark's less altruistic days.

However, the more obvious threat to Tony is The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an elusive terrorist who has been behind several deadly bombing incidents, and claims the credit through sinister video broadcasts that promise worse to come. Nobody can figure out how he's executing the bombings, because there's no evidence of bombs left behind. The Mandarin is a considerably better villain in conception and execution than anyone else Tony Stark has faced onscreen, though as usual he's no match for Stark himself, who will always been his own worst enemy. This time out Stark has mostly cleaned up his act and is refraining from bad behavior, but he's still battling personal doubts that have escalated to the point where he's having anxiety attacks. It's Robert Downey Jr. who sells this, and it's a notion that pretty hard to swallow given what we know about Tony Stark, but this franchise's biggest asset has always been its leading man. Despite all the fancy CGI visuals, in the end it's Downey Jr.'s performance that's the biggest attraction.

Now there are some decent twists and turns in the bigger plot, but the real fun is in the little incidental moments, when Stark is interacting with new characters and in situations that are very different than the ones we've seen him in before. At times "Iron Man 3" feels like a cop or detective movie, as Tony Stark tries to sort out his foes' big master plan with very limited resources. Some of the later scenes where he and Don Cheadle join forces have the DNA of an old buddy action caper, the kind that Shane Black is best known for. Black was a great choice to replace Jon Favreau in the director's chair this time out, because his ironic, self-aware sense of humor is a great match for the Tony Stark character, and he's not shy about taking Iron Man in some risky directions. For instance, there are a couple of scenes involving Stark and a cute kid, and I was bracing myself for all the usual clichés involving cute kids and superheroes. I shouldn't have worried. The clichés all get subverted in about ten minutes flat.

"Iron Man 3" is not anywhere near as good as the first Iron Man movie – it's third act is far too predictable, and several good characters get shortchanged – but still a vast improvement over the second. If I had my way it would be the last "Iron Man" movie, because the direction they're taking the Tony Stark character is one that's going to be difficult to maintain in any subsequent sequels. And it goes out with enough closure and on a big enough bang that it's going to be very hard to top.


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