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The long-awaited third series of the BBC's "Sherlock" is kind of a mess. It's not a bad mess, and certainly an entertaining one, but stakes are lower, the writing is more indulgent, and there's a definite sense that it's resting on its laurels a bit. While it avoids certain pitfalls and doesn't hit the lows of the prior series, it gets nowhere near the highs either. This set of episodes caters to existing fans of "Sherlock," but certain changes also move the show in a direction that some of them may not appreciate. Some mild spoilers ahead.

Of the three new installments, the first is the most successful because it's the most focused. Last series and two years ago, Sherlock Holmes faked his own death after a standoff with arch nemesis Moriarty, and so the premiere episode has to expend a great deal of effort to get everything back to the status quo. Sherlock is brought back to London on the trail of a new terrorist threat, and reconnects with his old circle of friends and allies, some of them in very different places from where he left them. John Watson has not only vacated Baker Street, but now has a serious girlfriend, Mary Morstan, played by Amanda Abbington. Patching things up between Holmes and Watson isn't easy, and for a while it seems that the rift may be permanent.

The biggest change in the new series is that Sherlock Holmes has softened up and gotten more human. He's still capable of being incredibly selfish and thoughtless, but his concern for his friends is transparent now, and there are several examples of him really trying to be more considerate towards people like Molly Hooper. The bromance with Watson gets downright sentimental at times, as they both have to acknowledge multiple times in these episodes how much their partnership means to them, particularly as the threat of further separation keeps rearing its head. We get more material referencing Sherlock's past, with regular appearances by older brother Mycroft and couple of great comedic scenes with their parents. It all serves to demystify Sherlock Holmes as a character, which I rather enjoyed, but may set other fans' teeth on edge.

All the emphasis on character exploration means that the mysteries get rather shortchanged this year. The first and second installments both feature exciting, but uninvolving cases that aren't presented in a particularly engaging way. They feel incidental to everything else that's going on, and a little slapdash in basic construction. It's only the finale that features a pair of strong villains that feel like real threats, one of them a blackmail artist played with great panache by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, that installment gets tripped up by a particularly poor ending, especially compared to the previous series' cliffhanger. Also, there are many more self-referential moments, which don't add much to the stories.

The season still features plenty of its trademark inventiveness, lots of little clever bits of plotting, and some really good dialogue. I especially liked the way that the first episode offers multiple theories and explanations for how Sherlock Holmes faked his death, starting with a totally unrealistic one straight out of a Hollywood action movie. The problem is that the scripts are overstuffed and too ambitious, juggling lots of different disparate elements that fail to cohere as well as they have in the past. We zip from comic scenes to sober ones to action beats to bromance at a lightning pace. Though I saved them up, I found couldn't watch more than one installment at a time.

If you set the twisty mysteries aside, however, and focus on the character drama, "Sherlock" is still very consistent and a lot of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both excellent, and their rapport is as good as it ever was. They handle this year's lighter material with ease, and both seem to enjoy the sillier moments. Cumberbatch manages to make a particularly long and unwieldy comic sequence in the second episode work seemingly by sheer force of will. Amanda Abbington's a great addition to the cast, with such an easy chemistry with Martin Freeman that it comes as no surprise that they're romantic partners in real life.

I hope "Sherlock" doesn't end here, because it would be a very unsatisfying place to stop. The third series feels like a transitional one, a stepping stone to a different phase of the show's existence. However, considering the difficulties with the production of "Sherlock," juggling the schedules of two much in-demand lead actors, I'm a little worried about this approach. If we have another two-year wait before the fourth series, it doesn't help that we've been left with a set of episodes that ended so weakly. I really hope the last twist was a red herring.

Oh well. There's still every reason to stay optimistic, considering the level of the talent involved. The wait begins for Year Four.
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I want to get into some spoilers for the first season of this show, but since this is my first post about "Orphan Black," I'll write up a spoiler-free review first. The spoiler section will be clearly marked below.

It's been a while since I've really been hooked on a good genre show, and "Orphan Black" pushes all my buttons. It's a very tightly written, plot-intensive mystery serial where as soon as it looks like there's a status quo, events barrel forward that throw everything into uncertainty again. The characters are very, very strong, particularly the main character, Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany.

The early episodes follow Sarah, a young con-artist and thief, who sees a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide one night. Sarah seizes the opportunity and the woman's purse, and slips into her identity to empty her bank accounts. She then gets herself thoroughly entangled in the life of Beth Childs, who it turns out is a troubled police detective in the middle of a messy internal affairs investigation. Sarah has to fool both Beth's boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) and her police partner Art (Kevin Hanchard), but she's hoping to scam enough money to start a new life for herself and her seven year-old daughter Kira (Skyler Wexler), currently under the care of Sarah's former foster mother, Mrs. S (Maria Doyle Kennedy). Sarah's only real ally is her gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), who is doing his best to keep Sarah's scumbag drug dealer ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando) from stumbling across the scheme.

"Orphan Black" is a science-fiction show, but one that keeps the genre elements fairly light until well into the show's second half. This is not a very high-budget production, so it's not very flashy and relies heavily on character and story to deliver the thrills, and deliver it does. The writing is smart, the plotting is well-balanced, and it's a joy to watch Sarah finagle her way out of one bad situation after another, relying mainly on her wits. She's a great character, smart and sympathetic, but also very much a crook at the outset, prone to making selfish and shortsighted decisions. I'd have been happy if "Orphan Black" was just a con artist show, but as we learn more about Sarah and Beth, there's this whole, rich series mythology that gets introduced, a little at a time. At the end of the first season, there's still a lot more to uncover.

Tatiana Maslany is the backbone of "Orphan Black," and here's where I get into spoilers, because it's impossible to talk about her contributions to the show without getting into its secrets. So I urge you stop reading now if you haven't finished the first season yet.


I was initially worried that there were only two credited actresses in the main titles, but of course Maslany ends up playing seven different characters, and three of them can be counted as major protagonists by the last episode. It is absolutely astonishing the way that she differentiates the clones. It would have been so easy to rely on the different accents, or to pigeonhole Allison as the soccer mom or Cosima as the nerd, but these are fully fleshed out personalities who change and grow and have big, big arcs. It's especially apparent in the scenes where the clones are passing themselves off as each other - Allison trying to be Sarah, or Helena trying to be Beth. I often forgot that Maslany was playing multiple parts in many of these scenes.

The big conspiracy elements are fairly typical science-fiction stuff. Evil corporations and religious cults are familiar antagonists. So while I was glad to see the clones' origins being explored, it helps immeasurably that the show has set up all these other conflicts that are playing out at the same time. We have Art and the police investigation, Mrs. S. and Kira's part of the puzzle, and the subplots being developed for Cosima and Allison. The rate that revelations and information sharing happens is fanastic, so it always feels like thing are in motion. I'm sorry we lost Helena so soon, because she was one of my favorites, but then it would have been too easy for her to outstay her welcome.

There were a couple of things that didn't work as well as they could have. Vic was fun at first, but they're seriously going to have to rework him if he's still going to be a regular next year. Paul was initially my least favorite part of the show, but he got a good boost around the midpoint when he brought out the mercenary training. His future success really depends on how they use him though, because I'm not really sold on him as a love interest yet. The lack of romance has been one of the strengths of "Orphan Black." Far more successful were characters like Felix and Cosima's new girlfriend who grew on me as time went on.

Looking forward to year two, coming in April.
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Spoilers ahead for the most recent episodes of "Doctor Who."

"The Time of the Doctor" was the swan song for the Eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith, so it's a good time to look back and take stock of the last three years of "Doctor Who" before we move into the Peter Capaldi era. 2010 brought a lot of changes to the show - a new Doctor, a new Companion in Amy Pond, and most importantly a new showrunner in Sthephen Moffat, who took over for Russell Davies. A lot of people have been disappointed in Moffat's tenure, since he was known for very strong single episodes in previous series, and he hasn't been responsible for many installments on the same level since. However, I don't think he was any better or worse that Russell Davies overall, though his strengths and weaknesses were different.

The biggest difference was that the over-arching plots got more convoluted, built on iffy logic and a lot of timey-wimey bluster that didn't really hold up if you looked at it too hard. The storylines with River Song, the Pandorica, the Doctor's death, and the Silence all had interesting concepts, but the execution was always a little lacking in dramatic heft. While Russell Davies often hit the emotional notes too hard, Moffat was often a little too cerebral. River Song, for instance, was an intriguing idea for a character, but she never quite came off as charismatic or as engaging as the creators wanted her to be. Fortunately, Companions Amy and Rory managed to supply the human element in spades for the first two years, and I was sorry to see them go. Clara, their replacement, has a lot of potential but hasn't been developed much beyond "The Impossible Girl."

On the other hand, this approach has removed a lot of what I didn't like about the Davies' tenure with the Tenth Doctor, namely the romantic feelings that developed with two of his three companions and the whole "Doctor as Walking God Complex" elements that cropped up so often. The Eleventh Doctor still retains a little of the ego, but his notoriety doesn't feel like something that really defines him, and he's much more sensible than his predecessor, at one point insisting that the Ponds stop traveling with him because he knows that it's going to end badly (which it does). I also liked that Matt Smith's take on the character was more eccentric and alien and he often felt older than either David Tennant or Christopher Eccleston in the role. His performance didn't result in the same emotional fireworks, but then he didn't need them. His final scenes in "The Time of the Doctor" were exactly what they needed to be.

The budget and the viewer numbers went down after Smith's first year, which was noticeable. However, I don't think it had much impact on the show. It certainly didn't feel like the "Doctor Who" universe got any smaller. I especially got attached to recurring alien characters like Madame Vastra and Strax, who I hope we'll get to see more of someday. One thing I especially appreciated about the Moffat episodes was that he wasn't afraid of time. Lots of time passed between episodes and within episodes. We got to see roughly three hundred years elapse from the Eleventh Doctor's first appearance to the last one, and another three hundred years in the last episode itself. We got to see years and years of the Ponds' marriage elapse, and one of my favorite episodes of this run was the Doctor having an extended stay with them over several months while he solved a mystery.

I've seen very mixed reactions to "The Time of the Doctor," but I thought it was a fitting way for him to go out. This time the tables are turned and it's Clara who sees The Doctor age and change the way he's had to watch so many people do the same. And he's not a god or a savior in this story, but one fierce protector of one small town, who has finally been forced to stop running away from his problems. As usual the plot contrivances to the get the Doctor into that situation were easily picked apart, but once you got to the heart of the matter, it was hard to care.

And while the Eleventh Doctor certainly had his ups and downs, this three-year run brought us the Van Gogh episode and the TARDIS becoming a real girl, and Stormageddon, and fish fingers in custard, and a fiftieth anniversary special that was well worth waiting for. I kept finding reasons to keep watching, and I'll keep watching when Peter Capaldi takes over as the Twelfth Doctor in a few months.

I already miss Matt Smith though. It felt like he came and went awfully quick.

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Christmas movies are a time-honored tradition, and you all know the classics. "Miracle on 34th Street." "It's a Wonderful Life." "White Christmas." Multiple versions of "A Christmas Carol." However, one film has skyrocketed in popularity as a Christmas tradition in recent years - "Die Hard." Yes, the Bruce Willis action mainstay takes place over the holidays, and it's impossible to find a discussion of Christmas films these days where somebody doesn't bring it up. In 2010, it was even voted by "Empire" magazine as "The Greatest Christmas Film of All Time."

But is "Die Hard" really a Christmas movie? At first glance, the holiday just seems to be window dressing, the same way it is in movies like "Batman Returns," "Edward Scissorhands," and "Gremlins." "Die Hard" starts out at a Christmas party on Christmas Eve, includes a few carols on the soundtrack, and who could forget Mr. "Now I have a machine gun, HO HO HO" in the Santa hat? But a couple of festive decorations does not a Christmas movie make. Christmas movies should be about Christmas and all the things that traditionally come with Christmas like family bonding, spiritual renewal, goodwill toward your fellow man, and all that mushy stuff. "Die Hard" is a quintessential action movie, and the bits about John McClane reconnecting with his wife being in the spirit of the holidays is kind of a stretch.

I guess you could argue that "Die Hard" counts as part of the grand tradition of dysfunctional holiday movies that highlight the downside of the holiday. "Bad Santa," for instance, attacks the Santa Claus image with everything it's got. Or there's"The Nightmare Before Christmas," where Halloween ghoulies misunderstand Christmas completely. Or the "Home Alone" movie where the whole plot hinges on the family not being together for the holidays. These movies have a lot of fun poking fun at the holidays, though I think it's important to note that all of them end in a fairly traditional manner, with the central themes of hope and togetherness winning out over cynicism. Yes, the "Home Alone" burglars get thoroughly trounced, but then there's the whole subplot with the old man and his granddaughter, and Macaulay Culkin's family does make it home just in time for Christmas. More importantly, these films are still focused on the holiday itself. A movie like "Die Hard" is really only Christmas adjacent.

Then again, maybe I need to go deeper here. Note that that the biggest reason why "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie has to do with producer Joel Silver, who produced a similar action movie that took place during the holidays a year prior: "Lethal Weapon." Over the years we've learned that writer Shane Black loves setting his action films at Christmastime, including "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," and even "Iron Man 3." He recently explained it like this: "“I think it’s a sense of if you’re doing something on an interesting scale that involves an entire universe of characters, one way to unite them is to have them all undergo a common experience. There is something at Christmas that unites everybody, and it just sort of already sets a stage within the stage, that whatever you are, you’re experiencing this world together...It’s a time of reckoning for a lot of people, where you take stock as to where you’ve been, how you got to where you are now, and the lonely people are lonelier at Christmas,”

The story of John McClane can certainly be read as a redemption story. Here's a New York cop who only comes out to Los Angeles during his Christmas vacation to try and mend the rift between him and his wife, and because. It's supposed to be a season of joy and family, but he's only getting the cold shoulder. McClane gets a chance to prove himself though, when Gruber and friends show up to crash the party. Sure, the story wasn't originally Christmas themed at all, and doesn't need all the tinsel and Christmas carols to be effective. "Die Hard 2" also took place over the holidays, but the rest of the sequels dropped the theme, and nobody seemed to mind. Still, the Christmastime atmosphere undeniably does add something to the original film.

So yes, if you do some serious mental gymnastics, "Die Hard" can be counted as a Christmas film, though it's about as far away from a traditional Christmas film as you can get. I guess that's the point, as not everyone enjoys traditional Christmas movies about affirming faith and love and humanity. Some people prefer watching Bruce Willis beat up bad guys and tote around a machine gun no matter what time of the year it is. "Die Hard" is definitely a great Christmas movie for those people who don't usually like Christmas movies, and that's just fine.
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Good grief, I don't think I've ever seen a casting announcement stir up this much controversy. Last week it was announced that Gal Gadot, most recently seen in the "Fast and Furious" franchise had been tapped to play Wonder Woman in the yet untitled Batman and Superman team-up movie. There were all the usual fanboy complaints about Gadot being wrong for the role - too skinny, too slight, and so on. However, the real debate was about the inclusion of Wonder Woman in the team-up movie at all. Shouldn't the biggest female superheroine be introduced in her own movie?

I have no opinion on Gadot one way or another. She wasn't my first choice, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't have the opportunity to prove what she can do. The other potential candidates who we heard rumors about hardly seemed any better. And as others have pointed out, she could bulk up and the right costume makes a lot of difference. Gadot didn't leave much of an impression from what I saw of her in the "Fast and Furious" movies, not that she really had much of an opportunity to do much in the first place. Frankly, I don't know if her acting chops are really going to make all that much difference since Zack Snyder is most likely going to be directing the team-up movie, and he has a abysmal track record with young actresses. See his complete inability to do anything with the cast of "Sucker Punch," for starters, and his bungling of Silk Spectre in "Watchmen." It took the involvement of multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams to bring some spark to Lois Lane in "Man of Steel." To be honest, Zack Snyder is about the worst choice I can think of to be handling the introduction of Wonder Woman.

Should she be getting her own movie? Of course. Wonder Woman has always been counted way past due to return to the spotlight. I understand she's a tough character to modernize and the studios are terribly squeamish about female-led superhero movies, but to keep shutting out heroines as the Marvel and DC film universes keep expanding is becoming less and less excusable every year. I don't object to introducing her in a big ensemble movie, if that's what it takes to allay some fears in the financiers. However, my biggest worry is that Wonder Woman will be consigned to supporting status permanently, the way that Black Widow of "The Avengers" has been. Despite all the talk of potential spin-off films for her and Nick Fury, there's no sign that Marvel is going to be putting either of them in the spotlight any time soon, or any other female or minority heroes for that matter. Instead, they've been relegated to sidekicks and love interests, as usual.

I don't think the possible diminishment of Wonder Woman going to be doing the new DC film franchise any favors either. If she's going to be a major player, she's going to need all the time and attention she can get. The upcoming Batman and Superman movie is already going to have its hands full introducing us to Ben Affleck's take on Batman, and now we know it's going to be introducing Wonder Woman too, and potentially other superheroes like the Flash. I think the best case scenario is for Wonder Woman to only make a brief cameo as a lead-in to her own story, in which case it would have been better if DC had kept this under wraps and made it a surprise. However, the casting announcement suggests that this isn't the case, and Wonder Woman will be playing a significant role in the new movie. That's going to complicate things considerably, and I worry that she's going to end up being shortchanged.

Frankly, the more I hear about the new team-up movie, the more worried I get. And the more I hear about the plans for the bigger DC live action franchise, or rather the lack of them, the more it seems doomed for failure. None of the chief creatives are the ones I'm happy are driving this bus. David Goyer has been stuck in grim and gritty mode for ages, and I don't know if that approach is going to work for the broader comic book narrative that a real "Justice League" team-up is going to need. Zack Snyder's idea of faithfulness to source material is "Watchmen," which is just depressing. And the promise of Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck's involvement seems to be limited - both are busy working on their own projects after all.

It sounds cynical, but in spite of all the fan adoration and all the potential the DC universe holds for great movies, it doesn't feel like anyone at Warner Brothers is really invested in making these movies the best that they can be. The Wonder Woman announcement is just the latest in a long string of questionable decision.
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2013 may go down as the year of the survival film, with many of the biggest prestige films of the fall featuring individuals placed in extreme situations. "Captain Phillips" is based on the true life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates in 2009. This is easily the kind of film that could have been turned into a gung-ho, bombastic action fantasy with slick set pieces and black and white morality. Fortunately, the movie was put into the capable hands of Paul Greengrass, former documentary filmmaker, and the director of such films as "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday," as well as the latter two Matt Damon "Bourne" films.

"Captain Phillips" takes us step by step through the hijacking, from the ship and the pirates departing from their respective ports, to the attack on the ship, to the hostage situation that results, and finally to the inevitable resolution. It certainly doesn't lack for intensity and thrills, and the central performance by Tom Hanks as Phillips is a good one. However, what really gives the film its power is the decision to give equal attention and character development to the four hijackers. We first meet Muse (Barkhad Abdi), Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), Najee (Faysal Ahmed), and teenager Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) at their village, and get glimpses of their lives. This provides vital context for everything that follows, and much of the film is told from their point of view.

The commitment to a high level of realism is noticeable all throughout the film, and elevates it. Some incidents and much of the dialogue were clearly invented, but the script by Billy Ray is full of technical and military terminology that no one stops to explain. The Somalis all speak English to some degree, but among themselves they converse in Somali, and they do so at length. In your typical action spectacular, the threat of four armed men in a speedboat would seem to be too small, but in "Captain Phillips," it is carefully established that no one on the ship is armed, the shipping company has failed to provide adequate security, the safeguards and procedures to thwart such an attack are limited, and though military aid is eventually dispatched, it takes a long time to get to there. By the time the pirates manage to board the ship, the seriousness of the threat is clear.

The Somali characters were played by actual Somali actors, a key detail that really helps to sell the story. No one is saying that Samuel L. Jackson is not a great actor and wonderfully intimidating, but he could never play the leader of the pirates, Muse, the way that Barkhad Abdi does. We would never be able to experience the same, gradual humanization of the character the way that we do with him. As good as Hanks is, it's Abdi who gives the most memorable performance here, a wonderful mixture of naive optimist, who keeps trying to reassure us that everything will be all right, and world-weary cynic who has been lied to too many times.

The fly-on-the-wall approach puts the viewer in the thick of the action, which makes the tension all the more terrific. However, the director at the helm make a lot of difference. I've seen an awful lot of films with bad shakeycam recently, but Greengrass all but started the trend with the "Bourne" films, and he knows how to use it better than anyone. The camera bobs up and down with the speedboats and the life rafts, peeks through gratings and binoculars, and when the characters are plunged into darkness, so are we. More importantly, it's all very restrained, controlled, and the action remains perfectly coherent. No motion sickness warnings this time.

The Maersk Alabama story was all over the news when it happened, but I suspect that few in the American public knew the details of what went on during the hijacking, aside from the fact that Phillips survived. And surely there can't have been many who knew the fates of the four Somalis, which the film gives equal narrative weight. Cynics might wonder what the point of dramatizing the event in a film would be, and "Captain Phillips" provides a very good answer. It shows you parts of the story in a way that the news reports never could. It demystifies the Captain even as it celebrates him. And it reminds us that the pirates were human beings too.

I'm not particularly inclined to call "Captain Phillips" one of the best films of the year, though I think it's tremendously entertaining, a technically impressive pieces of cinema, and successfully addresses some tricky issues surrounding Somali piracy head on. It's about the best dramatization of the hijacking that we could have hoped for, but at the same time I don't feel I understand what was so compelling about this story to warrant the film being made. The characters are all a little too idealized, and the plotting is often terribly thin. There are a lot of true life stories that I'd have rather seen Paul Greengrass's talents applied to.
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I've written about a couple of movies and television shows celebrating twentieth anniversaries this year, but I've avoided the one TV show that arguably made the biggest impact: Haim Saban and Shuki Levy's localization of a cheesy Japanese sentai show, "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers." I was in middle school by the time this thing hit the airwaves, but I had younger siblings and cousins, and I saw a good chunk of the show's early seasons. And I was also old enough to be very cognizant about the worries among parents about how the fantasy violence was affecting their kids. I remember a news magazine show rather ham-fisted showing possible causality between youngsters watching "Power Rangers" and increased aggression, violence, and behavioral issues.

Well, now it's two decades later, the TV Parental Guidelines have been with us for fifteen years, and V-chips for ten. The original "Power Rangers" generation has grown up into technology obsessed twenty-somethings, and "Power Rangers" is still churning out new episodes. The franchise was acquired by Disney in the buyout of the FOX Kids holdings back in 2002, and Haim Saban eventually regained control of it around 2010. The controversy over the show's content has all but vanished, as "Power Rangers" viewers didn't grow up to be any more violent or disturbed than any previous generation. Mention of "Power Rangers" has lost the menacing overtones it once had among parents, and has instead acquired something of a nostalgic vibe, especially among Millennials.

This shift in perception is emblematic of how debate over violence in the media has mostly disappeared. A recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed out that PG-13 movies contained more incidents of violence than R-rated ones, and the reaction from the public seemed to be a collective shrug. Oh, there was some hand-wringing from the usual watchdog groups, but hardly much uproar from the mainstream. After all, we live in an era of superhero movies battling it out for box office dominance every summer, and violent anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White making television worth tuning in for. The "Hunger Games" sequel just had a massive opening weekend and garnered remarkably positive critical notices. Not bad for a film about teenagers forced to participate in bloodsports for the amusement and distraction of an oppressed populace.

I have very mixed feelings about violence in media these days. On the one hand, I like that the envelope is being pushed, that we can have movies like "Hunger Games" and "Ender's Game" that use violence and its repercussions to tell interesting, meaningful stories for young adult audiences that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. On the other hand, there are so many, many films that lean on violence as a crutch, that use it badly, and far, far too often. The recent Superman reboot, "Man of Steel" went completely overboard on the the violence, sacrificing pacing, suspense, character development, and story to an endless brawl between two combatants who could hardly even feel the effects of the carnage being wrought. Zack Snyder is particularly guilty of this. I still maintain he ruined the "Watchmen" movie by pushing the content to ridiculous, indulgent extremes.

Ah, but "Watchmen" wasn't aimed at children and adolescents, and that's true, but it was made with the kind of sensibility that we see much too often in mainstream films for that audience, the one that assumes that violence is inherently interesting on its own. It's not. In fact, violence can be downright boring when executed badly, when it's unoriginal, perfunctory, prurient, and the filmmaker is too preoccupied with slick production values. Tamer PG-13 violence can be more problematic than the gorier, R-rated kind because it doesn't show consequences. It's "fantasy violence," to use the TV term, where nobody bleeds, nobody suffers a concussion from being knocked out, and nobody ends up paralyzed from a misaimed punch. It undercuts what actually makes violence compelling, which is the potential for serious harm.

And that takes us back to "Power Rangers." Personally, I never saw much harm in the show. The laser guns and karate chops didn't seem that much worse than the POW! and BIFF! type fisticuffs I used to watch on the old "Batman" TV series. The biggest difference to me was that the focus of the stories was almost always on the fighting, on the repetitive, escalating battles that always ended with a towering Godzilla-style monster being blown to smithereens. I keep being reminded of that pattern in a lot of bad mainstream action films for kids and young adults, particularly the "Transformers" movies. What bothered me about the show wasn't that it was silly or violent or foreign. It was that it was lazy. And I suspect it conditioned a lot of kids early on to expect laziness out of their media.

That's the part I still have a problem with.
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Spoilers ahead for the "Doctor Who" 50th Anniversary, "The Day of the Doctor," and the recent "Doctor Who" mythos in general.

I am happy to report, that despite huge expectations, way too much hype, and a bumpy couple of seasons of "Doctor Who" that have lead to a decline in ratings, the long-awaited 50th Anniversary special for "Doctor Who" came out great. It was stuffed with callbacks and references to the older "Who" canon, but also perfectly watchable and coherent for newer fans. Most importantly, it did a fantastic job of tackling one of the primary central mysteries of the post-reboot era, what happened to The Doctor during the much alluded-to Time War. Generally I wouldn't be writing about a single episode like this, but we have here a genuine cultural event, and there's a lot to talk about.

The anniversary special is best supplemented with two tie-in shorts. The first is a six-minute prequel titled "The Night of the Doctor," starring the Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann. It's the only appearance the character has made outside of the 1996 American TV movie, and firmly settles the debate as to whether McGann's Doctor should be considered part of the larger "Who" continuity. And then there's the thirty-minute documentary spoof, "The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot," which follows the attempts of Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy (that's Classic "Who" Doctors Five, Six, and Seven) to find a way to finagle themselves into the anniversary special. Loaded with cameos and in-jokes, it should go a long way towards soothing the ire of those die-hard "Who" fans who were really hoping for every living actor who played the Doctor to come back to put in a cameo appearance.

I'm glad that showrunner Steven Moffat didn't go that route. All the Doctors do show up eventually, though most of them only very briefly through archival footage and some CGI cut-and-paste. This means that there's plenty of room to actually tell a full-fledged, interesting "Doctor Who" story worthy of the momentous occasion. Thanks to some timey-wimey metaphysical rigamarole, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) gets to team up with the Tenth (David Tennant) to defeat a horde of invading shapeshifter aliens called the Zygons. We also meet the previously unknown regeneration of the Doctor that came between the canonical Eighth and Ninth Doctors. He is credited as the War Doctor (John Hurt), who fought during the Time War, and committed such atrocities against his own people that he abandoned the name of Doctor completely. Neither of his future selves is particularly happy to see him.

Current companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) and former Companion actress Billie Piper, playing the interface for a Doomsday machine called The Moment, are along for the ride too, but the story really belongs to the three versions of the Doctor. It's so much fun watching these characters interact, Ten and Eleven bickering, and the War Doctor acting like their exasperated father, who is incredulous that these two flashy young men are who he'll become in the future. But then we probe deeper, and examine how the actions and experiences of the War Doctor reverberate through the later phases of his life. It's a valuable chance for them to finally deal with a lot of emotional baggage that hasn't been fully acknowledged up to this point. The differences between Ten and Eleven are well defined, with Moffat designating them as "The One Who Regrets" and "The One Who Forgets."

But this certainly isn't a doom-and-gloom exercise. There's lots of humor, lots of action, and an outrageous deus ex machina bit of reconning that would be totally unforgivable if this was any show but "Doctor Who." Moffat makes fantastic use of Hurt and Tennant, and puts the cameos in where they're appropriate. It doesn't make sense to have Rose Tyler back, but Billie Piper is great as The Moment. Trying to shoehorn the older Doctors into the story would have been too much, but we do get Tom Baker, who played the Fourth and arguably the most iconic Doctor, in a quick closing cameo as an ambiguous figure known as The Curator. He's the only obvious fanservice in the special. Nearly all the other references are well integrated that fans who aren't in the know won't realize they're missing anything.

There were a few bumpy spots. The absence of the Ninth Doctor (Christpher Eccleston) in any of the festivities was very obvious, and some have guessed that the War Doctor was only created because Eccleston declined to take part in the special. The story's resolution leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and may contradict earlier stories about the Time War like "The End of Time." And then there's the issue of the upcoming Christmas special - well, we'll save that for next time.

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It was a mixed year for "The Legend of Korra," with animation studios getting swapped around, too many different plots going on in the beginning, and Korra herself revealing deep flaws that felt like a major step backwards from her character progression last year. However, when all was said and done, I liked this season much better than the previous one. It has several episodes that are among the best things the "Avatar" team has ever done.

Korra faces several different antagonists this year. First there's her power-hungry uncle Unalaq, chief of the Northern Water Tribe, who comes to the South with his twin children, Esca and Desna, to start a civil war. Angry dark spirits attacking ships and causing havoc are another problem. Then there's a mysterious force in Republic City that is also causing trouble but Mako, now a cop, is the only one who realizes it exists. Meanwhile, Bolin and Asami get caught up in the schemes of an eccentric businessman named Varrick. Tenzin, having been rejected by Korra after a severe falling out, spends time reconnecting with his family, including his older siblings Bumi and Kya. And finally there's the biggest villain of the season, whose very existence and relationship to the Avatar is a major spoiler.

"Legend of Korra" struggles to juggle all of these different characters and storylines. The spirit world figures into a lot of the story this year, and the season even features the subtitle "Book Two: Spirits," but there's so much else that needs to be set up and established, that we don't get around to the spirits for a long while. It's really not until the midpoint of the year, when we get to a two-parter explaining the origins of the Avatar, that the show seems to find its groove again and regains some of the lost coherence and momentum. I think the biggest issue was that the show tried too hard to make sure all of its supporting cast got time in the spotlight. Bolin's movie career, as funny as it was, could have been largely cut, and several of Tenzin's little bonding sessions with his kids likewise could have been skipped.

Korra herself bore the brunt of the damage, sad to say. She spent so many of the early episodes being stubborn, hotheaded, shortsighted, and much too easily duped, that I got frustrated with her, as I'm sure a lot of other viewers did. It's not that the issues she faced were inappropriate or that they didn't make sense for her character, but that they all should have been addressed much earlier, or in some cases it seemed like they had already been addressed during the first season. I understand that "Korra" was originally supposed to be a stand-alone miniseries and the creators wanted to end the first season with some finality, but too much of her development this year failed to build on her existing journey. Fortunately her arc concluded in a better place, and characters like Mako, Tenzin, and Bolin were handled better. Mako actually has a personality now, thank goodness.

Messy as it all was, ultimately I liked "Korra" this year so much better than last year. We got out of Republic City and got to see how the rest of the "Avatar" universe was doing. We delved much further into the show's mythology and there was a lot of great worldbuilding, particularly everything related to the first Avatar, Wan. There were also more references to and cameos by characters from the previous series, without relying on too many flashbacks. Aang was largely absent this year, but he had arguably a larger presence thanks to all the time we spent with his squabbling offspring. Lots of longstanding questions about the nature of the Avatar, the Spirit World, and the spirits were finally addressed.

I felt that the change in environment to largely urban settings was something of a mistake when "Korra" first premiered, so the focus on the spiritual world and the more slowly evolving Water Tribes was a welcome change. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Avatar Wan episodes, which take place thousands of years prior and utilize this wonderful woodblock art style. The Spirit World also provides lots of good opportunities for unique visuals with different design sensibilities. I should also note that it's very obvious which episodes were given to the show's primary animation house, Studio Mir, and which were farmed out to a second-stringer.

I'm a little worried about how the series is going to progress from here, because we've still got at least two more Books coming down the pipeline, and yet again the story seems to have wrapped up pretty nicely. It's hard to say where the story could go from here - maybe they'll finally do something with Zuko's grandson?
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Let me get the obvious comparisons out of my system first. FOX's new science-fiction cop show, "Almost Human," could also be titled "Blade Runner: The Series" or "Alien Nation: The Android Years." It's takes place in a world roughly thirty years into the future, where android "synthetics" are now a common part of human society. After a massive uptick in crime due to the rise in well-organized, well-armed criminal syndicates who deal in all kinds of dangerous new technology, all police officers are now required to have a synthetic partner.

We're introduced to John Kennex (Karl Urban), a decorated detective who lost his human partner and the team he commanded to a syndicate ambush, and is only returning to duty after nearly two years of recovery, with a synthetic leg and a lot of personal baggage. He initially rejects the idea of a synthetic partner, but is eventually paired up with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an older model that has been largely discontinued, because his model was designed to mimic humans very closely, and had an unfortunate history of mental instability. Supporting players include Kennex's supportive superior, Captain Sandra Maldonado (Lili Taylor), fellow detectives Richard Paul (Michael Irby) and Valerie Stahl (Minka Kelly), and the eccentric lab tech Rudy (Mackenzie Crook), who is their go-to for information on synthetics.

The first few synthetic police officers we see speak and act like we'd expect robots would, with slightly electronically modified voices, overly technical jargon, and strict adherence to the rules and regulations. It doesn't hit the viewer until they meet the far more human-like Dorian that sentient beings in "Almost Human," are being treated as possessions and property, despite the clear evidence that some are built to think and feel and intuit on the same level that human beings do. The fact that Dorian is played by a black actor, and Kennex by a white one only underlines the point. Though there's been a lot of unsubtle hinting, these issues haven't been addressed directly yet, because the show is still busy setting up the buddy-cop dynamic and introducing this new world to the audience, bit by bit.

And what a world. Created by J.H. Wyman, a veteran of "Fringe," and produced by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot, "Almost Human" is one of the best-looking science fiction universes I've ever seen on television. The worldbuilding is gorgeous and the special effects are feature-quality and liberally used. There's rarely any sign of subpar graphics work or iffy practical elements that tend to dog similar shows like this. The second, case-of-the-week episode is just as impressive-looking as the action-heavy pilot. The show cribs quite a few design elements from "Blade Runner," and "TRON," which gives it an appealing retro-futuristic '80s feel. I suspect that's why "Almost Human" was also giving off some distinct "Miami Vice" vibes too, not that John Kennex would ever be caught dead in pastels.

So far Kennex has been the stoic grump hiding a lot of pain, and Dorian put in a quasi-counselor role, pointedly trying to get him to reconnect to humanity. I really like the pairing of Urban and Ealy, two actors who have been knocking around the media landscape for far too long without adequate opportunities to show what they can do. I know I've seen Ealy before in other roles, but found it hard to recall those performances, but in "Almost Human," it's almost impossible to stop looking at him. He doesn't play up any quirks to denote Dorian's artificiality, but it's there. I could spend the rest of the season just watching his uncanny valley reactions to things.

The banter's been great, and the overall writing strong enough that I'll be happy to wait for the deeper, juicier storylines to develop the way they have on the other Bad Robot shows like "Person of Interest." So far the show has set up a big arc that will follow Kennex trying to bring down the syndicate and find out what happened to his ex-girlfriend Anna (Mekia Cox), who disappeared while he was in a coma. There's also a lot we need to uncover about Dorian's origins. This is pretty rote stuff, but hopefully it'll lead to better things in the future.

I'm also itching to see the supporting cast fleshed out and developed more. Minka Kelly's character, yet another victim of low-cut blouse syndrome, is so obviously Kennex's major love interest that the show doesn't bother trying to pretend that she isn't for more than one episode. Lili Taylor and Mackenzie Crook on network television should be a treat though, if the creators give their characters enough to do. And apparently John Larroquette will be joining the cast shortly. He's always fun.

If "Almost Human" keeps up its current level of quality and ambition, this could be a great sci-fi series, and there haven't been many lately. I'm also very encouraged that we're dealing with a hard sci-fi concept, artificial intelligence, rather than the softer genre entries that have been coming in lately, like all the superpower and post-apocalypse shows. And with a cast and budget at this level, I'm hoping for the best.
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I was a little confused by the early trailers for "The World's End." Wan't this supposed to be Edgar Wright and company's spoof of an apocalypse film? Or were we looking at something closer to "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which though technically under the aegis of the sci-fi genre, is much closer to horror, and they'd already covered very similar thematic ground in "Sean of the Dead," right? Anyway, the prior collaborations of Wright with actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was strong enough that I was willing to give them some benefit of the doubt.

"World's End" caps off what is now popularly known as the "Cornetto Trilogy," begun with zombie parody "Sean of the Dead," and continued with action movie lampoon, "Hot Fuzz." If you didn't know anything about "World's End," you might initially mistake it for a pleasant little comedy about a group of old college friends who reunite after a few decades to go bar-hopping together. Simon Pegg plays Gary King, once the coolest guy in town, but now a washed-up, middle-aged nobody who never really did anything with his life. Trying to recapture some of his former glory, he manipulates his old friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan) to come help him finish the Golden Mile, which requires twelve pints downed from twelve different pubs around their hometown of Newton Haven. Twenty years ago, they didn't manage to finish, but this time Gary is determined to succeed.

There's absolutely nothing genre-related going on in the first thirty to forty minutes of the film, but it's still a pretty entertaining look at a group of old friends taking stock of where they've ended up after twenty years. Gary is extremely likeable, in spite of being a mess of a human being and willing to resort to all kinds of lies and tricks in order to get his way. Pegg gives him a lot of rough-edged charm and vulnerability. Frost, meanwhile, is playing against type as the most world-weary and most successful of the bunch, who has the least amount of patience for Gary's antics. Their relationship, as is tradition, is the heart of the film. The other three members of their group are less well defined, but get their own little subplots and moments to shine. I'd have been perfectly happy to see a straight comedy with these guys, just dealing with typical middle-aged problems.

So when the supernatural action business does get underway, initially I was a little put off. Were we really going to have to drop all this good character-building for an hour of fights and chases and CGI explosions? But this wasn't "Transformers," but an Edgar Wright film, and he's always very adept at weaving all the themes and the story threads into the action. The guys do quite a bit of soul-searching and personal demon slaying as they try to survive the night. I won't give away the nature of the threat, in case you haven't been spoiled by the trailers and the commercials yet, but rest assured that Wright and the rest also do right by the science-fiction genre, the way they did with the zombies and the action heroes.

Edgar Wright's movie universes are always a lot of fun because they're so well constructed. "The World's End" has loads of little details you won't pick up until a rewatch, all of them subtly and not-so-subtly reinforcing the story's themes and ideas. The science-fiction story parallels the guys' own gradual slide into complacency and suburban stagnation over the years. Each new bar brings new surprises, the situation escalating to a wonderfully weird finale. I liked that there were real consequences to people's actions, and the story goes to some surprisingly deep, dark, and serious places. On the other hand, the action is a blast to watch, the humor delivers, and the movie is an awful lot of fun.

As with the previous Cornetto films, keep an eye out for cameos, in-jokes, references, and visual puns. I expect that opinions are going to be very mixed as to how this compares to the previous installments in the trilogy. It's probably the least action-oriented, and the least concerned with dissecting genre tropes, but it also has some of the most well-rounded characters with the most touching stories. The epilogue has been downright controversial in the discussions I've seen around the internet. Personally, I like "The World's End" a little less than "Shaun of the Dead" and a little more than "Hot Fuzz." And it is by far the best of it's own particular little sub-genre of similar films that we've seen this year.

And does this have to be the last Cornetto film? There are so many more movie genres that could use this trio's attention.
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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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Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" just isn't losing steam, after three years and five seasons. I've mostly missed the boat on this series, to my regret, but I'm getting in on the ground floor of a brand new show that could be described as something of a spiritual spin-off, "Steven Universe." It premiered on Cartoon Network last week, helmed by Rebecca Sugar, one of the most high profile staff members of "Adventure Time." So here's a review.

"Steven Universe" is getting a lot of press for Sugar, who is the first woman to be billed as sole creator of a Cartoon Network production. Since Cartoon Network has been a little light on programming featuring girls since the Powerpuffs went off the air, I was glad to hear it. And sure enough, "Steven Universe" features three very strong, interesting female characters, Garnet (UK singer Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno), who are known collectively as the Crystal Gems, and protect Earth from all manner of monsters and mayhem with their special Gem powers. Amethyst can conjure a whip and has shapeshifting abilities, and Pearl conjures a sword and can create holograms, for instance.

However, the story is firmly focused on their youngest and newest recruit, Steven Universe (Zach Callison), an energetic, roly-poly boy around preteen age who inherited a Gem from his departed mother, but doesn't know how to use it yet. In the premiere he briefly manages to activate it, conjuring up a shield. Sadly, attempts to repeat the feat have so far failed. Steven lives with the Crystal Gem warriors in their temple/headquarters/apartment, and does his best to help them with their world-saving while getting into plenty of trouble on his own. He's very much a little brother figure, struggling to prove himself and live up to his elders. Everything is seen from his point of view, and it's a funny, cheerful, and entertaining one.

The Gems have a lot of personality and have a lot of potential as characters, but the show works because Steven works. He's a lot like Finn from "Adventure Time," except a little younger and sillier, and much less competent. Steven works very hard, but has to deal with a lot of failure. Fortunately Steven is a very resilient kid who never stops trying, and he's got great support from Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who may be busy, but clearly care a lot about him. We briefly meet Steven's dad, Greg Universe (Tom Scharpling), in the second episode, a former rocker who lives out of a van. He's loving and amiable, but clearly "a mess," and Steven is probably better off rooming with the superheroes.

So far it's the show's visuals and its genial sense of humor that have me hooked. I love, love, love how the Crystal Gems have been designed. They're all clearly female, but Garnet is a big, stoic warrior figure, Amethyst is messy and laid back, with some huggable heft to her, and brainy Pearl is icicle thin, but all angles. They're very different from how women and girls are usually caricatured in animation, with little effort to make them look conventionally attractive. The animation is fun, full of crazy action and wacky facial expressions, but what's really impressive is the gorgeous background art and environments. The Gems' temple is a real stunner, featured heavily in most recent episode.

Best of all, I like how the show is goofy and weird and very much committed to doing its own thing. Steven has a habit of randomly singing songs - most of which he made up himself. He gets obsessed with things like ice cream sandwiches and making snappy comebacks. A whole episode is devoted to him showing off the usefulness of a novelty backpack shaped like a cheeseburger. It's only been four episodes, and the potential for memes is already off the charts. And yet underneath it all, the show has a lot of heart. The Gems act like a group of close siblings, and plots are more concerned with relationship dynamics and interpersonal issues than the usual superhero action schtick.

I'm rooting for "Steven Universe" to stick around for a while. It has completely won me over and I'm curious to know about the show's bigger mythology and everybody's backstories. There's a lot that has been hinted at, but we don't know many specifics yet. It hasn't been explained where the Gems come from or if the girls are even Earthlings. There's also not much of a wider cast so far. Aside from Steven's family unit, the only other potential semi-regulars that have appeared are a mailman and the employees of a local donut shop. But as we've been getting introduced to this world little by little, it's been a blast. And I look forward to getting to know "Steven Universe" a lot better.

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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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The Bechdel Test has been a useful tool for those of us who want to see more positive portrayals of women in media. It is a quick and easy way to get viewers to think about gender representation, by applying one simple criteria: do two female characters at any point in the story talk to each other about something other than a male character? Originally conceived by cartoonist Alison Bechdel back in the '80s, it has been a good way to point out not just the gender imbalance between male and female characters, but the relative weakness of female roles, the lack of agency, and the lack of character development. There have since been several alternate versions that add extra criteria, or use racial minorities or LGBT characters instead.

Of course the Bechdel test was never perfect, and was best applied to groups or types of movies to show systemic issues, rather than to single out individual ones for bad practices. "12 Angry Men" doesn't pass the test because all the characters are male out of necessity. "Gravity" doesn't pass because though Sandra Bullock gets the majority of the screen time, she spends most of it alone, with no one to talk to. But "Sucker Punch" passes in spite of its sexed up and exploitative main characters. Sure, it was fun to argue about technicalities like whether the Uhura and Gaila exchange near the beginning of the "Star Trek" reboot technically counted with Gaila's half of the conversation all about distracting from the fact that she was hiding a half-naked Captain Kirk in the room, but it makes a much stronger point to look at the big blockbuster action genre as a whole, which has been notoriously poor in its treatment of female characters.

The test has been doing its job though, getting more people to talk about gender issues in media and calling out creators. In some cases applying the Bechdel Test can be very helpful. There was a lot of good chatter about "Pacific Rim," for instance, which had a grand total of two named female characters who never exchanged words. Mako was certainly a good female character, but stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of male technicians, scientists, military personnel, criminals, politicians, and all but one other pilot. And if we have to argue about whether the giant robot's AI voiced by Ellen McLain counts as a character, that's pretty damning. So does this mean that Guillermo Del Toro sexist? As the director who made "Pan's Labyrinth," of course not. But he clearly got stuck in the mindset that so many other filmmakers have, that certain types of stories aren't the typical domain of women and girls, and left them on the sidelines.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what to make of the recent news that a small group of Swedish cinemas are going to give out a new category of movie ratings based on the Bechdel test, with the support of the Swedish Film Institute. As far as I can tell this is completely voluntary and aimed at raising more awareness toward gender equality issues in media. Activists and private companies rather than the Swedish government are behind this, and there's been no talk of instituting any kind of real, binding standards on new movies based on the Bechdel test. However, I'm still skeptical how much good this is going to do. The Bechdel test, as I've discussed, is a good conversation starter but not all that accurate or informative. It can be wildly inconsistent as to which movies pass and which don't. Surely there are better ways to grade movies for gender equality than this?

On the other hand, the announcement has already touched off a lot of discussion among film fans around the globe. There's been a lot of outrage, of course, but there's also been a lot of more serious, thoughtful conversation. A lot of people only learned what the Bechdel Test was this week, and are still processing and reacting to it. And so we have more people asking some fundamental questions: why is it that horror movies are so much better at passing the test than action movies? Why is is that superhero movies like "Man of Steel" and "The Avengers" fail so much more often? Why is television so much better at gender equality than the movies these days?

And once you start to ask those questions, then maybe we can talk about improving the landscape. We can talk about why girl-positive movies like "The Hunger Games" are so important and why so many people want a "Wonder Woman" movie. And maybe J.J. Abrams will keep the test in mind while he's writing that next "Star Wars" installment. And maybe Disney and Marvel will greenlight that Black Widow movie someday.

Or at least discuss the possibility.
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I'm inaugurating a new category of feature on this blog, one I think I should have done a while ago: a ranking list of all the features in a particular franchise or category. Generally, these are more informative than Top Ten lists because they're more comprehensive and give a chance to talk about both the good and the bad of movies in a particular category. However, it's not easy to find film series that have enough significant entries to spend a whole post discussing, but not too many. I look forward to tacking the "Harry Potter," "Star Trek," and PIXAR films in the future, but beyond that I'd have to get creative. I could probably get away with doing James Bond in two posts, but I've only seen around half the films.

But for now, the new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a good, solid number of entries to work with: seven movies since 2008, with a new one on the way. For the sake of brevity and avoiding continuity issues, I'm ignoring all movies prior to 2008, including the Ang Lee "Hulk" film. So before Thor shows up for another round, let's see what the rankings look like so far.

1. Iron Man (2008) - This is still one of my favorite films of the past decade, and you couldn't have asked for a better start to the series. Thanks to the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, superhero films entered a new era of more ironic, self-aware scripts and snarkier personalities. Sadly that subversive edge has faded with time, and I don't think the Iron Man character has ever lived up to his full potential. However, the series' ambition for its shared universe carried through right from the very first after-credits sequence with Nick Fury to the present.

2. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - This one certainly has its problems, with a narrative full of weird dead ends and clunky set-up for the later movies, but it gets the fundamental stuff right. Steve Rogers is established as a hero worth rooting for, from a nostalgia-tinged version of the 1940s straight out of the comic books of the era. I'm glad that there's been talk of giving Peggy Carter her own television spinoff, because she's one of the best female characters in the MCU so far, and I wish she and Cap could have had more screentime together.

3. The Avengers (2012) - The sheer audacity of creating all these different character-centric installments of the franchise in order to build up to a big team-up movie continues to impress. The fact that the film is as entertaining as it is, thanks in great part to the efforts of Joss Whedon, feels like icing on the cake. It makes so much difference to have the right guy in charge. Notably the Hulk and Black Widow, who were introduced in previous installments, come off as much fuller, more interesting characters here. Thanks goodness Whedon is sticking around for the next one.

4. The Incredible Hulk (2008) - I was initially unhappy that Edward Norton had been recast in the later movies, because I did enjoy a lot of his take on "Hulk." I liked the more cerebral and meditative approach to the character and the in media res story that doesn't just try to retell the origin story again. Sure, the super-soldier plot device has been done to death, and poor Tim Roth was pretty much wasted, but when the Hulk properly Hulked out, I was happy. Mark Ruffalo proved to be a fine replacement, but I still wonder what "Avengers" would have been like with Norton.

4. Iron Man 3 (2013) - I've decided not to choose between this and "Hulk" because I honestly like them about the same. Shane Black takes over from Jon Favreau for an installment that frequently feels like it's treading water, but does put Tony Stark in some new and different situations. I thought the Mandarin was presented in a pretty gutsy way, though I do wish that Guy Pearce's character had been handled better as a counterbalance. There would have been many worse ways to close out the "Iron Man" movies than this, though I hope this is the last sequel.

6. Thor (2011) - There's lots to like. Loki's the best villain in the MCU. Chris Hemsworth nails the part of the charismatic, if somewhat prideful thunder god. Asgard looks great. Sadly, the movie never really gets down to business and has holes the size of continents. Thor's arc is severely abridged, so it doesn't appear that he actually has a change of heart at any point. The rules of traveling between worlds is arbitrary as hell. Do I even need to get into the flimsiness of Natalie Portman's astrophysicist character? And what the hell is Kat Dennings' Darcy supposed to be exactly?

7. Iron Man 2 (2010) - Poor Jon Favreau. It feels like everything went downhill after the success of "Iron Man." I don't know how much of it was really his fault, since "Iron Man 2" seems to have been doomed fairly early on by a muddled script that spent too much time ting up for "The Avengers" and introducing new characters who weren't all that important to what was going on. Worst of all were the ineffectual villains. Between characters played by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke, surely somebody should have been a credible threat to Tony Stark, right? Right?!
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We're five episodes into Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and now the grousers have taken center stage. Viewers are getting impatient with the show, unhappy with the characters, unhappy with the tone, and unhappy with the incremental pace of the plot and character development. The ratings reflect this, still decent, but sinking from the premiere, which was one of the highest rated debuts ABC had in years.

So what's the problem? From what I can tell, it's a mismatch between viewer expectations and what the show actually is. The viewers were hoping for a Marvel movie every week, a continuation of "The Avengers." Instead, what they're getting is a fairly generic team adventure show that has the potential to become something more interesting, but hasn't really gotten there yet. It's not a superhero show, as no one has displayed any special powers beyond being very good at fighting and hacking and science. The special effects work has been solid, but not spectacular. There are signs of a larger mythology being built up, but so far we've only gotten hints of something going on with Coulson's near-death experience and Melinda's checkered past.

And if the show wasn't so hyped up and so high profile, that would probably be fine. Genre shows like this often take a while to find there footing. The CW's "Arrow" has come out swinging in year two after a long run of awful episodes in year one. The Whedons' last series, "Dollhouse," didn't really come into its own until about halfway through its first season too, when they finally delved into the show's complicated mythology and started giving individual characters some room to grow. "S.H.I.E.L.D." reminds me a lot of the early "Dollhouse," when they were still trying to follow a procedural formula.

There are some other factors exacerbating this. For one thing, the show is designed to be family friendly and it's running on Disney-owned ABC. They want something that will stay light and happy and kid-friendly, so I don't know how much the show can really capitalize on the premise of working for this morally gray government agency. For another, "S.H.I.E.L.D." is taking place in a shared universe with the Marvel films, and it's not clear how expansive and epic its storylines will be allowed to get, for fear of stepping the toes of of the movies. Right now they've been playing it much too safe, staying firmly on the periphery when the show could be a greeat way to deal with some issues in depth that the movies don't have time for.

However, there are some areas where "S.H.I.E.L.D." can certainly make some improvements quickly. Start by giving us more information about the characters besides Skye. Make the implied explicit, and let us in on what's bothering Melinda and what's up with Coulson. Give Ward some bigger problems to deal with. Start using Fitz and Simmons for more than just comic relief. Fitz has revealed he's a nerd with an ego, but Simmons is still almost a total blank. Give the girl a crush on Melinda or a bad childhood. Anything. Moreover, it's high time we had a wacky recurring villain show up. Is Alan Tudyk doing anything?

I do think that the show could become something really entertaining and interesting, and worth following weekly. I'm sticking around for a while longer because I dig the B-movie hijinks and the actor have already improved a bit. However, like everyone else I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm waiting for a proper villain, some real crisis for the characters, or at the very least better cases of the week that show off more of this world. They have the whole Marvel Comics universe to play with, so where are all the mutants and the aliens already? Where are all the minor players who aren't big enough to get their own movies?

What's the most frustrating thing here is that "S.H.I.E.L.D." is wasting a lot of goodwill from interested fans and a substantial budget that could allow them to do so much more. I've enjoyed some things like the gravity fluctuations in the third episode, and the flying car from the pilot, but otherwise there's not enough to build the show around spectacle. The storytelling really needs to pick up the slack if it wants to keep the attention of the audience.

If this were a show airing on the CW or Syfy, I'd be much more forgiving, and I expect "S.H.I.E.L.D." would be able to eventually work out its problems over the course of a full season or two or even three. However, it's airing on a major network in valuable prime time real estate. ABC is not going to be nearly as patient, and I worry that it's going to negatively impact the show's chances in the long run.
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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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Two ongoing genre shows that I've been hearing good things about, but haven't had the time or the interest in really getting into have been CW's "The Vampire Diaries," and ABC's "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland." Both shows have spinoffs that premiered in the past week, "The Originals" and "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" respectively. I decided to take a look at both, to see how well they worked without knowing all the backstory and to get a sense of what people liked so much about the original shows. I've only seen one episode of "Once Upon a Time" and none of "The Vampire Diaries."

"Wonderland" was fairly straightforward and easy to follow, though I'm not clear on what time period the show exists in. Alice (Sophie Lowe) returns from her adventures in Wonderland as a little girl to discover that no one believes her explanations of where she's been. She resolves to find proof, and grows up into an adventuress who falls in love with a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot). However, after Cyrus appears to be killed by the evil Red Queen (Emma Rigby), Alice goes home brokenhearted and ends up in an insane asylum. Well, that is until the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (John Lithgow) come to take her back to Wonderland, when rumors spring up that Cyrus may still be alive.

The first thing that struck me about "Wonderland" is how it's absolutely smothered in second rate CGI effects. The set design and costuming look great, but the CGI overkill is very distracting. Secondly, the show plays its ridiculous premise completely straight, not trying to inject any sort of modern irony to the works at all, in spite of a very revisionist attitude where the young heroine can beat up guards better than her rescuers. In short it's very light and very Disney, also sharing some DNA withe old syndicated action-adventure shows I watched in the '90s like "Hercules" and "Xena."

It's amusing, but honestly not as much fun as I was hoping for. Lowe and Socha are pretty good, but the rest of the actors are flat, and the show isn't making very good use of the Lewis Carroll material. "Once Upon a Time" is known for mixing characters from different fairy tales and Disney properties together, so Jafar (Naveen Andrews) is going to be a major villain here. If I hadn't known in advance about it, and wasn't familiar with the franchise, I'd have been completely baffled by all the Arabian Nights elements. For some low grade spectacle, this might be okay, and it would probably be good for kids, but this one is definitely not for me.

"The Originals" has a steeper learning curve, but it's also more interesting all around. I've seen two episodes so far. First Klaus (Joseph Morgan) and then his sister Rebekah (Sarah Holt) come back to New Orleans after long absences, joining their brother Elijah (Daniel Gillies). These three are the Mikaelson siblings, the first vampires ever created, who are called the Originals. Thanks to a lot of past acrimony that we get quick glimpses of through flashbacks, the siblings split up and New Orleans is now under the control of one of their old vampiric offspring, Marcel (Charles Michael Davis).

The world of "The Originals" contains witches werewolves, various factions of vampires, and a few odd human beings too. Marcel controls all of them at the moment through a a complex underground organization and many rules for cohabitation. There's also clearly a lot of history that has gone on amongst many of these characters that has already been explored on "The Vampire Diaries." The goals presented are fairly straightforward - Klaus and Rebekah intend to wrest control of New Orleans from Marcel - but the relationships are not.

Remember "Angel," where every one of the crossover characters from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was trying to get a fresh start in Los Angeles, and the show could go whole episodes without acknowledging anyone's past? "The Originals" is all about the past, and coming back to face all the messy, unhappy consequences of regrettable past actions. Apparently there are several other Mikaelsons we haven't met yet, and all kinds of former love interests and enemies waiting in the wings. What's nice though is that these actors have clearly been playing these characters for a while, so they already have a lot of the performances and chemistry well established.

"The Originals" is going to turn into one big soap opera inevitably, but its genre flourishes are much more fun and there is an intriguing universe supporting the works. I especially enjoy the use of flashbacks, which reminds me of how "Highlander" used to do them. However, the downside is that I'm a little wary of watching further before I figure out what I missed of the Mikaelsons' story from multiple seasons of the "Vampire Diaries."
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I feel like I should have seen this coming. The other three Nicholas Winding Refn films I’ve seen, “Valhalla rising,” “Bronson” and “Drive,” have all featured heavy violence and gore. However, nothing in those films could have prepared me for the unrelenting nihilist depravity of his latest look at the darker side of human nature, “Only God Forgives.”

Ryan Gosling plays Julian, who runs a Muay Thai fight club in Bangkok and is involved with the drug trade, as is his older brother Billy (Tom Burke). One night Billy rapes and murders an underage prostitute, and is in turn killed by her father. This sets off a chain reaction of revenge killings and reprisals, ordered by Billy and Julian’s mother, the merciless Crystal (Kirsten Scott Thomas). Her target is a police Lieutenant named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who facilitated Billy’s killing, and seems to bring disaster on everyone he meets.

Julian is the good son, who initially wants to let his brother’s murderer go, and has a few basic morals operating in his psyche that the rest of his family doesn’t. This small bit of humanity is his weakness, and in the eyes of his monstrous mother, makes him the bad son. And because Julian wants his mother’s approval and because he doesn’t believe he has any other choice, he throws himself headlong down the path of self-destruction in pursuit of Lt. Chang, trying to turn himself into the monster that he fundamentally isn’t.

Like “Drive,” “Only God Forgives” is heavily dependent on mood and atmosphere. The film has several ambiguities in its narrative and is not shy about withholding answers. The visuals are striking, particular the kitchy Bangkok nightlife, the presence of colorful neon lights illuminating various scenes, and setting violent encounters in incongruous settings. A torture scene, for instance, happens in a club full of beautifully dressed women on display, who are forced to witness the brutality in silence.

However, this time the aesthetics aren’t enough to fill in the gaps of the story. The director has claimed that music was a major influence on “Only God Forgives,” and “Drive” owes a lot of its effectiveness to its soundtrack. However, I spent a lot of “Only God Forgives” listening for music that simply wasn’t there. A few major scenes did feature some interesting accompaniment, and one of Chang’s odd quirks is a penchant for singing karaoke, but otherwise I found the music was severely lacking throughout.

And then there are the performances. It’s not easy to watch characters as depraved and vile as this. It’s not just that they kill and brutalize each other physically, but verbally and mentally as well. One of the most disturbing segments occurs when Julian brings a prostitute he’s fond of, Mai (Yaya-Ying), along to dinner with his mother as a date. Crystal savages her with insults from the moment they meet Kristen Scott Thomas does a great job of making Crystal despicable, but not in a way that’s easy to appreciate.

Ryan Gosling is perfectly fine here, once again doing a lot with very little dialogue and lots of physicality. However, there simply isn’t much interesting about Julian or Crystal or anyone else we meet. We get bits and pieces of characters who could be interesting, but it’s not enough for them to actually be interesting. The story has many similarities to Winding Refn’s other films, and I wonder if the difference is that the mysterious invincible killer isn’t positioned as the main protagonist in this film.

And of course we have to talk about the violence, artfully staged, thematically necessary, and yet it still can’t help feeling entirely gratuitous. The fights and killings are so unrelenting that I actually started feeling bored with them about halfway through the movie. Each slaying is more despicable than the last, until they start feeling inevitable, and it almost feels like a mistake when anyone manages to exit a scene with all their limbs intact.

“Only God Forgives” reminded me of “I Saw the Devil,” a Korean revenge film where the shoestring plot felt like an excuse for the director to shock us with all manner of gruesome violence. Clearly “Only God Forgives” is more ambitious, with a more competent character study at its center, yet ultimately it’s not worth sitting through the unpleasant content for the small moments of illumination that the film offers.

It feels like the director has a crossed a line, creating a film that has lost sight of its ultimate aims in order to indulge the obsessions of its creator. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Nicholas Winding Refn’s work so far, so this worries me. I’m perfectly willing to give him a few more chances, but I’m afraid this may mark the beginning of the director’s own unhappy downward spiral.


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